When Christmas Turns Upside Down

In the famous words of Joni Mitchell, “It’s Coming on Christmas.” It is the time of year when we deck the halls and sing the carols and watch the heartwarming movies and trim the tree. And these are good things as they remind us of the hope and light and love in the world and how it comes to us.

But this year I just can’t.

I’ve tried. We have the tree up in our house. It is up with about half of its pre-lit lights not working and totally undecorated.  I went to Lowe’s to buy some outdoor decorations in the spirit of Clark Griswald. But the wreaths and bows are still laying in the floor of my garage.

What is the problem you wonder?

I could blame it on two sinus infections in two months or how I struggle with depression in December, but I think its more than that. This year there is a bigger block.

I don’t know how to sing Fa la la about Jesus’s coming when so many people in this world are still suffering on their different crosses.

This week we watch as modern day massacre plays out in Aleppo. A massacre that would seem unbelievable were it not for the very real details laid out on social media. I struggle to even imagine what is happening much less how to respond.

For months we’ve watched as our nation’s indigenous people have suffered trial after trial in trying to protect the small amount of land they can call their own from outside forces that they believe would cause their land and people harm. I try to understand how after so many years of mistreatment these souls can have the courage to peacefully endure tear gas, rubber bullets, and water canons in sub freezing temperature to protect the heritage they hold dear. Even though the Native community has received some good news of late, I still feel no peace about their long term future.

Much closer to home, in the state of Georgia in the last month six police officers have been killed in the line of duty. Two at a traffic stop, two responding to a dispute between neighbors call, and two responding to a domestic dispute. These were good guys doing what was for them a regular days work. Now they leave a hole in the lives of their families and communities.

I would try to cheer myself up out of my gloom and tell myself it is not my problem. Except as a Christian, as a human, I know that it is my problem.

I’ve done a good bit of supply preaching of late and the Scriptures have been filled with not cheer, but warning and exhortations. Stay awake! Pay attention to what is happening around you says the first Sunday of Advent. The warnings go on to tell us what we do to the least of these we do unto God.

Then John the Baptists comes and tells us to repent. To prepare the way of the Lord. Prepare for the same Lord who tells us the story about the least of these. And the exhortation to get ready coming from a guy who lives in the woods wearing camel’s hair and eating locusts and honey.

And then we hear the story of Mary and Elizabeth. A story that could be sentimentalized were it not for Mary’s great magnificat. A poem that tells about bringing down the powerful and and lifting up the lowly. Talks about filling the hungry and sending the rich away empty.

So in the midst of these words and warnings I think I’ll just keep that tree bare for now and be okay with that.

Maybe it is alright to cry a little in Advent. Maybe it is okay to feel the pain of the not yet, the pain of a world in need of its redeemer. A world that needs Jesus to come again and again until all things are made new.

When Christmas comes I will celebrate. For God has come to be with us. Even in our tragedy. Even in our pain. And this presence is our hope and salvation.

But for these last days of preparation, I will tell my heart it is okay to be sad. For my sadness means I am paying attention to the wounds of the world. I am seeing the places that need to be covered with healing and light and love.

Because Jesus’s coming does not mean I get to just sit back and drink eggnog and be happy about the birth of a baby.

For this is the baby born in the dirt of a stable to backwater parents who had very little rights in their own home land.

This is the baby that with his parents had to flee from their home and run for their lives. The refugee baby that was sheltered in a nearby land while countless others were massacred.

This is the baby that when you look in his eyes, it makes you get up and walk a different way for you have seen the world in a whole new light.

So if your Christmas has been turned upside down, Take heart. You are not alone. Let’s keep watching and waiting and looking for the Christ child in our midst.

For he is coming. One way or another. He will always come.

 

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Rolling with Imperfection This Christmas

So we are finally down to two of the biggest days of the year, Christmas and Christmas Eve.

But with Big Days come Big Expectations.

Expectations that often can not be met.

I’ve been noticing this month more and more how my melancholy and struggle with the Christmas season is not actually rooted in a dislike of Christmas. In fact it comes from my deep love of Christmas and all that it stands for. A love so deep that nothing could possibly ever live up to my ideal of how to celebrate it.

