Those December Blahs

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A friend and I were talking about the inexplicable “blahs” we feel this time of year. No real reason for it, just a kind of nostalgic sadness not tied to any circumstance. December brings a lot of weird messages in our culture, conflicting ones to say the least. We are supposed to be making magical, lifelong memories while not falling into the trap of being too busy. We want to dazzle our kids and friends with the most thoughtful of gifts while not becoming overly materialistic. There’s a certain quality of life we are aiming for but culture screams at us through Black Friday ads and Christmas mailers to go for quantity because it will fill us up. We are pressured into acquiring all the things. What’s worse, we’ve now been conditioned to let the world know just how much awesomeness we’ve acquired for ourselves through happy little posts and updates. What. A. Racket.

Even in the best of circumstances, December just isn’t the holly-jolly memory making extravaganza it’s portrayed to be in the Christmas tree commercial. (You know the one, the whole extended family dressed to the nines, getting along perfectly as they admire their professionally decorated tree?) Of course there are beautiful, memorable times to be had, and we should embrace them and enjoy them. We are just trying so hard it seems and never really getting a hold of anything worthwhile.

We like accumulating and we positively thrive on quantity over quality. It’s totally normal now I’m told for teens to get 400 likes on a single Instagram post. I don’t think I’ve ever even met that many people in real life. As we fill up on worldly things, we hope it transfers over to a filling up of those spaces in our heart that sit empty. Where once we were satisfied sharing these moments with close family and friends, now we barely give them five minutes of our time.

Paul told believers to be living sacrifices (Romans 12:1). Jesus called on us to deny our selfish ways, pick up our cross and follow Him (Matthew 16:24). We aren’t very skilled in the art of living sacrificially. Selfishly, yes. It’s every man for himself out there. We pine for something we can’t quite put our finger on. We ache for something no person or gift can fulfill. We get the ‘blahs’.

The past few years we’ve seen a huge rise in the popularity of advent and the idea that there’s a reason for this longing. Most of us grew up without this concept. (My grasp of advent consisted of popping open a little door for a piece of chocolate each night until Christmas.) We should actually feel a bit out of sorts this time of year. Instead of trying to numb it with useless junk, Jesus calls us to come sit awhile with Him and learn how He’s the only one who can fill that void. He came to fill the void.

I’m all for it, I’m all for learning to wait. I want to know that it’s ok to feel inexplicably ‘blah’ this time of year. I want my kids to understand it’s not all about them. It’s not about fulfilling every material desire only to be led astray by a new one.

A mom told me last week that every single December her left eye twitches and her neck aches like crazy for no apparent reason. Her doctor told her it’s simply from stress. We all can relate. If it isn’t the logistics of getting the house ready it’s the strained relationships inside the house. If it isn’t the fear of the ‘what if’s’ it’s the regret of the ‘what was’. We hold our breath and let out long exasperated sighs. Honestly, I don’t know a single person who isn’t a bit relieved when it’s all over.

Nobody wants a twitchy eye all December. Nobody wants anxiety over the family get-together or the ugly sweater party to drive them to the brink. We all have our stuff, and that old snake that slithered into Eve’s head in the garden is all too happy to insert himself right into our December dreams and make everything a tangled mess.

Living sacrifices. Humble servants. We aren’t robots people, we don’t automatically default to “joyful” when the calendar flips to December. Jesus gives that though. He takes away our weird, sad, nonsensical feelings about this time of year and gives us joy unspeakable that is rooted in Him alone. So go make some memories, enjoy the season, embrace traditions, and know it’s ok to sometimes have a case of the blahs.

 

Keep Your Gifts

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Happy post-Thanksgiving, pre-Christmas season! It’s full speed ahead from here on out people, so hold on to your Santa hats. I’ve lost count of how many “simplify the season” Advent reading plans or books I’ve seen this week. It seems like every year the stores come out with more “stuff” to help us simplify. It’s kind of ironic.

