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?

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Thanksgiving is coming! Grab the flak jackets!

I’m weird.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way: I have about three news podcasts that I listen to on a daily basis – two American and one UK source for a worldwide perspective. I usually listen to these in the morning, and sometimes my little girl gets to listen along and we’ll have some discussions about what’s going on in the world. And by discussions I mean I try and simplify the topic at hand in such a way that a newborn can grasp. (For real, though, we all know she’s just getting language training at this point by learning speech patterns and the basics of English.) Anyway, one of these podcasts had an interview with a Senator I have a hard time understanding. (Nope, not gonna name names, or give that much info about it. Read into it what you like.) I looked down at the precious eyes of my baby girl and said, “And what we’re doing now is listening to someone we don’t completely agree with because that’s the kind of people we are.” And I sure do hope I model that behavior as much as I preach it.

That most American of holidays is approaching – Thanksgiving. We’re all already dreaming of turkey, ham, potatoes, sides, rolls, desserts, and the millions of pounds of butter that will be used over the course of that week. (What? You don’t celebrate for a whole week? Then I guess you aren’t very grateful, are you?) I also know that many people dread this holiday as a time when speech must be very guarded or arguments will explode. The only blessing I have for you is this: may your conversations have more civility than social media. I worry about how family gatherings or other physical social meetings may change in this culture of outrage, perpetual anger, and general frustration. I know I’ve found myself on more than one occasion keeping my trap shut to avoid any conflict. Instead, I listen. I try to hear what the other person is saying, to stop and really consider the words, their motivation, source, heart. Learning is one of my hobbies, and listening is the best way to learn, in my opinion.

I also enjoy having misconceptions busted. Sure, it’s jarring, but there’s a sense of fun and adventure when confronted by the truth. (And it bothers me that the word and concept of truth have become such a contentious issue.) I love the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. So I listen. I try hard to listen without judgment or creating my counter-argument. I may learn something and be able to better understand a topic, or at the very least the other side’s view.

This season throws us all into a lot of situations with people we may disagree with on a theological, political, philosophical, culinary, or some other basis. We should be willing to sit, break bread, and experience them. The experience may be joyful, or painful, but either way, be present – be welcoming.

When do you model acceptance of others, even without agreeing with them, to your kids? How do your family gatherings look: are they places of peace and active love, or are they places of anger and dissension? What steps could you take to prepare yourself to be better able to listen and welcome?

Four Ways to Use Halloween as a Christian Parent

Every year a debate ensues about whether or not good Christians should involve themselves with Halloween. “Isn’t it devil worship?” some cry. “It’s harmless fun,” shout others. Meanwhile, somebody else just got the last good candy bar and left nothing but tiny bags of candy corn in the treat bag. (Candy corn and circus peanuts, though, may have been created by the devil as a snare – unflavored sugar molded into unholy mockeries of their namesakes.) But can this seemingly creepy holiday be used for anything other than greed, cavities, and celebrating the darkness? I’d say, yes.

Coming to Grips with Mortality

In the affluent West, we often don’t consider the finality of life and our own looming mortality. Most of us could go weeks without having anyone we know die. Some areas of the world, though, watch death take their loved ones at a rapid pace. Our ancestors faced this reality on a regular basis, and they took whatever chance they coudl to host a raucous party. Why? Because winter was on the horizon and who knew if everyone would survive the season. Skulls and death have always been a motif of Halloween, and remind us, subtly, that we all must face death someday. Not to say that death is any friend to us, but death itself has been conquered. Christians have nothing to fear from death, and may even find some solace in laughing in its direction while stuffing another Snickers in our face. (I prefer Twix for my own chuckle session if anyone was wondering.) In fact, the Christian Calendar celebrates this period as a time to reflect on the Saints that lived exemplary lives in service to God and others. All Hallows Eve, a time to remember those who have gone before and the impact they made on our lives, a moment of prayer, of thanksgiving.

Pray While You Trick-or-Treat

Prayer? On Halloween? Of course! See, the act of going from house to house begging for treats has a long history. (Shorter in North America, but the UK has a longer history with this sort of celebration.) In those old celebrations of All Hallow’s Eve, the poor would often go by the houses of the rich and receive food in exchange for prayers. (On that note, if you’d like to bring me lunch, I’d be happy to dedicate some prayer time to you and your needs any day of the week.) So, what if you and your kids had a prayer ready to pray over each house you visit? Sure, it may take some extra time, and may fall through a few houses in as the excitement builds (or as kids start tiring,) but what a difference that might make for your kids and the families you pray over!

