Small Parts of Christmas…

If I have to sit through another rendition of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” without Mariah singing it, I’m pretty sure I’m going to die. Seriously, though, four versions in less than forty minutes and not a single one of them was Mariah Carey. Ridiculous.

Not too much has happened since my last post – nearly three weeks ago now. I made a brief trip to Eugene to work the Florida Georgia Line concert, worked all day long the next day in Portland (including the Ducks’ basketball game at the Rose Garden – I refuse to call it that nasty, blasphemous, other name), and finished up my final week of my first semester at George Fox Evangelical Seminary. So, you know, not a whole lot.

Throughout all the “boring” stuff I’ve been doing, I haven’t really gotten much of a chance to relish the moments. While they were happening, I thought they were fun, cool, and pretty rare opportunities, but not much beyond that. Of course, celebrating one’s last final exam for a semester of school is difficult when one has to work a near-nine hour shift only an hour and a half after turning in said last final. Even so, Christmas is a day away, I’ve cleared the first hurdle of seminary (at least I think so; grades haven’t come out yet), and tomorrow morning, I get to head back to Lincoln City to visit my grandpa. There really is a lot to relish.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my experience in seminary thus far, it’s how essential it is to have the ability to make critical observations of even the most mundane thing. Such a practice of casting nearly everything under critical light leaves one feeling a little exhausted and, well, sad. It’s kind of like the feeling one gets when it’s revealed that Santa isn’t real; when critical light is cast onto things we love, joy tends to evaporate really quickly.

I love Christmas. It is right after my favorite season of the year (fall) and right at the beginning of my second favorite season (okay, really, it’s a tie between winter and spring… sorry summer). Christmas means Elf, Trans-Siberian Orchestra on repeat, and the hopeless belief I’ll get stuck with my crush under some mistletoe. It means singing carols that haven’t changed since before Jesus was even born and doing the more-than-occasional trip to admire all the neighbors’ lights. Christmas has so many little meaningful things that combine into one big meaningful time.

This is where the ability to cast things one loves into critical light comes into play. For while I love Christmas, I cannot ignore the consumer problem many of us have during this season. And yes I include myself in this mix because most of my childhood Christmases were all about getting new toys (mostly Legos). Having grown up, though, it’s difficult to see the joy in receiving so many gifts.

No, I don’t mean to rip apart your Christmas on Christmas Eve or to say we should stop buying people things for Christmas or to literally make the presents ourselves. I could never make the ugly sweater I am giving my brother. It’s better for his sake and mine that I bought it. But what I am saying is that the need to constantly buy or have more goes against what I think Christmas actually should be about. Give gifts, sing carols, and check out all the Christmas lights – yes, yes, and yes! But don’t break the bank to do so.

It’s a lesson I’m learning as I type. Since my childhood Christmases revolved around buying stuff for other people, I have a hard time not getting someone a gift. But here again, I don’t think going to the opposite extreme of not getting any gifts at all is the way to solve things either. What I think would help is to refocus on what actually matters come Christmas time – the movie watching, Christmas caroling, and neighborhood-light seeing (and even the mistletoe-ing, especially if you’re a girl and there’s a guy around 5’8” with brown skin and wearing Oregon gear standing underneath it). Those are the things that bring genuine joy.

Unless you broke the bank or put yourself in a financial pinch, don’t rush to take all the gifts back. Give them. But keep in mind that gift-giving is a small part of what Christmas should be about, which is all that other stuff that involves family, friends, and even coworkers. You know, in addition to celebrating the arrival of Jesus (I’ll write more on this one later).

(If you do bring stuff back on Thursday morning, please be especially nice to the people you’re bringing it back to. Thanks.)

And for the love of all that is good, only play “All I Want For Christmas Is You” by Mariah Carey. Okay? All other versions are terrible. (That one’s for you, Nikki!)

Merry Christmas!

God bless.

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Wandering Through the Fog…

Finding the time to compose a blog hasn’t been easy lately. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had enough free time (I started and finished Sherlock – both seasons), but harnessing that free time into some form of intellectual activity outside of schoolwork hasn’t seemed worth the effort – mostly because I’m lazy, but partially because I want to walk around Portland pretending to solve some sort of crime by nothing but a shoelace or a piece of gum stuck to a doorknob.

