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Category: Advent

To a broken world, tomorrow Emmanuel comes!

Without a doubt, my favorite carol is “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

The carol is unique among Christmas songs. It obviously stands apart from the shallow Christmas songs like “All I Want for Christmas Is You” or “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.” However, where it really stands apart is among the carols. While the other carols are statements of proclamation—“Joy to the World, the Lord has come” or “Hark! The herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king”—the “O Come Emmanual” is a prayer of desperation.

This carol is a haunting plea, sung by a world lost in darkness. It is a cry for rescue by the almighty God. It is arguably the most representative song of the Advent season.

The carol is possibly one of the oldest, dating back to as early as the eighth or ninth century. It contained seven verses called the “O Antiphons” also known as the “Great O’s.”

You can clearly see why:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear

Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
shall come to you, O Israel

O come, O Wisdom from on high,
who ordered all things mightily;
to us the path of knowledge show
and teach us in its ways to go.

O come, O come, great Lord of might,
who to your tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times did give the law
in cloud and majesty and awe.

O come, O Branch of Jesse’s stem,
unto your own and rescue them!
From depths of hell your people save,
and give them victory o’er the grave.

O come, O Key of David, come
and open wide our heavenly home.
Make safe for us the heavenward road
and bar the way to death’s abode

O come, O Bright and Morning Star,
and bring us comfort from afar!
Dispel the shadows of the night
and turn our darkness into light

O come, O King of nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind.
Bid all our sad divisions cease
and be yourself our King of Peace.

The carol was first chanted in monasteries, in Latin, the seven days before Christmas, the darkest days of the year. The monks would chant only first verse at the start of the one-week countdown. With each new day, another verse would be added—the second antiphon on the second day, the third on the third, and so on.

On Christmas Eve, all seven antiphons would be chanted. In and of itself, the lyrics resonate in a world gone mad. We plead for intervention from the only one who could save the world.

However, there is another message in this song.

A message from God to humanity.

It’s message spoken without us even knowing it.

As previously mentioned, the song is made up of seven “O Antiphons”, each a title given to Jesus: O Emmanuel; O Wisdom from on High; O great Lord of might; O Branch of Jesse’s Stem; O Key of David; O Bright and Morning Star; and finally O King of Nations

The chant was originally written and sung in Latin. Since it was sung as a countdown to Christmas, it is sung in reverse order from how it is sung now. The “O Antiphons” are listed thusly: O Emmanel; O Rex Gentium; O Oriens; O Clavis David; O Radix Jesse; O Adonai; and finally, O Sapientia.

The first letter of each of these Antiphons form an acronym: ERO CRAS.

Having chanted through the week prior to Christmas, adding a verse each week, when the song reaches Christmas Eve, the acronym forms a message of hope and anticipation: ERO CRAS.

ERO CRAS is Latin meaning “Tomorrow I come.”

Hidden in a chant crying out for divine salvation from the darkness is simultaneously issuing a proclamation: “Tomorrow I Come.”

It’s December 24, as I write this. Prior to this day, the sun appeared to sink lower and lower on the horizon as though the sun going away. Now daylight grows longer by roughly a minute. Light is coming in to the world.

A lot of us are living in darkness. There is no human solution. Contrary to popular opinion, government can’t provide it. Neither can science, nor education, nor a political candidate.

We suffer from depression, loneliness, nihilism, hopelessness, uncertainty, fear, anxiety, and suicide now more than ever. We put on a brave, stoic face, but it is hard to hide it.

2023 was a hard year. Given an upcoming election, 2024 likely isn’t going to be much different. So we cry out for a Savior: “O come, o come, Emmanuel.” As the days countdown to December 25, they get more and more desperate.

But in the midst of our suffering, God is proclaiming: “Tomorrow I come.”

Tomorrow is a reminder that salvation isn’t coming, it is here.

Jesus came.

The Son of God will take human form and suffer with us.

This Messiah will live as a human.

Roughly tree decades later, this Messiah will die a most brutal death, uttering the words, “Father, forgive them. For they don’t know what they are doing.”

For now, we celebrate. In our suffering, in our darkness, in our pleas, we get the answer to it all.

Tomorrow he comes.

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Christmas in the context of life’s changes

Twas the day before Christmas Eve, and all through the house…

Not much is happening.

Actually, it isn’t feeling much like Christmas this year in many ways.

Weather-wise, winter in Montana during December has been an absolute dud. We haven’t seen a snowflake since October, and the temperature has hovered in the balmy 40s and even 50s. It feels like flowers are about to bloom any day now.

Even though we have a Christmas tree, and the living room smells like pine, the house feels empty. We don’t have kids; no child-like excitement fills the house with energy. Though not impossible, it’s hard to watch Rudolph as an adult in his 50s. Though, in full disclosure I plan on watching Elf and Christmas Vacation later today.

