The Angst of 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 souls yearn for better days in the midst of times that are not always easy for us 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. And our lives and our souls will be healed by the power of God. When it’s all said and done, we will be lifted-up by the Christ that we meet on Christmas morning – the Child in a manger who brings with Him the presence of the God who has promised to restore Creation.

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 Almighty God who has the power to make us well 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. We want to flee from what makes us feel uncomfortable, and we want to 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?

Blessings!

Keeping Christ in Christmas

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Every year, about this time, Christians start telling me to: “Keep Christ in Christmas.”

I get it. Many stores that I frequent were decorated for the holidays long before Halloween. One of my favorite radio stations officially transitioned to 24/7 Christmas songs two weeks ago. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to find Christmas cards that are focused upon the birth of Christ. Store employees are far more likely to say, “Happy Holidays,” than to offer you a smile and dismiss you with the words, “Merry Christmas.” People who write “Merry Xmas” used to drive me crazy because someone once told me that that’s just another way that people are X-ing Christ out of Christmas – even though the “X” in “Merry Xmas” is, actually, the Greek letter “chi” – a symbol that’s been used by Christians to represent the Christ for nearly 2,000 years. And then, there are the people who want me to believe that there’s a “war on Christmas” that’s designed to transform Christmas into nothing more than another secular holiday. I get it.

I, personally, find the words “Keep Christ in Christmas” unhelpful and distracting.

We don’t need to “Keep Christ in Christmas” because Christ is always found in Christmas – just as He’s found in every other day of the year. The Christmas message is the message of “God Incarnate” – a God who refuses to simply stand at a distance, and who chooses to come into our world and into our lives because He loves us. We need to realize that Holiday celebrations don’t bring Christ any closer to us than He already is. When people say “Keep Christ in Christmas” they’re implying that people have the ability to drive God’s presence out of Creation. You don’t have that kind of power. I don’t have that kind of power. And people who choose to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” don’t have that kind of power, either.

I suspect that many Christians want us to “Keep Christ in Christmas” because they believe that people are drifting away from God, and they believe that people who are drifting away from God are trying to force their beliefs and perspectives on others. But what if that’s not really true? Perhaps, young people are finding it increasingly difficult to connect with God because of the way that Christians are presenting Christ to the world? Perhaps, people are finding it hard to connect with God because they’re finding stale structures of the Church increasingly irrelevant? Perhaps, even good people are finding it hard to connect with God because it’s not easy to feel connected with God in a world where we’re overwhelmed with activities and obligations that keep our calendars packed to capacity? We really don’t need to “Keep Christ in Christmas” when we’re able to sense God’s presence each day; because, when we live with a sense of God’s presence in our lives, the Christ will be found in every single moment of every single day. Every day that we live, in fact, can be Christmas!

In this week’s message, “Finding Christ in Christmas”, we take some time to reflect upon God’s presence in our fast-paced world. Christmas is about far more than the tinsel that we hang on trees and the festive music that surrounds us. Christmas is about far more than piles of cookies, blinking lights, shiny packages and family gatherings. Christmas is a time when we can practice seeing God’s presence in the world and in our lives. Can we see God in the excitement of a child? Can we rediscover God’s presence in the warm embrace of the people who continue to love us – even with our little quirks and flaws? Can we gain a deeper sense of God’s presence in our lives when we reflect upon the blessings that we’ve received in the last year? Can Christmas help us to gain a deeper sense of God’s presence every day that we live, and send us into the New Year with a renewed sense of peace and hope?

The message of Immanuel – God with us – reminds us that God’s living and active in the center of our lives. We don’t need to “Keep Christ in Christmas” because Christ will always be found in Christmas in the same way that He’s found in our lives each day.

Blessings!

Overcoming the “Holiday Blues”

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Have you ever experienced that rather depressed, stressed, agitated, and fatigued feeling that many people face during the Holiday season?

The “Holiday Blues” can be caused by a wide variety things, and it’s often helpful for us to understand what’s standing at the heart of what we’re experiencing before we even begin to consider ways to address it. What’s deflating and stressful for one person may not affect other people in the same way. And for that reason, what’s helpful to one particular person during stress-filled and “blue” periods may not work equally-well for other people.

