Merry Christmas… I Think…


Merry Christmas (whatever that means)! That “whatever that means” isn’t mean to be snarky. No, not at all. For some of us, that may be a pretty simple idea, the idea of “Merry Christmas” that is. Of course, it depends on who you talk to. Your typical American might mention Christmas trees, lights, and presents. A historian might speak of the early Catholic Church’s attempt to co-opt a pagan celebration which occurred every year around this time. Your conservative Christian-types, like me, would speak of mangers, wise men, and the birth of Jesus. The idea of “Christmas” can have a variety of connotations depending on the individual’s belief system, understanding of history, personal experience during previous holiday seasons, and so many other potential elements.

But here’s the thing, Christmas is about all these things… Yes, it is a great reminder of the miracle of God becoming a human baby boy, amid all the muck, mire, and discomfort associated with childbearing and birth. Yes, it is a cultural celebration, here in America, that is a grand conflation of celebrating the incarnation, the legend of Santa Claus, and a number of American and European traditions, most of which have nothing to do with Jesus. Yes, it is a commercial season in which many retailers’ fiscal year is either made or broken. Yes, celebrating December 25 as Jesus’ birthday is rooted in the early church’s attempt to Christianize a pagan celebration. Christmas, as we celebrate it in 21st century America, is a great conflation of Christian tradition, western cultural celebrations, and spending money.

So, what if we let it be what it is on this Christmas Eve? What if we were to just be honest that it’s a fun cultural celebration that can be a reminder of the great miracle of God becoming one of us? What if we forgot about the so-called “War on Christmas”? What if we took off all the pressure and let it be what it is?

To my Jesus-following friends, I pray that you and I will learn to celebrate the miracle of Advent every day of the year… not just on December 25, but also on January 7, and April 15, and August 21 and every other day on the calendar? I mean, that feels appropriate for those of us who have pinned our hope on Jesus. AND, I pray that we’ll be able to be present with those around us this season. That we will truly love those around us… even Uncle Steve, no matter how belligerent he gets during the turkey dinner.

To the rest of my friends, I pray strong connection between you and your loved ones. I pray for good times, rest, and sweet, sweet Christmas presents. And, I pray you’ll get along with Uncle Steve as well.

To all of us, I pray for the peace inherent in the angels’ message to the shepherds in the traditional Christmas story. It’s not a fake peace. Not a peace that comes by ignoring our differences and disagreements. I pray for shalom: genuine well-being. Peace with God, peace with others, peace within.

Merry Christmas and Peace on Earth!

The Joy and Grief of Christmas

Music and Healing

I heard the bells on Christmas day

Their old familiar carols play

And mild and sweet their songs repeat

Of peace on earth good will to men

I love Christmas. For real. It is indeed, in my estimation, the “most wonderful time of the year.” I love the twinkling lights, the magical blend of David Bowie and Bing Crosby, adorned trees, presents, and even Black Friday shopping. I dig the whole thing. Always have.

Certainly, there have been Christmas seasons I’d just as soon forget, like the one in which I angered my mother so much that she locked herself in her room the entire afternoon (that was awful). There have been yuletides hindered by seasonal depression. Sure, those memories live on, but they don’t diminish my love for this season. My heart warms when I hear those “old familiar carols play” and when I consider the ideas of “peace on earth” and “goodwill to men.”

However, over the past few days, I’ve had some deep stirrings in my soul. I haven’t been able to clearly articulate what’s been happening with me. There’s certainly been a mix of stimuli and emotion coursing through my heart and mind. One of the themes which has become evident is that of “sorrow”… which is a shame, right? I mean, Christmas is about joy, right? As I was listening to my holiday playlist this morning, the roots of the sorrow began to surface.

Christmas eve will find you

Where the love light gleams

I’ll be home for Christmas

If only in my dreams

“I’ll be home for Christmas…” Hmmm. I have been blessed with a beautiful family. I adore my wife Charlotte and my son Joshua. They bring me so much joy. In ways, they are “home” for me. So, yeah, I will be home for Christmas. And home is also Eau Claire. I’ll be in Eau Claire, with Charlotte and Joshua. Yet, this concept of being “home for Christmas” has been messing with me. I think I know why.

Charlotte’s parents have both passed and I miss them deeply. I wish we could be with them. And, my relationship with my parents is strained at best We haven’t seen them for some time. Our grandparents are all gone as well. Now, don’t get me wrong, God has provided me some wonderful unofficial family. I have “brothers” and “sisters” who share life with me and mean the world to me. I don’t mean to diminish those relationships in any way. They are a gift.

