Christmas Eve

At 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve, our community will gather to remember that our wait is over. We light a fourth candle, we remember that Christ would come not only as a Son, but as Immanuel - God with us. So we will celebrate the birth of Jesus the Christ, the Good Shepherd, the forgiver of our sins, the Jesus who will come again, the Son of Mary and the Son of God!

In 1965 Charles Schulz and the Peanuts gang struggled with the commercialization of Christmas. Imagine what they would think today - when Christmas decorations were available for purchase in big box stores in August!!

Charlie Brown loses his way when he tries to direct his friends in their Christmas Pageant. In frustration he bursts out with, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about!?!”

And Linus, dragging his security blanket onto center stage, stands alone and recites Luke 2:8-14 (we’re using the CEB):

8 Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. 9 The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified.

10 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. 11 Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. 12 This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” 13 Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, 14 “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”

CBS execs thought this was a mistake; but the viewers loved it. They needed to hear Linus’ answer even as they needed to wrestle with Charlie Brown’s question. Has that much changed? Oh sure, we have iPads and cell phones. We have more allergies and less fresh trees in our living rooms. But I think we need to consider both the question and the answer.

Who knows what Christmas is all about?

We know. We actually know. Especially if we have misbehaved, been beaten down, live on the margins, have griefs and losses. We know. We more than anyone who hasn’t known personal failures and bone shaking heartbreak that our baubles and beads cannot provide collective effervescence.

“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” On Christmas Eve, we light a candle with joy and hope because of who God is. Not because we have lived up to our own expectations for happiness, success, and security. Amen

Lighting Candles

The third pink candle lit in the Advent tradition is intended to signify our excitement over the birth of a child, the son of Mary and the Son of God. The birth of a baby is always such a beautiful opportunity to witness a miracle. It astounds me when I consider that God’s plan for our salvation was such risky business. Babies are fragile; dependent; needy. Babies, although fully human and already possessing their personality and potential the day they are born, require the adults who love them to study them to learn how to best meet their needs. What if we miss? What if we are wrong as we seek to love our babies well?

How was it that God thought it was a good idea to put Jesus into the arms of a young, unwed woman from a humble town with few material resources? Why did this make sense to him? I am unsure, but it occurs to me that we need to remember it. We need to remember that the birth of Jesus was not a Hallmark movie moment.

It was a story that included hardship, loneliness, homelessness, and some weird gift giving by virtual strangers. As Jill Phillips sings, “It was not a silent night.”

Think about it.

The REAL Christmas story is closer to our lived realities than our idealized dreams. How can this change our own expectations? Our own responses to others during this sacred season?

Waiting for Forgiveness

If we go to church, the second Sunday of Advent (which was this past Sunday- December 9) finds us lighting another candle, also purple, reminding us of our great need for God’s forgiveness. Tradition says that Santa keeps a naughty and nice list of all the little girls and boys; that list determines whether or not Christmas morning will be cause for celebration or suffering. Even Santa understands that our behavior matters.

But what I really, really love, is that when we regularly spend time getting to know who God is, we do not have to freak out about our stuffed stockings. We understand that part of expecting, waiting and hoping is simply remembering: God forgives, loves and is crazy about his people. Like most moms and dads I know, he wants blessing for his children, not cursing. However, what we discover as parents is that our desires and our capacity to deliver are sometimes not congruent.

I know plenty of parents who curse their children too. I know parents who mock their children. I know parents who do the best they can but that doesn’t mean they have the tools, resources, and experience to actually BE great parents. This is a sad reality.

But that’s the beauty of Advent. It gives us hope. It tells us that just because we ARE sometimes a disappointment to ourselves doesn’t mean we cannot BECOME a person who better reflects our hopes and dreams for being a person who can bear the image of God and show up for others.

None of this happens by magic; it requires that we respond to this God who shepherds, saves, forgives, and restores.

The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine. Isaiah 9:2, NLT

We don’t need to manufacture sparkly; our work is to expect, wait, and hope. And in that space, I suspect we all find new ways to think, feel and do - ways that are more in keeping with our status as kids of THE king. What about you? Are you ready to look for the light?

Unbelief

When an angel appears to Zechariah in the temple, he tells him that his wife will give birth to a son, and the old man doesn’t believe the angel. Understandable right? If an angel appears to Pete and tells him that I am going to give birth to a son in our advanced age - heads are gonna roll! Zechariah’s response was not unreasonable. Because of his unbelief, Zechariah was given a timeout and was unable to speak until his boy was born. I suspect he thought that was the least of his problems.

During Zechariah’s encounter, and once he regains his voice, he expresses his renewed viewpoint, including a description of the times, saying that God’s people are “lost in darkness”. That’s not all he sees and says, he also says this, “God’s sunrise will break in upon us, shining on those in the darkness.” Further he says that God will “Show us the way, one foot at a time, down the path of peace.” If you want to read more, check out Luke 1.

Part of the ritual of Advent that I have loved as an adult is the lighting of a candle each Sunday of the Advent season. The first week the lighting of the purple candle focuses on taking our hope seriously. I love that. Hoping is not always happy. Sometimes it is a determined small but next right step of obedience.

Zechariah messed up AND still ended up with a son who would play a pivotal role in the ministry of Jesus. Have you or yours messed up so much that it feels impossible to enjoy Christmas this year? Fine. You do not have to. What you could do, if you were willing to believe, is look for ways to help others have a better holiday season. Who can you bless? Gift? Appreciate? Serve?

