Christmas Sadness

Her loved one died a few years ago, and she feels like she’s gotten past the initial waves of grief. But at Christmas, she finds it hard to hold back tears.

His situation isn’t comfortable, but he seems to have accepted that. He understands he can’t force change, and he’s decided to wait for the Lord. But during the holiday season, he struggles a bit more than usual to be okay with the way things are.

They’ve prayed for children, and they long to be parents, but they remain a family of two. They understand the Lord is good. They don’t question that truth. But when the weather starts to change and the lights and decorations begin to go up around the town, they feel the ache grow a little stronger.

Christmas is a source of great joy. From the generosity of friends and family to the warmth of love all around, we have much to rejoice in during the holiday season. We’re reminded of Jesus’s birth, of God’s gift of love for a lost world, and we revel in the hope we have through him. Despite the darkness and despair of the rest of the year, Christmas comes as a deep breath, a welcome rest, a warm reminder that light always endures.

Why, then, can this season also make us sad?

In part, I think it’s because of the perspective this season brings. We see in Christmas a bit of the way things ought to be. Peace on earth and good will among men (Luke 2:14) is glimpsed at Christmas, even in a world that remains far from the King. And when we see more clearly how things ought to be, we see more clearly and feel more deeply the way things are now broken. We feel loss a bit more acutely, longing for the fellowship we can no longer access. We struggle with deferred hopes, the sting of present sorrows sinking a bit deeper into our souls. We know the world is broken, and we grieve.

But the sadness of this season is really more bittersweet, for sorrow doesn’t get the final word. We’re reminded of our loss and grief at Christmas, but we’re reminded too of the way God is making all things new. Because of Jesus, everything has changed. Sorrow turns to joy, suffering turns to growth, loss is turned to gain, and confusion is swallowed up in a greater certainty. Pain and hardship are real, but they exist as parts of a larger story, one which makes sense of them and redeems them. Christmas affirms the darkness of the night and promises a bright and fast-approaching dawn.

It isn’t wrong to mourn when we feel sad this season. The absences we feel are real and meaningful. This broken world is a painful world. But we can also rejoice with a joy that runs far deeper than any despair, a love that runs far deeper than any heartbreak, and a hope that runs far deeper than any sorrow. Christmas reminds us that the sad things are temporary things. We ache now because things are not the way they should be, but we are approaching a day when all will be well. So grieve and rejoice. Feel deeply the loss as well as the love. And look to the one whose birth brought hope for all hurting hearts.


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Waiting

The psalmist waited patiently for you
And then bore witness to your care and grace.
Relief followed the waiting like the dew
After a night when darkness hid your face.
Though you are never absent, we may not
Detect you in the time before the dawn.
Your promises—oft doubted, oft forgot—
Prove true, a hope long hidden, never gone.
But patience is required, for though the end
Is certain, yet it does not come too soon.
You use the time we wait to break and mend.
In silence, we learn how to sing in tune.
So hope, though time be now a source of strain.
Our waiting on the Lord is not in vain.


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At the Right Time

Have you ever noticed how important timing is to the Christmas story?

Paul writes that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4). At the right time, Jesus entered the story. Caesar’s decree “that all the world should be registered” (Luke 2:1) sent Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. Luke records that, “while they were there, the time came for her to give birth” (Luke 2:6). Scripture was fulfilled as these events aligned. At the right time and in the right place, Jesus was born.

But timing continued to play a key role in Jesus’s life. Jesus speaks of his hour and his time on multiple occasions (see John 2:4 and John 7:6, for example). He didn’t rush things; he worked according to the time given him. Even his death, according to Paul, occurred “at the right time” (Romans 5:6). Clearly, timing is an important part of the story.

We often focus on the gift of Christmas, and rightly so. At Christmas, we celebrate the entrance of the hero into the action. The Christ appears, the long-awaited Savior who would save his people from their sin. Life and light appear at Christmas like never before, and the darkness hasn’t recovered from the blow. Because of Jesus, we have everlasting hope.

But this year, I’m reminding myself that timing played a role in the story. While I don’t understand all that this truth means, I know it gives us hope when things seem hopeless. God, who knew our greatest need, was neither too early nor too late in providing the solution. God, who saw our helpless state more fully than we ever could, did not send Jesus the moment we fell but instead spoke a promise that was kept over long, hard years of uncertainty, exile, rebellion, blessing, and grace. Through every twist in the narrative, every tragedy and every victory, every loss and every gain, he was working. While I’m sure many before Christ wondered why God seemed to tarry, God sent his Son at the right time.

