Christmas Eve

Christmas with Steve and Jon-1No matter what’s going on in my world, it seems like the moment the calendar turns to December 24th, I become a child again. For as long as I can remember, this has been the case.

There’s something magical that seems to happen for me on Christmas Eve. Memories of Christmases gone by flood my memory, the sounds, the smells, the sights, they all come rushing back into my head. I can hear a song, see a picture, smell a smell, and I’m automatically transported back to my kitchen growing up.

I remember the records my mom would play as she baked and baked her Christmas cookies in the kitchen. She never had the greatest singing voice and she knew it, but there were certain songs that just inspired her to sing like no one was listening. When I hear those songs today, I can almost hear her behind me, singing along.

I think back to the presents that I gave my parents growing up and I can only now fully appreciate just how gracious they were. Clay creations made in school art class. Hamburger patty makers purchased at the local thrift store. Ties for my dad to add to his eternal collection, and despite what they may have thought when they unwrapped those presents, the outward expression that they conveyed to me was that they loved it, regardless of whether or not they were ever going to use it or not.

On Christmas Eve, once we were home from church, my mom would make mulled apple cider on the stove. She would stop by Dunkin’ Donuts on the way home from church because that was a Christmas Eve staple for us, munchkins and cider. As my brother and I got older, we either invited others into our little tradition, or we abandoned it to go be part of other traditions.

As I lay in my bed waiting for the time to be right, I could hear my mom and dad bustling around, wrapping presents, talking as they wrapped, and then they would bring all the presents under the tree. I’m not sure just how much sleep I would get when I was a kid on Christmas Eve. Once everyone else was asleep, I would sneak out of my room quietly and go see what wonders were waiting for me underneath the tree.

The tree….

In our large upstairs living room, we had one of the smallest trees ever. I’m not sure just how my parents came up with their tradition, but this little tree, while not quite as bad as Charlie Brown’s, was a wonder to behold. We never had a live tree in our house, I had too many allergies and Mom never wanted to think about having to clean one up, but here in this large room with cathedral ceilings was a three foot tree that sat atop my mom’s cedar chest. While others who came into our house may have looked at it quizzically, it was what I knew, what I had grown up with and it only seemed normal and like home to me.

Once I arrived to see what was waiting under the tree, I would begin to organize the presents according to recipient. I wanted to make sure that we were poised for maximum efficiency once the morning came. There would be no need for sorting and stopping once we got going, I made sure of that. I wanted to make sure that nothing was missed and that I would be able to tear into those presents without delay.

When I was satisfied that everything was well organized, I would return to my room. I didn’t really try to listen for Santa, I never really believed in him. In fact, when I was four years old, I told everyone in my pre-school class that he didn’t exist. I don’t think the teachers were very happy with me. Four years old and I had already begun my journey of being a contrarian, funny how that works.

Even now, when I stop to think about Christmas Eve, a smile spreads across my face. Mom and Dad are gone and there is still an ache in my insides because of that, but to know all of those Christmas Eves that we shared together just warms my heart.

My family has started our own Christmas Eve traditions. I think they may be a hybrid of a Griswold Christmas Eve and Ralphie’s Christmas Eve from “A Christmas Story,” at least, I’d like to think so. Thankfully, my wife and I don’t subject our kids to pink bunny suits but it has become a Christmas Eve tradition for the kids to all open a new pair of pajamas. No mulled cider and munchkins, just Chinese food after we get home from church.

Today is Christmas Eve, and the moment that I woke up, I felt the excitement building in me. The excitement that I once had to open all of my presents under the tree has now been replaced with an excitement to see my own kids open their presents. I’ll go through this day with that same excitement, anticipating what the next 24 hours will bring. While we’ll see most of our family next week, we will get to spend Christmas Day as I spent many Christmases growing up, driving to my aunt and uncle’s house and seeing some of my cousins.

Things are different, but I don’t think the magic and wonder that I once felt towards Christmas Eve has been diminished. While I can’t wait for our Christmas Eve service tonight, the highlight for me will be at the end of the service when we turn out the lights, light the candles (although they’ll be flashlights since we can’t have open flames in the school where we meet), and begin to softly sing “Silent Night” to end our time together. That will be the crowning moment of the day, celebrating the very thing that we celebrate on Christmas: the birth of Jesus.

I’m excited!

Merry Christmas!

