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Tidings of Great Joy

Image result for shepherds at christmas

If you read my last couple of blog posts, you know that I have a love/hate relationship with Christmas. I hate the commercialization of Christmas, which starts at Halloween. The genuinely good motive of generosity gets swallowed up in a consumerist frenzy to do more and better than last year, which always ends up in spending more this year than last. Usually a significant portion of the amount spent on the more and better is done with credit cards that will take until next Christmas to be paid off, at immoral rates of interest.

I hate the secularization of it. It really bugs me that it’s considered bad taste to use the C-word in a greeting. “Merry Christmas” has become “Happy Holidays.” People seem either afraid or ashamed to identify exactly which holiday they’re happy about. It seems a shame to me. Yes, I’m an old guy. But I won’t go into a rant.

I love so much about Christmas, though. I love the music. The good music. Bad music is bad music, even if it’s Christmas themed. I’ve got a thing about bad music, but I won’t go into it here. I love that Christmas time is a great excuse for me to listen to Handel’s Messiah. It has never failed to lift my spirit and broaden my soul. Especially the Soulful edition of it that I’ve had for 20 years. And then there’s the other 14 hours of Christmas music I’ve got in my iTunes Christmas Playlist.

I love the lights and the decorations. I love the trees and candles. I love the Salvation Army bell-ringers. I love the productions of the story, usually done with preschoolers in bathrobes on church stages. These are generally riotously funny without being sacrilegious. I even love the Santas I see around. I don’t believe in Santa (which I’m sure you’re glad of), but I love the story of Nicholas and his generosity, which is the taproot of the whole Santa Clause thing. If you’ve never read about it, you should google the legend of the real Santa Clause. He was pretty awesome. Though I have to admit the idea of somebody making a list of all my good and bad deeds, checking it twice, and seeing me when I’m sleeping is a little creepy…

But the thing I most love about Christmas is the Actual Christmas Story. The one in two of the biographies of Jesus that we call The Gospels. Matthew and Luke tell the story of Jesus’ humble birth. My favorite part of the story is the part about shepherds and angels. Luke includes it in his account. In chapter 2. When I was a boy, if I couldn’t be Joseph, I wanted to be a shepherd. There was just something about the shepherd thing that appealed to me.

When I became a student of the Bible and the historical context of the Bible, I discovered a few things about shepherds that have fleshed out their role in the story a good bit for me.

First of all, their work in Jewish culture and society was huge. Although the Jewish dinner table didn’t generally include much meat, when there was meat, it was probably mutton. Without shepherds, there wouldn’t have been much mutton. So there’s that.

But more important than the grocery side of shepherding was the fact that Temple worship (and before the Temple, worship at the Tabernacle) called for the sacrifice of lambs as offerings to God. On several significant days on the Jewish calendar each year, the number of lambs offered at the Temple was in the thousands. On normal days, it may have only been in the hundreds. But even on normal days, the demand was significant. Some scholars speculate that the sheep being tended by shepherds on the hills outside of Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’ birth would have been raised specifically for use at the Temple.

But there was another thing about shepherds in Jewish culture. Generally, shepherds were… I’m searching for the right word. Socially undesirable. Their social skills were under-cultivated and underused. They lived most of their lives outside, with the sheep they tended. Their personal hygiene was never a priority. If you’ve ever spent much time around sheep, you know why. Shepherds smelled like their sheep. Which is baaaaahd. Sorry. Couldn’t resist it. And after a whole your sense of smell goes blind.

Jews were glad for the work shepherds did, and they gladly purchased sheep from them, directly or indirectly. But they didn’t really want to have to spend much time with them. One can only hold one’s breath for so long.

So shepherds weren’t extremely popular in a social sense. They didn’t get invited to many dinner parties.

And yet, Israel had a soft spot for shepherds. Israel’s favorite king, David, was a shepherd. He was a mighty warrior, a poet, a musician, a magnificent king. But before he ascended to the throne, he had tended his father’s sheep. And that connection gave shepherds a spot in the Jewish social order such that they were at least tolerable. At best, admired from afar. And the farther afar, the better.

With these few factoids about shepherds and their place in Jewish life, I think it’s a little surprising that they, of all people, would be the first to be told about the birth of God’s Son. At the very least, it’s ironic. And so like God to put a twist in the tale. We’ve known the story for so long, and heard it so many times we probably don’t see the irony of it. But if we’d lived in the First Century, I bet we would seen it immediately.

For the shepherds, that night was like every other night they’d tended their sheep on the hillsides near Bethlehem. Chilly, quiet. Quiet nights were the best. A quiet night meant you didn’t have to do combat with a poacher or a wolf or a bear.

I think they would have been sitting around a campfire, doing what guys do when they sit around campfires. Coasting and enjoying the quiet.

Suddenly, an angel appeared. And when the angel appeared, the shepherds didn’t respond with, “Hey, dude. Sup?” The King James Version says, “they were sore afraid.” They were paralyzed with fear. Partly because of how this angel would have shattered the quiet of the night. But also partly because Jews of the First Century were deathly afraid of angels.

