An Emotional Advent 3: Good Grief

Photo cred: snapwiresnap.tumblr.com

I will be blogging through the emotions of the Christmas story this holiday season (see part 1). This post will focus in on the sorrow and grief of a family of refugees in Matthew 2:13-23:

13 After the wise men left, an angel from the Lord came to Joseph in a dream. The angel said, “Get up! Take the child with his mother and escape to Egypt. Herod wants to kill the child and will soon start looking for him. Stay in Egypt until I tell you to come back.”

14 So Joseph got ready and left for Egypt with the child and the mother. They left during the night. 15 Joseph stayed in Egypt until Herod died. This gave full meaning to what the Lord said through the prophet: “I called my son to come out of Egypt.”

16 Herod saw that the wise men had fooled him, and he was very angry. So he gave an order to kill all the baby boys in Bethlehem and the whole area around Bethlehem. Herod had learned from the wise men the time the baby was born. It was now two years from that time. So he said to kill all the boys who were two years old and younger. 17 This gave full meaning to what God said through the prophet Jeremiah:

18 “A sound was heard in Ramah—
    bitter crying and great sadness.
Rachel cries for her children,
    and she cannot be comforted,
    because her children are gone.”

19 While Joseph was in Egypt, Herod died. An angel from the Lord came to Joseph in a dream 20 and said, “Get up! Take the child with his mother and go to Israel. Those who were trying to kill the child are now dead.”

21 So Joseph took the child and the mother and went to Israel. 22 But he heard that Archelaus was now king in Judea. Archelaus became king when his father Herod died. So Joseph was afraid to go there. Then, after being warned in a dream, he went away to the area of Galilee. 23 He went to a town called Nazareth and lived there. This gave full meaning to what God said through the prophets. God said the Messiah would be called a Nazarene.

Home sweet home.

There’s no place like home.

Home for the holidays.

I’ll be home for Christmas.

These merry phrases, and the like, abound around Christmas time. They’re sung much and seen often, but the weight of their meaning is lost on those of us who quote it without paying attention.

Seriously, consider yourself immensely fortunate to have a place, or a unit of people, to call home.

Not everyone is so fortunate.

According the The UN Refugee Agency,

More than 800,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean and Aegean so far this year, fleeing war, persecution and violence in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, and other countries.  For many, the choice to embark on such dangerous journeys seems the only way to give their children a chance of survival and safety. 

There is a an area of our world experiencing a refugee crisis at the moment. It’s nothing new, this is just the most recent and predominant displacement of people from their homes, families, and normal lives.

Jesus knew this dislocation firsthand.

Fearing for their lives, Joseph and Mary, along with their two year old miracle child, fled from their home to find asylum, and hopefully a home, in Egypt. They were fleeing from the psycho-megalomaniac, King Herod, who vowed to slaughter every baby boy in the land to execute any possibility of his throne being overthrown by a child. Much like the refugees of today fleeing the violence and danger posed by radical dictators and extremists.

Jesus and his family were refugees.

N.T. Wright clarifies that the gospel of Matthew was born in a land at a time of trouble, tension, violence, and fear. Banish all thoughts of peaceful Christmas scenes. Before the Prince of Peace had learned to walk and talk, he was a homeless refugee with a price on his head. Jesus was helpless.

There’s no place like home.

As a cry of bitter sadness rose from Ramah, can we hear the sorrow and grief that rises around the globe? Do we resonate with the ache of loss and the longing for home?

Is there room in our hearts for their plight?

Is there room in our homes for their families?

It’s hard to relate, and even contemplate making room, isn’t it? Christmastime isn’t necessarily the ideal time for hearing the cry of the refugee, the orphan, the helpless. Is there ever really a good time?

Blogger, Rachel Held Evans, digs into this tension with a provocative example,

On Wednesday [November 18],  a young Syrian family fleeing violence in their native country was forced to change their resettlement plans when the governor of Indiana declared they would not be welcome in his state because of their nationality.  The married couple, who has a five-year-old son, had been working with U.S. officials and nonprofit organizations for three years to obtain refugee status and move to America.  They were diverted to Connecticut, where they received a personal welcome from that state’s governor.

This doesn’t just happen on the national level. It happens in our hearts all the time. (I feel it myself. I’m curious to know what I would do if I were governor of Indiana.) The questions remain, What causes us to close a state? our homes? our hearts to helpless?

Maybe we should ask it from a different angle, what made Jesus so open to the helpless, the homeless, the displaced of his day?