I thought I’d share a little excerpt from an amazing book I’ve been reading by David and Jason Benham called Living Among Lions; How To Thrive Like Daniel In Today’s Babylon. The kids and I have taken our time in this book, we’ve been reading bits and pieces since the summer, and I find I keep returning again and again to it as we navigate our way upstream in a world that wants to carry us downstream with the masses. If you’ve never studied Daniel in-depth, this is a great place to start. The parallels between his life in Babylon and our current culture of crazy are amazing. I’m fascinated by the ability he had to know and hold on to his identity in a world turned upside-down. As we plunge head first into the season of gifting and buying and just general ‘wanting’, I thought I’d share this:

“Then Daniel answered and said before the king, “Keep your gifts for yourself or give your rewards to someone else.” Daniel 5:17
Daniels friends let it be known that the God of heaven was their King. Daniel himself kept his windows open and prayed in defiance of a king’s decree. Later in his life, Daniel refused the king’s gifts because his faithfulness to God didn’t have a price. He refused to be bought.
By gifts we mean the goodies of the world that stand in the way of the greatness of God’s kingdom. They come in any form of fame, fortune, or promotion promised by getting along with the world.
Daniels life didn’t have a price tag. His services weren’t for sale. No amount of worldly gifts for kingly accolades could deter him from his mission. He was a man of deep conviction, dedicated commitment, and undeniable courage; the grace of heaven was far more important to him than gifts of men.”

How are you ‘getting along with the world?’ Some of us are in deep. Most of us could probably stand to take a step back and think about it. Sometimes we need to tell the world, “keep your gifts.” This is the time of year where we have all the ‘stuff’ on our minds. We need to buy, we want to receive, the circle of ‘stuff’ is in full swing. In yesterdays mail, I received no less than ten shiny catalogues full of tempting things promising me nothing short of Christmas bliss if I would just place my order. All those things are great – until they aren’t. I think we’ve all been there when those scales tip in the other direction. The mall one week before Christmas. The credit card we should never have maxed out. The comparisons we make when someone else has what we want.

The thing I love about Daniel and his friends is that they were able to live and actually thrive in a world that was hostile to them at every turn. They never compromised with Babylon. They never idolized their gifts. There was a stubbornness about them that we would do well to have today – not in a hardness of heart/unkind way, but in a full surrender to what God wants over what the world says we need.

In this season of fancy packaging and gifts galore, lets take some time to evaluate just what we are seeking after. Contrary to popular belief, none of us really need the gifts from the mall as much as we need the security Jesus brings us. It’s almost cliche and that’s a sad thing, but can we please reel it in a bit starting in our own homes? No amount of shiny things, beauty treatments or perfectly decorated cookies is going to keep you sane or happy this season. The empty promises of the catalogues are just that. There are good gifts to be had and there are things we need to take a pass on.

Help us Jesus to value what is true and lasting over what compromises our heart and leaves us grasping for more.

Shepherds and Christmas Queens

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A ‘reboot’ of a post I wrote a few years back… I just love Linus. 

I absolutely adore watching ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ on TV each year. We have the DVD of course, but there’s just something about watching it in real time with commercials and all that really gets to me. I force, I mean ‘gather’ my boys to the TV with Christmas snacks and hot chocolate – they enjoy it, but I wonder for how long. I ask them if they’ll still watch this with me when they are teenagers, they promise they will.
It’s refreshing to see that after years of editing out the ‘overtly religious’ parts of the show, the network is now showing it (gasp!) in it’s original, unedited format.
My kids laugh their way through the same parts every year, my husband (though he may not admit it) sits down on the couch and joins us. I look on Twitter and see that “Charlie Brown Christmas” is trending – a modern day stamp of approval from viewing audiences everywhere. I’m happy that there appear to be people in the world who still care to hear the true story of Christmas, albeit in the form of a cartoon. I sense a collective silence in living rooms across the country as Linus walks up onto the stage to quote the Good Book and explain the true meaning of Christmas to his friends.
He explains it from the point of the shepherds who were watching over their flocks. He, of course, is a shepherd in the play along with his friend Shermy. The two boys have a very different take, however, on their assigned roles.
Poor Shermy, I think he only speaks one line in the whole show, but you have to feel for the guy:
“Every Christmas it’s the same: I always end up playing a shepherd.”

