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Strangers in a Christmas Land

Strangers in a Christmas Land

I borrowed my title for this blog from the clever folks on our church’s worship planning team. The title came about as we discussed whether to hold a “Blue Christmas” service this year. If you’re not familiar with Blue Christmas, sometimes called “Longest Night,” or “Darkest Night,” the service is a lament service offered sometime in December. The goal is to offer a time for people to experience sadness in the midst of all the holiday cheer.

If you’ve ever been heartbroken, depressed or simply down in the dumps during the Christmas season, you know how hard it is. Everyone else is fa la laing along while you’re just hoping to make it through. It’s hard enough to be sad. It’s even harder to be sad when every store front is urging you to “be of good cheer.”

We can, indeed, feel like strangers in a Christmas land.

The feeling comes when everyone else is complaining of the busyness of the season and you’re spending your evenings watching re-runs of holiday movies on TV.

Or when you decorate your tree and remember the last time you decorated it with them–the child, or parent, or spouse whose presence no longer graces the house.

It comes when the service is full of stories about expectation and pregnancy but your story is full of doubt and disappointment.

And sometimes it just comes for no reason. When the nostalgia suddenly turns to grief. Or the tinsel is suddenly revealed as nothing more than cheap strands of a fool’s dream.

Sometimes, we don’t even know why we’re being left out of this Christmas fairy land, we just know that we are. But what makes it worse is the pressure to feel better. Because for the love of Christ (literally) it’s a celebration. We’re supposed to “be of good cheer,” and “God rest ye merry, gentlemen,” and celebrate because “it’s the most wonderful time of the year.”

So here’s what I want to say about that. I’m not at all convinced that the point of Christmas is to be happy. I think the point of Christmas is to remember that God makes a way. God makes a way through grief, through happiness, through distraction and through relentless boredom. God finds us no matter where we are. And maybe God isn’t on calendar time, and maybe God doesn’t know that God’s required to show up by December 25, but God is making a way.

One of the buzzwords at Christmas is “glory,” which might help us out here. Biblically speaking, glory means “making the presence of God known.” On the other hand, we sometimes we use “glory” much the way we would use the word “delicious,” as though it describes a particular experience. But there’s nothing about glory that requires us to feel happy–in fact, most biblical and personal instances of God’s glory revealed come in times of hardship.

Our work this Christmas season is the same as it is the rest of the year: to look for God in all times and places. So maybe you’re looking for God’s glory amidst a too-busy winter schedule. And maybe you’re looking for God’s glory amidst the ghosts of Christmas past. Maybe you’re even having one of those amazing Advent seasons that comes along once in a while, where you’re finding it easy to stay centered and focused and prayerful. Those are all fine ways to do Christmas.

But if you’re feeling like a stranger in a Christmas land this year, remember that glory and cheer are two different things. Just as we can relieve ourselves of the pressure to do Christmas perfectly, we can relieve ourselves of the pressure to do Christmas in manic cheerfulness. Focus instead on glory–not the forced glory of humans trying to create an experience but the glory of the God who makes a way.


Christmas is an Act of Subversion

Christmas is an Act of Subversion

Last Sunday our church had its Christmas pageant. The children dressed up in homemade robes with rope belts and paraded down the aisle. They were adorable in their innocence and my heart overflowed, as it does every year, when the story came to life in their sweet little faces.

I love this tradition. Quite frankly, it’s adorable. What’s not to love? Bonus–it also has theological meaning and it serves a pedagogical purpose. My dream would be to do more church-wide pageants for children.


I’m also aware that this lovely tradition carries with it a danger: we cute-sy up the Christmas story. By making it a feel-good story for children, we put it on the level of all of our other Christmas stories. Santa Claus, Rudolph, the Polar Express. All are cute stories that leave us filled with Christmas cheer and a sense of sweet happiness.

But the nativity story was never a feel-good story.

When Matthew and Luke recorded their versions of Jesus birth, they did so with a particular purpose: to demonstrate that Jesus, born to Joseph and Mary, was the Christ, the King, the Messiah. This wasn’t a cute story, this was a subversive one.

Right from the angels’ announcements to Mary and Joseph, we see God’s agenda is to overturn the world order as we know it. Listen to how Mary responds, not with meekness, but with the rallying cry that God “has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

While we’re oohing and aaahing over the cuddly sheep in the field, with shimmering angels illuminated by a twinkling star, we should be asking ourselves a different question: What if the angels brought the good news to the lowly shepherds because these were the only people who would perceive it as good news? The rest of them, safe and warm in their homes and palaces, wouldn’t so much rise to shout with joy as rise up in anger. News that the last will be coming in first isn’t good news for everyone.

