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Category: Hope

When death still stings

In the TV series 1883, the final episode shows Elsa Dutton, slowly dying from an arrow to the liver, lying in her father’s arms under a tree. Watching a jack rabbit carelessless munching on grass, she asks: “What is death? What is this thing we all share? Rabbits. Birds. Horses. Trees. Everyone I love. And everyone who loves me. Even stars die. And we know absolutely nothing of it.”

For some reason, that episode haunts me.

For much of my life, I have been relatively sheltered from death. Going to funerals sums up the vast majority of my experience. But in the last two years, I have had to look death in the face.

During COVID it happened twice. In the fall of 2020, my dad died of general age-related issues; he was 81. And two months later, my sister succumbed to sepsis. She was 56—the age I am now. read more

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The not-so-secret secret to a happy new year

And just like that, Christmas is over.

Living rooms now contain cold corners where Christmas trees once stood. Decorations have disappeared in homes and stores. Christmas music—the mere thrill of playing it in November—now feels a little stale. The pace has geared down to a trudge. Christmas goodies found on every aisle in every store are now crammed into a single space with giant 50%-off signs. The snow and chill of December often described as white and brilliant are now considered gray and bone-chilling.

The week after Christmas serves as a reality check that real life continues to roll on.

We attempt to extend the hope of the holidays one final time on December 31—New Year’s Eve. People will gather all over the world to count down the final ten seconds of 2022 before shouting, amidst a flurry of confetti: “Happy New Year!”

Then, the social construct goes, millions will drink their body weight in liquor and start kissing strangers.

And then, just like that, the celebration of New Year’s Eve is over (though millions will celebrate the start of 2023 with a killer hangover).

So why do millions scream out “Happy New Year” precisely at midnight?

Perhaps it’s just the thing people say.

Still, how many of us are actually conscious of the collective wish the moment we wake up the next morning?

Most don’t, and even won’t, think about it until the next December 31.

So why is celebrating the new year so important?

To some, welcoming in a new year is simply a sigh of relief; 2022 was a difficult year for them. While there may have been good times and blessings, overwhelming stress and loss seemed to predominate. They’re just thankful they made it through the sorrows and uncertainties. They see the new year as a blank slate, a fresh start.

Others see the new year as a challenge, a time to reassess their goals, improve their circumstances, or plan new adventures. The new year is a springboard to exciting new things. They proclaim that 2023 is their year.

Unfortunately, both of these approaches are doomed to failure. For the first group, stress and grief are not going to grind to a halt with the turning of the calendar year. Come January 2, the struggles will still be there. They will likely continue in one manner or another.

For the second group, they will find they are in control of nothing. Don’t get me wrong; goals are great and helpful. However, when we couch them as “resolutions” made traditionally on a single day, they’re forgotten by the end of the month, masked by the typical doldrums of life. Further, life is incredibly skilled at throwing curve balls when you least expect it. Whatever was the center of focus on New Year’s Eve goes out the window with the first setback. Members of this second group might even find themselves in the first group by the end of the year.

Ironically, those from the first group might even find themselves next December with an unexpected promotion or adventure.

The truth is, we just don’t know what 2023 holds for each of us.

So, does this make the “Happy New Year” an empty wish?

Not at all.

To have a happy 2023 has nothing to do with a clean slate or goals no matter how clearly defined. A happy new year is not about surviving loss or stress. Nor is it about accomplished resolutions.

Either one of those perspectives can be achieved yet neither automatically warrants a happy new year.

To live with happiness in the new year is to live with the prayer Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his death, “Not my will but your will be done” (Luke 22:42).

For me, this is one of the hardest prayers in the Bible.

For the group that celebrates the new year as a new start, it could mean the suffering will continue. Life will always carry suffering and grief. Who wants that?

What it does mean, however, is suffering knowing that Jesus will be in it with them.

For the second group, the idea of giving up control and letting God’s will be done is a little unsettling.

Whatever the case, a happy new year means living in the peace and strength of Jesus come what may.

