Christmas Is For Those Who Hate It Most

I wrote the following a couple of years ago. Thanks to my friend, Collin Hansen over at The Gospel Coalition, for making it available to a wider audience last year.

*        *        *

We are now accustomed to hearing how Christmas is difficult for many people. The story of Scrooge and his – ehem – problems with the season is no longer anecdotal. It is now par for the course. Maybe this has always been the case. Maybe the joy of the season has always been a thorn in the side of those who can scarcely imagine joy.

Not too long ago, I heard from one of these people about how difficult Christmas would be because of some heartbreak in their family. There was utter hopelessness and devastation. Christmas would be impossible to enjoy because of the freshness of the pain. It’s been a story hard to forget.

I get it. I mean, it makes sense. Christmas is a time in which there is a lot of heavily concentrated family time. The holidays can be tense in even the best of circumstances. Maneuvering through the landmines of various personalities can be hard even if there is no cancer, divorce or empty seat at the table. What makes it the most wonderful time of the year for one is also what makes it the most brutal time of the year for another. My own family has not been immune to this phenomenon.

I’d like to push back against this idea a little. Gently. I think we have it all backwards. We have it sunk deep into our collective cultural consciousness that Christmas is for the happy people. You know, those with idyllic family situations enjoyed around stocking-strewn hearth dreams. Christmas is for healthy people who laugh easily and at all the right times, right? The successful and the beautiful, who live in suburban bliss, can easily enjoy the holidays. They are beaming after watching a Christmas classic curled up on the couch as a family in front of their ginormous flat-screen drinking perfectly mixed hot cocoa. We live and act as if this is who should be enjoying Christmas.

But this is so damnably backwards. Christmas – the great story of the incarnation of the Rescuer – is for everyone, especially those who need a rescue. Jesus was born as a baby to know the pain and sympathize with our weaknesses. Jesus was made to be like us so that in his resurrection we can be made like him; free from the fear of death and the pain of loss. Jesus’ first recorded worshippers were not of the beautiful class. They were poor, most-likely ugly shepherds; beat down by life and labor. They had been looked down on over many a nose.

Jesus came for those who look in the mirror and see ugliness. Jesus came for daughters whose fathers never told them they were beautiful. Christmas is for those who go to “wing night” alone. Christmas is for those whose lives have been wrecked by cancer and the thought of another Christmas seems like an impossible dream. Christmas is for those who would be nothing but lonely if not for social media. Christmas is for those whose marriages have careened against the retaining wall and are threatening to flip over the edge. Christmas is for the son, whose father keeps giving him hunting gear when the son wants art materials. Christmas is for smokers who cannot quit even in the face of a death sentence. Christmas is for whores, adulterers and porn stars who long for love in every wrong place. Christmas is for college students who are sitting in the midst of family and already cannot wait to get out for another drink. Christmas is for those who traffic in failed dreams. Christmas is for those who have squandered the family name and fortune – they want ‘home’ but cannot imagine a gracious reception. Christmas is for parents watching their children’s marriage fall into disarray.

Christmas is really about the gospel of grace for those who need it. Because of all that Christ has done on the cross, the manger becomes the most hopeful place in a Universe darkened with hopelessness. In the irony of all ironies, Christmas is for those who will find it the hardest to enjoy. It really is for those who hate it the most.

(Art: Blue Christmas Candle from Stushie’s Art)

Tuesday’s 10: What I Love About Christmas

There are a lot of reasons to like Christmas. Especially if you are still young like me. I can’t list them all on a Tuesday without the risk of ripping a hole in the atmosphere. If I do that Christmas might get cancelled and then I will not get the rocket launcher and jet pack I asked for. So here are just 10 awesomer then awesome things about Christmas.

1. Driving around town looking at lights. We will do this a number of times and yell “Christmas Lights” every time we see some…even if they look like street lights.

2. Not listening to Mariah Carey Christmas music. Sometimes I do this with hot chocolate.

3. Eating those weenies slow cooked in BBQ sauce in a crock pot someone usually brings to the Christmas party. I love you, whoever you are.

4. Buying my wife gifts and spending more money than allowed. I get this from my Dad.

5. Not listening to Christmas songs by Wham. Easy and fun!

6. Watching my kids open presents. Finally we can play with the toys which have been sitting in the top of my wife’s closet for weeks.

7. Sitting by the tree with the iPad. This is a very important new tradition which requires we put other parts of our life on hold.

