Remembering Christmas: 2008

I continue reminiscing about Christmas past (mainly because I’ve not had time or mental energy to come up with a new Christmas meditation for this year – maybe this next week? It promises to be quiet … no more Christmas parties or Christmas cards left to be mailed after this weekend.)

Life situation: Seth was in his final year of seminary; we were wondering where we would be moving once graduation came in May 2009; I was still working at two churches doing counseling and pastoral care (respectively); we had our first “informal” interview in Norfolk at the church where we were going to end up.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year – or The Most Stressful?

December 15, 2008


Christmas stockings hung by a crackling fire. A mug of a hot steamy beverage — like hot cocoa or apple cider. Peaceful Christmas carols playing in the background. The cheerful hum of conversation with beloved friends and family. Twinkling lights from an evergreen tree decorated with ornaments spanning the decades. Children’s choirs singing. Goodwill and cheer.

Or frantic shopping for the relative who always disdains whatever you buy. Addressing card after card after card … to friends you only contact once a year with exchanged annual updates and Christmas pictures. Trying to fit in every party. Wrapping gifts incessantly. A higher level of stress and angst.

Which describes this season for you? And is the first paragraph merely an ideal we all hope for but will never obtain? If you live in paragraph two, how can you move to paragraph one? Is it possible?

I had a conversation with a good friend last week, and she told me that she wasn’t doing all of the stress this year. She was going to emphasize what was important, and she’s intentionally spending time going out with friends rather than wandering aimlessly in the mall for hours looking for gifts for people who don’t need anything. Another friend decided with her husband that they weren’t sending Christmas cards this year — and they both felt instant freedom in this. More time freed up to do what’s actually important. I’ve known people who gave generous year-end gifts to charity instead of spending exorbitant amounts of money on gifts to family. (and who needs it more, really? especially this year!)

Now I’m not saying that buying gifts for family and friends or sending out Christmas cards is essentially stressful or moves away from the meaning of the season. I’ve done both — and actually had fun doing it — but I am asking you how you make it the most wonderful time of the year instead of the most dreaded. Ideas? Thoughts? Tell them — for the good of all of us!

Remembering Christmas: 2007

I’m going to do a bit of a “through the years” this December and re-post previous Christmas meditations. I’ll start with my very first Christmas post, the one a few months after I began blogging for the first time.

Life situation: Seth and I had been married for a year, and I was in my first year post-graduation of working as a counselor and pastoral care assistant for two different churches

Here it is –

‘Tis the Season – December 10, 2007longwood gardens Christmas

How would you complete that phrase? “Tis the season … ” To fight crowds in hopes of finding the perfect gifts for that relative who has everything? To make sure you get your Christmas cards out in time? To fill your schedule with holiday parties? To forget what all of this is about: celebrating, giving and receiving gifts, singing carols, decorating your home, attending parties, going to special services and events?

Every year it seems that I fight the same thing — missing Christmas for the hustle and bustle surrounding it. Yet this year has been slightly different. Yes, it’s busy. Yes, I have braved the crowded shops and malls to purchase gifts (and still have a few remaining to buy). We haven’t done Christmas cards — but I want to and plan on at least doing an email Christmas update. So what is different?

A bit more time to reflect. Just a bit. No final exams for the first time in three years has allowed for more time to enjoy this season. To slow down, to remember, to reflect.

At one of the parties of the past week, I was talking to someone about her dinner group that she’s a part of. She made the offhand comment, “It’s so great to meet monthly because that way I don’t have to try to keep up with each person individually.” And for a second, I absolutely agreed with her. It makes sense to my mind that seems programmed to seek efficiency. But is that really love? Or is that viewing people as one more task, obligation, duty?

And imagine if God had decided on the efficient route of salvation. I don’t think it would have involved God becoming a human baby, born in a dingy stable amidst animals. I don’t think it would have meant that Jesus was poor. He could have suddenly appeared in all His glory to be the King of the world, abolishing poverty, sickness and sorrow in an instant and calling all people to follow His reign. Because He’s God, He could have also made all people’s hearts turn toward Him instantaneously.

But He chose instead a path of “inefficiency” as we might label it today. He was born to the poor; His birth announcement came not to the highest officials of the land but to shepherds on the nightwatch. He had to be fully human (while remaining fully God) so He could offer full salvation. The promise of redemption and hope to “a people dwelling in darkness” (from a prophecy in Isaiah 9). And this path ended in excruciating suffering at the cross. Suffering never fits with my definition of efficient.

