Archive for the ‘Christmas’ Tag

Surviving Christmas   2 comments

Every year Christmas is a cultural blitzkrieg of celebration, carrying many along in its triumphal sweep while capsizing in its wake those who cannot keep up with its jubilant spirit.  Be happy or be left out.  In our chipper American culture, that is the flavor of the year, as Ella Wheeler Wilcox so aptly described it:

Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone;
For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth,
But has trouble enough of its own.

Even those who are forgiven for a downcast spirit on an average day are expected to step up to the occasion when the band starts playing, which it does ceaselessly from Thanksgiving till the last relative shambles out the door and the long, bleak, cold winter blows inside.

I’m no sour-puss.  I like celebrating Christmas if I can bring all of myself to the party–the sad parts as well as the hopeful parts, the tears and smiles, winces and hugs, serious and silly words.  When my uncomfortable emotions are welcomed, my winsome emotions have room to express themselves genuinely rather than as a pretense.  Let me weep freely with you, and the laughter you hear will be deep-hearted as well.  My soul is chilled when I’m pressured to be false to myself, to express inflated or deflated feelings to please others who care more for an acceptable presence than a true presence.  Of course some contexts call for safe, superficial connections, and in that sense every office party is a masked ball, but then everyone enjoys it for what it is–play acting–and does not confuse it for genuine connection.

But even “genuine” can be a canny facade.  Many folks who think they are being real are so cut off from their own heart that they are simply reacting, sharing the surface emotions they feel in the moment that serve to disguise–even to themselves–the deeper underlying emotional currents, the submerged rip-tides that are too threatening to acknowledge.  Under the intense pressure of Christmas conformity, these can burst out suddenly and without warning.  Anger can cover for shame, tears can hide anger, cheerfulness can mask fear.  The underlying emotions which are unacceptable or painful are transmuted into acceptable or comfortable feelings. The intensity of those feelings may wake us to some deep lying issues but will fog up our skills for interpreting them.

The inflated expectations of the holidays is not a safe harbor to dry-dock the soul and begin to scrape away decades of clinging barnacles.  Sometimes the best any of us can do is try to ride out the storm of cross-current conflicts that arise.  But these family gatherings are rich with telltale signs of underlying issues, and once we get enough distance to look back with compassion and insight, we may be filled with fresh personal discovery.  Next year we can bring more of our true selves to the party and welcome the true selves of others as we grow into the grace of understanding and accepting ourselves and others more fully.

Posted December 18, 2014 by janathangrace in thoughts

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Death of Hope   6 comments

As Kimberly and I walked our dogs yesterday, I shuffled through my disjointed thoughts and feelings, arranging and rearranging them, trying to sort out with her the contours of my despair.  For two weeks I have felt crushed by the racial divides in our country, but unable to speak, silenced by the angry retorts that always come.  “Why do I feel such deep despair in hearing that dissent?” I asked Kimberly.  “It’s natural to be discouraged,” I went on, “since I smart when my thoughts are rejected and I grieve for those condemned by the critical reactions.  I can see a handful of reasons to be disheartened, but my anguish is so much deeper than that and crushes me at hearing just one or two retorts.  Why do I despair?”

After an hour of trying to fit the emotional pieces together it became clear that I was suffering from the collapse of my worldview.  I have struggled for two decades with my own impotence to change the world in some small way (as I mentioned here),  but I faced that personal uselessness by clinging to a broader hope for the world–that others would bring the change I could not.  If I was not a player on the winning team, I could still cheer on the good guys from the bleachers.  This year it has slowly been dawning on me that my hope is misplaced.  My team will not save the day, we cannot save the day, we are not saviors.  In fact, we are all in as much need of a Savior as the rest of the world around us.  We are all broken.  And along with our broken world we await the day of redemption.

I don’t mean to suggest that we can bring no good to the world.  We must work to bind up our little tattered corners of society, but ultimately it is a patchwork affair, a jerry-rigging until the Great Healer comes to bring us true and full peace at last.  As grace-infused people, we do not offer a resolution on this day, but a resolve until that day, we hold up a light of hope in this dark, troubled world.  That doesn’t seem much like the “Christmas spirit” of sleigh bells, bright lights, and belly-laughing Santas, but perhaps I misunderstand the true meaning of advent hope.

“Oh, come, oh, come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lowly exile here until the Son of God appear.”  Those words rang so true to my forlorn spirit, that they brought me to tears this week, tears of heartache but also of hope: “Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”  We cling to the first advent in expectation of the second.

Posted December 11, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal

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The 12th Day of Christmas   2 comments

Today is epiphany, when the Eastern church once originally celebrated Jesus’ birth.  So we might say it is second Christmas.  Our lights are still up inside and out.  And our tree’s up.  We are still munching seasonal chocolates.  I continue to play Christmas music in my car.  I’m not ready yet to bid these days adieu, especially in place of the dark, cold months of winter that stifle the year’s last hurrah.  I want to hold onto some of the good this holiday brings: a cheerfulness and warmth toward strangers, a celebratory cadence in my steps, a lift in my heart’s song above the daily drudge.