To add to the quiet, we lost both our dachshunds in 2023—one last January, and the other about two months ago, so the quiet seems heavier through the house. There is no tap-tap-tap on the linoleum, no tripping over a waggle of sausage dogs while scrambling to get the house ready, no maniacal barking at the very scent of the UPS guy as he drops off the latest package at the door.

Finally, for the first time in at least a couple of decades, we have literally no major plans for Christmas.

I had this epiphany last week during a grocery run to Wal-Mart. In many ways, this weekly task looked no different than pretty much every grocery run made over the past year.

Except for the fact that the whole world is only one week from Christmas.

There was the typical Christmas hustle and bustle: people getting ready for parties, bellringers at the doors, the chatter of shoppers brainstorming last-minute ideas, Christmas music playing over the speakers.

This seasonal buzz is what makes this time of year so magical: joyful and busy.

Even I had donned my gay apparel: my Santa hat an and a Snoopy Christmas shirt. I played carols on my way to the store. I even got in a Christmas movie beforehand.

However, as I tossed groceries into my cart, the realization hit me that only objective was getting meals for the week—something I had been doing every week in 2023.

And 2022.

And 2021.

It hit me that, unlike the previous last twenty years, my wife and I would not visit family nor would family visit us. Usually at this point of the Christmas season, we would be in the final stages of preparation: either getting the house or the car ready, making travel plans, wrapping presents, planning activities.

But all I was doing was getting groceries.

An emptiness and sadness enveloped me as I pushed my cart through the aisles of Wal-Mart.

I realized how much I need to be around family and friends on Christmas Eve and Christmas day. It goes back to my first job I got  shortly after graduating from college. I worked at a radio station in northwest Montana. I was far away from family. Further, my work hours weren’t the greatest, so I didn’t make a lot of friends.

To add to the loneliness, I was the only single on the staff, so I was the go-to holiday coverage while the rest of the staff could be with their families. I worked every Christmas Eve only to look forward to the twelve-hours shift on Christmas Day. My mom would call the station to cheer me up, but all I could hear was the laughter and chatter in the background from her annual gatherings at her house.

Since then, I have grown to abhor being alone on Christmas. I hate a quiet Christmas. I crave needing around family and activity. I have to be a part of the warmth and laughter.

That is why last week’s epiphany at Wal-Mart hit me a little hard.

This Christmas season feels different.

Then again, Christmas—like life in general—is likely to be different every year.

As I worked through the realization of a potentially quiet, uneventful Christmas, it slowly dawned on me that every Christmas has the potential to be different in some way every year. Some might be experienced in a context of loss, others in a context newness. Some might be snowless, others might get buried in snow. Sometimes families can’t get together, other times houses might be filled with love and laughter.

Life has this frustrating habit of constantly changing. Nothing stays the same. Health issues come up. Geographic dynamics evolve. Work responsibilities differ. Traditions change.

Our job is to adapt to those changes.

Christmas might be different this year. It will likely be different next year.

However, the message of Christmas—the very reason of Christmas—never changes. No  matter what experiences one brings into the darkest month of December—happy or sad, grief or celebration, loss or gain, with others or alone—we celebrate that God stepped directly into this world to save us from ourselves.

Whatever is going on in your life, may you never forget the one constant in life.

The Messiah has come.

That fact will never change.

No matter what curve ball life throws at you, Christmas will always be Christmas.


Regaining your bearings when your kingdom crumbles

I tend to get into Christmas.

I mean really get into Christmas.

I am Clark Griswold. If I could cover my house in thousands of lights, I would risk my well-being to string them up. If I could find a tree too big for my living room, I would cut it down and figure out a way. I am proud of that identity. I own it. I have no inhibitions.

However, this Christmas feels a little more subdued. I still “don me now my gay apparel” (Oh, how I wish the original meaning of that word hadn’t been hijacked): Christmas tee-shirts, and neckties, and an over-the-top Santa hat. I watch Christmas movies like A Christmas Story, Christmas Vacation, and Die Hard (and, yes, it is a Christmas movie). I play carols incessantly without hesitation or shame (and those who constantly complain about Christmas music, I don’t care).

This year feels a bit different, more laid back. I still feel excited for the holiday. However, I felt I entered into this Christmas season more emotionally exhausted than anything else. I felt mentally spent, spiritually stressed out and tired.

The last few months were tough. Nearly everything in and around my house seemed to be falling apart. Our finances became frightfully stretched.

Years ago, the events of these previous months might have sent me into a meltdown.

My kingdom felt like it was crumbling.

However, thankfully, perhaps from experiencing the grace of God in my previous crises, as stressful as these months were, this time I never felt God had abandoned me.