It’s a miracle I’m still in school, really.

But there are things to blog about; Thanksgiving was wonderful (thanks to the Stoppers and Bri), Christmas is a few weeks away, and, little by little, I’m falling in love with the academic world.

Yesterday afternoon I drove over to George Fox University’s Newburg campus to check out their bookstore and, well, to see the main campus. As I walked amongst the buildings and through the courtyard, I felt I was on familiar territory – even though I had never been to this campus before.

Strangely, I felt home.

Not “home” like Lincoln City is home (or even Eugene) – not in the sense of “Oh, I recognize almost everything about this place and recall so many fond memories.” I mean “home” in the sense of the atmosphere; that even though I had barely a clue where the bookstore was, being in a place where people are asking questions, discovering perspectives, and becoming more fully themselves is a place I can call home.

For one of my classes last night, we were asked to bring a picture that best explains, with few additional words, how God speaks to us outside of Scripture (like the “totems” in Inception; not that the picture itself is the totem, but what the picture represents). What I chose as my picture was a famous painting (at least, I think it’s famous) entitled Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (by Casper David Friedrich).

Where I feel closest to God...
Where I feel closest to God…

I didn’t know who painted it or when, but I picked it because at many points in my life, I have felt like the “wanderer”; standing alone up high on some ledge peering out to the grand mystery before me. And being overwhelmed with awe at how beautiful it all is.

To me, the fog represents the things in life that we don’t know or can’t explain. What little we actually can see (the small hilltops peaking through the fog) depicts what little we actually know (or at least the bits that we think we know). In order to journey through the land – maybe to the mountains in the distance – we must travel through the fog patches, the seasons of uncertainty (even only to get to the places we can see). After describing how God speaks clearest to me when I’m able to survey all the confusing parts of life (the sea of fog) mixed with the few parts of life that aren’t so confusing, I quickly realized this is what draws me to Scripture.

For as much as I know about Scripture, there is much more that I don’t’ know. As in the painting; the parts the wanderer can see the clearest are overwhelmed by “the sea of fog” – by that which isn’t clear. Scripture provokes and prods me towards the fog; I am compelled to seek even if I never find. Like Sherlock becoming restless until he has a complex case to solve, I feel restless until I’ve begun wandering through the fog of Scripture.

By no means am I suggesting that I’m some genius, “high-functioning sociopath” who can tell you your life story just by the way your tie is arranged. But I am saying that my clearest moments with God are when I am immersed in His mysteries – when I’m enveloped by the foggy parts of life and Scripture.

Such a realization of such a love for God’s mysteries in Scripture has left me considering something beyond a Master’s degree: a PhD. Of course, I know next to nothing about how I’m supposed to get one, where I’m supposed to begin, or what I’m supposed to even study. But I know that I love the academic environment and that the only way for me to remain in such an environment is to study enough to be able to teach, which I think involves earning a PhD.

Or becoming a janitor and secretly using the hallway chalkboard to solve Scriptural riddles that have never been solved before (i.e. Good Will Hunting).

So I guess that sums up my last week and a half; Thanksgiving was great, Benedict Cumberbatch is the man, and I love the academic side of Scripture. I can’t promise any more blog posts between now and the end of the semester (December 20th), but I’ll try my best. I’ve been reading another book by Kent Nerburn (The Wolf at Twilight, sequel to Neither Wolf, Nor Dog) and it’s absolutely wonderful, so I might crank something out of there. But we’ll see.

In the meantime, stay warm. Stay curious. And DFTBA (“Don’t Forget To Be Awesome” – Green brothers).

God bless.

A King Born to Die…

In my early understanding of where the gift-giving theme of Christmas originated, it was in the wise men giving gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Jesus at His birth. No one ever told me this; I just assumed that’s why we give gifts to each other because these wise men gave gifts to Jesus on Christmas Day. Of course, I came to learn that Jesus most likely was not born on December 25th, 0 AD, but in my mind I still thought we buy presents for each other every year because of those wise men. After Scott Lamb had mentioned in his message last week that these were gifts given to kings for burial, it changed the way I approach Jesus’ birth – and, by extension, the Christmas narrative we’ve grown up hearing.