2023 is staring us in the face. No one on earth knows exactly how it will end.

For true happiness in the new year, we must cling to the robe of the one who transcends time.

Jesus is the only certainty we have. And resting in the peace of Christ is ultimately that which will bring the happiness we all seek.

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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. read more

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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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So 2020 happened, and God is still good

Today the calendar has turned: 2020 is officially in the books. And most of the world is shouting, “Good riddance!”

The year 2020 will likely go down in history as one of the strangest we’ve known. Sure, many years throughout history have been far more tragic; however, in most of our lifetimes, this one ranks near the top for sheer stress and weirdness.

Looking back over the last twelve months, bizarre is the only word I can find to describe it. If it wasn’t Australia in flames from wildfires, it was reports of murder hornets, toilet paper shortages, and coin shortages. If it wasn’t riots destroying Minneapolis, Portland, or Seattle, it was reporters standing in front of the burning buildings, telling us in all seriousness that the protests were peaceful. If wasn’t that fact that it was an election year in the United States, it was that fact that the guy who remained tucked away from the public saying as little as possible was declared the winner.

Of course, if 2020 had a label it would be the “Year of COVID-19,” named after the virus that came out of China and spread rapidly across the planet. This pandemic caused a nearly universal shutdown that brought the world’s economies to a screeching halt. Schools had to recalibrate for distance learning from home, a process that created massive extra work for teachers and found both them and their frustrated, distracted students glued to a computer screen for hours each day. As a teacher, I have to say that distance learning is something I would never choose to do again. In my experience, it has been almost wholly ineffective.

As the year dragged on, government officials mandated rules that we should all stay home, wear masks, keep social distance, and close down most small businesses and religious services. These rules applied to everyone except the government officials themselves and any protesters they agreed with.

While those in the medical field had to deal directly with COVID itself, most of us had to deal more with trying to stay sane. As we followed orders to “stay home,” we were pummeled with endless ads filmed as Zoom calls, and filled with phrases about being “alone together” in “these uncertain/troubling/unprecedented times.” After several thousand such ads, they got pretty old.

The virus also created a new stereotyped group of zombies called “karens,” who considered it their duty to publicly shame, shout down, and even attack anyone not following “the rules” to their satisfaction. Often they recorded their rants on social media to support their noble cause.

Sadly, the most horrific casualty of the pandemic of 2020 has been what was once called “a sense of humor.” One joke about the pandemic, and you’ll be mocked, shamed, and crushed into silence. A few of us are still struggling to keep a sense of humor, but the number is dwindling each day. (Side note: If you take issue with this paragraph because you believe I am belittling the tragedy of the pandemic, then you are afflicted with this malady, and you should seek help. Watching a movie such as “Airplane” or “Blazing Saddles” might be a good antidote.)

Sarcasm aside, 2020 started out very strange for the whole world, and ended up growing very heavy for me personally.

In late September, after a week of a debilitating headache, fever, and lightheadedness, I tested positive for COVID. This fact led to a week of hospitalization that included one night in ICU. Apparently, I got a side order of pneumonia served up with my COVID. I was so grateful when I got to go home, but the symptoms (fatigue, shortwindedness, severe cough) stayed with me for several more weeks.

Then, while still in recovery, on November 6 I lost my father. I sat at his bedside as he passed from this life to the other side. One moment he was breathing, and the next he wasn’t. Up to that point, even after being in ICU with COVID, I had still been able to chuckle a bit over the surrealness of 2020. But after this loss, the whole of 2020 turned very heavy for me. The combination of COVID uncertainties and the loss of Dad was almost too much to bear.

Now, here we all are, staring 2021 in the face. A new year always appears to bring a sense of hope to the world. We believe that the stroke of midnight on December 31 will bring the craziness of 2020 to a halt and usher in an entirely new chapter of normalcy. But that hope may be more superstition than reality, because in truth, we have no idea what this new year will bring. It could be even stranger and more traumatic than the last one. (I think I just threw up in my mouth a little.)

