When Christmas is Blue

Some churches call it a Blue Christmas service reflecting the sadness of the song made popular by Elvis Presley. Others call it the Longest Night service because it occurs on or near the winter solstice, with the year’s least amount of daylight.

It’s a chance for some to say their life isn’t all merry and bright. Their Christmas isn’t white. In the midst of the merriment that some experience during the season there are others who face the blues. Grief. Separation. Trauma. Stress of expectations. All can bring on darkness.

And so some churches have begun conducting Blue Christmas services. The music is more mellow. Votive candles provide softer lights. Readings help people reflect and prayers give words to petitions. It’s a way for people to acknowledge that their world is not all right. That in various ways it is dark. And yet God is still with them.

Joseph could have used a Blue Christmas service. No sooner had the wise men left than Joseph is given another dream. An angel of the Lord tells him: “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”

Like many Syrians today, Joseph and his family became refugees. They fled to Egypt, a place known in Israelite history as the place their liberation came from. While there, Bethlehem babies are slaughtered by Herod. Scholars estimate there would have been between 30 and 40 children slaughtered. For Herod this was nothing. Sorrow filled the land Joseph had left.

When it was safe to return the family did so but because of another dream settled in Galilee in a town called Nazareth. Joseph could have used a Blue Christmas service.

And maybe you could too. This is a hard season for many. If it is for you then let Joseph’s hard journey ease yours.

  • First, regardless of circumstance, know that you are never out of God’s care. Remember the gifts the Magi brought to the Christ child? Joseph did not know it then but these gifts were most surely to be used to provide for he and his small family as they sojourned in the foreign land of Egypt. In the midst of his own darkness (remember he left for Egypt at “night”) no matter how far he traveled, he was never out of God’s care. And neither are you.
  • Second, God is always at work. He may be at work developing just the right circumstances for Jesus to make himself known in your life. He may be at work in suffering to bring about healing. He may be using darkness to help you see the light of Christ more clearly. Your loneliness to lure you to the Lord.
  • And lastly dream dreams for your life with God. Joseph was a dreamer. Something about being on track with God’s dream for not only his life but the world kept Joseph following. Even in the darkness. Even in a foreign land. Even while living in a place he did not necessarily want to be. Instead of looking at the negatives he listened for God in his dreams.

God’s dream is to be with you. Immanuel. God with us. Those are words for a Blue Christmas service. Those are words for you when your world is not all right. And it won’t always be. But you are never outside of God’s care. He is always at work. And when you follow his dream of Jesus, Immanuel, being with you, your night will not be so dark or long.

Jesus. God with us. May his light brighten your darkest night.

 

 

 

 

 

Look for Light in a Dark World

I’m proud to announce that after twenty-nine years of marriage the Browns have finally learned how to go about decorating the house for Christmas. For many years we would be gone for the Thanksgiving holidays only to come home and hit the next week running full blast. By the time we found time the next weekend to put up a tree and string up lights there were only three weeks until Christmas.

But not this year. We put up the tree and lights the weekend before Thanksgiving. Both sons were at the house so I enlisted their help with the outside lights. Kris climbed the roof last year so Taylor got the job this year. (They’re finally at an age they say, “Dad, let us do that.” And I’m at an age I don’t argue.)

I started the string on the lower edges of the roof. Taylor climbed on top of the house to take over once we hit the higher pitches. Kris deftly lifted the string to Taylor with a special pole we purchased last year. We looked like a well-orchestrated Christmas play, each with his role and playing their part perfectly. We smiled proudly at our accomplishment and then left for the Thanksgiving holiday.

When we returned we noticed our neighbor had lights all over the place: along her roof line, around her trees, and even her swimming pool. Put up by professionals they were perfectly spaced apart. No drooping. No dragging. Perfect.

Then we looked at ours. They had tilted where they once were taut. They had sagged where they were once snug. It looked like three men who had been hitting the eggnog early had strung them. We left them as they were. At least they brightened things. In the dark days of Winter we need light.

In the dark days of life we need light. Matthew’s stories of the birth of Jesus gives us the light we need. Literally. He mentions the “star” four times in twelve verses. The star leads the wise men to Jerusalem. Herod questions the wise men as to when the star appeared. The star leads them from there to Bethlehem. And then we’re told that when they saw the star they “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”

Why all the commotion over a star? The interest was not so much in the star as in where the star would lead them. To a king. To the Christ. They endured an arduous journey in search of something to fill an ache inside that all of the world’s wisdom had not yet satisfied for them.

