The Eve of the Most Wonderful Time of Year

In watching the joy of our daughter as she unwrapped some early gifts…

In thankfulness for the life together that He has given my family…

In going back through where I have been on  past Christmases, I found this, a post that I wrote on a Christmas that, for various reasons, feels much like this one does. And the words that I quoted then are just as beautiful to me now. So I’m re-posting them here.

My dear brothers and sisters, let me get to the main point without delay. Who is he who was born the son of Mary, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger? Who is he? I do not ask who he was. Christmas is not the birthday celebration of a man who lived long ago, then died and passed away, and whose centennial we solemnly commemorate. True, he once lived and then died–and how he died!–but he also rose from the dead; he is present and lives among us now, much closer to each one of us than we are to ourselves. Still, who is he? The answer to that question is the good news of Christmas.

Today, let me say simply this: He who was born in the stable is he who stands by you, stands by me, and stands by us all. I do not say onewho stands by you, but he who stands by you. For only one, only he who was born on that first Christmas day, can stand by us in utter unselfishness and with ultimate authority and power…This is the good news of Christmas. He who stands by you and helps you is alive and present! It is he who was born that Christmas day!</p<

(From Karl Barth’s 1958 Christmas sermon, “He Stands by Us.”

May your Christmas season be most blessed.

Recovery

Christmas tree standing in my favorite apartment from years agoAs I write this, I’m listening to a country artist doing a cover of questionable quality of a Christmas carol while I’m sitting in a Starbucks surrounded by red and gold. I’m pausing for the first time in a long time, or at least the first time when I haven’t been too exhausted to formulate coherent thoughts, and attempting to wade through the slush of melting ideas in my head.

You know those great articles that you occasionally read in good magazines that make their point with the story of the experience rather than formulating a logical argument? So, with that in mind…

The last time that I remember having a truly devoted Advent and Christmas season was over three years ago. Last year wasn’t actually too bad, but it was still scattered, too scattered for my taste. This year, instead of being swallowed in the realization of this most holy of seasons, I’m swallowed in my desire to be swallowed in the realization of this most holy of seasons…like so much of me is exactly where it needs to be, and yet something central, something core, needs to be brought from the past and re-introduced to where I am today.

I’ve forgotten something that I knew then, something that is still within me somewhere, but flitting just out of sight with each attempt of my eyes to focus when it appears in my peripheral.

I know what it is, almost by name, and I’ve caught glimpses more often in the past two weeks. I saw it when I watched our daughter, now old enough to begin hanging her own decorations on our tree, hanging each decoration with care, proudly placing the angel on the top of the tree when I lifted her high to do so. I saw it when, beaming from ear to ear, she rang a bell that had been given to her by my late grandmother, and announced, “Merry Christmas, Mommy! Merry Christmas, Daddy!”

I heard it in the words of hope on the first Sunday of Advent, announced most beautifully and most powerfully by a minister with a pony tail and a bow tie in a small church in which I had never set foot before.

I’ve seen it as I looked back over our memory tree, pausing especially on the maple leaf that we purchased to recall our home in New Hampshire before we made the most abrupt move to North Carolina this summer.

I’ve read it in emails from friends in New England, felt it in my longing to return to what has forever become my home.

What I’m truly swallowed in is a frenzy, an unforgiving scramble for things that we have been forced to consider as important and necessary, and which are ultimately material and will not survive this corporeal life. Yet, we are forced to forsake the unseen, the immaterial of infinitely more worth for more and more time in order to survive with the material pittance without which we cannot eat, cannot live.

I’m swallowed in angst as police officers shoot unarmed people, as some celebrate in excess while others have too little, as the idea of God is supposedly made less plausible by a deity of a different type that we’ve conceived in our  own minds.