8. Explaining to our kids that Christmas does not equal snow. This is tricky now because last year for the first time ever it snowed on Christmas day.

9. Opening presents. We youngsters still enjoy it.

10. Singing Ox and Ass in church. I’ll never grow out of enjoying this. Great lesson on context.

Tomorrow’s Random Thoughts Today

Welcome to Echoes and Stars, where you can read tomorrow’s Random Thoughts a day early. Where else can you do this? Nowhere, I tell you. Besides, tomorrow you’ll be watching the parade and football games and eating Turkey and adjusting your waistband and all. You won’t say it to my face, but you just won’t have time for me and my little blog. Matt Lauer wins out in these situations every single time. 
So here they are, dripping with gravy and injected with cajun seasoning…
1. I don’t trust people who like CSI:Miami.

2. All I want for Christmas is internet service.

3. Every time I think about something I’d like my iPad to do, I find an app to do it. Except when I wanted a sandwich the other day and it just sat there.

4. Took kids to the mall the other night. That’ll never happen again.

5. I don’t appreciate the way some people have boxed in Velvetta by using it only for cheese dip.

6. Looking forward to lots of triptophan. Tryptophan?

7. I’m very thankful for the Department of Homeland Security for wanting to keep us safe from those who would seek to do us harm. You know…dead turkeys.

8. Usually at Christmas I think about the things I want. But this year I’m all about things I need, like iTunes gift cards. Wrapped in bacon.

9. Facebook: A place where you can expound upon your just established opinion on subjects many have spent years studying.

10. Reading Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire in a strange format called “book”…it’s hard to hold and the “pages” keep wanting to turn.

Tuesday’s 10: Reasons for Thanks

We all have these parts of our lives we ought to be thankful for but often overlook. They are specific to us and we are tempted to call them “small” even though their peculiar shine glows for us on dark days. Every single one is an echo of light from a brighter Star. Today I’ll list ten.

1. The large windows in our den looking northward from the top of Shades Mountain. I’m enjoying them now as I do every morning. Many have to vacation to enjoy something like this.

2. My wife working on a meal. Her enjoyment of cooking and my enjoyment of what she cooks is a matrix of awesome.

3. We live in the same town with almost all of our immediate family. We were away for almost 10 years. 

4. It’s cool to talk bad about Facebook. But I love watching the progress in life of my former students. Some are getting married, having babies and some are in Seminary. It’s a beautiful thing.

5. I’ve listened to the piano intro of Backstreets by Springsteen at least 1000 times. And it never ceases to take me into a story full of youthful hope and the challenge of reality.

6. Toys strewn throughout the house. One day this will not happen and I’ll be very sad.

7. My pipe. It cost 7 dollars at an antique store in downtown Wichita, KS. But it helps me think and takes me outside into worlds of impossibilities and unfinished dreams.

8. Words. This may seem strange to some. But I play with them in my head all day. And sit at a computer screen and edit what is in front of me without even thinking about it.

9. Billie Holiday. My love for her is well-documented here. Her voice is like drinking down warmth in the still of a cool star-filled night. Desert island stuff.

10. Our friends. There are a lot of lonely people out there. We couldn’t be even if we wanted to. Our lives are full with them.

A Pastor No Longer

I suppose it is understandable for a young man interested in nearly everything to pursue vocational ministry. Serving God – who made it all – as a Pastor is an understandable vocation for one who would spend his days tracing all the streams back to the fountain.

But now I’m no longer spending my days doing this.

At least I don’t get paid to. A couple of months ago I resigned from my position as an Associate Pastor.

Yesterday was my last day as one.

As excited as we are about this next chapter in our story, it’s a bit surreal. All the contradictory emotions are present. Relief and anxiety. Freedom and constriction. Power and fear. All of it melding together in a way that will most likely only be understandable in hindsight. The emotions of a new vocation. The stress of different expectations. The relief in being able to provide for my family. The freedom from the expectations. All the frustrations of the past. The hope for the future.

It’s all present. No regrets, of course. Just a season of moving from one kind of life to another. On the contrary, for all this to happen around Thanksgiving is appropriate. We are thankful to be dealing with all of this in our hometown, surrounded by family and friends. We are thankful for my new job. Thankful for our time at BLC. We are thankful we can now attend the church where Bethany and I met and discovered grace. Thankful for our kids, our home. And we are thankful for promises from this God who has made it all possible and good. And we plan on spending our days tracing it all back to him.

Even though I I don’t get paid to do it any longer.

