What do You Want Christmas to be Like?

christmas-tree

What do you want Christmas to be like this year?

Some of us remember Christmas as a day when our family came together when we were growing up and we want that tradition to continue as we grow older. Other people look forward to seeing the twinkle in people’s eyes when they open the special gift that we bought for them. Still others resonate with the words “peace on earth and goodwill for all” and we long to see that happen in our lives and in the world. Yet others experience the coming Holiday as a time of loneliness, sorrow and hurt.

And then, right in the middle of our holiday preparations, the words of John the Baptizer ring in our ears (Matthew 3:1-12). John calls people a bunch of snakes. John calls us to repent and change our ways. John speaks not of the quiet coming of a little baby who is placed in a manger, but of a rather ferocious person who comes into the world to gather wheat into a barn and throw chaff into unquenchable fire. Whoa! John appears to be the biggest Christmas party-pooper who ever lived!

But, think about this. Sometimes Christmas isn’t what we hope it will be because we all have relationships that are strained and broken because of things we’ve said or done – and sometimes that’s why there are empty seats at our Christmas dinner. Sometimes Christmas isn’t what we hoped it would be because we get so immersed in the Holiday cheer and buying presents that we forget that Christmas is about love. Sometimes our Christmas isn’t what we hoped it would be because our hearts are hard; and because, even in a Season of “peace on earth and goodwill for all,” we judge people who need our help and make assumptions about the lives of people that we’ve never met. Sometimes, Christmas isn’t what we hoped it would be because we’ve gotten so swept away by the Holiday tunes and on the radio and preparing our Christmas feast that we forget about people who will spend Christmas alone and even end up throwing food in the garbage that could have been shared with a special guest.

But the Good News is that we still have a little bit more than two weeks to just stop and change course and do things differently. It’s not too late to go back to people that we’ve hurt and make amends, so that the empty seat at last year’s Christmas feast isn’t empty again this year. It’s not too late to remember that Christmas is about love and not about finding that “special gift” that is going to wear out or be broken and thrown in the trash. It’s not too late to drop some money into a Salvation Army bucket, or gather some people together to go Christmas caroling at the homes of folks who are confined to their homes because of health issues. It’s not too late to pick up the telephone and invite someone you know who is going to be alone on Christmas to be your special guest at Christmas dinner.

We all have ideas about what we want Christmas to be like. Christmas is a time of the year that’s filled with hopes and expectations and big dreams and deep longings for something in life that we don’t often experience at other times of the year. And that’s why the words of John the Baptizer are so important for us to hear.

We have a little bit more than two weeks to do the things that will help Christmas to be what we want it to be. We still have a little bit of time to stop and change course and think about ways to let other people know that the “Reign of God is near.” And that’s the message that John the Baptizer speaks to us even today.

Click Here for This Week’s Message

Holy Moments – Holy Lives

End of World

Our lives consist of many moments when ordinary life and the sacred connect.

Many Christians live their lives awaiting the return of Jesus Christ. We see nations rising against nations. We hear about earthquakes and famines and fatal illnesses and disease. This morning, I learned that the government of China has begun to arrest Muslims and remove them from society. We hear about children shooting each other in our schools. We see world leaders rattling their sabers in an effort in intimidate each other. I’ve even noticed that every time something happens, like a “Blood Moon,” people start saying that this is yet another “sign” that the End is near. And it all simply wears me out….

John the Baptizer proclaimed that the Kingdom of God is near to us. Reza Aslan, who wrote the book Zealot got it right when he said that the message of John the Baptizer was carried forward by a much more famous man named Jesus. In a world that’s filled with nations rising against nations, the Kingdom of God is near. In a world filled with bad news about earthquakes, famines, diseases and school shootings, the Kingdom of God is near. When your life is filled with abundant blessings, the Kingdom of God is near. And, the Kingdom of God is near when you climb out of bed, when you kiss someone that you love, when you’re afraid that you’re going to flunk a test, or when you lose someone who was dear to you.

Our lives consist of many moments when ordinary life and the sacred connect.

What would life look like if, instead of waiting around for Jesus to return, we went out into the world to proclaim that the Kingdom of God is near? Maybe, realizing that God journeys with us each day, we could bear witness to the fact that the Kingdom of God is near by buying a child, whose family is struggling to make ends meet, a new winter coat – or maybe, we could proclaim that the Kingdom of God is near by visiting people and sending them encouraging messages when life is hard? Maybe we could proclaim that the Kingdom of God is near by not running away and hiding from people when we know that they need our help now more than ever? Maybe we could try harder to speak-out on behalf of people in our world who aren’t being heard by people who look at them as nothing more than a drain on society? Maybe, especially at the holidays approach, we could tell other people that the Kingdom of God is near by carrying light and love into dark places where people are grieving, fighting diseases, trying to escape from abusive relationships or fighting a battle with some kind of substance that’s taken over their lives?

