The Idea of Christmas

blue-christmas-balls-1448214910psqI love the idea of Christmas. The lights, the beautifully decorated homes, the snow gently falling and covering the remaining leaves and grass that has lost its color from the summer leaving a beautiful, crisp whiteness to the world and creating a picture of mystery and expectation. The “joy of the season” is something I ache for, but for me – and for many – the parties, the constant reminders of others happiness like wedding engagements, anniversaries and new babies, and the overall excitement of the Christmas season does nothing more than drive home the fact that those things are not my/our reality.

I’m Christian – this time of year is supposed to be full of wonder, miracles and joy if for no other reason than it’s the time we celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior. But aside from the time that I get to sing some truly amazing music, those feelings often escape me.

I have thought long and hard about why I struggle so mightily at Christmas. Maybe it’s because my birthday is close to the holiday that my birthday celebrations often get lost in the shuffle. Maybe it’s because growing up in an alcoholic home, celebrations often became times filled with anger and fear and I am left with residual anxiety of what may come. Or maybe it’s because of the commercialism that has overtaken the true meaning of the season.

I think in all honestly, at least for me, it is all of these things that combine to make me feel sad, lost and alone with an overall sensation of not being “enough”. I don’t think I’m alone in this, either.

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Social media and neighborhoods alike capitalize on the race for the most grandiose or outlandish décor. Regardless of how beautiful someone’s home may be, whatever was done last year isn’t “enough”. Similarly, party planners struggle to find more unique and spectacular holiday celebrations in an attempt to outdo last years’ events because, for whatever reason, that last party wasn’t “enough”. And gifts? Forget it. Commercial after commercial shout about how we don’t have enough or we are “not enough” without this new car or that new wardrobe or some other new home. We as individuals are never enough without that next big thing.

What makes me feel even sadder is that this same message is often proclaimed just as loudly in the church as it is outside of it. In the one place that I want desperately to feel whole I am reminded time and again that I – just as I am – am not enough.

Ok. I can practically hear you screaming at me through the computer screen now. That’s not what the church says! That’s not what being Christian is about! And while I would agree that this is not what being Christian is about, I would have to say that we, as a body, often talk out of both sides of our mouths on this matter.

On the one side, we say that each and every one of us is precious to God; that He created us each to be unique and beautiful in our own ways. We proudly proclaim, “God loves you!” to anyone who is alone or hurting, encouraging these individuals to remember they aren’t alone; they haven’t been forgotten or abandoned and that they can come just as they are to receive His love, mercy and grace. We seek ways to include everyone in the message of Christmas and send packages all around the globe to ensure nobody feels forgotten at this special time of year. This is all wonderful, but there is another side to this.

The other side is where we as the church perpetuate the commercialism of Christmas by worrying more about whether children have presents under their tree than if they know what the true meaning of Christmas is or worry more about the musical or theatrical spectacle our church is able to present because the church down the street is doing something really grand this year and we want to make sure that what we are is going to be “enough”. Most importantly, to me at least, we are told that despite this lovely season, we as individuals are and will always be sinners, unclean and unworthy.

In other words, not enough.

To me, this message echoes what I have been told from those outside of the church – I can come in, but regardless of what I do or how hard I try, I will never be “enough”; I will never be pretty enough, talented enough, intelligent enough, desirable enough, faith-filled enough, or a good enough Christian. And all of this seems to be magnified during the holiday season as image after image in my mind and around me seem to reflect what I perceive to be others successes. I am left feeling beaten down; defeated.

By now you’re probably wondering just what the point of this article is. Am I doing my best to make you feel as depressed as I sound?vhq8l

Actually, no.

Here’s the thing.

Being sad during the holidays is not something to be ashamed of. It is a reality that many of us face for a wide variety of reasons. Just do a quick Google search on “Christmas sadness” and you will see just how widespread this problem is. Maybe this is a new thing for you or maybe, like me, you struggle a bit every year. Regardless, it is important to know that despite how it may feel, our feelings are not “wrong”. We are not alone and we do not need to cover up our struggle and pretend all is well. Most importantly, we are – all of us – truly “enough” just the way we are even when we don’t feel this is the case.

We do not need to search for that new person, item, job or experience to be “enough”. What makes us “enough” is the real joy of the season – that our Savior was born not to free us from being who we are, but rather born to fill us with a greater understanding of who (and whose) we are and how great that is.

