The Weighty Light of Christmas

I find myself staring at this Kleenex box for a few moments. In the most lovely winter blue color with the most lovely pattern of words in different fonts and sizes – joy FAMILY cheers Love HAPPINESS – it’s both functional and wonderfully decorative for the holiday season. It feeds my desire to feel as though I’ve really got all my bases covered in keeping up with a complete celebration of Christmas, if I’ve got not just the tree, not just the lights, not just the wrapped gifts, not just the mailed cards, not just the cozy décor, not just the kids’ Christmas outfits, not just the seasonal scented soaps, not just the special sugary treats, but even my Kleenex box for crying out loud (no pun intended) has got the most lovely winter Christmas design.

I do appreciate this for what it is. My family is comfortable, safe and well-fed, we have a home to decorate, and this is not to be underestimated. Life is refreshingly simple for my girls. They shriek with such joy every evening when the lights on the tree and house turn on, it tempers the obligation I feel to drive them across town through frantic pre-Christmas traffic in search of more spectacular light shows. For a few weeks, our home is extra sparkly, extra cozy, extra festive, fit for a King. It is so easy to ignite the girls’ sense of wonder with the most simple special thing. It is a sweet and precious time. God I love Christmas this way.

Going a bit deeper. The sparkles, the cozy feelings, the festivities, they are – and they aren’t – just a superficial treat. They can highlight the beauty of my children’s relative innocence and refresh our weary, over-complicated adult hearts. They can be a foreshadowing of the Day of Redemption when God makes all things new once and forever, kindling our souls during Advent to look forward with greater longing for that Day.

Deeper. We would still be missing out though, if this was all our Christmas was about. The veneer of this Christmas, sparkly as it may be, can serve at best as a temporary cover to push away thoughts of Aleppo, angst over current U.S. politics, and sobering grief for the little patient in our hospital unit who has yet to find out half his family died in the freak car accident that has left him with life-threatening injuries throughout his little body. If celebrating Christmas is just about producing a month of sparkles made complete with a charming, well-marketed Kleenex box, well then Christmas is not entirely for the disadvantaged and certainly not for the semi-conscious child clinging to life in the hospital or Aleppo. The sparkly version of Christmas, it comes and goes, fills and disappoints – both, and.

But there’s more, even more.

Christmas is for the heart asking, God, do You know what it is to be poor? In newborn Jesus who took his place next to animals and their dung at His birth, who grew into an adult with no place to lay His head, He says yes. Yes, I know what it is to be poor, and I am Emmanuel, God with you.

God, do You know what it is to feel lonely? In Jesus who was perpetually misunderstood and ultimately forsaken by His closest friends in His time of greatest need, He says yes. Yes, I know what it is to be lonely, and I am Emmanuel, God with you.

God, do You know what it is to suffer tremendous physical illness and pain? In Jesus, already brutally beaten and then nailed to suffer, suffocate, and die on the cross, He says yes. Yes, I know what it is to suffer tremendous physical illness, pain, and a horrific death, and I am Emmanuel, God with you.

God, do You know what it is to lose a member of the family? I mean, that member of the family who was your best friend, your safest place? In the Father giving Jesus to not only walk in our footsteps but then die the most agonizing death in our stead, He says yes. Yes, I know what it is to lose a member of your family, and I am Emmanuel, God with you.

God, do You know what it is to feel shame and isolation? In Jesus, who took every shameful secret unbelievable disappointing discouraging what-was-I-thinking, what-if-they-knew sin from our dark souls onto His otherwise completely pure self, and had His beloved Father turn His face away in fury and disgust from Him rather than from us, He says yes. Yes, I know what it is to feel devastating shame and isolation, and I am Emmanuel, God with you.

BUT GOD, do you know that nations of people feel as though You have forsaken them? In Jesus, who came through the fulfillment of centuries of prophecies, through the lineage of souls both righteous and not, through the sovereign rise and fall of nations, through a very long period of seemingly complete silence from God where nothing in the history books seemed to have anything to show of God being anywhere at work amongst mankind, there He was. The beautiful, radical, upside-down, rightside-up, unfolding of God’s wise and loving sovereignty over all of history. There He was, Jesus, saying yes. Yes, I know it feels that I have forgotten about the nations, but here I am; I am Emmanuel, God with you.

He is with us. In all of this. In all that we find ourselves in this Christmas 2016, a year so many are cursing from every angle. The sparkles and the shame, the glory and the grief, the songs and the silence.


this is wonderous.

O come, O come, Emmanuel.


your secret is safe with me

I am all at once a wonderful and a terrible secret-keeper. If others tell me of their own deeply private and personal matters, I can carry those things with me to the grave. But of my own private matters, there are really quite few, for better or for worse. I suppose the public offering of this blog’s contents would suggest as much. People tell me at times that they appreciate my raw honesty expressed here. For me, I can’t really think of expressing myself any other way. I would feel too fake, on a much too public scale. And perhaps I’m looking for a certain kind of safety or acceptance; if I put myself out there and my friends are still my friends, then maybe I’ve got a safer place in this world than I sometimes realize.

