Tag: Christmas

Expect Something Different

I have an opinion. And it isn’t very popular, so I need to make sure nobody’s holding any stones before I share it.

Alright, here goes.

I do not like Hallmark movies, Christmas or not. I can’t appreciate them for what they are. I just don’t get it. I end up shouting questions at the screen, wanting answers to plot holes and for someone to tell me who in the world wrote this dialogue.

Maybe there’s something in the predictability, the complete lack of realism. Something about a clean resolution. The guy gets the girl. The girl gets the crown or the promotion or the makeover. The town saves the Christmas pageant. The local diner is spared by the corporate tyrant. The bitter cynic is hopeful again. The problem is solved, and the credits roll.

But here’s what’s lovely about these cheesy flicks: at the end when the screen goes dark, all my expectations have been met. Certainly, I have some questions that have yet to be answered. And certainly, I have a tiny tinge of regret at the time I just lost. But I got what I bargained for. A nice, neat bow on a relatively uncomplicated problem.

Great.

But what happens when those expectations roll over into the flesh and blood reality we live in? What happens when we sit on the edge of our seats this season, eagerly looking for our picture-perfect ending and storybook Christmas?

I wonder if Mary knew anything about unrealistic expectations. Honestly, as many times as we ask her every year, I don’t think Mary knew all the details. From the beginning, we see her fear and we hear her ask, “How will this be?” During the nine months of her pregnancy, surely she had expectations for how the birth story would unfold, and I may be wrong, but I don’t imagine she expected stable animals to be witnesses or grimy shepherds to be her first guests.

And what about those guys? The shepherds. What did they expect? Did they run to the site to which the angels sent them expecting to see a young teenager holding the Messiah they had been waiting for? A simple carpenter standing behind her? The damp smell of the cave in which they lay? Wasn’t Messiah supposed to be royal? What was He doing here? Why did the angels tell them? Shouldn’t there have been a bigger announcement to more prominent men than they? They were Jewish men who knew the prophecies. They knew the words that declared what was to come, but did they yet understand how or when or why? Maybe their expectations had had a little more color. More light. More neat lines and a fine timeline of when exactly their suffering would end. They were only human, after all.

And we can relate, can’t we? Our expectations are often outlined by our circumstances.

So often, we walk into the Christmas season with really high expectations of ourselves, of the people around us, of the celebrations and parties and gifts and food and decorations. We expect things to end neatly like our sweet, pre-packaged Hallmark movies. We expect snow to fall and love stories to have magical beginnings and happy endings. We expect our Christmas cookies to look just like that glossy photo in the magazine, and we sigh with great disappointment when they don’t.

We expect the bank accounts to swell to accommodate the gifts we desire to give. We expect the tension we’ve walked in every other month of the year to loosen its grip and let us live in peace for a few weeks. We expect the grief we’ve suffered to pause for just a minute and let us breathe.

We walk into this season expecting a whole lot. Expecting our lives to really look like the Christmas cards we send.

And maybe they do at times. Don’t get me wrong. There are beautiful moments to be had this season. Watching children and grandchildren light up the room with their belief in Christmas magic. Invitations to Christmas parties with friends and loved ones. New love, and new babies, and first Christmases spent together. And singing – oh, the singing! It is indeed a beautiful, heart-warming, fuzzy, cheesy, gloriously happy time of year in certain moments.

But in the moments when it’s not, how do we survive? And what do we do when the lights go out, the decorations are packed, and we’re left again with the bare and empty walls we started with? How do we move past our expectations when another year passes and they just aren’t entirely met?

May I submit a possibility that we are expecting the wrong things. Maybe we need to expect something else.

You see, the truth is, Jesus Himself told us we would have trouble here. And there wasn’t a caveat in that verse that told us we’d get a break at Christmas. We don’t. Life at this time of year is covered in a little more glitter, a little more light, a little more cheer and charity, but it is still life. There are still parts that hurt. There are parts that cannot be wrapped up in a neat, Hallmark Christmas bow. There are questions still unanswered. Problems still unsolved. Wounds still opened and not quite healed.

But what if we changed our expectations? What if, instead of expecting a perfect Christmas, we expected a perfect Savior? What if we took time to open our hearts and “prepare Him room”? To expect Him to show up in our lives? To expect Him to be enough for us? Because He is enough for us. Our world may not be commercially classified as merry and bright this season, but we can be sure that the Prince of Peace Himself has arrived and brought us freedom from our strife. That is cause enough for celebration. An expectation sure to be fulfilled and in Jesus, already met.

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12)

One thing we have that the shepherds didn’t that night is a view of the cross from the manger. When you look into the face of the infant Divine this Christmas, you will find a Savior. You will find a King that has conquered death. You will find a Messiah, a Deliverer, who has far exceeded “all we could ever ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20).

