How to celebrate Christmas when everything feels wrong.

How to celebrate Christmas when everything feels wrong.

The last couple weeks, I 've been longing to crawl into a hole.

Not just any hole. A hole with a sparkly-lighted Christmas tree and a pretty little story about an adorable baby boy born amid angels singing and I’ve wanted people I love surrounding me with shiny, happy faces, and not a care in the world. Oh and also some homemade Christmas cookies covered in thousands of calories worth of icing and colorful sprinkles

A hole without Facebook and CNN, a safe, warm, well-lit hole, without any link to the outside world.

Because the world is a big old mess, folks.

And how am I supposed to get into the Christmas spirit when there are terrorists opening fire in crowded places, gunning down innocent people in Egypt, Lebanon, France, Tunisa. A week after the attack in Paris, 21 people were killed by terrorists in Bamako, Mali. Do you know where Bamako is? I didn’t – I had to look it up.

Then there’s the refugee crisis. And all the controversy about whether we will welcome them to America, land of immigrants and refugees. Every day I see the face of another child without a home and I think, really? What’s the question here?

Syrian boys, whose family fled their home in Idlib, walk to their tent, at a camp for displaced Syrians,

Syrian boys, whose family fled their home in Idlib, walk to their tent, at a camp for displaced Syrians,

Then, there was the mass shooting in Colorado and another just yesterday in San Bernardino, California with 14 dead and 17 wounded.

Closer to home, last week a video was released of Laquan McDonald, a Chicago teenager shot 16 times by a police officer sworn to protect and defend his community. The video had been kept secret for a year, the officer responsible not charged, until the media pressure finally forced the city officials to release the video and arrest the officer.

When I tried to watch the news report and video about it online, I had to first watch an un-skippable festive commercial, featuring a cute little (brown) gingerbread man pointing out all the great holiday deals coming our way.

And I thought, this is where we are, right now, isn’t it? Trying desperately to make the season bright, to sing our Fa-la-la’s and Glorias and deck all our halls and buy all our gifts and yet, and yet, the world aches, groans, cries out.

And that’s just on a global level. There are also our personal lives, the relationships that aren’t working so well, the wounds we can’t get past, the bills we can’t pay. I sat in a room the other day with a friend who, between the ages of 3 and 6, was repeatedly sexually abused by her older brother. She is in her 50s now, recently married, and she can’t stop crying. She looked at me and essentially said, “I hate this. I feel so alone in this. I don’t want to be this broken.”

Sometimes there doesn’t seem to be any comfort, or any joy, anywhere.

And the so-called Christmas spirit I’m supposed to be getting right about now seems not only elusive, it seems a little wrong.

So here I am, trying to figure out what to do with all of it. The horrible brokenness of right now juxtaposed with this story we celebrate each December, that proclaims, “Joy to the World.”

And then I remembered…it’s not Christmas yet, it’s Advent.

When our two daughters were young, maybe 3 and 5, my husband and I bought an Advent Calendar, a soft cloth wall hanger with an empty stable pictured at the top and 25 windows underneath. I got this kind versus the one-time-use cardboard ones with candy behind each window because I wanted one we could use every year, which could become a part of our holiday traditions. And also I was afraid some night I might be having a not-particularly-stellar-mothering moment, open all the windows at once and snarf down every last bit of chocolate.

These things happen. Just sayin’.

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With this lovely Advent Calendar hanging on the wall of the kitchen, the kids would open one window each day of December and tucked into each opening was… Surprise! ...an angel or shepherd or lamb, which they could remove and attach (via the magic of Velcro) to the manger scene above. We would also try to sing a song and read a short, “seasonally appropriate” Bible verse each morning or evening when we did this little family Advent ritual.

Since there were two of them, we had them take turns opening the window for the day. But of course, we sometimes got busy and accidently missed a day or whatever, so occasionally it became unclear as to whose turn it actually was to remove the sweet lamb or cute angel, and let me tell you, things got ugly fast.

There were moments, which I am not exactly proud of, in which I threatened to burn the damn Advent Calendar.

I dragged the Advent Calendar out again last week when the girls were home from college for Thanksgiving and we decided to do some Christmas decorating, because they still want me to put it up. I was thinking about that calendar and how there was this beautiful picture we were trying to create, but holy crap, it was hard, painful, seemingly hopeless.

It seems like a microcosm of everything this time of year is.

Not Christmas. Advent.

Advent is, on the Christian liturgical calendar, the four weeks before Christmas. A lot of churches don’t officially “do Advent” preferring to skip to the happy stuff, singing the Excelsis Deos and oohing and ahhing over the cute little baby Jesus. They, like me, want to crawl as quickly as possible into a glittery Christmas hole.

But Advent is meant to be a time when we sit with the way things really are and hold them tenderly and gently, with the hope for how things are meant to be. Advent is about saying there is this beautiful world we all want to believe in and be living in.

And there is a terrible not-yet-ness about that world.

Advent is about facing the truth of what is right now, and remembering what it takes to get to a Christmas kind of world.

How do we remember Advent when it’s so much easier to just go with the swirl of hall decking and fa-la-la-ing merrily along? When there’s so much pressure to numb out by over-shopping, over-spending, over-eating, over-doing our way to Christmas?