I did not see my litany of mishaps as an absence of God or even as a divine punishment.

I can’t say I looked up at heaven from my pit bathed in a heavenly glow. The struggle with my flesh was present. However, I was able remember and believe that this was not my kingdom to begin with.

Further, at several points—even as late as last week–God wonderfully reminded my wife and I that he still sees us.

And that gave us peace.

This is how I entered into this Christmas season: with an odd mixture of exhaustion and peace.

The angels’ message to the shepherds also seemed meant for me: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:10-12).

Do not be afraid. I bring you good news. The king has come.

When angels appear, they always start all their proclamations with “Do not be afraid.” It is these mighty beings who come to Mary and the lowly shepherds to announce the coming of the Prince of Peace. I find the angel’s assurance to not be afraid more than a little ironic. Angels are not adorable, chubby little infants, with rosy, red cheeks and dressed in diapers and wings. Try to imagine the angel guarding the east gate of the Garden of Eden with a flaming sword flashing back and forth as an adorable little two-year-old. It doesn’t jive. No, angels are powerful, intimidating and warrior-like entities whose presence evokes fear in those they encounter.

Yet their message is anything but threatening.

The angels are there to proclaim the arrival of the King of kings.

I have nothing to fear because in the middle of my own fragile, crumbling kingdom, Emmanuel has come to set up one that will never end. That is good news. It is reassuring to us in the midst of struggle.

This good news gave me the freedom not to wildly celebrate his arrival, but to rest in it. It’s like the angels said, specifically to me. “Do not be afraid. I bring good news. God sees you and has stepped into your crumbling kingdom and in doing so, brings peace. Now rest.”


Regain my bearings.


Rest in the knowledge God’s got this. Rest in the fact that no matter how big our problems, he has no equal. Rest in the assurance that, whether some miraculous miracle drops fire from heaven for Elijah or I wind up on the ash heap like Job, God is here, with us.



Sometimes we celebrate the arrival of Christmas with wild passion and joy. I have seasons like that.

But sometimes we just need to celebrate its arrival with the peace to rest.

Let Emmanuel—God With Us—wrap you in his arms and whisper in your ear: Do not be afraid. I am here.

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The promise of peace

In 2014, I wrote about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Christmas Bells” in the context of an active shooter situation at a mall near my home in Portland, Oregon. The day after the shooting, I drove down to the mall, watching the police activity, the media frenzy, and the stunned onlookers standing in small groups still trying to grasp what had just happened.

As I drove around the mall, the carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” came over the radio.

That song has stuck with me ever since.

The thought of church bells piercing the grit, darkness, and violence of the times and proclaiming the arrival of a promised Messiah is burned into my mind.

Especially at the conclusion of each of the every subsequent year since.

Since 2014, there have been multiple mass shootings or murders via other means which now only hardens our hearts because we are so quick to take advantage of it politically. We have also  experienced two presidential elections, which have done little more than erode our trust and respect of the office. We have experienced a pandemic which locked us into mind-numbing solitude, turned each other into enemies, and decimated our trust in public health and education.

This last year, America entered into recession. Inflation is at a decades-high level, and at one point, gas prices hit an all-time high. The powers-that-be responded not by acknowledging or  owning the recession, but by changing the definition of the word.

Life has been hard since the 2020 pandemic. And every year, when December arrives, I find myself wanting  to allow the darkness of the prior year to engulf me.

The last several months have been fairly difficult and overwhelming for me personally. There was no life-changing catastrophe. Instead, it has felt more like death by a thousand paper cuts.

The inflation-that-supposedly-isn’t has depleted our savings account and left us carrying a credit card balance for the first time in our 25-year marriage. Our house had a power surge during a summer thunderstorm, resulting in a fried underground cable and requiring an overhead replacement.  Our refrigerator, washing machine, and laptop computer all went out. Both of us needed long-delayed replacements for our eyeglasses, and we were informed our dangerously bald tires, which we’d hoped to use through the winter, could easily blow out before Thanksgiving.

Then, we were told that one of our trees, the one closest to the house and garage, had developed serious cracks in the trunk and has officially become what the expert called a “liability.” Finally, our two senior dachshunds both developed incontinence (one from old age, the other due to Cushing’s disease). We spend much of our waking time chasing them around the house, cleaning up dribbles and mopping the floor.

All this unfolded in just six weeks.

As December arrived, it became very tempting to just ignore Advent altogether. My life felt like total chaos, and I was too exhausted to think about the meaning of the season. Hiding out in my room and binging TV shows became my refuge. I just wanted to focus on my own woes.

But Emmanuel won’t let that happen.

When light steps into the darkness, the darkness goes away. Darkness cannot win in a battle with light.

Likewise, light does not remove the person from the darkness, but removes the darkness from the person.