And once the star delivers them to Jesus it quietly disappears from the text. They probably did not notice. Their lives would now be brightened by Jesus. Light had come to their darkness.

You’ve been there, haven’t you? You’ve journeyed just like the wise men. You’ve looked into a dark night of doubt. You’ve followed signs that took you down foreign roads. You’ve searched for answers, maybe not in the stars or ancient documents but outside an emergency room or in the middle of a court proceeding or on the freshly manicured grass of a cemetery. And like them you’ve wondered if God was really “out there” or if you were just wandering on a journey to nowhere.

When your world is dark do what the wise men did. Look for the star. You can either see the darkness or the light. You can let your world be filled with hopelessness or hopefulness. Sometimes God uses the darkness to help us see the light.

On second thought I had decided to like our lights at our house. They weren’t perfect. They were a little crooked here and there. Kind of like life. But I’m going to look at them differently now. Especially since our neighbor sent her professionals over to straighten them out with new ones!

It was an unmerited Christmas gift. Kind of like Jesus. He is God’s perfect gift to us. So we’re going to let our lights remind us of him.

And so can you. When you look at the lights on your tree, your house, or your Christmas star this year let them remind you of the Christ-child. In a dark world you need light.

Question: Where do you need light in your life today?

Dream Something New this Christmas

On January 8, 1940 he handed his secretary the 48 measures of a song he wrote and told her, “I want you to take down a song I wrote over the weekend. Not only is it the best song I ever wrote, it’s the best song anybody ever wrote.”

Originally written as a satire its first verse began with the words: The sun is shining. The grass is green. The orange and palm trees sway. There’s never been such a day In Beverly Hills, L.A. But it’s December the twenty-fourth, And I’m longing to be up north.

You’ve probably never heard that verse. The song’s composer ordered it cut. He was the hit maker of Tin Pan Alley, a Jewish immigrant from Siberia who penned 451 hits. His song was married to the voice of another hit maker of singing for the movie Holiday Inn. The movie has been all but forgotten. But not the song.

It was released four months before Christmas of 1942 and immediately shot to the top of the charts. America was almost a year removed from Pearl Harbor and millions of young American men were serving their country abroad for the first time in their lives and missing their families and homes.

And so a song that started as satire became the standard for all Christmas dreams. A yearning of being where you want to be rather than where you are. A dream of something different than what you know.

Together Irving Berlin and Bing Crosby connected on the song “White Christmas” that still holds third position as one of the most performed songs of the Christmas season. And why not? It has a dream: one for “a white Christmas just like the ones we used to know.” And it has a wish: that all “your days be merry and bright and all your Christmas’s be white.” It was a dream to be home.

Joseph dreamed of home. As a tekton or one who “creates” he worked in wood and stone. He knew a hard day’s work and a small paycheck. (He and Mary will later give the offering of the poor when Jesus is presented in the Temple.)

He came from a ragtag lineage and we know little about him other than what Matthew tells us. But one thing we know. He was a dreamer. As he was thinking about how he would dismiss Mary quietly an angel came to him in a dream.

And what a dream! He is told Mary is with child from the Holy Spirit and he is to name the child Jesus or “Yahweh saves.” He is Immanuel or “God with us.”

And that’s what Joseph needed. Of all people Joseph needed to be saved. His world seemed to be falling apart. He had dreamed of a simple life with a wife and family. (Imagine the whispers he heard at work about Mary’s pregnancy.) His heart was breaking. He needed saving in the deepest way.

And he needed God. Not distant. Not untouchable. Not uncaring. But “with” him. When dreams die our first response is often to blame God. Our first feeling is that he is far away from our cries. We need him near. A God who is with us.

There will be moments when we realize our dreams are not going to happen. But just as God called  Joseph, God will call us to a new dream that has been born in a child named Jesus. Like him he dreams of a day when we set sin aside and love our neighbors as ourselves. Like him he dreams of a day we will be with each other in redemptive ways as Jesus was.

And he will watch to see if we obey like Joseph did. Joseph did not weigh his options. He simply obeyed. God’s dream may be costly to us. We will be asked to give grace when wronged. We may be asked to move when we’d rather stay. Following Jesus is all about God’s dream and not so much about ours. We will be called to lay down our dreams and take up God’s.

Joseph never forgot his Christmas dream. May we never forget God’s.