See, when we’re on the side of the proud and the powerful, we’re on the losing side of this proclamation. We’re the ones in danger of being scattered, brought down and sent away empty—and that’s when the Good News of Christmas becomes distinctly bad news. The only way to hear this message as the Gospel, which literally means good news, is to take the side of the poor, the lost, the disenfranchised.

Christmas is ultimately about making a choice. It’s our yearly opportunity to decide which gospel we’re ready to believe in. Are we placing our hopes in the cute-sy baby Jesus of the nativity play? The one who makes us feel warm, cozy and safe? Or are we placing our hopes in the revolutionary God who dared to overturn our world order—which is anything but safe?

It’s easy, of course, to say the latter. With the daily deluge of tragic news from around the world, our souls hunger for the world-changing God. But I am reminded that choosing that gospel requires setting aside our own hopes and dreams in favor of the larger promise of justice and mercy for all of humanity. It requires the daily sacrifice of making the choice against our own self-interest in favor of the World’s.

This is where the going gets tough.

But it’s also where the joy of Christmas comes most alive. While the Christmas story might challenge us to get outside ourselves, it also reminds us that the revolution doesn’t rest on our shoulders alone. That, in fact, the most revolutionary act of all has already taken place. Sure, we’re called to live into this Christmas promise of peace on earth. We’re called to work as hard as we can toward that coming reality. But we’re not called to bear the burden on our own.

So as we move toward our Christmas celebrations, may we feel both challenged and renewed. My we all find ourselves searching for the difference we can make in the world, stretching and yearning for a promise that was given long ago. And may we also find ourselves doing this not out of fear but out of joy and hope.

The New Way I’m Taming Christmas Mayhem

The New Way I’m Taming Christmas Mayhem

Taming Christmas Mayhem

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…

Ahhh…the time of year when the stores start pushing Christmas and we resist with all our might, grumbling about how we can’t find the cranberry sauce because the Christmas decorations are in the way.  A few days before Halloween, I thought I heard the opening notes to “Last Christmas” come on a store’s radio and I swore I would yell at someone.  (It wasn’t.  It was just another song by “Wham!”  Apparently they all sound the same.)  Judging by the number of Facebook and Twitter conversations, I know others are feeling the frustration, too.  We all love Christmas, of course we do.  Still, we have a natural inclination to not see it pushed back into October.

Xmas post before December

I think this comes from a few things:

  1. Time moves quickly enough without us hurrying it along.     Just because we love Christmas doesn’t mean that we want to skip over October and November.  We love those months, too, even if they aren’t as shiny and sparkly.  For me, October is one month where I really get to pull back and celebrate the holy ordinary: the fall leaves, the crisp weather, the gentle rhythm that sets in when the days get shorter.  Plus, many of us who love Christmas love all the other holidays.  Halloween brings back the forbidden thrill of going house to house after dark, and the fun of imagining who we’re going to be.  And Thanksgiving…an entire holiday devoted to nothing but gratitude and that first silky, spicy bite of pumpkin pie.  Love Christmas as we do, we’re not quite willing to skip over the other things to get there.
  2. We’re leery of being marketed at. There’s one reason and one reason only that Christmas decorations start appearing in stores mid-October.  It sells stuff.  This year, my dollar store had cookie tins for sale in August.  And I bought them.  Why?  Because if I wait, I will be searching high and low for them come cookie exchange time.  Still, I hated caving into the pressure, like I was being duped into participating in an evil consumerist plot.  I was certain that some marketing genius was sitting in the store, eyeing me with derision and cackling, “our little plan worked.  Cookie tins in August…we shall rule the world. Hahaha”
  3. We’re trying to overcome some of the pressure to have the “perfect Christmas.” Christmas was not always celebrated for a month.  People used to put their trees up on December 24.  They might observe the traditional twelve days of Christmas, until Epiphany on January 6.  They’d give a simple gift or two and Santa might drop off an orange and a penny.  This wasn’t that long ago.  When I compare that to our frantic push to create Rockwell-worthy moments of cookie baking, ginger-bread house building and cocktail parties for at least a month, I’m overwhelmed, as many of us are.  Resisting the urge to start Christmas earlier and earlier is one way that we’re trying to simplify the whole experience.  With this small act, we’re resist the push toward a perfectionism that would take months of planning.