One of the most important lessons that I’ve learned in my journey of faith is that every moment that I live is a “holy moment” when the Kingdom of God is near. And in those “holy moments,” God prepares me to go out into the world and tell other people about God’s love and to remind them that the Kingdom of God is near in every moment of their lives, too.

You see, it doesn’t really matter what day, or month, or year Jesus returns. It doesn’t matter if the End arrives before I have a chance to post this message, or if the End comes long after I’m dead and buried.

What matters is that I have the wonderful opportunity to live a life that’s full of times when God is near. What matters is that, in the “holy moments” when the Kingdom of God is near to me, God always points me back to people who believe that things are so bad in their lives that the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off.

When we realize that the Kingdom of God is near and that each moment of our lives is a “sacred time” when God is close to us, our walk of faith becomes more about learning to live faithfully in a world that can be pretty scary, rather than about waiting for some Day when Jesus will return to fix everything. When we realize that our lives are filled with “sacred moments” when the Kingdom of God is near, we have something to share with people – when their lives are going well and when their lives are falling apart.

Click Here for This Week’s Message

Facing the Holiday Blues

the pain by emilio gallori 1846 1924  siena palazzo publicco

Many different things can cause that rather depressed, stressed, agitated, and fatigued feeling that many of us experience during the Holiday season. The “Holiday Blues” can be caused by a variety of things, and we need to understand what stands at the core of what we’re experiencing before we can begin to address it. What is depressing and stressful for one person may not affect other people in the same way. And, what one person finds to be helpful during those stressful and “blue” periods may not work for other people at all.

It’s important to realize that the “bad feelings” that come during the Holiday season are not the real problem. Bad feelings are a symptom. We are most likely reacting to something that’s “not right” – or to something that we think isn’t right in our lives when the “Holiday Blues” strike. And so, one of the best things we can do when the “Holiday Blues” strike is look beyond those “bad feelings” themselves and focus upon what’s causing us to feel the way that we’re feeling. We may even be able to address the specific issues that are affecting our lives quite effectively once we clearly identify them. Take some time to simply think about what’s happening; and be careful that you are not overlooking an underlying medical problem, the side effects of the medications that you’re taking, or even Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Some common causes:

Most of us probably believe that the Holidays are “supposed” to be a time of happiness, cheer, joy, fellowship and optimistic hopes for the New Year. We all have “idealized” images of what the Holidays “should” be like. And that’s why we’re often bombarded with all kinds of negative thoughts and feelings when we’re moving through times of significant loss, unresolved grief, fears about the future, and disappointment. We can become very discouraged when we begin to compare what we think the Holidays should be like with what they really “are” like. “Holiday Blues” can also be caused by isolation and loneliness.

The Holiday season is also a busy and stressful time. We have more things to do and more things to purchase on tight budgets. There is more traffic on the highways and even parking our automobiles can become more difficult. Stores are crowded. Tempers are short. Extra demands and expectations are often placed upon our time, attention, energy and finances. This can all be stressful.

Some helpful ideas:

Many people begin to conquer the “Holiday Blues” by re-thinking their attitude and approach to the Holidays. There’s a big difference between what you “have” to do and what is “best” for you. Do you have to buy all of the expensive gifts you’re planning to purchase? Do you have to buy so many gifts? How does your understanding of God shape the purpose and meaning of your giving? Is it time for you to approach giving in a different way? Don’t forget to keep the overall picture in mind. Making the effort to get a gift (or to do something nice) for one person may be easy, but it gets more difficult and demanding as you increase the number of people who will receive your gifts and your time. Don’t just follow your past practices and traditions without thinking about them. Families and relationships change. Your financial situation may be very different than it was last year. Your understanding of “giving” can be greatly clarified as you allow your gift-giving to be shaped by your faith. Think about how your life is different than it was last year and accept the fact that a new approach to Holiday giving (and even celebrating) may be totally appropriate.

If significant losses are making the Holidays difficult, you may want to use some time during the Holiday season to mourn and grieve in a different way. You will most likely feel loneliness and sadness. If you accept the grief and feelings that go along with your loss, the intensity of those bad feelings will likely lessen. Remember that you don’t need to spend the Holidays alone – but remember that you, also, don’t need to accept every invitation that you receive. You may need to find ways to satisfy the needs in your life that were filled by the person you have lost. You may, also, need to spend some time alone. The Holidays can be difficult – but they can also be a time to celebrate the goodness of the relationships that continue to be a blessing to our lives in a healthy and balanced way.

