When Christmas Loses Its Magic

Christmas was magical until my grandpa died when I was 14. Up until that point Christmas had been the highlight of every year. But something seemed to die when he died. Several years later, another tragic death hit us. After that, Christmases were never the same. It was more a season of ache than joy.

Throughout my twenties, the Christmas season sometimes seemed to mock me with all its giddiness when I felt so broken. Unfulfilled desires, chronic illness, separation from loved ones, and homesickness were unwanted guests that exposed brokenness, especially at Christmas.

Enter Advent – the four-week period in the church calendar right before Christmas that both remembers Christ’s birth and anticipates His second coming. I grew up as an evangelical in a Roman Catholic country. We didn’t practice anything that hinted at Roman Catholicism. Observing the church calendar or its liturgies was not a thing I was aware of.

But since I started observing Advent in the last seven years or so, it has been a game changer for me. It has taught me to live in paradox. It has freed me up to treasure the joy of Christ’s first coming while also mourning that He hasn’t come back yet.

Advent enables me not to resent that the Christmas season is polluted with grief. It heightens the reality that I am a woman in waiting – waiting for consummation and for the return of my bridegroom. The small story of my life is simply joining the history of the world. I am doing what history has always been doing: groaning as it waits for one of the two comings of Jesus.

Paradox at Christmastime is just as it should be. Christ’s first coming was filled with paradox. When Simeon saw Christ in the temple, he both rejoiced and prophesied sorrow. Even as he praised God when he saw the long awaited salvation of God’s people, he also told Mary that this baby whom she had just delivered, and who would deliver her, would do so at a great cost to her. “A sword will pierce through your own soul.” The same baby would bring judgment to some and exaltation to others (Luke 2:34-35).

His second coming will also be filled with paradox. What will mean glory for all those who have longed for his appearing will mean wailing for those who pierced him. While His children sing, His enemies will bow in terror (Revelation 1:7).

For me, the difference between simply celebrating Christmas and practicing Advent has a lot to do with how I face December. I am not only looking forward to Christmas Day (or Noche Buena in Hispanic countries). I am not only just going to (or hosting) parties. I no longer expect myself to just be happy.

Instead, I allow time every day to both remember Christ’s birth and anticipate his second coming. I give space to sit in my grief, in my current unfulfilled longings and fears. I bring them honestly to my Father. I don’t try to mask them or stuff them down “because Christmas!” I am ok with the tension. Yes, Praise God, Christ was born! And life is not what it should be.

The point is not exactly how you observe Advent. I don’t always do the same thing every year. Some years I read through a devotional during Advent. Several years ago, I read through Isaiah using Tony Reinke’s #isaiahchristmas plan. We light candles at dinner with the kids, keeping it very dark at the beginning of December and then making it brighter the closer it gets to Christmas Day.

We have used Ann Voskamp’s Unwrapping the Greatest Gift, adding ornaments to a Jesse Tree every day. Other years we have focused on a name of Christ a day as a way of counting down to Christmas. Another year I went on a journey through the Scriptures in Handel’s Messiah every day.

I think the point has far more to do with the paradigm you have for this season, rather than how exactly you practice it. Are you ok with living in paradox? Are you aware that you are a person in waiting? Do you believe your unfulfilled longings, brokenness, and grief fit perfectly with this time?

Living into Advent has helped me to fix my gaze – and my hope – past Christmas to the Resurrection and the return of my King and Brother.

Christmas is a joy not because it is filled with undiluted joy. It is a joy because it testifies that just as the Incarnation truly happened, He is certainly coming back again. Because of Christmas, I am hastening the coming of Resurrection in clouds of great glory. Then, at last, everything sad will be untrue.

O Lord Jesus, come! We miss you so.

Into the Neighborhood

by Rebecca

Emmanuel. God with us. He became flesh and dwelt among us. “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood,” is Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase. I resonate so deeply with the words, ‘and moved into the neighbourhood.’ Isn’t that what each of us has done?

We’ve picked up our lives and settled into a neighborhood on another side of the world. For us, the streets of our adopted home look much more reminiscent of the streets that Jesus walked than the streets of our passport country. Mudbrick buildings, horse carriages, and donkey carts accompany the traffic. The roads are peppered with streetside vendors. By earthly standards, the city we call home is humble.

