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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.

We Have Some Time but Not a Lot: On Celebration

We Have Some Time but Not a Lot: On Celebration

“Come look!  There are, like, 20 balloons out today!”

I walk to the window and peer out through the tired faux-wood blinds.  The hot air balloons are hovering on the horizon, a chaotic bouquet against the morning sky.  There are perhaps ten balloons but the sight is impressive nonetheless so I have the good grace not to correct the kids’ counting or their grammar.

I love this about our new town.  Not just the daily flight of hot air balloons but the way it is always a cause for celebration.  We moved here twenty months ago, which should be enough to get settled in.  It is, after all, enough to get a child through a grade and a half of school, plus two summers.  It’s long enough to discover the best grocery store, a favorite coffee shop and great new friends.  It is not quite long enough to stop missing the best things from our old town but perhaps that’s the danger of living deeply–there is always something to be missed when change comes.

hot air balloons

The balloons never get old though.  Neighbors post pictures on Instagram and Facebook.  My daughter’s reading class once took a ten minute break to watch a balloon land in the field near their school.  There is something enthralling about them and for a few brief seconds I can really believe that they are sailing to Oz.

There are also the prairie dogs.  They, too, are a daily cause for celebration.  We watch them scamper and play and listen to their chirped warnings.  On a walk last winter we laughed at how their tails move when they chirp.  Up and down, up and down, in rhythm to their fast paced barks.  We joke that their tails are levers and this is really what makes the sound.

There was the time when, in the dead of a dreary, windy February, when we were in the midst of that general unease and anxiety that February brings on, I told my husband to “consider the prairie dogs.”  He is not a church person but he still understood the biblical reference and we laughed.  He has suggested that we make a poster that says, “Consider the prairie dogs,” to hang on the blank wall by our sliding glass door.  Like this, maybe?

Consider the prairie dogs

After reading I’m in Charge of Celebrations last spring, my daughter started keeping her own celebration diary.  It includes things like seeing a double rainbow, watching a bunny come into the yard and feeding the squirrels at a rest area in Utah.  (My list of celebrations would include the fact that the rest area gave out squirrel food, because people who turn a desert rest stop into a party are good people.)

School is starting next week and I am a bit depressed about this.  My work time will improve greatly–right now I’m barely hanging in there.  And it will be easier to carve out the space that I crave.  Plus the house might stay clean for longer than 5 minutes.  I am trying to remind myself of these things because really, I would happily extend summer by another 6 or 7 months.

Feeding ground squirrels in Utah

I suppose that’s always the challenge: change hovers right around the edges of all of life’s beautiful moments.  A couple weeks ago we got the diagnoses that our cat has stomach cancer.  This was not a surprise because she is old and anyone could see she is not healthy.  Still, it is one thing to know something inside and another to hear it said out loud.  After two tearful conversations on the phone with the vet, we decided not to pursue any treatment.

I explained it to my daughter this way, “Papoo is really sick.  We have some time but not a lot so we’re just going to love her the best we can.”  Of course, then we both cried and spent the afternoon cuddling with the cat.  This pretty much sums up life itself, doesn’t it?  It is always joy mingled with loss, celebration mingled with grief.

In The Upright Thinkers, Leonard Mlodinow talks briefly about the invention of time-keeping.  Until the invention of the clock in the 1330’s, a day was measured in twelve equal intervals of daylight.  This meant that an “hour” was longer or shorter depending on the season.  Rather than having more hours of daylight in the summer, as we do now, there was more daylight in an hour.


I felt envious of these people.  By all indications, they didn’t have much need for a standard measure of time.  This hints at a life unfettered by appointments and errands and conference calls with people across the globe.  I wondered if they found it easier to live in the present, a skill most of us lack in a world where clocks are king.

But of course time still moved on, kids still grew up, seasons still changed and animals still died.  This is what unfettered joy does for us, though.  It allows us to lengthen the amount of time in our hours.  It gives more weight to the celebrations of life than the griefs, until those milliseconds of laughter overtake the minutes of sadness.

This morning it was still dark when I woke up, a sure sign that fall is on its way.  Change is hovering, again.  But celebrations are hovering too.  They are floating there on the horizon, bursts of bright joy just waiting to be noticed.  Time itself, offering not a way to count the hours but a way to measure the minutes.  Depth, not length.  And us just pressing ahead, loving the best we can.

