The Death of Christmas (Why I’m Putting The Tree Up Early This Year)

Do you know that person who gets a little too into Christmas? Someone who watches Elf in April, the Christmas tree shows up in October, and Christmas lights are outside the house by early November (at the latest). You’re talking about me. At least you were. I even remember in September of 2012 when I was in Namibia, I would listen to the Justin Bieber Christmas album all the time. (One of my friends in California texted me late last night to tell me the Justin Bieber Christmas album was being played within my friend’s home in California last night, and wanted me to know because I dig the album that much. If that ends your time of reading this post, I’m sorry because it’s about to be good. And by the way, it’s a good album. Especially JB’s collaboration with Boyz II Men.) I have always loved Christmas, so it was stunning for me to hit a point in my life when I didn’t want Christmas to come anymore.

christmas tree

Last year for the first time in my life I didn’t want to celebrate Christmas. I didn’t listen to Christmas music very much. I kept trying to get myself into the Christmas spirit, but the more I tried, the less I wanted Christmas and all of its lights, snowflakes, and songs to come. When you don’t want to celebrate Christmas, there isn’t a magic “Hide From Christmas” button that you can push and it all goes away. You can’t outrun Christmas. Every time I thought of Santa, Frosty, or Rudolph, I thought of my mom again. I knew that no matter how loud I sang Christmas carols or how many gifts I might give, I couldn’t get Mom back. She was gone, and I felt her loss in the cold sting of winter. It wasn’t just that she had died; for me the sweetness of Christmas died with her.

The spirit of Christmas in my heart had been laid to rest. Instead of the warmth of holiday memories, I heard Churches making sure their members knew to say, “Merry Christmas” in response to every clerk who said, “Happy Holidays.” (Yeah, that’ll teach them.) I remembered the posts people shared about how Starbucks had chosen a simple two-toned cup without reindeer and ornaments thus waging a war on Christmas. (Because the birth of Christ was about reindeer and ornaments.) I had flashbacks to a co-worker showing me a website that tallied the deaths on Black Friday from people literally trampling over others so that they could hide a gift under the Christmas tree for their child. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing that Christmas had died in my heart. We had made it into something other than what it was meant to be.

A few weeks ago, I realized Christmas was right around the corner. I was having dinner with a close friend who lost his father a few years ago. We talked about how traditions like Christmas just don’t feel the same anymore when you lose a parent. As I thought about the Christmas season ahead, I realized this was going to be something to be endured. What I once looked forward to, I now began to dread. I would hear those songs that made me think of setting up the tree as a family, the road trips to West Virginia to celebrate Christmas with grandparents as we did growing up, or the fun little traditions we had in our family. These were the days on the not so far off horizon. Nat King Cole would play in the background, and my mom’s smile would appear before my eyes, and then the memory would slowly fade to black like the final scene of old movies just before the credits roll.

It was just a few days ago, I was reading the second chapter of Luke. This is the moment when Luke talks about an angel appearing to shepherds in a field telling them that Christ was born. The story began to play out in my mind, how the Christ was laid in a manger as a newborn. I remembered how Jesus lived a life of love and grace offering mercy to every person who wanted to receive forgiveness for the wrongs they had done God, themselves, and others. Then, I remembered how Jesus was nailed to a cross, laid in a tomb, only to rise from the dead three days later.

This made me think Jesus was first laid in a wooden box as a baby, and was stretched out on a wooden cross 33 years later. Christ began his life being laid down in a manger made from a tree, and ended his life being raised up on a cross made from a tree. The manger led to a life, a life led to a cross, the cross to a grave, and the grave to a resurrection. Christmas is about birth, life, death, burial, and resurrection.

This is why I’m not waiting until after Thanksgiving to put the Christmas tree up this year. (All of you holiday purists calm down. I am being thankful, and will celebrate this holiday as well.) I’m listening to Christmas music already. The songs of Christmas mean more to me now than they have in years past. In just over a month, the lights will reflect off the snow, and we’ll share gifts with the people we love. When I look at the Christmas tree this year, I will remember that a manger and a cross were made from trees. The Christmas tree is going up early because it is a symbol for any heart feeling the cold sting of winter. The Christmas tree reminds me the story is not over yet because of resurrection. The Christmas tree whispers through ornaments, lights, angels, and stars, “There is hope.”

 

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Why We Go Back

I’m sitting in a room with about 50 people I don’t know. The people range in age from early 20s to late 60s. I think there were a few millionaires, and there were a few people who were bankrupt. Everyone was there because we had some unsolved issues that are taking us down paths we don’t want to walk any longer. But for some reason, we keep walking down those same paths again and again. Our guide on this weekend asks a question.

