Nothing highlights my family’s failures and shortcomings like the Christmas season. The picture-perfect greeting cards of families in matching pajamas and those carefully crafted Instagram boxes that look like ads for Anthropologie (some of which are ads for Anthropologie) are fun to look at for about two seconds. Then the doors of comparison swing wide open and envy floods in. My attitude toward my “lived-in, cozy home and blessed family life” takes a fast turn, and suddenly all I can see is the cat vomit on the stairs, the dog pee on the couch, and the empty chair at my dinner table. Throw a dash of 2020 seasoning into the pot of imperfection and you’ve just made yourself a recipe for utter disappointment.
What is it about the Christmas season that can make our families feel more broken, more dysfunctional, more imperfect than any other time of year? What is the perfect family anyway?
Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are our model for the family, and, as far as I can tell, they did not have the perfect family or the perfect Christmas. Not by our standards, at least. They had no money. No extended family around to help Mary give birth. No baby shower. No matching pajamas. Mary was a pregnant teenager on a donkey with a husband who failed to make hotel reservations ahead of time. And her baby? He was born into a total mess—and I am not even talking about his line of genealogy (which, by the way, includes prostitutes and murderers)—the literal, laid in a manger with no crib for a bed mess! And don’t even get me started on the smell of the animals she gave birth next to. If I were Mary, I would have looked around at my tiny mess of a family and thought, “Really, God? This is what I get for being obedient?”
It was far from perfect. And yet, it was God’s perfect plan.
This past Sunday we celebrated the feast of the Holy Family. Pay attention to that. The Holy Family; not the Perfect Family. God isn’t looking for perfect families, you know. I doubt He’s even looking at Instagram. What He desires are holy families. What makes a family holy? Families that are obedient in their poverty. Families that surrender to the will and purpose of God. Families that understand suffering is, as Bishop Barron says, “God’s point of entry,” and “it is always in that suffering that we find our mission.”
So let me ask. Did you find your mission in 2020? Because talk about suffering!
I learned something this year, something only a year like 2020 could teach me. The imperfections in my family—the sufferings that a “perfect Instagram life” seem to magnify—are what bring me to the foot of the Cross. The mess I so desperately try to pray away and cover up with matching pajamas is necessary because it is the suffering that offers me the opportunity to stand with our Blessed Mother Mary; to unite my sorrow with hers and our pain to Christ’s. And good grief, I know how that can sound horrible to someone who doesn’t know and love their Heavenly Mother and Father, but for me I’ve got to say that there is no safer, more beautiful, more perfect place to be. In all of my family’s imperfection, I discover the path that God calls me to when I meet Him at the cross. It is not the path that leads to the perfect life I want, but the path that leads to the holy life that I need. Look, 2020 kicked our butts for sure, and I am by no means making light of that. But if all we are looking at is what went wrong, we are going to miss everything that God set right. His lessons are always hidden in the most unusual and often painful details. He wastes nothing. He makes no mistakes. He knows perfectly well what He is doing.
As eager as we all are to hang up 2020 and press on ahead into better times, let us not be fooled into thinking that a new date on the calendar is going to magically change things. I am more than certain that what I suffer from and find imperfect on December 31 will still be what I suffer from and find imperfect on January 1. If the new year is where you are placing your hope right now, might I suggest you spend some pondering time with Mary and dig a little deeper. Because the new year is not what will change us. Holiness is.
And so my prayer for all of us as we approach the new year is this: we quit trying to be the perfect family and make holiness our goal. How? Pray for your family. Pray with your family. Love your family, mess and all. Because the mess is not only why Jesus was born but where He chose to be born. The mess is where we meet Jesus.
Wishing you and your family a very happy, holy, messy and imperfect new year.
Last month I managed to do something right. On most days in December, I was able to balance the business of Christmas shopping, decorating, cooking and celebrating with a peaceful mindset focused on His coming. I’ll admit I sometimes didn’t balance the two evenly, and there were days when party prep and presents kept my eyes off the real prize. But I did give more of my attention to Him than I had during past Christmas seasons. I am a work in progress!
So here we are at the start of a new year, and once again I feel compelled to make a New Year’s resolution. Doing so might be a waste of time since I’ve never stuck to any resolutions I’ve made in the past, but it doesn’t hurt to try.
Putting God first every day of the year (not just during Advent-Christmas) would make for a great resolution, right? But, I am a full-time employee of Walking with Purpose, and the act of working for a ministry of Jesus Christ keeps Him front-and-center daily. More than that, He and I are in cahoots here in my home office. I pray each day for the Holy Spirit to guide me in my work, and He certainly responds.
I already know He’s Priority Number One.