I’m not very good at it, I have to say. But here are some things I’ve done in the past and I’m going to try to do again this year.

Have an Advent Wreath. Or Advent Calendar.
Yes, I’m actually recommending the Advent Calendar…despite how painful and imperfect it was…it was also really wonderful at pulling our family out of the traditional Christmas consumerism and craziness, if only for a minute (or sometimes two, if we were lucky). When the kids were a little older we also incorporated an Advent Wreath into the ritual. This doesn’t have to be a complicated (or expensive) thing, or even a wreath. You can make one with empty cans and candles, like the one in this video created by the folks at salt project.org.

Advent Countdown from SALT Project on Vimeo.

With one candle for each of the four things we so desperately need more of on this planet – hope, peace, joy and love – an Advent wreath helps us take a little time each day (or, you know, as often as you can…) to light a candle and meditate on, pray for or talk about those things. You can also read some scripture or poetry, or anything really that helps you imagine how you could be a part of this better world. But honestly, if all you can do is light the candle as you sit down to dinner, that is fine. Sometimes that’s a lot.

Sing some Advent songs.
I know how we all love our Christmas music, and there’s nothing wrong with singing “Silent Night” or “Jingle Bells.” But when the world feels so screwed up, it just doesn’t seem like enough…to me, anyway. There are some beautiful songs that speak to the way things are now and our longing for how they could be that you might want to work into your holiday repertoire. (I made a list, here). “Comfort, Comfort Ye My People,” is one of my favorites. I had never heard this old Advent hymn growing up, but one Wednesday before Thanksgiving, making our way through a snowstorm to visit my parents for the holiday, my musician husband Gary, taught it to me as we drove through the dark and scary and slippery night. And I’ve never forgotten it. It begins with these words: “Comfort, comfort ye my people; speak of peace - so says your God. Comfort those who sit in darkness, burdened by a heavy load.” And ends with a call to: “Straighten out what has been crooked; make the roughest places plain. Let your hearts be true and humble, live as fits God's holy reign.”

It’s one of the songs we ended up singing with our kids around that dang Advent Calendar and Advent Wreath. (And recently, my 20-year-old daughter, who’s following in her dad’s footsteps as a musician, did her own arrangement, because she loves it too…which made me feel like yes, all those tears over whose turn it was, were probably worth it…)

Be with other Advent people.
It’s very easy to get caught up in the message that this time of year is about buying as much stuff as we can afford, pretending we all live in a Disney snow globe, and that Jesus came simply to be an adorable baby who gives us a great excuse to get the family home for the holidays. That’s the narrative available in almost every store we walk in, and in most of the movies and commercials we see. I got one of my favorite catalogs the other day, from a company that makes beautiful sweaters and amazing jewelry (including a necklace which I’d really like with Peace and Love inscribed on it, by the way…) but as I was looking at all the lovely pictures of skinny young women (all of whom were white, I suddenly noticed) coming out of having just been horrified by the picture of a young black man being gunned down by the police in my own city, it seemed so wrong. I have the privilege, because of the color of my skin (white) and how much money I make (enough) to avoid thinking about things like racism and inequality in my country. But Advent asks me to look at the whole truth.

That’s why I go to a church that isn’t just made up of people who are exactly like me. And I’m going to try to get there as often as possible during Advent so we can all sit together in lament and longing. And if you can’t find that at your church, I hope you can find it someplace this Advent, so you can be with others who want more hope, joy, peace and love in this world versus just more sweaters or small electrics. Who understand the party is not complete unless everyone is invited. Who want to believe Jesus’ birth means that things will not always be this broken. That despair will not win, that war and racism and violence won’t get the last word.

Work for the world Advent calls us to believe in.
When Mary reflects on what giving birth to Jesus really means in Luke 1, she talks about a world where the hungry are filled, the poor are cared for, injustice is confronted.

As I have said more than once...like possibly a thousand times in this blog alone, I often wonder what God is actually doing in the world…because those good things don’t seem to happening too often, quite frankly.

But then I remind myself, oh yeah, that’s because that’s what I’m called to do, what we’re all called to do. God doesn’t just do it, God promises to be with us as we do it. That’s what Emmanuel means – God with us.

When we work at soup kitchens and work for economic justice and participate in protest marches, when we write to our government officials to fight for better gun control and to remind them that Jesus said to take care of the strangers and refugees, oh yeah and when we are simply kind, or kinder than we have been or want to be to that person at work who makes us feel like a steaming pile of crap (not that I would know anything about that), we are living as if Christ’s birth matters, changes things, will ultimately change everything.

And God is with us.

Often it seems like it’s too much to ask (I’m too busy, too shy, too stressed), and often it seems like it doesn’t make a dent in the big problems that are staring us in the face. But Advent calls us to believe it will be enough. Calls us to trust, as Mary and Joseph did, that nothing is impossible. Calls us to just show up, like the shepherds did. Calls us to give what we have, like the innkeeper and the magi did.

And Christmas proclaims that somehow, miracle of all miracles, that it is enough. And more than enough.

So that’s what I’m going to try to believe in the next few weeks. Stay out of that sparkly hole. Stay awake and alert to signs of hope. Speak of peace. Live as befits God’s holy reign.

Or at least do the best I can.

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