"It's the most wonderful time of the year . . ."
"From now on our troubles will be miles away . . . "
But what if it's not the most wonderful time of the year? What if your joy feels miles away, your troubles feel closer than ever, and your burdens only feel heavier as we approach Christmas and New Year's?
The thing about the holidays is they have a way of magnifying both the good and the hard. If, for example, you are enjoying harmonious relationships, good health, or have celebrated a milestone over this last year: a marriage or birth in the family, a new job or move, then your joy will be that much sweeter. And, on the flip side, if you have lost a loved one, are experiencing relational or financial strain, or maybe you or someone you love has received a difficult diagnosis, the emotions that go along with those things may also be heightened. Some of us just feel weary with the daily grind of life, and some of us have found ourselves pulled into the hustle and bustle, to the tasks and to-do lists, to the overspending, overcommitting, and sometimes overwhelming stress and chaos of the season.
Joy is a spiritual quality - a fruit of the Spirit - so unlike happiness (which is an emotional response to good things that happen in our lives), it is not tethered to our circumstances or other people's behavior or choices. I believe we can experience and cultivate a deep, abiding joy that stays with us even in hard seasons. But first, we have to identify those things that rob us of joy:
1. Stress: Whether it's extra financial strain brought on by the holidays, finding gifts for everyone, stressful family events, tasks such as putting up decorations, shopping, and food preparations, busyness, the pressure to produce the “perfect” holiday, or taking on more than we can handle each year - holiday stress has a way of snowballing and draining us of joy and energy.
2. Comparison: Theodore Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Especially this time of year, it can be so easy for us to compare. As Christmas cards come in, we enjoy seeing people's highlights from the past year, But sometimes these Christmas cards can feel like the ultimate Instagram post - and they don't often reflect the reality of everyday life. If we aren't mindful of our tendency to compare, we can find ourselves making up stories about how great other people have it. We can easily become discontent with what we have or don't have, what we've done or not done, who we are and who we are not. It would serve us well to remember that the circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus were not glamorous or easy. He was born into a hostile, broken world. If Mary had sent out a card that first Christmas, I wonder if it may have looked something like this:
3. Expectations: On others. On ourselves. Expectations others place on us. Trying to make everything perfect and everyone happy. Expectations about the way we think things should be . . .When we set our expectations unrealistically high, we set ourselves up for disappointment. This, too, robs us of joy.
4. Isolation/Doing it alone/Pretending: Most of us have experienced some degree of isolation over the past year and a half. During quarantine we weren't able to see family and friends. Some of us still are not back to our regular schedules and social lives. Many of us are still working from home. Still doing online church. We have been cut off in different ways from connection with others. And there is another kind of isolation that is particularly painful. It's the loneliness we feel even when surrounded by others. Whether we don't feel safe to open up, or whether people just don't seem interested in knowing what is really going on in our lives, we can feel incredibly alone and isolated from others.
I did some of my own "research," asking women to share what is robbing them of joy right now Here are some of their answers:
I'm always wondering:
Family get-togethers: Now more than ever, differences of opinions, experiences, amped up reactivity/emotions are causing division in our families. Whether it's politics, the pandemic, religion, controversial issues, one woman said, “I am thinking what robs joy is having people you love walk away from you because you don't believe the same way they do.”
Navigating loss during the holidays: Another woman shared, “Celebrating without my Dad - he died suddenly in mid-Sept. My family is devastated and grieving. Every day is still hard and I fear the holidays will be even harder.”
This resonated deeply with me, because nine years ago my mom was diagnosed with cancer a few days before Thanksgiving. By Christmas, we knew it was stage three, inoperable, and incurable.
Everyone - my mom, my sisters, and their families - decided to come to our house for Christmas. All we knew for sure is that we wanted to be together. We needed to be together. We prepared our favorite foods, decorated the house, and piled presents around the tree. We systematically moved through the holiday, doing our best to keep everything as normal as possible for the children, but those of us who knew about Mom’s diagnosis were wondering the same thing. Will this be our last year together? God, what kind of grief will this new year bring with it?
This is now our eighth year without Mom. Her birthday in October and the holidays have hit me hard this year. I told my husband, "It's not just that I miss Mom - I miss her everyday. But I miss the way our family used to be. I'm grieving the way her loss has changed things." You see, my mom was like the glue in our family. Even with sometimes difficult, tricky sibling dynamics (and now with each of our kids growing up and those dynamics multiplying), we each knew the special place we had with Mom. The special place we had in her heart. We each knew we were loved and accepted. In a way, she was an equalizer. Sometimes it’s still really hard to do this without her here.
One of the things I've been focusing on this season is how I can SIMPLIFY. Because If we desire to celebrate and focus on Christ, create meaningful connection with others, and cultivate joy during this season, I think we have to start with simplifying. Scaling down. Scaling back. I'm thinking “Christmas Un-plugged.” This can include shortening our to-do lists, holding on to the traditions that matter most and letting go of the ones that don’t, and maybe even starting some new ones. Our youngest works as a hostess in a restaurant and has to work on Christmas afternoon. Since it will only be three of us at home that evening (our oldest and her husband are not coming home this year), we've decided to go eat at the restaurant. It's super different, but this year is already really different for us, so I'm open to trying something new. I've also been checking my motives, resisting the pull to try to impress others, control outcomes, or do anything that distracts or detracts me from the true meaning of Christmas.
As we look throughout the Christmas story we find JOY everywhere.