And we serve the same God. He who met our greatest need continues to provide for his own, and his timing is still best. The waiting is difficult. We can’t see all that the Father sees or know all that he knows, and we grow restless in our ignorance, impatient for provision and for blessing. But our God is good and faithful. He will do what is best in his own time and way, and his timing and way are always best. So we can hope in him this Christmas, for the greatest gift as well as for every good and perfect gift he may give as well, in faith that he will continue to act at the right time.


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When to Say “No”

I’m not sure God means for us to take advantage of every opportunity presented to us. True, he gives us good gifts and leads us in restful places. I don’t believe he enjoys seeing us suffer. But we know from Scripture that following Jesus means denying ourselves and embracing a more difficult road than we might otherwise walk. Self-denial will require us to say “no” to some things. So how do we know when to say “no”?

In part, discernment is a process of surrender and submission to the Lord. As we present our bodies as living sacrifices to the Lord, we choose “not [to] be conformed to this world” but choose instead to “be transformed by the renewal of [our] mind” (Romans 12:1-2). We discern through testing, evaluating our options in light of our renewed understanding. And this process is ongoing. We deny ourselves daily, submit to the Lord daily, seek to be renewed daily, and discern the will of God daily.

I’m no expert in this process. I’m still learning, still practicing, still failing often. But along the way, I’m learning some signs that help me determine when I need to say “no” to something. Below are two that I’ve noticed in my own journey recently.

First, I’ve noticed that when I’m wrestling internally with a decision or am trying to rationalize a decision, I probably need to say “no” to whatever I’m considering. I draw this in part from Romans 14:23: “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” If I have doubts about something, I need to be very cautious about pressing forward. In some cases, I need to spend some more time praying and discerning before making the decision. Often, though, I already know I need to say “no,” but I recognize that doing so is a denial of self I don’t want to make. When I’m wrestling with uneasiness about something I want to do, or when I try to justify why the choice isn’t a bad choice to make, I probably need to say “no” and surrender my desires to the Lord.

Second, I’ve noticed that when I’m avoiding accountability or running from the Lord, I probably need to say “no” to whatever I’m chasing. I draw this in part from James 4:17: “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” The restlessness that makes me want to run is a sign I’m not doing something the Lord wants me to do. I’m failing to rest in the Lord, failing to trust the Lord, failing to obey the Lord. The lack of peace I feel in such times is a red flag. Peace with God is a big deal for me. If I feel like I’m off, even in the slightest, I’ve learned to be extremely cautious about moving forward with a decision and to evaluate my heart before the Father.

I’m not always good at discerning the way forward. I second-guess myself often, doubt my decisions, question possibilities. Lately, I’ve felt more distress than peace, and I’m still trying to figure out why that is. But I’m learning to walk, step by step, in greater faith and obedience. I want to be faithful, even when faithfulness means saying “no” to my desires. And to that end, I’m trying to be more sensitive to the Spirit and more attentive to these signs, all for his glory and my good.


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Loss and Grace

Some things are lost never to be recovered.
Some absences are gifts shrouded in grief.
Apart from pain, some truths stay undiscovered.
Some losses point the way to true relief.
But future glory does not make less real
The sufferings we meet from day to day.
Christ does not minimize the pain we feel;
Christ knows it best and shows there is a way
For loss to pave the road to greater gain,
For suffering to serve a holy end.
We mourn in hope, for nothing is in vain
In service to the ever-faithful friend.
Count it all joy no matter what you face.
Feel deep the loss, then rest in perfect grace.


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In All Circumstances

Paul tells the church to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

All circumstances.

In some circumstances, giving thanks is easy. When things go our way, when we receive unexpected blessings, when our hearts are full, we can find ourselves overflowing with gratitude. We recognize the goodness of God, and we rejoice.

In other circumstances, however, giving thanks is difficult. When things don’t go our way, when we face unexpected losses, when our hearts are breaking, we can find ourselves struggling to give thanks. The goodness of God is more difficult to see, and we grieve.

So how do we “give thanks in all circumstances”? How can we respond to difficulty with gratitude?