It’s understandable. The shepherd isn’t a very exciting role. Probably not a lot of action. There’s a director, musicians, animals and even, as Lucy points out, ‘a Christmas Queen.’ Being the quiet shepherd isn’t very exciting.
Linus, on the other hand, seems to embrace his lowly shepherd role. With his security blanket in hand, he steps up and answers Charlie Brown’s question with humbling truth:
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not: for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’ (Did you read that in his sweet little voice?)

My eyes tear up. Every. Year.
It’s so easy to see our role as small and insignificant. It’s tempting to look around at the cast of characters in our real lives and feel like Shermy did. Everyone else has some glitz and glamor, and we find ourselves in a plain, boring role. Maybe it’s a job. Maybe it’s staying at home taking care of kids. Maybe it’s just feeling small.
As we hear the Christmas story again this year, lets remember something really important: God chose the shepherds! The biggest, most life-altering news the world has ever seen was announced first to a bunch of nobodies out in a field! God could have done it a million other ways, but he chose shepherds. Why??
Could it be that He wants to remind us that the role we play is an important one, even when we are sighing, “Not again God, please don’t make me a shepherd again! I want to be the Christmas Queen!” 
Could it be that He wants to honor the humble and lowly of this world with a role far greater than we could ever imagine? Linus was a humble guy, he accepted his role and stepped into the spotlight when he was called upon, and he did it for God’s glory.
Someone will always have a bigger role. Wishing we were in a different role only makes us feel small and we run the risk of missing our calling. Christmas Queens are great, but shepherds remind us that God loves the outcast and the lonely just as much.
At times, we are all the lowly shepherd kid with no lines in the play. We feel like filler in the background. I think we should think twice before we complain about that – God has a habit of searching out the lowly shepherds and revealing His most trusted secrets to them.

Don’t Let The Hatchimal Spoil Christmas

 

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I hadn’t heard of a Hatchimal until recently. The quirky little animal inside of an egg toy that apparently is all the rage this holiday season. They are of course, out of stock at the average store and causing families to lose their collective minds. Parents are writing fake I.O.U. letters from Santa to their children explaining the tragic situation.

My first reaction (hopefully the reaction of all rational/sane people), is to laugh at the absurdity of all this. I shudder at the silliness of our culture, running after the latest goodies that we all know by Valentines day will be discarded in someones closet, under a pile of other objects they just HAD TO HAVE.

It’s easy to poke fun at it, until I remember my ten year old self at Christmastime, ready to sell all my worldly goods to anyone who could procure me the Cabbage Patch doll with the cornsilk hair. Then there was the pink and purple ten-speed. Also the anatomically correct baby doll whose skin smelled like baby powder and came with it’s own push-buggy.

As a child, I remember so well that longing. As parents we try and fulfill those desires in our children’s hearts because there’s a part of us that remembers how it feels to be so genuinely excited about something.

We all have our ‘Hatchimals’.

I walked through someones home yesterday that was the very picture and definition of a Christmas wonderland. The decorations were professional-level gorgeous. Nothing was out of place. The entire home looked like a perfect magazine spread of holiday cheer.

Where was this woman’s laundry? Do people actually get laundry done and put away? I can’t currently see the floor of my laundry room.

How did the whole place smell like freshly baked cookies? No matter how many Febreeze evergreen candles I light, the house usually just smells like dog.

December is kind of a double-edged sword in our culture; we are surrounded by perfection and beauty but never quite able to keep up on it all. Ask anyone who has ever walked by the Pottery Barn window at the mall. Or gazed at the Williams-Sonoma demo Christmas table. Yikes.