My challenge as I pause to reflect at moments this year is to remember Christ’s birth — to reflect on this great salvation, this amazing miracle, that came to the humblest and the poorest. To take a break from my efficient goals and actually love the people around me by taking time to enter into their lives wherever they are. This is the mystery of the incarnation.

What Every Mom Wants For Christmas

I have reached an age where I do know that Christmas is much more the presents I receive (at least most of the time I believe this – ha, ha). It is certainly more about the joy in giving gifts to others, which reflects the joy of receiving THE gift of God-wrapped-in-human-flesh. However, I could not pass up the opportunity for a little humorous break to reveal what’s on my (secret) Christmas wish list this year:

1. Regular nap times that last in duration of at least 1.5 hours so that I can get something done in addition to showering and making my bed

2. A few days where I don’t have to do laundry

3. Being able to wear an outfit twice before having to do said laundry (meaning it has escaped the dangers of being a tissue for a snotty nose or a spare burp cloth for the surprising spit-up or the overflow for diaper leakage)

4. Diapers that will change themselves

5. High chair trays that magnetically catch all flying food – keeping it from landing on the floor, carpet, clothes, or the other twin

6. Sippy cups that really are spill-proof

7. A night out without having to arrange for a babysitter or figure out instructions for said babysitter (Seth’s giving me this tonight with the help of a dear couple from our church – thank you!)

8. Guarantee of an illness-free week (or month if I’m really dreaming)

9. A day off without feeling guilty or wondering how my babies are doing without me

10. Probably the most important one, hence, it’s #10 – The perspective to realize that these sometimes clingy, fussy, sleepless 15-month-olds will one day too soon be 15-year-olds who have no need (in their minds) or desire to spend time with their Mom. And so the GRACE to enjoy each day with these babies as the gifts that they are.

Christmas Begins with Confession

What a strange juxtaposition – Christmas and confession? Really, Heather? Are you sure that’s not just mommy brain talking? Well, no, I’m not sure, says the one who is very thankful for a hidden key, who was locked into my office by my twins one afternoon, who knocked over our Christmas tree (pictured here “before”), who currently has red wine splattered all over my kitchen ceiling due to a sauteing attempt gone wrong … ok, you get the point. At some point, I’ll publish a book of funny incidences that have happened since having children.

But for this afternoon, I want to share what I’ve been thinking about this Advent season – that, in fact, Christmas begins with confession. As I have been meditating on Psalm 51 after studying it for a talk I gave at our weekly women’s Bible study, confession seems to be something that I have a hard time grasping. It’s because I want to be right all the time. It’s because I want to be self-sufficient, not dependent on a God who became as weak as a little baby so that He could become my moment-to-moment strength. It’s because I find myself so wrapped up in the culture’s definition of what makes me valuable and worthy that I forget both (a) how unworthy I am of this God’s love and salvation grace and (b) how valuable I am because this God-come-near left heaven for earth to rescue me from the cultural standards I’ll never reach and the sin that makes me grasp at them.

As I have been seeking to count “1000 gifts” Ann Voskamp-style, my eyes have been more open to how ungrateful I can be. In fact, I often view life with hidden bitterness and smoldering resentment. Why is this? Instead of accepting God’s graces as a gift, I am prideful and think that I deserve them – in fact, that I’m so good that I’m entitled to them.

And so in order to celebrate Christmas truly, I must start with confession. Confessing that I am unworthy of the best gift that could possibly be given to me, and even worse, that I am often blind to my need for this gift. Confessing that I need the gift disguised in a baby born to a poor family in a cave in an obscure part of a no-name Israelite town (Bethlehem didn’t have any songs praising it for being little before Christ’s birth there). Confessing that I need others to open their hearts to me in confession so that I will remember how much I need it and how I, too, struggle with sin’s insidious influence. Confessing that you and I are much more similar than we are different because of the rescuing grace of God sent forth in a little baby. It’s a beautiful message that resonates with the deepest part of every person – so much so that we are immersed in a season that celebrates it in every holiday song, each house lit with twinkling lights, every tree adorned with ornaments and laden with gifts. And, no, not every person realizes this or in their Christmas celebration gives glory to the God who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14)- but one day, they will. So I invite you to start now by confessing with me all the ways you, too, need this humble Savior.

