When Your Christmas Isn’t Merry

So there has already been a time when I feel like my life was falling apart. And I wrote about it. And I asked for prayers about it. And I went to meetings about it. And I found some clarity and acceptance about it.

So why do I circle back around to feeling this way again? Why can’t this be resolved?

This coming February marks two years since I fell into a mild depression. I like to call it a funk because that makes it seem less serious.

This coming Sunday marks the (observed) anniversary of the arrival of our Savior bringing joy into this world.

So why does the funk outweigh the joy?

I think one of the biggest challenges we face in dealing with our lives is that we are not living a television show. We are so used to resolutions. We are so used to quick fixes.

But it isn’t just television culture that does this to us. We do it to ourselves. And to each other.

We spend so much time hiding what we are actually going through that people look at us and think we have it all together. And we look at them and think they have it all together. And the end result is instead of sharing our hurts and struggles with one another we have this need to show one another how put together we are.

And then we wake up in a funk the week before Christmas and can’t figure out why.

Because, after all, what is Christmas except a momentary celebration with lights, wrapping paper, carols, movies, and an extra church service or two? We get a couple extra days off of work or school and spend much of that time complaining that we are bored or surrounded by too many people.

But it is to that funk that Christmas specifically speaks. The message of Christmas is that life does indeed go on. And that means all the pain, all the struggle, all the frustration will still continue. That means there will still be sickness. There will still be death. There will still be broken relationships.

But into all of that, Jesus enters.

Are you hurting? He will hurt with you.

Are you doubting? He will listen to your questions with no judgment.

Are you lonely? He wants to comfort you.

Have his followers messed you up? He will not pull any punches with them.

Are you so lost that you think he doesn’t care about you? He still comes. Every day. Because he loves you.

So for the next few days, my funk will intermingle with my joy. I will have doubts, questions, and fears. And I will sing songs loudly with a smile on my face. I will wonder why things cannot get any better. And I will feel joy when family members get excited about their presents. I will feel sorrow when I think about the people who are not celebrating with us this year. And I will feel a sense of awe and wonder as I gather to worship the Savior.

My funk may or may not go away. And even if it does, it is likely to come back. But that is okay. Because I am not walking through it alone. So my Christmas may not be as merry as it could be.

But it will still be the source of my joy.

Hoping to Hope

I so desperately want to hope.

I hope for peace.

I hope for being able to provide for my family.

I hope to remain sober another day.

I hope for people to quit being stupid.

I hope for pain and suffering to end.

I hope for answers.

But some days, I have to hope to hope.

_________________________

One of the things I heard early on at AA meetings was, “You don’t have to believe; you just need to believe that we believe.” Early on in AA’s history, its members realized that not everyone who started the journey of sobriety believed in a Higher Power. Instead of making belief a prerequisite for attending, they told people to come. The message was, “If you want to be sober, come.” They knew the purpose of AA was sobriety so they shared it with everyone regardless of belief.

What people need when they try to live a sober life is hope. They need to know that today can be better than yesterday. I need to believe that. I need to have that hope.

But some days, I have to hope to hope.

_________________________

On the Christian calendar, this is the season of Advent. It is the time of preparation for the coming of Jesus. It is a time of waiting, a time of longing. It is a four week season acknowledging the darkness of the world while hoping for the light that is to come into that darkness.

And this first week is supposed to be a week of hope.

But some days, I have to hope to hope.

_________________________

This is supposed to be a great time of year. So many decorations. So many lights. So many songs. So many movies. So many great parties. So many times of worship and fellowship.

But it does not feel great. I am nervous. I am unsettled. I am angry. I am feeling inadequate. I am bordering on despair. How can the world be the way it is today? How can all the things that have happened still happen in our world? How can there be so much hate? So much violence? So much close-mindedness?

I want so badly to be hopeful and believe that the world can be made right.

But some days, I have to hope to hope.

_________________________

The hope of Advent is that light is coming into the darkness.

It means we are in the darkness. It means we may not be able to see any light. It means we may be overwhelmed by dark.

The Light is coming.

But some days, I have to hope to hope.

The Prince of Peace

PAUL

In 1859, Phillips Brooks, the author of O Little Town of Bethlehem, became a rector at a church in Philadelphia. He stayed in that city for a total of 10 years. The early years of that time were during the Civil War. Brooks was a staunch opponent of slavery and spoke out against it often. People describe him as a man of giant stature—both physically and in the strength of his convictions. Yet he is also described as someone that no one could be completely upset with, either; I guess because of his overall humble spirit.