Which brings me to Priority Number Two, and my resolution for 2020. I got the idea from Matthew 22:37-40:
[Jesus] said to him, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”
Christ says the second most important thing is to put others next, in the #2 spot to God. Not ourselves. Thinking about this, I realize that there are people in my life who really should be elevated to that #2 spot. People who, sadly, I sometimes ignore. My aging parents and my husband come to mind.
But then, the self-centered part of me that worries about my sanity takes over my thought process. Really? It says. You’re going to give more of yourself to your parents, even though it is always you who visits them and not the other way around? They are the retired ones, after all. How in the world are you going to fit more two-hour-long road trips into your packed schedule?
That selfish voice also has a problem giving my husband second-to-God status. You both work full-time yet it is always you doing the laundry and cooking meals. When’s the last time he made you dinner? Why do you eat Doritos while he and the kids enjoy the steak dinner you prepared for them?
(Side note: I’m a vegetarian, and the rest of the household are big-time carnivores. However, the time it takes to make two dinners each day is time I just don’t have.)
The WWP Bible study Keeping in Balance has a lesson all about putting people “next.” In it, author Lisa Brenninkmeyer reveals the key to actually making it happen. She writes:
“The principle of ‘loving your neighbor as yourself’ works only if you treat yourself well. Do you habitually neglect yourself, forsaking prayer, rest, good nutrition, exercise, and healthy emotional boundaries?...Do you agree that this is a necessary first step in order to love others well?” 
You can’t effectively love others if you don’t love and care for yourself first. Which I think means I need to stop eating Doritos for dinner.
It looks like I might have two resolutions for the new year: Providing more TLC to my “neighbors,” and to myself. I’m going to try like heck to stick to this because of something else Lisa writes in Keeping in Balance:
“At the end of our lives, God isn’t going to ask about all that we have accomplished. He will look at how we’ve loved. This is the true measure of significance.” 
 Lisa Brenninkmeyer, Keeping in Balance (October 2018), 32.
 Lisa Brenninkmeyer, Keeping in Balance (October 2018), 33.
Are you worried about how everyone is going to get along this Christmas? Is there a pit in your stomach because you are dreading the interpersonal dynamics that are about to engulf your family? Does it seem like your family members revert back to childhood roles and behaviors when they get together? Is the cloistered life sounding pretty good to you right now? If this is how you are feeling, you are not alone.
Your family is a mess? Jesus’ family was dysfunctional, too. Just take a look at His family tree. Matthew 1:1-16 lays out His genealogy, and in it we find a liar, a cheat, a woman who slept with her father-in-law, a prostitute, a refugee, an adulterer, and a murderer. I’m not making this up. It’s all in there. These are some messed up people, my friends. God’s Word is meant for flawed families with real baggage and problems.
Could it be that God chose this particular family line for Jesus in order to teach us how He can redeem even the most broken families? What was amazing about the Holy Family is that they allowed God to write a new narrative with their lives, despite what had happened before. Instead of continuing in the same old patterns, they chose to sacrificially love in the hard places. They didn’t shrink back when love became costly. They leaned in. As a result, the pain and wounds weren’t transmitted—they were redeemed.
It’s been said that friends are the family you choose. In the words of Beth Moore:
We form most friendships out of personal preferences, but we’re not automatically the better for it…Many of us have distanced ourselves from extended family because we’ve replaced them with people we prefer. Though some elements of the transition are justified and godly, others are selfish. Let’s face it. Family is more trouble than friendship, and the fear that we might share similarities with some of our members also carries an indictment too strong to face on a regular basis. For one thing, we can drop friends more easily when the relationship becomes inconvenient. Here’s the rub and maybe the help: God chose our family even if we didn’t. Even the challenges they pose can be effective motivation to seek His throne, His help, and His healing (AKA deal with our stuff). 
Jesus has factored the dysfunction of your family into His plan for your good. All the garbage, the aggravating habits, the opposing political views, the childhood hurts, the unkind words, the unspoken judgments, the laziness of one and the workaholic nature of the other, the mental illness (yes, even that)… God can use all of it to benefit you and yours. It’s through the rub of our closest relationships that God chisels our hearts to better resemble His.
While friendships we can choose and discard at will may be easier, easy does not always equal good. Very often, good = hard. Nowhere is this truer than with families.
What might change if in addition to issuing gifts to our family this Christmas, we issued a challenge? What if we challenged one another to press in when we want to disengage from each other? What if we challenged each other to stay and love in the hard places, to have honest conversations, to face our demons, and to hold each other during the process? What if we committed to each other that home would be a safe place to let it all unravel… to follow the thread of tears and hurts… inviting the Lord to heal and redeem us each step of the way?
I know this isn’t easy and that most of us would rather numb out or distance ourselves from the dysfunction. But perhaps a better choice would be to encourage each other to go to counseling—calling out any shame under the surface and firmly rejecting it. Maybe things would change if instead of shutting down or being distracted, we said, “Tell me more.” What watershed moment might come if we had the courage to ask for or offer forgiveness?