It’s important to realize that the “bad feelings” that come during the Holiday season are probably not the real problem. Bad feelings are often symptoms that can point us toward something else. And that’s why it’s so important for us to try our best to look beyond the bad feelings themselves and to try to identify what’s causing us to feel the way that we’re feeling. We’re more able to address the things that are stirring our feelings and emotions when we’ve clearly identified them. And that’s why it’s so important for us to simply take some time to think about what’s happening in our lives when the “Holiday Blues” strike – being careful that we’re not overlooking an underlying medical problem, the side effects of a medication that we’re taking, or even a Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Some common causes:

Most of us probably believe, deep inside, that the Holidays are “supposed” to be a time of happiness, cheer, joy, fellowship and optimistic hopes for the New Year. Many of us have probably created an “idealized” image of what the Holidays should be like. And that’s why we’re often bombarded with negative thoughts and feelings when we’re moving through times of significant loss, unresolved grief, fears about the future, and disappointment during the Holiday season. We can become very discouraged and deflated when we begin to compare what we think the Holidays “should be like” (our idealized image) with what the Holidays really “are like” (what we’re experiencing right now). “Holiday Blues” can also be caused by isolation and feelings of loneliness.

The Holiday season is also a busy and stressful time. We have more things to do and more things to purchase on already tight budgets. There’s more traffic on the highways that we normally travel and even parking our automobiles can become more difficult. Stores are crowded. Tempers are short. Horns are honking. Children are restless. Extra demands and expectations are often placed upon our time, our attention, our energy and our finances. And this can all be very stressful and overwhelming for us, too.

Some helpful ideas:

Many people are able to more successfully navigate through the “Holiday Blues” when they begin to re-think 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 really need to buy all of the expensive gifts you’re planning to purchase this year? Do you really need to buy all of the gifts on your list? How does your faith and understanding of God shape the purpose and meaning of your giving? Is it time to approach giving in a different way? Don’t forget to keep the overall picture in mind. Making the effort to get a present (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 faith and by your relationship with God. Think about how your life’s different than it was last year, and accept the fact that a new approach to your Holiday giving may be completely appropriate.

If significant losses are making the Holidays difficult this year, you may want to use some time during the Holiday season to mourn and grieve in a different way. You will most likely feel a sense of loneliness and deep sadness. If you pause, and accept the grief and feelings of sadness that go along with your loss the intensity of those bad feelings will very 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 new 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. Take care of yourself. The Holidays can be filled with energy and excitement – but they can also be a time to both mourn the relationships that we’ve lost and to celebrate the goodness of the relationships that continue to be a blessing to our lives in simple ways.

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 likely to be a difference between the two.

The Holiday season is, finally, a wonderful time to celebrate the presence of God and to remember that God continues to speak to us about a future that’s filled with hope – even as we’re moving through difficult times. Please don’t forget to include worship and prayer in your Holiday schedule. Worship and prayer can help us to clarify our perspectives and to focus our attention upon the promises that Christ sets before us. The Advent message of Immanuel – God with us – reminds us that we never walk alone and that God’s right beside us in the Wilderness of our “Holiday Blues.”

You may, also, want to call a few churches in your area (or Google “Longest Night”) to see if churches in your local area sponsor a “Longest Night” service. “Longest Night” services are annually-held and hope-filled worship service that are specifically designed to create a “safe place” for people who are experiencing the “Holiday Blues.” These short services are usually scheduled just a few days before Christmas (on or around December 21st) and are, usually, held in the evening. Christians can also find peace and strength in their daily lives by remembering what the Holiday season is REALLY about – a God who loves us and who comes into our world, even during challenging times, to walk beside us and lift us up with His mighty power.

I hope that you’ll find these words helpful, and that you’ll pass them along to friends and family members who are facing the “Holiday Blues,” too. May your heart be filled with the peace of the Christ who loves you; and may you walk away from the Holiday season, this year, with a renewed sense of God’s presence, strength and love.

Blessings!

 

Bending Power

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I was, quite by chance, born into a “position of power” in America.

My parents were white, worship-attending Christians. My sisters and I were raised in a rather upscale neighborhood by college-educated parents who had built their home on a two-acre piece of property. I’m heterosexual. I have dual citizenship – I’m proud to be a native-born citizen of the United States, and I’m proud to be an ambassador of another Kingdom that’s breaking into the world all around me.

Christ the King Sunday in an unusual day in the Church year when we are challenged to think about power – and that’s what this week’s message, “Bending Power”, is all about. Christians worship a God who created everything that exists by simply speaking His own desires. Christians worship a God who has the power to give life and the power to take life away. Christians worship a God who holds Creation in the palm of His hand, and who even has the power to raise the dead.

But God also became “incarnate” and came into the world as an ordinary person because God wants to fully understand us. God wants to know what it’s like to be happy and to be sad. God wants to know what it’s like to have friends and family members who share the joys and sorrows of life, and who sometimes make mistakes and let us down. God came into our world because God is a God who wants to spend time with people who get scared when illnesses change their lives, and because God is a God who wants to experience what it’s like to face the day of your own death. The “God of Power” came into our world in the flesh – in Jesus Christ – and God even allowed Himself to be nailed to a wooden cross – and from that Cross, where God experienced what it’s like to have absolutely no “power” at all, God speaks to us about life and hope and a better future for our lives and our world.

