Christmas is Especially For Those Who Dread It

Christmas is Especially For Those Who Dread It

When I was a kid, Christmas was the most predictable time of the year. My entire family lives here in the Dallas area. My grandparents’ homes are within two miles of each other. My parents still live in the house where I grew up and my brother and his family live just down the street from them. 

With everyone living so close, we’ve always been a tight-knit family. Growing up, we were saved the hassle of traveling to another city for Christmas. My parents never had to sacrifice time with one side of the family for the other.

Every Christmas Eve, we would open presents from the extended family, hear my great-grandmother’s brother-in-law recite Luke 2, and head home in time for Santa to come down the chimney my Dad to curse the day he was born while putting together our toys.

But over the past decade, a lot has changed in our family. My brother and I are both married and parenting our crazy kids. As a pastor, Christmas Eve isn’t a day off for me anymore. Through the years, some of the family have passed away and our traditions look much different.

Like most adults, my attitude towards Christmas has changed too. I dread pulling down the decorations from the attic. The season is so busy with parties and extra work that I often have a hard time stopping to enjoy it. Meanwhile, every year, we’re searching for that elusive balance between time with my family and hers. 

There’s tremendous pressure to be joyful over Christmas, yet many people truly dread it. The people we once celebrated with pass away. Money gets tight. Family conflict erodes at our relationships. This year, the tension is even greater as many families face the prospect of not even getting to gather. Those crushed under the weight of these pressures often feel out of place in December. Some even feel like bad Christians for not feeling joy when gazing upon the manger scene. But if that’s you, this season is especially for you. 

The Season of Advent

Yesterday marked the start of the Advent season, a time of waiting and preparation. In the four weeks prior to Christmas, we reflect on the period of waiting the biblical characters faced in the years leading up to Jesus’ birth. For the Jews, his birth marked the fulfillment of a long-awaited promise, and it came in a time of oppressive Roman occupation. The birth of their King was a glimmer of hope in a time when they felt enslaved, devalued, and forgotten. You have to wonder if many of them felt completely abandoned by God in their centuries of waiting.

The scene of that first Christmas is that much more profound when you consider that Jesus was born to a poor couple in an insignificant region. It was witnessed by shepherds, a group of people considered so lowly that they couldn’t even testify in court. The kings who came to adorn Jesus with gifts came from far away lands, not from his own countrymen.

It helps to remember that Jesus was born into a time of great darkness. It wasn’t a bright and cheery time. There were no sparkly lights, Black Friday deals, family gatherings, or talk of peace on Earth. It came in a time of political instability, uncertainty, and fear. (Sound familiar?)

Next time you’re listening to the traditional Christmas carols, take a moment to reflect on the lyrics. Notice the minor keys and heavy tones. Both musically and lyrically, they leave you with a feeling of angst and waiting. They combine a sense of deep longing and anticipation, given way to sudden celebration. The Christmas season itself is naturally borne from the basic idea that all is not well in our world. 

Unfortunately, we often omit Advent from our Christmas traditions. We celebrate the joy of Christ coming into our world but ignore the darkness that precluded him.

Our Present Longing

We can’t fully celebrate the coming of Christ without first recognizing our own need for him. It should naturally make us yearn for his second coming. We often don’t stop to contemplate the darkness around us.

We try so hard to engineer happy memories in December, often forgetting that we are living in the darkest month of the year. But ask anyone suffering through depression, the loss of a loved one, poverty, or addiction, and they’ll immediately identify with the idea of Advent and the longing to be made new again.

The human race remains enslaved to sin and death. Paul describes us as “dead in our trespasses.” But God did more than speak through prophets or split bodies of water in half. That wasn’t enough. He loved us too much to leave us in our death. So, he personally invaded the darkness. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis describes it best:

One of the things that surprised me when I first read the New Testament seriously was that it talked so much about a Dark Power in the universe – a mighty evil spirit who was held to be the Power behind death and disease, and sin… Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.

Jesus broke through the darkness to set us free. So if you’re experiencing regret, sorrow, addiction, or pain in your life, this is your hope over the coming weeks. We celebrate the day he invaded this world as an innocent child in a countryside barn. The Jesus we worship wasn’t insulated from pain or darkness while he was here. He dove right into it. The baby in that nativity scene would grow up and feel abandonment, loss, rejection, and even death – just like you and me. But he didn’t come to merely experience it. He came to conquer it.

If you find yourself dreading Christmas this year, know that the darkness you feel in your heart is the exact same darkness every character in Luke 2 felt. Just imagine their joy when they realized the true King had just landed in their own backyard – that he counted them worthy of bearing witness to his invasion. Consider that moment when they finally realized all will finally be well. The same hope is offered to you.

God is here. Let your weary soul rejoice.

Marriage Shines in the Difficult Moments

Marriage Shines in the Difficult Moments

Over the past few months, I’ve had the privilege of officiating a few weddings for young couples tying the knot. It’s always a joy to walk through the engagement season with two people who are preparing for their life together. It’s a time of growing anticipation and excitement. 