There is no perfect family here on earth. We all have flaws galore, no matter how well we can pull it together when the neighbors come by. Jesus doesn’t ask us to come to Him when we’re cleaned up. He asks us to invite Him into the mess. Isn’t this the message of the manger? That’s where He first showed up, to the manure, animals, smells, and discomfort. Invite Him into your home and family this Christmas. I promise you—He will come.
Praying for you and yours,
 Beth Moore, Stepping Up: a Journey Through the Psalms of Ascent (Nashville, TN: Lifeway Publishing, 2007), 155.
Hello Sisters in Christ! The below is one of my early blog posts, published in 2012. I enjoyed re-reading it and I pray it resonates with you this Advent. – Lisa
ALL GOOD GIVING AND EVERY PERFECT GIFT IS FROM ABOVE, COMING DOWN FROM THE FATHER. – JAMES 1:17
As Christmas approaches, I’m freshly inspired to create the perfect Advent setting in my home. I picture beautiful arrangements of greenery and berries by my front door, a lovely tree by the roaring fire, homemade cookies, and peace and harmony wafting through the house like a scent of cinnamon, cloves, and orange. I want everything on my Christmas Pinterest board to magically appear in my house. Regardless of my good intentions, my reality never seems to match my ideal. Take for example the Advent calendar that I always forget to fill until mid-December. Why on earth I bought the Advent house that has little tiny openings that hardly any candy actually fits in is beyond me. But now it’s a tradition (although an empty one, literally), so each year I bring it out and hope that I’ll get my act together a little earlier. And then there’s the nativity set with no baby Jesus. This isn’t because we’re waiting to put him in the manger on December 24th. It’s because we lost him, and every time I buy a new nativity set, I manage to lose that baby Jesus, too.
Thankfully, a meaningful Advent season isn’t dependent on a perfectly decorated house, consistent traditions, homemade cookies or Christmas cards sent out on time. What is Advent all about? It’s about getting ready, spiritually preparing, for the coming of Christ. As we wait to celebrate Christ’s birth, we remember the long wait the Israelites had as they anticipated the coming of their Rescuer – the Messiah. During their wait, God stretched out a long Advent calendar where, from time to time, they were able to “open” a gift that reminded them they were drawing closer to the realization of His promise. These gifts were prophecies that pointed to Christ, and glimpses of God’s plan of redemption. Literally hundreds of Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled by Jesus.
He continues to fill up a very personal Advent calendar for each one of us. Every day. Jesus (who is the giver of all good gifts) sends us reminders of His love that are handpicked for His precious daughters. Pope Benedict described this in his Apostolic letter, Porta Fidei, dated October 11, 2011. He wrote, “Faith grows when it’s lived as an experience of love received and when it is communicated as an experience of grace and joy.” When we see God’s love at work in our lives, our faith grows. Unfortunately, these graces often go unnoticed by us as we dash around, always busy, slaves to our lists of to-do’s. Perhaps this Advent season can be different. Look for His unexpected gifts. How is God helping you to experience His love today? Did you listen to a beautiful piece of music? Did you receive an unexpected kindness? Did a piece of Scripture speak to your heart and encourage you? Did your child give you an unexpected hug? What reminder of His love did He send you today? God knows what delights you. It blesses His heart when we recognize what He’s sent. I encourage you to make an Advent list, recording what He has given. We can forget and take things for granted so quickly.
For a reminder of how much God adores you and loves to lavish you with the things that delight, take a look at the Opening Your Heart Connect Coffee Talk “Priority #2: Your Heart – You Are Captivating!”
Wishing you an Advent season with time to pause and be filled with Christ’s sweet love.
And just like that, the Advent season is among us. Before you know it, Christmas will be here. Of course, by the looks of the house across the street (the house that never took their Christmas decorations down from last year), one might think that every day was Christmas! And don’t get me started on retail. Santa was at the mall before the Halloween candy was digested. It appears the rush to get into the Christmas spirit is happening earlier and earlier, sooner and sooner, faster and faster.
And I am not a fan of this.
It’s not that I don’t have any Christmas spirit, or that I have a problem with premature Christmas decorating. I really don’t. If pulling out a box of vintage ornaments in November makes you happy, by all means, go for it. What I do have a problem with is approaching Advent as if it were a 24 day countdown, running ourselves ragged as we run from store to store, party to party. What bothers me is how easily we’ve turned Advent into a season of stress and anxiety; worrying about all the things that need to get done and how on earth are we going to afford it all. What was once a prayerful journey through darkness to light has now become a marathon sprint to the finish line with a peppermint martini in hand. Is it just me, or have we forgotten what Advent is all about?