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“Why do women who are abused go back to the men who abuse them?”

I sit there quietly waiting for someone who is wiser than me to speak up. After the group voices a few answers, the guide gives us his answer.

“Because it works for them.”

I sit there and stare at the carpet wondering how this could be true.

“This is exactly why every one of you do what you do. People think on a scale of right and wrong, but that’s not really why people do what they do. People do what they do because it works for them. So if you’re addicted to drugs, don’t tell me it doesn’t work for you. It does work for you. I want to know what about drugs works for you. If you’re hooked on porn, co-dependent, bitter, self-loathing, and self-defeating, tell me this. How does that work for you?”

There’s a question being answered behind the question, “How does that work for you?” The question being answered is,

“Why do people go back?”

Don’t you hate it when you promised yourself you wouldn’t do that again, and then you go back to doing the same thing again? We can swear things and people off like crazy, but most often, that is what we keep going back to.

I wondered how these things we hate actually work for us. Maybe you’re four and you don’t have these struggles of going back to the same old problem, but I’m doubting that you’re reading this if you’re four. The rest of us known as the human race have struggles. We keep going back.

If we’re really being honest, there’s some lie that we’ve accepted as a truth about ourselves. Our lies are wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing. It’s like when you’re watching The Perks of Being A Wallflower, and the movie is reminding us of exactly why the Harry Potter movie series needed Emma Watson when all of a sudden, the room goes silent and this line hits hard as Ali.

We accept the love we think we deserve.

It makes sense. The thing we say doesn’t work for us does work for us because it makes us feel strangely comfortable because it is what we deserve. So we go back to that same old wolf dressed as that same old sheep, and find ourselves decimated by that same old lie again.

I remember in college, there were these great girls who kept going back to these guys who cheated on them. I never understood why. And then one day, I get it. They go back to those same guys, because I go back to the same lies that tell me I’m not worth more.

We all have it. What is your lie that you keep owning as truth?

Here is the crazy part. We will stay miserable because it is familiar, and at least familiar is more comfortable than the fear of the unknown. We treat the unknown like a prison cell, and misery like it is our saving grace.

I think that’s what Paul is talking about when he says “be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” The point isn’t to look like you live in a church, and have a “do not contaminate me” sticker on your shirt as you walk around this earth. The reason is that God loves us, and wants us to stop believing these lies about ourselves. He wants us to start treating ourselves and others with dignity and respect. He wants us to leave the room of misery, shame, and frustration. Open the door of unfamiliarity, and walk into freedom.

It isn’t that easy though, right? I mean, that’s what is always on the other side of that door. The door of possibility we don’t walk through. A voice says, “It will be worse than what you have”,  “This is how you deserve to be treated,” or “You can fix her” “You can fix him.”

Is it really working? Often, it is not. But it works for us to stay where we are.

If we want to move forward with our lives, a decision has to be made. It isn’t about promising ourselves something, and swearing up and down what we won’t do any more.

It is about facing a lie, and making that lie face the truth.

We are loved. We are worthy of dignity and respect. We are strong. We are worth it.

Does it work? It does until the day we say we’ve had enough of that lie, and we’re going to step into the truth of who we are.

Some Things I Learned From My Mom Having Cancer

Just over a year ago, I picked up the phone to hear my Dad say the words he didn’t want to say and I didn’t want to hear. “Mom has multiple brain tumors, and it is metastatic cancer.” What followed that phone call was Mom going through brain surgery, whole brain radiation, more radiation elsewhere in her body, and several other forms of treatment throughout the past year. The actual diagnosis was Stage 4 Lung Cancer which in the medical community is sometimes referred to as Incurable Cancer.

I don’t believe in things that are Incurable because Jesus is the Great Physician, and He can heal someone if He chooses to do so. If Jesus chooses not to do so, then I trust Him. I know people who God has healed. With a close friend, a doctor shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, I’m not sure what happened, but he had outside help. He shouldn’t still be here.” And while we’re at it, thanks to all of you who have prayed this year, and thanks as well to all of you who don’t pray and believe in God, but you’ve sent kind words and thoughts our way. Our family has been loved so well this past year. Also, this isn’t a writing about miracles. But I believe in miracles, and I am pro-miracle, and I hope you are too. (Also, I don’t live in denial. I live in the reality of life is finite, and none of us are promised tomorrow. So you don’t have to email me about that one. Thanks in advance.)

