Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas Promises and What I Learned From Mr. Scrooge

All year long I love the idea of Christmas. Gift-giving and serving people are two of the big ways I love on people, and Christmas is all about love and sharing and giving! I love Christmas lights, so much that I leave them up in my room all year long. Red seems like such a cheerful color, I love the thought of freshly-baked gingerbread cookies filling the house, and dressing up in 90's Christmas sweaters an socializing with friends at parties. I love Christmas carols and the Christmas Eve service at church. I love lighting the Advent wreath with my family and singing together.

But then Christmas comes around, and it never seems to feel like Christmas. The anticipation I've built up all year doesn't seem to be met, and Christmas never seems as big and exciting and filled with joy and sweet smells and huge gifts and loudly sung carols. Each Christmas I find myself already wishing for the next one so I can do it better, because I feel as though I've somehow failed this one. And then the next year I feel as though I've failed to live out the Christmas spirit again.

This year doesn't seem to have been much different. I approached the Christmas season with such glowing anticipation and a long list of ways to celebrate the season (watch Christmas movies, bake lots of cookies, read the Christmas Story over and over, go through the Advent readings, drive around to see Christmas lights, play games, make crafts, and so on and so forth). Suddenly it was the middle of December and it barely felt like Christmas, and then the next thing I knew it was only a few days until Christmas and I still don't know where the time went.

Prior to Christmas I remember really wanting this Christmas to be different. It's so easy to get wrapped up (literally) in the gift-giving, the baking and singing and decorating, card-making and every-other-day runs to the store to pick up another present for someone you forgot to add to the list.

In all honesty, I don't seem to focus on Christ so much at Christmas time. I think about His gift of love, His sacrifice, Him coming to earth and being born as a baby in a humble stable far more throughout the year than I do during the Christmas season.

I so desperately want Christmas to be all about Christ, to be celebrating Him even more during this season, constantly remembering His most beautiful gift of Himself to us, and it just doesn't seem to happen. This year I thought so much and so greatly intended for my Christmas to be far more Christ-centered than it is in the past, yet I find it so much harder to focus intently on Christ with so much else going on and an ever-lengthening To-Do list. 

I feel as though Christmas should be a really special time of celebrating Christ's birth, feel like I should be thinking about His gift constantly. As I have spent the month thinking about what it means to truly be in the "Christmas spirit," to truly anticipate the celebration of His first coming and live with that hope, I've started thinking about how really we should be living with the "Christmas spirit" all the time.

What does Christmas really mean? What is this Christmas spirit?

Every year on Christmas Eve we watch my mom's favorite Christmas movie, The Muppet Christmas Carol. Having seen the movie so many times, I often tune it out a bit, not paying as much attention since I can practically quote the whole thing (not really, so don't ask me to).

And this year as I watched it, a few lines stuck out to me, reverberating with the thoughts I'd been mulling over about how to live out a life of rejoicing over Christ's birth and living in the hope of His coming all the year.

Towards the end of the movie a now joyful and filled with life Scrooge walks singing through the streets. Some of his words are, "I will remember Christmas and live it all the year."

That line stuck out to me, and I began to listen more closely to the other words from his song. He sings about how it feels like Christmas, and the things that make it feel like Christmas, sharing and giving, hot cups of tea with friends and sharing mittens made by your mother.

But what I loved the most was when he said that it's in the places you find love that it feels like Christmas, and when he sings that now each day he will start with a grateful prayer, love, and a thankful heart.

Because Christmas is about just that, love and thankfulness and deep, fulfilling joy. It is about peace, and hope, and beautiful promises.

And these things, this peace and love, joy and hope, promise and fulfillment, these are things we can and should hold on to all year long. They are not merely catch-phrases we can throw about amongst our green and red sparkling ornaments and multi-colored lights strung up on the tree. They aren't just warm fuzzy things to fill us up for a short time like homemade gingerbread cookies and hot cocoa by the fire. They aren't wrapping paper to look pretty for awhile under the tree during the Christmas season and then ripped open on the morning of December 25 to be forgotten until next year when we recycle them.

No, these promises, this hope and joy and love and peace are the gift, to be opened every day when we awake, lived out each moment as we live, and fallen asleep with as the most comforting blanket and bedtime story. They are beautiful and more than just Christmas, because Christmas isn't just about December and red and green and Santa and nativity scenes.

Christmas is about a baby boy who is also God who was born in a stable because He loved you and me so much that even though there was no room in the inn He still came. Even though we so often don't want Him, He came. Even though we reject Him, even though we think we can do everything ourselves, even though we fail Him and get more excited Christmas presents than His birthday celebration, He came. Even though He knew we would kill Him, He came.