In 1865, as the Civil War was coming to an end, Brooks took a year-long trip to Europe and the Holy Lands. On that trip, Brooks saw the city of Bethlehem; listen to this description:

“It was the sight of Bethlehem itself, one feels very sure, that gave Phillips Brooks the impulse to write this hymn. He was then rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity, in Philadelphia, and had spent a year’s vacation traveling in Europe and the East. “After an early dinner, we took our horses and rode to Bethlehem,” so he wrote home in Christmas week of 1865. “It was only about two hours when we came to the town, situated on an eastern ridge of a range of hills, surrounded by its terraced gardens. It is a good-looking town, better built than any other we have seen in Palestine. . . . Before dark, we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star. It is a fenced piece of ground with a cave in it (all the Holy Places are caves here), in which, strangely enough, they put the shepherds. The story is absurd, but somewhere in those fields we rode through the shepherds must have been. . . . As we passed, the shepherds were still “keeping watch over their flocks or leading them home to fold.” Mr. Brooks returned in September, 1866, and it must have been while meditating at home over what he had seen that the carol took shape in his mind.”

“Somewhere in those fields we rode through the shepherds must have been.”

Can you imagine living in a place consumed with war and hatred and racism and slavery, and then riding through the same fields where the shepherds who first learned about Jesus were? A person who had taken a stand against the evil of his day and had lived close to some of the bloodiest battlefields of the war looked out over the city where our Savior was born.

We heard the first two verses of the song already tonight, but listen to these last three:

  1. How silently, how silently,
    The wondrous gift is given;
    So God imparts to human hearts
    The blessings of His Heaven.
    No ear may hear His coming,
    But in this world of sin,
    Where meek souls will receive Him still,
    The dear Christ enters in.
  2. Where children pure and happy
    Pray to the blessed Child,
    Where misery cries out to Thee,
    Son of the Mother mild;1
    Where Charity stands watching
    And Faith holds wide the door,
    The dark night wakes, the glory breaks,
    And Christmas comes once more.
  3. O holy Child of Bethlehem,
    Descend to us, we pray!
    Cast out our sin and enter in,
    Be born in us to-day.
    We hear the Christmas angels,
    The great glad tidings tell;
    O come to us, abide with us,
    Our Lord Emmanuel!

“No ear may hear his coming, but in this dark world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.”

Sometimes, the peace that Jesus brings is not an end to the conflict we are facing. Sometimes, the peace that Jesus brings is that He is present with us in the conflict.

Let’s read Matthew 1:18-23:

18 So here, finally, is the story of the birth of Jesus the Anointed[a] (it is quite a remarkable story):

Mary was engaged to marry Joseph, son of David. They hadn’t married. And yet, some time well before their wedding date, Mary learned that she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph, because he was kind and upstanding and honorable, wanted to spare Mary shame. He did not wish to cause her more embarrassment than necessary.

20 Now when Joseph had decided to act on his instincts, a messenger of the Lord came to him in a dream.

Messenger of the Lord: Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to wed Maryand bring her into your home and family as your wife. She did not sneak off and sleep with someone else—rather, she conceived the baby she now carries through the miraculous wonderworking of the Holy Spirit. 21 She will have a son, and you will name Him Jesus, which means “the Lord saves, because this Jesus is the person who will save all of His people from sin.

24 Joseph woke up from his dream and did exactly what the messenger had told him to do: he married Mary and brought her into his home as his wife25 (though he did not consummate their marriage until after her son was born).And when the baby was born, Joseph named Him Jesus, Savior.

22 Years and years ago, Isaiah, a prophet of Israel, foretold the story of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus:

23     A virgin will conceive and bear a Son,
and His name will be Immanuel.

Can you imagine what Joseph must have been thinking? His fiancé, supposed to be a virgin, comes to him and says she is pregnant. Because Joseph was a good man, he was going to deal with it quietly. He wasn’t going to publicly disgrace Mary. He wasn’t going to stone her to death. But he was going to end their relationship.

Until the angel comes to him. And the angel says this is part of God’s plan. And Joseph willingly submits to the will of God. But understand this: the shame, the public perception, the difficulty did not go away. Joseph still had the same situation when he woke up that he had when he went to sleep the night before.

But now, there was a peace that he had been missing.

RHEANNON

I’m not known for having a lot of peace. If the average amount of peace in an eighth grader is 100 grams, I probably have 6. I’m not even joking; I am the most stressed person I know. I gave myself an illness because of this stress. If we’re gonna be honest, let’s just also talk about how the writer of this song was anti-slavery during the flipping Civil War and he seems to understand peace more than I do.