There are about two weeks of Advent left before those of us who celebrate Christmas observe our most precious Holiday. That isn’t enough time for me to recover what I’m missing, to lay hold of what I’ve mis-placed. Not nearly enough time for my cloudy eyes to clear. And I wouldn’t be able to part this fog on my own, in any case. It’s not within my power. That clearing must come from outside of myself, by something external, something that is not myself.

Then again, that’s sort of the point.

The Christmas Spirit in Gate B2

"Indianapolis #1" by Claire P. (_rockinfree) used under Creative CommonsKaren and I travel a significant distance for one of the two winter holidays each year. We’ve kept this pattern in some form or other since we’ve been married, as a way to make certain both ends of the family are allotted equivalent time. The issue that we encounter is that traveling in the winter is, well…interesting. Each year promises to be unpredictable…it could be a smooth travel experience (one year was eight hours flat, from the time we walked into the airport until the time we set our bags down on the floor of the guest room), or it could be an insanely frustrating experience, such as the time we sat in an airport terminal for seven hours waiting for a “ground stop” to be lifted.

This year we booked an early flight, keeping the entire departing trip scheduled around our daughter’s nap routine. Had everything run anything close to smoothly, we would have been putting her into the rental car just in time for her to snooze away the last leg of the journey. Instead, we encountered one of those travel days…

After waking up ridiculously early to catch our first flight, we had to wait for de-icing (hooray for living in New England). That was just enough of a delay to find out that the airport where we were connecting had issued a “ground stop” (a traveler’s tip…when you hear those words, you are hopelessly, hopelessly screwed). Eventually, that flight was cancelled. After being re-booked, we were still sitting in the origin airport when our daughter should have been napping, only to find out our re-booked flight was delayed. We were told we could still make our connector after arriving at a new connecting airport with 20 minutes to spare…except that a flight ahead of us apparently experienced an emergency and had to be landed before everyone else, which resulted in our having ten minutes to walk several gates away, take a shuttle, walk several more gates…we didn’t make it. We thus re-booked again, and instead of arriving at any sort of sane time, we arrived at midnight.

That, dear reader, would cause the most saintly among us to have a short temper.

During two of our many layovers, though, some cool things happened. Another family who was awaiting a delayed flight was traveling with three children, who began playing ball at the gate. Our daughter joined in, and had great fun. Even though she’s barely able to understand the concept of throwing a ball at this point, let alone the mechanics, she thoroughly enjoyed the experience of playing with the other children.

While waiting in the gate for our final flight of the day, two other children came up to introduce themselves to our daughter. They were much older than she, but there were no other children in the terminal, and they were looking for a playmate with which to pass the time. My wife got involved, as did a college student who was already waiting when we arrived, and soon there was a full-on game of duck-duck-goose in the middle of the gate. At first, people seemed uncomfortable with it. Slowly, though, a crew member who looked like he was finished for the day and flying as a passenger began smiling, Then a guy in a Marines t-shirt smiled. The smiles were contagious, and loosened everyone’s mood (we were far from the only delayed travelers that day). Even I was less grumpy afterward. There was innocence in that terminal again, a sense of merriment as we waited for yet another delayed flight, a pervasive sense that even the most frustrating of circumstances would be overcome by this season that we hold so dear.

Christmas was an odd experience this year…as we fall back into what was our normal family holiday rhythm after a chaotic year, there were a lot of things that were comfortingly normal, and others that were oddly out of place or accidentally overlooked. What seemed most profound about my Christmas week, though, was the feeling of watching my wife and daughter and a group of complete strangers disrupt the tense atmosphere of an airport terminal with the laughter and all-around noise of a children’s game. There was something pure about that, even holy, perhaps. Christmas truly began for me in that moment.

I hope that, whenever yours began, it has been blessed.

