I’ve often heard it said that “growing old isn’t for sissies.” And as my dear Dad’s health has declined over the last decade, I definitely agree with the expression. The only trouble with the phrase is that we don’t really get to choose whether we grow old or not. Yes, there are things we can do to dramatically impact our odds of living a long time, but ultimately it’s not up to us. For many people, this is a very unnerving thought and they don’t want to contemplate it. Especially if they take the next step in the thought process and ponder spending their final years like my Dad is, completely reliant on others for his daily existence.
As humans, we crave to be in control of our own destinies, and most of us would say we want to live a long time. But in most cases, to use another famous expression, we “can’t have our cake and eat it too.” That’s because when anyone of us gets to the point where my father is, we won’t have any control over anything. And when control is taken away, we humans don’t react well. After all, we spend our whole lives trying to find it… display it … exert it. Sometimes control brings us great things and rewards. Sometimes control destroys what we love. It’s a double-edged sword that none of us realizes the addicting power of… until we are totally robbed of it.
As I’ve observed my Dad on his journey, I have witnessed some of the most profound moments of quiet courage in the face of what appears to be complete powerlessness. What these moments have taught me most is the value of a well-built life over time. On the day my father checked into the veterans home, suddenly none of his material possessions mattered anymore. What continues to matter, more every day, is his unique hard-earned and carefully nurtured collection of relationships, beliefs, and character traits. These, no one and no illness can ever take from my Dad. Yes, my Dad is a veteran, but these are the things that make him my hero. When I see my Dad in his wheelchair, I don’t see an old soldier. I don’t see a worsening invalid. I don’t even see him as a shadow of his former self. I see a man of quiet courage, who was never a big talker, and now can say hardly anything at all. But he doesn’t need to be able to speak to communicate volumes. A life well-lived and well-built says it all for him. And it’s what makes him stand tall in my eyes, even now. He stands resolutely on a lifetime of building genuine friendships, raising his children to love and respect others, honoring his marriage in good times and bad, offering a kind word and a helping hand to neighbors and strangers alike, and most importantly, living every day humbly walking in trust of God. My Dad is the kind of man willing to recognize that God is in control, and while that knowledge has made him nervous from time to time, he has rarely complained and has always been quick to smile.
Today, my Dad can’t smile like most people do. But his faded eyes still gleam with his unquenchable spirit. He still loves Christmas. His eyes literally grin when he sees his infant grandson. He still craves to hear God’s Word read to him. He sinks into peaceful moments when music plays. My Dad is in his last battle, but he is valiantly waging it with integrity and selflessness, not wanting those he loves to suffer even one moment because of his suffering. In this, my Dad is showing his family the love described in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. This act of courage will forever speak volumes to my heart: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
I was out running errands on Tuesday this week when I heard a DJ on the radio say that January 2nd is the crankiest day of the year. This made me feel great -- even validated -- simply because someone acknowledged out loud what I had been experiencing all day and didn’t want to admit. When I got home, one quick search on Google and social media churned up hundreds of stories and posts with the #backtowork and #backtoreality hashtags. On top of that, people everywhere are moaning about the extreme cold and the #bombcyclone ravaging the East coast (who came up with that term???). All of these factors have collided in a single week to create the perfect storm of crankiness for most of us (sorry for the pun, I couldn’t resist).
So if you research the cure for the post-holiday blues or the winter “blahs,” you will get all kinds of great tips from psychologists, self-help authors and life coaches. Many of them are definitely healthy suggestions, like spending time with friends you haven’t seen in a while, booking a special date with your spouse or child, or planning your next vacation so that you have something to look forward to even if it’s months away. All of these suggestions can create a spark of hope for those of us mired in the doldrums of the daily grind, endless snow shoveling, and the general emptiness of our homes without Christmas decorations. Let’s face it, most of us are drawn like little kids to the magic of holiday lights, no matter what our age!