God is the Shepherd, We are the sheep

Like a shepherd, God will tend the flock;

he will gather lambs in his arms

and lift them onto his lap.

He will gently guide the nursing ewes. Isaiah 40:11 CEB

Let’s be honest. Christmas expectations, waiting and hoping are WAY different depending on your perspective. As kids, we wondered about gifts under the tree. Ours. We couldn’t wait for Christmas break, not the childcare arrangements that working parents need to figure out. Unchurched as a child, I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to think about Advent. I was thinking about adventures!

As an adult, it has certainly been easy to get hyper-focused on re-creating Christmas adventures for my family. Another possible distraction from the reason for the season. But I also have MORE reasons to wake up and pay attention and reframe the holidays for myself (and maybe others?).

I am aware of my friends for whom this is the first Christmas without a child who lost their fight with substance use disorder this past year. I am awake to the possibility that for some, this is just another holiday that reminds them of their precarious financial position. Or the stress of dealing with fractured family relationships.

BUT - I can also choose to remember who God is, seeing as how I know more about him than I did when I was seven. I can remember that in all these things, God tends his flocks, gathers his lambs and gently guides nursing ewes.

Scott and I have been focusing on bearing God’s image for I do not know how long - are you sick of that message yet? This is the perfect time to practice what we’ve been preaching!! Are you willing to join us in trying to apply this in our daily life? In this holiday season?

The BIG question is how can I participate in tending, gathering, lifting and guiding? How can you?

Reframing

Shepherd of Israel, I am listening!

You, the one who leads Joseph as if he were a sheep.

You, who are enthroned upon the winged heavenly creatures.

Show yourself 2 before Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh!

Wake up me up to understand how you lead me!

Come to save us!

3 Restore us, God!

I long to see your face shine so that we can be saved! Forgive my distractibility!

4 Lord God of heavenly forces,

how long will I fume against your provision for me? How long will I ignore you?

5 You’ve fed us even when our disobedience brought us to tears;

you’ve given us water three times over because we have been stubbornly resistant!

6 Our selfishness has put us at odds with our neighbors;

our enemies make fun of us because we behave laughably.

7 Restore us, God of heavenly forces!

Make your face shine so that we can be saved!

The Israelites often expressed their self-pity over their difficult circumstances, some self-inflicted, others simply part of living life on life’s terms. It served neither them nor us well. How about we give it up for the Advent Season? Turn it in and ask for a refund. Instead, lean into the collective effervescence. In sickness and health. Conflict and camaraderie. Joy and sorrow. Getting our way or giving away our preferences for the sake of the tribe. How can we apply this to our decisions as we plan for our holiday festivities?

And maybe we can do what the Israelites got so very right - ask God to save and restore us so that we might see the value of singing in the rain, even if it is very, very uncomfortable.

Honesty and blame with God and us

Oh Israel, I Feel You!!

Shepherd of Israel, listen!

You, the one who leads Joseph as if he were a sheep.

You, who are enthroned upon the winged heavenly creatures.

Show yourself 2 before Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh!

Wake up your power!

Come to save us!

3 Restore us, God!

Make your face shine so that we can be saved!

4 Lord God of heavenly forces,

how long will you fume against your people’s prayer?

5 You’ve fed them bread made of tears;

you’ve given them tears to drink three times over!

6 You’ve put us at odds with our neighbors;

our enemies make fun of us.

7 Restore us, God of heavenly forces!

Make your face shine so that we can be saved!

~ Psalm 80:1-7 CEB

The Israelites were always willing to be honest with God. Their ability to blame God even as they ignored him was not only impressive, it is relatable - at least for me. Tomorrow, I might take the liberty to rewrite this call out to God from a teeny tiny bit more recovered perspective. I do so even as I respect these people - so willing to just lay out their own sleepy perspective for God to hear and respond to.

Tomorrow: How can we change the way we see? What is ours to do? How will we apply it between now and December 25th.

The meaning of Advent

We aren’t quite there, but we’re getting close to the Christmas season.

Advent means “coming” or “visit.” For Christians, Advent has historically been a time when we prepare for the coming of Christ at Christmas. The people of Israel had expectations for God’s “coming.” They had legitimate needs. And although they sometimes, well, regularly, forgot this one true thing, when they got into trouble, their hearts would inevitably return to the source of their hope and rescue - God.

When we forget that we too have profound needs, it is often because we have distracted ourselves, just as the Israelites did, with baubles and beads (false strategies/false gods). Christmas can be an enormous distraction. But it can also be collectively effervescent.

I believe we can do that without giving up our lights and tinsel and trees and hot cocoa and cookies. But only if we are willing to wake up and recognize our need for a God who saves and restores. You know what is beautiful about this perspective? It gives us a way to appreciate even our gully washer holidays. You know the ones - when coal shows up in our stockings, or all our family goes out of town and we are left to scramble for a way to celebrate with others. Or the kids all come down with the flu. Or there is a fight about politics on Christmas Eve that takes the Ho Ho Ho right out of the season.

Collective effervescence can provide us insights into how we can take the most humbug Christmas and turn it into something magical. But we will have to wake up to do so. Are you ready to wake up? Are you willing to think about the collective even at the expense of your personal preferences?