For one thing, Scripture doesn’t say how many wise men came to Mary, Joseph, and Jesus; Matthew 2:2 says, “[B]ehold, wise men (magi) from the east came to Jerusalem.” For another, they didn’t come to Jesus in the manger; Matthew 2:11 says, “And going into the house they saw the child… and worshiped him.” I point these two pieces out in the effort to understand the actual event of Jesus’ birth by separating it from the traditional story we’ve heard to understand the significance of giving gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Not to say that our traditional story isn’t moving; but to say that it might not depict what the Scriptures intend. Traditional stories are good, but they should never trump the Scriptures.

Having removed some of the common things we’ve believed (at least heard) about the birth of Jesus, we’re able to see why gold, frankincense, and myrrh were given (and why Matthew included them in the story). But first, what are they? Hopefully everyone knows what gold is, but what are frankincense and myrrh? According to the footnotes of my ESV Study Bible: “Frankincense is resin used ceremonially for the only incense permitted on the altar,” (note for Matt. 2:11). Wikipedia’s article points out that it was incense accompanying the meat-offerings, which were for when someone sinned. Similarly, myrrh is also incense used for ceremonial purposes in the Temple. Wikipedia’s article points out that the ancient Egyptians used it to embalm their mummies. These were gifts given to Jesus.

Gold, as we all know, has been used quite a bit as currency (ex. Every U.S. dollar is backed by gold… supposedly). But in antiquity it was also a gift given to deceased royalty. Ancient Egyptians, as we were taught in school (hopefully), also laid gold with their deceased Pharaohs. Pre-Christianized Anglo-Saxons laid jewelry with their deceased kings (or royalty) as well. Note, though, that while these were common gifts at a King’s death, it was a gift given to the infant Jesus.

Apart from what 21st Century consumerist ideologies might have us believe, these gifts given to Jesus weren’t so that he could have an enjoyable childhood. They weren’t toys he could play with (like Legos were given to me when I was younger – though I wish I still received them now…). They were laid at his feet to signify the life ahead of him; a life culminating in atoning, sacrificial death. What these gifts meant to Jesus’ parents (and to anyone reading Matthew) was that Jesus was a King born to die. His life and Kingship walked hand in hand with his long-foreshadowed death.

I do not mean to cast a dreary cloud over such a cheerful holiday, but to point out exactly why we celebrate Jesus’ birth: God becoming as we are to die as we should so we might live as He does. Forever.

A thrill of hope, as the song goes, causes the weary soul – fatigued by pain and sorrow in this world – to rejoice. No longer will we have to bury our children or grow up without parents. Because of Christmas (not December 25th, but the birthing of Jesus), we will no longer be childless parents, orphans, widows, or homeless; for we will be with Jesus, having something greater than the needed and wanted things of this world.

I wish everyone a very merry Christmas. And God bless.

P.S. If I were you, I’d return the gold, frankincense, and myrrh you bought that special someone for Christmas. Might send the wrong message and it’s not too late…

Thanksgiving: Glasses to Wear For Christmas…

I know Thanksgiving has already come and gone and everyone has already put up their Christmas tree, but I feel like there was something I missed. Tonight with Emmaus Life’s smaller group (called “Villages”), we discussed a little about our “thankfulness journals” (daily logs of various things we’re thankful for), but more so about the prosperity gospel – the belief that God will constantly bless you with more. I discussed this a few posts ago, but there’s a different element that came to mind tonight at the Lambs’ place. I think it deals more specifically with the root differences between the gospel of Jesus and the prosperity gospel.

In the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, there was a meme I saw several times on Facebook highlighting the fact that on one day everyone gathers together to be grateful for things we already have, but then rush right out at midnight the next day for countless deals and purchasing of more things. What this means to me is that Thanksgiving isn’t really celebrated as its own season. It’s just a day where you eat until you explode, watch a couple football games, and sleep whenever you aren’t eating or watching football (it’s dangerous if you try to multi-task).

