Protesting Christmas?

If you must know, by the time you’re reading this, I will have been listening to Christmas music for a couple of weeks. Yes, right after Halloween does seem a little early, I agree. And I will also admit that my taste in Christmas music usually errs on the side of older carols and orchestral arrangements (with some Harry Connick Jr. and John Denver added for good measure.) So if you don’t want to hear Christmas music until after Thanksgiving, avoid my office at church until then.

One thought that struck me this July (yes, July) was just how many Christmas songs (modern, anyway) are protest songs. “Do You Hear What I Hear?” was written around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and was protesting the nuclear situation during which the world sat with bated breath hoping for a peaceful solution. “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is another song that attempts to call the listener’s attention to the problems of poverty, sickness, and a lack of hope that some might feel. There are plenty of lists on websites all over the web with more examples.

It’s important to note that the first Advent song was also pointing out that God sees the poor and lowly and seeks justice for them. Mary sang the Magnificat (Luke 2) which is a song declaring God’s saving power and action on behalf of his people, particularly those who have no voice or power of their own. It’s a song born out of a lingering sense of exile, despite living in the land of promise, despite having a reconstructed Temple, despite having many of the blessings that God had promised, despite their hopes and beliefs. Things still weren’t quite right.

And they still aren’t. But. And I love this “but.” God is working. God is on the move. Jesus has come. Jesus has defeated the great enemies of sin and death. Jesus has risen again, bringing with him new life and the promise of complete restoration! But not yet. (And that “but,” I’m not as fond of.)

As Advent approaches and we think about how God’s people waited for years for God to appear, to return to His people in a new way. We also wait for something similar. We wait for God to appear in His glory to finally make everything right, to bring history to its brilliant climax – bringing with Him justice, along with mercy.

And so we wait. We, too, wait for that day. And we work. We follow. We seek. Keep watching. Keep praying. Keep serving. The King is coming. May you be blessed this Christmas season.

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5 Surprising Christmas Heresies

Every year I am shocked and appalled by the number of individuals who spout heretical beliefs about Christmas. These beliefs do nothing but endanger the spirit of Christmas and holiday cheer. I like to consider myself an orthodox Christmas celebrator, but even I may fall victim to having shades of these dark heresies lurking among my celebrations. Be vigilant and know how to guard yourself.

The Nogmenian Heresy

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These heretics are those individuals who purchase and drink Egg Nog before the official start date of the Christmas season – Thanksgiving Day – the earliest a Christmas tree should go up (barring certain special exceptions for accommodating out-of-town family.) These heretics are seeking to earn their way into Christmas instead of allowing Christmas cheer to meet them at the appropriate time. Christmas cheer isn’t something to be earned or striven for, but a free gift of the season. These heretics often have marketing jobs and are leading millions astray by putting up Christmas displays in stores before Halloween. Heresy generally starts small, but can grow to unimaginably horrific proportions.

The Jingle-onatist Heresy

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There is one exception to the Nogmenian Heresy – Christmas music. Christmas music may be played at any time of the year someone needs a short burst of joy and hope. The Jingle-onatists, however, see this is an evil that is unforgivable. Their lack of true Christmas spirit sends them into a rage when Christmas music is played outside of the Thanksgiving – New Year time slot. These Jingle-onatists look down on the lowly, humble, and needy with haughty eyes and cold hearts even during the difficult periods of the calendar. Guard yourself against this lack of generosity and allow yourself to rejoice in the happiness of others.

The Santarian Heresy

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These are those heartless individuals who would go about with “Merry Christmas” on their lips, but despising Santa Claus in their hearts. These are those that… I can barely bring myself to write the words… don’t believe in Santa. They would ruin the Christmas joy for others by relegating a beautiful story about a man so unconcerned with himself that his entire year is dedicated to making gifts to give away for free to children as a story meant for the ignorant and childish. These people say Santa is merely a man, although a quite incredible historical figure, while discounting the more legendary aspects and feats of his life. This heresy is heartbreaking enough when it is kept in the shadowy places of the heart, but even worse when it pours out its venom on Christmas celebrations.

http://wcrz.com/how-to-explain-santa-to-children/

The Cupnostic Heresy

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This truly baffling heresy has taken root in the coffee-obsessed culture, especially of America. Every year now, for the last several years, Cupnostics have taken to social media to protest coffee cups that don’t seem, well, Christmas-y enough. Personally, if someone has enough energy in the morning to complain about the packaging their coffee or tea arrives in, their priorities are confused, and maybe they don’t need the caffeine anyway and should skip this morning ritual. See, these people see a fundamental separation between the matter of the cup and the spirit of the drink inside. Instead of seeing both as a beautiful combination of function and life, they complain about the evil of the cup while celebrating and cherishing the spirit of the fluid inside. This is just tedious and silly. Just enjoy the peppermint-mocha-frap-milky-thing-with-a-drop-of-coffee as you hold the beautiful container containing it.