Most of us modern people have a very unbiblical sense of angels. We have Raphael’s cute, chubby cherubs in mind. Or if you’re old enough to remember when it was on TV, the Touched By An Angel view.

But ancient Jews believed that if you were visited by an angel, it was because you were going to die. Probably at the hands of the angel. For them, it was way not our angelic picture. Much more like Rambo than Raphael.

“Do not be afraid,” the angel said.  

Putting myself in the shepherds’ sandals, being told not to be afraid by the angel wouldn’t have lowered my blood pressure. I’d still have been frozen by my fear.

The angel went on, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

There’s something about the way the King James Version phrases this that feels poetic to me. “I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”

There’s more to the story, but I’ve already exceeded my word count, so I’ll get to the point, which is in that one sentence from the King James Version. It’s my favorite sentence in the story. “…good tidings of great joy, which shall be for all people.”

With all the stuff I’ve cluttered my Christmas with, it’s hard for me to keep the fact that Christmas is all about good tidings of great joy front and center in my heart and mind. It feels more like the message is, “And do your best not to disappoint your friends and family, like you did last year.” (I know, my insecurities are showing…)

But the angel’s message was that the great joy was for all people. That includes me. Insecure me. Anxious and expectation-bound me. It means you, too. You, with all your baggage, with all your fears, with all your shortcomings. You as you are, not as how you should be.

Don’t lose track of this fact. Don’t let the picture of the Actual Christmas get dimmed or obscured by all the trappings of the season. The humble simplicity of a newborn, wrapped in strips of cloth, laying in a feed trough in a stable, whose first breath drawn in was laden with all the smells and germs of barns and animals and what animals do in barns. Born to a teenage mother, who was far from home and family, and a very inexperienced carpenter father. In isolation until the shepherds added their own characteristic essence to the stale stable air.

This is good news for us. Better than just good news, I think. Great, fantastic news because this is how the God of all there is, the One who spoke the cosmos into being, the Eternal Word, entered our world to save us from the penalty of our sin. There simply is no better news.

And one more thing. Have you noticed that people who don’t have 10 seconds for Jesus or God or all that religion stuff are pulled into a prolonged collective moment that is directly tied to the Jesus they don’t have time for? And for many of these people, the gate to their heart is opened, if only just a little, to the actual message of Christmas. Which means, if we’re looking for it, there will be opportunity to speak the love and grace of the Christ of Christmas into people who may be more open right now than at any other time of year.

You don’t have to preach a sermon. You don’t have to “present the Gospel,” You don’t have to leave a Gospel tract on the table when you leave the fast food joint. Unless you feel you should. In that case, do all of the above.

But what if you just started the day each of the few days between now and Christmas with a simple prayer that could go something like this.

“Lord, give me eyes to see the opportunities that You’ll give me today to somehow tell the good tidings of great joy. You know who I’ll be bumping into today, and what their heart is like. Nudge me to speak up about Your goodness and grace.”

It’s worth a try.

Bah! Humbug!

One of my favorite Christmas stories is Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I only recently learned the back story on it. The movie, The Man Who Invented Christmas, tells the story behind the story. It’s somewhat fictionalized, but it tells the essence of the story.

Dickens was a popular author with more bills than income, and a growing family. He had written a few very successful books, but his most recent, Martin Chuzzlewit (which I’d never heard of) had been a flop. Evidently, there’s a reason I’ve never heard of it. Sales for it were abysmal, which meant the income to Dickens was too.

So Charles set out to bring in some income with a new story he wanted to publish more quickly than a book could be published and sold in those days. He wanted it to be available for Christmas because it was a compelling Christmas ghost story. Which was, by the way, very far off the beaten English literature path. A couple of problems were in the way. He hadn’t planned a sufficient time line, and he had to publish it himself. Either of these two things would have derailed it. But, for some reason, neither did.

You know the story. A miser is visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Future. His hard heart is melted and his life is turned upside down. Or right side up, actually.

The book was wildly popular with the English audience Dickens had targeted. It didn’t earn the fortune he had hoped for, but it was a hit.

Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, 176 years ago. It’s setting is in mid-19th Century London, but the story is timeless. I’m pretty sure it will endure for another 176 years, if Jesus doesn’t return before then. Dozens of movies of Dickens’ story have been made. Many dozens of stage plays have been produced from it.

My favorite retelling of this wonderful story is a musical that was released in 1970, called Scrooge. Watching it is a Christmas tradition at our house. Albert Finney was a most convincing Ebeneezer Scrooge. His “Bah! Humbug!” and accompanying condescending smirk achieve their objective: to make you despise the character. Which made his post-Christmas Future metamorphosis all the more dramatic.

I’m a little ashamed to admit it, but I’m a bit like Ebeneezer Scrooge. OK, a lot like him. With only a few days left before Christmas, I’m just not feeling the Christmas spirit. With some significant life changes and convergence of a few key factors, we’ve got less financial resources to work with this year, and that’s made a difference, which is a delicate way to say that I find us financially embarrassed. We’re bumping the bottom of our bank account. But the odds are pretty good that many (maybe most) of the people who will read this would say the same thing. I’m not the only one who’s got to make Christmas dollars stretch beyond their limits.