Therein lies the peace promised by Emmanuel, the God With Us.

We are not rescued from the darkness. We still have to work our way out of the mess. But Advent reminds us that God himself stepped into the chaos loosed by the serpent.

In Genesis 3, the serpent sets out to undo the order and beauty of creation, described just two chapters earlier. At first, his plan appears to work when Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

However, when God confronts the three players in the Garden, he slips in one promise of hope. To the serpent, he says that the woman’s offspring “will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”

The Christmas story still speaks the angels’ message of “peace on earth.”

We have the peace of knowing that God’s got this, that he sees the mess we’ve made of his creation and has made it right.

He sees that my death-by-a-thousand paper-cuts will ultimately glorify him.

My duty is to release my stresses to him—daily, continually. It’s not easy, but it is necessary.

During this second week of Advent, acknowledge the darkness around you. Think of the chaos in your life. Reflect on the arrival of the Prince of Peace—the infant who entered our world, our stories, calming the storms in our hearts and souls by commanding, “Peace, be still.”

You will make it simply because he is with you.

And that is the promise of peace in the Advent season.




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Darkness surrounded by Christmas

It’s no secret that Christmas falls during the month of December.

What isn’t as clear is the reason why.

“That’s easy,” one might reply. “It’s when Jesus was born.”

Actually, it wasn’t.

Most biblical historians place Jesus’s birth around either October(ish) or April(ish). They argue that shepherds would not have been out in the fields with their sheep in the dead of winter. It would have been far too cold, especially at night. (Fun fact: Christ likely wasn’t born in the year 0 AD either. Because of some miscalculations in the Gregorian calendar, he was probably born sometime between 3 to 5 BC.)

Secularists–and particularly militant atheists–enjoy rubbing that little detail into the face of unsuspecting Christians before adding, with gleeful snark, that the whole Christmas holiday is based on a pagan holiday filled with drunken debauchery, which is true.

To a point.

But the deconstruction of the Christmas narrative into a bunch of uncomfortable half-truths in no way minimizes the power of the Incarnation.

The decision by the early church to set the celebration of Jesus’s birth on December 25 was intentional.

Celebrating his birth on this date is not an attempt to deceive the masses about the actual date it happened, any more than is celebating his resurrection on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the Spring Equinox. It’s merely a date for global body of Christ to celebrate as one.

And–gasp!—Resurrection Sunday was also around the time of pagan holidays.

So why did the early church set the celebration of Jesus’s birth on December 25th? The answer is quite enlightening (pun very much intended).

With the shortest days of the year, December is shrouded in darkness more than any other month (at least in the northern hemisphere–the early church’s known world at the time). December can seem downright depressing. Further, the month also contains a solitary annual event: the winter solstice.

The winter solstice is the day the earth’s northern hemisphere is tilted furthest away from the sun, marking the official first day of winter. It is also the day considered the shortest of the year, with the northern-tier states of the US getting only about eight to nine hours of daylight, decreasing as one goes further north. People in northern Canada and Alaska receive only a few hours of light a day, and must hunker in for the cold, depressing darkness of winter.

However, though that solstice marks the shortest, darkest day of the year, it also marks the point after which the days begin to grow longer.

In other words, light is entering into the world.

Following the winter solstice by only a few days, December 25 marks both the coming of more daylight to dispel our physical darkness, and the coming of the Light of the World who dispels our spiritual darkness.

It feels like the two years following the whole COVID mess have been spiritually dark. It’s like our nation–in fact, the whole world–has been stumbling along, trying to regain our sense of equilibrium. We’re assessing the damage of lockdowns, individually and relationally. We suffered through another election which grows uglier by the year. We now accept lies as truth for no other reason than it’s “our guy” telling them.

Students are woefully behind on their level of studies from where they should be. Many of us who have been able to get by are now living paycheck to paycheck, draining our savings and running credit card balances in order to stay afloat while being told by the highest authorities that everything is peachy. Just this month, there have been mass shootings in both a gay club and a Walmart as well as a brutal quadruple homicide of four college kids while they slept.

We no longer believe anything from our media, government, and academic institutions. And every day, that level of mistrust grows progressively worse. Institutions we normally trust to fix things are themselves broken.

Nothing makes sense. When institutions we should trust are telling us things totally out of line with the reality around us, uncertainty prevails. And with no truth to stabilize, darkness saturates.

There is no solution.

Save one.

The dark reality Jesus entered into the first time is the same reality now.

We don’t need Christmas in spring or summer, when all is warm and bright. But we do need it in the darkest time of the year. Why do you think the most dominant decoration is the light?

As we enter into the Christmas 2022 season, don’t wait to start the season until you feel “festive.” That is the way the world does it, trying to drum up emotions and then falling even deeper into depression and darkness.