We can give thanks in all circumstances because God’s goodness remains constant in spite of our changing circumstances. Job understood this, responding to loss with worship (Job 1:20-21). Grief and mourning may be appropriate at times. They often are in this life. Yet even in the most bitter of trials, we can give thanks because our God reigns over all things. He causes all things to work together for good (Romans 8:28). Nothing we face surprises the Lord. Nothing lies outside of his power to redeem. We can give thanks in all circumstances because he remains steadfast and faithful always.

This Thanksgiving, life may be good. All may be well. In that case, give thanks. But if life is difficult, if all is not well, and if God’s goodness is hard to see, give thanks. Trust him, for he is trustworthy. And he is always good.


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Rest in the Lord

I’m not sure I know how to rest in the Lord.

On Sunday, my friend encouraged me to rest in Christ. He pointed out that I’ve been wearing myself down trying to determine the right thing to do, striving to make sure my actions fall in line with the Lord’s directions for my life. And while actions aren’t bad, he reminded me that I can quickly lose sight of the truth that Christ’s hold on me matters far more than my hold on Christ. To say it differently, the security of my faith rests on Christ’s finished work, not the pending completion of my unfinished tasks.

I don’t do well with this truth, though. I feel like I need to always be moving, always be working, always be pursuing some objective. Even when I rest, I wonder if I’m doing it right, if I’m resting the correct way. I’ve looked for ways to evaluate my ability to be passive, making even times of rest somewhat exhausting.

I’ll confess that this is a difficult problem to fix. The moment I recognize I’m off somewhere, I almost immediately try to discern what I need to do to fix it. But how do you fix the problem of always trying to fix the problem?

I’m not sure I have a good answer to that question. I tend to second-guess myself constantly, drowning in the what ifs and the maybes, making this situation somewhat tricky. But I think Psalm 23 may provide a way forward.

Some friends and I just began a study of Psalm 23. No matter how much time I spend in that chapter, I’m continually struck by the profound simplicity of the words. “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1). Throughout the Psalm, David expresses faith in the sufficiency of the Lord, recognizing all the ways that God cares for him. As we discussed the first verse the other night, we noted our great need and admitted the ways we fail to provide for ourselves. Apart from a shepherd, we would all be lost. But with a good shepherd, we have all we need. We rely on the Lord for provision, protection, and purpose, and he gives these lovingly.

I’m not good at resting in the Lord, but I serve a God who loves me and cares for me even when I struggle to trust him. So I pray for grace and mercy, I confess my weakness, and I look to Christ and his strength. And I hope in him, knowing that he will sustain me.


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Hurricane Zeta, Halloween, and Home

Clichés are funny things. On the one hand, I tend to avoid them because they feel too simplistic, too trite. I expect that any cliché I use will be met with eye rolls and exhaustion. On the other hand, clichés do convey truth. As some have pointed out, clichés are quoted for good reason: they often express reality clearly and simply.

So when I consider the cliche, “Home is where the heart is,” I wince a bit, but I find the sentiment rings true, as illustrated by this past week.

Near the beginning of last week, we here in New Orleans began monitoring Hurricane Zeta as she sped toward the city. After a summer full of storms and close calls, we considered Zeta’s size and speed and decided to stay put, expecting more of an inconvenience than a catastrophe. And in large part, that’s what we got. Zeta battered us with wind and rain, knocked out power for much of the area, then left, leaving us a bit disheveled but largely unharmed.

We woke the next morning to clear, cool weather, to a sense of peace where chaos had appeared just hours before. While many on our campus were without power, those with the means to serve shared gifts of coffee and warm food, of power outlets and light. Community came together, thankful for God’s protection and joyful because of his gift of friendship. We enjoyed the day, laughing and eating and simply being together. While many of the buildings we occupied were dark and cold due to power outages, I felt at home even there because of the warmth of community.

People opened their homes throughout the next few days, hosting friends for Halloween parties, offering hot showers and working kitchens for needy families, and providing places of rest in the midst of a stressful season. The Halloween season can often focus on fear, but it became an opportunity for fellowship and safety this year. Though nights were spent in powerless buildings, days were filled with the warmth of friendship.

I’m thankful for the people God’s placed in my life during this season. This year has been filled with hard questions, difficult decisions, troubling circumstances, confusing journeys, and a host of other things that have often caused stress and anxiety. But in a year filled with so much fear, when so much has been shaken, I’m thankful that home endures because community endures.


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