Well, I learned some things from this past year. I learned a lot from watching my Mom face cancer head on, and I think she has given cancer a pretty good kick in the teeth (even if sometimes she’s the one who feels like she got kicked.) It’s not easy to face that kind of sickness, but she’s courageous, and my Mom is a fighter. I thought I’d share some things I’ve learned from Mom and some things I’ve just picked up along the way.

We remember the memories we make, not the lives we imagine. What if is a terrible game to play every day, because you end up putting off what you want and daydreaming about it instead. You’re alive once. Make the memories instead of imagining them.

The Word is powerful. Yeah, I’m talking about God’s Word. After Mom had brain surgery, she was in so much discomfort that she often had stress written on her face. We would read the Word of God to her (Psalm 121-135 specifically), and the stress would fade away. The Word is powerful for us to. I spent a lot of time in the Psalms in 2015. Thankful for the refuge of God’s Word.

Make the adjustments you need to make in life. Mom changed her diet and eliminated so much sugar and other things, because those are bad for you if you have cancer. Mom was already in great shape, but she has lost a lot of weight because she stopped eating sugar and such things. Sometimes, you have to make the adjustment for life.

Be fit. The doctor said it was a good thing for mom that she was in good shape when she went into surgery. Throughout this year, Mom has continued walking 2, 3, and sometimes 4 miles in a day. That’s pretty amazing. The neurosurgeon said it was going to help Mom that she was in shape after surgery, because her recovery would be much quicker. Thankfully it was. This has encouraged me to be in better shape in the future.

Stay positive.

Laugh. Laugh. Laugh more. When Mom and I talk on the phone, we laugh a lot. When we hang out, we laugh a lot. Sure, we could be serious all the time, but we like laughing. You feel better when you’re laughing so, laugh, laugh, and laugh more.

Say I love you a lot. (Words of affirmation is my secondary thing. Saying “I love you” feels great.)

If there is anything you need to say, then say it.

Hug your family a lot. (Physical touch is my numero uno thing.) Well this is one I like, and I understand not everyone’s favorite thing is to be touched. Let that prickly nature go and get some hugs in. Get your hugs.

When you get a good cry going, enjoy it. This may sound crazy, but there can be a point in crying when it just feels good to be crying. Why stop it? As Mom says, “Tears are healing rivers.” (Yes, you can tweet that.)

Be a student. Mom is constantly learning new ways to fight cancer, and feel better.

Ask good questions. Ask hard questions. If I want to know something, then I’m going to ask a doctor. I would rather know than not know.

Deal in reality. Really, this is the only way you can pray for miracles is to be grounded in the reality you are in.

If you’re going to pray for healing, it may help to be specific. Healing is kind of abstract to me, so instead, I ask for a specific number of years for Mom to have great health. I can picture that, and it allows me to be more diligent in my prayers. (I got this idea from a mentor, and it quickly changed how I focus my prayers.)

Wear a Kristaps Porzingis jersey. (Mom’s side of the family is from Latvia, so I bought a Porzingis jersey since he is from Latvia. I shipped it to Boise, and asked Mom to try it on. As you can see in the pictures above, Mom rocks the Porzingis jersey. It is a Latvian thing.)

Be honest about how you feel. Drop the perfectionist if tendencies. Saying, “My shoulder hurts” doesn’t mean you’re not “Rejoicing in the Lord.” Come on, let’s drop the perfectionist act. Be honest about where you are. Then, you can actually rejoice in the Lord because your situation may not be much to rejoice in.

Eternity is forever.

Pray and leave the people you love in God’s hands.

Celebrate what you have instead of fearing what you won’t.

Jesus is Lord. Cancer is not Lord. This life is not Lord. Death is not Lord. Jesus is Lord.

You don’t care how many likes you get on Instagram when your mom is in ICU. You won’t care how many likes you got on Instagram in 15 years. Don’t let that preoccupy your mind, and keep you from being with the people you love.

If people say the wrong thing, it’s usually just because they love you and want to help. Find the value in the love.

Prayer works. Not always how you want it to, but prayer works.

It’s good to have friends when suffering hits.

Suffering isn’t going anywhere. It is part of being human. To be human is to suffer. Our pain connects us to one another.

I don’t know exactly how you feel or exactly what you’re going through. I don’t know how you feel or what you’re going through. But I am with you.

We don’t actually think death is normal in America. It is almost treated as an absolute evil.

Courage is not doing what’s right when everyone is cheering for you. It’s doing what is hard when you are scared.

It’s okay to be disappointed.

You don’t see life the same after something like this.

Fight.

It’s okay to rest.

Find out how others are doing. Ask a lot of questions. Write them a note back.