A Broken Toy Christmas

Christmas with Steve and Jon-2I’ve had so many people make reference to this story that I’ve shared personally, via sermons and my old blog, that I felt the need to dig it out, dust it off, and retell it for the sake of those who have never heard it before. Maybe also for the sake of those who have heard it because sometimes a retelling can make you notice something else.

One year, when my brother and I were probably about 11 and 7, respectively, we had been pretty terrible in the months leading up to Christmas. We were constantly fighting and getting at each other and my parents had constantly warned us that if we didn’t stop, “Santa” would be bringing us nothing but broken, old toys for Christmas. Now, regardless of the fact that we didn’t believe in Santa Claus (nor had we ever), we still used that language for whatever reason. My parents knew that both my brother and I were not believers in the big, fat guy in a red suite.

My parents were jokers, although not many of our friends and some of theirs didn’t believe it. They could joke with the best of them and I think my brother and I thought that they were kidding in this instance too. Our parents would never dream of withholding presents from us at Christmas, right? After all, everyone should get presents, right?

Regardless of their constant threats, Christmas morning approached with little to no improvement in our behavior. I guess we were just stupid enough to believe that our parents would never dream of holding out on us.

Christmas morning finally arrived and we woke up with excitement to see what might be waiting for us under that tree. Imagine the surprise on my brother’s and my face when we arrived at the Christmas tree to find that the only thing underneath it was a pile of broken and old toys with a note that said something to the effect of, “You’ve been naughty, and here’s what you get!”

My brother and I were devastated. Me being the younger of the two of us, I think that I was probably more so. I remember whining and crying and trying to convince my parents that this was unfair and unjust (trying to capitalize on the biblical notion of justice, because that’s what pastor’s kids do to win an argument, invoke the “God” excuse).

I’m not sure how long my parents let this whole thing go on. Like most things that happen when you’re young, it probably went on for far less time than it felt like it had gone on. Finally, after my parents had felt that their point had been sufficiently made, they went to a closet and pulled out all of the “real” presents. Replacing all of the broken toys under the tree were these beautifully wrapped presents. Of course, my brother and I played it up as if we knew our parents would do this all along. We were overjoyed by this gracious act, telling our parents that we knew all along that they would never do this to us, while secretly taking in a deep sigh of relief.

No matter how far I get away from this story, I just can’t forget it. Years go by, both of my parents are gone now, but I still remember the Christmas which has affectionately become known to my brother and I as “The Broken Toy Christmas.”

Parenting experts may call the exercise cruel and unjust, some people may think that it was harsh, and to be frank, I’m still not exactly sure how I feel about it. My leaning is towards the fact that my parents showed my brother and I an incredible amount of grace. What we deserved, based on our actions and behavior, was the broken toys. What they gave us were the presents that showed that despite our imperfections, they loved us. My parents had shown grace in a way that rarely gets seen in this world.

Too many people cower to the whines and complaints of their children. There rarely seem to be consequences when behavior that is less than stellar is displayed. Instead, parents idly threaten their children and then give them what they never deserved with no hesitation.

I didn’t have to go through years of counseling to get over this and yet I still remember the Christmas vividly. In a lot of ways, I can’t help but connect what my parents did to what God did for us when he sent Jesus to the world. The history of God’s people is full of stubborn and obstinate people who thought that regardless of their behavior, a loving God would never turn his back on them and would never mete out justice on them. They were right, but someone still had to pay the price. That someone was Jesus. He is the gift of grace that God gave to us. When we deserved nothing but “broken and old toys” God gave us the best thing that he had to offer: his only son.

As I raise my kids, I hope and pray that I can instill in them the fact that Christmas isn’t about getting what we deserve, it’s about receiving the gift of grace from God. Christmas isn’t about all the commercialism that is preached at us from Black Friday on, it’s the realization that no gift could ever compare to what we receive in and through Christ.

May we come to the realization that the best thing that we can get and give is the news of this gift of grace. May our hearts always be reminded of what we deserve and be thankful of what we receive instead through grace.

Merry Christmas!

The Force Awakens

force awakensIt’s hard to fully tell just what the Star Wars franchise meant to me growing up. For most, if not all, of my elementary school years, it was a huge part of my childhood. The first movie came out when I was 4 years old, the second when I was 7, and the third when I was 10. I had a Star Wars lunchbox, one of those metal kinds that come with the plastic thermos. I had the plastic guns and even tried on my mom’s knee high boots so that I could look like Han Solo (she wasn’t thrilled about that one). Star Wars was a mainstay to my generation and when we found out that episodes I, II, and III would finally become a reality, we began to dream about all the possibilities.