Bonus Random Thoughts

1. Was working on article for today but got tired so you get these instead. Sorry.

2. My kids love their teachers. What the heck is wrong with them?

3. Reading bio of Steve Jobs. He was a megalomaniac. But he gave us the iPad so I still love him.

4. I’ve never taken drugs and therefore never felt the euphoria or enlightenment you supposedly can get. But it’s the only comparison I can think of when trying to explain the experience of listening to Billie Holiday.

5. Saw X-Men: First Class. I was underwhelmed to be honest but surprised to see Kevin Bacon playing the…….ummmmm, bacon.

6. In an effort to try and and empathize with the OWS protestors I wore the same pants two days in a row. And now I find myself upset about everything from the cancellation of New Coke to the lack of men’s size Bobba Fett pajamas.

7. I still want a peaceful soul. And I just kinda assume the path meanders much like the curves and contours of Louis Armstrong’s trumpet.

8. Read a thanksgiving report of one of Emma’s classmates tonight at her Open House. In it she she said she was thankful for her best friend Emma. I almost cried like a little schoolgirl.

9. I bet customers would never get upset with me if I talked like Liam Neeson.

10. Gonna go ahead and put aside – so they’ll stay clean – that special pair of pants for Thanksgiving day.

Thursday’s Random Thoughts

1. The great problem with comic books and the movie counterparts are the bad guys are always awesomer.

2. Liberals don’t really care about the poor. Solyndra is exhibit A. And if you don’t know what’s going on with Solyndra, that’s exhibit B.

3. Billy Holiday and Lester Young.

4. Got this thing called an iPad. It’s awesome.

5. All I want for Christmas is to not hear any Mariah Carey Christmas songs.

6. I can’t count very well. Gets in the way of banking.

7. I live The King’s Speech ever single day. Gets in the way of saying “hello”.

8. Looking forward to dinner with some some couples on Saturday…mainly because I’ll probably get to finish my friend’s wife’s leftovers. The company will be awesome too but Missy is prone to order the Spicy Beef Salad.

9. Usually if I’m in bad mood I can just think about Carlton dancing and my mood gets better.

10. Emma: “Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins….which are kinda like the forces of evil.”

Easier But Not Fuller

Sitting in church this Sunday I noticed something. From where I sit each week you can see a good deal of the crowd on the opposite side of the auditorium. And when people walk in, you notice them. So this family walks in. Mom. Dad. Two kids. Just two kids. An older girl, maybe 10 and a younger boy, around 5. Good looking family. Mom walked in with the daughter and son was guided to his seat by his dad.

My wife and I call this “man-to-man” parenting. For each child there is a parent. And as far as keeping up with them in the store and keeping them still in church – all things being equal – it’s easier.

We’ve actually experienced this even though we have three children. One will be elsewhere and we will only have two to keep up with. Knowing how it is with three, two seems so much easier.

So I looked at this family and I thought, “Two kids to get ready in the morning, ahhhh, sounds nice and easy.”

But then it hit me, “Easier but not fuller.”

I can’t even think about the face of our third without realizing this.

Now don’t jump to conclusions here. The number of kids is not really the issue here. Even a family with one could say the same and it be just as meaningful. No less so than me or the family with six.

The reality is even bigger than children – easier is not necessarily the best of all possible scenarios. This is true for parenting and work and money and life in general. Though all the world is always clamoring for ease – and sometimes rightly so – those who sit in the shadow cast by the cross should get this. Ironically it should be easy to see.

It’s true; the ease with which we can do so much is a result of The Kingdom pushing into the kingdoms of this world. But we need to wrap our heads and hearts around the fact we’ve been born through much difficulty. Precious blood was spilled so we could be children of God.

My temptation is to look across the crowds and envy others. Why do I envy them? Because they seem to have it easier. But then I remember my family. My home. My friends. All God has given me.

And then I can say, “Easier but not fuller.”

Tuesday’s 10: Sandwiches I Wish I Was Eating

Yesterday’s post was heavy. Let’s talk of something lighter today. Something near and dear to my heart.

The sandwich.

I love sandwiches and hardly ever tire of them. Following are 10 sandwiches I enjoy. Feel free to add your favorites in the comments or on Facebook. Apologies to all the awesome sandwiches I do not mention.

1. The Reuben. Easily one of my favorites. Reuben’s come many ways but I’m a fan of rye bread, thin sliced corn beef, Swiss cheese, thousand island and sauerkraut. My favorite is the one I make and eat at home. The best I ever had was in STL at McGurk’s.