Money shouldn’t be the huge factor it feels like it is, should it? And the reality is that me bumping the bottom of my bank account is still way better than 15/16 of the people on the planet. How shallow am I if that’s the big thing that sets the emotional tone for my Christmas? Pretty shallow. Bah! Humbug!

And while I’m complaining, I’ll just go on with how disturbing it is to me that no matter which way I turn or what channel on the radio or TV I tune to, a Merry Christmas is epoxied to buying big-ticket items. Really? How many people are going to put a bow on a new Lexus or GMC pickup or Lincoln or Cadillac and park it in the driveway on Christmas morning as the gift for their spouse? “I got a couple for us…” Really!? Or how many guys are going to buy a $5000 diamond pendant for their lovely for Christmas? I can go on, but you get it, so I won’t. The commercialization of Christmas bothers me. Bah! Humbug!

It’s a whole lot easier for me to complain and whine about the commercialization of Christmas than it is to actually do something about it. I mean, what can I do about it, anyway? I have no control over the advertising industry or the broadcasters who pay their bills with income from them. My buying patterns won’t change the stats they run their ads from. I feel like a victim of a system that has swallowed my Christmas joy. And I’m also prone to rants. So.

Here’s what I’ve come to on it. Whatever the rest of the world does at Christmas doesn’t have to set my emotional temperature. I can choose to make Christmas what I want it to be. I can choose to anchor it to the simplicity and wonder of the actual Christmas Story. But if I don’t apply intention and effort into it, I’ll end up being swept out to commercial sea on the tides of advertising hype.

This is not an original thought. Way not original. My dad used to complain about how commercial Christmas was, and say we had to resist the pull of it. I’m sure his dad probably said some version of the same thing. Preachers all over the planet have been preaching against the commercialization of Christmas for many generations.

So what kind of intention and effort will help us resist the irresistible? Simple things, really. Here’s a couple of suggestions.

First, get out your Bible and read the Actual Christmas Story. You’ll find it at the beginning of the biographies of Jesus, in Matthew 1:18 through 2:18. (by the way, Matthew Chapter 2 and the visit of the Magi takes place up to 2 years after Jesus’ birth. Possibly some potential good data to know for those Christmas trivia games, or your appearance on Jeopardy.)

Luke tells the same wonderful story from a different perspective in Luke 2:1-21. He writes about shepherds and angels and no room in the inn,

If you have kids or grand kids at home, ask them to read these passages out loud with you and the rest of the family. Do what I call a “read-around.” Each person who can read gets to read a verse, and then it goes to the next person. You may have to help younger readers with some of the words, but that’s no big deal.

In a perfect world, bedtime is a good time for this. Dinner time would be a good time, too. The older your kids are, the more difficult it is to have a time when everybody’s together at the same time. So you’ll probably need to create a time for this. You’ll need to interrupt the normal flow of life for it. And, in a way, this is a good thing. It’s an illustration of what the coming of Christ was – an interruption of the normal flow of life. And a quiet interruption it was for most of the world.

Second suggestion. Play Christmas music. Sing along. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a horrible voice. Sing. It’s good for your soul.

Third suggestion. Write letters. If you want to write the ubiquitous “Christmas Letter,” that would be find, I guess. But I have in mind letters to specific individual people. Handwritten letters to offer Christmas blessings and say thank-you for how they have contributed into your life. The letters I have in mind aren’t about how the family’s doing, and who won what ribbon at the science fair. The point of these letters is to do two things. 1) remind you of the blessing people have been in your life. This may do more to open the door of real Christmas Joy than just about anything. 2) to remind the recipient that their life and their input into your life matters.

There’s a gillion more ways to open your heart to the real meaning of Christmas, so there’s no excuse about not knowing what to do. You should pick things to do that will matter to you and your family. But you should pick something and then be intentional. It’s the best way to push back the Bah! Humbug! and rediscover the abiding joy of the coming of the Savior.

Grief At Christmas

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Grief makes holidays hard. Anniversaries and traditional family gathering times are bitter-sweet when you’re grieving the loss of one you love. More bitter than sweet, sometimes.

Christmas may be the hardest of the holidays for lots of people who are in grief. Even if they weren’t grieving, Christmas would probably be the most emotion-loaded holiday of the year. There’s so much sentimentality in it. I think there probably should be. God becoming a helpless baby in a feed trough, with a teenage mother and an a totally inexperienced dad looking on ought to evoke some emotion.

Add in all the movies that have Christmas as their theme or in their plot, and the emotional weight grows and doubles or triples. Hallmark has a corner on the market for this.

Don’t leave out the Christmas carols and songs that paint vivid, usually emotional pictures in our minds.

Include the commercials that leverage Christmas and Christmas emotion, and the scales measuring emotional weight are pegged out.