This is the God who has the “power” to heal our homes and relationships, our nation and our world. And this is the God who challenges us to speak clearly and boldly to those who carry a big stick and who try to use their “positions of power” to drive others into silence.

Representatives of the “Reign of God” are challenged, on Christ the King Sunday, to serve others – modeling the life and ministry of Jesus Christ – and to speak and act in solidarity with those who have been abandoned, marginalized, pushed-aside, and abused.

Blessings!

When Relationships Become Difficult

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Relationships aren’t always easy, are they?

In the very beginning, God clearly said that it’s not good for us to live our lives in isolation (Genesis 2:18). The Bible tells us that God’s given us the gift of one another, and that God is profoundly present when people come together (Matthew 18:20) and form “community” with each other. Our families and relationships are a gift of God. God brings us together to encourage each other and build each other up (Hebrews 10:24), and to comfort one another when life is hard (2 Corinthians 1:4). But that doesn’t mean that relationships are always going to be easy, and that we will never move through difficult times with others.

Through the years, I’ve noticed that many of us tend to move in unhelpful directions when our relationships with other people begin to suffer. We begin to notice “little things” that bother us, and we sometimes blow those things totally out of proportion. Words written in anger can be sent to other people with a single keystroke. It’s easy for us to forget that we are talking with “real people” on social media. We stop listening to each other. We begin to think about how we are going to respond to what other people are saying before we take time to listen to what they’ve actually said. Lin Yutang, the great writer and linguist, once quoted a famous Chinese proverb when he wrote: “You know that the sun is surely setting when small things begin to cast long shadows.” And that’s really true, isn’t it? When we begin to view the words and actions of other people through glasses that are tinted by our misunderstandings and frustrations, relationships begin to fade and disappear.

So, what can we do when relationships become difficult?

First, we need to get past the idea that our discomfort is bad. Many people want to simply “move on” and “get over it” because they’re uncomfortable and want the angst that they are experiencing to go away. Many people expect other folks to simply “move on” and “get over it,” too. It’s not easy to move through times of conflict. It’s not easy for any of us to simply stop and to feel the raw emotions that we experience when we’re struggling with others. But we need to remember that our discomfort isn’t bad. Our emotions and our feelings are an important part of our lives; and, when we’re willing to “sit with” our own feelings and emotions long enough, we’ll discover that they’re telling us that something needs to change. And that’s OK. In fact, it’s authentic.

Second, we need to be willing to listen and to speak with honesty and integrity. Words are important. We can’t read each others’ minds and we need to understand that other people can’t read our minds, either. People who listen to each other and who speak to each other with honesty and integrity can come to deeper understandings. Angst can be caused when we misinterpret the thoughts and intentions of other people. Relationships begin to fall apart when little things are blown out of proportion. When our relationships with other people are moving through tough times, we need to find a way to simply stop and openly talk with each other. Many relationships suffer and move through difficult times because of simple misunderstandings. Take some time to listen. Speak honestly about what you are feeling and why you are feeling that way. The restoration of relationships often only begins when people begin to listen to each other and speak with each other in ways that are filled with honesty and integrity.

Third, we need to be willing to confess the hurtful things that we’ve done and we need to allow other people to confess the hurtful things that they’ve done. When relationships deteriorate, people don’t always treat each other kindly. Words are uttered that should have never been spoken. Emails and text messages are sent in moments of rage. Many of our social media sites contain unhelpful comments. We’ve all spoken words that we wish we’d never said. And that kind of honest and open admission leaves us with an important question: Can we use the ungracious and regrettable words and moments in our own lives to better understand the ungracious and regrettable words and moments in other people’s lives? Other people are no more perfect than we are. We all have times when we shine with the light of Christ (Matthew 5:16), and we all have times when we fail (Romans 3:10). Can we openly admit that to one another? When we learn to honestly and authentically speak with each other about what’s most broken in our relationships, we begin to heal. It may be uncomfortable, but we need to talk about the “elephant in the room.”

Fourth, we need to be willing to ask for forgiveness from God and from other people. This is not always easy. The Bible tells us that when we confess our sins, God forgives us and sends us away as “new” people (1 John 1:9). But, it’s far more difficult in our relationships with other people. We do not have the “right” to demand forgiveness from others, and we do not have the “right” to demand that people forgive those who have hurt them. When people are hurt, relationships change and the road to total restoration may no longer exist. A fine, china plate that’s dropped onto the floor and that’s shattered, can be repaired – but it will never be what it once was. And that’s OK. God continues to welcome and embrace us – even when we’re finding it hard to forgive other people. When we ask people to forgive us, we need to realize that they might not be able to do it, yet. Forgiveness takes time. It’s a lot easier to damage a relationship than to heal one. We can confess the things that we have done to damage our relationship with another person and ask that person to forgive us, but we need to understand that the decision to forgive rests in the hands of the other person. The process of forgiving others doesn’t always happen as quickly as we’d like, and we have no “right” to demand that it happen more swiftly.