Rather than hanging all our hopes on how this Christmas will meet our needs and expectations, may we instead look at Jesus, who is the final Word on all we could ever hope for. He is the healing of our heartbreak. The new song of redemption we sing. The reason we celebrate. The restoration of our broken narrative. The joy declared to all the world.

May we turn our faces to the manger and expect with certainty to see our Savior, Jesus.

“One thing I want my soul to remember and I want your soul to know is that life isn’t always good; humans aren’t always good; but God is good. Always.”

-Amena Brown, Broken Records

 

Borrowed Light

I specifically purchased it. Went out of my way to make sure I had it the night before I left. Packed it securely in the bottom of my suitcase. It was ready, batteries and all.

And there it stayed for the whole trip. Never actually being used. It sat quietly beneath a layer of clothes while I walked off without it. And at the moment when I needed it most, I discovered I had left it behind.


A few months ago, my dad asked me to write a short introduction for an advent booklet he was compiling for my home church. Something simple. 400 words. Just a quick welcome to the advent season.

As I thought about how to intro into a season like advent in 400 words, one in particular kept rising to the surface of my mind.

Light.

We string strands of it around trees and over fireplaces, place candles in window sills, and sit in their glow at silent Lord’s Supper services. Many of our most treasured traditions during this season revolve around light.

As much as we tout the merriness and brightness of Christmas, as much as we try to drown out the darkness of the previous year with our colored lights and flickering candles, and attempt to cover up the emptiness with piles of gifts and sweets, it often isn’t enough. There are those standing next to you in line while you skim these words, sitting beside you in waiting rooms, that do not look on this season with light. Or maybe it isn’t them at all; maybe it’s you. Maybe the pair of eyes reading these words are having trouble seeing the light all around them.

Maybe this holiday comes as a rude interruption to grief – the rosy cheeks and inflated decorations appearing garish next to the loss you’ve suffered. Maybe it is a reminder of someone who never came back or someone who never showed up in the first place. Maybe it is a matter of expectation versus reality. The bright colors and happy endings you see inside your TV screen make your current surroundings look dull or bleak. Maybe the string of plastic bulbs wrapped around your Christmas tree is all the light you can find this season.

But let me tell you with certainty, there is more light to be seen.


The atmosphere was cool and damp – a welcome reprieve after a long day in the hot and dusty Israeli desert. I stepped carefully down each step, paying careful attention to where and how my foot landed on the twisty iron stairs. We marched forward and continued our travels south. Stairs and stairs and stairs and then, just when I thought I’d never see the sun again, another set of stairs to top it all off. We multi-tasked the best we could, listening to our guide spout facts about these historic depths while trying to maintain our balance beneath the centuries-old stone.

By the time we arrived at the main attraction, there were 130 feet of stone and earth separating me from the sun, and I was watching my friends one by one step through a small opening in the stone wall.

Hezekiah’s tunnel. We had come all this way to experience this. Down into the depths of the earth we had walked and walked and walked for this moment. And the thing I needed most for this adventure had been left in my hotel room, miles and miles away.

My light.

Up to this point, we had still been in a place that supplied electricity, but now we were entering a space so ancient and deep, artificial light had not found a permanent place there. That silly headlamp I had taken such care to pack for this express purpose sat in my suitcase turned off and unused.

I had two options. Number one, sit this next adventure out and climb back up to the light of the sun. Or number two, borrow some light.

As we approached the tunnel, I confessed my situation to a few friends as they pulled out their own headlamps and strapped them around their ponytails.

“I forgot mine. It’s back at the hotel. Can I walk between you two so that I can see?”

They kindly agreed to this solution, and we stood in the stalled queue awaiting our turn to step into the darkness.

I will tell you candidly that while I am grateful I got the unique opportunity to walk, crouched and uncomfortable, for half an hour under the earth with ice-cold water streaming steadily over my feet, I don’t necessarily feel a distinct urge to repeat the scenario anytime soon. We were behind a group of college students that kept stopping at inopportune moments for what felt like an interminable amount of time, and while I am not traditionally claustrophobic, I did make my discomfort in the situation known to the crowd ahead of me.

But as I watched my shadow follow me through the cavern, stopping and starting as we moved along, I was distinctly and profoundly aware that the light creating it was not mine.

I was careful with each step, making sure my feet landed securely. My hands dragged along the walls beside me. My five-foot, ten-inch frame bent and stretched beneath the ever-changing ceiling. Eden walked in front of me, her curly hair squashed beneath the band of her headlight. Adrianne walked behind me, careful not to bump into my protruding backpack. Both girls had their chins tilted to the floor of the cave, and battery-operated beams from their headlamps created circles of illumination around our feet.

Our feet. Theirs and mine.

Even without my own, I could see because of theirs. I borrowed the light. I walked between them – one before me, one behind – and made it through every moment of darkness because they shared their light.