Costume Talks

What’s in a costume? (Hopefully some extra layers this year, it’s been CHILLY!) The costume tradition comes down to us from several directions, but one is the dressing up as saints to honor their memory. Sure, your kids probably won’t ask to dress as St. Nikolas or Athanasius, or Teresa of Avila, but what role models do your kids have in their lives? Whether fictional or real, is there someone your child looks up to and wants to embody that person’s character? Or if you’ve picked the costume already, ask your kid why she chose what she did? Why did that character stick out to him? (Or you can go straight Scriptural on everyone like my Youth Minister growing up who dressed in a burlap sack with the word “rice” painted on the front… You know, a “living sack-of-rice”[sacrifice].” Romans 12.1)

Making Memories

Halloween was always fun with my family. From my brother being dressed as a Hershey Kiss when he was little and being fascinated by the white tights that came with it, saying “Pretty legs,” (sorry, bro, still funny,) to the Harry Potter costume my mom scratched together before Harry Potter got huge and you could find licensed stuff everywhere, my family had fun figuring out what we’d be and spending time together. We’d often make it a big family gathering with all the aunts, uncles, cousins, and some extras and have a party so we’d have something to do before and after trick or treating. The memories made on those occasions stick with me even now.

Halloween can be a great time with your kids. Be intentional with every holiday and chance to make memories. Sure, it can be a little creepy, and a little morbid. And some people do go a little overboard and spend a little too much time in the deep dark. Instead, let’s focus on the positives and make sure that we make the most of the time we have with our kids.

Oh, and eat candy. Lots of candy.

(Now I want a Twix… I wonder if Halloween candy’s on sale yet?)

How the Coffee-cup stole Christmas!

Despite all our wishing, our hoping, our scheming, one tiny red cup has left Christians screaming. They’ve howled and they’ve hooted, saying “These villains should be booted!” The articles being typed faster than light have left many people regretting their own sense of sight. I’ve seen them and rolled my eyes ever harder, as people point out that Christmas is the martyr.

Now, in some way I get the muss and the fuss, but, really, is this the thing that’ll make a preacher cuss? Consider the state of Christmas this year, the sales and the merchandise already filling the air. The sound of pre-packaged tunes loom ever nearer, while our perspective on the issue never quite gets clearer.

“A cup,” they exclaim, “has stolen Christmas already!” The response, also clanging, “Don’t you people think this is petty!?”

“Of course, it is not,” one side shouts with a clamor, “Christmas is supposed to be about the Savior.”

“While we don’t disagree,” say the suits and execs, “all that we want is financial success. Your beliefs and your faith mean little to big business, except for the fact that they share the same name: Christmas. We can manufacture emotion with movies, warmth with a drink, with the evidence around you, what more could you think?”

I propose a new thought, although it is old, let’s not think our Lord is out in the cold. If He really is Lord, and Lord over all, then maybe, just maybe, this order’s not so tall: to celebrate the gift we were given that night, and keep Jesus Christ and our family firmly in sight.

So whatever the sellers of packages, boxes and bags may relate as they show us new things that promise to elate, remember the reason we celebrate two whole months starting now, is Jesus the King and not some ridiculous cash cow.

So from one Christmas lover to those feeling the same, I wish you and yours peace and love in His Name. Now as the hands holding your coffee are thawed, may you all go in peace, to love and serve God.

(But seriously, though, if God really is King a blank red cup is very unlikely to disturb his plans or reign. Let’s keep our eyes on Jesus this year, instead of trying to shout down advertisers. Simplicity and beauty are wonderful things, especially this time of year. So as the Christmas season comes closer, keep an eye on your thoughts and your attitude. I know I’ll have to.)

Post Excitement Crash

My body has, without consulting me, decided that it is, in fact, high time I took a moment to sit, rest, and perhaps reflect. It has a habit of doing this… about four times a year. It alerts me to this fact by being sluggish, drowsy, uncooperative, and often times with a minor illness such as a sinus infection. Why four times? Well, because our Daddy-Daughter Dance, VBS, Fall Festival, and the Christmas Drama.

I wonder how many of you, parents or not, are experiencing or going to experience this as I write this. Mainly, because I don’t want to be the only one, you know? Regardless, I sit with a mug of hot tea, listening to Christmas music, and wondering if the program impacted anyone. (That’s the reflection part.)

