Making Christmas

There’s no way to make Christmas feel like Christmas.

No way to force the magic and wholeness that is felt some years and not so much others. I know this truth, for real, for the first time in my life this year. And in some ways I suppose that makes me very lucky–here I am, the dawn of my 40th year approaching, and it’s the first time that Christmas is…less than, I suppose…for me.

This is the first year in several, too, that I haven’t practiced a daily writing habit across the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I can feel my soul hurting for it. Next year, right?


What makes Christmas, anyway? Is it presents? Is it music? Is it being with the very people you love most? Is it Grandma’s cranberry salad or your aunt’s to-die-for fudge? Is it grandchildren frisking through the house or your family dog sitting just so at your feet? Is it a solo version of “O Holy Night” that soars nigh unto the heavens so much that your heart swells and tears dim your vision?

Is it all these things? And yet, somehow, more…that we cannot name?

I don’t know. What I do know is that as I sit with family on this night, having lived through a tremendous year of change, I think perhaps I’m learning what Christmas is really all about. Whether I even realize it yet or not.

Because here’s the thing–at the core of this night is a story that I’ve staked my life on. Tied my very hopes to and given a great deal of my life to living out as best I can (though I can assure you I fall short on a regular and painful basis).

And that story has nothing to do with presents or fudge or music or even life being just as we hoped it would. It has everything to do, though, with promise–promise that no matter what grief or pain or uncertainty we’re living with this Christmas, we do not live with it alone.

People often ask me why I love winter, why December is my favorite time of year–it’s cold and dark and grey. Miserable, some days. Bleak.

But y’all, it is only in such bleakness that real hope is possible. And so says my very favorite of all Christmas songs:

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

(In the Bleak Midwinter)

Because whether we’re ready…or feel the spirit…or have made it just as we’ve always had it…or are where we want to be…or are with who we want to be with–despite all these things the story happens anyway. Unexpected. Not as we’d plan it or produce it. Unlike anything else entirely.

Still…and always…God comes among us in least likely of ways, making known a sort of Love that is capable of shaping us into all we’re meant to be. Capable of taking all that has gotten us to this point and molding it into a “what will be” that most days we can’t even imagine.

Hope is a choice. And this night, because my faith has always told me to do so, I’m choosing it. And I’m doing so with joy and love and wonder at all that is good in my life, all that is possible in this world God’s given us. And I’m trusting that such hope matters.

I’m trusting it matters for a friend missing a grandson tonite. For another friend missing a father. For my own weary heart. For Pakistani children, for murdered cops and gunned down kids, for the stolen daughters of Nigeria, for rage simmering beneath the realities of poverty and disease and heartbreak, for all that is so terribly broken in this beautiful world…I’m trusting it matters.

For all of us. 





This I believe about Mary….

November 22, 2004

Taught to obey, follow God,
Able to recite psalms since her feet could fill sandals
well-acquainted with the dusty road to synagogue.
A good girl.
Only a girl.

Today we’d say “adolescent,”
Talk at her about family planning, wonder why she didn’t “know better,”
Lift her up as what not to do, how not to be.
We’d glance furtively, whisper accusingly
Pull our own little ones away from staring.

We’d profess God’s love Sunday,
Judge her outside of it Monday.
Wouldn’t we?
She didn’t ask for it, didn’t want it.

Who would?
Who longs for humiliation,
Asks for ridicule,
Searches out disgrace?
She just said yes.

Said yes to risk and fear and doubt.
To pain and heartache and loss.
Yes to agony and defeat.
Yes to love.
Would we?

At Gabriel’s bidding
This girl bore God.
Cradled grace.
Grew love.
Let go mercy.
Delivered hope.

Gave us life.


I cannot imagine how absolutely terrified she must have been. We celebrate her as if she was perfection personified, the most lovely of young women absolutely willing to do whatever those around her said she must. Have a baby for God (Gabriel). Go to Bethlehem (Joseph). Be happy about it (The angels, even if indirectly). Because, you know, there’s a plan here, God says so, and YOU are part of it and so just smile and go with it.

I feel like this is how we tell the story sometimes. And I don’t buy this version for a minute. No way was she that complicit, that meek and mild (no matter what the songs say), that content to just bask in the glow of it all, a Mona Lisa smile etched across her face.

No young, unwed, poor, very pregnant woman would be. Because being pregnant, having a child–it’s terrifying. Suddenly you’re walking around, your very heart actually moving and having being outside your body, and you’re supposed to somehow return to some supposed level of normalcy when nothing feels like it will ever be okay again.

Because life has come from you. Life has lived in you. And then you’ve handed that life over to the world when all you want to do is wrap that life up close in your arms forever, so that life will always be safe and warm and know how loved she is. He is. They are. 

Every school day morning, when I roll through the carpool line and drop-off my seven year-old, my insides twist. Some mornings a lump rises in my throat. The school is so big and she is so little (even if she believes otherwise) and my entire life…it’s right there, in her, and some days I still cannot believe this miracle.