Yea, Lord, we greet thee,
Born this happy morning;
Jesus, to thee be glory given!
Word of the Father,
Now in flesh appearing!
Oh, come, let us adore him,
Oh, come, let us adore him,
Oh, come, let us adore him,
Christ the Lord.

a few stolen moments for an Advent meditation

Peace. Quiet. Calm. Rare commodities in our house full of three month old twins. Yet commodities much less rare now than in the first few months. Three months really is a good marker as far as it getting easier to parent twins (just like all my friend said it would be).

And so I take these moments for an Advent meditation. What’s struck me this season is the vulnerability Jesus subjected himself to in becoming flesh and dwelling among us. Our daughters are completely dependent on us. Without our 24/7 attention, they would be unable to grow and thrive. And Jesus, the God of the entire universe, became like us. Started off at the same place: dependence. Utter dependence on the ones HE created. Allowing himself to be weak and helpless like the babies we gently cradle in our arms – the One who is the only source of life and breath and strength. Knowing better than we know ourselves the depth of our sin and weakness, Jesus willingly took on humanity beginning in infancy and entrusted himself to one of us. Knowing how the end of the story would turn out, he stepped down into our world so that he could rewrite the story of a broken humanity. Redeem us. Give us hope. Show us the glory of the only God.

Beginning as a baby. And so perhaps there is more glory and grace to be found in the faces of our little ones than we knew. For this is where Jesus’ fullness of glory began, too – clothed in the face of a child.

“And of his fullness, we have received grace upon grace.” (from John 1)

reflections in the New Year

Keeping a journal is probably one of the best ways for me to remember God’s work in the past – His faithfulness and steadfast love. So occasionally, I will re-read old journals to be reminded of what God’s done … and I usually also am reminded that many of the struggles I have now are not new! I’ve been there before – and so has God. In my journal, I write about the day and reflect on whatever passage from the Bible I’m read as well as writing down any quotes from books I’m reading. In reviewing a journal from 2008, I found the following quotes – that certainly speak to me as much now as they did then.

“For too long we have been in a far country: a country of noise and hurry and crowds, a country of climb and push and shove, a country of frustration and fear and intimidation. And He [God the Father] welcomes us home: home to serenity and peace and joy, home to friendship and fellowship and openness, home to intimacy and acceptance and affirmation.” – Richard Foster

“A common but futile strategy for achieving joy is trying to eliminate things that hurt: get rid of pain by numbing the nerve ends, get rid of insecurity by eliminating risks, get rid of disappointment by depersonalizing your relationships. And then try to lighten the boredom of such a life by buying joy in the form of vacations and entertainment.” – Eugene Peterson

So that brings me to two resolutions for this new year and the new decade … ones that I will probably keep repeating until the day that Christ takes me Home to heaven: (1) to find my home and rest in God in a deeper way (2) to pursue true joy – not escapes or false substitutes for it.

Did you make any New Year’s resolutions? If so, what were they?

Just FYI – other posts I wrote about resolutions: [scroll down to the bottom of the pages for the resolutions entries]  2006, 20072008

Advent meditations week 4/Christmas: love

As I am surrounded by loving family this Christmas, it is not hard to reflect on the love of God in Christ this holiday is meant to celebrate. Yet I know that for so many, Christmas becomes a painful reminder of the absence of love. Perhaps it’s the memory of a loved one who has passed away. Or maybe it’s physical distance from one(s) you love. Or emotional/relational distance due to conflict or feuding. Into this pain that the word “love” can hold, the beauty of Christ our Redeemer becomes even more powerful. Here is one whose love is eternal in measure, depth, quality, essence. No good-bye is ever forever; no fighting will cause conflict too great for reconciliation; there is even hope for life beyond death.

Where? And how? The promise of God is no haphazard well-meaning wish. It’s a covenant of Love guaranteed by blood. The blood of his son, Jesus, sent to earth as a vulnerable baby. Birthed in a cave. Cradled in a feeding trough. Celebrated by lowly shepherds. Rejoiced over by angels. Worshiped by kings from the East. Despised by the king (Herod) in his homeland. Anticipated by a prophet (Simeon) and a prophetess (Anna) in the temple. Announced by the prophet Zephaniah centuries beforehand, who spoke this about this one who would come to bring eternal Love. Listen and rejoice that there is such a Love – found through a saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ: [substitute “daughter of Zion,” “Israel,” “Jerusalem” with your name]

14Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter of Jerusalem!
15The LORD has taken away the judgments against you;
he has cleared away your enemies.
The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst;
you shall never again fear evil.
16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:”Fear not, O Zion;
let not your hands grow weak.
17The LORD your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.