But what if the cause of our crankiness right now isn’t the daily grind or the chilly effects of the bomb cyclone? The holidays are filled -- no, that’s not a strong enough word – they are packed to the gills, with constant stimulation, demands and pleasure. During the holidays, we have the best and the worst experiences all the same time. For example, we enjoy the richest of foods (repeatedly!) with the most time-consuming preparation. We see loved ones we’ve missed all year long, but then we have arguments about some long-standing family issue. We shower people with gifts they’ve always wanted, but then we feel disappointed when the same thoughtfulness isn’t returned. You get the idea. The holidays, unlike any other time of year, evoke just about every human emotion at the same time. And then, when they come to a sudden stop, we sit in the eerie stillness with the reverberating ache of life back to normal. Somehow life seems empty now. Emotionless. Boring. In the solitude of our own thoughts, we might even acknowledge that we feel six years old again as the newness of the Christmas toys fades and we have to go back to school… and homework … and the bad lunchroom food.
What dawned on me this morning as I read a quote from CS Lewis is that my foul mood is a direct result of my perspective. Lewis said in his book The Weight of Glory, “We are halfhearted 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.”
Ouch. Leave it to Lewis to cut to the heart of the matter. Sure, the daily grind can get old, arduous, stressful, etc. Yes, the snow drifts dumped by the bomb cyclone will cause a lot of back aches. Life can stink. You’ll get no argument from me there. But even in moments of dread or frustration, a perspective fixed not on the situation at hand, but on the bigger picture can mean the difference between a really bad day and just a long one. The true cure for this seasonal crankiness is not found in planning your next vacation, but finding a deep, abiding hope and sense of purpose in the everyday stuff of life. Being on a holiday high is fun, but discovering soul-level joy is eternal. Instead of a reverberating ache in the solitude, this joy pulses with peace, contentment and gratitude. It’s the kind of joy that the Psalmist writes about over and over. “The steadfast love of the Lord is better than life.” (Ps. 63:3) “In your presence is fullness of joy, in your right hand there are pleasures forever.” (Ps. 16:11) As John Piper says, “nearness to God himself is the only all-satisfying experience of the universe.”
Come tomorrow morning, I will likely be shoveling more than a foot of snow off my deck. And in the next few days, I will eat the last Christmas cookie in the tin (if my husband doesn’t get it first). But instead of focusing on my momentary dismay, like I so often do, I’m going to invite the Source of Infinite Joy to remind my fickle heart over and over that the light at the end of the tunnel is real and much bigger than I could ever imagined.
Four Christmases is unlike most holiday movies. No display of schmaltzy, warm holiday traditions or magical Christmas eve snowfall. No tender Hallmark moment of familial bonding or even reconciliation of some kind at the end. Sure, it’s a funny movie – my husband and I watch it almost every year – but unlike most of our cinematic Christmas favorites, it completely bucks the long-held belief that despite dysfunctional relationships and fractured nerves, most people still long to go home for the holidays. (Spoiler alert, sorry!) And while I think anyone who has been impacted by divorce in families will find the movie to be both hilarious and sadly relevant, I am willing to bet most of us in similar circumstances would still have ultimately chosen to see our families at Christmas – especially if we had just welcomed our first child into the world.
As I flew across the country this week to experience my own multiple Christmases and familiar traditions, I kept seeing evidence of the persistent longing that we have as humans for returning to our roots. Whether the return home happens only in our minds or in reality, we all crave a connection for where we came from and to those with whom our bonds have nothing to do with career achievements, friend counts on Facebook, or the kind of clothes we can afford to wear.
Over the years, however, the place we call home changes. For the first 30 years of my life, the home I longed for at Christmas more than any other place on earth was my grandmother’s house. But the last one was the last one. And I will never be able to go there again. Since everyone longs to go home for Christmas, then eventually, each one of us has to be the one to sacrifice at some point. For married couples, there's always the discussion of which family home will be chosen for Christmas. And when do we reach the age where our own homes become everyone else’s desired destination?
As you think about this Christmas, your biological family may not look like what you imagined a few years or decades ago. In fact, your family may not be at all what you dreamed of when you were a kid. Through the years, families morph and change, expand and contract. But no matter what your “blood” family is like, I’ve come to believe that your truest sense of “home” comes not necessarily with those whom you share some genetic connections, but with those you share the most unconditional love.
