Tuesday, December 18, 2012

It's the Most Miserable Time of the Year

Based on how I titled this post, I'm going to start off right away & say that this will not be me channeling my inner Scrooge, or just complaining the whole time. But there is definitely a reason why I used that title.

I'm not going to say that the events of my life this past year have caused Christmas to take on a new "meaning," because that is absurd. The "meaning" of Christmas cannot change, and never will change. However, the way we look at it, or the perspective with which we approach the holiday season can definitely change, and it truly has for me this year - mainly in 2 areas. The first area in which I have gained a new perspective, or have just become very much aware of, can be summed up in one word: Pain.

As a little kid growing up, and even to some degree right up until this year, Christmas day & the entire holiday season leading up to it was the absolute best time of the year. Hands down (well, except for the cold temps & all the snow). But I can still remember the anticipation & pure excitement as a young kid looking forward to Christmas - I always enjoyed helping decorate the tree with my own ornaments, there was significant time off from school, there was the wondering of what presents I might get that year...and the list goes on. Once I graduated from high school & moved away from home, the greatest part about the holiday season became the fact that it was at least the one time of year where I knew we would all be together as a family...the older you get, the less often that happens. Of course the fun of exchanging gifts still remains, but priorities change, and so does the appreciation of "family time." I just always viewed Christmas as...well, perfection. What could be better than guaranteed family time, a great meal where you always eat too much, opening gifts that you probably wouldn't buy for yourself, and watching others get excited over the presents you bought them? Oh - and Jesus is involved, too...because it's really about Him and everything. Right. (Sarcasm intended). But it was a perfect holiday - and how could anyone not look forward to it or get excited about it???

And then this year happened - heart-breaking, life-changing, faith-testing circumstances took place in the spring. And even though these events are technically becoming smaller in the rear-view mirror of life & time, it seems that the closer it gets to Christmas the more they are becoming magnified in my mind. Instead of anticipating the "perfection" of what Christmas used to be for me, I find myself dwelling on what's different, or missing from my life this year. Excitement has turned, at times, to dread. And because of this, I have become very much aware that the holiday season is undoubtedly the single hardest time of the calendar year for more people than we would probably even know, or would like to think about.

I'm sure there are countless people who feel a little sense of dread when the temperatures start to drop, the leaves start to fall off the trees, and Wal-Mart starts placing all the decorations on the shelves way too early. People who have been deeply wronged by a former spouse, people who haven't seen certain family members in years for one reason or another, people who are barely living paycheck-to-paycheck and don't have the money to buy their loved ones any kind of special Christmas gifts. There are people who don't even have a permanent home to put a Christmas tree in. And maybe the worst of all, there are parents who have lost children...to miscarriages, illness, or even disgusting acts of senseless violence like we all horrifically heard about this past week. Any one of these situations, and even many others, have permanently changed the perspective of the Christmas season for countless individuals from one of excitement, anticipation, and joy...to a time of year where pain, grief, and hurting are magnified. It's a revolving door that hits them in the back every single year.

In no way, shape, or form am I trying to downplay the reality or pain of any of the aforementioned situations by making my next statement(s)...because I fall into one of those categories for the first time this year. And the pain is very real. The dread is real. But I have to believe that a very large part of the cause for the heightened angst toward the holiday season, lies in what the focus of the Christmas holiday has become in our nation. It's all about being "happy," right? It's about spreading "Christmas cheer," it's all about the presents we receive (which is basically finding satisfaction in temporary, material things). Take a look at a portion from one of the most popular "Christmas" songs that we hear during the holidays. This is a perfect microcosm of why so many hurting people never look forward to the holiday:

It's the most wonderful time of the year;
With the kids jingle-belling
And everyone telling you 'be of good cheer'
It's the most wonderful time of the year

There'll be much mistletoe-ing
And hearts will be glowing
When loved ones are near
It's the most wonderful time of the year

  • "Kids jingle-belling" - What about those who have lost a child? What about husbands & wives who aren't able to have children?
  • "Much mistletoe-ing" - What about those who have broken marriages? What about widows or widowers? Someone who has just been through a really messy break-up?
  • "When loved ones are near" - What about those who can't afford to travel to be with their family? Someone who is an outcast of their family, or all their family members are gone?

For far too many people, this is likely the most miserable time of the year. Even though these painful, unfortunate circumstances never really "go away," it seems that we are the most at war with these feelings & realities during the holidays - the time of year when we look around & everyone else appears to be so happy. But my heightened awareness of the amount of people in pain around the holidays has also caused me to have an even more heightened awareness of what Christmas is really about. And that also, can be summed up in one word: Peace.