With Christmas carrying such emotional weight, moving through it as part of a grief journey is incredibly difficult. I can understand why some people just want to disappear around December 15 and come back after New Year’s Day. It would be nice to not have to face the double-whammy of grief and Yuletide emotion.

I’m not an authority on grief. I’m just a fellow-traveler on the long and winding grief road. I don’t have a simple system for bracing yourself against the inevitable emotion of Christmas grief. No guarantee for the best way to cope.

What I have are just a few common-sense observations that might help you make it through this season.

First, making it through this season is a legitimate goal. You don’t need to get through it as a picture of grace and dignity and faith. You don’t need to do December so well that you’ll be asked to do workshops on coping with grief in December. All you need to do is get through it. Really. Just get through it. So set your sights on this as your objective. Turn loose of higher goals. They’re unrealistic, especially if your loss is recent. Ask God to give you grace to get through it, and then partner with Him one step at a time.

The second thing is harder. Embrace your emotions. Are you kidding? Embrace feelings I’m trying not to be ambushed and humiliated by? You must be kidding. You’re an idiot

Yep. I get that. This is hard. But it’s also healthy. Your emotions are going to be close to the surface if your loss is recent. Pushing them away seems like the smartest thing to do. You don’t want to spend all 12 Days of Christmas crying your eyes out and going through tissues by the case. I don’t want you to. I want you to acknowledge and own your emotions, though. Because if you don’t, they’ll ambush you with unimaginable force. Denied feelings don’t cease to exist. And you can’t assassinate them. They’ll come back at the worst possible, most socially inconvenient time.

My suggestion for this is to journal. I know, not everybody is a journaler. Me asking some people to keep a journal is pure punishment. They hate to write. And for people like me, when I do write (by hand) I can’t read what I wrote about 40% of the time. OK. Humor me.

This should not be a book you’ll share with anybody. It’s not your memoirs. It’s just a way for you to notice and embrace your feelings, when pushing them away is much more appealing.

You don’t have to write in sentences and paragraphs. Do it with bullet points, or as a grocery list. You don’t even have to use words. Do it with pictures, if you’re artistic. If I could draw, I’d choose that over all the other ways. But I can’t identify what I’ve drawn when I’m finished. So. Do it on paper, or do it on your computer or smart phone. Do it however fits with how you’re wired. But do it.

Reflect on what you’re feeling. My journals have been prayers for the past 45 years. I believe this kind of journal is best done as a prayer. Tell God about what you’re identifying as your feelings. It works so much better when you do it in partnership with God. And almost nothing is more of a partnership with Him than prayer.

You don’t have to psychoanalyze yourself. The answer to, “Why am I feeling this?” is simple. Because you’re grieving loss. You feel this because the one you love isn’t there. So don’t worry about analyzing yourself. The purpose of this journal is to help you acknowledge and own what you’re feeling, not to figure out the psychological and spiritual reasons for what you’re feeling.

Don’t be afraid to tell your friends and family that you’re having a tough time. Most of them have no idea what to say that would help, so they’ll just say nothing. The last thing they want to do is to say the wrong thing and make it worse! So they’ll just be silent. If you can think of something they could do or say that would be helpful, tell them. You may be surprised to find that once you’ve identified and owned your feelings, you’re likely to be able to tell the people in your life how they can be helpful to you as you journey through the feelings.

You might want to write a note about this to your family. Or an email. Or a Tweet or a Facebook private message. Explain that you know you will have a deeply emotional Christmas, and that it’s OK for them to see you a little bit wrecked by your emotions. Let them know that you know this could be messy. Let them know that you want them to walk through this with you, by your side, not watching it from the other room. If speaking it works for you, speak it. However you do it, telling them that you want to spend this special time with them, even though you know you’ll have difficult moments, gives them permission to love you well.

One last thought. Your own grief gives you a special empathy for others who are going through seasons of loss. This could be a good time to reach out to them and do nothing more than let them know you’re thinking of and praying for them. You don’t have to give advice. You don’t have to offer answers. Just a word that says they’re being thought of and prayed for. You know the power of this.

God isn’t embarrassed by your grief. He’s not looking away awkwardly when you awkwardly crack up a little. You’re not a hot mess to Him. Nobody gets your grief as much as He does. Let Him hold you tight in His love as you walk this difficult road through a really tough time.

The finest thing I’ve ever come across for helping process grief and loss is GriefShare. Compassionate people help grieving people get through the valley of the shadow of death. If you would like to check this wonderful ministry out, click on this link:

For Single Parents at Christmas Time

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With Christmas just a few days away, some weary people are ready for the Polar Express to pull into the station. There’s too little energy left. Too little time in the day. And maybe the biggest of the factors, there’s too little money to do all the things they feel like they should be doing.

Boy, do I get this. I am being there. I am doing this. Well, actually I’ve got more time than I’ve had in a long time. Less energy and less money this time around, though. So if you’re hoping the Polar Express will please chug into the station, I get it.