I don’t know exactly when this happened, but somewhere along the line we got it all mixed up. We took the peaceful days that lead up to the birth of our Savior, and replaced its simplicity with chaos. Then we took the 12 days of Christmas, and reduced it to a single day by packing up the ornaments, taking down the tree, and boxing up the nativity all on the 26th. See ya next Christmas, baby Jesus!
In his book, Rejoice! Advent Meditations With Mary, Father Mark Toups reminds us what Advent is all about.
"The secular Christmas season we find ourselves in is anything but small, simple, and slow. In fact, for many of us, the pace of life accelerates as Christmas nears. There are presents to buy, parties to attend, and holidays to plan. As the world around us sprints into frenzy, Advent actually invites us to slow down. Just as Nazareth’s pace formed the heart of the Mother of God, Mary wants to slow us down so that we can receive as she did. So, slow down. Get quiet. Listen. After all, what’s the rush?"(1)
I want to slow down. I want to take off my Christmas running shoes and walk through this Advent peacefully, with Mary, away from Target and towards the stable. I want to trade anxiety for simplicity. Chaos for calm. I want to prepare my heart and make it a manger, ready to receive the infant Christ.
If a peaceful heart and home is what we desire this Advent, we need to rightly order our days. In his Magnificat reflection, Bishop Baron writes, “Whenever God is given highest value, order is established both within the worshiper and in the society that surrounds him or her...Consequently, trouble comes from incorrectly directed praise...if you want peace, get your worship rightly ordered.”(2)
Makes you wonder. What am I worshiping?
It’s as simple as asking yourself that question. Personally, I am tired of waking up Christmas morning, exhausted because I just spent the last 24 days worshiping all the wrong things, only to feel like once again, I missed it. If you can relate to any of this at all, I want you to know...I am reclaiming Advent. The world can have its secular holiday celebration with its Elf on the Shelf and Pinterest charcuterie boards.
I am putting things in their right place and taking back this holy season. Here’s how:
Advent is meant to be a season of preparation—not celebration. It’s time we get our worship rightly ordered. There’s a baby about to be born: The King of Peace. You won’t want to miss him.
(1) Father Mark Toups, Rejoice! Advent Meditations With Mary, (Ascension Press, 2018), 7.
(2) Bishop Baron, “A Light Unto My Path,” Magnificat, December 2019, 22.
I received the call halfway through my drive from Florida to Maine. With the dog in the backseat and the car full of Christmas presents, my world stopped for a moment with the news that Amy, our oldest, was in labor. We were about to welcome little Luke Anthony into the world, I was becoming “Nana,” and I couldn't get on a plane to them fast enough. Since I was in Philadelphia visiting my son (who couldn't hide the dog in his dorm room), I had to re-work plans and meet another son at the airport in Boston to pass off the dog, car, and gifts. Slight aside-this son met me curbside with his blonde hair dyed red; never a dull moment. But I digress.
Knowing how Amy's life was about to change, wanting to comfort her during any pain, desperate to hold this new precious life… I told every person I encountered that I was becoming a grandmother. Someone told me once that when you have a grandchild, all the love you have for your own child just multiplies and passes to the new baby. It's a chance to do motherhood again, but without the heaviness of responsibility. I'm allowed to just enjoy little Luke, to kiss his little cheeks and enjoy his snuggles, and know that while my prayers for him will be powerful, the disciplining is someone else's job. My husband, Leo, and I were able to enjoy a taste of this delicious experience this weekend, and it was the supreme gift.
When we were driving back to the airport, Leo talked about the effect little Luke had on him. “When I just held him, sleeping on my chest, all the things I've been worried about just faded away. There was a power in that little baby. He commanded all the attention in the room, simply by being there.”
It makes me think of a night thousands of years ago when another baby was born. It was the night that changed everything. Hope was ushered in, just because of His presence. Suddenly, everything else faded in importance. The door between heaven and earth was opened, and a baby entered. In the words of Ann Voskamp, Jesus came “as the most vulnerable imaginable. Because He wants unimaginable intimacy with you. What religion ever had a god that wanted such intimacy with us that He came with such vulnerability to us? What God ever came so tender we could touch Him? So fragile that we could break Him? So vulnerable that His bare, beating heart could be hurt? Only the One who loves you to death.”
Mingled with this outpouring of love is death. The incarnation and the Cross. This self-giving is the price of true intimacy. It's always demanding and brings with it a feeling of vulnerability.
I wonder where this Christmas Eve finds your heart. Is it weary from giving? Is it apprehensive, wondering how family dynamics will play out over the next few days? Are you feeling tempted to self-protect, to draw back, to fall into old coping mechanisms? Stress does that to the best of us.