You see, my previous view of "Christmas perfection" only included Christ as some sort of peripheral ingredient to the big picture. My happiness was rooted in the material things - the cool decorations, time off of school or work, giving & receiving gifts - and even spending time with family could be thrown in there as a material thing. The fact that Jesus was a part of it all just made it that much better. But in reality, Christ has never been just a part of the big picture - Instead, the entire picture is Christ. It's that humanity is sick with sin. Our world is cursed. We are all in pain because we have all experienced the affects of sin one way or another - whether by sins we ourselves or others have committed, or just by the effects of the fall (sickness, natural disasters, death, etc). But Jesus Christ - the Son of God, who is God - was really, literally born as a baby on this earth. He truly took on human flesh...so that He could live a perfect life, die for my sins in my place, and rise from the dead. Why? Well, not so that He could make my life easy. Not to make my life pain-free, or free of the trials or hard times. But He came to this earth to give me life. To give me hope. To give me peace.

  • Isaiah 9:6 - "For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon His shoulder, and His name shall be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."
  • Micah 5:2, 5 - "But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah ... from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days ... And He shall be their peace."
  • Ephesians 2:13-14 - "...In Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace."

This doesn't mean that the pain will disappear. This also doesn't mean that feeling pain, sadness, or heartache is wrong. Jesus knows & understands our hurt - He died for the very sin that caused it. But it does mean that even though my painful circumstances might not change, my perspective of the holiday season can change & I can have peace in Christ  in the midst of the pain in my life. So while there are countless people in our world who equate the Christmas season with pain, my prayer is that some will find that the holiday is infinitely more than a day of happiness, gift-giving, and family time; it's about the God of the universe stepping into our world as a peaceful baby - to offer us the only source of real peace. And that is what makes this the most wonderful time of the year!

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


Surrender...why is this so hard? Why does it feel like the same internal discourse takes place every single day - a discourse that basically replicates the apostle Paul's frustration in Romans 7? He begins verse 15 by saying the exact same thing that I say to myself almost every day: "I don't understand my own actions." And he goes on to say that even though he wants to do what is right & he hates when he sins, he still catches himself sinning. I know I'm not alone in this, but it's so frustrating! I understand that there's always a spiritual battle going on inside of us as believers, because Paul says in Ephesians that we wrestle against "spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places." And I also understand that we will never arrive at sinless perfection on this earth, but that doesn't mean that I just give up & sin all I want so that I can win the "He Got the Most Grace" award. So how do I truly "surrender?"

I feel like I need to express, that in no way do I think that anything I write on here is "revolutionary." By no stretch of the imagination do I think that I have discovered, or am introducing anyone who might actually read these posts to any "new ideas" or "new ways of thinking." That's really not even my intent or my hope. In fact, I honestly feel like some of the most helpful things I hear or read come from the most common, well-known truths that I have just "always known" as a Christ-follower. Truths that, for some reason, I thought I could get a fairly decent grip or understanding of & then just move past them in pursuit of "deeper" truths. But this is not the case at all - in fact, these "simple" truths are usually the most important, foundational things that I should be re-visiting & trying to gain a better understanding of on a regular basis.

Which brings me back to "surrender." It could very well be that I am the only one who had this kind of mindset when thinking about this word, but for the longest time I saw it as a one-time decision. As one of those churchy things we do where we "go forward" at the end of a service to "make a decision." Where we make a public declaration that we are "dedicating our life to Christ." Sorry for the abundance of quotation marks, but anyone who has an extensive church background has probably heard these terms a million times. You see, I did that exact thing years ago at a church camp. While sitting in one of the services during a week of youth camp, I was clearly convicted by the Holy Spirit that my life didn't look like it should as a follower of Christ. So during the speaker's invitation at the end, I went forward to "make a decision to surrender my life to Christ."

Time out. Don't get me wrong - I'm not bashing invitations, camp decisions, or "going forward" in church. I believe 100% that when the Spirit of God is convicting us of sin or pointing us in a specific direction, we need to act on it - and maybe even talk with someone else about it to affirm it & to gain prayer support, etc. Was I sincere that night when I made that decision years ago? Absolutely.

But here's the thing - I was subconsciously under the impression that this was all I needed to do to surrender my life to Christ. Now that I have made this decision, I could be sure that my life would look differently in my day to day living...check. But if that's the case, then why hasn't my life looked different every single day? Why are there still days that I fail so hard? Days where I fight so hard against certain biblical commands, or even conviction of my sin? Why can I sing this awesome Sovereign Grace song "Surrender All" in tears & with a true desire to chase after Christ one day... only to catch myself wanting nothing but to run the opposite direction the very next day? Well little did I realize or understand that instead of surrender being a one-time life changing decision, it actually needs to be a never ending succession of every-single-day-for-the-rest-of-my-life-decisions. Jesus tried to point this out in Luke 9:23 - not only to His disciples, but also to the crowds that followed Him around. No matter what my interpretation of "taking up my cross" is, it's kinda hard to argue and debate about what the word "daily" means there.