Making a goat noise

I’m writing again today with the other #wholemama folks who are thinking about celebration.  I jumped in late to this because that’s how summer goes here but it’s been such a joy to read and think with other readers, writers and thinkers.  Don’t forget to take a look!


When Life Has Become Boring (a #wholemama post)

When Life Has Become Boring (a #wholemama post)

The boy was eight years old. He was one of those precocious types. “Smart as a whip,” as the older members of the congregation used to say. “Full of energy,” they would also say. These things were both true.

In addition to being smart and full of energy, he had a certain capacity for getting his way. “Tell it again,” he would demand every Sunday morning and because I believed in following the children’s interests and cultivating their passions, I would oblige.

“One day, Moses was on the mountain when he saw a burning bush. He went closer and heard a voice telling him to take off his shoes because he was standing on holy ground.”

“We should be taking off our shoes in church.” The boy announced one day. He announced it as certainly as he announced anything else. “This is a holy place.”

Well, of course church seems like a holy place to a child, especially perhaps a child in this church, where the congregants were fiercely proud of their historic church building and talked often about what a special place it was. It is not really unusual for a child to take the holiness of church as a given fact. Children typically know these things about church:

  •                 God loves them and is with them always.
  •                 The stories in the Bible are important
  •                 The answer to any question during the children’s sermon is “Jesus.”

And, of course, the church is a holy place.

So what was surprising about this little person’s observation wasn’t that he believed the church was holy, it was that he demanded that we act in a way that was in line with our beliefs. His logic could be mapped out with the precision of an algebraic equation. If church is holy and the Bible is true then we ought to be taking off our shoes. It checks out.


As adults, we also have a series of beliefs. For many of us, they are things like this:

  •                 Make the most of each moment.
  •                 The simple life is best.
  •                 Love each other.
  •                 God is with us always.
  •                 There is holiness in the ordinary.

These are good beliefs. We don’t have any trouble believing them, really.  Our challenge is acting in line with them. We have the tendency to forget these things in our normal, everyday life. We forget them because, after living the same story over and over again, we stop finding it interesting. No one ever wakes up and says, “Oh yes! Tell me the story again of how I get to get up and go to work!” Instead, we are more prone to finding that in their familiarity our stories have become boring.

This is normal and human and probably rooted in some practicality.  We can’t wake up every single morning and naively ponder the magic of the washing machine, nothing would ever get done. But sometimes we go the other way. We become bored with our sameness, our ordinary routines. We become listless and even depressed. We feel irrelevant to this great big world, as though our ordinariness is synonymous with meaninglessness.

Last week I stumbled on a little memory garden tucked in the corner of a local park. There was a small spiral walkway made up of bricks. Each brick held the name of a person, assumedly someone being honored with a donation to the project. In the center was a large brick bearing this quote by Anna Quindlan:

Life is made up of moments, small pieces of glittery mica in a long stretch of gray cement. It would be wonderful if they came to us unsummoned but particularly in lives as busy as the ones most of us lead, that won’t happen. We have to teach ourselves how to live, really live…to love the journey, not the destination.

I took a picture of it because I love Anna Quindlan and also I desperately need this reminder. The truth is, I am reeling from the realization that I am fairly ordinary. In our young adult years when everything is ahead of us and dreams are cheap, we rest our identity in the fact that we will change the world. Then we grow and realize that following our dreams means making trade-offs.   It is suddenly much, much harder than we once thought it would be.

This is why we must constantly be reminding ourselves of the holy bits of treasure buried in familiar pathways. Otherwise, this would be the end. We would look at the long, gray walk ahead of us and become discouraged from believing that we matter at all. We would sit down and cry, convinced we’ll never reach the end (however we’re measuring that) and simply stop trying.


Friends, I’m not really telling you anything you don’t know. I’m simply saying that if, like me, you sometimes find yourself overwhelmed by the sheer ordinariness of your life that you take a few minutes to recalculate. I’m saying that sometimes, we don’t need anything outside of the life we already have; we just need to balance the equation. If God is with us and there is holiness in the ordinary, then you matter just as you are—boring, mundane, you, right now, walking whatever boring, mundane path is ahead of you. And if this is all true, then the solution to ordinariness isn’t to walk faster, it’s to walk slower. As slowly, perhaps, as if you’d taken off your shoes and were wandering around barefoot.