That’s why I like to say that I didn't just get married, I was adopted too. I’ve been married for 13 years, and during that time I’ve spent every Christmas with my husband’s family. At one time in my life I could’ve never imagined spending Christmas anywhere but my grandmother’s and now I can’t imagine spending it anywhere other than with my husband’s family.
My adoption by my husband’s family and my willingness to let God settle my heart into it, is the very picture of what Christmas is all about. This is what Jesus came to earth to do – provide a way for our adoption. Jesus himself was "adopted" by Joseph and Mary. He wasn't their son by natural means, but by divine intervention. He made his home with them. And at the appointed time, he gave his life so that we might also be adopted as God’s sons and daughters.
The nostalgia most of us feel when we think about going home at Christmas, is really about going to a place of acceptance, love and safety, without the pressures of performance and the other burdens of being a responsible adult. For most people, that’s a return to the warmth of our parents, familiar surroundings and comfortable traditions. And that’s because human beings are literally wired to long for the protection and safety of eternal and unconditional love. We long for these feelings because God created us to long for them. Skeptics often ask, “what evidence is there for God?” The universal longing in human hearts for a heavenly home is the greatest evidence of all. We are all longing for divine adoption and the eternal inheritance waiting for us in our true home with God.
This Christmas, when your nostalgic longings begin stirring, perhaps take a moment to ponder why they pull at your heart in the first place. They are beautiful and deeply spiritual reminders welling up from your soul, intentionally placed there by a Father who would give his all to turn your heart toward his. Like the star over the manger in Bethlehem, let the longings of your heart point toward their true home. During the holidays, it is so easy to cover up the longing with mounds of stuff and to-do lists. The more we pile everything up, the louder we make the music, and the brighter we make the lights, the less we see and hear the truth. Instead, take your longing to the throne room of the One who made you in his image and let him satisfy your deepest need. You may approach the throne as an orphan – disheveled, hurt and disowned – but you will leave a daughter or son of the King of Kings.
We’ve all been there. Decision time. Whether it’s a big “life decision” like which house to buy or a seemingly small choice like whether to be honest with your friend about her new hairstyle, wouldn’t we all just love it if God’s direction came through loud and clear every time?
The leading of God was simply vivid for the Israelites when they were wandering in the desert. They had a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. At other times, God lead them directly through Israel’s kings or prophets. However, as soon as the visible, tangible signs from God were obscured … as soon as the obvious miracles ceased… the Israelites lost sight of God’s light and continually exhibited very short memories. They strayed from God’s path every single time.
When I am reminded of how clearly God communicated to the Israelites, I admit that I am bit jealous. Aren’t you? Really, just imagine a pillar of fire appearing in your backyard every time you struggled with a choice. You might have some explaining to do to the neighbors, but think of how much easier daily living would be. Of course, that’s assuming that you will heed the direction. In our modern society, we tend to believe that we’ve evolved as a human race to the point that we wouldn’t behave like the Israelites. We confidently assure ourselves that if God literally appeared in fire, wind, clouds, or even sent an angel, that we would do exactly what he tells us to do, versus the Israelites who made so many mistakes they got stuck on 40-year sand safari.
But we couldn’t be more wrong. That’s because there’s only one difference between us and them. And it has nothing to do with technology, culture or education.
God manifested Himself in very physical ways in Old Testament times because the Israelites didn’t have the personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit to provide the light from within (and also the conviction to follow through on the direction).
It’s the time of year where we celebrate the coming of the light for all mankind – not just the Israelites. God literally appeared in the form of a baby who grew up and walked with the human race for more than three decades. His ultimate sacrifice paved the way for the light you and I have today as believers. John 1:1,3 says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” And, yes, there are times that the light may seem as dim as a candle on a blustery night. But the beautiful reality is that even a candle is capable illuminating the next small step in front of you.
The bigger question here, though, isn’t how you hear or see God’s direction, but what do you do with it when you receive it. For example, what would you do in the case of your friend with the new hairstyle when she asks you what you think and it truly looks bad? Telling her the truth in a loving way seems like a small decision compared to buying a house … but is it? Isn’t more revealed about us and our character in the smaller, but clearly stickier, daily decisions of life? The reality is we often build our character little by little over time, especially in the moments that require us to be uncomfortably honest or to squint in the darkness with only a small candle to guide our steps. It is in these times that the character of Christ has the chance to shine the brightest in our lives and God is training our vision to become more focused on His light and not the distractions lurking in the darkness.