I know it’s almost been two weeks since Thanksgiving, but I’m a little bugged by how it’s treated year after year. It really is meant to be a time of the year where we reflect over the various things we’ve been given in life and how different our lives have been since we’ve received that gift. And yet it feels like we, as an American culture, rush right through it to get to the gift-receiving season of Christmas. We go from the one day of gratitude to the twelve (more like twenty-something) days of greed.

What I can’t help but notice is how Thanksgiving is a holiday that comes before Christmas. It’s as though Thanksgiving is really a pair of glasses we put on as we enter the gift-giving season of Christmas. It’s as though we’re meant to come to each other – let alone coming to God – with gratitude, with thanksgiving for all the things and circumstances and situations that have made us who we are, so that we may change the way we give to others – so that we change the way we give to God.

Tonight at Villages we talked about our American mindset of “rights” and this sense of entitlement – that when it comes to things like owning guns, having money, being able to speak our minds, etc., that we have the right (the entitlement) to do so. And if the American world is all you’re living for, then have at it. But what the American world claims for itself is different than what God’s people claim for themselves. For here in America, we have the Bill of Rights. But God’s people – true lovers and followers of God – know that there is no such as “rights.” Instead, we have gifts.

Even the breath I am breathing now is not something I have earned. Yes I’ve worked hard at my job and yes I’ve shown love to my neighbor, but nowhere in all of that have I done anything to earn God’s favor. I did not force God’s hand to grant me certain things. He just did – even when I didn’t want to receive them.

God’s kingdom begins with total depravity – the recognition that you have absolutely nothing to offer Him that He would ever need. There are not tasks which we could do to put God in our debt for everything we’re able to do was given to us by His power and grace. The tree does not owe its branches anything; they grow because it grows.

As this Christmas season shifts into full gear, put on the lenses of thanksgiving. Reflect on the things you were thankful for on Thanksgiving. Add to them. Think of something you’ve been thankful for maybe even within the last minute. Do whatever is needed to set your mind on the mindset of Christ and how everything we have is a gift from Him. And then, once you’ve done all that, go out and share it. We do a lot of “sharing” online, how about we do it in person for this Christmas season?

God bless.

Day-Dreams, False Expectations, and God’s Story…

“Reality, in my experience, is usually odd. It is not neat, not obvious, not what you expect,” C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

I remember being an eighth grader on the last day of school day-dreaming of what high school would be like. I’d be wearing cool new clothes, dominating whatever sport I played, probably have a girl friend, and – above all else – I’d be older. I repeated this day-dreaming bit when my senior year of high school rolled around – picturing myself dating some cute girl with long, wavy brown hair and bright eyes; wondering about the kinds of classes I’d be taking; and of course, seeing the truth that is my college swagger.

What kind of sucks, though, is that the things I really hoped to have happen never did (except for the college-swagger thing; that’s 24/7). Season after season, term after term, I remained the dorky single guy either reading or writing every where he went. My expectations for the future were never met and it kind of hurt.

I feel that way now. Years ago I pictured my home church, Calvary Fellowship, to be the start of something new, something fresh, something beyond the religiosity that surrounds Christianity today. I saw Danny as kind of a Captain Kirk to the Christian world; almost entirely untraditional, but always fighting for the right cause. With him retiring and Calvary handing over the keys, my expectations – what I had hoped to have happen – are practically gone. That harsh reality hit me late last night. It felt as though someone I loved had died.

Two weeks remain for Calvary Fellowship as I’ve known it. Danny preaching from his awesome swivel chair; shaking the hands of strangers whose names I’ll forget the next day; and usually finding a Mexican place for lunch after service. And believe me, I plan to milk it for all it’s worth. But until each Sunday comes to pass, there’s one thing God wants me to ponder: What He’s doing in my life for the long haul.

You see, my day-dreams really only go a couple years ahead of me. Sometimes I’ll picture myself at 30 writing some awesome book that a lot of people buy or poppin’ the question to my bright-eyed girlfriend because that’s the age Barney Stinson said you can start thinking about marriage. But for the most part I usually only picture the next year. Whether I wanted to or not, I now have to picture my life less than a month from now.