I also am a very impatient person. I can wait for something I want for maybe, maybe, thirty seconds. I’m not kidding, I am the second worst wait-er I know (the first is sitting in this room and is related to me, but that’s all I’m giving you).

So, of course, Paul over here decided I would be the best one to talk the bulk of the lesson.

Now I’m expected to ramble about those things for a half hour.

Thanks, Paul.

Peace is a hard word to understand simply because it seems like a foreign concept. I stress about school – there’s an algebra final tomorrow, my grades are almost all ending in 9, I didn’t read as much as I would have liked, my science teacher keeps talking about how the Sun could go out at any moment and we wouldn’t know until nine minutes later when we all die –

and family – Jordan’s annoying and I’m not allowed to hit him, I said something sarcastic and it was bad, I don’t want to –

and faith – church is really early in the morning, youth group has become awkward, there are going to be a lot of people, I don’t always feel comfortable being me –

and I stress about myself – the way my stomach sticks out slightly, the way my hair does this weird thing on top, my odd, if not unique, personality, my strange obsession with hugs.

Right at this moment I’m shaking in my boots because my peers are here and it’s a lot harder to be real at this time then it was last week.

One of my favorite lines is, “But in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.” I absolutely adore this line. This verse gives me some of that peace I’ve been missing. I may not be meek, but knowing that close friends of mine can receive Christ makes me feel good. The line encourages me, because in this awful, terrible world, God still comes. He’s going to enter this world, no matter the condition.

I recently read a book about aliens who thought of themselves as angels who came to save the earth from itself by bettering the people they came into contact with. They ended up leaving because humans weren’t ready or something crazy. And this was the world God sent his son into. God still saves, even if people are defiant and resolute – God will come.

Somehow, we still get to experience the Prince of Peace coming into a world where peace is nonexistent and stress is the king. I am part of a community who believe in a Savior so powerful, I can stand here in front of my peers without having a heart attack.

Let’s talk about this waiting thing. Advent is about waiting. Hope for what is to come. Joy for when the waiting is over. Love for…something. Peace for knowing it won’t be forever that we have to wait. Peace for realizing that we have proof that our wait is not everlasting. Oh, yeah – love for having peace!

Anyways, like I said earlier, I’m not a good wait-er. I enjoy knowing. I even, don’t hate me for this fellow readers, I read the last page of the book I’m reading so I can know what happens. And if the last page isn’t enough, I’ll keep reading back until I get to a part that will explain what the ending was. I don’t do this whole, “Wait and be surprised thing.” Oh no, I will know the end.

Yet I love Advent. I enjoy the whole season, I like the messages, I love, love, love the themes. This begs the question, “Why is Rheannon a walking oxymoron?” Well, that’s because I don’t really have to wait for anything. Of course, I’m waiting for Jesus to return, but I’m not flipping out over it, mostly because I know He will come, which as much of an answer as I need. I already know Jesus has come and will return. I don’t have to wait for that, I have an easy time waiting for this particular thing.

Which makes me think, why am I not peaced? Honestly, Jesus coming back to save me should give me all the peace I need (all 100 grams), yet I still worry about anything and everything. I still hyperventilate when I think about this or finals or family disputes. I still cringe thinking about getting feedback after tonight and listening to people tell me, “It was good, but you could have done this…” or “Next time, you might consider….”

I’m sweating just thinking about this.

But I do believe in a Prince of Peace, in the Wonderful counselor, but it’s hard. I’m still learning how to find peace in God, still learning to make my own peace. It’s hard for me to imagine that I’m supposed to give everything up, that I can just let the hard things go.

I can try though.

PAUL

Jesus’ early life was filled with anything but peace. A scandalous pregnancy. Being born at the end of a journey miles from home. A king who wanted to kill him. Becoming a refugee to Egypt. Having to pick a home that seemed to be a safe distance away from people who might want to kill him.

Our world is not one of peace. There are conflicts. There is confusion. There is angry, fear-based rhetoric.

There is the reality of our own lives that we have to face every day. We sing about peace, we long for peace, we love peace, we want peace.

But some days, peace is the furthest thing from our grasp.

Yet Jesus had a father who submitted to God’s will. He had a mother who said, “May it be to me as you have said.”

We live in a dark world filled with hate, but we are people who love the light. Peace does not mean all of our troubles will go away. Advent does not mean that all the troubles of the world are resolved.

Advent means Jesus comes into this dark world to walk with us. Those of you who are hurting: Jesus is here. Those who are homeless: Jesus is here. Those who have tests tomorrow: Jesus is here. Those who are terrified someone might speak to them: Jesus is here. Those who want to drink or drug: Jesus is here. Those who think this life is meaningless: Jesus is here. Those who hate themselves: Jesus is here.