So my prayer for you is that you can pause and feel the power of the baby in your midst. The Christ child comes and reminds us that all else can fade in importance, if we will focus on Him. It's His birthday, but He comes to offer gifts to us. He offers us kindness, hopeful that we will use it to offer forgiveness to those who don't seem to deserve it. He offers us patience, hopeful that we will use it to listen to the relative's story that we have already heard a million times. He offers us goodness, hopeful that we will do small things with great love for the people who are sitting in their chairs when we think they should be helping us. He offers us gentleness, hopeful that we'll be the balm between frustrated loved ones. He offers us self-control so that we close our mouths when the quick retort is on the tip of our tongues.
Just as being a grandmother offers a fresh opportunity to love again and perhaps love differently, the advent of Jesus gives us a chance to chart a new course in our relationships. So we pray…Oh come, oh come Emmanuel, and breathe new life into our families and homes. This Christmas Eve, we welcome you.
Dear Friend -- I just had to share this post with you, written this time last year, as it is one of my all-time favorites. -- Love, Lisa
It's such an interesting message the world sends us this time of year, and by interesting, I mean flat-out ridiculous. Get your shopping done, wrap those gifts, mail those Christmas cards and photos (the ones you took back in August), bake those cookies, host those parties, assemble the gingerbread houses, deck the halls. And that's just the first week of December.
I INSIST THAT THIS IS THE YEAR CHRISTMAS WILL NOT BE REDUCED TO THE TO-DO LIST THE WORLD WRITES FOR ME, BUT RATHER, IT WILL BE A PERIOD OF INTENTIONAL WAITING, AN ADVENT SEASON WHERE MY GAZE IS TRULY FIXATED ON THE EMPTY MANGER, PREGNANT IN THE ANTICIPATION OF BEING FILLED WITH THE COMPLETE AND AWESOME WONDER OF A NEWBORN KING.
I might have dropped dead on my floor yesterday morning when I saw how a friend on Instagram had finished her Christmas preparations over Thanksgiving weekend. FINISHED. Didn't help that our Thanksgiving decorations were still sitting out on the counter, next to the rotted Halloween pumpkin, when I came upon her post. And she planned it this way so that she could actually enjoy the month of December. Which I suppose, is a brilliant idea, if you have that kind of motivation. I, however, am the kind of woman who still has a stack of half-written and never sent Christmas cards from last year, stuffed into my china cabinet drawer. If you're lucky, maybe I will send you one…in time for Easter.
And you know, every year I say the same thing. “I am not going to miss it.” The purpose. The meaning. The reason. The incredible build up of the immense weight of glory that is about to be born. I insist that this is the year Christmas will not be reduced to the to-do list the world writes for me, but rather, it will be a period of intentional waiting, an Advent season where my gaze is truly fixated on the empty manger, pregnant in the anticipation of being filled with the complete and awesome wonder of a newborn King; a King I so desperately need to come, to be born, and to rescue me, again and again. And then suddenly there I am, tearing at rolls of gift wrap with my teeth like a great white shark, and cursing out the stupid scotch tape dispenser like a full-on crazy woman, ordering my poor husband to go back out to Petco on Christmas Eve to purchase the third guinea pig that week, because the first two I brought home were not longhaired enough, and insisting that he must go back to Costco for more cheese and a larger ham, because I mean really, what on earth was he thinking buying so little cheese and such a small ham? It's CHRISTMAS people…you get the mother lode of cheese and you bring home the giant freaking ham!!!!!
Because that is exactly what Mary did the night before she gave birth to the Son of God. She scrambled like a lunatic for last minute gifts and sent Joseph to Costco, because the birth of her Son just wasn't enough.
And this pierces my heart as I write it…that the newborn baby Jesus…He just isn't enough. And sure, maybe we don't really mean that, but I think that maybe, we can surely act like that. When we stress over perfect menus and the matching kids' clothes, and spend more time worrying about will we have enough money to grant everyone's wishes, and will we be able to provide a good Christmas for our friends and family…well…I think when we do this, it is as if we are saying that baby Jesus, being born and with us, is not enough.
And I don't believe we do this intentionally. I do not believe we push Him aside, promising to get right back to Him, just as soon we complete all of our preparations, on purpose. I think it just happens. I think we so easily get caught up in the race, and dragged into the malls, and busy with the online shopping that is all too easy, and before you know it, we are getting pulled into Petco (OK, so maybe that last one is just me) because we actually have really good intentions. We want the kids to be happy on Christmas morning. We want our holiday guests to feel at home. We want our feast to be delicious. We want to eat our body weight in cheese. We want to do all of these things because we want to have a beautiful Christmas. We are all about the baby Jesus, it is just that sometimes? Sometimes we just go about it the wrong way. Sometimes we get pulled in the wrong direction. I know I do. And when I do? I miss it.