It was tentatively announced that the new pastor would officially take things over on the 8th of January, which means I have until then to decide if I want to continue on with the new pastor or take a break and try something new. Honestly, I’m not sure what I’ll do, but I’m certainly looking forward to Christmas and New Years Day as sort of a break. Even so, it’s a lot of pressure to have to make a decision so soon. But the greatest news of it all is that God doesn’t day-dream like I do; He sees it all.

He sees the kind of man I’ll be when I marry, when I raise my children, and when I pass them off to their husbands and wives. He sees the character He wishes to grow within me. He sees my entire novel while I only see a page or two. And even though I like to try to write my own story, He’s got this Author thing pretty well figured out.

Case in point: Peter, according to John’s gospel. He and his fellow disciples expected something completely different for Jesus and His life. They expected Rome to fall as Jesus rose politically. It was a bit of a shock, then, when Jesus was crucified and killed by Roman hands. His expectations of Jesus had been obliterated. And then Jesus rose from the grave and appeared to Peter and the rest of the disciples. But what does Peter do? He goes back to his old job. It’s not until after Jesus has ascended that Peter catches His vision.

My whole point is simply this: God had a plan that was extremely difficult for Peter to grasp. I (and every Calvary-ite with me) am in a very similar situation: Something’s happening that’s shattering my day-dreams and I can’t quite figure it out. It makes me want to think that it’s all been a waste, but that’s like saying Peter’s walk with Jesus before He died was a waste; it was really the step to a deeper faith.

God brought us on this ride with Calvary and with Danny for a reason: In order to be the men and women He wants us to be. It’s an uncomfortable ride, for sure, because it’s possibly removing a style of faith we’ve grown so accustomed to. But now we have the opportunity to see just what kind of work God has really done within us.

“Take courage sons for we must go under/The heart of darkness to set them free/But don’t lose heart when you see the numbers/There’s no measure for faith with praise,” Josh Garrels, “Rise”

“But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day,” Proverbs 4:18

Greater things are yet to come. May we have the heart to see them through.

God bless.

Christmas Begins With Jesus…

I’ve been working at Putters for almost four full months now and in that time I’ve been asked a lot about my hometown; how big the town is, what there is to do in Lincoln City, and what I did in high school. You know mostly general stuff like that. But it’s been making me think back, from time to time, about where I’ve been in my life and how it all began for me.

Back in high school I was a really quiet kid. Yeah, I’d be outgoing and talkative with my friends when we would hang out at each others’ houses, but at school I was really quiet. Especially about things like my faith. For me at that time, it wasn’t a very deep faith. I’d read my Bible, pray from time to time, and read through a devotional whenever I thought about it, but for the most part, I didn’t have any sort of passion for Jesus. It was mostly something I kept to myself. I was passionate about golf, no doubt. And I loved talking about how well or not well I had played at practice or in a recent tournament. But when it came to Jesus, I was really, really quiet.

Although, I must admit, if you were to question the existence of God or the Bible’s reliability, I was quick to argue with you. I think every single time I argued with someone about the Bible I ended up making myself look like a fool, but I was willing to go down swinging. Looking back now, I think I was more focused on being right than on anything else when it came to Jesus and Christianity.

I have since realized that when you replace the cross of Christ with an argument, you’re hurting two (or more) people at once; you’re feeding your pride while pushing others away from the actual Jesus. Paul writes to the Corinthians saying, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified,” which is to say, the cross speaks for itself. We shouldn’t get in the way.

I’m only bringing this up this close to Christmas because I believe Christmas is all about beginnings and it wasn’t until I began to see the cross of Christ that I made the switch from argument to love. What I mean is when I started to see just who Jesus really was and is I started loving Him more and more. Being right was no longer the central tenet driving my faith; Jesus was.