Christmas has passed, and I thought a lot about Mary, when she learned she was going to bear a son, Jesus, in her very virginal state. She had a secret, and it was big, and it was eventually going to become very, very public. Very scandalous. Very controversial. The implications were huge. Surely her heart ached for support, advice, sympathy. Surely she feared the judgment, the misunderstandings, the unwelcome and unjustified criticism. Where was her safe place, and with whom? Scripture doesn’t actually tell us a lot about what went on in her internal processing of her unexpected pregnancy. All we know is that she “pondered all of these things in her heart,” she sang a song of worship, and she went forward with commitment and indescribable sacrifice in her relationships to her fiancé and her unborn son. God was all at once the Author of scandal in her life, and her very safe place. She rested in the assurance that He knew her, all of her, and she was safe in Him when her secret spilled out and the people around her decided what they wanted to make of it all.

Some secrets are better kept low-key. The media does not need, and dare I say, does not deserve, to uncover and distribute it all. Some secrets are meant to be secret for only a certain amount of time, a right amount of time, and then they are to be shared and celebrated by all. What I’m pondering these days is why secrets can be so hard to keep, and why a safe place can sometimes be so hard to find.

a letter for my soul

I am in tears over Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Oh, my soul.

I’ve been losing sight of the Lord, slowly, subtly, surely. Life has gotten busy and ambitious and it seems my ego has risen a bit too much to the challenge. I’ve been unusually obsessed with control (and if you knew my usual level of obsession, you’d know that’s saying a lot) – trying to control things at home, at church, at work, so that all my raucous ducks are in a row, so that all that is wrong or imperfect can be made right (by me… as if), so that I don’t have to admit that I’m just so terribly uncomfortable with feeling out of control. I can’t get the termites or the fleas or the clutter or others’ opinions or others’ shortcomings or my shortcomings or my patients’ changing statuses or their parents’ anxieties or my anxieties over it all, under control. Oh dear, pour me another cup of coffee. I’ve grown convinced by some deceitful voice that obtaining control means obtaining peace, and losing control means losing peace. The resulting simmering anger and frustration has, with just a minimal increase in heat here and there, occasionally brimmed over and I haven’t been able to put a lid on it.

It is exhausting trying to usurp the place of God.

Here comes Paul. He’s in prison. His life hasn’t gone according to plan, but he’s rejoicing. Because God is in control despite the awful cliché, and so Paul assures his anxious friends in Philippi, “I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel,” “I know that this will turn out for my deliverance,” and ultimately, “to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

His life is complicated, but so simple. He is bound up in chains, but he is so free. He knows the One in whom his life rests and that’s all he needs to know. “I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

And of course, because I’ve lost sight of the One who really matters, the good and sovereign and wise King, I’ve been obsessed with my ego. I love my Facebook likes and my blog followers and all my praise. This I confess. I exploit my own self to promote myself. What depths of sin and self-deceit.

Here comes Christ, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God. He made Himself nothing, of no reputation, taking the form of a servant. I nailed Him once to the cross with my pride, twice with my unrighteous anger, a third time with my envy, a fourth with my critical heart. And then He took it all and bled and wept and died from it and got buried with it all. But oh my soul, He rose again above even those depths to show that He who began a good work in me would still be able to carry it to completion. It is He who works in me to will and to do for His good pleasure now, not to make me a slave but to make me free.

And so it’s time for me to relearn how to do all things without complaining and disputing. To count all of man’s praise and approval and promotion as loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ. And believe me, my secret heart has counted it all, taliied my points to give myself those big gold stars. It’s time to put that behind me again and press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me.

It’s time to rejoice, and again, rejoice. Quell the anxiety. Hallelujah, I don’t have to be in control of it all. Lift up prayer and thanksgiving. Let generosity and gentleness and contentment be mine because He is on the throne and I am not, and so all is right with my world again.

He is the King, and I am His child.

Oh my soul, again I say, rejoice.

Reblogged: Can Grief and Joy Coexist?

I deeply appreciate the honesty of this blog. I have lost my stomach for pat answers laden in overspiritualized vocabulary that invalidate the reality of what people experience when life is just honestly, hard. I have a deeper hunger for something both honest and real when we talk about joy in Christ, because of Christ. The same Christ who knew the Father was good, loving, and in complete control when He was broken on the cross and asked why He had been forsaken. He knew He wasn’t back Home yet, and He knows we are not either, not yet. This is the Savior I love, in whom I hope and in whom I can rejoice.

Clearing Customs

There is a phrase in Mandarin Chinese, bei xi jiao ji (悲喜交集), meaning “mixed feelings of grief and joy.” Grief and joy aren’t commonly thought of as partners, but when faced with loss, cross-cultural workers need to understand that one doesn’t necessarily cancel the other one out.

Expressing Grief

Dr. Steve Sweatman, president and CEO of Mission Training International (MTI), says that the call to take the gospel of Christ to another culture “inevitably is a call to sacrifice, to losses, to things that you will have to leave behind or give up.” This sacrifice takes many forms, and MTI has identified five categories of loss experienced by Christian cross-cultural workers. They are

  • a stable home
  • identity
  • competence
  • support systems
  • a sense of safety

In an audio presentation at Member Care Radio (entitled “Good Grief“), Sweatman also discusses the differences between concrete and abstract losses felt by cross-cultural…

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