We have embraced this little-known corner of the world. There’s a frenetic energy in the hustle and bustle of our streets – so many interesting things to see, new sights and sounds to absorb, smiling faces and welcoming people as we go about our daily lives. Friendly curiosity follows us in a place where there are only a handful of foreign faces. There’s much to love about the warmth and generosity of the people we live among.

In this current season, though, I’ve struggled with how to navigate living here well. How do I embrace all that is different while honoring the unique way God designed me? Our neighborhood can feel small, robbing us of any semblance of privacy. With the curiosity comes scrutiny. Anonymity while running errands isn’t an option. Introversion doesn’t seem to exist in our host culture – so how do I explain my need for solitude?

When we first arrived, I was anxious to make local friends and integrate into society. Now that I’m knee deep, I struggle to feel confident in our boundaries. Needs are everywhere. Social expectations abound.  “Where have you been? I haven’t seen you in a while.”

More often than not, I feel completely inadequate. Linguistically tongue-tied. My cross-cultural savvy still developing. Am I doing enough? Am I balancing home life and ministry well? Am I enough? Can I truly be myself?

As I settle into the Advent season, my heart returns time and again to this phrase, “He moved into the neighbourhood.” We moved into the neighbourhood to emulate Him. To shine His light. To reflect His love. We transplanted our lives to be tangible expressions of Emmanuel, God with us. I reflect on His life here on earth – He too was faced with insurmountable needs. He too was overwhelmed with social demands on His time. He too stole away for times of solitude.

As I sit under the weight of my self-criticism and self-doubt, He invites me to behold Him, one who is more than familiar with the humblest of surroundings, and remember that He is present here with me. He became flesh for those who surround me in this dark place, yes, but He also became flesh for me, to meet me where I am. His love shines on me too – it’s how I reflect His love to others.

As I sit in the glow of our festive tree, He invites my soul to bask in the glow of His unfathomable love.

Emmanuel, He is with me.  He sustains me.  He dwells in me.