This may make some uneasy because we feel as though we need to have a sound apologetics for our faith; we feel the need to defend what we believe with sound reason and wisdom, which I believe is partially true. Defending one’s beliefs is necessary only when you’re defending against your own doubts. You defend your beliefs against an actual person; it will probably turn out bad. You may think that you’re doing the gospel justice and perhaps maybe you are; but I know that fewer people are persuaded by the arguments of Christians than by the love of Christ. When we live to share that love, to share that light, we aren’t the ones having an impact on anyone; Jesus is.

Jesus did argue, yes, but then He turned right around and healed the blind, the lame, the sick, the deaf, and the mute. And if you look closely to whom Jesus was arguing with, it wasn’t with the non-believers of God; it was the religious elite. John’s gospel paints the picture as vividly as possible; Jesus comes onto the scene, saves a wedding party by creating wine out of water, but notice what He used: water jars reserved “for the Jewish rites of purification,” John 2:6. Essentially, these “rites of purification” weren’t part of the Torah, but rather man’s addition to the Torah. It was extreme Jewish legalism that Jesus targeted with His arguments. Today’s equivalent would be prominent pastors targeting extreme Christian legalism. But rarely are our arguments directed against our own religiosity.

What changed my attitude about life and, more specifically, about Jesus was how I started to view His words as opposed to the words of today’s Christianity. Nowhere in Scripture does it say “God hates fags” or “God loves toe-tags.” No, in fact it’s quite the opposite, the Scriptures say, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people,” Luke 2:10. This good news isn’t reserved for the righteous or the most legalistic; “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance,” Luke 5:32.

Christmas time often stirs up lots of religious debates; “Put Christ back in Christmas,” “‘Santa’ is how Satan spells his name in order to deceive people,” or “Merry Christmas, not happy holidays,” are just a few of the rather dumb things we like to argue about. One of my favorites, though, is the “date of birth” commotion, which is merely two sides bickering about when Jesus was actually born. It’s my favorite because it’s funny that many people defend December 25th as Jesus’ date of birth, when it isn’t found anywhere in Scripture. And all throughout these arguments I have found one thing lacking: Jesus.

It begins with Jesus. The whole of Christianity began with Jesus; His birth, His death, and His resurrection. What I hope to do for this year’s Christmas isn’t celebrating my rightness in knowing Jesus was born this day 2010 years ago, but rather that God entered into human history for one sole purpose; to bridge the gap that we created between Him and us, to cover the sins of humanity because we couldn’t cover it ourselves, and to join us with Him not because He needs us, but because we need Him.

There is no argument I wish to make the non-believing crowd; if you come to Jesus, that’s great, but if not, that’s your choice. I cannot force Him upon you. But I must say that the real Jesus is so very much different than the Christ we’ve created in our religious Christianity. He doesn’t hate fags; He loves them. He doesn’t love toe-tags; He mourns for them. He doesn’t think “Santa” is Satan; He knows that he had used Saint Nicholas to share His love.

One image I read about from Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz describes God’s entrance into human history so beautifully and it’s what this story that I’ll end:

“A long time ago I went to a concert […]. The folksinger said his friend [a Navy SEAL] was performing a covert operation, freeing hostages from a building in some dark part of the world. His friend’s team flew in by helicopter, made their way to the compound and stormed into the room where the hostages had been imprisoned for months. The room, the folksinger said, was filthy and dark. The hostages were curled up in a corner, terrified. When the SEALs entered the room, they heard the gasps of the hostages. They stood at the door and called to the prisoners, telling them they were Americans. The SEALs asked the hostages to follow them, but the hostages wouldn’t. They sat there on the floor and hid their eyes in fear. They were not of healthy mind and didn’t believe their rescuers were really Americans.

“The SEALs stood there, not knowing what to do. They couldn’t possibly carry everybody out. One of the SEALs, the folksinger’s friend, got an idea. He put down his weapon, took off his helmet, and curled up tightly next to the other hostages, getting so close his body was touching some of theirs. He softened the look on his face and put his arms around them. He was trying to show them he was one of them. None of the prison guards would have done this. He stayed there for a little while until some of the hostages started to look at him, finally meeting his eyes. The Navy SEAL whispered that they were Americans and were there to rescue them. Will you follow us? he said. The hero stood to his feet and one of the hostages did the same, then another, until all of them were willing to go. The story ends with all the hostages safe on an American aircraft carrier.