And so I cannot believe that Mary was peacefully down with the whole Nativity scene, no matter what just about any commercial version of that Nativity might suggest. I cannot believe that she didn’t want to scream, “No!” to the insanity of it all and refuse to risk her heart by offering her precious child to God’s world such that he’d never really be hers–just hers–again.

The thing is, it is in this refusal to believe the story as we so often tell it that I find real hope. Real trust that something good was/is at work, even if unknown and unseen. Real faith that even though life rarely turns out as we’ve imagined it might, it is, still, life. And where there is life, there is always the potential for goodness and mercy to come raining down.

I think she was actually “sore afraid.” I think she was probably angry at times. I think her hormones probably raged and she wondered how the hell she’d gotten into this mess. I think she cried, sometimes, even if muffled against the mane of that damn blessed donkey she rode into Bethlehem. And I think she might even, somewhere long the way, have wanted out, have wanted to call Gabriel back down from the heavens and say, “No. I quit. This is not what I bargained for.”

But she didn’t quit. She gave into love. She bore (literally) witness to the possibility of a new way of being and she held up for all to see the good news that we are never alone…that among us, always, is God-with-us. Emmanuel.

This is I believe about Mary…that she lived her life more fully than most of us will ever dream of doing, and she did so by loving with reckless abandon the child that was born to her, trusting that somewhere, in all of it, was the grace of the God who gave them both life in the first place. 

And who has done so for you and me, too.


the Ordinary…made Extraordinary

My very favorite Christmas tree ornament is a flat ceramic Santa, given to me when IIMG_0557 was very small, and made by a friend of my grandmother’s. For close to 40 years, this Santa has hung on a Christmas tree in my home, wherever that home has been.

Sacred symbol he may not be, but my Santa ornament reminds me of the very heart of the Christmas story as my faith tells it: that I am/we are loved.

I’ve never hung him without this sense of big picture, this realization that what is right now is not what has always been or what will one day be. He’s been with me lots of places, this little Santa, and he’s with me still.

December has long been my heart’s home. I have no rational explanation for this, just a calm knowing that in winter’s soft grey skies and the stark lines of bare tree branches and the clearness of a full moon on a December night–there’s something real in all that, something that reminds me that no matter how cold or dark it might be, there is, beneath it all, and so always somewhere in me, too, life…pulsing, waiting.

(I speak from a history of privilege–I know this–from happy Christmas memories and December days rooted in tradition and love. This is not so for all people, and I grieve that.)

I know, too, that this December, my heart’s finding it harder to settle in, to breathe in deep the goodness lying in these days and so find strength. There are a multitude of reasons for this, and the reasons don’t matter so much as what gets experienced and learned in the midst of their wreaking havoc on my beloved December.

What I’m learning is this:

  • that the constants in life matter most, even if represented in a silly ceramic Santa
  • that the Nativity story is not a perfect one–it is, in fact, wrought with fear and heartache and uncertainty
  • that despite this fear and heartache and uncertainty, things I am knowing–for myself and so many I care about–in a new way this December, love still comes…somehow
  • that this is not the first time the world seems to have tilted into chaos–that Jesus was born into terror and war and poverty and political posturing, too…that biblical Bethlehem and modern day global life have a lot in common
  • that my daughter’s speaking, “hope, peace, love, joy…that’s the order of the Sundays, mama,” is blessed balm for a grateful and tender heart–because it means that despite her longing for an American Girl Look-A-Like doll from Santa, she knows what really matters

Forgive me if my icon for all things holy this most precious of Decembers (because it is–even if I’m not quite understanding that yet) is a Santa ornament, but I live and move and having being in a story of finding the sacred in that which is ordinary.  

In the ordinary made extraordinary, by the grace of which the angels sang, and the shepherds stood in awe, and in which Mary trusted to see her through.




Advent · Church · Things That Matter To Me

We Need Each Other

The older I get, the less sure I am of most things. But if there’s one thing I know to be true in this life it is that we need each other.

Most especially when we think we don’t.


Last night I had, through my work, the opportunity to visit with a group of about 20 pastors–the vast majority of them having chalked up decades of service to the Church at this point in their lives and careers. This is especially remarkable if you are aware, as I am, that the Church they first fell in love with and made promises to lead and serve looks very little like the Church they are still seeking to love and lead and serve today.The world is not as it was then. And so neither is the Church.

Part of what I do professionally these days (which is still a surprise to me) is work with a program designed to help foster sustainability in ministry for pastors. Put conversely, the program is rooted in research about clergy burnout/clergy health and well-being and what pastors might need to be healthier and avoid the mind-numbing, soul-sapping reality that is burnout (of any kind).

I’ve known burnout. Maybe you have to. And it feels just like it sounds: burnout. Nothing left. No gas in the tank. No possibility that the match will relight. No desire to do the work  you once loved, rather, a desire to run far from it in pursuit of something that will give you life and purpose and meaning again.

I also know/believe that the root of burnout is isolation.

Isolation happens when we forget that we are not islands unto ourselves. When we forget that we were, at our very first breath, created for relationship. When out of our own fear or pain or stress level we block out the very people we need most. When we are unable to trust and so retreat inside ourselves with the insistence of a box turtle traumatized by a neighborhood dog.