There is a balance in all of this, isn't there, and for those of you who have mastered it, please share. Because it is not easy to do and I think no matter how many of us try, we often fail. I do believe that we can have the baking, and we can have the gifts, and we can do all of our traditionally fun and expected things, if in fact…they are still fun and not just something we feel we ought to do because that one perfect lady we follow on social media does it, and look at how happy her family looks! But, how can you tell? How do you know what should stay, and what ought to go, this Advent? Well, before hitting your Christmas to-do list, might I suggest, you pray over it. Seriously. Take that list to prayer. Ask God what He would like to see you do for Him this Advent season. Because my guess is that God's way of preparing might look slightly different from the world's way of preparing. So it is wise to check in with Him, and ask….will doing this bring me closer to Your Son? Will this task, next on my list, deepen my love for You? How can I offer up this activity as praise and glory to You? Will this third guinea pig fill our home with the true joy of the birth of Jesus Christ?
And the answer to that last one is a resounding NO. The three guinea pigs have only brought true smell to my daughter's bedroom. Zero Jesus. If you are considering that Santa bring a live pet this year, come on over to my house first, and smell my upstairs.
You know, when I really meditate on the nativity, when I truly take some quiet time alone, escaping the chaos and the anxiety that without fail, washes over me this time of year, I can not help but find my tired mind taking me back to that one Christmas, five years ago; that one Christmas, that followed after the shooting at my children's elementary school. That one Christmas, where my community felt the groaning labor pains of the birth of unspeakable and devastating loss. That one Christmas, where we suffered such sorrow and disbelief, and couldn't imagine, for the life of us, how Christmas would come. Should Christmas come? And the miracle? Not only did Christmas come, but it came powerfully. It came beautifully. It came just as it promised. Because when you are reminded with what this life is all about, and you are slapped in the face of the reality that we need God like never before, guess what happens to that to-do list? Guess how much you care about the cookies and the parties and the wrapping? Everything takes on new meaning. Suddenly, you long for real presence, not presents. That Advent was like no other Advent I have ever lived through before. It was truly what Advent is supposed to be. A holy waiting period. A sacred preparation. A stripping away, a pulling apart, and a re-focusing. An awakening to the undeniable truth that the only thing we need, the very best gift we can ever hope for, is that swaddled baby boy, that newborn King. His presence is the only present. And until that sorrowful Christmas, I never knew how badly I wanted, how crazy much I needed, that gift. That baby.
And that is what the Advent season needs to be about. And I know it is hard. It took my being stripped away of everything, in the most hideous way, to see where I actually needed to be. It took giving up on my idea of what our Christmas was supposed to look like, and surrendering to God and His idea of what Christmas needed to be. It took my handing over my list…LITERALLY...and allowing friends to swoop on in and do what I was too sad to do. And guess what? Christmas still came that year. Sure, it looked different. It carried a weight of sorrow. But if you were to kneel next to Mary right now…right there in the stable…get on up close next to her, with the hay and the animals and the smell of the stable…and if you were to reach out and pick up that sweet babe, swaddled up tight, and gently kiss his head, and press His heart close into yours…would you not feel a tinge of sorrow? Yes, the birth of our savior is a joyful occasion, but because we know His mission, because we know His sacrifice, because we know that the same baby we reach for in the manger is the same man we hung on the wood of the cross, how can we not weep?
And so maybe this Advent season, if you feel that earthly pull, if you feel that building anxiety and the stress of the world's to-do list, maybe it is a good idea to just stop. To be still. To give your list over to the Lord. And then, go on into the stable. Kneel down next to Mary. Close your eyes. And in joyful expectation, wait with her by the empty manger. Just wait.
He will soon be born, sweet friends. The hope we wait for. The grace we need. The Christmas presence that is beyond compare to any other present on our list. And He is more than enough.
So let's prepare wisely. Let's not miss it.
As we move through Advent and prepare to celebrate the arrival of our Savior, I wonder what is pulling at your heart. Is there a longing? Is there something you are wishing for? Is the biggest thing on your Christmas list impossible to wrap up in a package, but oh, if it could be delivered to you, the satisfaction would be so very sweet?
Last month, I wrote about what we can do when it's hard to hope. Perhaps at no time of year is it harder to hope than at Christmastime. The lights, decorations, and smells create something beautiful. That beauty expands our hearts, and makes us long for fulfillment. It can make us long for traditions we had in childhood. It can make us long for a return of the pure wonder we used to have. The deepest ache comes when we long for the presence of loved ones who were here in years past but are no longer with us.