“I never liked it when the preachers said we had to follow Jesus. Sometimes they would make Him sound angry. But I liked the story the folksinger told. I liked the idea of Jesus becoming man, so that we would be able to trust Him, and I like that He healed people and loved them and cared deeply about how people were feeling.”

Merry Christmas and God bless!

So This is Christmas…

Normally around the holidays I dread going home, especially around Christmas. There’s excitement and joy when I see all the Christmas lights and the various Christmas trees, but when the day approaches, I get a little uneasy about going home. I didn’t used to feel this way, though. From as early as I can remember all the way through high school – maybe even through my freshman year of college – I was overjoyed when Christmas break began. I couldn’t wait until I could get my hands on the Christmas ornaments and the Christmas lights and go to town on our living room. Long ago, I built a Lego house and when Christmas rolled around, I would even decorate the Lego house with Christmas decorations. That’s how excited I was about this time.

Things have changed since then, though. I no longer live at the house I grew up in, I still drive home alone (which isn’t really new), my Legos are stashed away in a storage closet, and my family is now split in different parts of the world (my mom’s in Alaska and my brother’s in Afghanistan). I don’t mean to say that spending Christmas with just my grandpa is a bad thing; it really isn’t. But it isn’t what Christmas used to be. I miss the old days, to say the least.

This is a different Christmas from the previous ones, though. My sister in law flew up from San Antonio and is cooking dinner on Christmas day, which hasn’t happened for a few years at the Cushman residence. When she called me earlier today to tell me her plans, a question struck my mind. Is Christmas about repeating tradition and delighting in the same old things every year or is it about being with family? Looking back through past Christmases, I can remember a lot of the gifts I’ve received, but I think the most memorable moments in my Christmas history have come from the time spent with family. My brother wrestling me to the ground when we were younger, my grandpa beating us both at Risk and Skip Bo, and the wars we’d wage with our new Legos seem to be the clearest memories in my mind. Every time I hear John Lennon’s “So This is Christmas,” I think of all those moments and eagerly want them back. And when I realize they won’t ever come back, I get a little sad. What my sister-in-law’s phone call did, though, was turn my focus forward onto the traditions being made as the days go by.

It hasn’t really been a family tradition, as far as I can remember, to cook a meal on Christmas Day. There’s a casino in Lincoln City with an all-you-can-eat buffet and they’re open on Thanksgiving and Christmas. There were a few years spent at our dining room table devouring a honey-cured ham, but I think most of the time we trekked over to the casino. Heck, we didn’t have to set up the tables or clean up, so it was a double win for my brother and me. But with my sister-in-law cooking us a meal, maybe a new tradition is beginning? Maybe future Christmases will be spent with my brother, his wife, and my grandpa over a good meal? And who knows, maybe some of the old traditions like Risk and Skip Bo could reemerge (though with my grandpa’s flawless win-loss record, I would prefer they didn’t).

The problem I’ve found with placing hope and joy in tradition alone is when they’re removed, a sort of depression is the only thing remaining. Given what Christmas really means, depression should not even exist. Which leads me to believe that if my hope and joy is instead placed into the relationships that are strengthened by change, then whatever change occurs, my hope and joy is secure.

When I read through the birth narratives in Scripture, I see something beautiful. Wise men, shepherds, carpenters (Joseph mainly), and angels were all gathered around this small child named Jesus. The birth of our Lord is not about putting up Christmas lights and decorating a tree or hanging stockings for a non-existent Santa; it’s about people coming together to rejoice in the hope that was created when Jesus was born. It’s about laughing together, crying together, enjoying food together and writing new traditions together. Yeah, I’ve got a lonely drive back to a place that was never really my home (my grandpa’s apartment), but that’s not what this time of year is about. And the more I realize that, the more my heart is opened. This year, my only wish is that I don’t hope for the things I had yesterday, but instead enjoy the new things, the new relationships that are being made today. I think I’m getting what I want for Christmas.