I’m writing again this week with the #wholemama group.  There is so much good stuff here.  And while I’m truly terrible at managing my social media profiles, I’ll keep posting a few of my favorites to my Facebook page so if you don’t make it to Esther’s site, you can check out a curated version there.


Cultivating Heart-Space (With a Meditation) (A #WholeMama Post)

Cultivating Heart-Space (With a Meditation) (A #WholeMama Post)

I feel as tightly wound as the springs of the trampoline that we are standing on.  It’s late afternoon.  A storm is blowing in and it’s cooling and inviting after the heat of the day.  It should be wonderful to be outside enjoying it all.  Instead, I am smiling at my daughter with a fake, forced smile.  She has been explaining the game we are about to play.  It involves a very large wolf (me) and a teeny tiny leopard (her).  Somehow there is a ball, which belongs to the leopard.  I am not allowed to touch it because I am a wolf.

She has been setting the scene for this game for an eternity.

“Ok!”  I finally say in my best cheery wolf voice, cutting her off mid-sentence.  “Want to go pouncing with me, little leopard? arf, arf.” I start to prowl around the edge of the trampoline.

“We can’t talk to each other!” she says indignantly and slightly impatiently.  “You’re a wolf and I’m a leopard.  Also, we can’t play together.  You’re so big that you would step on me and crush me.”

Breathe.  Long breath.  It is not enough.

“What exactly do we do then!?”  My fake smile is completely gone as the exasperation takes over.  Lewis Carol had almost certainly endured the complicated plot of a young child’s game when he was inspired to write Through the Looking Glass.  I feel exactly like I am having a conversation with the Cheshire Cat.  Not only is everything nonsense but I’m being glared at as though I’m too stupid for words.  She starts over.  Explaining the game.  Again.

Image result for cheshire cat

It has been one of those out-of-sync days.  My head is entirely elsewhere.  I want to be curled up with my nose in a book or even tackling my to-do list.  I want to go for a run and ponder a bit of writing, rolling the words around on my tongue as my mind drifts.  I want to meditate without worrying about being interrupted, or do a bit of yoga without having a gangly little body crawl under my plank or downward dog.

I want space.

My daughter wants space, too.  She wants the space to build a fort that takes up the entire living room, right where I am trying to clear away some leftover weekend clutter.  She wants the space to let her little imagination run wild as she creates a world where giant wolves and minuscule leopards live side by side.  She wants space next to me, space where she can draw in her favorite notebook while listening to a Judy Moody book on CD, happily chattering about each twist in the plot.  It is as though there is an imaginary circle around me and we both want to occupy it.  I want it for me, she wants it for her.

I have never been good at sharing space.  It is not that I don’t like people.  I love people.  But my thoughts–they take up a physical space.  They need actual room around me, room to grow and shrink and come and go.

I know that this is not a challenge limited to parents.  It is a challenge faced within every relationship: the challenge of balancing each person’s needs for companionship with each person’s need for space, silence, solitude.


Sometimes the solution to this awkward, weird dance between “mine” and “ours” is to set clear personal boundaries.  It is to make sure that we get enough alone time.  It is getting up early in the morning and using that time for meditation or reading.  It is taking whatever time you need to do whatever nourishes you.

But sometimes the solution is actually the exact opposite.  Sometimes finding space means giving space.  This is because sometimes the space that we’re craving isn’t physical space at all.  What we’re really craving is heart-space, that place of open generosity where our world intersects another’s and we feel no resentment, no desire to claim our circle back, only happiness that we are together.


Which is all well and good in theory but doesn’t solve the problem because back on the trampoline I was seriously failing to be connected and engaged.  What does help, at least sometimes, is this lovely little heart-centering practice:

  •  Start with a few deep breaths to settle your body and mind.
  • Think of a time when you felt perfectly happy or content with another person.     Imagine where you were in as much detail as possible.  What do you see?  Smell? Hear?
  • Focus now on how you felt.  Lean into that feeling, holding on to it.  Smile.  Open your eyes and return to whatever you were doing with the intention of passing on that same feeling.