Was it sympathy (to feel concern for someone else)?

Was it empathy (to feel what someone else is feeling)?

Was it divinity (to do what God would do)?

(Could they be one and the same?)

Was it the fact that he was once a refugee, a human without a home? He knew what they were going through and he knew they needed someone to make room for their lives, their mess, their fears, and their unknowns.

His family history was overshadowed by the emotions of sorrow and grief associated with terror, death, and loss. Sorrow and grief that hollowed out space for others in his universe-sized heart.

Loss is a part of life, sorrow and grief are the ways our brains and bodies were designed to process and cope with the pain of loss. This emotional response is not limited to loss brought about by death, it can extend to the loss of a longstanding friendship or job, a pet, a routine, and even a home. All loss causes a level of sorrow and grief.

Psychological clinicians have formalized a grieving process that ranges from denial to acceptance. Jesus may have carried the trauma from his early life in his memory, but it is easier to speculate that he carried it in his compassionate actions and open-hearted authority toward others.

The compassion and open-heartedness that can only be brought about through sorrow and grief.

Richard Rohr explains it this way:

The real authority that changes the world is an inner authority that comes from people who have lost, let go, and are re-found on a new level. These are the people who can heal, reconcile, understand, and change [and make room for] others. The pattern for this new kind of authority was taught by Jesus when he said, “Simon, you must be sifted like wheat and I will pray that you will not fail; and once you have recovered, you in turn can strengthen the brothers [and sisters]” (Luke 22:31-32, italics mine). This sifting and then recovering is Peter’s real and life-changing authority, as it is for anyone.

This is the good side of grief; the hard to find part of grief; the surprising outcome of the undesirable process of grief.

When we embrace our personal sorrow and grief, we may have the strength to open our hearts and homes to those who have lost heart and home themselves.

The Advent story is good news because it gives us permission to grieve, while encouraging us to find (in time) a deeper meaning in our grieving.

An Advent Meditation: Make room in my heart for others.

A Video for More Information:

A Blog for Further Reflection: Wrapping Around Foster and Adoptive Parents

A Song for Inspiration: 

An Emotional Advent 2: Wonder Woman

Photo cred: jaymantri.com

I will be blogging through the emotions of the Christmas story this holiday season (see part 1). This post will concentrate on Mary’s worries found in Luke 1:26-38:

26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee,27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come to you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”

38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

My wife and I have been walking a long journey on our way to becoming resource (foster) parents. It’s been an on-again-off-again journey, starting and stopping, and then restarting. We’re almost there.

There was no voice of God or angelic messenger pointing us in this direction. It was billboards and evening news and conversations that caught our attention. I can still see a random billboard from my college town advertising foster care. Makes sense, right? Eat at McDonalds. Drink Coca-Cola. Be a foster parent. We would turn on the news and somehow it was perfectly timed with the segment highlighting foster care in our county. Then we began to notice we were having more and more conversations with people who were in foster care, or who were foster parents, or  who were somewhere in the process. There was no escaping it. DSS (or God) had us on their list.

The only list I had was a list of worries.

What if people think we’re crazy?
What if we don’t have enough money?
What if they hurt my kids?
What if my kids hurt them?
What if we don’t have enough money?
What if we can’t handle the change?
What if we’re not ready?
What if we overlooked something?
What if we don’t have enough, yeah, you know…

Worry comes naturally to me.

Worry may be the result of the what ifs, but its roots go deep into our psyche. Worry takes many forms, writes, Dr. Henry Hallowell, but it almost always stems from an overwhelming sense of vulnerability and powerlessness. Yes! Yes, I couldn’t agree more. When I worry, I feel exposed, weak, incapable, and overwhelmed by my list.

How do you think Mary felt when she found out that God had chosen her to conceive, carry, and give birth to none other than, God?

Maybe a little what if-y?!?

If the Gospel of Matthew was written to give us a view of the announcement and arrival of Jesus Christ through the eyes of Joseph, the Gospel of Luke was written from the vantage point of Mary–what she saw, what she heard, and how she felt.

Matthew tells us that an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. Luke tells us that God sent the angel Gabriel to meet with Mary in person. (Lucky!) How did she respond?

With worry (she was greatly troubled).

Then with wonder.

Somehow Mary was able to open herself to the angel’s message. She doesn’t ask what if, she asks, how is this possible? Virgins don’t have babies, unless they’re not virgins. Mary’s question is rational. The angel’s response is supernatural, The Holy Spirit will come to you, the Most High will overshadow–God will take care of it.

