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Category: Joy

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.


The joy of being found

I have been owned by dachshunds long enough to know three things. First, they do not ask for attention; they demand it. Second, the intensity of their midnight “potty urgency” corresponds directly to the depth of my sleep. And third, they have ADD.

Of my three wiener dogs, the one who most embodies these tendencies is Missy. One recent night she jumped off the bed – which means, “I gotta go now!” My wife heard her before I did, and went downstairs to let her out.

Soon after, my wife started calling, “Mis-sy!” (which sounds really loud at 3:00 in the morning). She then called to me that she couldn’t find Missy and needed help looking.

So I checked around to make sure Missy hadn’t slipped back upstairs (she hadn’t), and then went down to search for her.

As I walked down our long driveway, flashing my flashlight back and forth, I caught a small movement. It was Missy, wandering down the street.

I called her. Her head snapped in my direction, and she bolted to me.

I scooped her up and held her tight.

When we returned to bed she burrowed under the covers and pressed her body against me, shivering. All night long she clung to me, as if terrified of losing me again.

I surmised that while doing her business she got distracted by something, ran out to the street to check it out, and lost her bearings in the darkness. When I first saw her she seemed to be exploring different driveways, looking for the right one. When I called her she rushed to me, flooded with joy and relief.

It made me think: Do I remember what it was like to be lost? Or, even more important: Do I remember what it was like to be found?

I had just been reading one of  Jesus’s parables about “lost” things – the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32).

In this story, a young man goes to his father and demands his inheritance – a very crude thing to do to someone who is still living. Basically, he is saying to his father’s face: “You mean nothing to me. I wish you were dead.”

But surprisingly, the father grants the son’s wish and gives him his inheritance. So the son takes it, travels to distant lands, and squanders it faster than a Powerball winner. He falls so low that he takes a job feeding pigs (unclean animals, to a Jew) and becomes so hungry that he craves the pods they are eating – yet “no one gave him anything” (Luke 15:16, NIV).

It dawns on him that although he has abused his father and destroyed his position of sonship, perhaps he could return to his father as one of the servants, who have food and shelter.

So he returns.

The most amazing moment in this parable is what happens when this young man’s scraggly carcass appears just over the horizon:  “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20, NIV).

Two observations catch my attention here. First, the father spotted him from a distance. This means the father had been watching for him, anxiously awaiting his return all this time. And second, the father is so thrilled at the sight that he runs to him. If the father’s character is that of God, then Jesus has just described the only time in the Bible when God ran.* 

This is an intense image. It shows how desperately God wants to blast through the obstacles between him and us.

The cross does that.

In Luke 16, the prodigal son has reached the end of the line, the bottom of the barrel. It seems he has broken his father’s heart beyond repair. So he is hoping for a chance to return home in some low position; he isn’t expecting much.

Think of his fear as he realizes just how lost and alone he really is. When he had money, I’m sure he had all the rich food, fancy possessions, and good-time friends he could want. But now, it’s all gone. He’s broke and hungry, with no money to provide even minimal safety on the long journey back home. At any point he could have fallen victim to an accident, assault, or even murder, never to be found again.

Being “out there” is scary when you finally realize how alone you are, how badly you need to be found, and how unlikely it is that the one you’ve hurt should ever take you back.

So imagine the son’s initial bewilderment, turning to incredulous joy as his father runs to him and calls for a giant “welcome home” celebration.

This story is perfect for Lent, during these weeks leading up to the cross. It reminds me of Missy bounding to me, overjoyed to be found by someone who loves her.

Do I remember the feeling of being found by the One who loves me?

Do I remember the joy of being plucked out of the dark – lifted from isolation into security? Do I cling to my Savior in relief that I am safe in his grasp? Do I remember the happiness that I am no longer lost, but am now found?

Or am I beyond that now because I am too educated, too mature, too independent to need him?

No. The cross daily reminds me that I am still a broken man who will never be beyond needing Jesus. I am still as capable as ever of getting lost in the cold darkness – and I still need to listen for his voice, calling me to him. I still will run to him, rejoicing greatly that I am found.

The cross is a reminder that there will never come a time when I do not need Jesus.


* See for Benny Hester’s 1985 song with this title.


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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