The Sweaterists

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I must still do research on this particular group to discover whether it is, in fact, heretical, or just a new way of celebrating the season. This group seeks to wear ugly Christmas sweaters… ironically. Suddenly, a whole market has emerged for ironically ugly Christmas sweaters that cater to nearly every taste. Before, ugly Christmas sweaters were unironically given gifts meant to warm hearts, and flush faces with humility during the Christmas season. And let’s be honest, most of the “ugly” Christmas sweaters aren’t so much ugly as just tacky – which we in the South understand and celebrate with glee. We do tacky Christmas better than just about anyone. So I put this group on notice – research and interviews will continue to determine its status as a Christmas Heresy or offshoot of Christmas orthodoxy.

May you have a wonderful Christmas season, free of heresy, and full of joy, hope, love, and cheer. And however you celebrate, Merry Christmas.

I Am Sure Glad Genghis Khan Wasn’t the Messiah!

I’ve recently begun playing an “empire building” game… mostly because my laptop cannot run anything more recent than 2007. Besides the game’s AI playing a horribly ironic prank on me (making my chosen world leader, Genghis Khan, start on an island with no exit…), it’s been an interesting exercise in considering how I would run a civilization. My tendency is to play defensively and work toward world peace and unity… except with the Genghis Khan playthrough, because that wouldn’t make sense, would it? I do pause and consider my actions before attacking another city…

That aggressive method of world diplomacy goes directly against what I’ve been reading in Zechariah. In between all of the promises of blessing, encouragement to complete the work on the second temple, and charges to live faithfully in regards to one another, one passage jumped out at me. On my first reading, I found myself shocked at the mention of Judah being given so much compassion and mercy by God that they would weep at what their hands had done in fighting off the nations around them and beg for God to spare those same nations that had threatened them.

I sat and meditated on that idea for a while. What kind of compassion would we need to have within us to weep for our enemies… as if they were our only child? What kind of compassion and forgiveness would we need to weep for a terrorist killed in action? Or an abuser, oppressor, or someone else who has harmed us? What kind of heart change is that?

We hear of stories where families forgive the murderer of their loved one. That family may go as far as to fight against the death penalty for a lighter (albeit still severe) sentencing. I wonder what that struggle to forgive looks like… Maybe God still has some work to do on me, but the idea of weeping over that person’s misfortune seems so far out as to seem absurd.

And yet, God’s compassion and mercy are so great that we celebrate His generosity every Christmas with the gift of Jesus. Unlike my Genghis Khan, God chose to inaugurate His Kingdom with a child, with a living testimony, with a sacrifice, and with a resurrection. As powerful as God is, the picture He gives to us is a King entering on the back of a donkey, a King coming to conquer with peace, humility, and liberation. As I look at my own daughter, with her beautiful blue eyes, I wonder how hard Joseph’s world was rocked holding Jesus for the first time. Joseph held a King, a Redeemer, the Messiah.  All the hopes, dreams, and prayers of the Jewish people leading to this. Was it what he expected?

And Mary… was her compassion big enough to weep for those who had crucified her son? Did Joseph have enough to forgive those who called his son crazy, or demon-possessed as Jesus began his ministry?

How is God molding you into a picture of His love and grace, compassion and forgiveness? How do you model compassion to your children?

Christmas Is Coming…

Advent has begun.

As I write this, it is mid-November, and I have been listening to Christmas music for half a month now. This year our church has decided to be a little more low-key about the Christmas season. Our huge Bethelehem Walk is on a break, so for this year I get to savor Christmas. I’ve also had two cups of coffee in quick succession this morning, so I’m pretty excited about life!

The original advent lasted hundreds of years, and not just a month before Christmas. The Jewish people were resting all of their hopes on God’s promises of freedom and an end to the exile. Sure, the physical exile was over, Jews once again lived in Judea and Galilee, and there was a Jewish king on the throne and a high priest in the Temple. But things weren’t right… all the way. The king wasn’t from David’s line. The high priests were a wealthy family who had a hand in politics. Oh, and Rome had its grubby little (well, not so little) paws all over the territory. Rome had a special interest in this region of the world because of Egypt and the surrounding area’s ability to grow wheat to feed a gigantic empire. There was peace on earth and goodwill toward men… so long as you stayed in line, were actually a man, not a slave, and had the coveted status of Roman citizen. So, maybe the Pax Romana had a few caveats…