This is where wonder takes over, or even displaces, Mary’s worries.

I am the Lord’s servant, Mary answered. May your word to me be fulfilled.

Mary demonstrates the unassuming, the unexpected–the hidden–power of wonder.

If worry asks, “what if…?,” wonder asks, “what is God up to?”

Worry is the inability to see possibility.

Wonder opens us up to impossibilities.
Unexpected possibilities.
Strange circumstances.
Uncomfortable callings.
Uncertain outcomes.
Challenging responsibilities.
To participate in miracles.

Worry wants certainty.

Wonder opens us to allow God to operate outside of our God-box. Wonder allows us to join the plans of the Divine, instead of confining the Divine to our plans. Wonder is threatening to our reputation, our relationships, our comfort, and our paradigms.

But certainty is threatening to our souls, because it won’t allow us to move.

Worry says, what if…

Wonder says,
Go
Do
Give
Try
Sacrifice
Seek
Trust
Journey
Discover
Stretch
Wake up
(and for us, foster)
God is inviting all of us into a grander story.

Mary and the angels of Christmas beckon us. Worry less. Wonder more.

Wonder will take us where worry and certainty never will.

The Advent story is good news for all humans who worry, because even the vulnerable and powerless can still wonder.

An Advent Meditation: Lead me out of certainty into wonder.

A Podcast for Reflection: Audio Liturgy Podcast – Wonder

Merry Forgetmas – A Christmas (Not) To Remember

I’m a Christmas baby. For some reason many find that claim questionable. If you’re doubtful, check Facebook (it never lies).

I came out of the womb covered in wrapping paper. A Christmas present for my mother–the best Christmas present ever!

When I was younger I would reveled in telling people that I was born on December 25th. It always invoked mild disbelief and jealousy expressed in phrases like, “Lucky,” “Double presents,” and, “That’s awesome!”

Nowadays I receive initial reactions similar to yesteryear, but it’s predictably proceeded by, “Aw man, that stinks.” Or some other colorful variant. This negative association never crossed my mind growing up. It still doesn’t.

Because it’s still about me.

The truth about being born on Christmas day is that it gives you an edge on all other birthdays. Including those who were born on Independence Day, New Years, Cinco de Mayo, and the greatest American holiday, Super Bowl Sunday. If you’re born on March 6 or June 17 or January 37 no one envies you or questions the authenticity of your claim.

I think birthdays are very significant. They give people dignity and emphasize the importance of being alive, even if we share it with others. Unfortunately my birthday date has caused me to believe I’m a little bit more valuable than everyone else (yikes!).

I mean Jesus was born on my birthday after all.

(Cue Christmas colored lightning…now.)

I have learned how to mask the selfish pleasure I receive in the brief moment of birth superiority. The 15 seconds of fame strokes my ego and causes me to believe that my birthday may actually make me better than those less fortunate.

Pathetic. I know.

By the gracious humor of God He has made it so I’ll always remember it’s not about me, even if I forget that I was born on His day.

For example, my mom was born on Christmas Eve. And my mom’s sister was born on December 23rd. My birthday was surprisingly treated as Christmas every year. I would have a birthday party the week before or the week after. I grew accustomed to this tradition, but I always took it personally when my mom and aunt received a birthday cake at the family Christmas day party each year. The cake would emerge from the kitchen ablaze with candles and everyone would sing, “Happy birthday, Pam and Nancyyyyyyy.” I held out hope that maybe I would be included at least once. It never happened. It was a terrible, no good, very bad birthday.

I think my desire to be recognized and appreciated on my birthday and every day of the year leading up to it happens because I forget that I’m loved. Loved by the one who Created me. Who remembers me even when people forget. Loved to the point of death, so I can remember that it’s not about me.

From the beginning of time it’s never been about me. Being born on Christmas doesn’t make it about me. 7 billion people on the planet proves that it’s not about me. The position of  the earth in the galaxy reveals that it’s not about me. Even if I were the only living soul in all the world it wouldn’t be about me. I am, in the words of Louie Giglio, “Significantly insignificant.” We all are.

I am original and unique, so is everyone else. But no one is numero uno.

“Maybe the fall [of man] tricked us,” says Giglio, “and maybe we’re not quiet as important as we thought we were.” My sin brings me to the forefront of my mind continually. As if to say, “don’t forget about yourself.” This causes a misfocused life. A life focused on me blurs everyone else and blinds me to the glory of God.

It’s not about me, but it’s all about me.