Maybe COVID will finally be conquered, and the world will finally be able to breathe again (both literally and figuratively). But there’s no guarantee we won’t see new strains of it—or the rise of something even worse.

The U.S. will have a new president. But whether that is good or bad remains to be seen. I’m guessing it will be more of the same garbage coming out of Washington. We just don’t know what the new year will bring? Will 2021 be riot-free? Will racism finally be overcome? Will Facebook and Twitter quit annoying us with their community standards? Probably not.

In 2021, I am sure there will be uncertainty. There will be crisis. There will be rage, fear, and loss.

Yet that is not all.

In 2021, there will also be gain. There will be success. There will be triumph, courage, and laughter.

This new year will have all of that—good and bad. And God is still good.

This is the main lesson I have learned from 2020: God is still good. And his goodness is not related to our happiness or our suffering. His goodness transcends everything. Regardless of life’s uncertainties, it is imperative that we always remember and proclaim his goodness.

In the uncertainty and stress of 2020, God is still good. His sovereignty is greater than murder hornets, coin shortages, or a media with an incredible lack of self-awareness. And his goodness is the same “yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8, NLT).

Despite my own COVID scare in 2020, God is still good. I need not fear a virus because, even if I should die, God’s goodness still reigns supreme. And despite the loss of my dad, God is still good. Even as my family grieves, we know that God uses death as a transition from this life to a place without sorrow or pain. Job himself proclaimed, at the height of his suffering: “God might kill me, but I have no other hope” (Job 13:15, NLT).

God is still good. And his goodness is not tied to the turn of a calendar page.

In 2021, no matter what, I pray that we will all cling to him and his goodness.

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When the world went strangely dim: God’s glory amidst suffering and hate

My wife and I traveled down to my sister’s house in Albany, Oregon to experience the great eclipse a couple of weeks ago. From Oregon to South Carolina, the moon blocked out the sun, casting a 70-mile-wide shadow across the United States. Albany happened to be in the path of totality. Portland would get a 99.2% showing of the eclipse.

But what a difference .8% makes.

My wife and I sat in my sister’s backyard and donned our dorky eclipse glasses.

For an hour, we watched the moon slide slowly across the surface of the sun. A show like one we have never seen was about to begin. About fifteen minutes out of totality, Albany grew darker—a strangely dim type of darkness, not quite twilight, not quite dusk. It was like looking through oddly-tinted sunglasses.

Then, in the final moments of totality, the sun went completely dark.

For a moment.

A ring of fire burst out from around the perimeter of the moon. Cheers erupted throughout the neighborhood. Dogs barked. I snapped some pictures and then watched in quiet awe. Words cannot describe the event. The only thing going through my mind were the words of the Psalmist: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1).

For two minutes, a wondrous act of the Creator brought the nation to standstill. Suddenly, I wasn’t thinking about my life. I wasn’t worried about the upcoming semester of classes, or my anxieties, or even what I was going to each for lunch that day. Heck, I wasn’t even worried about the drive back to Portland—a normally ninety minute journey that would take almost seven hours. All that mattered at that moment was the dazzling display high up in the heavens.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.

The heavens declare the glory of God. Summer 2017 had been quite eventful, emotional, and one of great transition.

Early on, my wife and I planned a trip back to my home state of Montana. Originally, the plan was to attend two weddings only ten days but five hundred miles apart—one in Billings and the other in Spokane, Washington.

However, that simple plan quickly turned sideways. my grandfather had a massive stroke that took his life just a few days later. Then, my father’s gall bladder attacked him during our special Father’s Day dinner, sending him to the hospital. This, of course, was followed by emergency surgery. Then, if that wasn’t enough, my dachshund Copper decided to get in on the fun when his mouth unexpectedly swelled up, requiring an urgent visit to a vet. My wife and I bounced around Montana like a ball in a pinball machine—Helena to Coeur ‘d Alene, Idaho and back to Missoula, then Great Falls, then Billings for the first wedding, then the mega-metropolis of Savage, back to Missoula, and finally to Spokane for the second wedding.

All in three weeks.