These aches were placed in our hearts by our Creator to make us long for heaven. Our time on earth is not all there is. Our destiny is an eternal one, and it is only there that we will have all our longings satisfied. Our hearts are continuously being pulled towards that place where we'll experience true fulfillment. During our lifetimes, we'll get tastes and glimmers of what that heavenly bliss is going to be like, but they are only meant to point us homeward, never to totally fill and satisfy us.
When we look to people, or circumstances, or even answers to prayer to satisfy our longings, we will always be disappointed. We were made for more, and that more is not here. Yes, Jesus satisfies. Yes, His Holy Spirit fills us and makes all the difference in our lives. But there will always be a gap between what we experience on earth, and the total union with God that we were created for.
What we think of heaven will have an enormous impact on how we feel about all of this. If we think of heaven as a place where we do nothing but play harps and sing all day, we're going to try to squeeze as much satisfaction out of this life as we can. We'll have the attitude, “Let's eat and drink and be merry because tomorrow we die (and everything gets really boring after that point).”
Oh my friends. Nothing could be further from the truth. Heaven is NOT going to be boring. It's going to be the place where our emptiness is filled. Where our joy shoots through the roof to the point of ecstasy. Where all our longings will be satisfied. Everything wrong will be made right. Every tear will be wiped from our eyes. When Jesus left this earth, He went to get it all ready for us. Think about the ultimate Christmas experience. The most beautifully decorated home. Sublime smells. Foods with the perfect blend of flavor and comfort. Unwrapping the gift that you've been hoping for but were sure was out of reach. Being surrounded by those you love. All of that is just a taste of what Jesus has prepared for us.
“No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.”
(1 Corinthians 2:9)
The story is told of a woman who lost her only child. Holding him in her arms, she turned her face towards heaven and said, “I give you joy, my sweet child.” This is what awaits us. Pure joy. This is what is being experienced right now by our loved ones who have gone before us. This why we don't “grieve like the rest, who have no hope.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13)
E'en for the dead I will not bind my soul to grief; Death cannot long divide. For is it not as though the rose that climbed my garden wall Has blossomed on the other side? Death does hide, But not divide; You are but on Christ's other side! You are with Christ, and Christ with me; In Christ united still are we.
This Advent season, let's turn our hearts to heaven. While we enjoy the glimmers of joy here, let's remember that our inner ache, our longings, our desires, are going to be satisfied there.
So now we wait. We still our hearts. We prepare for the coming of Jesus, the one who came into the mess of the manger, who made Himself into bread so our hunger could be satisfied, who even now is preparing a banquet for us in heaven, beyond our wildest imaginings.
Come, Lord Jesus. Come.
May the blessing of hope be yours this Advent season!
 L.B. Cowman, Streams in the Desert (Grand Rapids, MI: Zonderan, 1997), 450.
The Elf on the Shelf is stressing me out. For those of you who haven't noticed this little fellow in the stores, here is his happy little story:
“The Elf on the Shelf® is a special scout elf sent from the North Pole to help Santa Claus manage his naughty and nice lists. When a family adopts an elf and gives it a name, the elf receives its Christmas magic and can fly to the North Pole each night to tell Santa Claus about all of the day's adventures. Each morning, the elf returns to its family and perches in a different place to watch the fun. Children love to wake up and race around the house looking for their elf each morning.”
While it is true that “children love to wake up and race around the house looking for their elf each morning,” the children are not so happy and excited when the elf has failed to move. It's too much pressure, my friend. I can't take the look of utter disappointment on their faces. And all these mothers from school are upping the ante by having their elf do things like fish in the sink, wrap the tree (seriously? I could barely get mine decorated), build towers out of forks, and decorate little baggies of red and green m&ms with the label “elf poo.”
Our seven-year-old, Bobby is still a believer in all things magical. Although our elf is rather inconsistent in terms of “perching in a different place to watch the fun”, Bobby has nevertheless cried every night out of fear that the elf will end up in his room, staring at him when he sleeps. None of us like to be watched when we aren't putting our best foot forward.
In the rush to relocate the elf, deck the halls, plow through crowded shops, wrap, bake, etc., I sometimes forget that Jesus is “watching the fun” as I prepare for His birthday.
Is it fun?
Or has the sparkle of Christmas grown dim because of the quantity of stuff, the steady activities, and the pressure to keep up with the latest electronic or name brand gifts?
Do you ever get to the end of the Christmas season, and find that your strongest emotion is relief that you got through it?
Advent is supposed to be about preparing for the coming of Christ, but too often, all we're really preparing for is more stuff to shove in drawers and closets, and hefty credit card bills in January.