“But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” 2 Corinthians 12:9
Every time I go on a morning run, the same baffling thought comes to my mind when I pass by a certain house. Sitting up on a hill, there could be an incredible view of a lake from its back porch, but the owners have opted not to maintain the property. So wild brush, brambles and small trees obscure the scenic vista. Like any perplexing situation, when I see this house my brain starts whirring trying to figure out why the owners have made such a bizarre choice. The first thought that comes to my mind is that the place must be abandoned. But it's not. I've seen lights on and heard a family dog barking occasionally, alerting its residents that someone is running by. (Apparently the dog can see something through all that brush!). Most mornings when I go by, I make up stories about who lives there and why they don't (or can't) clear the overgrowth. Sometimes I imagine a little old lady who simply can't upkeep the grounds. On mornings where I am feeling especially creative, I picture a young owner who inherited the place from his great uncle and really doesn't have the time for yard work. But no matter what scenario I concoct in my head, none of them satisfies me. None of them has enough evidence to make me think that the resident's decision is the right one.
And so, I run or walk on by each time, always closing out my thoughts with the same feeling – regret. Sure, it's not my house ... not my view ... and not my responsibility to clean up the yard. But because I can see the view that's waiting in vain to greet the owner every morning, I feel sorry for the people who call that place home. I even feel sadness for the view itself – as if it has feelings of its own with a deep longing for interaction. As I've processed this phenomenon, which occurs for me several times a week in cooperative weather, there are times I have felt so strongly about this wasted opportunity, it has been all I can do to keep myself from knocking on the door.
The last time I passed by, I made a mental note to write about it. While I may never know the real story, I do see a very real truth in the situation. No matter how good the reason is behind the lack of upkeep, the hard reality is the owner is missing out. Every day. Missing out on countless morning sunrises and sparkling afternoons in the late summer sun. I just imagine all the "life" that happens within view of the house – abundant life the owner will never see. Like the playful grooming of a loon mother with her chick or the neighbor kids having water fights. Even in winter, a frozen lake teems with visual blessings, from jagged crystal snow drifts to endless white plains dotted with ice shacks.
As with almost everything I see, God's handiwork shouts to me of his glory. Trumpets his mercies. Serenades his love. All this can be seen in the views that God sets before each of us everyday. Your view may not be of a lake or even anything so obviously picturesque. But the two questions to ask yourself every morning are: (1) Have I allowed the brush and brambles of bitterness, discouragement, pain, disappointment or worry grow up around my heart, blinding my sight to God's work, love and glory on display before me? (2) And if my view is clear, am I really seeing it from God's perspective and not my own?
If you are like me, then you are missing small glimmers of glory, tiny miracles of life, and thin rays of hope in some way, almost every day. I recently watched the movie Miracles From Heaven, and the thing that struck me the most about that story is that the most amazing miracles were the ones that occurred in the midst of the mundane or nestled in the crevice of pain or suffering. Lamentations 3:22-23 says, "The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness." God doesn't give you leftovers each morning. He gives you freshly prepared sustenance to feast your eyes and your heart upon. His mercies are uniquely tailored to each of us, fresh and new as the morning sun. The mercy he has for me tomorrow morning will be different than yours, but neither of us will ever see it – much less receive it – if we've allowed our hearts to harden or our perspectives to be completely distorted by things and desires of this world.
As you seek him, he will reveal himself to you. It is a promise delivered over and over in his Word (Deuteronomy 4:29, Matthew 6:33, Psalm 63:1). Just remember that what you find when you ask may not be what you expected, sound like what you thought, or look like something spectacular to the naked eye. But when you walk with Jesus, he will give you new eyes and a new mind to see things from his perspective, and that, my fellow seeker, is the best motivation to keep our view focused on him. (Ephesians 4:22-24, Romans 12:2)