Maybe you are the one without this season. Maybe things look a little too dark for any celebration. Maybe you can’t fathom how the words peace and joy factor into this season.

Maybe you’ve found yourself staring down the barrel of a dark tunnel, and you’ve forgotten your light.

Lift your eyes, and find a light-bearer. They are there all around you willing to stand before you, behind you, beside you and let you step in the circle of their light. Ask for help, and don’t walk alone in the dark. See this truth in the borrowed light: “There is no night that can steal the promises His coming brings to us.” No night, not even the one you’re in. Jesus, the baby born in a manger, the Savior sent to rescue us, is Light enough for even this.

And listen to me, light-bearers. You who know the Light of all the world. You who know that we celebrate because He came to dispel every darkness. Be easy to find. Look at the those around you this season and declare to them “This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: “God is light; in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 Jn. 1:5). Point the watching world to the manger, to the cross, to the empty grave and invite them to “come and see what God has done.” 

May the ones who find themselves facing darkness this season also find themselves between Light-bearers who promise to walk with them. And may we who bear the Light remember what we carry and freely offer to share.

 

Weary Souls Rejoice

I’ve been thinking a lot about the 400 year gap between Malachi and Matthew. The absolute silence of God. The quiet. The waiting. The dryness that settled over the people of Israel. “Long lay the world in sin and error pining,” you know.

And I’ve thought about the promise remembered and recalled at every festival, with every prayer, in every household for 400 years. “Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”

I’ve wondered at the questions that must have sprung like weeds in the most barren parts of their hearts.

How will you save us?

When will Messiah come?

Will there be justice?

Will we be free?

How much more can we bear?

How long must we wait?

Are you still there?



I’ve thought of the Jewish children perched atop gnarled knees, listening intently to an elderly voice telling about a promised ransom, a payment coming for all the captives.  

I’ve thought of those same children growing up in the moments just before the star arrived. The palpable feeling of change in the winds. The stirring of hearts. The whispers. The prophecies remembered.

And I’ve thought of the moment when God’s silence was split by the cries of a newborn. Son of God, Son of Man. Divinity zipped up in mere inches of human flesh. An audacious rescue looked for, but still shocking and unexpected in His arrival.

I’ve imagined the crowd of shepherds—Jewish men who knew the promise—creeping slowly to the door of the stable cave.

“Is it true?”

“Can it be?”

“Is this the one we’ve been waiting for?”

And Mary nods. It’s Him.

After 400 years of waiting, He is finally here.

It wasn’t all healed in a moment. When the sun rose the next day, Romans were still in control. Herod was still a psychotic tyrant. There was still heartache to be faced. Rachel had much mourning left before her (Mt. 2:18).

But the fulfillment of a promise made at the dawn of time had been set into motion. Beneath a star was born the One who would set it all right. The One who would call to the exiled and bring them home. The One who would pay the ransom for sin and set free every captive.

I’ve wondered about the moments following the stable scene. When the shepherds walked away from the grand nativity stage that night, did they wonder how it would all unfold? Did they realize that it would be a long time before the infant King was ready to rule? And did they know that when He did, it would be vastly different from what the world expected? Thirty-three years later, did any of them squint against the sun and watch as a cross, splintered and bloody, was raised before them? Did they bow their heads in disappointment? Did they question what all their hoping had been for?

When Mary woke the next morning, did she feel as if a boulder was sitting on her chest, the weight of what she had been asked to do nearly unbearable? Did Joseph break out in anxious hives every time he remembered he had been tasked with the incredible job of raising the Son of God? Teaching him to walk and count and build?

And what about the questions that ran through the minds of the wise men on their long journey home? Did they look one to the other and ask, “did we really just meet a king? In that tiny house? And when His kingdom comes, will there be a place for us?”

I wonder about those questions, I guess, because I’ve had some of my own.

I know what it is to wonder if God chose the wrong person for a task to which I was called. I know what it is to wonder how long I’ll have to wait for an answer to a burning question. How long I’ll have to wait for freedom, for relief, for a moment of reprieve. I know what it is to wonder if there’s a place for me at the table. I know what it feels like to bear the burden of the unknown. I know what it is to wonder how the story will end and what it will cost in the in between.

As I enter this Christmas season, I stand peering through the gaps of the shoulders of a dozen reeking shepherds, catching glimpses of the Promise. I shove my way through to the trough that holds the King who came to rescue me. I lay down every question and look instead at His face. “Born that man no more may die/Born to raise the sons of earth/Born to give them second birth.”

And as I turn to leave to go back into the night to my post in the fields, I have to confess that there are things I still don’t understand. There are still heartaches and difficulties to be faced in the days ahead. But I looked on the face of my Savior, and that is enough. He is enough.

“I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life” (Jn. 8:12).

Four hundred years of silence, and then He steps in.