When it was over, my car aged over 3200 hundred miles. I didn’t fare much better.

It was a strange blend of laughter, sadness, celebration, stress, adventure, and of course, transition. A niece on my wife’s side of the family and a nephew on my side transitioned into the world of marriage. For us who are merely uncles and aunts, our relationships with them would transition into something entirely new as they cling to their new spouses and start a new life. My grandfather transitioned into his heavenly home, and those of us left behind transitioned into an unknown life completely without him. My father’s health transitioned back and forth on a daily basis, and I transitioned into a new experience of dealing with an aging dad.

O soul, are you weary and troubled?
No light in the darkness you see?
There’s a light for a look at the Savior,
And life more abundant and free!

The heavens declare the glory of God. The last several months have seen an escalating in the great American Civil War—one that has been fought largely with stilted rhetoric. Then violence started to creep in, slowly—almost unnoticeably. All this violence didn’t have the impact on us as a nation.

Until a woman was run over and killed by a neo-Nazi in Charlottesville, Virginia.

I am afraid this rhetorical civil war is escalating into a violent one.

On August 26, a category three hurricane named Harvey pummeled Texas in one of the most violent displays of nature since, arguably, Hurricane Katrina. Watching the suffering and loss on TV, I couldn’t begin to fathom what is going on in the minds and hearts of people who lost everything. Also present were endless examples of people helping each other—lifting them out of harm’s way, providing financial resources, food, and lodging, and even encouragement.

Sadly, not to be outdone, brutality and malevolence found its way back into the trending headlines. In the days following, the devastation on the lives of countless Texans was eclipsed by sorry souls who have the heart of Swiss cheese—some of it is missing, and the parts that remain stink. The faces of Harvey were replaced with debates about climate change, whether or not Trump’s response to disaster was better than Obama’s, how Joel Osteen’s church responded or didn’t respond, and whether Melania Trump’s shoes were inappropriate. A professor tweeted the Harvey was karma on Texas for supporting Trump. Politico ran a cartoon mocking victims giving glory to God for their rescue while at the same time making government its own god. And the French satirical magazine Charlie Habdo, who twice was the victim of radical Islamic terrorists, published a cover with Nazi salutes coming out of the water and the headline: “God exists! He drowned all the neo-Nazis of Texas.”

I shake my head in sadness.

It’s almost hard to remember that between Charlottesville and Harvey, a great eclipse brought the United States—from sea to shining sea—to an halt. For two minutes, the nation’s eyes turned upward.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.

The heavens declare the glory of God. To the conservative and the liberal, to the believer and the atheist, to the oppressed and the oppressor, to the human of every race and even to the beast—we all looked in awe to the skies. No one worried about their lives. Political causes moved to the back burner. No one fought or called each other names. No one listened to beltway pundits and arrogant journalists flap their gums. We were all humans again. We were community. For two minutes, the heavens declared the glory of God.

Sure, some tried to turn our attention away from the wonder. One writer tried to argue that science is greater than God because predicting the path of the eclipse is somehow greater than actually creating it. Another tried to use the eclipse as a hook to discuss racism. Fortunately, those attempts got little to no traction. Majesty blurred human nature.

Two minutes later, it was done. Light returned.

“Normal” once again pushed out the “extraordinary.”

Even though the eclipse was only a few weeks ago, it already seems so distant. Allowing life and sin to overwhelm God’s glory is not at all difficult.

It is also sad when it happens.

Perhaps it is time to step away from our personal causes, our debates, our vindictiveness toward others, and our hatred toward those who don’t see things the way we do, and once again look up to the heavens. Everything that matters to us—no matter how important we may think it is—will, in the words of Helen Lemmel’s great hymn, “grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.”

Lyrics from the song “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus,” by Helen Lemmel, 1922.

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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 http://www.history.com/topics/world-war-i/christmas-truce-of-1914

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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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So what is my story anyway?

MyStory-1a

As summer ends and school begins, I’ve been in a funk, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I’d hoped to make more progress on my new book manuscript before my fall teaching resumes. Maybe it’s because some of my friends are moving on to greener pastures, and I’m a bit sad. Maybe it’s because the upcoming election depresses me.