Needless to say, that didn’t go as expected. While you might agree that Episode III was a worthy effort, there are hardly arguments when criticism is heaped at the first two (if not all three). A generation who had become cynical based on what they were experiencing just found one more reason to maintain that same cynicism. The possibilities that seemed endless had actually ended with a less than stellar result.

Meanwhile, book after book was published about the characters to whom we were introduced in the original series. No one ever wanted to read about Jar Jar, but they could read about Luke, Han, and Leia until the cows come home. Stories were written and it seemed that every fan of Star Wars would be doomed to be left with the bad taste in their mouths after hearing that dumb Gungan speak his backwards form of English. At least Yoda’s backwards speak has an endearing quality to it, Jar Jar’s is just plain annoying.

Enter Disney.

In 2012, Disney bought Lucasfilm, the company behind Star Wars, for $4 billion. Some of the greatest loved characters of all time were now being combined together through ownership and many wondered what that might mean for Star Wars.

Well, if Star Wars was second nature to me as a child, it’s hard to describe just what Disney was at the same time. I grew up going to Disney World. I still have the 8MM films that I can play on my projector of our jaunts to Disney World when I was barely the age of my youngest child. While Star Wars was a mainstay in my life as a child, Disney seemed to be a permanent fixture as well, not only to my generation, but to my parents’ generation as well. It had an intergenerational connectivity and quality about it that was rarely seen by others. But we had been burned by Star Wars before and the thought of the House of the Mouse taking over at the helm of Star Wars seemed a bit worrisome.

At first, the connections were subtle. You go to Disney World and you see the hybrid of some of your favorite characters from both Disney and Star Wars. A little kitschy, but not a deal breaker, after all, Lucasfilm began the animated series “The Clone Wars” before Disney had made the deal. Then came the rumors…..rumors of another trilogy.

My son claims that I first mentioned the prospect of another Star Wars trilogy to him around 2010 or so (he claimed that he had been waiting half of his life for “The Force Awakens “ to become a reality and he was born in 2006). In early 2013, rumors that J.J. Abrams (of TVs “Alias” and “Lost” fame) would be directing the first in the new trilogy were confirmed, and the Star Wars universe went a little crazy. What had been dreamed of would become a reality.

Nearly three years later, “The Force Awakens” broke box office records by bringing in a record $238 million on opening weekend. Just two weeks prior to its December 18th release date, I took my oldest son, the one who had been waiting half of his life for this event, to buy tickets at the theater.

Standing there at the theater with my nine year old son, holding tickets to a first run Star Wars film seemed a bit surreal to me. Was this really happening? If it was, would it (could it) live up to the hype? Could millions of fans really be satisfied by the outcome of this? Should it even be attempted?

In 2009, J.J. Abrams had successfully rebooted the Star Trek franchise, overhauling the cast and characters to bring them to a new generation. In geekdom, how would he fare at taking over another beloved franchise, not for a reboot but for a continuation?

When December 18th finally came, when I finally brought my boys to the theater, I wasn’t sure who was more excited. These kids got out of school early for this, not too early, and it was the last day before Christmas break, but early nonetheless. There was excitement in our house all week long. Even our beloved Tinsel Trooper (our own geek version of the Elf on the Shelf) had gotten in on the action. We were excited, there was no doubt about it.

I can’t remember the last movie that I saw in the theater where there was as much clapping throughout as there was in “The Force Awakens.” The familiar “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…..” appeared on the screen and the theater erupted in applause. Familiar characters appeared on the screen and the theater erupted in applause. Even X-wings and Tie Fighters got in on the action, not garnering nearly as much applause as the Millenium Falcon, but still it was applause.

We all say glued to that screen for the just over two hours that the movie ran, and as the final moments of the movie played, as I felt the action slowing to a stop, something inside me welled up. I realized that I was experiencing this with my boys. MY boys. I was sitting in theater, watching Star Wars with my two sons, and we were all seeing it for the first time. My eyes began to well up a little themselves and I put my arms around my boys as we walked towards the exit.

My oldest, always displaying the typical birth order characteristics of an oldest, announced his sheer approval of the film. He was satisfied. My youngest son, also fitting into all of the stereotypes of a middle child, cautiously opined over the film, expressing his approval, but not too much, just enough to still be safe should anyone else have anything not so positive to say about it.