There is a weird moment when you get texts from people and you realize, “Oh, we’re the ones who are in need.” If that moment ever hits you, don’t run from it. You can’t. Receive their love and care, and let yourself be overwhelmed. You don’t have to have the right answer to anything in that moment.

Get specific on your prayers.

Have some fun doing the things you love to do.

Have a piece of chocolate. Why not?

It’s okay to let people in. It’s okay if you don’t let everybody in.

Hope is very important.

Don’t forget to have fun along the way. Life is too short to be serious all the time.

Heaven is real. If Jesus doesn’t give me grace, then I’m not getting in.

Keep the conversation going with God.

Put on some praise music. 10,000 Reasons is a great song to worship to.

Worship is a reminder that God is faithful, constant, and forever the same. These earthly situations will be good and bad. God is the unchanging one, and He can be trusted and praised forever.

YOUR LIGHT HAS COME

This past year, I had the amazing opportunity of making a documentary for Contact Mission, the church and non-profit I worked with in Tulsa. Directing, filming and editing a documentary was the most time extensive project I have worked on, and I am very excited to share it with you. Take a minute to pop some popcorn, and enjoy YOUR LIGHT HAS COME – The Stories of Contact Mission.

Anchor Deep – In The Storms of Life

 “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.” Hebrews 6:19-20

The prhopeomise of Jesus as my hope is an anchor for my soul. This anchor of hope is not set on the ocean floor, but this anchor is within the presence of God in the inner sanctuary. This anchor of hope is not going anywhere – it is firm and secure.

When the storms of life come crashing in on the ship I’m sailing, I am not looking for a C.S. Lewis quote on how to respond to trouble. I am not searching for one more cliche. I am praying that the anchor for my ship is both strong enough and real enough to endure this storm. I know what the promise of God is. I know in my heart of hearts this hope is an anchor for my soul, and that it enters the inner sanctuary.

There are two very challenging things about the promise of this anchor of hope.

The first is that the storm isn’t letting up. This is the reason I’m focusing on this anchor of hope. If there wasn’t a storm, it would be smooth sailing. But the storm continues. And I hope that this “anchor of hope” is everything I believe it is. Even more, I hope Jesus is everything He says He is. Because that is where my hope is, especially when the storm rages on.

The second challenging aspect is that the anchor is invisible. That is part of how anchors work. You may be able to see the line from the ship into the sea, but I am only anchored when I cannot see that which anchors my ship in the midst of the storm. It is hard to believe in what we cannot see. God knows it is difficult for us to trust Him. I wonder if that is part of the reason He gave us the Psalms. So that we can have prayers to pray when faith, hope, and trust vanish from our minds and our hearts melt in the moment. There are prayers others have prayed in their storms, and they found God in those prayers. Even in the moments when God seemed more distant and invisible than ever.

You and I don’t need another perfect quote, do we? We need hope. We need an anchor. And in the storms that happen, we will hope that we have anchored deep.

The good news is that we did not determine where our hope was anchored when we believed in Jesus. God chose the place for the anchor of our hope to rest, and it is in the deepest place an anchor could be. Our lives are anchored in hope within the inner sanctuary where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf. Even more than this, look at what Jesus does for those who place their hope in Him.

“Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.” Hebrews 7:25

When you come to Jesus, you are completely saved, and He is always interceding for you.

I would give you the encouragement to anchor deep for the storms of life are either present in your life, or they will come. The good news is that God already took care of the location and the depth of the anchor. There is no deeper place you can be anchored than in the presence of God with Jesus interceding on your behalf.

Take heart.

Stop Sanitizing Your Prayers

When I was a little kid in church, my teachers in Sunday School gave us a simple recipe on how to pray.

“Bow your head. Close your eyes. Talk to God.”

The goal of this may have been to teach us to respect God. Maybe it was to keep us from poking each other, or from being distracted. I don’t think it is a bad thing to teach to kids. In fact, I still do that sometimes when I pray. It is one thing for prayer to begin there. I’m not sure if it can stay there forever if prayer is going to be real. Maybe that’s what so many of us have been confused about. I think a lot of people are like me in that you have asked or are currently asking,

How do I talk to God in a way that is real?

Here is what God is teaching me: Stop sanitizing your prayers. What does it mean to sanitize your prayer? To talk to God using phrases that mean nothing to the rest of your life, and the only reason you say them is because your uncle said them when he prayed at church on Sundays. What else does it look like to sanitize your prayers? I think it is when we remove all emotion from what we pray, and act as if those emotions are unacceptable for God. What else is sanitizing your prayer? When we only talk to God about things that are church specific.