2. The Cuban. So simple…simply awesome, that is. Ham, pork, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard. Had a killer one recently at a mexican place here in Birmingham.

3. Pork Sandwich. You know how rice is a staple for our friends in the East? Bar-B-Q is a staple for the Redmonds. And the pork sandwich is high culinary art in my own subculture. We walk by it in reverence the way you might walk by the Mona Lisa.

4. The Cheeseburger. Does this count? I’m not sure I care. If celebrating the cheeseburger as a sandwich is wrong I don’t wanna be right. Around these parts, Mugshots makes burgers that makes one wonder if the recipe is from God himself.

5. Grilled Peanut Butter and Cheese. I’ve been eating this since I was a kid. My brothers introduced me to this wunderkind between two slices. I know what you’re thinking…but you do eat those crackers…

6. The Spicy Chicken Sandwich. Let’s not even pretend there is another one able to compete with Chick-fil-a. It’s awesome. And perfect. And one of God’s greatest gifts to sinners.

7. The Gyro. Is this a sandwich or wrap. Not sure. I’m craving one though.

8. Philly Cheese Steak. We once had a real Philly Cheese Steak place here in town. But it closed. I hope the owner had really good reason to break my heart like that. But let’s face it, a bad cheese steak sandwich is still mightily awesome.

9. The BLT. It has bacon. ’nuff said.

10. The Hot Dog. Not sure this is a sandwich. But it’s on a bun…or in one, anyway. I love hot dogs with a fervent, relentless passion. Do I want to marry them? Maybe. If they have are covered in cheese and mustard and hot sauce and relish.

Honorable Mention: PBJ. My friend Sean eats ’em for lunch all the time. I eat them instead of dessert sometimes. And they are amazing grilled.

Fear and Loathing and Penn State

There isn’t a whole lot to be said about what is happening at Penn state which hasn’t already been said. But in a story in which all that went unsaid issued in such a tragedy, the need to say something is inescapable.

My first reaction was as a kid. Yeah, a kid. Not as a parent or pastor. But as a kid looking up into an incomprehensible world which is only navigated by the charts of the night sky held by those who have gone before you. By those who hold all the power and influence over all you know and can possibly understand. My own frigate was steered by loving parents and a protective family. But I can only imagine the fear and confusion of those kids who stand in the shadows of heroes who have driven them into dark waters and then run them aground.

I mean, who the hell do you trust in such a wide dark world? Where the unknown fathoms of the drowning deep meet the wide reaches of the limitless ceiling of the night as far as can be seen?

Such confusion was quickly overtaken by the anger of a parent. A parent who would harbor murderous imaginations toward anyone who even thought such things about his own kids. A parent who has no illusions about the ease of forgiveness.

And against the dark backdrop of concern for a football team, anger on behalf of a child flames like the brightness of one thousand suns.

God couldn’t forgive till the cross happened. Let’s get rid of our Pollyanna saccharine spirituality that imagines forgiveness is a straight between two closely juxtaposed points. Real forgiveness is the work of a lifetime and it’s a lot harder than football. Anger and forgiveness may be strange bedfellows but outside of subpar Christian fiction books, the reality is they abide comfortably.

Though my time as a pastor is waning, I did think like one. But not as one who would shame those who cry out for justice but as one who looks out over a culture burned-over with cynicism and the inability to be shocked. As one who has looked into the eyes of abuse victims and prayed with them.

Maybe we do need to remember our sin in all this – there but for the grace of God… But that may not be the sermon we need first. First, we need sermons chock full of the cross-anchored promises of every tear being wiped away and all the crooked paths being made straight. After reading of such brutality and ferocious savagery I need – wait…I am longing for a picture, a vision of unimaginable beauty. One full of the reality of which every truly loving touch is but an echo reverberating against the longings of every human heart. I wanna hear that all the reasons for anger will be no more.

Every event is a volume of sermons for those who are listening. But some sermons need to proceed others. Outrage is necessary. But other chapters must follow with our own guilt splashed upon the page. We may not have abused a child. We may not have stood by while one was being abused. But we are guilty. We have as much need for the cross as the vilest offender. It sucks to admit. But it’s true.

If we get this backwards, there will be no wrongs righted. But if we get it right, the cross is given it’s due in our own history and the history of everything else. The cross holding all of our anger in the periphery of its crosshairs. The cross greasing the wheels of forgiveness. The cross reminding us of what and Who is before us.