I was walking to my car the other day with my arms full of heavy bags. (I had a lot of blessed people to bless with more things this Christmas season.) Feeling a little sorry for myself that my car was parked at the far end of the lot, I started thinking about God's perspective on it all. I was thinking about the fact that He doesn't just see me in the parking lot. His view is higher, and includes a young African girl on the other side of the world. We're both walking, but she's up when it's still dark, afraid as she makes her daily trek to a well to get fresh water. And it occurs to me that maybe my perspective has been a little faulty. And then I do the same self-talk that I've been doing for years, “So be grateful for what you have. It's not all about the finding the perfect gifts. Keep Christ in Christmas.”
Is that as far as God wants me to go?
Did He bring the disparity between my lifestyle and that of so many others to my mind simply to call me to a place of gratitude? Or would He actually like me to do something about it?
My mind travels to His words in Micah 6:8, “He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
We are to be the “pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing,” 2 Corinthians 2:15. It's more important for me to be the scent of Christ to someone in need than for my house to smell like pine, gingerbread and peppermint. This requires that I go beyond being grateful for what I have, to actually doing something. God didn't say that He required for us to think about the importance of justice. He requires that we do justice. He didn't say that we should love kindness in theory. Our love of kindness needs to be seen in our actions. And God invites us to walk humbly with Him during the Advent season and each day afterwards. He didn't say, “Run around frantically while checking things off your list, while ignoring me.”
I can't solve world hunger. I can't build a well in every village that needs clean water. I can't hold every orphaned child that is longing for a mother's arms. But if all God's children decide to celebrate Jesus' birthday by doing justice and showing kindness in action, we would see change. That scent of Christ would fill the air and people would be drawn to Him. Now that would be a birthday gift fit for a King.
Can we spend less on gifts for loved ones who already have so much, and give to someone truly in need?
Can we forgo a luxury for ourselves in order to be more generous?
Can we practice kindness in unlikely places, like the mall parking lot and the long line in the store?
Can we walk humbly with God by prioritizing time with Him over creating the “perfect Christmas?”
The next time I relocate our little Elf on the Shelf, I'm going to remind myself that Jesus watches the fun of Christmas, and nothing delights Him more than seeing love in action.
May we be the fragrance of Christ as we prepare for His coming.
Blessings to you this Advent season-
“All good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father.” James 1:17
As Christmas approaches, I'm freshly inspired to create the perfect Advent setting in my home. I picture beautiful arrangements of greenery and berries by my front door, a lovely tree by the roaring fire, homemade cookies, and peace and harmony wafting through the house like a scent of cinnamon, cloves, and orange. I want everything on my Christmas Pinterest board to magically appear in my house. Regardless of my good intentions, my reality never seems to match my ideal. Take for example the Advent calendar that I always forget to fill until mid-December. Why on earth I bought the Advent house that has little tiny openings that hardly any candy actually fits in is beyond me. But now it's a tradition (although an empty one, literally), so each year I bring it out and hope that I'll get my act together a little earlier. And then there's the nativity set with no baby Jesus. This isn't because we're waiting to put him in the manger on December 24th. It's because we lost him, and every time I buy a new nativity set, I manage to lose that baby Jesus, too.
Thankfully, a meaningful Advent season isn't dependent on a perfectly decorated house, consistent traditions, homemade cookies or Christmas cards sent out on time. What is Advent all about? It's about getting ready, spiritually preparing, for the coming of Christ. As we wait to celebrate Christ's birth, we remember the long wait the Israelites had as they anticipated the coming of their Rescuer- the Messiah. During their wait, God stretched out a long Advent Calendar, where, from time to time, they were able to “open” a gift that reminded them they were drawing closer to the realization of His promise. These gifts were prophecies that pointed to Christ, and glimpses of God's plan of redemption. Literally hundreds of Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled by Jesus.
He continues to fill up a very personal Advent Calendar for each one of us. Every day. Jesus (who is the giver of all good gifts) sends us reminders of His love that are handpicked for His precious daughters. Pope Benedict described this in his Apostolic letter, Porta Fidei, dated October 11, 2011. He wrote, “Faith grows when it's lived as an experience of love received and when it is communicated as an experience of grace and joy.” When we see God's love at work in our lives, our faith grows. Unfortunately, these graces often go unnoticed by us as we dash around, always busy, slaves to our lists of to-do's. Perhaps this Advent season can be different. Look for His unexpected gifts. How is God helping you to experience His love today? Did you listen to a beautiful piece of music? Did you receive an unexpected kindness? Did a piece of Scripture speak to your heart and encourage you? Did your child give you an unexpected hug? What reminder of His love did He send you today? God knows what delights you. It blesses His heart when we recognize what He's sent. I encourage you to make an Advent list, recording what He has given. We can forget and take things for granted so quickly.
For a reminder of how much God adores you and loves to lavish you with the things that delight, take a look at the Connect Coffee Talk from WWP 101, “Priority #3: Your Heart- You Are Captivating!”
Wishing you an Advent season with time to pause and be filled with Christ's sweet love.