And if you’re a single parent, you’re stretched thinner now than at any other time of year. I know from close observation for 45 years that it feels like most of your life is summed up in two words: not enough. Not enough money. Not enough time. Not enough energy. Just not enough of you for nearly everything you’ve got tugging at you. Add the emotion of Christmas in, and the whole not-enough thing gets magnified to the 10th power. It probably feels like the Polar Express is running you over.

Reality often stinks. I wish I had better news. I try not to be pessimistic, but when I look at the world and life realistically, it’s hard for me to be very optimistic. I’m just not a glass-half-full kind of guy. This may make me a legitimate voice to speak into a single parent’s life. Your life, single parent, isn’t full of unicorns and rainbows. Skittles aren’t raining down from cotton candy clouds. You life is H A R D!

I want to just offer a few words of encouragement to you, if you’re a single parent. My guess is that you may feel like you’re stranded on a desert island, that you’re on your own. And some of you are. I hate this, but I know the truth is that many, maybe even most, single parents are on their own. If your life is this way, you’ve got to be tired of people giving you advice. Especially people who have a nice support system that’s spreading a net for them. So I want to be careful not to be another voice from the safe zone telling you to keep your chin up.

OK, so Single Parent, I want to tell you that if you feel like you’ve been flattened by the Polar Express, there’s a reason for it. You have the hardest job in the world. You’re ahead of people who defuse bombs, people who transport radio-active materials, MMA fighters, Dallas Cowboys coaches. All of these people are behind you in terms of degree of difficulty. Being a single parent is harder than any of these. Even the bomb squad gets a day off. You don’t. Doing what you do, and doing it well, is the hardest job on the planet. If you feel worn smooth out, there’s a good reason for it. You’re not being dramatic (please don’t be…) when you get to the end of the day and feel like you can hardly drag your bones into bed. Your job is a 10.0 on the degree of difficult scale. That’s the first thing I want to tell you.

Second thing is that when you feel isolated and on an island, that’s the best time to reach out for community with safe people who can love you and encourage you. This is supposed to be the church. God’s family is supposed to be a safe, supportive place. It should be a place where you can find encouragement and help as you face the challenges of your most important job. Unfortunately, it isn’t always. Some churches are judgmental and condescending. They don’t represent the heart of Christ, even if they wear His name on their sign out front. These are the groups I want to you avoid. Like the plague. If you smell judgmentalism, don’t pass Go and don’t collect $200. Just move on to another church to see if Jesus lives there. Don’t feel guilt about moving on. Just go. Ask God to guide you to a place that will be His safe embrace, and then go looking.

You can’t just snap your finger and have this kind of church appear. It will take effort to find one that is grounded in the Bible, that loves as Jesus does, that will help you grow more completely into the daughter or son of the King you actually are. These churches do exist. They seem hard to find, sometimes. But it’s so worth the effort to find them.

Last thing I want to say to you: you are cherished by God. He doesn’t think of you as damaged goods. He isn’t holding your divorce or widowhood against you. He’s not waiting for you to get it together so you’ll be ready and worthy to be included in His circle of love. At the risk of sounding sacrilegious, I think God is nuts about you, just the way you are. Sure He knows your potential and wants you to grow into it. Sure He loves you too much to leave you the way you are. But He loves you right now, in the mess of your life. He loves you today, when you’re maxed out on every credit card you’ve got and still have a mountain of presents you want to get. He loves you right here, when your kids are acting out and struggling, and you don’t feel like there’s anything you can do to make a difference for them. When you ex- won’t pull their weight, or they keep throwing monkey wrenches into your attempts to build a safe and stable home for your kids.

If I could give you a Christmas gift today, the one I’d most want to give you would be that you would somehow know in your mind and feel in your heart how deeply cherished you are by God. I’d want to somehow free you up to believe about yourself what God says He believes about you. I’d want you to know that you are never (NEVER) out of His thoughts. Your are on His mind constantly. And not because you’re such a screw-up, but because he’s crazy about you and can’t get you off His mind.

There’s no formula for making your life fun and happy as you hear the Polar Express chugging toward you. If there is, I sure don’t know what it is. And if there is, I’m suspicious of it before I even hear it. So I’m not pitching out some slick and simple way to transform your Christmas.

But I’m convinced of this: you’re not alone, even when you feel most alone. God has promised, “I will never leave you. I will never forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5) And He means it. He’s not out there somewhere, waiting for you to use the right words in just the right prayer to come to you. He’s right here. And He’s not going anywhere. Ever.

God, if a Single Parent ever gets to read this, please make Your Presence and Love vivid and unmistakable for them. Draw them into Your tightest embrace as we move closer to the day we celebrate Your Son’s birth. Remind them that You’re not disappointed with them. Remind them that they are Yours because You want them to be Yours, not because You have to keep some eternal, cosmic contract. Remind them that on their worst day, You’re embracing them with your strong, unwearying love. Especially when they’re feeling weak and weary. Somehow, God, make this Christmas a season for them to experience the wonder of Your unspeakable love, and to know that the little baby in the manger would have gladly left heaven if they were the only person on earth that needed a Savior.