Why does the mundane always drag us back from our festivals, tugging like gravity till our balloons lie all deflated and cheerless.  How might I bring some of this rhythm and light, some of this forgetfulness and memory back with me into the daily round of chores and schedules?  I don’t want or need more obligation by adding to my diligence an imposed cheerfulness, a forced smile, and so make my grinding tasks even more burdensome.  No, I rather want to lighten the driving duties of the day, bring some sunlight into the shadowed spaces.  Any thoughts my friends?

Posted January 7, 2014 by janathangrace in thoughts

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Feeling Good about Christmas   2 comments

xmas tree outBefore realizing what I had done, I started a post with the title “Holding onto the Good,” and the good referred to Christmas spirits.  I was falling into the American error of confusing the good with good feelings, when truly the good often comes with the worst feelings possible. One of my fundamental life commitments is this: embrace the hard to gain the good, regardless of how it feels.  But culture sucks me back into assuming that good feelings are the reward for good choices, that I can measure my spiritual pulse by how positive I feel, and negative feelings are a mark that I’ve slipped up somewhere.  No wonder I want to leave up the tinsel and lights and stretch out this season to push back the bleak winter.  That, and it just feels better.  Who doesn’t want to feel good?!

For my LOTR friends

For my LOTR friends

I affirm that desire: feeling good is not all bad.  A sense of well-being gives me more energy to make the world a better place.  It is a great blessing and resource.  Like all resources, however, it can be turned to self interest.  It can make me balk at choosing the hard or painful or costly. It can make me less patient, understanding, and sympathetic towards those who are struggling… even wanting to shove them away to insulate and save my positive vibes.   Good feelings are emotional cash, which can be spent well or poorly.  I’d like to have a big stash, but that’s not necessarily what’s best for my soul.  In my experience, suffering has much more potential power in shaping me for good, true good.

Still I instinctively avoid it and wish it away.  Pushing ahead through pain is like walking up to my knees in mud–it takes all my energy, gives no pleasure, and progress seems dismally slow.  Perhaps my New Year’s resolution should be: learn to slog, which no doubt means adjusting my goals, expectations, and evaluations.  Sometimes the measure of triumph is simply taking one more step.

truck in mud

Posted January 4, 2014 by janathangrace in thoughts

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Putting Christ Back in Christmas   4 comments

simeonFor centuries before Jesus’ birth, the Jewish people waited for the coming Messiah… and for centuries after His birth, they waited still.  As a whole, they found no hope in Christ because he brought no hope, not of the kind they wanted–a Savior who would deliver their nation.  They expected the Messiah to save them from their enemies, not to save them from themselves.  I think many of today’s religious people have the same mix-up.

To speak faith into current issues, I started another blog (here).  I took that conversation elsewhere to keep this blog safe for readers because controversy often creates anger, especially among the religiously committed, increasingly so in our polarized country.  This Christian acrimony is deeply disturbing to me because it feels contrary to the Spirit of Christ.  Many believe that the great danger in our world today is the moral drift of society and that we must take a stand against the enemy that assaults us with godlessness.

But Christ did not come to save me from the moral decay outside myself, to place me in a safer world.  He came to save me from the moral rot inside myself, from spiritual distortion and blindness, from self-loathing and self-worship, from the pride that would perseverate on the sins of others rather than my own. Let us put Christ back in Christmas by focusing on our own drift away from Him rather than on the drift of our society.  His second advent will heal the world as a whole, but my present hope is in His promise to start that redemptive work in me.

Posted December 30, 2013 by janathangrace in thoughts

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Christmas Eve Morning   Leave a comment

ChristmasIt is Christmas eve morning and I have not followed through with my intention to post regularly through the season.  Then again, perhaps it is not too late as the 12 days of Christmas still lie ahead to carry us to the Epiphany–if you follow the old calendar.  This was not a tradition my childhood family kept, so the day after Christmas was a huge letdown, all the magic and sparkle wrung out with only the empty winter days dragging on, drabness taken to a new low.  But of course the first Christmas was not an ending, but a new beginning of the most dramatic and transformative kind, not only from the human perspective of a first child’s birth, but of the entrance of God himself into our dark world with His presence and goodness.  The light of the world burst on us that night, so let the celebration begin, and don’t be too quick to take down and box up the strings of blinking laughter.

Posted December 24, 2013 by janathangrace in thoughts

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Christmas Droplets   Leave a comment

Dec. 10

I try to notice the small gifts of each day, collecting them like shells on the beach, appreciating each for what it offers:  a country walk on a sunny, brisk day, a snuggling puppy, a connection with Kimberly on a call I nearly missed.  While a blueberry roll, even a basketful, can no more repair a heavy heart than seashells can rescue a trashy beach, it is still a benediction, however small, and during advent I’d like some Christmas shaped blessings, little seasonal sacraments with which to trim my day and focus my heart on the Coming One who is always present, a paradox and mystery worth contemplating.

Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.

I’ll have to think about it and get back with you.

Posted December 11, 2013 by janathangrace in Personal

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Holiday Cheer Is Overrated   2 comments

Dec. 9 Is It Me or Christmas That’s Broken?