I am not satisfied with the lovely hour of caroling at the neighboring nursing home. I want our musical family to come up with an hour long act to perform at nursing homes across the mid state area. The Hobbs family singers. In my mind we bring outrageous joy and cheer to the countless sad folks who need it so badly.

A nice idea. Sure. Realistic? No way.

Embracing imperfection this Christmas

My wonky Christmas tree complete with burnt out lights and mis -matched ornaments

 

Even my less grandiose dreams are hard to pull off. I see all these Pinterest perfect pictures of friends’ houses scrolling across my facebook feed. My own house is a mix match of handmade and passed down ornaments and decor that don’t always speak the same language. On good days I describe it as quirky, but secretly I worry I just don’t measure up.

So I find myself turning into my favorite Christmas character. No, not Mary or Elizabeth or even the ever spiritual Linus. Come mid December I morph into the lovable but crazy Clark Griswold.

Yes, Clark too loves Christmas and wants desperately to create the perfect family Christmas for everyone to enjoy. Complete with light display, big family dinner, and a show stopping present that will bring joy and delight to everyone on Christmas morning.

Undoubtedly Clark’s heart is in the right place, but he is asking too much. Nothing will ever be that picture perfect. The tree will be wonky, the in-laws will fight, and weird relatives will crash your party and dump toxic waste down your storm drain.

But Clark learns. He learns to roll with the imperfections.

When you get locked in the attic while your family is out shopping, just put on some old clothes and enjoy those old family movies.

And when Aunt Bethany says the pledge of allegiance instead of a blessing of the big family dinner, just stand up put your hand over your heart and join in.

For Christmas was never really about perfection anyway. 

 

In fact, it is about our imperfection. The imperfection that draws us to the God who came to be with us and lead our wonky, quirky selves into joy and light.

So this year when the turkey turns out bone dry and the cat burns the tree down, just roll with it. Embrace all the imperfection. For it is not so bad after all.

After all, you may not always remember the picture perfect Christmas, but no one will forget the night they stood on the lawn and sang the national anthem after Uncle Louis’s cigar set off an explosion that sent the plastic Santa and all his reindeer flying through the sky.

So, Merry Early Christmas Everyone!

 

May you find joy in the unexpected and even the imperfect. For often that is the best place for it to be found.

 

Learning from Babouska

Every year my children and I read from this picture book, My Very First Christmas: Stories for the Very Young. It has delightful little stories retelling not only the Bible narratives, but also sharing Christmas legends from around the world.

One of our favorite stories from this book is that of Baboushka.  The kids originally loved it because of the thick Russian accent I would adopt whenever I said her name. It made them giggle every time. I love it because I cannot get through it without crying. It speaks truth to my heart.

So as an early Christmas present, I will paraphrase for you the story of Baboushka as told by Lois Rock.

Remembering Baboushka

*****

Baboushka was an old Russian lady. She lived alone in a cottage by the edge of town. Even at her age, every day she worked hard cooking, cleaning, and going about her daily chores.

One day as Baboushka was finishing dinner, she heard a knock at her cottage door. When she answered she discovered three men dressed in the finest clothes. Being a good hostess, she invited them in from the cold. However as she noticed the puddles their snowy boots were making on her floors, she couldn’t help but grumble to herself. She had just cleaned them and now look at the mess!

After Baboushka served a dinner of soup and bread, the three rich men prepared to go. They informed her they were looking for a new baby, a baby that was to be king. “Come with us Baboushka,” they asked. “Join us as we travel to offer our gifts to this new baby king.”

Baboushka thanked them for the offer, but politely declined. There was still so much to do. The house was a mess and her list of chores was never ending.

As Baboushka slept that night, she was awakened from her rest by the sound of angels singing. She looked out her window and saw a star dancing in the sky. Realizing these must be signs of the baby king, she decided to rush after her three visitors and join them. She too would offer the newborn king a gift to welcome it into the world.

But as Baboushka walked around with her basket of toys for the baby, she was not sure where to find him. Just to be safe, she began leaving toys at any house where she heard the sound of children. Even if this was not the house of the king, surely he would like her offerings.