That is also putting the cart before the horse.

Acknowledge the Christmas season from within the darkness around you. Let the brilliance of Christmas trees and lights remind you that the true Light of the world has come and will come again.

Yes, it’s dark. But Christmas is the reminder that Emmanuel has come.

And the days will start growing longer.

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That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown


On November 30, 2015, the ABC television network aired the 50th anniversary special of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” This annual animated TV show, based on Charles Schultz’s comic strip “Peanuts,” has traditionally aired shortly following the Thanksgiving weekend to kick off the Christmas season. It tells the story of Charlie Brown’s depression and angst at Christmas as he tries to find the point of it all amidst the shallow emptiness of commercialism.

The show is a big deal for me—so big, in fact, that I consider it the start of my Advent season. My tradition is that my Christmas tree and lights must be up and glowing before the program airs.

I want to kick of my Christmas celebration with the whole Peanuts gang.

That year, in 2015, the 50th anniversary special included a message from then-President Barak Obama. He said that this beloved Christmas program teaches us that “tiny trees just need a little love and that on this holiday we celebrate peace on Earth and good will toward all.”[1]

“A Charlie Brown Christmas” is about a tiny tree? Did the President miss the part where Linus walks onstage and quotes Luke 2:8:14?

That moment was pretty hard to miss. After Charlie Brown laments the stress and anguish of the holidays while staging a disastrous Christmas play, he cries out for anyone to tell him what Christmas is really all about. His friend Linus responds matter-of-factly, “Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.”

Linus walks onto the stage and quotes the gospel of Luke:

“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not: for behold, I bring unto you good tiings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.'”

He then returns to the stage wing and concludes, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

The bookends couldn’t be more clear. The speech starts with, “I can tell you what Christmas is all about” and ends with “That’s what Christmas is all about.” Further, Linus is on the stage by himself. A single spotlight shines down on him. The camera never cuts away from him. It’s as if Charles Shultz is saying directly to the audience: “Look here. Here is the message. Don’t miss this. Right here. This is the point I am making.”

Fifty years later, the President of the United States somehow managed to twist this into: No, it’s about a tree that needs love. One has to be impressed at the strength of the neck muscles required to resist the gravitational pull of the obvious.

It was a bizarre event, and a big letdown for me. (Still is—see, here I am still thinking about it four years later.)

What bothers me is that this is just another example of how we continue to misinterpret the clearest meaning of this season.

It’s about exchanging gifts, marketers say; but what if I can’t afford to give gifts, or my gifts are rejected by others, or I receive hurtful gifts or no gifts at all?

It’s about happy memories, friends, and family, society says; but what if all my memories are of family fights, abuse, and desertion, and I have no love or trust in my life?

It’s about peace on earth, the former President says; but what if we can’t make peace happen? Face it, look at the headlines—we’re light-years away from that elusive ideal.

Like Charlie Brown, without Christ I’d be depressed too. Truth is, as a kid I hated Christmas after my parents divorced—hated the feeling of being divided between them, hated that my mom and one sister weren’t around anymore, hated that we’d never be together as a family again.

But Christmas is about none of those things.

It’s about the birth of the One who came to save us. It’s not about “peace on earth,” but about the Prince of Peace who will finally make things right. It’s not about a tiny tree that needs love, but about a Savior’s love that heals his sin-broken creation. Ironically, a tree is what will later lift up that same Savior to die for that same sin.

Linus is absolutely correct: Christ is the meaning of Christmas, and he is the way out of our depression and darkness.

Your world, like mine, is broken. But I encourage you, during this cold, lonely month, to anticipate with joy the Savior who not only came to die for humanity, but will come again to “set right” all of creation.

Don’t let Christmas become a mere frenzy of gifts and activities—and don’t listen to the lie that it’s just a vague human wish for “world peace.”

Allow Christ to present himself to you this Christmas. Allow hope and anticipation of his arrival wash over you in the bleakness. Wait for him. Listen for him. Cry out for the Messiah—God in the flesh—to come and heal his people.

In the darkness of December, let the Light of the World enter your heart.

Then worship. Celebrate the coming of our King.

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Bring on the schmaltz, hallmark!

I just watched my first Hallmark Christmas movie for 2019.

It’s not the first one I’ve watched. Last Christmas, somehow [the Christmas elves did it?] my television got glued to the Hallmark Channel, and I am pretty sure it is again. I freely admit that I am addicted to these movies; I cannot get enough of them, which is odd given that just days ago before Halloween, I was discussing the theological profundities of such movies as “The Conjuring” and “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.”

For the life of me I don’t know how I got hooked on Hallmark Christmas movies, or why they melt my butter the way they do. They are sappy/goopy and clichéd and have only one or two storylines that usually goes something like this: Just before Christmas, a beautiful businesswoman from the big city, highly successful but missing something, gets stuck in a small town – sometimes even her hometown – in a quaint little community that looks like Thomas Kinkade threw up on a Norman Rockwell painting.