It’s not about you, but it’s all about you.

It’s not about us, but it’s all about us making it all about God.

When I make my life all about me I’m more interested in taking credit for giving presents than watching the recipient enjoy it. This goes beyond gift giving. I’m naturally consumed with myself. Attention to self creates tension with God. The book of Job says I contend with the Almighty.

The Bible says that God measures the universe in the palm of His hand. When Job realized this he announced, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent  in dust and ashes.” To see God as He is we must admit who we’re not…God. Surprisingly I am not the most-important-man-of-the-center-of-the-universe. Job practices confession to flee from self-centeredness. John Ortberg advises “appropriate smallness.” C.S. Lewis suggests that we not degrade ourselves, as much as we should think of ourselves less. According to Timothy Keller there’s tremendous freedom through self-forgetfulness. “He must become greater,” spoke John the Baptist, “and I must become less.” We all must become less. It is only in forgetting ourselves that we appropriately remember Jesus and affectionally delight in Him.

The Apostle Paul wrote that he could never claim himself as his own because he had been bought with a price. The price of a baby who became a man who never thought being born on Christmas was a big deal. Laying aside birthday pretensions and His divine rights He forgot about Himself and suffered, for the thoughts of ourselves–our selfish thoughts, on a cross to forgive us for making life about us, so we could make it all about Him.

We are not our own, we have been bought with a price.

We are not our own, we have been created with a purpose. A purpose higher than birthday presents and self-glorification.

May He become greater and we become less, so we can forget about ourselves and remember Jesus on days other than Christmas.

Merry Christmas to the Ground – A Fond Christmas Memory

My grandmother, Gram Spratt, moved into her retirement home a number of years ago (more than five). The name of the center is Leisure World and you can do anything and everything you would in the outside world, inside, without every having to leave. Access is only offered to residents and those with passes granting entrance. I’ve had to call up to my grandmother on certain occassions because I lacked both credentials to get in. The guards aren’t packing heat, but they are definitely suspicious of anyone under the age of 64; as a teen I was categorized, “terrorist”.

Gram Spratt, she’s got major spunk. Spunk is probably not the right word, she’s got fire. She’s a passionate woman – just observe her watching the Redskins lose. She doesn’t let much funny-business slide, she never did when we were younger and she won’t hesitate to pop us boys when we threaten the safety of that glass clock that has always sat on her coffee table in the middle of her living room or anything else prone to shattering.

I knew if I ran my brave idea by her it would have been completely shut down, and she wouldn’t have hesitated calling the LWPD on me in a hot second. So, the operation would have to remain a secret. Whoever produced and directed Ocean’s 11 has already contacted me to make the greatest Leisure World conquest a major motion picture (I told him I didn’t want Brad or George to play me – I recommended Matt Lauer or Christian Bale).

Midge (as Uncle J calls her) lives on the third floor of Turnberry Courts. It’s a nice place. We all have access to the foyer of the main foyer to the condo. The pre-foyer is comfortable. It has a nice mat to stomp and dry your shoes, it has a door to an adjacent room that’s always locked, and it has a phone to contact the residents who live there if you ever get locked out. I’ve had to use the phone a couple times.

My grandmother has a button on her phone that she can push to let loser grandchildren in. Once she hits the key the foyer is mine. It has a couch or two and community bookshelves chock full of James Patterson and Danielle Steele classics – I always scan it hoping for less thought provoking reading.

The elevator used to open up to a mirrored interior, perfect for any narcissist; I would only get three floors of satisfaction. You turn left to get to her comfy little home. It’s a couple doors down the hall. But it’s whats two doors down from the elevator that has captured my attention for years.

The sign on the door reads, “Refuse”.

Visit after visit, after the condo exploration had been exhausted, I always came back to the disposal room. The room is only but a closet. It has a shelf for recycling. But it has a hatch for garbage. Adventurers reading, did your eyes perk up when you read that? A hatch! A hatch is the portal to endless possibilities. Everytime I opened that hatch to look in I couldn’t help wonder…

What’s down there?

What will I do with the all rubies?

Would I meet Sloth?

What ever happened to Fraggle Rock?

Questions that never crossed my mind…

What if it’s a cesspool?

What is a disposal?

How far is three stories?

Christmas day 2004 came around and I con’t suppress the wonder any longer. After cups of wassel and family time I whispered in Brett’s ear, “I’m going in today.” My brother gets excited about things like this quickly. “You are!?” Popping out of his seat he was primed, “Let’s do it.” By “let’s” he didn’t mean us, he meant he wanted a share of the jewels just not the journey. I would have to enter the ranks of the brave that had gone before me – Harry, Luke, Indy, and Benny the Jet – alone.