You may also find the “Serenity Prayer” helpful during the Holiday season. When the “Holiday Blues” strike, remember that it’s sometimes helpful to: (1) accept the things that you cannot change, (2) change the things that you can, and (3) accept the fact that there’s a difference between the two.

The holiday season is, finally, a great time to celebrate the presence of God and to remember the promises of a brighter future in difficult times. Please don’t forget to include worship and prayer in your Holiday schedule. You may find a “Longest Night” service to be helpful. As Christians, we can find great peace when we remember that the Holiday season is REALLY about the God who loves us and who comes into our world – even during challenging times – to be an important part of our daily lives.

Why bother with Advent?

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Many Christians experience a sense of angst during the Season of Advent.

We see Christmas lights adorning the houses in our neighborhoods, and familiar Holiday songs are bursting from the speakers in our cars. We’re baking cookies and wrapping the presents that we’ve bought for other people. Children are getting excited. Pine trees are being strapped to the roofs of automobiles and are being dragged into homes where they’ll be decorated with lights and tinsel and ornaments. We’re celebrating the Holiday Season at parties that are being hosted by our friends, and favorite recipes are being shared. And then, we come to worship and discover that Pastor Grinch won’t allow us to decorate the inside of the church building with things we’re seeing everywhere else.  And we just can’t understand why Pastor Grinch is such a curmudgeon.

Many people in the Church celebrate Advent during the days and weeks before Christmas. Advent is a time when we’re called to simply stop and reflect upon the “gap” between the things that we see and experience in our daily lives and what God intends for our lives and our world. The Bible tells us about a Day when lambs will rest peacefully beside wolves and when bears will graze beside cows (Isaiah 11:6-7). The Bible speaks about a glorious Day in human history when swords will be beaten into plowshares, and when spears will be used for pruning hooks (Isaiah 2:4). God comforts His people with a great message of hope that is meant to encourage us and lift our spirits (Isaiah 40:1-2). And yet, we’re not there yet, are we? Our hearts and our souls yearn for better days in the midst of times that are not always easy to face. And in that yearning of the soul, we discover what it means to live our lives with faith and to look forward to something better.

The Holiday Season isn’t easy for everyone. Picture a woman, who’s being abused by the man that she once loved, desperately doing her best to tough-it-out because she doesn’t want to ruin her children’s Christmas by uprooting the family and moving into the local women’s shelter. People who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder find the days that surround Christmas very difficult because the nights are so incredibly long. The Holiday Season can highlight the sense of brokenness that we experience when we’re trying to move through difficult times with our friends and, sometimes, with members of our own family. Even the well-known Christmas carol, “Silent Night,” sounds very different when you’re hearing it for the first time after you’ve lost your spouse – or a parent – or a child.

Advent is a Season that invites us to be real and authentic. Advent is a Season that invites us to acknowledge that our lives and our relationships aren’t perfect; and that reminds us that, even on the longest night of the entire year, the light of Christ still shines. God walks beside us and lifts us up in times when we need strength and courage. God reminds us that better days are surely coming – even when we’re ready to throw-in the towel. Wars and violence will cease. Families and relationships will be restored. Even the shadow of death, itself, will be overcome by the glorious light of the Prince of Peace. Our lives and our souls will be healed by the power of God. And when it’s all said and done, we will be lifted-up by the Christ that we meet on Christmas.

Radical authenticity isn’t easy. Our lives aren’t always what we want them to be, and our relationships and families are far more complex than what can be described by a Hallmark card. And we want to run away from that. And, perhaps, that’s why so many of us want to run toward Christmas as quickly as we can. We want to experience the joy again. We want that feeling of hope. We want the “peace on earth” that’s announced from pulpits around the world. But, Pastor Grinch wants us to slow down and to take some time to think about what’s happening in our lives and in the world. That dastardly, old curmudgeon wants us to look deeply into the parts of our lives that desperately need God’s healing presence. And, from that deep and profound sense of authenticity, he invites us to come to the Manger – and to stand face-to-face with the God who has the power to make us whole again.

It’s not always easy for us to move through Advent when the rest of the world is filled with people who are shouting, “Ho, Ho, Ho!” We’re always going to be tempted to flee from the radical kinds of authenticity that challenge us to openly admit what’s broken in our lives and in the world. We want to flee from what makes us feel uncomfortable, and run full-speed-ahead toward what’s both familiar and safe. And, perhaps, that’s why so many of us are tempted to push Advent out of the way on our way toward Christmas? Maybe our very human reluctance to embrace Advent is caused by the fact that we don’t want to fully embrace the parts of our lives and of our human experience that God wants to heal?