The Jewish people languished under Roman rule. What did it even mean to be Jewish under Roman rule? How long would God wait to overthrow the Romans and reestablish His Kingdom on earth? Hadn’t the seventy sevens been completed? Hadn’t the time arrived for the anointed one to appear, who would lead Israel to freedom and power, and create a new world where the nations fell under God’s generous rule? Maybe if they followed the rules even more strictly, something would happen. Maybe if they created monastic, apocalyptic communities to purify themselves, something would happen. Maybe if they prayed enough, or sacrificed enough, or were faithful enough, something would happen. But all they could hear was the deafening silence…

One young lady, though, received a visit. She was told to not fear, to find joy in the favor God had given her. She was given an opportunity. And, unlike many of the men of Scripture, she asked one question, and accepted her mission. What was that mission? She was to carry the Son of God. She was to give birth and raise a child who would grow up to be both king and high priest, who would represent Israel in Himself, who would shoulder the burden of the curse of the Law in order to break its power. This child would be God with His people – a more concrete presence than Israel had ever experienced, a walking, talking Temple.

Last year at this time, I was waiting with broken heart to hear two words, “I’m pregnant.” I, too, was anticipating a child, but one who hadn’t been promised. I was heartbroken, feeling exiled myself. I wondered what I needed to do to get God’s attention. I knew where God was, though, present with me as He has always been with His people. He sat with me as I wept, angrily pleaded, and finally accepted my situation. He listened, and let me continue waiting. What are you waiting for? What has you feeling exiled, broken, oppressed?

This year, though, is full of joyful expectation as I look forward to celebrating my little girl’s first Christmas. Don’t read into this that God always grants our requests. Read into it that I had hope over three years of trying and waiting. And my hope did not disappoint. Hope and trust are our greatest gifts, our greatest tools for dealing with the difficult times of life.

We must, like the 1st Century Jewish people, continue to hope against despair. We must stare into the face of the oppressive forces of this world with hope and trust in God firmly in our hearts, minds and hands. We must work and carry on, and day, one hour, one step at a time.

I encourage you to find time this Advent to stop and rest in God’s peace. This time of year can be a struggle, but look for the peace. Look for the moments of quiet anticipation. Maintain hope. Maybe, like Mary, you too can carry Jesus with you through this season.

Do your Christmas plans make time for calm, stillness, and peace? How does your family’s holiday schedule form your child’s priorities?

A Magical Christmas… Exorcism

Christmas morning is usually a time of magic, of romance, of joy and excitement. It’s a time when families connect around shared traditions and happiness. It’s usually a time when couples share tender glances over coffee and the delighted screams of children. A fire may be roaring in the fireplace, or gentle music playing in the background as the tree sparkles with all of the magic of Christmas.

I am a firm believer in the power of atmosphere to create a romantic mood. So, I wanted my wife and I’s first Christmas together to be perfect. The only downside was that we would have to get up much earlier to have a slow, romantic Christmas morning because we had church that morning. But I got to bed as early as possible after making sure all of Kristie’s gifts and stocking stuffers were tucked away in an easy-to-retrieve spot in my office. Anticipation made it hard to rest, but I tried my best.

Christmas morning arrived with a crack of light peeking through the darkness. I crept out of bed, threw on my soft gray robe and began setting the mood. I prepped for breakfast, which was going to be French toast royale. You should try it. It’s French toast covered with sliced bananas and doused with a cream cheese and maple syrup mixture that should only be legal on special occasions like this. I also, importantly, turned on the coffee pot. This was well before our Keurig ever became an integral part of our lives, so we had an old drip coffee maker that was on its last few legs and brewed quite slowly. But I added some special spices into the coffee to make the morning just that much more special while contributing a lovely rich smell to the house.

I rushed to my in-house office, which is really more a catch-all room, and grabbed the gifts and prepared them in a perfect balancing act of a heap in her usual spot on the couch. Once satisfied with this artistic feat of engineering, I turned on the tree, and placed our music into the stereo. Now, oddly enough, I have a very slow, gentle Celtic Christmas album that is quite soothing, followed by a slightly peppier instrumental album, and followed by Manheim Steamroller once things get rolling and everyone’s awake.

Now, the moment I have been waiting for. Like a prince in a Disney epic, I enter the room of the sleeping princess, and I tenderly place a kiss on her lips to awaken her from her rest. Her eyes flutter open, and I cheerfully say, “Merry Christmas!”

Now, in my preparation, I did not take into account whether or not to have a priest on standby for an emergency exorcism. I don’t know who responded to my, “Merry Christmas,” but it certainly wasn’t my beautiful, sweet, loving wife.

A deep, throaty growl summoned up from the bowels of hades itself roared out of my wife’s mouth, with a demanding, “What time is it?”

“A-about seven o’clock…” I stammered, endeavoring not to make any sudden movements for fear of retribution.