If we are culture-driven, our desires are never fulfilled, our expectations are never met. Someone will always do it better. Someone will always have a prettier looking tree, fancier table setting or better smelling house.

Advent is a season of longing, but we have been conditioned to never feel such things. We scratch the itch. Longing makes us uncomfortable. Imperfection makes us squirm. We forget our gift is has already come and promises to come again. Part of the beauty of December for believers is that we don’t have to jump at every trend and spend every last dime in order to be fulfilled. We are created to feel this desire. Nothing in the world will ever fulfill it save for Jesus.

We celebrate a Father who knows how to give good and perfect gifts to His children. Lasting gifts of eternity. How much then should we desire to share that with our own children and friends?  Teach the kids it’s ok to want and desire things, but put those things in perspective.  Show them how to long after Jesus and actually be fulfilled.

“Ultimately, there is something profoundly Christmas-like about not having everything the way you want. The entire holiday exists because two parents could not even find a roof under which to have a baby. Consider the absurdity of the fact that, thousands of years later, people are celebrating that holiday by apologizing to children because a Hatchimal could not be procured.” Ashley E. McGuire, Acculturated Magazine

Five Smooth Stones

Then Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head. David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried walking around, because he was not used to them.

“I cannot go in these,” he said to Saul, “because I am not used to them.” So he took them off. Then he took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd’s bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine.

1 Samuel 17:38-40

The story of little David and his victory over Goliath is my 6 year old sons favorite thing to read. It’s the first story he looks up when he gets out a picture bible. I’ve become accustomed to it, memorized it, and I confess, tired of it at times. Little guy defeats big giant, with only a stone and God’s divine help. Got it. Check. It is an amazing story – and I feel bad thinking I’ve read it one too many times. I ask him if he wants to read a different story – nope. So we read it again, from a different kids Bible. We talk about how little people can do big things for God. We reaffirm that we are in Gods army and He is in charge of winning the battles we face. It’s all very good stuff. And I believe it. But for some reason, it was more of a picture on a page than a truth in my heart.

God never meant for us to be bored with His Word, not ever, but sometimes those truths just stay there on the page, flat and lifeless. We need them to be life and truth, but sometimes it just isn’t there.

I was flattened most of this past week. Sick to my stomach, I was horrified in a way that I cannot put into words, and I won’t try. We are accustomed to hearing awful things on the news, but Newtown was different. I walked around all week in their shoes, as did every parent I know. I found myself no longer caring about the mud on my floors or dried toothpaste mess in the sink. Truthfully, I was damn thankful for my mess. I went through the motions of sending my boys off to school acutely aware of how exposed we really are. Painfully aware that I need to go to the Lord with these anxieties, I asked that He show me what true protection really means.

We fashion our own little worlds as best we can, organized and tidy. I send the boys off to school – every fiber in my body fights against it while my head tells me to chill out. Later that morning, digging for a Post-It note in the kitchen junk drawer, I came across a little red and black bag given to my 6 year old a few years ago. It contains 5 little stones from the Valley of Elah, where David took on Goliath so long ago. Some very thoughtful friends had given it to us, knowing my little guys love for the story. I wondered how long it had been in there. No matter, I picked it up and put it in my purse. I started thinking about little David. I thought of how he tried to put on Saul’s armor and went instead for a sling and some rocks. The armor didn’t suit him. It didn’t fit him. It weighed him down.

I took out a rock and held it for awhile. Could it be that this is all we need? I started thinking of all the armor I walk around with that is anything but the armor of God. It’s so easy to pile on things in our lives that make us feel less exposed. We organize. We collect. We control. We build our suit of armor until it becomes too big and too heavy. Suddenly, we are too weighed down to fight the giants. David was successful because he went into battle in the name of the Lord. Period. Holding the little bag of rocks, I felt a kind of surrender that I had not felt in awhile.

We need to drop the heavy armor. We need to drop the fears and anxieties we walk around with all day. Accept that we are exposed – accept also that the God of David goes with us into battle and will fight for us.

