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.

 

First Sunday of Advent: Keep Awake

I had the privilege of preaching at All Saints Episcopal this morning. Since I love a good first Sunday of Advent sermon and was pleased with how this one turned out, I thought I’d share on the blog.

Mark 13: 24-37

Here we are on the first Sunday of Advent. It is a time on the secular calendar when others in the world are putting up twinkly lights while the Most Wonderful Time of the Year plays in the background. And while these folk happily eat cookies, sip their hot chocolate, and marvel at the pretty decorations, we have this:

But in those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the heavens.”

Man, you just gotta love apocalyptic writing, don’t you?  🙂 This passage just cuts through the sparkle and fake snow in one fail swoop. So for better or worse, we start this season, a season whose name means coming, with an arrival of sorts. But this arrival is not the coming of sweet baby Jesus in a manger long ago. This advent is a picture of the future coming of the son of Man, a full grown Jesus manifesting himself with great power and glory.

Now the second coming is a bit of a controversial thing. It is something we might shy away from in such grace-filled places as an Episcopal church. There are others who embrace this idea of Jesus coming back wholeheartedly. In fact there are others who use passages like this one to inspire fear, and then wield this fear to manipulate others.

And honestly these days that sort of manipulation is not too hard of a task. With this past year full of terrorism, Ebola, and racial unrest, it might seem like the stars are getting ready to fall from the sky. If you are like me, this fear mongering just makes you angry, makes you want to take this passage and set it aside, wishing to go back to passages that sound like good news to our ears.

And then for me, this thing happened:

First Sunday of Advent: Keep Awake

Here is some backstory. My husband is from Dublin Georgia so for many years we have driven the back roads between Houston and Laurens Counties. About three quarters of the way from here to there, you go through a little town called Dudley. And in the cross roads of this town,  outside of a gas station that also sells chicken fingers and tater logs, there is a large white cross with bold red letters that reads, “Jesus is Coming Soon!”

For years this red-lettered cross was a thorn in my side. I wondered what kind of person would take the time and effort to threaten his patrons with this message on a daily basis. “You better be ready, Jesus is coming soon.” Over the years we would laugh as the owner had to repair the sign time and time again. “Ooops, looks like Jesus didn’t come back soon enough for that paint job.”

And then one day, one day I saw the cross through new eyes. It was around the time Hurricane Floyd threatened Savannah and we had to evacuate since we were living in Savannah at that time. On our trek inland we had spent hours creeping along I-16 with other scared people, just trying to save who and what we could from nature’s wrath. It was a scary time for sure, but it was also a time of amazing generosity. People banded together to help each other in any way they could. The good town of Dublin set out refreshments and opened its churches for shelters. And as we passed by that sign, that large white cross with the bold red letter that particular trip I realized the truth of that sign. Jesus really is coming soon. It just didn’t look quite like I thought it would.

No, Jesus’s coming didn’t look like a scary, mad guy up in the sky. Instead it looked like the arrival of tired and scared evacuees. Jesus’s coming looked like kind people offering a snack to cranky children, and strangers opening their doors to stranded travelers.

For here is the real truth of Advent, the coming.  It happens not once in history or once a year, but every single day. Christ has come. Christ is coming. And Christ will come again.

And this coming is not something to be feared, but to be anticipated with great joy and longing. God is coming among us. Every single day. Every breath. We are just not always able to see it happening right in front of us.

But what exactly does it mean for Christ to be coming among us, present tense? I think some of the great Christian thinkers have it right when they say that one of the most likely places God will arrive is between us. Between worshipers gathered together to praise God’s name. Between the one is who is hurt and the one that offers a balm of healing.  Between the one who is downtrodden and the one who offers a helping hand.

And here is the trick. When God comes, it does not just change one person in the equation. It changes us all. We all are healed. We all are lifted up. We all are set free.

When God comes among us, it will be with such light and glory that all our darknesses will be lightened until we are transformed by that glory into people who don’t even need the moon or the stars anymore so brightly do we reflect the Son of Man’s light.

But since the coming of Christ can be subtle and surprising, not arriving according to our calendar, Mark wants to impress upon us we have to be awake and looking for it. And not just looking but longing and searching with all our hearts.

You know there is something tricky about longing and searching. If we think we already have all we need, are so full with all we already have and know, then we are unlikely to be looking out for anything else. It is like the difference between the person who has a belly full of turkey passed out on the sofa and the one who hasn’t eaten for days. When the great heavenly banquet is offered, the hungry one, the empty one will be looking for it. The one stuffed with lesser things might just sleep through it.

So as we enter this season of Advent, let us to remember to embrace that spirit of emptiness, of poverty, of hunger for Christ. Christ is coming my friends. And his arrival is a wonderful and awesome thing. So let us be awake. Let us watch and wait, always longing for the continuous coming of our Lord.

*For more on Advent follow Centering Down throughout December. I hope to post Advent poems, stories and resources for the next 25 days