Being a type-A personality has its perks (things get done) and its curses (constant worry and draining post-event blues). But I’m sure with family arriving in town, school performances, Christmas parties for kids and adults, braving mall traffic, and having to pick up the tree after the cat has knocked it over for the fifth time all take their toll, even on type-Bs. So what do we do?

Well, I try to find some time, even if it’s just a few minutes to rest and reflect. You all help me with that, since you’re reading this. Did I mention the mug of tea beside me? The sounds of Tchaikovsky ring gently in my ears. Your particular method might be different, but I’ve found quiet prayer and silence help me.

I wonder if Mary felt some of this post-excitement crash? Traveling to see extended family, government taxation, lodging issues, and pregnancy all compounded for a veritable cocktail of chaos. And yet, we all picture Mary as this calm, serene woman bearing each problem with grace and peace. Anyone able to deal with all of that mess is surely blessed among women. And on top of everything else the immense blessing and pressure of giving birth to the Son of God. Consider all of the things that mother’s today worry about and then add on that many children didn’t survive back in that era. Everything culminating with the birth of the promised Son and a strange visit from some ecstatic, smelly shepherds. She must’ve been exhausted for days after all of that, and yet we are told that Mary treasured all of these things in her heart.

What a gift! To come through frustrating circumstances and still be able to say that I treasure those situations in my heart. Maybe I should work on that this Christmas: taking the situation, refining it, and treasuring it like gold.

May you have a Christmas that you treasure in your heart.

Christmas Then and Now

Christmas has changed for me over the years. I used to have trouble sleeping, wondering what would be under the tree Christmas morning. Now, I collapse into bed after singing outside in winter, my fingers frozen on Christmas Eve. My introverted nature kicks in after an evening with church family and a family dinner afterwards.

Christmas morning brings more joy, though, because I look forward to seeing other faces open their gifts. Seeing a face light up in genuine smile at a surprise gift makes my heart truly glad.

I think back to the start of this whole Christmas thing. A miraculous baby born into a family sleeping on the floor of the animal room. Seemingly, the only ones aware of the meaning of this child are poor, ornery shepherds who arrive still smelling heavily of sheep and dirt. Up to two years later, magi (magical advisors to an Eastern ruler) show up with incredibly costly gifts. And to keep score, Matthew and Luke both describe this baby, Jesus, as inheriting the kingdom not only of Israel (a challenge to Herod and his family) but also inheriting a bigger kingdom the whole world (a direct challenge to Caesar himself.)

The baby seems so non-threatening, so peaceful, so unassuming. It seems often overlooked that this baby’s very existence threatens to shake the world of his day to the very core, the aftershocks reaching up to the modern day. The baby invites adoration, and demands faith, loyalty, and transformation.

I look around and the situation seems to have changed little over the years. Here we are, in the most commercial season of the year. Colors, decorations, songs, parties, food, and joy seem to be thrown around like cheap confetti. Yet, it seems in all the celebration, the grand majority seems to have missed the statement made by the child’s birth: the people are free!

A kingdom has come, one characterized by love, by service to one another, by joy, by a peace founded in reconciliation. A king has come who shares in his people’s pain, whose heart is broken at sickness, pain, and death – one who experienced these things and more on his way to triumphing over them.

Christmas is powerful, then and now.

Filling Up Empty

I find it sadly ironic that the season (Thanksgiving to Christmas) that is most about fullness is often the emptiest. At Thanksgiving houses are full, bellies are full, mouths are full of conversation and laughter. At Christmas, gift wrapping is full, bellies are full, houses are still full, and mouths are full of song.

And yet, this time of year is known for its rise in cases of depression. This season reminds some of losses felt in the past year. This season feels so empty for so many. And that emptiness is painful.

At the end of our church Christmas play this year, the manger will be empty. When we made that decision, it seemed almost artistic, but then I’ve been coming back to that thought over and over. I think about all the empty things in the story of Jesus. An empty manger, an empty cross, an empty tomb. And yet, in all of that emptiness, there is a mysterious, glorious fullness that goes along with it.

The manger was empty, but a man walked the earth filling it with love. The cross was empty, but a debt had been filled to overflowing. The tomb was empty, but a Presence filled the earth that continues to fill empty hearts.

There’s the age-old question: is the glass half full or half empty? Reading and living in God’s story shows me that the glass is always half-full, because God is continually pouring love, wisdom, peace, and courage into His family.

May you be blessed with the fullness of God’s presence this season. No matter what emptiness you feel, may the God of peace fill up your cup to overflowing.