The hatch slid open, and I slid in. I braced myself against the walls of the shute with my feet and forearms stabilizing me. My plan was to shimmy down to the cavern below and then describe the fortunes I found to my brother and cousin above. I can’t remember if I moved my foot of arm first, but it’s undeniable that I fell.

I fell fast and hard.

I didn’t land in a pile of Aztec gold, and I didn’t have time to douse my torch in the pool of kerosene. Both ankles turned inward, the sides of my feet touching the sides of my legs. My nerve endings let my body know what happened by taking my breath away. I would have cussed but I couldn’t scream. I was light headed and balacing myself and my pain against the chute. Then Brett started tossing newspapers on me asking if I had found any skeletons or mermaids. I found neither.

Just so you know, at the bottom of a trash shute is a trash compactor. It was off when I made the heroic plunge (which totally compromises the use of “heroic”).

I fell out of a tree when I was in fourth grade.

I fell over a six foot fence when I was in fifth grade.

I fell down three stories in a garbage shute the day I turned 23.

Bruce Willis may do a good job filling such a bold role.

Happy Anniversary and Merry Christmas.

Unwrapping Discontentment

Faking gratitude is one of the most exhausting efforts known to man. You know when you receive a gift that you don’t prefer or like; it’s terribly painful trying to act like you’re crazy about the gift and would love getting one next year too! Some people are experts at this fake tactic, while others, like mwah, throw reservations into the preverbal wind.

Back when the Sega Genesis (God’s video game system) dominated the gaming underworld, they released their version of the Gameboy known as Game Gear (fear the Gear Nintendo nerds).

BOW DOWN!

When I was in middle school everyone had a legit handheld video gaming device, except me (I did have a collection of Tiger handheld 2-bit classics).

I had been asking for a video game system for a while and since Christmasbirthday was on it’s way this was going to be my year!

I got a new shirt.

I got a box of Legos.

I got a Carmen CD.

Where’s my Game Gear?

I was ticked!

My Christmas joy and holiday spirit were robbed. This turned out to be the worst Christmas ever, and I hated sharing a birthday with Jesus even more. I discarded my presents, cursed the day I was born, and even lashed out at my parents.

Little did I know, my parents had chosen another spot to place my final gift. Normally the tree is an adequate location, but nooooooo they had to hide it under the couch, in a completely different room. Having not only ruined my Christmas by my attitude, my parents were beginning to realize I was about to demolish theirs too. They revealed the hiding place, I got my wish, and I was happy again.

I was the most, ungrateful, son of a Reiff and Pam ever!

Don’t we all do this?

We let our circumstances dictate our gratitude.

In Paul’s letter to the Philippians he writes, I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. Apparently contentment has something to do with our gratitude.

Discontentment leads to ingratitude, and ingratitude affects how we handle, treat, receive, and respect everything in our lives. If we were truly thankful for our food, our clothes, our homes, our friends, our cars, our shoes, our jobs, our parents, our schools, our experiences, and our lives we would treat these things, people, and circumstances differently.

The reason our closets are full of clothes we don’t wear is because we’re ungrateful with what we have, and our discontentment prompts us to buy more.

The reason we disrespect our parents is because we’re ungrateful for the life they’ve provided us, and our discontentment can’t wait to get out from under their roof.

Paul continues on, I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation…

[A little background on Paul’s situation: HE WAS IN JAIL WHEN HE WROTE THIS. And he was content?]

Here’s the secret, I can do all this through Christ Jesus who gives me strength. (BTW, here’s another secret, this verse isn’t about sports.)

The cross was Paul’s contentment. It was all he ever needed.

Can we be content with the cross alone?

Our discontentment reveals something about our souls. We believe that if we just had the next best thing our lives would be set. How can temporary things satisfy eternal longings?

C.S. Lewis serves it up this way, We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

Jesus satisfies our eternal discontentment through the cross, and enables us to be grateful with our temporary lives.

:: The French Pressed Four ::

: My Wife and my Family :: Thanks for your love and being the only one’s who read this.

:: The Advance Team :: Thanks for your heart for teenagers.

::: That Wednesday Crew :: Thanks for carrying my mat.

:::: CLT :: Thanks for the 5-1-5, Dilworth Coffee, FHC, GCTS, and the Wrenns.