We walked into the night towards our car and I still was processing what had happened both on and off the screen. It was a powerful moment for me, not one that will easily be matched or forgotten, that moment when I experienced this movie with my sons. I couldn’t help but think about my older brother and me walking out of the theater with my mom who had taken us to see the original trilogy’s second two films. The picture in my head made me smile while at the same time caused me to hug my boys just a little bit closer.

“The Force Awakens” was more than a film to me, it was an experience that held so much nostalgia. It’s almost unfair to tack so much weight onto something, but somehow it managed to hold that weight. My boys are still talking about it and I’m feeling the need to see it again with my wife just so that my middle child doesn’t explode at the prospect of keeping everything secret for any length of time. My four year old, she’s still got a little time before she gets there, but once Mommy sees it, for these boys, I think all will be right with the world…….and I just can’t wait!

A Long Time Ago…

Star_Wars_The_Force_AwakensA few weeks ago, my oldest son and I drove to the movie theater and bought our tickets for today. As we walked into the theater together, he said to me, “I’ve been waiting for this for half my life.” I looked down at him and smiled. As we walked to the ticket booth, I remembered the first time that I had taken him to the theater. Back when he was three and a half, I took him to the theater to watch Toy Story 3. I admit that I shed some tears at the end of the movie as Andy gave his toys away to the little girl, a sign that he was growing up.

Today, I get to share something with him and his brother that I never ever thought I would get to share with them: we all get to see Star Wars together in the theater. Not the original trilogy that came out when I was only four years old. Not the prequel trilogy that I saw in the theater 16 years ago with my wife (girlfriend at the time). This is different though, a new director, a new trilogy, a new generation experiencing Star Wars afresh and anew.

Is it all hype? Will it be a downer? From the first wave of reviews coming through social media and news outlets, it’s not disappointing too many people (there’s always at least that one). Still, you don’t want to get too excited, do you?

When moments like these come in life, moments that feel bigger than maybe they should, it’s hard to take it all in. You try to remember every look, every feeling, every moment as it passes by. When it’s over, you want to roll the tape back and experience it again because you forgot to capture something, but you know you can’t.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away….

A little boy went to see “The Empire Strikes Back” in the movie theater with his mom and his brother. That same little boy would ask for Star Wars figures as rewards for good report cards. That same little boy would collect all the trading cards, would read all the comics, would play with all the figures. That same little boy went to the theater again a few years later when “Return of the Jedi” came out. I didn’t experience any of these films with my dad. He was around, but that just wasn’t his thing.

The hype built up as the time came for the prequels. I bought into it and remembered back to all of my old figures, more than gently used, sitting in a case somewhere. I went to the store and bought the new figures, I left them in their packages, I hung them on my walls.

Now those figures lie in boxes in the garage, still unopened in their packages. The books lie on the shelves. The movies have been purchased, first on VHS, then on DVD, then in special editions, then in anniversary editions, and finally in HD (high definition). They’ve been watched and watched and watched again and today, the generation that has seen it all from afar will finally get to experience a movie first in the Star Wars universe. They’ve seen Disney take over the franchise, they’ve seen it all cartoonized, they’ve seen it LEGO-ized, they’ve seen it Disney-ized.

By the end of this day, I’ll either be waiting for the moment that I get in line again for a second viewing of this film, calculating just when I think the movie will be released to Blu Ray, and smiling at what I experienced. Or else, I’ll realize that it was just hype, but I’m having a hard time thinking that’s going to happen.

We’ve gone into this Christmas season with expectation of what we’re really celebrating, but also expectation of what this day will hold. There’s no “Elf on the Shelf” in our house, there’s a “Tinsel Trooper” whose Star Wars themed antics have at least garnered the attention of two little boys, captured by the wonder of this cultural phenomenon that’s been around for nearly as long as their dad has. When they wake up, this is what they will see that their beloved Tinsel Trooper has been up to, and when they lay their heads on their pillows tonight, instead of sugar plums and presents, they’ll be dreaming of a galaxy far, far away and wondering when they can escape to it once again.

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Faith and Fear

faith and fearI’ve been going through a particularly stressful situation lately and I’ve felt my blood pressure rising with my anxiety. In the midst of it all, I’ve been intentional about carving out time to seek the wisdom of God and to meditate and pray.

The other day, while I was driving, I remembered a verse that had struck me which I had memorized while our church was going through a study of the book of 1st John in the Bible. The verse is 1 John 4:18, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” It was as if that verse had just been implanted in my brain and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Within just a few short hours, I encountered two additional references to that very same verse, one in a phone conversation with a friend and church member whose small group had discussed the verse during their study the night before, the other from a friend on social media who mentioned that Bono, the lead singer for the band U2, had quoted it during the band’s concert in Paris the night before.