18I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival,

so that you will no longer suffer reproach.

19Behold, at that time I will deal
with all your oppressors.
And I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
20At that time I will bring you in,
at the time when I gather you together;
for I will make you renowned and praised
among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
before your eyes,” says the LORD.

Advent meditations week 3: joy

Christmas joy as a child seems to come more easily than for us too-often-jaded (and stressed out) adults. I reflected on this in a post 4 years ago. The cynical side of me dismisses that with the explanation that a child’s joy is often an adult’s stress (like all of their gifts they open gleefully on Christmas morning). Or with a reflection on a child’s naive belief compared to an adult’s “innocence lost.” (who doesn’t remember how disillusioning it was to learn the truth about Santa?) But then there’s the part of me that is fighting cynicism and remembers Jesus’ words in Mark 10:15 –

I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.

And so perhaps this Christmas, we need to learn from the children around us and enter into true Christmas joy. Pure delight and awe and enthusiasm for this season. For Christians, we have every reason to rejoice at what is celebrated – God becoming man – and this week’s Advent readings reminded me of this hopeful mystery.

It began in a strange place: Habakkuk 3, but with a chapter that closes in verses that have given me joy in the midst of some of the darkest and saddest seasons –

17Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.

What this seems to mean is that God is his strength. Not his “herds” or “vines” or “fields” or “fig trees.” (I’m thinking “money” or “career” or “marriage” or “friendships” or anything else I think will give me strength only promised by God.) When all of that is stripped away, he still has joy because he has God. And because God has come to earth in the person of Jesus Christ and now dwells in the hearts of all who believe, there is the promise that God will never leave me. And so neither will joy.

Joy is guaranteed by the coming of the “Helper” – the Holy Spirit who will reveal all things and who guarantees that we will see Jesus again and be filled with joy. (John 16:5-28) I get a taste of this future joy now as I pray in my Father’s name and watch him answer prayer. As well as when I listen to and read God’s Word – when God works its effect on me, I will “go out in joy”  and “be led forth in peace” because that is the purpose for which he gives His Word. (Isaiah 55:9-13)

Psalm 66, 96, Isaiah 12, and 1 Peter 1:3-9 expand on the concept of Christmas joy by giving reason after reason to “shout for joy to God, all the earth …” (Psalm 66:1). It’s a joy at the gifts we’ve received, not unlike children on Christmas morning. The difference is that these are gifts that have been guaranteed to last forever and which will impart a joy to carry us even through the trials of life. And perhaps that trial includes Christmas this year – the promise is that there is yet a joy to be found and celebrated.

Advent meditations week 2: peace

Peace: what an elusive concept this time of year! And yet it is the heart of Christmas. Who needs peace? Perhaps images of war in the middle east come to mind. Or maybe it’s closer to home: a family feud which makes you dread the inevitable holiday “celebrations” together. If you’re married, you might think about your spouse and the ceaseless arguments that seem to have taken away the feelings of love and romance. If you have kids, you may be groaning right now at overhearing yet another sibling squabble.

Let’s take it one step further and say that all humanity needs peace with their Creator. Aren’t our arguments, conflicts, wars just an overflow of our inner unrest? An inward sense that all is not right in the world? All creation is groaning for peace. The kind of peace that the Advent meditations from last week give us a picture of — where we are to place our hope. It is ultimately people being reconciled to God. But how? God bridges the gap. He initiates and does what seems impossible: divinity is clothed with humanity and takes the form of a baby. The Advent readings from this week focus on peace from several angles.

There’s the image of God as a shepherd bringing peace, tenderly tending his flock like a shepherd from Isaiah 40:9-11

He will tend his flock like a shepherd;

he will gather the lambs in his arms;

he will carry them in his bosom,

and gently lead those that are with young.