I remember when Holly and I were going through that same season. It felt that our life together was nothing but potential. It felt like we would have the perfect marriage and nothing could possibly go wrong. But once the engagement was over and the wedding was in the rearview mirror, all that was left was the two of us. While we were still young and idealistic, the hard work of loving each other “for better and worse” was finally underway.

It’s easy to prepare for a wedding, but living in covenant marriage is an entirely different thing.

Once you begin sharing a toilet together, there’s often a moment just weeks after the wedding when you think to yourself, “Who is this person?!” Once you’re confronted with each other’s weird or gross habits, every missed chore and every unmet expectation is seen as a massive character flaw that must be addressed.

As the years go on and kids come into the picture, life only gets more complicated. The apartment rent is replaced with a mortgage. You eventually face a tragedy and you walk through a season of suffering together. And as the wedding becomes more distant in that rearview mirror, it’s easy to lose sight of the vow you made to each other. It becomes natural to let the relationship switch into autopilot. Before you know it, the person on the other side of the bed isn’t a spouse, he or she is just a roommate.

A Dangerous Lie

If you’re a follower of Christ, you’ve likely learned that your marriage is a picture of God’s love for the world. Your marriage is a living, breathing representation of the gospel to everyone watching you. It’s a potent and heavy calling. It’s a beautiful gift. But it’s often accompanied by a dangerous and subversive lie – that marriage is chiefly about our happiness.

So, if marriage is supposed to drive people to Christ and we believe the chief goal is for us to be happy, then when we feel unhappy, we believe we must be failing or sinning. Suddenly, we feel defeated and dejected within our relationships. Eventually, if those feelings last long enough, and if the foundations of the marriage aren’t strong enough, then we can be tempted to end it altogether.

It’s not that God doesn’t desire joy and fulfillment for us in marriage. But as Gary Thomas brilliantly explains in his book, Sacred Marriage, God has chiefly designed marriage to produce holiness in us, not simply happiness.

In other words, as we faithfully love one another and patiently persevere through both the joyful and painful moments together, God is producing holiness within us. In fact, those difficult moments that we often view as marital failure can do more to produce that holiness than the joyful ones.

When I guide couples through the wedding ceremony, I have them recite the following vow:

“I, _______, take you, _______, to be my wedded wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance; I pledge myself to you.”

I don’t ask couples to take this vow because marriage is always going to be fun and happy. I ask them to do it precisely because it won’t. No one has to commit to sticking it out during the good times. That’s the easy part. The vows are there precisely for the moments, trespasses, hurts, and betrayals that would doom any other relationship.

“Better” in marriage is always better than you ever thought it could be. But “worse” is always worse than you thought it could be too.

That’s why couples commit before God, family, friends, and the Church body that they will never give up on each other. We take these vows because the day will come when they’ll be tested. There will be moments when, by God’s strength, they might be the only thing keeping you together.

When God’s Love Shines Best

If you’re in a difficult season in your marriage, it may be tempting to think that your relationship is failing to accomplish what God designed for it to do. It’s easy to believe that, in your imperfect love toward one another, God is not pleased with your marriage.

But it’s in the moments of pain and heartbreak when God’s love shines through the most. In a world of conditional love and transactional relationships, there’s nothing more counter-cultural than a God-ordained marriage that never gives up in the face disagreement, conflict, pain, heartbreak, or even betrayal. In those moments when you courageously choose to keep going in the face of difficulties, you’re doing exactly what God designed your marriage to do. You’re demonstrating God’s unfailing, never-giving-up love to the watching world.

Hope For the Hard Times

The commitment to stick it out and not give up is what sets a marriage apart from any other relationship. So, if you and your spouse find yourselves at an impasse – if it feels like there’s no way forward – if you’re dealing with one frustration or betrayal after another – don’t believe the lie that your marriage is failing. Don’t let guilt, shame, or dejection take hold.

As you keep moving forward and sacrificially love one another through the difficulty, you’re fulfilling God’s design in marriage. Jesus is shining through your imperfect love more than you could possibly imagine.

Quick Social Media Advice for the Morning After the Election

Quick Social Media Advice for the Morning After the Election

Hey everyone, this election is still wide open. To all my friends screaming foul play, saying the other side is corrupt, and claiming we’re seeing the downfall of our country, please do three things for me.

1. Stop posting.

If you’re really into politics, you probably didn’t sleep much last night and emotions are running high. That’s usually not the best scenario for making comments in public forums. Among my Christian brothers and sisters, you’re posting in a way that reflects poorly on Christ to support your political viewpoint. As a pastor, that deeply grieves my heart.

2. Remember what so many of you posted earlier.

Remember those posts about God being in control, no matter who wins the election? About respecting those who don’t vote like you? Your comments today certainly don’t reflect that conviction. The people around you don’t believe you when you follow those inflammatory remarks and claim that your side is being cheated against.

3. Watch your sources.

Don’t be a distributor of false or misleading information. I’ve always believed that if you have to resort to disreputable sources to back up your arguments, your claims must not be that strong.

 

Just breathe… It’s okay.