We might pour some Purell on our prayers because we don’t want to insult God. It could be because we feel that God isn’t very interested in the rest of what goes on in our lives besides Sundays at church. We might even sanitize our prayers because we think that what we really want to bring to God is unacceptable to Him. So we clean up our prayers. And we pray in generalities. We pray about an hour each week that is disconnected from everything else we do. Finally, we ask God to forgive our sins, say thank you, and hang up until the next time we talk. Now that we’re finished talking to God, we take a sigh of relief and feel slightly guilty that we could only muster up 30 seconds – 2 minutes worth of material. What was that thing Paul said about praying without ceasing? That must be for the “incredibly-spiritual” people.

This is where my prayers were for a long time. I’m not really a sensei on praying. I have learned one thing though that has changed what I pray and how I pray. I decided to give God what is inside of me.

Do you give God what you wish was inside of you, or what actually is inside of you?

What is inside of me isn’t pretty. There is bitterness, selfishness, lust, anger, arrogance, pride, impatience, a lack of trust, and discouragement within me. Sometimes it is just one or a few of those things. Sometimes, it is all of them. So what? Does God not want to rescue me? Does God not want to save me from the real things I face everyday. Does God not want to save you from yourself? Is God too busy or distracted? I don’t think so. And I don’t think God is afraid of my sin. Jesus went to the cross for my sins, and He doesn’t want me to carry those around.

So what will I give God? What I wish was inside of me, or what is actually inside of me? I’m choosing to give God what is there. And I’ve found this to be true. God does great work inside of real people who have real problems. There is more to prayer than bowing your head, closing your eyes, and talking to God. Prayer is a place where God invites us to bring our greatest sins, doubts, frustrations, pain, and fears. If you don’t believe me, read the Psalms. Prayer is a place where God welcomes our smiles and our tears.

What is inside of you? I hope you give what is inside of you to God. You don’t have to sanitize your prayers.

Hope Leads

“Looking at the world through my rearview

Searching for an answer up high

Or is it all wasted time?”

B.O.B.

There are questions that race through our minds. They don’t happen all the time, but these questions surface asking about who, how, and why? And usually these questions have everything to do with what happened.

I ran into one of my friends today. When I asked how her summer was going, she said her dad died while she was on vacation. It sounded like things haven’t been good for awhile. She was busy working, and even if she wasn’t, there wasn’t anything to say in that moment. I can say a prayer, listen, or encourage but loss creates a space or void in a person’s life that leaves them with questions of who, how, and why.

“We all yearn for reconciliation, for catharsis.” 

INCEPTION

There was a girl who got inside my head. She wandered into my heart, and in my mind I always figured it would work out. It wasn’t her blond hair or blue eyes. It was the person I saw in her heart that made me fall for her. When she said, “No”, I left broken. My friend, Bill told me the hard part about rejection is that it asks the question, “Is it something about me?” If you got cut from the basketball team or didn’t make the high school musical, you feel the disappointment of not being talented or skilled enough. If someone says no to you, then you can go away with the feeling that it isn’t about skills or talent. It’s just you. And that’s the part that’s so difficult to live with.

Somewhere inside of us is a feeling that relationships aren’t meant to end. At least not the good ones. And the ones we wish we were good, we long for them to be better. Even if we won’t admit it, I believe deep down we long for those connections to be restored or justified. Otherwise, those broken places become focal points of bitterness for our hearts.

“I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places.” 

Irving Kahal

Love must be what we are made for. We are aware when we have love, and we’re aware when it walks out the door. We’re aware when love holds us close, and when we can’t hold love any longer. We hear love in the breaths between, and we know the sting when the breath of love is gone. We see love at the altar, recognize it in the fire, breathe it in the autumn, and feel it in the rain. Love is what we are meant to do. To give. To share. And when love went in one direction, and now it can’t any longer, the heart doesn’t know what to do about it.

“Everything is crumbling around me

Feels like the ending of the times

Or is it all just a sign?”

B.O.B.

I believe the story does not have to end in rejection. Love doesn’t have to stop with loss. Brokenness is not the final affect. Death does not get the last word. Love continues beyond the breaths in our lungs, and the beating of our hearts. I believe there can be catharsis to the questions and pain in our hearts.

For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.

Paul in Romans 8:20-26

This says that God is doing something. He is going to set things right. Creation itself is groaning along with us. You’re not alone in your pain. Even in the dark shadow of death, a glimmer of light shines through. Liberation, restoration, and redemption are in motion. Ultimate fulfillment is in the future. There will be broken hearts, wounds, questions, and grief. There is also hope. Hope that is not seen. Hope that is not held. Yet, it is hope. And hope leads.