He came. And that is what Christmas is about, and the promises that His birth fulfilled and the hope that it gave us, the joy that it brings, the love that it demonstrates, the peace that will come to this earth. And so Christmas is remembered on December 25, but Christmas should be lived "all the year."

Friday, December 20, 2013

A Fear-Monster Lives In My Closet

When I go back and read old journal entries, old blog posts, I feel like my life is just one big cycle of repeated lessons, struggles, and re-discoveries. 

For all the times I have written about surrendering, all the times I have prayed about learning to trust, all the realizations that my stresses, fears, worries, and freak-outs are rooted in my need to let go and trust Jesus, I still can't seem to learn that lesson. 

I have watched God provide for me and others So. Many. Times. I have seen so many friends raise support for mission trips and watch the money pour in the day before their flights leave. I've heard so many stories of God's provision, whether it be meeting monetary needs, relationship needs, food, clothes, you name it. 

And I've seen God provide for me time and time again, in big and little ways! The biggest example of His provision was with my student loans. I received far more financial aid from my college than I'd expected, and was actually refunded money each quarter for the last four quarters of my time in college. Because of this I was able to pay off a portion of my student loans, allowing me to apply to be on staff with Cru, something I had previously thought I would have to wait years for until I'd worked and paid off loans. Even on a smaller scale, as I've been back in St. Louis for winter break, I wanted to work out at a gym. I was able to get free passes to a local gym for a whole month! Even in little things like me wanting to work out, I've been able to see God provide for my needs (and wants). 

Yet I still worry, I still get stressed out, and honestly I'm still afraid. With my new job with Cru, I have to raise support, which means that for awhile, until I've raised sufficient funds, I'm not sure where money will come from to pay rent, and that scares the crap out of me. 

I sit there and tell myself over and over all the ways I've seen God provide for me and so many others around the world. I try to use that knowledge to blast away the fears, but instead of dissipating, that scared little part of me that is so worried about not having money to pay rent just retreats into a corner and stays afraid, waiting to creep back up in a moment of vulnerability and reduce me to tears in the bathroom (no that didn't happen this afternoon. Nope, definitely not). 

But I know who God is. I know His love, grace, and provision. I know that He is a kind, loving Father who provides for the needs of His children. I trust Him completely with my entire life. I know God is good, and that everything He does is for His glory, which is our good, out of His deep, unfathomable love. I know that despite my brokenness and failures, He has never loved me more or less than he does at this moment.I trust and know these things, and I honestly cannot wait to see how God provides. 

I know that my journey of raising support is something that will bring me closer to Him and allow me to trust Him more deeply, and I am beyond pumped to grow stronger in my faith, to see His strength cover my weakness. But in spite of all that, it would be a lie for me to say the fear is gone. I trust God, I love Him and know His love for me, but I'm still afraid. 

At the end of the day, I suppose all I can do is, like the father in Mark, say to Jesus, "Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief."

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Lucky To Be Here

More and more I realize how very lucky I am, how very many blessings I have in my life, how many things I have never wanted for or felt lacking in.

I've never really considered myself to be a "privileged" person. I have always grown up lower-middle class, knowing many people who fit more in the upper-middle class range, so I always felt a little more on the "poor" side. I have a big family, so money has always been tight and going out to eat reserved for very special occasions. I got a job as soon as I was old enough and worked two jobs for a lot of high school, paying for my own gas, clothes, and movie tickets. I always knew college would be my responsibility to pay for and when it came around, I took out the necessary loans.

Because of these things I've always thought of myself as pretty average, at least by US standards. I know compared to much of the world I'm wealthy beyond compare, but I never really considered myself to be privileged, until recently.

But here's what I'm starting to realize, beginning to understand. Yes, I had to pay my own way through college. Yes, I've always had to work and no, my parents do not cover my gas and give me a monthly allowance for food. But whether or not I would go to college wasn't the question, it was just how I'd pay for it. I always assumed I'd go to college, I've pretty much always had a car to drive and a warm bed to sleep in. I have enough shoes to wear a different pair every day of the week...for at least two weeks, if not longer (weather dependent).

And I've never wondered where my next meal was coming from. I've never known what it was like to go hungry. My budget decisions more restrict my desire to buy all organic food, rather than whether or not I can buy food at all. I am privileged to be able to even make the choice between organic and not, I am privileged to choose to eat healthy, and thus more expensive (the injustice of that is an entirely different topic I can gladly rant about).

I never really realized all of that before. How many things I'm privileged to be able to even have a choice about. Whether or not I'll take the bus, my bike, walk, or drive. Where I want to go to school, if I want to get coffee at Starbucks or brew it at home. The fact that I've never gone hungry, and I've been able to see the mountains and oceans.