Because we often feel as if the weight of the world is, in fact, to be carried upon our shoulders, clergy persons are especially susceptible to burnout. We have no one to blame but ourselves and our very tender hearts for this. Still…it is.

But whether clergy or business-types, CEO’s or stay-at-home moms (or dads), caregivers or entrepreneurs, men or women, Christian or Muslim, GOP or DNC, we cannot exist (for very long or very well) in isolation. And when we attempt to do so, we wilt. Slowly. Like the quiet fading away of a peace lily that’s been left neglected in the office lobby since last year’s Christmas party.

It is, inherently, against our very nature to silo ourselves off from one another. 

There are people I’ve known who have brought out the very worst there is in me. The result of this is usually me feeling terrible about myself and losing any sense of humor or creativity (normally my two great salvations in difficult situations). And it’s easy to say, “Well, I don’t need her in my life anyway.” Or, “I don’t have to work him anymore, thankthebabyjesusandallthesaints!”

But the truth is that these people, they teach me things about myself that matter (even if what’s being taught is something I didn’t want to know), and for this reason alone…I need them. Or at least needed them for a season. And they are, even if in just a small way, part and parcel of who I am every day becoming.

Because I am a person of Christian faith, I am consistently humbled and amazed by the great truth of the Christmas story–a story that lays out in no uncertain terms that God created us for one another. As if to say, “Clearly you’ve forgotten that this life, it’s about the journey together, despite what personality clashes or differences of opinion you might have, and so let me remind you, with the most vulnerable among you, a baby, what it means to have life together.”

And y’all? In a world where teenage girls are stolen in the dead of night, and where black folks and white folks are rioting in the streets over our mutual distrust, and where more people than we’ll ever know are walking around with more pain than we could ever imagine assailing their hearts, and when guns designed to kill people are an acceptable accessory….

In a world where all this is true, I know no other message that needs more proclaiming than this:

We need each other.

We need each other.


Hope Sunday

She held the tall slim candle with confidence, raised up ahead of a gaze focused on both the candle and the worship space ahead of her. With the concentration of a child who realizes she’s up to something important, she slowly climbed the chancel steps and then carefully lifted the candle to its right spot in the Advent wreath. And then she stepped back so the child behind her could light the candle accordingly.

A few minutes later she took her place in the pulpit, the curly top of her head most all the back half of the sanctuary could likely see, with her too short for grown-up sized lectern. And then she spoke, “All good gifts come from God…,” the first line of a lengthy (for a seven year-old who in the not-so distant past could not yet read) reading designed to help those gathered enter into the season of Advent.

By her last line, “God and sinners reconciled,” words echoing the Christmas carol that would next be sung, her sweet clear voice, just a tad timid at first, had grown strong and sure.  

And her mother, sitting four rows back (much closer to the chancel than said mother ever otherwise would), could no longer hold back the tears brimming up from the depths of a very grateful heart. 


I was not prepared for how powerful it would be to hear my daughter’s voice reading sacred words on this first Sunday of Advent, this Hope Sunday. She’s still so small, in the grand scheme of things. And yet there she stood, calling forth words from another time and place altogether, and yet words present with us still today, the innocence of her tone and inflection somehow exactly right for such mighty and holy declarations of God’s love for her and all of us.

I spent some fifteen years in congregational ministry, and during those years I loved preaching Advent most. These days between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day are the days that ground me for the rest of the year. The words we speak and preach and sing across the four Sundays of Advent are the ones that have always brought me closest to God, the ones that have made the most sense to me, held me fast, no matter what was happening around me.

Don’t get me wrong. I love presents. And lights. And peppermint mochas. And National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

But mostly I love to hear, as that one song my daughter and I both love goes:

A song, a song, high above the trees
With a voice as big as the sea
With a voice as big as the sea

Because that voice reminds me that all is not lost. That in the face of all that may threaten to undo us, throw us off course, make us believe that perhaps evil has the day after all, there is, after all and always, hope.

I’m not sure how you declare such hope in the face of Ferguson. Or along the border of the United States and Mexico.

I’m not sure how you declare such hope to someone who has just received a diagnosis of cancer, or just lost a loved one, or doesn’t know how Christmas will be Christmas at all because he’s just been laid off and there’s no one but him to be Santa to the kids at home.

I’m not sure how you declare such hope when heartache is more real than it has ever been and so you’re having a hard time seeing past it into anything else.

Except that…I do.

I do declare it. Beyond everything that would tell me/us not to, I hope. And I do that because I trust in the ultimate goodness of the Universe, despite being unable to prove that goodness to myself or you or anyone else.

I know this much is True–the story of a baby come to save the world (the facts, or “truth,” around said birth not mattering one wit to me) is such a powerful one because at its very core is life. New life, dropped right into the sometimes chaos and sometimes hurt of living, announcing to anyone who’ll listen that beauty is still among us. That a better way is possible.

And that way is love.

It makes all the sense in the world that children led the worship service I attended this first Sunday of Advent. This Hope Sunday. After all,

“…the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6 NRSV)

May it be so.