We are each unique individuals created by God to be just who we are. God does not make mistakes and doesn’t compare the way each of us walk through this life hoping and wishing we would be just like our “better” brothers and sisters. Certainly, God created us to experience joy but He didn’t build a specific “Christmas joy” emotion that is either broken or forgotten in those of us that don’t experience this the way we think we should. Instead, He created grace, love and understanding to help us move through these difficult times and help others along the way.

Throughout the years, I have gathered some methods to cope with the “Christmas Blues”. Here are just a few:

  • Set realistic expectations: None of our Christmas celebrations are going to look or feel like a Hallmark movie. Do your best not to go into a situation hoping that this one time it will all live up to the movie in your head.
  • Don’t compare your insides to someone else’s outside: Remember that we all have masks we put on in public. None of us has any idea what is going on inside someone else at any given moment and just because someone looks like they are having the time of their life doesn’t mean that’s their reality any better than yours.
  • Don’t isolate: It is easy to hide from others when we feel depressed but that isolation only contributes to the feelings of sadness. Do your best to reach out to those around you and, more importantly, be willing to accept their love and care.
  • Attend a Blue Christmas or similar healing service: Many churches offer a “blue Christmas” service which is an opportunity to, through music, prayer and meditation, come for healing and comfort for those struggling during the holiday season. These services are often non-denominational and very easy services to attend regardless of where you are in your faith walk.
  • Be the imperfect perfection you are: None of us is perfect and regardless of how hard you try, this season will not be perfect either. Relax into the imperfection that is being human and living life.6031-christmas-messages

As we enter full force into this Christmas season, I wish you all joy, hope and peace. Mayyou sense God’s presence, know you are His and, despite what the world may indicate, you are truly “enough”. You are enough because God chose to create you. Period.

 

Merry Christmas.

 

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Happy Epiphany!

epiphanyausWe did it! We made it successfully through the holiday season. Maybe it doesn’t feel like it was altogether successful from your point of view, but since we are meeting here, that means we are both breathing and functioning at least to some level, so I would call that successful.

I am, as you may know, a cradle Episcopalian so for me, the actual Christmas season just ended with the celebration of Epiphany – the celebration of the Wise Men following the star to meet the baby Jesus. In my home church, we celebrate this day by having the children tell the Christmas story through a small pageant. Mary, Joseph, the Wise Men and angels all tell the story of the birth of Jesus with the help of an eclectic parade of animals including an owl and chicken.

I am always so amazed by the bravery of these kids. Some of these children are just barely walking yet they get up in front of people doing as they are asked without question, without fuss. They are participating for the sheer joy of it even though for many, the words they are speaking have no real meaning. This, to me, is the epitome of Mary, Joseph, the Wise Men, and truly all the named figures of the Bible did. They simply did as they were asked without question. This is true faith and I believe it is the faith that God really wishes for us to experience.

Of course, as we get older, it becomes significantly harder for us to act this way. Even though Nike has made a mint on the phrase Just Do It, how many times do we actually heed that advice?

No, more often than not we allow our mind to get in the way of our heart and we fail to act on nudgings from the Holy Spirit. Instead, we rationalize ourselves right out of experiencing the joy of the holiday. So focused are we on making sure everyone knows that Christmas is more that getting gifts that we destroy the wonder and joy that we were once able to experience without question.

Do you remember?

matthew18_3 Think back to a time in your childhood when you ran down the stairs or out of your room to see the tree and the multitude of brightly colored packages that were scattered around it. Or maybe your Christmas was smaller – there were only one or two packages or even just a stocking with some wonderful treasures to behold. Regardless, when we were little, it was all wonderful. We didn’t know we should be wanting the big expensive toys. We didn’t know that our family members spent hours trying to find ways to make the day special. We were able to experience Christmas in its purest form.

As I think about the people throughout the Christmas season who profess over and over about the finding the “true meaning of Christmas” or keeping Christ in Christmas, I can’t help but think that this childlike wonder is really the true meaning of Christmas.

Yes, Christmas is, for Christians, a time of the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ, into this world. It is a time of prophesies being fulfilled and God revealing His love for us in a new and wonderful way. All of those things are miraculous and should not be forgotten, but we have worked so hard to make the holiday Religious, Pious, and Spiritual that we have taken all of the celebration and joy from the season.