However, Christmas time brings with it traditions and nostalgia. It leads me to reminisce about Christmases past, most of which were spent with my family of origin. And, it makes me long for what cannot be right now. I cannot be with my mom, dad, and sister this Christmas. And it’s been several Christmases since we were together for “the most wonderful time of the year.” While this separation is necessary (for reasons I won’t discuss here), that reality does not nullify my desire for what could be… what should be. It makes me sad.

In fact, it goes deeper than just being “sad”; it’s about grief. It’s about loss. Loss of those relationships. Loss of that specific, Christmas-y aspect of “home.” So, yeah, I’m experiencing a little sadness right now as I walk into another Christmas without my folks, but it’s not just about them.

Here we are as in olden days,

Happy golden days of yore.

Faithful friends who are dear to us

Gather near to us once more.

Olden days, happy golden days… faithful friends who are dear to us… I am also mourning the loss of friendships which were once dear to me. In early 2015, my church was blown to pieces as allegations and stories of abuses and excesses began to surface. While there are plenty of awful aspects of that event, what led to it, and the aftermath, for me the saddest part by far is the loss of friendships.

Don’t get me wrong, I in no way want to go back to what we had together back in 2014. Things had to be brought to light and change was necessary. What is tragic, in my eyes, is not that things changed; it’s what they changed into relationally. People stopped talking to those who may have disagreed with them. Some folks were vilified; some were canonized. Individuals associated with this person or that person were reckoned black sheep. It was ugly and deeply painful.

Sure, I could talk about how unbecoming this all was for those of us who follow Jesus. And, that’s true, although such dynamics are more prevalent than they should be or than we would like to admit. I could get on the soapbox once again and call us all, including me, to repentance. But no, that’s all been done. And that’s not really the point here. No, the point is loss. It’s grief.

At the moment, I don’t care about the “right and wrong” of it all. I care about the friendships which were once dear to me that have been wrenched apart. Some of these ruptures were caused by others and some were my own doing, to my shame and even deeper grief. There are brothers who helped me break free from addiction, with whom I partnered in significant ministry efforts, who won’t return my emails  or texts. There are friends who have held things against me (and others against whom I’ve held things) without a single face to face conversation. I’ve let myself fall out of touch with people who have been so, so important to me. So many relationships lost. So much pain.

This Christmas, I wish I could have those people back. Perhaps, for some of those folks, I can restart the conversation. For others, I must pray and ask God to do things only he can do.

And in despair I bowed my head

There is no peace on earth I said

For hate is strong and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good will to men

When I add up these realities with some of the dynamics at work around me, politically and socially, I can easily resonate with those words. There is no peace on earth… Hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth… Damn, it feels that way right now. I have had moments in which I’m on the verge of crossing the border into hopelessness. But I won’t take that step. I cannot.

Here’s the thing. The lyrics of I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day were derived from a poem called Christmas Bells, penned in 1863 by the esteemed Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. But the idea of “peace on earth and good will to men” did not originate with Mr. Longfellow. No, those were the words proclaimed in the Gospel of Luke when Jesus was born.

Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.

Luke 2:14

Peace, goodwill, favor… beautiful ideas. Furthermore, a consistent thread throughout the New Testament is a way those ideas work themselves out: reconciliation. The reason the Christmas season has the religious significance it does (regardless of what anyone wants to contend about the historical roots of the holiday and all that jazz) is that Jesus came to reconcile us to God and to reconcile us with each other in that process.

And perhaps that truth is at the root of all this grief. All these relationships which have been lost have involved people on both sides of the barrier who follow Jesus. Such division should not be. Jesus brings us together. We shouldn’t choose to separate. It’s wrong. And the fact that we’ve allowed it grieves me, both for my part in it all and for those parts I cannot control.

However, as I said before, I will not allow hopelessness to take root. I cannot do that, because there is, in fact, hope.

Then rang the bells more loud and deep

God is not dead, nor does he sleep

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail

With peace on earth, good will to men

God is NOT dead. The wrong SHALL fail. The right PREVAIL. It is upon me to “keep hope alive” and I am determined to do so. If left to my own devices, hopelessness would be the correct option. But I am not. My hope is in a Savior who reconciles all things to himself and brings people together in the process.

Having said that, I am giving myself permission to grieve right now. I am determined to allow this grief to do its work in me. It will bring me to deeper freedom and peace. And, I am convinced it will show me steps I need to take to be a vessel of “peace on earth” and “goodwill to men.” And, while I grieve, I will also be joyful. I will celebrate this beautiful occasion with my family and close friends.  I will sing all the songs and eat all the goodies. I will smile when my boy opens up his presents. And I will feel all the warm fuzzies.

I will celebrate and I will grieve. I will also live in the hope of better days ahead, days in which we experience more peace, goodwill, and reconciliation.

I also want to take this opportunity to wish you a Merry Christmas. I hope you are surrounded by people you love and who love you back. And I hope you will give yourself permission to feel whatever you need to feel during this season.