Even today people say Baboushka is still wandering about, looking for the king and leaving gifts for all the children she finds on her way.

remembering Baboushka

****

This story nails me every time because of how often am I like Baboushka, too worried about how messy the house is getting or what is left on my December to-do list to enjoy the miracles that are happening around me every day.

December can be a busy time and therefore stressful. But what a shame to miss the joy of the coming of the king because I am too worried about the mess on my floor (while ignoring the mess in my heart).

Baboushka reminds me to let some of my to-dos go so that I can get swept up in the magic and miracle of it all. I can relish the joy of my own laughing children as well as the joy of the child who came to be king.

In the end, I still read the story of Baboushka even though my children are no longer “very young” because I still need it. I still waste precious moments being cranky and consumed by unimportant details while angels sing all around me. I push through the rituals and routines of Christmas to check them off my list instead of letting their joy and meaning resound in my heart.

So, take some advice from me and Baboushka this season. Let some of the little stuff go. Put down the broom and go on an adventure looking for the king. Pass out toys to children you meet along the way. And always, always keep searching for that baby king come down. You just never know where you might find him.

 

Do you have a favorite Christmas legend you read every year? Care to Share?

 

 

Thomas Merton’s Saint Day and Advent poem

Admittedly, I am a day late and a dollar short on Thomas Merton’s Saint Day, but he is such an influence on my spiritual path that I thought this was a case of “Better late than never.”

On December 10th we remember Thomas Merton, one of the great Christian mystics of the 20th century. I first came across him in college when my husband, then boyfriend picked up a pocket sized copy of Thoughts on Solitude at a used bookstore. So began our journey into the deep well of writing that this restless contemplative gifted our world.

In his quest for solitude and meaning, Merton left behind a life of intellectual and material success to join a Trappist monastery in Kentucky. Ironically, as Merton drew deeper and deeper into silence at Gethsemani monastery, his heart became more and more connected in love and compassion with the world.

One of his quintessential quotes illustrates this move,

“As I was standing on the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district . . . I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world . . . .”

Then realizing his deep connection with all of humanity through grace he exclaims,

“There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

In memory of the beloved Thomas Merton, I share another of his Advent poems with you now:

Advent poem Thomas Merton

Carol

Flocks feed by darkness with a noise of whispers,

In the dry grass of pastures,

And lull the solemn night with their weak bells.

The little towns upon the rocky hills

Look down as meek as children:

Because they have seen come this holy time.

God’s glory, now, is kindled gentler than low candlelight

Under the rafters of a barn:

Eternal Peace is sleeping in the hay,

And Wisdom’s born in secret in a straw-roofed stable.

And O! Make holy music in the stars, you happy angels.

You shepherds, gather on the hill.

Look up, you timid flocks, where the three kings

Are coming through the wintry trees;

While we unnumbered children of the wicked centuries

Come after with our penances and prayers,

And lay them down in the sweet-smelling hay

Beside the wise men’s golden jars.

Advent and the Race Crisis in America

While others in the blogosphere have weighed in on Ferguson and the mounting race crisis in America, I’ve stayed pretty quiet on those matters here at Centering Down. Let me be clear, it is not because I have not been thinking about it. It is not because I don’t care. It is certainly not because I think some lives matter more than any other.

Honestly my silence was primarily based on this, I was not quite sure yet what to say. 

Being a quiet type who likes to think things over carefully before she speaks, I needed some time to make sense of it all. Then I was in the middle of this Advent series and I wasn’t sure if race relations in America and Advent went together in any coherent way. And then I read Mary’s Magnificat again from Luke 1.

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 

for he has looked with favor upon the lowliness of his servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

His mercy is for those who hear him from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.

Then I thought about this Savior who was born to a woman of color and how he was raised in poverty. How he spent his life hanging out with the people who didn’t have any kind of privileged be it white or otherwise. I thought about how this Savior spent every day showing in word and action how all lives matter. Even the lives that the society at the time was throwing to the side of the road to suffer and die. I thought about this Savior who gathered the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor around his cradle to worship him, together. And I knew I had to say something.