There, she meets a ruggedly handsome widower with a sugary kid (think Beaver Cleaver) who helps her rediscover what matters most in life. She must choose between returning to her successful-but-empty career or finding true fulfillment in the quaint community, with the rugged widower person thrown in as a bonus. After a moment of misunderstanding, everything gets sorted out at the Christmas Eve gala. Beautiful businesswoman and rugged widower embrace and kiss. Then It snows.

The end.

Smarmy? Yes. Schmaltzy? Definitely. Warm and fuzzy? Sure. Blissfully wonderful? Absolutely!

What is it about these movies that completely draws me in? For that matter, what is it about them that draws in so many other people too? Last Christmas, Hallmark totally dominated the ratings.[1]

Why? What is the draw?

First, Middle America is respected. For the rest of the year, Hollywood depicts its residents as backwards, bigoted simpletons who lack the style and sophistication of the Coasts. It gets exhausting to be told by Hollywood how much we suck. But in Hallmark Christmas movies, these folks and their simpler, slower life is celebrated. Rural wisdom is acknowledged. Instead of fleeing in horror to the major metropolises, people actually find fulfillment in the small towns. For a couple of months each year, Hallmark movies truly connect with the values and traditions of the heartland.

See the source imageSecond, the stories show innocence and unity. Their sole purpose is to show people enjoying Christmas as a community. Nothing can tear the townsfolk apart; they all truly want the best for their families, their children, and their neighbors. If they disagree with one another, their differences are never mentioned because celebrating the season together is far too important; there is no “us-versus-them.” This shows us that there is life beyond divisiveness, that true community is people caring for each other because they want to – not because they are forced by government policies to do so.

Sooner or later, I will hear the objection (because that’s the type of people we are): “These stories aren’t real! They’re completely made up!”

True. But the same applies to Jesus’s illustration of the Good Samaritan. It’s a story—a parable. That doesn’t mean there is no truth in it.

Hallmark Christmas movies are a wink to the audience. They don’t pretend to be real (and the joke is really on those who take them too seriously). Instead, these movies show not what is, but what could be—if we all just reset our priorities, cut the drama and vitriol, and put people and community first.

If you hate Hallmark Christmas movies, don’t worry. Soon, there will soon be a whole ten months where everybody can hate on each other again.

P.S. Full disclosure: As I write this, the Hallmark Channel is on in the background. I look up just in time to see beautiful businesswoman and the rugged widower embrace and kiss. Then it starts snowing.

[1]Toni Fitzgerald, “Behind the Hallmark Christmas Movies Juggernaut: Ratings Just Keep Rising.” Accessed, 11/3/2019.

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Clark Griswold, me, and discovering the joy of Advent

This week, churches around the world lit the third candle of Advent—the candle of joy. This joy is based on the fact that after centuries of promise, Messiah has come at last.

One of my guilty Christmas pleasures is watching the movie, “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” In it, Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) does all he can to create the joy of an old-fashioned “Griswold Family Christmas.” He prepares in advance. He makes his plans, calculations, and formulas. He pursues the perfect gift for the family (one he clearly can’t afford). He longs to give everyone a holiday as perfect as those he remembers from childhood.

But it’s a comedy, so of course his plans never work. His perfect yard display won’t light up. His perfect Christmas tree won’t fit in the house, and becomes a firework due to a cat and a short in the lights. His perfect family time is disrupted by difficult in-laws as well as his uninvited Cousin Eddie and his, um, dog Snots. His perfect gift falls through after his Christmas bonus morphs into an annual membership in the Jelly-of-the-Month club. And then the whole holiday literally goes up flames when a gas fireball explodes from his sewer. The season is ruined.

I have developed a deep bond with Clark Griswold. I think I have finally figured out why.

am Clark Griswold.

Throughout December I try so hard to create the joy of the perfect Christmas. I put up a real tree before the first TV Christmas special, because a real tree is at least three times more Christmas-y than a fake one. I travel to Eastern Washington not only because my family is there, but also because their usual snowy forecast is far more Christmas-y than Portland’s rainy one. I have carols playing all the time. I even dress all Christmas-y, daily wearing one of my silly Christmas hats, ties, or T-shirts.

No doubt about it: I deeply desire that perfect Christmas.

But, like Clark Griswold, I find that things never turn out as I’d hoped. Plans still fail, relationships still go haywire, and Christmas is not always the happiest holiday. In fact, if we expect it to be, we may end up depressed and joyless. Because Christmas is not always joyful for everyone, and may in fact be painful for some.