Go ahead. Say it.

On my way out of Walmart the other day, the greeter said, “Happy Holidays.” I said, “Merry Christmas,” back to her. Her response: “Thank You!”

I made a commitment to myself, back around Halloween, when the Christmas stuff started going up on the shelves, that I would say “Merry Christmas” as often as I can this year. Especially when I’m wished “Happy Holidays.” (I also made a commitment that I wouldn’t play Christmas music until Thanksgiving… But that’s a whole other thing.)

Now, I know I live in the Heartland, very near the Buckle of the Bible Belt, but hearing an enthusiastic and positive response to “Merry Christmas” reminded me that there are very few people in my world who are actually offended by this greeting I’ve been saying for most of my 66 years. I’m not saying it in hopes of offending anyone. If “Merry Christmas” is offensive to someone, I’ll probably ask them what they will be celebrating this December. I’ll apologize and wish them a lovely season, whatever they celebrate. I say “probably” because I’ve never actually offended anybody with “Merry Christmas” (that I know of). Honestly, I’m not trying to pick a fight with anybody. I’m not sure there’s anybody to fight with.

If “Merry Christmas” bothers you, don’t say it. And I apologize for exposing you to it. But if it expresses your sentiment, go ahead. Say it. If you’re in an Islamic country, don’t say it it. But if you’re pretty much anywhere else, give it a try.

If you want to, you can make it a teaching moment with your kids. Saying “Merry Christmas” is a great moment to bring up the idea of what Christmas is really all about with your kids. You don’t have to give a deep theological exposition of the origin and meaning of Christmas. That probably wouldn’t help them, anyway. (By the way, if you want to know about the origins of our Christmas celebration, there’s about a gazillion places on the Internet that have more than you really want to know, unless you’re writing a term paper on the subject. And probably more than you need even for that.)

This teaching moment I have in mind is all about getting back to the heart of Christmas. Jesus, God’s Son. What’s been called “Advent.”

Kids, even well trained and spiritually sensitive ones, have trouble keeping the heart of Christmas in mind when they’re bombarded with all the commercials and wish lists in the air this time of year. Getting and giving gifts is a good and happy thing. So don’t push so hard against the commercialization of it that you make it an anti-generosity thing. But account for the fact that kids need help contextualizing their generosity and the generosity of others toward them, or else Christmas will be just a day to get stuff they wouldn’t be able to ask for any other time of year.

An Advent Calendar is a good way to do this. You can get them for a few bucks at bookstores, or you can order them online for about the same amount. They come with instructions, and they’ll help you walk your family through the Christmas story a day at a time.

An Advent Wreath is also a good way to keep coming back to the heart of Christmas. You may have to go on line to find a set to purchase. You could also make you own set, if you’re a crafty person. If this is something you would like to do, here’s a simple YouTube video that will give you pretty much everything you need for it:

Here’s a good site for the meaning of each of the five Advent Candles:

There are other ways to bring your family back to center on the real heart of Christmas. Great Christmas music. Great Christmas movies. Talking about great Christmas memories. Or one other (and bigger) suggestion: making Christmas wonderful for a family who otherwise won’t have a wonderful Christmas.

Years ago, a friend of mine asked his family, when his kids were in grade school, if they wanted to take this on as a family project. He suggested that instead of asking for stuff for Christmas for themselves, they would all decide on how much money would normally have been spent on presents for them, and they would spend that much money on the family they had chosen to bless. It was their favorite and most meaningful Christmas. If you try this, I’d love to hear how it goes.

Whatever you choose to do about focusing on the real heart and meaning of Christmas, take initiative. Be intentional.

Have a Merry Christmas. And go ahead. Say it.


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My favorite blog comes from James Emery White. It’s titled, Church and Culture. If you like reading good blogs, I recommend it. In the one I got most recently, he sited a statistic about Black Friday that I thought I’d pass along:

According to a survey by SlickDeals, more than half of us hit the stores on Black Friday. And on average, those of us who did planned to spend more than $500 that day alone.

More than half of us?! With plans to spend that much?! It makes me glad I hunkered down and had another piece of pumpkin pie on Friday morning. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a Black Friday guy, but I have nothing against those who are.

I heard of some people getting up and in line for store openings before 5:00 a.m. on Friday. There’s no other way to insure you’ll get the amazing Black Friday deals. You’ve got to be there early to make sure you get in at the front of the stampede. Big TVs. Laptops. Tablets. Toys. If you snagged a bargain, way to go! Somebody will be pretty happy when they unwrap your bargain on Christmas morning.

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For people like me, who missed Black Friday, there’s Cyber Monday. Hot-diggity! More fabulous deals and bargains! Though I don’t have solid statistics on it, my guess is that far less than half of us will have been up early for Cyber Monday. Most of us who do Cyber Monday will be doing it in our pajamas on our laptop or tablets. Or pretending we’re working at our desk…

I’m given to understand that these are the two biggest days of the year for retailers. With the economy back on track and on the upswing, I’d guess this year could be a banner year. I don’t begrudge this to the retailers. In fact, I hope they do exceedingly well this year. I’ll benefit from their good fortune.