Matthew 18:3 states that we cannot enter Kingdom of God without becoming like children. While this verse has many applications and interpretations, when applied to Christmas, I find it so very truthful. I’s not about God keeping people out of His kingdom or judgment, but rather understanding that we will never understand or experience the joy of Christmas that God intends for us without becoming childlike in our view of it.

I know. You’re saying we aren’t children any more so how can this possibly happen?

Clearly, we cannot become children again nor can we remove our experiences and history that has tainted the way we look at Christmas. But what we can do is try to remove expectations on ourselves, those around us and the holiday itself and just experience things with fresh eyes the same way a child does; the same way Mary, Joseph and the Wise Men did.

2000+ years ago, Mary and Joseph had no idea that the birth of their child would be during their trek to complete the required census or that they would have to stay in a barn and use a feed trough as a crib. This was all unexpected, frightening and astonishing to them. When a child hears the story of the birth of Jesus for the first time, many of these same feelings arise in his or her heart. They can’t believe a baby would be born in a barn or that people would come from hundreds of miles away to see the newborn baby. We as believers need to watch for those feelings of wonder and astonishment and experience them with those who are just learning. We need to see Christmas through the eyes of children so that we might become children ourselves in the way we view our faith.

Now I know what you’re saying. Christmas is over. Why am I talking about how to experience the joy of Christmas when everything has now been packed away and we have moved on?

Well, the thing is our faith doesn’t end when Christmas does nor should our desire to see our faith through fresh, childlike eyes. Ok, so it’s too late to find that sense of wonder about the birth of Jesus for this year, but it’s not too late to find the faith that will allow you to just act when God calls instead of rationalizing your way out of it. It’s not too late to follow whatever star God has placed in your night sky. It’s not too late to extend the grace, mercy and love that we talk about during the Christmas season to those who desperately need it.

The fact that we all made it through the Christmas season to see another new year is a blessing that should be celebrated. What better way to celebrate than to scrape away the layers of cynicism that age has layered over our hearts and minds and look on the world with fresh, childlike eyes to see the wonders that God is placing before us every single day.

Come join me. Let’s be children again!

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GLORY TO GOD IN THE LOWEST

Sharing this lovely post from my corporate chaplain. It’s okay if the holiday season is difficult. It’s okay if you don’t feel the cheer that you assume everyone feels. Remember the Reason for the Season – Look up and be blessed!

It came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered…Joseph also went up from Galilee out of the city of Nazareth…to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was that while they were there…Mary brought forth her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn…Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold an angel of the Lord stood before them… and the glory of the Lord shone around them…and suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of heavenly hosts praising God and saying: Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward all. (Luke: 1-14)

Although most scripture scholars agree that the details of Jesus’ birth are more fancy than fact, it may still be comforting to wrap ourselves in the earthy familiarity of this story. Looking back to the time of Caesar Augustus, Joseph and Mary, the too crowded inn, a child born in a manger, and looking up to see the “glory of God in the highest” can serve to connect us to the spirituality that lies hidden beneath the materiality which so often characterizes Christmas.

But we run the risk of missing the true meaning of Christmas if we only look back but not around, up but not down. The story of Jesus’ birth is nostalgic when understood only as an event in history but it is radical, as it should be, if we realize that we are to give birth to his Spirit here and now. It could be said that divinity is the “D” in our DNA. What we call God and imagine residing in the heavens is the life-force that is born, and breathes in each of us. The celebration of Jesus’ birth is meant to remind us of the dignity/divinity of humanity and of our call to bring light to the darkness that surrounds us, and peace to the people with whom we interact.

It is a fact of life that for many, this season of joy is anything but. Experiences of illness, loss, economic hardship, family dysfunction, and other harsh realities can blur the blessedness of Christmas. As we celebrate this sacred season may we be especially sensitive to those whose bodies, hearts, and souls are broken. For it is in the lost, least, last, and littlest that we come face-to-face with the divine. When we care for and about those for whom there is no room in the inn of our warm homes or at the table of our full feasts, we encounter and give glory to God in the lowest.

Through God’s Eyes

glasshalfemptyhalffullAre you a glass half-full or a glass half-empty kind of person? I like to believe I’m a glass half-full person, but at this time of year, I think I become far more of half-empty type the closer it gets to Christmas. There are so many things I think I’m needing and missing that at other times of the year don’t even cross my mind. I blame this on the sappy-sweet storylines of all the Christmas movies. Now don’t get me wrong. As you know, I love Hallmark movies – the sentimentality, the warm-heartedness, and the campiness of these movies. But as you are probably aware, the movies produced by this excellent organization will also acknowledge that there is a problem with these charming tales.