*This is a fast little meditation.  It’s not meant to take 20 minutes.  It takes me about 2.  

I’d like to say that I did my meditation, settled into the game of “Wolf and Leopard Don’t Play Together” and connected with my daughter in a new, amazing way.  It did not go that way.  Instead, I floundered through the game until–thank God!–it began to rain and we had to go inside.  But I tried.

If there’s anything holy to be found in playing an endless game of let’s-pretend, I think it’s this lesson in cultivating heart-space.  It is a realization that sometimes the hardest inner work doesn’t happen in our quiet sanctuaries but in our ordinary white-bread, American suburb moments.  Whether we pull it off or not isn’t really the point.  The real mark of grace is that we want to try at all.  It is an opening, a small bit of heart-space that might just grow into something bigger and better than we ever thought.

How to Live the Dream (Part 1)

How to Live the Dream (Part 1)

Siting by lakeToday I’m starting a bit of a series on discernment.  Discernment is fancy for “figuring out what you are supposed to be doing in your life.”  It is a topic of passion for me right now, in part because it is an area of constant struggle for me and in part because it is an area so many people around me have been asking about.  So let’s tackle it together in a fairly random fashion.  I’ll just throw some ideas at you and you see what works. 

First topic: priorities.  

Here is what I want from life:

I want to do work that makes a difference, makes me happy and pays a lot.  Also, I’d like to be famous.

Judging from the number of books, blogs and articles based around this idea, I’m guessing that many people want that.  Google “live your dream get paid” and there are 33,200,000 results.  That’s 33 million, ranging from websites selling ebooks (a lot of those, actually) to news articles.

You know what? A lot of the info might actually be good.  We do need help figuring out our gifts and how to use them.  We need help figuring out possible career paths.  We need help figuring out what will give our lives meaning.

However, I do not think you will find that magic combination of happiness, fame, fortune and meaning in your career.  Anybody that tells you otherwise is full of baloney.  I think that if you are really serious about having any of this, you have to start by looking long and hard at your dreams.  Here’s why:

First off, there is only one–only one–of those things on my list of wants that is promised to me.  That is a life of purpose.  We matter.  God matters.  Others matter. If we choose to live these truths, we will find ourselves living a life that is deeply meaningful.  But no one promised that it would be easy, that it would pay well, that it would make us happy or even that anyone else will notice the good we are doing.  How we live out the meaning in our lives is between us and God.  That’s it.  Not really a high selling point, huh?

Second, money doesn’t follow purpose.  This is one way we know that we live in a broken world: there is an inverse relationship between careers that help people and careers that make money.  Yes, there are exceptions.  Doctors make a decent living.  But they make more if they’re plastic surgeons living in Beverly Hills than they do if they’re general practitioners in rural Alabama.  As much as we want a one-track, clear cut life, you cannot pursue meaning and pursue money in the same place.

Third, the life of meaning will not make you happy.  It won’t.  I’m sorry to be the bearer of this bad news–I want it to be true so badly.  The truth is this: the life of meaning asks us to enter into suffering.  Willingly.  That’s the way Jesus taught.  It is the way of all great, wise spiritual leaders.  You have to be willing to have your heart broken, your anger riled, your spirit exhausted.  You cannot do this if your primary goal is happiness.  You have to be willing to live life precariously balanced on the edge of life’s ugliness.  Will moments of happiness come?  Almost definitely.  Will you be content?  Yes, if you do hard, inward work.  Will you spend every day frolicking in the ocean, relishing in the joy of just being alive?  Not likely.

The best thing we can do for ourselves as we’re pondering what to do with our lives/what to be when we grow up/where God is calling us now, is look long and hard at what we want.  Too often we get stuck in looking for the perfect thing.  We want one, easy solution to this great big human question: “what should I do with my life?”  We don’t do anything because we haven’t found “the one” thing.  We forget that not everything is compatible.  All of our needs and wants won’t be met by any one thing; there will be choices to be made.  If we want to live the dream, we better be clear as to what we’re dreaming about.

So, here is the question: what comes first on your list of wants?  Money, fame, family, meaning, happiness?  Write, dream, pray or ponder about it.  Be honest.  Then set it aside and let it work in you for while.  No pressure, no judgment.