Some people have experienced the death of a loved one, or a gut-punch of the worst possible news. Others are grieving not what they’ve lost, but what they’ve never had—good health, a loving family, a real home. In the cold darkness of December, depression can chill the warmth of the season.

So the problem is that the idea of a perfect Christmas is too all-or-nothing: If everything is not 100% flawless, then it’s all a bust.

However, true joy is based not on perfection or lack of pain, but on the fact that Jesus has come to reconcile humanity with God. So the joy of Advent is not achieved through careful planning or formulas. It is simply there, waiting for us to turn away from the busy-ness of the Christmas season and embrace it.

Advent does not erase all of our loneliness and sorrows; instead it points to the one who came to heal and redeem them.

C.S. Lewis spent much of his pre-Christian life trying to recapture that fleeting feeling he called “joy.” Yet when he met Jesus, his goal changed. He stopped pursuing joy and started pursuing Jesus, who (Lewis discovered) is able to fulfill every need and desire.

As we celebrate the joy of Advent, I urge you to remember that this joy is for everyone—especially those who mourn, those who have suffered, those who do not feel joyful. Let us welcome the one who traded a heavenly throne for a lowly manger. He came to seek and save the lost, and to set all things right.

Maybe not today, but one day.

Last Christmas, I officially passed the torch on to my nephews to go out and find our personal “Griswold Family Christmas Tree.”



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Finding the hope of advent in the darkest corners of humanity

For week two of Advent, the theme is hope.

In 2016, the world seems dark and filled with conflict. War and violence are common; our hearts ache with uncertainty and loss. We take sides against each other, both literally and figuratively.

But it is in this darkness that hope shines brightest.

In the 2006 movie Children of Men, the world faces a bleak, hopeless future. For unexplained reasons, humanity has become infertile. No baby has been born in eighteen years. The world, fractured by despots and terrorists, has descended into chaos. The human species is being wiped out by attrition and war.

Then, amazingly, a woman becomes pregnant. Like the infertility, this event is unexplained.

At the climax, a fierce battle rages outside as the woman, hiding in a decrepit building, gives birth. A miracle baby is born.

Furtively the protagonist escorts her out, but the fighters begin to notice the baby. The shooting dies down; the air becomes still. The protector, woman, and child pass through a gauntlet of stunned silence. Peace falls as a sliver of hope returns to the world.

It’s a nativity story, if you will, set in a dystopian world. A world not unlike our own.

In the summer of 1914, Great Britain and its allies engaged Germany and the Central Powers in World War I. Many Allied soldiers enlisted to help fight “the war to end all wars,” which was predicted to be over by Christmas.

Gradually the combat spread 400 miles along Europe’s western front. But by mid-December, this front had reached a stalemate.

In the freezing cold, the two forces dug in—in some spots barely a hundred feet apart. Close enough for eye contact. The trenches were flooded with water, waste, and misery.

But by Christmas Eve 1914, the war’s end was nowhere in sight. The hope of a swift and glorious victory was gone. Lice, squalor, and trench-foot were the norm. One careless moment could prove fatal. They say you never hear the shot that gets you.

As the rest of the world celebrated the hope of Christmas, death and despair hung over the trenches. The western front was at its darkest.

Then something remarkable happened. From the German trenches came the sound of singing in the frigid air:

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht

Alles schläft, einsam wacht.

Nur das traute hochheilige Paar,

Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,

Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!

Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!

The Allies didn’t know German, but they knew the tune. Slowly they added their voices in English:

Silent night, holy night—

All is calm, all is bright.

Round yon virgin mother and child,

Holy infant so tender and mild,

Sleep in heavenly peace!

Sleep in heavenly peace!

Then a British guard saw a shocking sight: a German soldier making a suicide walk. Holding a small Christmas tree lit by candles, he crossed over to the British trench and offered up a warm “Merry Christmas.”

At first it was thought a trick, but one by one the British soldiers climbed out their trenches and laid down their arms. German soldiers did the same.  Across no-man’s land the two sides shook hands, traded chocolate and cigarettes, and chatted about better times. They helped one another bury their dead. Even a soccer match broke out.

Not long before, these men had been aiming their guns at one another, shooting to kill.

But on Christmas Eve, this stretch of the western front was silent. A glimmer of hope had returned.

Each year during Advent, I remember this Christmas Truce of 1914.[1] I am amazed to think that two millennia after Christ came, his birth could still bring peace in the middle of a world war.

As long as humans have existed we have tried to enforce peace by might and coercion. But it is always short-lived and superficial—just a shadow of the peace Jesus brings. We cannot push back the night; all we can do is invite him to invade our darkness.

In this week of Advent,  I encourage you to reflect on the power and hope of the incarnation.  Our dark world needs hope. Our hurting hearts need hope. Just remember that hope comes only from Jesus, the Prince of Peace.