Maybe it’s because pretty soon, I’ll turn fifty.

Fifty is a landmark. My body is getting older, my pharmacy visits more regular, and the arrival of my first AARP invitation much closer (that last one really creeps me out). I’m starting to do things I never dreamed I would, like gripe about my sore back and say things like, “When I was your age…” More and more, I feel like Old Man Caruthers in the old Scooby Doo cartoons: “If it wasn’t for you darn kids!”

As my birthday approaches, I can’t help wondering: What have I done with these first fifty years of my life? And what will I do with what’s left? Just when I should be planning ahead for retirement, I still don’t know what to be when I grow up.

The best times of my life have involved writing (in my PhD effort) and teaching (at my dream job), but so have my biggest failures (the loss of both). Besides, writing often doesn’t pay much, and I’m still finding only part-time teaching opportunities in my subject areas.

So I face questions—mostly of the “magic 8-ball” variety: What’s ahead for me? Will I find clarity, or just more ambiguity? Will some sort of life purpose finally come into view?

I think what I’m really asking is: So what is my story? You’d think I’d have one by now – but what is it?

In the early 1980s, the philosopher Jean Francois Lyotard wrote a critique of modernity called The Postmodern Condition. In it, he argues that science is limited because it relies solely on knowledge for meaning, but true meaning transcends knowledge. He claims that meaning is found only through story.

So what is my story?

The truth is, my resume doesn’t reflect any standout direction or ability. There’s really nothing about me which excels over anyone else, and in fact there are many things about me which fall short.

But that’s not my story. That’s not who I am.

If I told you my story
You would hear Hope that wouldn’t let go
And if I told you my story
You would hear Love that never gave up
And if I told you my story
You would hear Life, but it wasn’t mine”

“My Story” – Big Daddy Weave

My story is about overcoming my past to make a better future. My story is about beating my low-income, broken-home background to get an education, buy a home, and establish a stable marriage which has outlasted my parents’.  My story is about turning my PhD loss – my worst personal failure – into a book, produced by a respected Christian publishing house. And that last fact seems to confirm Lyotard’s point: my efforts at science (researching and interpreting data in a 400-page doctoral dissertation) went down in flames and will never see the light of day—whereas Losers Like Us (my much smaller book about my life story) has gone public, bringing redemption to me and to others.

Now that I think about it, my story isn’t really about me at all. It’s about God, pouring out his grace over my mess.

I am a part of God’s story. God is the main character; God is the protagonist. The whole story arc, with all of its confusing, maddening subplots, glorifies him.

So what is my story?

My story is about grace, mercy, and redemption. It is about a God who loves me despite my failures, and uses my broken life to point others to him.

Others may be unimpressed by my resume – but it’s not who I really am. Your resume isn’t who you are either. No resume can ever reflect the meaning of our lives.

So now, as I face the precipice of my 50th birthday, I must keep telling my story. And his story. I must keep letting him shine through my brokenness.

That is my story.

It has been my story for this first half-century. Lord willing, it will be my story for the next.

 

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“Hosanna!”: The presidential election, terrorism, and the state of the world

Last Saturday in Arizona, protesters tried to silence a presidential candidate while supporters retaliated with fisticuffs.

Hours later, on Palm Sunday, Christians commemorated Jesus’s kingly entrance into Jerusalem.

The next day, in Brussels, terrorist attacks killed over 30 people and injured at least 200 more.

This year has been that kind of surreal.

The elections, the unrest, the terror—all of this craziness makes me feel overwhelmed. Overwhelmed and afraid.

I can’t quite describe my feelings, but they include anger, horror, frustration, numbness, bewilderment and more, depending on what’s in the news each day.

I am distressed and heartbroken over the terrorism, crying out to God for the victims. But I can’t stop it. So I focus on something closer to home: election year, and how our next president might respond to terrorism and all of the other problems facing us, both here and abroad. read more

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