Advent Identity

One day in 2008 32-year-old mother of a 10-year-old Naomi Jacobs took a nap. She had just taken her son to school and needed to study for a psychology class. But she felt exhausted and decided to rest.[1]

When she woke up she was a 15-year-old school girl again. At least that was the identity her mind gave her. She woke up suffering “dissociative amnesia, a rare temporary memory disorder brought on by severe stress.”

She did know stress. The 17 years she had forgotten were ones you’d like to forget: drug abuse, bankruptcy and homelessness. Her last memory was also of going to sleep but in a bunk she shared with her sister when she was 15.

She stared in the mirror and did not know the person looking back at her. “’My mouth dropped open in horror. I screamed ‘No! Oh my God, I’m… I’m OLD!’” she says. One expert says that stress can cause people to lose large parts of their memory and even “a sense of who they are.”

That’s where Matthew’s audience found themselves. They too knew stress. Written just before or maybe slightly after A.D. 70 when the Temple fell, Jewish Christians were waking up to find they didn’t quite know who they were anymore. You might say they were having an identity crisis.

Jesus’ first followers were from Galilee. Judean Jews disliked Galileans. Land owners took advantage of them. The two wars against Rome started in Galilee. Trade routes through Galilee brought through bad influences.

Then Jerusalem and the Temple fell in A.D. 70. The Jewish factions became mainly one: the Pharisees. Their 18 Benedictions included one curse against Christians (#12 if you want to look them up).

Stress and conflict had been a way of life for Jesus and his followers. To this setting Matthew begins to write of the “origin” of Jesus. His remedy for a loss of identity is Jesus’ identity. So he traces his origins from Abraham to David to Jesus’ birth.

That was normal for genealogies. What was not normal were the women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and “the wife of Uriah” (referring to Bathsheba). All foreigners to the Jewish faith they found themselves a new life and a new identity in Jesus’ family tree.

Naomi found a new identity. She had to discard the person she thought she was and discovered who she could be. In speaking of her book Forgotten Girl she says she doesn’t regret the amnesia. She says, “It gave me a second chance to make some different choices this time around.”

And you can too. You may be a bit lost this season. A new job or no job. Uncertain future. Someone missing this year from your life. Young but don’t know what direction to go. And you may not know who you are or where you belong.

Then listen to Matthew. He’s been there too. He thought he was a tax collector. But he learned he was a disciple of Jesus. And when he came to know Jesus he came to know himself. He had a second chance.

You will too. Just listen to the diaries of this family tree. Go out on a limb and let Matthew remind you of some stories. Turn your attention to Jesus this Advent season.

Matthew is all about identity. When you know Jesus you know yours.

 

[1] http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/i-went-bed-32-year-old-single-5599010

Selecting the Perfect Presence

December.  People will go to great lengths to find just the right present for just the right person.

One year a father wanted to buy his two young boys the “hot” item on their wish list. It was the Dragonzord from that wonderfully scripted, acted and filmed TV show The Power Rangers.  The Dragonzord could be summoned by the Green Ranger, do battle with the enemies of the Power Rangers, and morph into other shapes.

It seems the only thing the Dragonzord could not do was be found.  The hype was high that year but the stock was low.  And so this young father faced a dilemma—how would he look into the disappointed eyes of his boys that Christmas?  It looked to be a dark time for this family.

But into their darkness a light dawned.  The phone rang.  An informant told him that a certain store would be receiving a shipment of Power Ranger paraphernalia—including the Dragonzord—at 6:00 a.m. the next morning.  He rose at 5:00 a.m., donned his sweatshirt, jeans and cap, and with coffee in hand drove to the store.  On the way he practiced the smug look he would use when others showed up later than he.

It really bugged me when I got there and three others were in line in front of me.  At 5:20 a.m.  I ignored their smug looks.  But each of us got our Dragonzord.  And our kids got their Christmas wish.

Those of you who search for just the right present for the people you love share something in common with God’s nature.  He too is a gift-giver.  He has been from the beginning of time.  He loves to give gifts to his children.

He gave Adam his Eve.  Eve gave Adam a bite of the fruit. God gave both of them clothes.  He gave Noah a boat.  He gave toothless Abraham a tiny tot.  He gave David a kingdom and Solomon wisdom.  Jonah got a submarine ride.  The other prophets got a promise of God’s gift to the world:  Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14).

Out of a storehouse grander than anything the North Pole could offer, the present God chose to give you is His presence.  His son.  May you unwrap his perfect presence this Christmas season.