Our salvation is absolutely a one-time decision. Trusting in the finished work of Christ on the cross immediately provides forgiveness of sin & eternal life that cannot and will never be taken away. And is there a degree of "surrender" involved in salvation? Yes, there has to be in order for me to place my complete trust in someone else for my eternal destiny. But I'm a slow learner - and I'm slowly learning that in order to even have a chance at overcoming the frustrating battle of "doing what I hate" on any given day, I have to give up my attempts to even try at all, and surrender my day to the One who has already overcome my sin. I have to make a conscious determination every day to say "no" to myself - my own sinful thoughts & desires, my feelings of doubt, my attempts to be in control of my life - and fix my eyes on Jesus: the One who gave me my faith to begin with, and the One who promised that His work in my life will not be done until I see Him face to face.

I've come to the conclusion that it's impossible for me to "surrender my life" to Christ. Instead, I have to take it a day at a time. I surrender today to Christ.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Oh, Bother

I've come to the conclusion today that if my inner thoughts, feelings, and "conversations" with myself from the last week could take on a visible, bodily form...people would see me walking around as Eeyore. With a self-fabricated rain cloud directly above only me; following me everywhere I go. Always down. Always pointing out how crappy my life is.

That's a pretty ridiculous thought, I know. But that's honestly the rut I've been stuck in for the majority of the last week or more. And the sad part is that I've basically chosen to be there. The weekends have been pretty good lately...that is really the only main time I'm around people. I'm able to genuinely have a good time & enjoy being around my friends, family, or church. But then the work week starts up and most days & nights are spent sitting around my apartment alone and just...being Eeyore. And for some reason, the more immersed we are in the "holiday season," the worse it has become. Instead of focusing on the countless things in my life I should be thankful for around Thanksgiving, I chose to keep coming back to the few things that have been ripped away from me this year. I usually put off my Christmas shopping until the last minute anyway, but this year my procrastination has been fueled by new reasons. It's too hard to walk around the mall or a store and see all the happy couples & happy people when I'm over here with my internal frown & rain cloud. "It's not fair."

Now...this isn't my constant state of mind because I am confronted with much-needed reminders & perspective-adjusters every now and then. But I have definitely allowed these things to consume my thoughts more often than not lately. And that's not good. It's not healthy...and if I am just downright honest with myself, it's sinful (Philippians 4:8). Are there certain circumstances in my life that just plain suck right now? Yes. And they are truly significant circumstances...but if I were to follow Phil. 4:8 and think on things that are true, one of the things I would see is that I have a loving Savior who has already taken care of my greatest need by providing forgiveness for my sin, and has allowed the wrath of God to be removed from me. A Savior who is always with me - He has not & will never forsake me. I would see that God has placed me in an incredible family where unconditional love abounds. That I have unbelievably great friends who genuinely care about me. Just a few things that could quickly derail the Eeyore train before it gets to full speed in my head.

This morning I came face to face with another one of those "perspective-adjusters," and I want to share some of it with you. In my other posts I've tried to express or paraphrase things I'm learning in my own words, but today I can't do that with what I read. First of all, I don't want anyone to think that it came from my own head. I was in such a bad place this morning before I read this that there's no way I could have had this perspective myself. Secondly, if I try to paraphrase this or put it in my own words I will undoubtedly butcher it & so I want to just leave you with the same words that God used in my life this morning. The following was a much needed kick in the pants...but at the same time, these words took on the arms of His unfailing love & unending grace wrapping around me & reminding me (again) to keep straining forward. This is from "The Overflow Devotional" by Mike Donehey of Tenth Avenue North:

"It's complicated to reconcile a God who works through pain. It's tough to trust in a Lord who allows suffering and inconvenience. It'd be a whole lot easier to mindlessly promise myself that Jesus always wants to make life easy, but I don't think that's how He works. If anything, Jesus uses dark colors when He paints. He's into streams in the desert and life out of death.

Just take one good look at the cross and that ought to convince you that the God the Bible speaks of is a God who uses horror and injustice to His advantage. The cross is evidence to our minds, and balm for our souls that our God is a God who brings beauty out of pain. Art out of chaos. Beauty out of ugliness. ...

... When we trust Christ, and the mysterious work on Calvary, we trust that He's always up to something good even in the darkest days. In fact, that's probably when He's up to the most good, because that's when the most good grows in me.

So hey, I'm uncomfortable, but if this is the path the Lord has brought me down, then I say, 'Don't stop it Lord. Redemption was born on a far darker day than this one, so bring the chaos. Bring the madness. Do whatever you've got to do to recreate my heart.' After all, it's me that needs to change, not my circumstances."