This first "snapshot" begins with an appearance from the angel Gabriel, but before he visits Mary he appears first to a priest named Zechariah…
Luke 1:13-14 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth…"
Luke 1:28-31 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus."
We see joy two-fold with Zechariah: first, with answered prayer for him and Elizabeth, then expanded to "many" through John’s unique calling to go before the Messiah and prepare the way.
And twice in these texts we see the message: "Do not be afraid." Partly because Gabriel is an angelic being and it appears that every time he shows up people are terrified! But also because fear and anxiety are part of our human condition. Our tendency, especially when facing the unknown, is to fear.
For many of us, the anxieties that plague us throughout the year are heightened during the holidays - the heavy burdens we carry only feel heavier during this season. This message “Do not fear” is absolutely for us.
Fearful thoughts often begin with these two words: What if . . .
What if the treatments don’t work? What if my child loses his/her way? What if we can’t resolve these relational problems? What if I lose my job, fail, am rejected or alone?
Notice that Gabriel first said, “The Lord is with you. . . .” and then, “Do not be afraid.” Maybe you’ve heard it said that God does not call us to do something without equipping us to do it. This is that. The truth and reality of God's presence enables us to not be afraid.
It's why David writes “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” (Psalm 23)
The reality of God’s presence – Immanuel (God with us) – changes our What if . . .? to Even if . . . We are not given the assurance or promise that our What ifs will not happen. But we are promised His presence to help us in every moment of our Even ifs.
“You fill me with JOY in your presence.” Psalm 16:11
1. WE FIND JOY IN GOD’S PRESENCE That last Christmas with my mom, we went to the Christmas Eve service at our church and these lyrics became my prayer for us:
O come, Thou Day-Spring
Come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight
Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, o Israel
We needed the hope of Christmas more than ever before. Our world and our hearts were breaking into pieces, and we needed the presence of Emmanuel, God with us. And we’d need it every day of the New Year.
Whatever you may be facing today, I want to invite you to bring your anxieties to God. “. . .because he cares for you.” 1 Peter 5:7
“When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul.” Ps 94:19.
Two words in Hebrew are used for the phrase "cares of my heart" in this text: the first means "anxious and disquieting thoughts"; the second means "deep within your body."
And the word for "consolations" is this picture of God taking the raw and tender places of our souls and smoothing his healing balm over them.
Jesus is our Wonderful Counselor
And then, as we bring our cares to God, as we are comforted, our hearts are cheered and filled with joy. And we find that He is completely trustworthy.
2. WE FIND JOY IN TRUSTING HIM I remember a conversation I had with my mom, not long after her diagnosis: She told me she believed she would be healed, but that no matter what happened, she was in a win-win situation. If she was healed, she won more time with her family. And if she died, she won eternity with her Savior. Either way, her future—and ours—was secure.
The Lord is my strength and shield. I trust him with all my heart. He helps me, and my heart is filled with joy. I burst out in songs of thanksgiving. (Psalm 28:7)
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13)
Let’s look at another snapshot from Mary’s life…
Luke 1:39-45 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
Luke 1:46-55 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, . . ."
3. WE FIND JOY IN AUTHENTIC CONNECTION
What a gift for Mary and Elizabeth!! Very few would have believed what was happening to Mary - not even Joseph believed her at first, and he was a righteous man. So she goes to visit Elizabeth, perhaps not unlike the way a young, pregnant, unwed girl might go visit her aunt today. Elizabeth greets her and
We find joy as we make relationships a priority - Connecting in practical ways (baking, shopping, playing games . . . ) and more deeply with safe people - sharing honestly with others. Meaningful connection with those who have vision to see God at work, who will believe with you that the Lord fulfills His promises.
Another snapshot from Mary’s story: After the angel tells her she will conceive by the Holy Spirit and give birth to the Son of God, and that even her relative Elizabeth is pregnant in her old age, he proclaims: “For no word from God will ever fail." And Mary replies, "I am the Lord’s servant, may your word to me be fulfilled.”
Mary’s response was deeply rooted in surrender. And it reminds me another moment of surrender 33 years later - Jesus in the garden, on the night he was betrayed, arrested, and then crucified, he prays. “Not my will, but yours, be done.” It’s why the writer of Hebrews tells us to “fix our eyes on Jesus . . . who, for the joy set before him, endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:2)
4. WE FIND JOY IN SURRENDER. As we surrender outcomes, control, the way we think things should be, we find joy. We can say, even if this is not what we wanted, "It is well with my soul . . ."
Even in the midst of our brokenness and sorrow, the faithful presence of Emmanuel is undeniable. We do not walk alone. The true hope of Christmas is not that our troubles will magically be far away, but that Emmanuel comes into our world, into our pain and grief, and brings true healing to every heart.
One final snapshot…
Luke 2:8-11 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.
The JOY of Christmas – and everyday – is found in a person.
5. WE FIND JOY IN JESUS:
For ALL who choose to prepare Him room, to worship Him as King, to trust Him as Savior, to surrender to Him as Lord . . .
We can be sure of the place we have in His family - the special place we have with Him. Jesus is the glue. He is the Great Equalizer. We are so loved. And somehow this helps us to love others - even amidst tricky dynamics and complicated relationships. Whatever challenges we may be facing in our lives, He is Immanuel, God with us. We belong to Him.
“Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
(1 Peter 1:8-9)
As we experience the presence of Emmanuel, as we trust Him with all our hearts, as we authentically connect with God and others, as we surrender everything and every part of our lives to Him, as we draw near to Jesus, may we be filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, at Christmas and into the New Year.
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