Fifth, we need to embrace the idea that a faithful response to difficult relationships in our lives may include walking away. Christians talk about forgiveness and reconciliation; but, Christians also need to remember that, when relationships become totally unmanageable, the most faithful path forward may include permanent separation (Titus 3:10). God does not demand that we continue to live in abusive relationships where we feel threatened and unsafe. Our lives are not enhanced through our continuing participation in the unbending relationships where we find ourselves being drawn into circular arguments and unhelpful exchanges. We need to realize that it’s not “unchristian” to walk away from people that we know on social media – or even in our church. We must continue to teach our teenagers (and to remind ourselves) that when relationships move in unhelpful directions, it’s OK for us to say “Goodbye.” God creates “community” and brings other people into our lives to encourage us, build us up and spur us on (Hebrews 10:24). When that’s not happening, it’s often helpful to simply withdraw and walk away for the sake of our own wellness.

I suspect that relationships will never be easy. But, with God’s help, we will all find people who can enrich our lives and who can help us to better-understand God’s plan for our lives and our futures. I hope that you’ll find these suggestions helpful as you continue to share your life with other people, and that you’ll return to these truths often as you continue to share your life with people who are no more perfect than you are.

Blessings!

 

The Church’s Role in Healing Our Nation

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It’s been a challenging week in America.

We began a journey together, two years ago, when people began to step forward and tell us that they want to lead our nation. We’ve listened to the debates. We’ve watched people dig up dirt in other people’s lives and try to use it to destroy them. We’ve all heard outrageous comments from people that we know and love, and even from the candidates themselves. And now, some of us are celebrating and some of us are protesting. Some of us are excited about the future of America and others are frightened.

Where do we go from here?

In this week’s message, “The Church’s Role in Healing Our Nation”, we’re challenged to think about how Christians, living in God-created “community,” can model what it’s like to continue to share a common life in the midst of diversity and conflict. We don’t need to know how other people voted last Tuesday, and we don’t need to tell others how we voted. Jesus once said that a house divided against itself cannot stand (Mark 3:25) – and the same is true for nations. Part of the Church’s witness to America points people toward the God who heals and restores “community.” As God continues to bring us back to each other, we will need to: listen to each other, care for each other, confess unhelpful words that we’ve written or uttered with our lips, and ask for forgiveness from God and from each other.

The healing of America will not happen in the blink of an eye. But, God is already bringing us back to each other, binding us up, and making us “one” again.

May the healing of America begin with the Church – where people are drawn together, fed and nourished, and sent into the world to proclaim the “Reign of God” in turbulent times.

Blessings!

 

Election Day Prayers

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A Prayer – Before Voting

Lord God, you call us to honor those who have been called to serve in positions of authority. Be with me as I cast my votes today. Help me, and all who vote, to elect trustworthy leaders and make wise decisions for our common good. And by your power, help those we elect today to use their authority to serve us and to promote our common life; through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen

 

A Prayer – After Voting

Almighty God, I lift before you the many men and women who are being elected to serve in positions of authority today. May they always use their power, which has been given to them by you—not for personal glory and profit—but for the sake of the people of our nation and of our world. Bless them, so that they may do their work with a spirit of wisdom, charity, and justice; and, by your power, help them use their authority to faithfully serve those who have elected them; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

 

Saint (insert your name)

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Did anyone ever tell  you that you are one of God’s saints?

Saints are found in high school classrooms and on college campuses. Saints are found in the places where we work and in the places where we live. In fact, every time you look at your own reflection in a mirror, you see one of God’s saints!

Roman Catholics have canonized saints for many years – calling attention to the faith and accomplishments of “special” people who have modeled Christian ideals. However, St. Paul tells us that “we are no longer strangers and aliens, but are fellow citizens with the saint and members of the household of God.” (Ephesians 2:19) Saints don’t always stand head-and-shoulders above other people. Saints don’t glow in the dark when we turn the lights off, and they don’t call attention to themselves by doing mighty deeds of power. We are God’s saints, and God is using our hands to do His work in the world.

In this week’s message,  “Saint (insert your name)”, we’re reminded that God uses even ordinary people – like us – to do incredible things. People need God’s saints to bring light into the world. People need to be reminded that God is going to bring us through times of uncertainty. Saints continue to remind us that God’s in control – even in the midst of turmoil and ugly political rhetoric. Saints reminds us that the  God who loves us remains as close to us as our own breath! That’s the message we bring to the world.

Rise up, O saint of God!