The world tells us we have to be ‘holly and jolly’ this time of year. The world tells us we need to be dragging around a ton of armor to be happy and secure. God tells us to give up the charade. It’s ok to be broken.  As Christmas approaches, I pray God’s supernatural comfort over all those who are mourning.  The idea of a ‘holly jolly’ Christmas seems woefully artificial  right now. We need the truth to come off the page again. As we mourn the loss of innocence, I pray that we would turn our eyes to the child that came into a world just as dark as ours 2000 years ago. He came so that this sadness would not have the final word. This present darkness is too much for any of us to handle. In spite of all of this – because of all of this – Christ came into this mess of a world.

Don’t let the story fall flat. Don’t let the repetition make it dull and lifeless. May the story of Christmas come off the pages this year like never before. Let those who are hurting look through the artificial and straight into the heart of God. The Light of the World has come to dispel the darkness once and for all.

Worth Waiting For

“The house lights go off and the footlights come on. Even the chattiest stop chattering as they wait in darkness for the curtain to rise. In the orchestra pit, the violin bows are poised. The conductor has raised his baton. In the silence of a midwinter dusk, there is far off in the deeps of it somewhere a sound so faint that for all you can tell it may be only the sound of the silence itself. You hold your breath to listen. … You are aware of the beating of your heart…The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.” -Frederick Buechner 

December can be a mixed-up time, with huge expectations, where both the joy and pain of years gone by all return and take their place at the table. We hold our breath in expectation of what could be and breathe a sigh of small relief when it’s all over. The world has tried to convince us it’s nothing a little Black Friday/power hour shopping won’t cure… load up with some new stuff, check off the list, and everyone will be just fine. The ‘peace on earth’ thing seems to not begin until the 24th or so.  December is a noisy month, but advent should not be.
The first Sunday of advent rests ironically, on the Sunday between ‘black Friday’ and ‘cyber Monday’. If ever there was a time to embrace the quiet, it’s this weekend for sure. We celebrate the exact opposite of possessing and acquiring – we celebrate the holy longing for something not yet possessed. We light the first candle of hope in the darkness and we wait for what has been promised.
The days are short and the nights are long, literally and figuratively. God reminds us that we are waiting for our Light to come. Waiting to be out of the darkness. It  isn’t something we do well. The line at Costco is 16 people deep, traffic is awful everywhere you go, the ‘Run, Run Rudolph’ song is playing on the radio and I feel like I’m in a Chevy Chase movie. Never do I see people as out for themselves as I do in December. I so wish we could get through the season with Christ in the foreground instead of in the background.
Luke 2 tells us of an inn keeper that had no room for Christ that first Christmas. Matthew 2 tells us of King Herod who was too afraid to let Him rule. How many of us miss the whole point of this season because we are either too occupied or too afraid to let Him come rule our hearts and lives?
Our kids have advent calendars, three to be exact. They remind us that we are waiting. They remind us every night that the time is coming when we will receive a great promise. We think of the Hebrews 2000 years ago who waited in silent darkness for a Savior. We know that their wait paid off. He came and appeared as promised. He has promised to come again, and so we wait.
As we make our lists and check them twice, let us not miss Christmas. Let us somehow feel a bit of that emptiness that existed before the promise was fulfilled. We celebrate His first coming and wait joyfully for His second. In a world of instant gratification, may we learn and instill in our children that there are some things worth waiting for.
Let us begin Advent, waiting.

  Not the “going back to sleep” kind of waiting.
  Not the impatient pacing. 
  Or the wasted anxiety of waiting.
  Not even the passive-aggressive waiting that says, “Really? We’ll see.”

Let us begin Advent, waiting.
  Getting up and joining the adventure,
  Even when we don’t know where it will take us.
  Shifting the impatient waiting to expectant living.
  Boldly claiming the Good News that we know will come.
  Waiting with joy as we reach out with the grace of God that is so much more than amazing.

Let us begin Advent.  Michelle Thomas-Bush