Jesus is here.

RHEANNON

I stand here in front of my peers, panicking in my head, but calm as a cucumber outwardly. I still look forward to learning more Algebra next semester. I’m still excited for school to start in the morning. I will still live my life normally, no matter what the Sun decides to do. I’ll still go home with my parents and brothers and listen to them and roll my eyes at them and love them.

I can talk to my friends because I know at least seven of them have been going “same” after all my stress talk, I can still talk to my Freedom peoples because they’re the greatest and the bestest. I can still talk to my dad because he’s the bomb-diggity and will encourage me. I can still talk to people who came to listen to me because after all my talk about being stressed they probably won’t be mean.

I can do all this, because God is the Prince of Peace, come to defeat the King of Stress.

Amazing Peace

by Maya Angelou

 

Thunder rumbles in the mountain passes
And lightning rattles the eaves of our houses.
Flood waters await us in our avenues.

Snow falls upon snow, falls upon snow to avalanche
Over unprotected villages.
The sky slips low and grey and threatening.

We question ourselves.
What have we done to so affront nature?
We worry God.
Are you there? Are you there really?
Does the covenant you made with us still hold?

Into this climate of fear and apprehension, Christmas enters,
Streaming lights of joy, ringing bells of hope
And singing carols of forgiveness high up in the bright air.
The world is encouraged to come away from rancor,
Come the way of friendship.

It is the Glad Season.
Thunder ebbs to silence and lightning sleeps quietly in the corner.
Flood waters recede into memory.
Snow becomes a yielding cushion to aid us
As we make our way to higher ground.

Hope is born again in the faces of children
It rides on the shoulders of our aged as they walk into their sunsets.
Hope spreads around the earth. Brightening all things,
Even hate which crouches breeding in dark corridors.

In our joy, we think we hear a whisper.
At first it is too soft. Then only half heard.
We listen carefully as it gathers strength.
We hear a sweetness.
The word is Peace.
It is loud now. It is louder.
Louder than the explosion of bombs.

We tremble at the sound. We are thrilled by its presence.
It is what we have hungered for.
Not just the absence of war. But, true Peace.
A harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies.
Security for our beloveds and their beloveds.

We clap hands and welcome the Peace of Christmas.
We beckon this good season to wait a while with us.
We, Baptist and Buddhist, Methodist and Muslim, say come.
Peace.
Come and fill us and our world with your majesty.
We, the Jew and the Jainist, the Catholic and the Confucian,
Implore you, to stay a while with us.
So we may learn by your shimmering light
How to look beyond complexion and see community.

It is Christmas time, a halting of hate time.

On this platform of peace, we can create a language
To translate ourselves to ourselves and to each other.

At this Holy Instant, we celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ
Into the great religions of the world.
We jubilate the precious advent of trust.
We shout with glorious tongues at the coming of hope.
All the earth’s tribes loosen their voices
To celebrate the promise of Peace.

We, Angels and Mortal’s, Believers and Non-Believers,
Look heavenward and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at our world and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at each other, then into ourselves
And we say without shyness or apology or hesitation.

Peace, My Brother.
Peace, My Sister.
Peace, My Soul.

The Death of Christmas

A friend of mine received some pretty bad news this week. Three days before Christmas, this friend heard the word all of us hate: cancer. Stage 4. It has spread.

Another friend of mine is celebrating Christmas without his father for the first time this year. While still opening presents and doing all of the fun things, he is preparing for the funeral that is coming up in a few days.

My family is getting together for Christmas tomorrow. Grandparents, kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids will be present. Gifts, food, and joyful noise will ensue. My brother, a funeral director, will be arriving late tonight; he is serving a family by being with them today at the funeral for their loved one.

There is this story in the birth narrative of Matthew that does not often get read at Christmas pageants.

After a few months had passed, Herod realized he’d been tricked. The wise men were not coming back. Herod, of course, was furious. He simply ordered that all boys who lived in or near Bethlehem and were two years of age and younger be killed. He knew the baby King was this age because of what the wise men told him.

This sad event had long been foretold by the prophet Jeremiah:

 A voice will be heard in Ramah,
weeping and wailing and mourning out loud all day and night.
The voice is Rachel’s, weeping for her children,
her children who have been killed;
she weeps, and she will not be comforted. (Matthew 2:16-18, The Voice)

We know it happened. It’s part of the story. We even acknowledge the fact that Jesus and his family were refugees to Egypt, but we do so without talking about the loss of children’s lives.

Because Christmas is supposed to be about life and joy and peace and triumph and hope and love.