Four hundred years of darkness, and then there was a star.

Four hundred years of waiting, hoping, doubting, looking, and then He was there.

Humanity’s Creator King come to rescue.

When the stage was set, the curtains rolled back, every piece in place, God rent the heavens with a spotlight, shining with unwavering brightness on the face of His promise.

And with the privilege and gift of perspective, looking back from the top of Golgotha’s hill, we see that even in the silence, He was never idle or absent. “…for He who promised is faithful” (Heb. 10:23).



How will you save us?

“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son…” (Isa. 7:14)

When will Messiah come?

“But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.” (Gal. 4:4-5)

Will there be justice?

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” (Luke 4:18a)

Will we be free?

“He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free…” (Luke 4:18b)

How much more can we bear?

“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Mt. 11:29)

How long must we wait?

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given…” (Isa. 9:6)

Are you still there?

“They will call him Immanuel, God with us.” (Mt. 1:23)

Then He Smiled At Me

My third grade year was interrupted by a move to a new state and a new school. My family unpacked in Alabama at the very beginning of December 2001, and Johnathan and I were put in a local public elementary school. I had stepped out of a one-hallway private school into a web of hallways lined with classrooms and filled with throngs of other children. I spent most of my time there trying to be invisible.

It was Christmastime. Our classroom was decorated with small trees and handmade ornaments, and there was often a soundtrack of faint holiday tunes in the background.

I don’t remember her name, but my first teacher was a tall woman. Plump, with dark gray hair and a grandmotherly demeanor. She filled the room with herself, and though I remember her as a kind and jovial woman, I also remember having a vague sense of fear associated with her presence.

One afternoon, The Little Drummer Boy came through the stereo system. She perked up and announced with enthusiasm that this was her favorite Christmas song. She turned up the volume and chimed in with a loud contribution to the rum pum pum pum lyric.

Because that was the first time I remember hearing that song, and because it was tied so closely with a negative experience, I have shuddered nearly every year since when I hear the familiar chorus rumble through any speaker. It has always been one of my mother’s favorite Christmas songs as well, but for years I have made her turn it off whenever it cycles through the car radio. I hated it too much to listen all the way through.

But this year, it has been a favorite.

I don’t remember when it happened, where I was, or whose version I was listening to, but I remember hearing the last verse as if for the very first time:

(For the sake of clarity and my sanity, I’m going to remove the “pa rum pum pum pums.”)

“Shall I play for you
On my drum?
Mary nodded,

The ox and lamb kept time,
I played my drum for Him,
I played my best for Him,
Then He smiled at me,
Me and my drum.”

I heard it and thrilled at the idea of the child Jesus smiling with delight at this little boy and his drum.

The character isn’t biblical. There is no historical reference to document this little drummer boy’s existence. No likeness of him was ever taken.

But I can see him.

His face is dirty and his feet are bare on the cool desert earth. His little hands are plump with newness and wrapped around two splintered sticks. His tangled hair falls just above the bridge of his nose. And he carries a drum. Something makeshift crafted out of found and forgotten things.

I see him in the doorway of Joseph and Mary’s home. As the magi move further into the room, his faint shadow is pushed across the threshold by the light behind him. And he follows its course until it lands on the face of the baby they walked all this way to see.

And looking at this small face, he hears the words of the prophet Isaiah rattling through his brain:

“For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

This is Him, he thinks. This is the One we have been waiting for.

He looks to his left then to his right, noticing the shine reflecting off of the costly gifts brought by the magi. He looks down and sees the sticks in his hands. It isn’t the same, not as valuable, he thinks, but he has nothing else. He must give something. He is face to face with the promised Messiah, the One who came to rescue. The One who came to bind up broken hearts and make all things new.

He must give something.

“Excuse me, Mrs. Mary,” he whispers timidly. “Would it be okay if I played for Him?”

The young mother nods with a kind smile upon her lips, and he takes a deep breath, raises his sticks, and brings them down upon the drum.

The sound reverberates off of the walls. His rhythm is crooked, and it is more noise than song, but he doesn’t hear. He isn’t performing; he is praising.

When he is through, the boy bends forward for a better view of the child before him. Eyes lock and the baby Jesus, delighted by the sound, smiles at his new friend.

And in that moment, everything changed.

I think I see the little drummer boy so clearly because his heart looks so similar to mine. I know what it is to stand in the presence of the Savior and scramble for something to give in gratitude. I know what it is to remember God’s promises and be overwhelmed with a desire to praise.

And I know what it is to feel your heart nearly explode with joy when the Light of all the world looks at you and smiles.

This Christmas, my bare and dirty feet land on the cool hay covering the stable floor, my grimy hands grasp the edges of a rough manger and my chin hooks over the side to catch a glimpse of my Savior. His face is turned toward me; He sees me and the heart He came to save.

And then He smiles at me.