I have to admit, though, that there’s a part of me that resists what I think is reflected in the craziness of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Motive gets reflected. The cleanest motive for a consumer on these two days is to purchase items for gifting that will make life better for their loved ones, while saving the gifter many dollars. This is good stewardship.

I wonder if this motive sometimes gets shoved aside for less noble ones, though. It’s easy to get caught up in the mob mentality that fuels the desire to spend and acquire, and then spend some more. When I’m saving that much money, why would I not spend some more? And while I’m at it, I think I may just gift myself with a few of these fantastic bargains. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I’d say there was some kind of conspiracy to drag us into this. Unfortunately, no conspiracy is needed.

In the blog I mentioned up top, James White offers a challenge to join what he calls the Advent Conspiracy. What if we conspired to pull ourselves and our families away from the consumerism that’s so easy to get caught up in, and point ourselves and our families to the real heart of Christmas?

It’s pretty hard for a baby in a manger to compete with a smokin’ hot laptop with a 10th generation i7 processor. I get that. Boy, do I get that. I’d love to have that smokin’ hot laptop. There’s really nothing morally wrong with giving or getting smokin’ hot laptops, or wanting to. It’s just that bigger, better, faster, sleeker stuff isn’t what Christmas is about.

Right. You know that. Christmas is about God leaving the perfection of heaven and coming to earth in a most unexpected way to become human. It’s about a teen mom, a baby in a manger, and shepherds and angels. And then two years later, wise men from the East. It’s about the greatest gift ever given.

It’s a sentimental holiday. I think it should be. Is there anything quite as sentiment-evoking than the mental picture of a newborn baby, wrapped in strips of cloth and laid in a feed trough?

When I zoom out and look at the actual meaning of Christmas, the stuff that it so often gets made about fades far into the background. What has been called hyper consumerism seems so wrong against the backdrop of the greatest gift ever given. The drive to consume, to acquire, to buy always leaves us empty. The new wears off of even the finest gifts we give or get. That smokin’ hot laptop will soon not be smokin’.

When we get caught in the vortex of a consumerism that spins faster and faster with every pass day until Christmas, we worship less, spend more, give less, struggle more.  And that’s really not what any of us want. More than acquisition, more than charging our credit cards to their limits to give fabulous, even epoch gifts, we want meaning. We want to somehow recapture – or for some, capture for the first time – the wonder of Christmas. Even if we don’t exactly know the nature of that wonder, we want something more.

In his blog, James White asks, “What would it look like if we took this Christmas and worshipped fully, spent less, gave more and loved all? And did it in the name of Jesus, for Jesus, to Jesus, and in honor and celebration of the birthday of Jesus?”

That’s the conspiracy I want to challenge you and your family to join. The Advent Conspiracy. No previous experience necessary. No background required. Just the sincere desire to make this Christmas different in the best possible ways. And the willingness to retool some longstanding habits and ways of thinking.

To join the Advent Conspiracy means to conspire against the flow of culture, and set new, more meaningful objectives for ourselves and our families. Objectives that have little to do with our own creature comforts and acquisition, and more to do with liberality and goodwill toward men. Even men we don’t know.

Float the idea to your family and invite them to join you. Brainstorm ways they think you could all conspire to come back to the real meaning and wonder of Christmas. And then fill you soul by doing this Christmas differently.

What Did You Expect?

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Really, what did you expect?

I mean from all the fun you had planned at Thanksgiving with your friends and family? It was going to be so awesome, wasn’t it?

And if it turned out awesome, more power to ya. Really.

But for a whole lot of people, the expected wonder and happiness of the Thanksgiving holiday didn’t work out so well. Some families had quarrels and fights (yes, among young cousins and siblings, but also among adults who should have known better and done better). Some people were facing an empty place at the table for the first time after the death of a loved one. Or an empty place setting in honor of a loved one’s military service and posting far away from the Thanksgiving table. Others spent the holiday at the side of a hospital bed. Hoping, praying. Just trying to take a breath under the strain of the crisis. Or sweating it out in a waiting room.

And that doesn’t even scratch the surface of what can go wrong on a holiday like Thanksgiving. As bad as these things were for those who experienced them, there are tons of other things that could be added to the list.

There’s a common denominator in all of them. Even the ones that involved circumstances beyond anybody’s control. For all the bad Thanksgivings, this one thing stands among them in common. Expectations. Specifically, unmet expectations. They will mess with your mind and throw a live grenade into your plans for happiness.

I used to think the way to deal with this was to just quit having expectations. If you have no expectations, you’ll never get disappointed, right? I suppose this is true, but I’ve never known anybody who’s been able to pull this off. The people I know who say they’ve done it, generally are no better off than those of us who can’t. We deal with our disappointment. They tend to deal with both denial and disappointment. And add this to the mix: resentment.