But death is just as much a part of the story as life.

Life means death.

Strength is made perfect in weakness.

Hope arises out of suffering.

We often miss the point of the Christmas story because we focus only on the happy parts. We often fail to fully appreciate the Advent season of waiting because we know how the story ends.

But we must remember the pain and agony that comes with the joy and triumph. And by remembering it, I don’t mean we tell people who are hurting, “Oh, it will be okay. Look! Baby Jesus!”

No. We remember what the prophet Jeremiah said: she weeps and will not be comforted.

The scars don’t go away. But they will be redeemed.

Our challenges don’t get resolved like we live in a 30 minute sitcom. Bur they will be overcome.

Our grief and sorrow do not vanish. Bu they will be replaced.

The death we experience daily does not stop happening. But the life that is to come will bring renewal.

I think those who are hurting right now understand Advent and Christmas in a special, profound, and painful way.

Let us mourn with them.

Let us weep with those who will not be comforted.

Let us remember the pain of death, even as we celebrate the joy of life.

What Are You Hiding From?

What are you hiding from?

What is your Christmas tree blocking from view?

What secrets are hidden behind the decorations on your bookshelves?

What noise are you drowning out with all the music?

_________________________

I love the way we decorate for Christmas. My wife and I both love nativity scenes (even with all the biblical inaccuracies like wise men at the manger). We love homemade ornaments. We actually have two Christmas trees in our house. One for store bought ornaments and one that holds all the ornaments our kids (ages 16, 14, and 12) have made as well as the ones we have received for nieces, nephews, other family members, and friends.

The past couple of years we have started decorating outside the house, as well. I don’t hang lights on the house for two reasons: we rent (which is a GREAT excuse) and I would die trying to do something that involves ladders, tools, and electricity. But we have some lawn decorations and some door and window hangs. We even bought one of those inflatable toy soldiers for the front yard (toy soldiers are second behind nativity scenes in our decorating scheme).

I love the fun of Christmas of morning and the unwrapping and the picture taking and the chocolate eating and the movie watching and the game playing and the clothes-trying-on and eating more chocolate. And then going back to bed at about 9:30 AM.

I love the family gatherings and the friend gatherings that occur. I have fun at the small gift exchanges we get to go to. I love watching all the school related events that take place: church pageants and choir concerts and band concerts and caroling through neighborhoods.

Oh yeah, one thing about caroling: the way my family does it is hands down the best. We drive to people’s houses, knock on their door, stand up perfectly straight with our hands clenched together, and then we sing our carol. Mind you, all five of us pick our favorite carol and we sing it. At the same time. As loud as we possibly can. The response has ranged from having the door shut in our faces to hearing, “Can I go with and we can go to my parents’ house?” (Fun fact: those two responses happened at the same house!)

I love the ways we worship during Advent. I love the acknowledgement of waiting and darkness. The reminder that pain exists and this is a dark world. The songs of joy because Jesus came into the world. The confusion, humility, and willingness of a teenage girl. The reminder that evil will not win.

I love all of that. It’s great. I wish it lasted all year long. But there is a problem. At least, the potential for a problem.

All of that noise, all of those songs, all of those decorations, all of that busy-ness can create an incredible smoke screen.

It is so easy to hide all of my hurt during the month of December. It is so easy to sail along without addressing any real issues. It is easy to avoid having those conversations I need to have. It is easy to say, “With all the pain and suffering in the world all year long, I need a break from paying attention.”

It is so easy to be in the midst of large crowds singing about joy yet still feel isolated and in despair.

But as long as we stand under the mistletoe, no one will even notice.

As long as we slowly sip our peppermint mocha, we can pretend like everything is okay.

As long as we sing Silent Night, no one will make us break the silence that is killing us.

What are you hiding from this Christmas? Remember, Jesus came into a dark world in desperate need of redemption. Christmastime, the Advent season, is not (only) about joy and presents and laughter and family.

Christmas is about facing the darkness. Christmas is about acknowledging our pain and weakness.

The decorations should never hide your pain. The activities should never silence your calls for help.

The celebration should be joy at surviving the day. The celebration should be hurting people get to have fun, too.

The glitter of Christmas is not found in how much tinsel we wrap around our house.

The glitter of Christmas is when hurting people go to other hurting people and say, “Let’s hurt together. And while we’re at it: let’s decorate, let’s sing, let’s eat lots and lots of chocolate.”

The only things that should be hidden at Christmas are the presents before they are wrapped and put under the tree. Let’s be open and honest with one another during this season. Let’s come together in our shared struggle so that we can share together in our shared joy.