As I went throughout the day, continuing rolling the words of the verse over in my head, I made it part of my prayer and I eventually encountered it again as my brother-in-law shared it on social media as well.

Now, I have a tendency to be stubborn and sometimes thick headed, but not so much so that I would miss a message that was being given to me over and over again, especially all within the same day. I felt like there was a reason why that verse had come to my mind and that was just confirmed when it was mentioned no less than three more times as I went through the day.

When we come to decisions, situations, or crises in our lives, we have a choice in our decision making. We can either choose to be led by faith or led by fear. That was the truth that seemed to strike me between the eyes as I pondered and meditated on that verse the other day.

As I thought more about it, I thought that the leap from faith to fear doesn’t seem to be so large. Somehow, it seems so much easier for me to make that leap, almost effortless. On the other hand, the leap from fear to faith can sometimes feel like a leap from the earth to the moon, it feels like it’s the longest distance that I’ve ever traversed in my life.

But God…

That’s a phrase that we see in the Bible repeated numerous times, and I think it applies here. We often may find ourselves leaping from faith to fear and needing to find our way back to faith again, but God reminds us that he is love, he is not fear. While there is a way for us to think about God in a fearful way, that is more of a reverential approach rather than a trembling and cowering approach, especially when we’re being obedient to him.

There is no fear in love because perfect love casts our fear. People use fear to punish, to control, to manipulate, and to push. Fear has nothing to do with God and those of us who use fear as a means for getting our way as well as those of us who embrace fear as a way of life need to find ways to make that leap back to faith.

Over and over again, as I’ve been ruminating on this verse, I’ve realized how easily I can fall into the fear-filled trap rather than living in the faith-filled moments. God calls us to live lives full of faith, it’s the essence of who we are as we follow Christ. We are not called to be led by fear.

In the midst of a world that has a lot of scary things, it doesn’t mean that we don’t concern ourselves with those things, it just means that we still trust that our faith isn’t in those things and the people behind those things, our faith is in the One who is the very definition of love, perfect love. We do not fear because HE is with us. We pray, we fight, we move, we stumble, but our faith is not based on any of the things that WE control.

As we journey through a fear-filled world, may we find hope, peace, joy, and perfect love for the journey.

The Carols of Christmas – A Book Review

The Carols of ChristmasFew things will generate such an emotional response as one’s opinion of Christmas music. It seems that when it’s played, how it’s played, and what is played are among the most contentious of issues when it comes to holiday musical fare. Everyone has their thoughts and favorites when it comes to Christmas songs and hymns.

It’s interesting to dig down a little into some of the songs and hymns that have become so well-loved and cherished over the years and hear a little bit about the stories behind them. How did they originate? How have they evolved? Who wrote them? Where do they come from?

It’s just that kind of background information Andrew Gant shares in “The Carols of Christmas.” Gant, a composer, choirmaster, church musician, university teacher, and writer, has done his homework in putting together a thorough (but not exhaustive) and enjoyable compilation with stories of some of these Christmas songs that many have come to know and love throughout the years.

From “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” to “O Holy Night” to “Away In a Manger” and even “Jingle Bells,” Gant shares information about these hymns and the journey that they have been on from origin and through their evolution to the songs that we know today. It’s interesting to read the background stories here. Some songs have evolved from ancient and pagan roots to eventually be connected to the Christian holiday. Other songs have questionable theology or history (did the baby Jesus really not cry and did three ships come sailing into Bethlehem?).

Gant uses images throughout the book to show some of the history in these songs. He also includes full versions of the songs for those whose musical inclinations would allow them to play the songs themselves. It’s a helpful tool to be reminded of what it is that you’ve been reading about throughout each chapter.

While it’s not necessary for one to be a musician to read this, it certainly helps. Some of the terms and phrases that Gant uses may go over the heads of those with little to no musical experience or training.

“The Carols of Christmas” is not exhaustive, and Gant admits that. While there are 21 songs covered in here, Gant mostly sticks to those that would be familiar to anyone who would open up a hymnal in a church. For the casual reader, musician, or hymn singer, I would be hard-pressed to believe that he hasn’t covered what would be expected. While there were no songs that were as surprising as Gant’s subtitle (“A celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs”) might suggest, it was an entertaining read that I may very well refer to every year when I find myself singing these songs throughout the season once again.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Booklook Bloggers. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)