And I am still not really sure what to say, so I will just tell a story.

A couple of weeks ago this thing happened. A church I go to was delivering food baskets to children who get free lunch at a low income elementary school in town. The church gives food to these children every weekend, usually sending it home with them from school on Friday afternoon. Since the kids were out for a week, this time we were driving the extra full food baskets to their homes.

When the call went out to help deliver, I immediately went up to grab a bag. Not only because I believe in feeding hungry kids, but because this elementary school happens to be the very same school I went to as a kid. It was not a low income school back in the day, but I still consider it my school. When picking which bag to deliver I zeroed in on the one with the address I knew best. It was in a neighborhood that sits in the shadow of my old high school, now considered the inner city school in town. It was two streets over from my sister-in-law’s old house where I used to play when I was a child. I knew I would not get lost getting there as these are streets I know like the back of my hand, or at least I thought I did.

I remember being concerned that all we had on the bags was a name and address. I wished for a phone number so I could arrange a mutually convenient time to drop off the food. But since that was not available I waited until almost lunch when I knew even kids on break should be awake and headed over.

As we pulled up to the house, I noticed a group of African-American kids playing in the yard. Me and my two children got out, said Hi and asked if this was the “Smith” house as we simultaneously rifled through the trunk to collect the food. Some of the kids who were looking at us with great curiosity said “yeah, this is their house, that’s a guy who lives here” and pointed to an older boy who once identified immediately ran into the house.

Thinking maybe he was just shy, we proceeded up the the door and knocked. I remember thinking how different the houses looked now, twenty years after my days of playing in these same front yards. They were clearly worn by time and stress and some bore bars on the doors.

When the Mom came to the door the only way I can explain her reaction is that her eyes got wide and her face had “who is this white woman on my door?” written all over it. It took me a few minutes to actually explain who I was and what I was doing, she was so freaked out by me.

Once she got that we were bringing her food, she sent the same kid who had ran from me out to collect the bags, apologizing that she would invite us in but her house was a mess. I replied that mine was a mess too, so it was okay.

As the still scared looking boy came out to collect the bags, we wished them well and a Happy Thanksgiving and began to walk off.

Instead of saying “thank you” or “Happy Thanksgiving” the mom said, “I’m sorry you had to come all the way out here.” As if we had traveled from some far away foreign land to bring her the food.

It has taken me two weeks to even speak about this exchange it upset me so much. I don’t know what I had imagined, some bonding experience about the good old days at our common alma maters? I certainly did not expect that people would be afraid of me or ashamed to have me see them and their house.

Me, who drives a modest four year old car. Me, who never has her hair or nails done and wears clothes from Goodwill. Me who drives around with one kid in tow who isn’t even white (though being Asian in America is very different from being African-American).

I had so assumed I lived a life where I tried to fight against racism, to befriend people of all backgrounds,  that it erased my white privilege (which apparently is a fear inducing thing). After all, we live in a very multi-race neighborhood. One in which our kids play with the African-American kids who live behind us so much that we built a ladder so they could climb straight from our yard to theirs. Living in this neighborhood has our daughter zoned for a Title 1 Middle School where over 50% of the students are African-American, a good 10% are Latino or Asian and only 40% of the kids are white.

A school where the kids have told her to get over trying to be politically correct by calling them African American and just go with Black. A statement which totally confused her since we’ve spent her whole life telling her not to call anyone black because she wouldn’t want to be called yellow, would she?

Honestly, these days I’m about as confused as she is. For I don’t know what is right any more. What makes me being white in America okay?

Advent and race relations

Because obviously this little ladder is not enough to bridge today’s race issues.

What will it take for me to go into a low income neighborhood in my own hometown and find common ground with a family there instead of fear?

I had hoped to be a part of the solution, but obviously the problem is much bigger than I thought.

I do not know exactly what will break down all these walls between races so we can stand on common ground, but I’ve got to believe it is possible.

For our Savior came to draw all people together. To make all people matter.

My slow brain is still sorting all this out. I’d love to hear your good ideas on the next right thing in America and our local communities in particular.