Photo Attribution: _rockinfree under Creative Commons

Super Heroic Christmas Tales

Our daughter is in that phase during which she fixates on something that she recognizes, and proceeds to identify it everywhere. Since we bought her first baby doll for her birthday gift a few months ago, she has began to point out “baby!” everywhere…and I mean everywhere…that she sees a baby. Be it real life, in photos, or as a doll, we now know the location of every image of a baby within the immediate vicinity. She was playing with a family member’s childrens’ nativity set last week, and, of course, zeroed in on the Christ child as “baby!” I then got to assist her in beginning to make the connection that Christ, too, was a “baby!” when He entered our history.

This event sort of collides with my obsession over superheroes and their mythology. And, before you unplug over the seeming disconnection between the two, I’ll say, partly to assist and partly in my defense, that, just as our daughter sees babies everywhere, I see connections to superhero stories everywhere. Christmas, viewed in the context of the Christian faith at least, is a superhero narrative in itself.

My interest in what it means to be a hero has driven a large part of my thought over the past year or so. It’s what I want to think about, and write about, and explore. In true Burkian fashion, it has become another lens through which I see life and faith and culture. When I started writing a novel to explore these themes, it became a bit of an obsession (of the good variety).

The reason that I see a superhero narrative in the Christmas story is because Christ is the prototype of a superhero, the perfect example of what our hero stories tell. A story of a great evil that we cannot hope to overcome on our own, that is certain to overwhelm us. A story of a situation that would otherwise be hopeless. A story of a Hero, who is bigger and more powerful than we are, and more powerful than the evil that threatens us, who swoops in and fights the fight that we cannot, winning a victory that we could not achieve on our own. A Hero that demonstrates the use of power for good, that exemplifies self-sacrifice, that gives us an example to look up to, something to which we can aspire.

That’s so important when we find that our own cultural identity is a villain, a monster of consumerism that rewards individual pleasure-seeking over the welfare of others. As much as we need rescued from the grip of such a creature, we need the direction of where to go after the rescue. We need to know someone is standing watch over us when the villains rear their heads again, because they will.

Christmas is part of the ultimate story of a superhero, who crashed to earth as a “baby!” and grew to stand for us in our darkest hour.

I hope that your Christmas is blessed this year.

Changing the Changes

There was a time in my life at which I embraced change with much enthusiasm. I ran toward it whenever I had the opportunity, because change is opportunity, I reasoned. It occurs to me now that this was likely driven in part by the fact that I was unsatisfied by where I was at the time, either geographically, professionally or personally. I think that I would have identified it as being “driven” or “motivated” to success then, but, at the end of the day, I was unsatisfied.

And, I think, change is almost always a good thing. I’m just beginning to realize that, as I get (cough) older (cough), I have a bit of a more difficult time in adapting to that change. The funny thing is that this difficulty is because of change. When I started this blog a long time ago, I was a single grad student with no clue what life would look like by the time I was out of school and in the “real world” again. I’m somewhat surprised by the fact that it looks like having a wife and a daughter and being back in school at this point in my life.

I’m not complaining about any of the above…like I said, change is still a good thing.

The motivation for the change is what I call into question these days, though. When we were first married, one of Karen’s favorite phrases about difficulty spots in life was, “It’s an adventure!” And indeed, it is. I lose sight of this, though. I lose sight of the adventure and how our family grows stronger together through the adventure because I become so easily dissatisfied when faced with a life predicament.

It turns out that I may, in fact, be a bit optimistic in considering myself optimistic. Let’s call me a realist, then, shall we?

Because I really don’t want to be a pessimist, but I drift dangerously close to crossing that line at times. All because I become dissatisfied. As we near the end of Advent and enter the Christmas season, I can think of few things more troubling than being dissatisfied, because that is a result of a consumer-driven Holiday mindset. I don’t want a Christmas driven by what goodies I receive, or even by what goodies I may be able to give. I want a Christmas driven by thankfulness for what I have, and I don’t necessarily just mean goodies. I mean people. I mean kindness shown, and grace shown. I mean opportunities, as trying as they may be.

I mean the positivity of change, as difficult as it can be for me to cope with its process these days.

That could even lead to a most wonderful time of the year…