[1] For details on the Christmas Truce, see

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Why we need Advent now more than ever

5598559126_90f2e2024c_bAdvent—beginning with the first of four Sundays before Christmas—is usually my favorite time of year. I start anticipating it around June 21, when the days start getting shorter. I love the lights and colors, the smells of Christmas trees and warm fresh-baked cookies, the sounds of bells and carols, and the sight of Rudolph and Charlie Brown running across my television screen. But there’s a deeper reason for my love of Christmas.

For years, I have wrestled with my broken life, and Advent is a season to remember how God stepped into humanity’s story—my story—and lived among us for the sole purpose of saving us. Have you ever suddenly realized that you find more excitement in the days leading up to Christmas than the actual day itself? That is Advent. The “secular” Christmas season of anticipating Santa Claus is merely a shadow-like reflection of what Advent is. Advent is waiting, knowing Jesus will come. So for me, Advent is a reflection and celebration of the magnitude of Jesus’s birth, and what it means in the mess that is my life.

Yet this year, despite my love of Advent, the temptation has been strong to just sit in the darkness and be sad over a world gone mad.

I tried to start this blog on the first Sunday of Advent, because I wanted to give a warm, meaningful introduction to this season of hope.

Yet no words came.

I was in a sour, bleak mood. This year has felt like an episode of the Twilight Zone – or, more accurately, like the overall plot  of “The Walking Dead”: There is no way this story can end well.

Like many people, I have been reeling from a painfully long and ugly presidential election which divided families, friends, and even the body of Christ. I celebrated the day after, not because of the outcome but because it was finally, mercifully over. Then came weeks of riots and accusations, and as if those weren’t enough, the election that will not go away is about to be stretched out at least another few weeks because an official recount was requested in three states. The uncertainty continues.

As I continued trying to blog, a Somali refugee plowed his car into a crowd of students at Ohio State University, then jumped out of his car and began stabbing everyone he could before he was shot dead by law enforcement.

Yet another tragedy. Yet another reason why I could find no heartening words to say.

1280px-night_sky_stars_trees_02The hope of Advent seems pushed out by a dark, broken world, extinguished by the pain of daily life.

Perhaps it’s just the cumulative weight of 2016 in my psyche. Granted, there have been many things to be thankful for in this year; I can’t pretend there were no blessings. But it has been a year unlike any other in my lifetime. Globally we are overwhelmed by issues and evils, knowing that no one – not even the talking heads on TV or the self-proclaimed experts on social media – can solve them. Nationally we are shattered by politics, nursing suspicions and firing accusations against our closest friends and family members because of who we did or didn’t vote for. And personally I celebrated my 50th birthday this year, which reanimated deep questions about life’s meaning and God’s plan.

I have felt so many raw emotions and scary uncertainties this year that I just want to tap out for a while.

So instead of anticipating Advent with joy, I did so with numbness and dread—as if it were just another task to get through.

As I watched the horrible events at Ohio State scroll across my television screen, I got into a pretty frosty (bad seasonal pun intended) debate with myself over whether it was worth it even to get a tree. But I knew that if I didn’t, I’d keep debating the question and be unable to move on to other things – like finishing this blog.

So despite my Grinch-like heart, I ventured out.

Barely thinking or caring about anything, I drove to a nondescript tree lot, grabbed the first decent tree I saw, secured it atop my car, and headed home. Within an hour I had fixed it in a stand, strung it with lights, and thrown some decorations on it.

And although my initial intent was simply to get that chore out of the way, the result changed me.

In the daytime, my tree was just an odd, temporary living room decoration, giving off barely visible light. But as darkness fell, it became truly beautiful.

I sat in the warm glow of my new Christmas tree, a glow which brought remarkable contrast to my darkened living room. And I began to feel the hope that Advent brings.

That morning I had been reading Ann Voskamp’s new book, and now one sentence she wrote explained my experience: “The way you always find the light in the dark is to make your hand reach out.”[1] My sparkling-new Christmas tree was suddenly the symbol of Advent for me. It was light invading the darkness. But I needed to reach for it, and invite the hope of Advent into my own heavy world.

I am grateful I chose to go buy a tree despite my sour disposition. God used that tree to show me that we remember Advent not despite the world’s darkness, but because of it. The anticipation of Advent shines brightest in a dark world; it is when the world is darkest that the anticipation is most needed.

In 2017, there is no guarantee of a better year. We will still be living in a dark, fallen world. And that is exactly why Advent is more important than ever. The world’s darkness is exactly why we must remember Advent—which holds within it the anticipation of Jesus’s birth, the power of his sacrifice, and the hope of knowing that one day he will come again.Photo by Daniel Hochhalter

[1] Ann Voskamp, The Broken Way, p. 57.

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