In the world of Hallmark, this time of year has an amazing magic which makes even the most unattainable hopes and wishes come true. Everyone gets exactly what they wish for every single Christmas despite the cost or sacrifice that needed to be made to have this happen, all relationships are not only repaired, but bettered, all money issues solved, and all loneliness eliminated because “that’s what this time of year is all about”.  And yes, there’s also the absolutely perfect dusting of snow that must be present regardless of where the movie takes place because what is Christmas without the perfect snowfall?

perfect-christmasLike it or not, all of us have likely fallen victim to this Hallmark fantasy to some degree or another. We put up the decorations, buy the ugly Christmas sweaters, spend hours shopping for just the right present and feel certain that when we have done all of this just right, we will have bought the right to get all of our hearts desires fulfilled but, as I’m sure you’ve discovered, we do not live in the Hallmark world.

All of the decorations, presents, ugly sweaters and Christmas cheer will not magically make our lives fit into our favorite holiday movie. God doesn’t suddenly become Santa making sure to give all of the “good boys and girls” the gifts they long for and hard as it may be to accept, just because the holiday season appears on the calendar, all of our burdens are not magically lifted from us – not even temporarily. As a matter of fact, the struggles we feel during the ordinary days of the year are often magnified during the holidays.

Maybe this happens because we buy into the images others project about how perfect their holidays are and we assume that we have somehow failed at the whole holiday celebration thing – or maybe even life itself. Or maybe we feel in some way that we are being punished for choices we have made in the past or that we are somehow not worthy to have the same joyful experiences others to do. Maybe we used to have those perfect holidays but the person or people who made it special have died or have been otherwise separated from us and we are left feeling isolated, broken and alone.

sad-holidaysTo be honest, I have struggled with feelings like this through the years. My home was rarely a place of safety let alone joy and since my birthday also falls during this Christmas season, my “special day” was often lumped together with other celebrations or forgotten all together because of the overall stress and busyness of the season. I have longed to find the “perfect person” to spend holidays with and have sought ways to celebrate the holiday that would make me feel the way I think others must be feel because it’s what I’ve seen in all the Hallmark movies but that “perfect holiday feeling” remains elusive – and there’s a good reason for that.

The reality is that the images floating around in my head – and maybe yours, too – about how Christmas and my birthday should be are probably just figments of my imagination – no more real than the snow falling in Tampa at the end of a Christmas movie.

Much as I wish things could be different, life is not nor will it ever be a Hallmark movie. There are no perfect endings or nice, tidy ribbons to tie up loose ends. To make matters worse, none of us know what the future will bring any more than we can go back and change the things of the past. All we can do is choose how to move forward. So what does that mean for Christmas this year and in the years to come?

For me, it means that I have chosen to put away the cynicism that has grown in my heart over the years due to years of unmet, unrealistic expectations about special events and celebrations- and I’m starting with Christmas. To make this happen, I am choosing to try to see Christmas through God’s eyes instead of my own.

What does Christmas look like to God? As I see it, it’s not about the lights or ceremony. It’s about a loving Father watching His only Son being born – rejoicing in birth while simultaneously grieving the path His only Son must take in order to fulfill His perfect plan.

I imagine Jesus at once a newborn taking in the sights and sounds of the cold, star-filled sky while also understanding His purpose for this journey and experiencing fear and sorrow.

I imagine Mary, Joseph, and all those who came to see this miracle in a manger looking on with awe and wonder knowing they had been chosen to be a part of something so much bigger than they and knowing this moment and all to come were completely out of their hands.

10277-christian-christmas-quotesLooking at Christmas through God’s eyes I am reminded that every single one of us was placed here on this planet at a specific time for a specific purpose and that even in the times of heartbreak and loss, we are perfect in our imperfection; loved more fully than we can ever imagine even when we feel the most unlovable and none of this love has to do with how we decorated our homes, what festive clothing we wore, or what presents we purchased for others.

My prayer for each of you during this Christmas season is that you will find a new sense of awe and wonder about Christmas and feel anew the amazing love that God has for each and every one of you which led to His bringing His son here to save us.