That I've been on vacation, even! Having gone to a college that has many students who are pretty well off, many people are able to vacation in Europe. Measuring myself on that scale I thought how I have never been able to have that luxury, never (as shocking as this has been to many at my school), been to the museums in London or Paris or seen these cities great sites. But I realized, the fact that I've even been on vacations is a luxury many have never experienced.

It's so easy to stay focused on myself. To think how many more things others have than me, how many riches and luxuries I could have, how I'm not "rich" or even "well off." But putting my life into perspective, I'm so wealthy compared to so many around the world. I have the freedom to make choices about where I live, what I do, going to school, what I eat, what I talk about and believe. Freedom and blessings in the physical and spiritual realms. I don't worry about being punished for my opinion. The list could go on and on.

I suppose the purpose of these ramblings and realizations is that I am so, so blessed. And honestly, so privileged. And it would be far more beneficial for me to realize this, be incredibly grateful, and then see how I can use the resources I have been given to help those who have less, whatever they lack, if I can help in any way, I should.

I have not been given much so I can hoard it and gain more, like the evil dragons in so many tales. Rather I have been given much so I can use it wisely to help, love, and serve others. Freely I have received, and so freely I must give.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Unworthy and Wayward Children

I have read or heard the story of the Prodigal Son more times than I can count. It's one of those Bible stories I feel so familiar with that I'm often tempted to skim it. Yet every time I hear a sermon or talk on this parable, I always seem to learn or notice something new. 

Tonight as I read through the story I was again tempted to read quickly through the story I think I know so well. Instead I prayed for God to help me focus and learn. 

As I read through Luke 15, my attention was drawn to verses 21-24,

"The son said to him, 
'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 
I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' 

But the father said to his servants, 
'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. 
Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet...
for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; 
he was lost and is found.'"

The son's words, "I am no longer worthy to be called your son," really stood out to me as I read through the verses. 

I see two parts to what the son is saying. He speaks of his unworthiness, and he speaks of becoming unworthy, falling out of worthiness. Which reminded me of two truths of our humanity, we are unworthy, and we have never been worthy. 

We are not worthy of Christ's unconditional love, we are not worthy of the beautiful sacrifice He made by dying for us on the cross. No matter how hard we try to be "good" or reach some measure of "perfection," not only will we fail miserably, but such action will not make us worthy of love, acceptance, or sonship. The beauty of being a child of God is that it isn't something we earn, it is a free gift of grace, made out of infinite love. It's not just that we have lost worthiness by acting or not acting a certain way. We have never been worthy because being a child of God is not linked to anything we could possibly do or abstain from doing. 

Despite this, we still try to operate on a "do good things and get good rewards," sort of barter system. We are trying to earn favor, trying to earn acceptance and love, even though these are things that can only be given. The son's admittance that he is not worthy is a humble statement in which the son really realizes his own brokenness and need for salvation. He realizes that in his broken state of humanity, he does not deserve to call his father his own any longer, and so he asks to simply be a servant, to earn his keep. 

But we can't earn our keep. We can't earn love. And I love how beautifully the father's response in this parable speaks to the truth of how God interacts with us, how God reminds us that it is by grace we have been saved, not by works, so that no man can boast. 

The father doesn't use words to respond to the son, he uses actions. He puts a rob around his son's shoulders, and a ring upon his finger. He clothes his dirty, worn-out son and prepares a banquet for him. He demonstrates with action a truth that has never changed. He loved his son the same before, during, and after the betrayal. He never stopped loving his son, and the level at which he loved his son never changed. Because this love was not dependent upon the actions of the wayward son. The love was depended on an unchanging, beautiful God. 

I imagine the father saying, "Of course you aren't worthy! You never were. Your choice to leave did not render you less worthy than you were before. Your sins have not made you less worthy, rather they have displayed your brokenness, which was always present, in a more visible manner. It's not about what you have done or where you have been, my child. It's about who you are. And you are my son, and I love you." 

Last week I wrote this poem, based on this story as I was randomly thinking about it. Pretty neat how I read it again today and learned so much from it. Gotta love God's timing! 

(Now) Home
Blurred boundaries whisper,
"Welcome home, son."

Been gone so long, forgot
What words felt like
Softly spoken with tongue so
Gentle and sweet

"Welcome home, son, you
Been gone so long, forgot
What it felt like to
Wrap you up in my arms."

Path was so long,
With each step grew more afraid
Walking up, covered
In muddied shame

Been gone so long, forgot
What your beard felt like against
My tearful face
Arms wrapped around me so strong

No boundaries,
Wrongs are righted
Regrets replaced by a robe and a ring
Fully forgiven, now forget

"You've been gone so long,
Welcome home, son."