The voice replied with an aggressive growl, “Is the coffee ready?”

“Yes,” I said, keeping my tone and breathing level, making sure that this creature could sense no fear.

“I’ll be in there in a minute,” said the voice before my wife’s body rolled over under the covers. I backed away slowly, keeping my eyes on the small bundle of covers to make sure that no surprises would come from that quarter.

I sulked back into the living room, somewhat defeated, but still hopeful that the morning would be salvaged. After a few minutes, my wife stalked into the kitchen and prepared her coffee. She sipped it and the joined me in the living room, cradling the holy water that would banish the demon. She glanced at me and gave me a half-smile, and I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that I had escaped to live another day.

Moral of the story: Compromise and thoughtfulness are key to marriage. Another key is to be able to laugh together when things go slightly sideways and figure out a way to make things better. To be fair, the past four years I have come bearing prepared coffee to her night stand and have been much less energetically, obnoxiously cheerful in my Christmas greeting, and I have not heard the disturbing voice since.

When Christmas Doesn’t Feel Like Christmas

some changes are less than enjoyable, at least at the outset. I say this because everyone has a moment when Christmas changes.

For the last twenty-some odd years, I have had a very predictable routine regarding Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Christmas Eve meant a strange, anxious day leading into a beautiful Christmas Eve service at church, followed by dinner at my grandfather’s house with our huge family. (Now, I also understand that my memory often betrays me, so this may have been going on for less time than I imagine.) Then, Christmas morning would arrive with Dolly Parton singing as we opened gifts and ate breakfast. We’d play most of the day, unless we had church, and then drive to my grandmother’s house for another meal with our huge family, and a few extras.

This year my routine was thrown off. Events conspired to make our Christmas Eve dinner disappear, for the most part. I saw a theater movie that day, which I wasn’t used to. I didn’t spend time outside drinking in the anticipation, and spent a good chunk of the day inside baking. None of this is a complaint, but rather a thinking-through of my own mental state. We still had a lovely service, which did help.

For some reason Christmas felt… strange this year. As if Christmases going forward would be different. New traditions would have to be forged and old ones set aside on a cherished shelf. I’m sure everyone has the moment where time seems to suddenly shudder forward as if it had been holding its place for long enough. This was that year for me.

I’m beginning to understand now the trepidation with which many adults, and some younger people, approach Christmas every year. It seems like some unstoppable titan stomping into an already busy time of life bringing with it all of the bittersweet-ness of hope, excitement, nostalgia, and memory in its overflowing bag of gifts.

I wonder if this is how Jesus’ closest friends felt near Passover each year. When the year would turn a corner and suddenly they would be faced with both the troubling memory of loss and the stunning glory of hope. I wonder if their preparations were slow, deliberate, instead of the frantic arrangements made just before that terrible night. What would they think as they ate that meal together, remembering and looking ahead?

I guess I’m writing this to give voice to a feeling I’m sure others have had. It’s perfectly ok to reflect, to feel a sense of solemnity when change happens. Sure, accepting the change and moving ahead comes in its own time, but it is necessary to sit with the feeling and allow it to run its course.

May you all have a blessed new year.

(We’ll have a more lighthearted post on Thursday.)

Christmas Eve

Saturday is Christmas Eve. In case you didn’t know, it’s the best day of the year. There’s a hushed quality around it that is as if the world is holding its breath waiting for something. And, in a way, it is.

We celebrate the birth of the King. We await the full arrival of His kingdom for justice, peace, joy, and love. Creation longs for the day when all will be created anew, all set to rights when the King arrives in the fullness of glory and power and every knee bows and tongues confess His rule.

I’ve been a little Scroogey this year. I’ve been wanting Christmas to come more quickly and be done with. The busy-ness around Christmas really is a shame. There are so many things to do and people to celebrate with, but with each new item attached to our schedules, I find myself reaching deeper and deeper to be able to find the joy.

If you can, in the next two days, take some time to rest, to find peace. Sit in the hushed stillness of Creation’s anticipation and make it your own. Feel the pull of hope and joy as you find yourself at once at the foot of an empty manger, and empty cross, and an empty tomb. Know that the throne is not empty, and feel your soul nearly wanting to burst with the desire to shout, “The King lives! He is alive! And He is coming” And when you’ve reached that moment, open your eyes and look again on the bare trees and gray skies and think, “How beautiful and wonderful are the works of God.” And then, once you’ve appreciated that, turn and look at your gloriously messy, fabulously chaotic, and oppressively lovable family and feel your heart say, “We are fearfully and wonderfully made.”

I think, at that moment, you will have found the joy of Christmas, and of every day following.

Photo Credit: Landscape, Winter, Cold, Cloudy Weather, Weather via Pixabay