We’ve stepping across the calendar line into Christmas Time (actually, Walmart and Target did this the week before Halloween, but who’s counting? I am…). If people have high expectations for Thanksgiving (and they do), then the expectation level for Christmas is Mt. Everest-size. So what this basically means is that smart people will buckle their seat belts for the bumpy Christmas Time ride. Because, like it or not, it will probably get bumpy.

I’ve told you that I don’t think eliminating expectations is the answer. Even if you could assassinate them, they’d only go under ground and then pop up at a very inconvenient and awkward time. If eliminating expectation isn’t a good option, what is?

I’m going to give you an answer that is much easier for me to write than it is for me to do. This doesn’t make it un-useful, it just frames it in a little reality. My answer is to adjust your expectations. You can adjust them without assassinating them. It will take some work, but it’s possible, and it’s a whole lot better for your mental health, and for the mental health of the people you’ll be around.

You may be aware that Debbie (my wife) and I are in a season of adjustment right now. After 45 years of “located ministry experience” (read “I’ve been employed by churches all my adult life”), I’m starting a Pastoral Counseling practice. We moved from Northeast Iowa to Central Oklahoma for me to do this. I gave up the security of a steady income to do it, along with a few other personal comforts, like some wonderful friends. This is fine, because I think I’m ready to make this transition in my ministry career. Counseling is in my sweet-spot, and God has given me gifts for it. I think the future will be outstanding. But right now, I have a tiny fraction of the income we had four months ago, and I don’t see things getting fabulously different by Christmas.

What this means is that we have a dramatically adjusted Christmas gift budget this year. As a recovering materialist and grandfather, this is a really difficult adjustment of expectations. I love seeing my grandkids’ faces when they open a cool present I’ve given them. I love seeing a similar face on my grown daughters and their husbands, too. Not to mention how I love seeing it on Debbie’s face. “A power drill?! How did you know?!”

On the way to figuring out these adjusted expectations, I’ll have to (and you’ll have to do the same thing with yours) express my expectations. I’ll have to tell my family and friends about my adjusted expectations. This isn’t always easy. It’s not for me, anyway.

There are a a couple of ways to do this. Immature people get sad and victim-ish, and tell their friends and families how awful it is that life (or God, or their boss, or their ex, or whomever) has dealt them this cruel hand. Essentially, the message is less, “Here’s my adjusted expectations,” and more, “Don’t you feel sorry for me and my horrible life!?”

More mature people will share that they want to thank their family and friends for giving them grace through a time when resources are small and just aren’t meeting demands. These mature people will probably also share that they’re not really looking for or expecting gifts from others. Instead, they’ll look for ways to give gifts that either cost little or nothing, but convey a sentiment of love and blessing. You know, like in a Hallmark movie.

The idea is to scale it back to a realistic level for Christmas, not to destroy the holiday.

Here’s another big thing about adjusting expectations. Remember the last time you had reduced or adjusted expectations enforced on you? It was great, wasn’t it? It wasn’t for me. It isn’t for most of the people I know. Especially if they’re young. So do what you can to keep from enforcing your downward-adjusted expectations on others. Especially your kids.

There’s no perfect way to do this. Every family’s different, and every kid has their own temperament and personality. But here’s an idea that has some potential: talk about it before you drop the bomb. Bombs are bad enough when you talk about them before you drop them, but if you just drop them without any discussion or dialogue they’re even more potentially explosive.

Here’s how I suggest you do this talking thing. First of all, turn off the TV and put all the video games and other electronic devices on pause. Sit facing each other. The kitchen or dinning table is a good place, but you can do it in the living room, too. I wouldn’t do it in a restaurant. Too much noise and way too public, in case there are some emotional expressions. Just make sure you get to make eye contact easily in a safe environment.

Then gently tell your kids the story of why expectations have to be adjusted this year. Use vocabulary that they will understand. Don’t give them more than they need to know about the entire back-story, but they need to know the story. They’ve got to have something to contextualize the new and adjusted expectations. Apologize if you feel you should, but be careful not to catastrophize (which is to dwell on the horrible side of the situation).

Offer what you feel you want to do with this opportunity to approach Christmas in a different way. Lead the way with your own attitude. You don’t have to be Pollyanna, and pretend that this is no biggie. It might be a biggie. Don’t lie to your kids. Or to yourself, for that matter. Just remember that one mega-truth in life is that what you do about what happens to you is more important than what happens to you.

Ask God to give you wisdom to do this thing well before you call the meeting, and then step into it, trusting that He will do this for you. He’s promised that He wants to make you wise. Take a look at Jame 1:5

There’s a whole horizon of non-material, non-financial expectations that probably need to be adjusted. I know it sounds simplistic, but I believe this same basic plan works for them, too. Talk about them. Share what you’re thinking and feeling with your spouse and family. Take the risk to be open and non-judgmental. Pray that same prayer for wisdom, and them talk about it.

You don’t have to be the victim of unmet expectations. But you will be unless you take measures to address and adjust them down to a more reasonable level. I know. This sucks. Sorry. We’ll all get over it, though. And who knows? We might just get back to the deeper meaning of the season.