Oh come, let us adore Him!

~~~~~~~

A wife. A mother. Word nerd. Coffee enthusiast. Simultaneously a world traveller and a homebody. Both an Adult TCK and International Worker. Rebecca has a heart for the nations and to see the global community thrive wherever God has planted them.

Christ came for you too

Friend,

I love Christmas cards and letters because they remind me. They remind me of different stages of my life and people I have known. They bring people to mind I may not have thought of in months (maybe not since the last Christmas card!). They help me feel connected to a larger story than my own.

So, I’m writing this post more as a letter from me to you. It’s been, as we all know, quite the year. As I’ve prayed over this post and what it is that God would have me write, a list of ideas came to mind, but none of them seemed quite right.

I know that this year COVID has invited us to identify with those we have come to serve in unique—at at times annoying—ways. And these are important lessons for us. We cannot deny this. But if I’m honest, these lessons don’t get down to the core of what I need from God.

Advent is traditionally a season of lament and Christmas (December 25-January 6th) is a time of celebration. This week, as we round the bend of Advent and move towards Christmas, what is it you are longing for?

God sees individuals and groups. God sees you. In Advent he asks, “What are you longing for? What do you want me to do?”

Maybe you’re not sure.

Read over this list of desires or longings and see which catch your eye, or stir a longing in you:

Peace

Relief

Comfort

Revenge

Rest

Protection

Presence

Healing

///

As I said, I love Christmas cards and letters because they remind me and help me feel connected to a larger story than my own. My hope and prayer is that this letter reminds you that Christ came for you too.

Christ came to meet your deep longings. He sees your local friends and neighbors and he wants to meet their needs. He does. But you are not a mere conduit of his love to them. You are a vessel of longings and needs he wants to fill.

Christ came for you too. What you you longing for these days?

Grace and peace my brothers and sisters,
Amy

P.S. If you’re wanting something old and new, did you know that each verse of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” focuses on a name or attribute of Jesus? Global Trellis has partnered with The Invitation Project to create a bit sized way for you to daily encounter Christ through this song. This advent tradition begins on the 17th and ends on the 23rd – each day focusing on a verse of the song and the scripture that correlates “O Antiphons,” refers to the chorus that is repeated after each verse.


 Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
Shall come to thee O Israel

You can get the special recording and short daily emails here. Christ came of you too.

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

‘Tis the Season of Incongruity

Deck the halls with calls for charity! Fa-la-la-la-laaa, la-la-la-la!

‘Tis the season of incongruity! Fa-la-la-la-laaa, la-la-la-la!

#CottageChristmas or starving children? Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la!

My heart is caught and I cannot win this thing! Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-laa.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t do this. The sense of incongruity is overwhelming me this Christmas. I go from essays and photos of unbelievable beauty to my current reality, which includes messy, messy relationships, rain and mud up to my knees, no sign of Christmas lights and beauty,and long, long hours of no electricity.

I scroll through Instagram and the abundance of beauty is eye-popping. Pristine cottages bedecked with lights and color and living rooms with soft lights and all white furnishings with that splash of red and green color that just makes them pop. And then in the next picture, I catch my breath as I see a starving child in Yemen and an organization begging the world to take notice.  I breathe fire as I see another picture reminding me of the never-ending war in Syria and the continued devastation on people. And it hits home as I take my own pictures here in Kurdistan and I am reminded that there aren’t enough resources to meet the needs of the population, honor killings are still part of the landscape, and we can barely get funds for a single project.

‘Tis the season of incongruity – the season where the contrast feels too stark and I don’t feel like I have the ability to cope with these conflicting images.

And yet…

And yet, God’s story has always been a story of conflicting images. There is the image of the manger and the image of the cross, the image of judgement and the image of mercy, the image of truth and the image of grace. What I am seeing and feeling is nothing new to God.

God came into a world of contrasts. A world of the beauty and the broken. He came in a way that was so gentle, so unassuming – how could a baby threaten anyone? He came into a setting that was the height of incongruity – a king in a manger. For 33 years he lived as one who is unknown, going through daily life as we do – an image that is so mind boggling I stop thinking about it. We are told that he set aside greatness and “humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death” – a violent, horrific death. And then, the glorious resurrection and the words that we live by every single day: “He is not here! He is risen!”

My heart longs for peace and harmony in a world of broken incongruity. God is a God of mystery and paradox and he gently draws my longing and fickle heart into his own, asking only that I trust. So in this season of incongruity, this season where I just can’t with the images, I offer a fickle and contrary heart to a Savior who is my only hope. I can’t make sense of this world, but he can.

I hear the call to prayer in the mosque next door. It is followed by the many other mosques in the city, creating a cacophony of sound. I pause and pray to the One who makes sense of all this. The words of a Christmas carol come to mind and for now, I rest in those words.

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.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.


A Weary World Rejoices

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Note: The following piece was reworked from a piece that I wrote a few years ago.

There is no Christmas tree and no turkey. We have not heard “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” one time since arriving  and our gifts fit inside small stockings. Our world is stripped of some of the traps that catch me at Christmas time in the West, where slick advertising tempts all my senses with color, slogan and promise, where androgynous mannequins sparkle with scarves and sweaters, silently persuading me that I need what they have.