With every bit of pressure we feel to push Christmas into fall, we lean in with equal resistance. 

This year’s $3.00 cookie tin purchase was the first time I can ever remember buying something Christmas-y before Thanksgiving.  I close my eyes to the lure of sparkling ornaments until the day after Thanksgiving, when I launch into all-Christmas, all-the-time, until January.  So it’s with a certain amount of trepidation that I announce a complete switch in attitude.  This year, I’m doing my Christmas shopping this week.  Yes, right after Halloween.  Oddly enough, I’m doing it for all the reasons that I used to avoid shopping early.  I want to enjoy the season, simplify the holidays, relish every minute of the fall holidays and resist the urge to have “the perfect Christmas.”  I want my dance through the season to be a gentle waltz, not a frantic macarena with hands and legs barely keeping up to the frenzy of the music.

A member of my incredible moms’ group shared this article from Catholic Sistas a couple weeks ago.  The author shares her strategy for Christmas shopping, including her timeline.  She gets it done before Advent.  (If you’re not a church person, or not part of a tradition that celebrates Advent, it almost always starts the Sunday after Thanksgiving.  For all practical purposes, this means finishing shopping before leaving for that Thanksgiving trip.)  By tackling her shopping early, this mom writes, she’s freed up to focus on the religious celebrations of the season rather than feeling overwhelmed by the combination of extra shopping, extra school events, extra church events and extra family events.  And, I might add, the extra pressure to stay spiritually grounded/non-consumerist/family focused in the midst of all that!

I’ve been playing with her idea.  I was initially resistant because:

  1. I don’t want to cave to the consumeristic pressures and start shopping early. (See #2 above.)
  2. I actually enjoy the bustle of Christmas shopping. I can hear the chorus to “Silver Bells in my head as I type this.  I like to park the car in a cute little downtown area and wander from store to store with a peppermint mocha in my hand.  It it’s snowing just slightly, that’s even better.  I enjoy the cheer, the lights, the decorations and the Salvation Army Santa’s cheery “Merry Christmas!”
  3. I like to let things get a little closer to Christmas so that I can see what people want/need. This is the main reason I don’t shop throughout the year, as many highly organized people recommend.

Gradually, though, the appeal of starting the holiday season with my shopping done won me over.  When I sat down with my husband to talk about Christmas present ideas, before Halloween, he was surprisingly enthusiastic about the idea of getting the shopping done sooner rather than later.  Some points he made:

  1. The Christmas shopping experience isn’t always a fun stroll from store to store. Most of the time it’s a high-paced hustle around the mall.  The mocha gets spilled, children are crying in aisle 5, the strain of saying “Merry Christmas” 500 times an hour is wearing on the Salvation Army Santas and “Last Christmas” will be played by every artist who ever covered it.  (True story: one of the first songs my daughter knew by heart was “Last Christmas.”  She was 3.  That’s how often this song comes on the radio.)
  2. I can still enjoy the Hallmark movie shopping experience. Some day during the Christmas season, I can get dressed in an adorable hat and boots, hit the coffee shop and then take a lovely stroll.  Even better, I can do this without worrying about carrying shopping bags.
  3. I’m more likely to enjoy the hunt. Taking the time to shop now, instead of in December, means I can make a thoughtful choice for even the hard-to-shop-for people (ahem, all the men in my family) instead of a muttering about how hard they are to shop for and wishing I could settle for a bottle of perfume.
  4. I love packages under the tree. I have a standing rule that anything purchased after Thanksgiving gets wrapped and put under the tree.    I’ve also been known to wrap empty boxes when we put our tree up, just to get the sparkly present effect sooner.  Now I can have actual presents, which cuts down on the January clean-up.
  5. I’d really like to get to mid-December without wondering “what happened?”

There is one concern that is still valid: I’ll have to resist buying additional presents as Christmas gets closer.  That happens often enough as it is.  It usually goes like this, “Oh, I know I already have a present for so-and-so but this is perfect for her!  She can have both.”  Repeat that for a couple members of our huge family, add in a friend or two, and it’s a recipe for starting 2016 completely broke.  That’s just going to have to come down to willpower.  So I’m making a public commitment that once shopping is done, it’s done.  Those extra wonderful things I find along the way will have to wait for birthday presents in 2016.  🙂