And the description of an inward peace that’s known by those who see that the Lord is near and who lift up their anxiety to him – receiving this peace that “passes all understanding” to guard their hearts and minds. How?  In Christ Jesus – God made flesh; God coming near. (Philippians 4:4-7)

This peace does not mean the lack of affliction, but the experiential knowledge of God’s comfort in the midst of affliction. It is finding God’s comfort in the affliction that brings peace. (2 Corinthians 1:2-5)

There’s the surprising image in this list of “peace” passages of a city that was desolate that’s now filled with joyful celebration. A city marked by restoration and rebuilding – a people marked by the cleansing of the guilt of their sin. And how? A “righteous branch” [descendant] of David who “shall execute justice and righteousness” and the people of this new city are known by the name: “The Lord is our righteousness.”  (Jeremiah 33:7-16) This is key to true peace: I cannot earn my own righteousness, but I trust that Christ has done so for me and I rest from my striving, my posturing, my attempts to be good on my own. And I rest in the peace from the Prince of Peace. And as a result, I am changed – my family is changed – my community is changed – entire cities are changed – to be havens of peace. Where do I need to begin? Where do you need to begin?

It begins by following the One who faithfully persevered in bringing peace and did not grow faint or easily discouraged. He did not give up on anyone, but is gentle, tender, compassionate. He brought peace not through “crying aloud in the streets” like a revolutionary political hero that we’d expect  (Isaiah 42:1-9) but actually came humbly, riding on a donkey and speaking peace (Zechariah 9:9-17). Now peace comes as the people of God continue the work of the Peace-giver. And so let us follow him this Christmas season into paths of peace!

Advent meditations: week 1 – hope

Each week of Advent, I will be posting meditations based on that week’s theme of Advent readings. I would love for you to join in as well! Let us together celebrate Christ who brings hope, peace, joy, and love.

First of all – hope. We began with these beautiful verses in Isaiah 40:1-5. A few phrases that stood out to me:

“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.

Speak tenderly to [her] and cry to her that her warfare is ended,

that her iniquity is pardoned …” [English Standard Version]

What does it mean for her warfare to end? Christ is coming: He is bringing peace and reconciliation — and that will flow from a redeemed relationship with God. (Though different than they imagined – not an end to political warfare.) Lord, remind me that my warfare has ended. I have nothing to prove or to win or to defend … You are my peace and my identity.

And then to notice what hope feels like, we read Psalm 42.

“But each day the Lord pour his unfailing love upon me,

and through each night I sing his songs,

praying to God who gives me life.” [New Living Translation]

Hope means thirsting, panting for God – the living God. In the midst of feeling downcast, I hope in God (despite the turmoil of my emotions). Hope is to praise God as my salvation; it is to remember HIS steadfast love. It includes crying for relief from the enemy’s oppression — not wanting to believe the enemy’s taunts of “where is your God?” Summary: In the midst of feeling downcast, there is hope to be found in God — if I remember to look upon Him!

How does Romans 8:18-27 add to our definition of hope? We see that not only we ourselves, but also all creation is hoping and even groaning for full redemption that Jesus Christ will bring. We wait eagerly; hoping for what we don’t yet see; waiting for it with patience (and the Spirit helps us in waiting, believing, patience, hope). Hope transforms present suffering into future glory. The Spirit intercedes for us while we wait and hope and groan. “Wait/waiting” is used twice; “groaning” is repeated three times; “hope” is repeated six times. And who are the subjects of all of this waiting/hoping/groaning? Creation (repeated 5 times); the Spirit/God (repeated 8 times); and WE are (repeated 12 times). This Advent passage makes it clear that even after Christ’s first incarnation, we are still hoping for his second (and final) coming – for the end of suffering and the revealing of glory.

Isaiah 11:1-11 paints the picture of that for which we hope. When the earth is filled with the knowledge of the Lord, all hurt and destruction is banished. And to know the Lord fully means that we will not destroy others or his creation. Who will bring this hope and life-giving knowledge? “A shoot from Jesse” on whom will rest the Spirit of the Lord: of wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, and the fear of the Lord. One clothed with righteousness and faithfulness. And the “remnant” [those who have hoped in Him] will be recovered from the ends of the earth [raised to new life].

Hebrews 6:13-20 shows an example of this hope in action.

“And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise.”

This is quite different than the way I wait! Lord, help me to have in view your promises and for those to be sweet enough to me that I will patiently wait, even against all odds. That because I’ve fled for refuge to You, the God who promises (and doesn’t lie), that I would have strong encouragement to hold fast to hope. That I, too, will go where our forerunner, Jesus Christ, has gone.

I close this week’s meditations with a thought from Psalm 33: I am to hope in the steadfast love of God — to turn to Him in distress and to trust that God sees and will deliver. And then to have a glad heart as I see Him do this — to say with the Psalmist,

“Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in you.”

Isaiah 35 is tomorrow’s meditation … so I will let you add your meditations for that.