With this stripping comes a delightful freedom and joy. Joy in cooking over a tiny three burner gas stove with my children and substituting ingredients to mimic familiar tastes; freedom to not put pressure on each other or on the day to be something it can’t be. Tahrir Square is but a block away from where we are preparing our Christmas feast and we are acutely aware of the struggles of many just minutes from our festivities. This is Christmas in Cairo.

At a late night service on Christmas eve we sang Christmas carols in Arabic and English side by side with refugees from the Horn of Africa, Egyptian Christians, and expatriates from around the world. My senses feel alive with the joy of being here and fully present. I am in a land that has been used by God for centuries to protect, provide, and test. Here I have to wrestle with the words of Christmas carols instead of blithely singing them. Here as I read the words “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” I ache with longing that people may know how much God loves them, that they will respond to the lover of their souls, the One who is Truth.

As I look out over this city,  I think of the hope that is personified in the birth of a small baby, helpless and fragile, yet history cannot keep silent of the joy that came that night. As night falls and I view the scenes around me from high balconies I am reminded of the beautiful words that speak to that holy night, where a “weary world rejoiced” and woke to the miracle of a “new and glorious morn.”

Our world is weary; weary of tragedy and loss; weary of natural disasters and wars. Our world is weary of the stress of living and the sadness of dying.

I don’t know where you are this season. You may be in a place far removed from the snow and Christmas memories of your childhood. You may be struggling to create Christmas treats from ingredients that you don’t understand on appliances that you don’t know how to use. You may have collapsed in tears because of loneliness and discouragement, or you may be fully connected and adjusted to the world where you find yourself.

If you are weary this Christmas season, if you are face to face with tragedy and death, with the broken bones of a weary world; if there have been too many diapers to change and too many disappointments to count, if you are life-tired and soul-weary, know that you are welcomed into the arms of God.* And wherever you are, may you know the thrill of hope, may your weary world rejoice, and may you wake to a new and glorious morn. 

O Holy night, the stars are brightly shining
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Til He appeared and the soul felt it’s worth
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn
Fall on your knees
O hear the angel voices
O night divine!
O night when Christ was born
***

Advent Longing in the Horn of Africa

One Christmas Eve in Djibouti my family drove past a cart. It was a rickety wooden contraption attached by frayed ropes to the back of a donkey and clattered down the main road. A man sat on a makeshift seat and held a stick, hovering it above the donkey’s flanks. He wore a red and white shawl and a brown macwiis, a Somali-style sarong. His face was wrinkled, beardless, and wind-worn.

I said to my husband, “If there was a pregnant woman in that cart, I would swear it was Joseph and Mary on their way to Bethlehem.”

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The image stuck with me. It made the story of Christmas and the birth of Jesus tangible, weighty with the muffled clack of donkey’s hooves on dirt, the sting of a dusty wind, the smell of the desert, the look on a man’s face.

My family has lived in the Horn of Africa for almost twelve years. Ten Christmases have been spent in the desert. All these years have turned Christmas from a fairytale coupled with heaps of gifts into a realistic story coupled with the yearning ache of advent.

Advent, the four weeks preceding Christmas, is a time epitomized by waiting, longing. 400 years people waited to hear from God and then his Word came in the form a baby. But whether a family is religious or not, most engage in some kind of countdown to the big day. Lighting a candle each Sunday and reading meaningful texts. Hiding candy around the house and giving kids clues each morning.

What we are counting down to might be a day to spend with family, to give and receive gifts, to feast. It might be to joyfully honor the birth of a promised and miraculous child, Jesus. We count down and with each passing day, our hope increases. Hope that the day of feasts and gifts will arrive. Hope that this child born two thousand years ago did not come in vain and will, one day, bring peace to earth.

Christmases in the Horn of Africa have increased my longing, deepened my advent ache because we see the brokenness, need, and lack of peace so vividly all around us. We go to church to sing Christmas carols and pass dozens and dozens of homeless men sleeping on sidewalks. We hear news of another slaughter in southern Somalia. Djibouti faces an unemployment rate of nearly 60%. On other continents there are hostage crises and floods and drought. There is Ebola across the continent from us. Refugees are longing for home and civilians in war torn regions are longing for peace. Black Americans are longing to be free from fear and injustice.

All over the world, the need and the ache are powerfully tangible. But so is hope. All is not broken, all is not lost.

Djibouti is 94% Muslim and though Muslims revere Jesus, they don’t traditionally celebrate his birth. But my Muslim friends know we are celebrating a holiday that is important to us and they respect that. Yesterday a friend brought gifts for my girls. On Eid we celebrate with our neighbors. Not because of religious conformity but because of genuine relationship.

I think this year in America there is also a deepened advent ache because the brokenness of our nation has been laid bare. Though not everyone will call it an advent ache, there is a burning desire to see justice and healing rain down. #refugeeswelcome and #blacklivesmatter are a heart-wrenching cry for fundamental change.

The more time my family spends living outside the homogenous neighborhoods of my own childhood means more time for my family to encounter the brokenness of the world and the hopefulness of the people working to heal it. We live right in the middle of the advent season of longing.

In the US, in the wake of devastating grand jury announcements, black and white are standing together, or laying on pavement together, or marching together. Together, the way my Djiboutian friends include us in their celebration and respect ours.

Advent reminds us that together we live and die, rejoice and suffer and long for healing in community.

The way forward, the way of the longing and advent-aching heart is together. As we countdown this year with candles and candy, may each day be a reminder of the justice and healing we long for. May each day be an inspiration to actively pursue that justice and healing side by side, American and Djiboutian, Muslim and Christian, black and white.

Merry Christmas and Eid Wanaagsan and Joyeux Noel.