Did I seem morose in yesterday’s post?  I found it soothing.  When I trust God’s acceptance of me, mess and all, it gives me a sense of release, of lightness, even sometimes joy.  This evening Kimberly and I lit some scented candles, turned off the lights, and celebrated Christmas by meditating on the words so reflective of our experience:

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way
with painful steps and slow

Look now, for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing;
O rest beside the weary road,
and hear the angels sing!

I was suddenly struck by the appropriateness of our experience and feelings in this season.  It was to such as us that Jesus came.  He came to “preach the gospel to the poor.”  In December our whole society rises up to call the cheerful blessed.  I feel out of place.  It is the biggest holiday of the whole year, filled with happiness and laughter and peppy greetings to random strangers.  “Holiday” is a linguistic child of “Holy day,” but it is the prodigal son that hollowed out his father’s meaning and ended up with all the froth and little of the substance.  Berly and I listened to a popular Youtube rendition of “It Came Upon a Midnight, Clear,” but it had elided this middle verse.  No one wants to hear about life’s crushing load at Christmas!  No one but Jesus.  That’s exactly what He came to hear… and to heal.  Although the healing hope of this chorus is the next life (according to verse 3). Today’s joy then, muted as it may be, does not flow from our present success and comfort for “in this world you will have tribulation,” a promise of Jesus we’d like to leave unclaimed under the tree.  The birth of Mary’s child rather opens the door for us into a world to come where all tears will be wiped away, and that is our hope, our future hope.  Relief for my pain does not come here and now, but comfort comes into my pain because Jesus sees it and is moved by it, and his heart bleeds with mine.  He does not need me to be cheerful, even on His birthday!  Tonight that verse clenched my heart till the tears came in realization of a loving Savior who sees and knows and embraces me in my misery.

Posted December 10, 2013 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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When Nothing is Everything   2 comments

The status quo is just another word for complacency or resignation in my book, it stinks of the stocks.  For me, hope is tied to change, so when progress is blocked I despond.  I don’t go down easily–I have always been a fighter–but I crippled my emotional resources fighting for the wrong end with the wrong means, and since I crawled from the field of battle, my rehabilitation seems to have no end.  I’ve been working on my recovery for over a decade.  At this rate, my convalescent home will become my retirement home; my life’s purpose has drained off like water from a cracked barrel.  How do I celebrate Christmas on crutch and braces?  What gift can I bring to God?  I have nothing, nothing but a broken heart.  What I have, I give.

“A broken and contrite heart you will not despise.”

Posted December 9, 2013 by janathangrace in Personal

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Kinks in the Christmas Spirit   2 comments

Dec. 2: Simplicity: Spirituality on Rations

Charlie Brown treeKimberly and I are boxed in by limited resources, especially emotional resources.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit” Jesus said, and though it doesn’t feel blessed, I find it carries a spiritual wealth that others miss.  In fact, the really hard part of our experience is not from our personal limits, but from our society’s values and judgments.  Our daily choices must break through a constant barrage that threatens to swamp us.  Our society has traded in Jesus’ version of abundant life for the American version of abundant life.  It is now measured by success above faithfulness, impact above humility, drive above being, power above brokenness.  How can we grasp in today’s world any sense of the blessedness of poverty?

Here are a few of the riches we found in our own experience of poverty.

1) Focused orientation: Excess breeds a casual spirit.  With few resources comes a focused life.  Superficiality is stripped away, and the things that really matter really matter.  If you have one true friend, for example, you learn a depth of friendship that a crowd of pals won’t teach.exclamation

2) True values: Someone with a folder of opportunities and a stash of resources has a wide range of choices.  Those of us with few resources must guard our priorities or suffer dearly for it.  Since my spirit falters under criticism, for instance, I choose carefully the issues on which I take a public stand.  I have not always been this way–I used to voice every disagreement with relish, aggressively.  That was not good for me or my relationships, or even good for the truth.  It was a potent defense mechanism, which I have laid aside, making myself much more vulnerable, but also more authentic, a high value for me now.

3) Enhanced growth: I expected in theory that more resources would create more potential and freedom, but I found in experience that suffering and stringency are much more fertile soils for self-discovery and growth.  When life is smooth, I have little need or motivation to go plowing up my soul, but daily struggle demands attention.  Patience and courage and perseverance and faith are strengthened by the obstacles we face.

fragile box4) Deepened empathy: Recent studies have shown that those who have more care less about others.  Statistically, the poor are more generous than the rich.  Those of us who feel threatened and battered by life can better understand and feel compassion for others like us, and we feel safer with someone whose soul has been deeply cut.  The tender are tender.

5) Healing relationships: Deep connection doesn’t come through sharing our strengths and abilities, but rather, like grafted branches, our exposed wounds bind us together in a living, vital way.  It is in shared weakness and want that we create strong community.  When the window dressing is stripped off–all our efforts to look good and capable and successful–then the real me can connect with the real you, and acceptance of my true self has astounding power to heal.grafted branch

I can resent my poverty or scrabble to escape it or pretend it isn’t there, but when I embrace my poverty, the true spirit of Christmas is released.

Posted December 3, 2013 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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