Thoughts for a snowy day

The weather won this Sunday.  The slush and ice piling up on streets and branches kept us home, but technology saved the day.  Here’s what I shared on Facebook Live yesterday morning (click here to watch it).  Enjoy!

Thoughts for a Snowy Day

One of the most magical Christmases I remember happened in 2007. Lisa and I were living in Littleton, CO while I was in seminary and that year both of our families came out at the same time to celebrate the holiday.  I know what you’re thinking: The Christmas miracle was not that we all got along that year.  That Christmas Eve we all went downtown to see the Broadway version of the classic Christmas movie, White Christmas.  It was a terrific show.  Driving home it was about 60 degrees with a big full moon shining brightly.  It made for a beautiful evening, but not the kind of weather as to put you in the mood for the season.  The next morning,Christmas morning, we woke up to a foot of snow; our very own white Christmas.  We scoped out the load Santa left, ate some breakfast, played in the snow, and warmed up afterwards by a crackling fire.  It was about as perfect a Christmas as I could imagine.  The only thing that could have improved it would have been having our boys around for us to experience the wonder through their eyes. 

There’s just something about a white Christmas that feels right, isn’t there? Now, I know that’s a cultural thing. In the global south Christmas is a mid-summer holiday.  Songs like Walking in a Winter Wonderland and Frosty the Snowman are absolutely baffling to someone from, say, Australia.  But here it just seems right.  Our whole cultural Christmas narrative points us firmly in this direction.  Think about the lyrics to the titular song from White Christmas—one of Bing Crosby’s most enduring classics: “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know.  Where the tree-tops glisten, and children listen to hear sleigh bells in the snow.”  It closes with the wish that all your Christmases be white…because that’s just how Christmas is supposed to work. 

But more than simply being about having a wintry precipitation on the ground snow at Christmas harkens back to a memory from our past—real or imagined—that is filled with warmth and good feelings.  Do you know what this is?  It’s nostalgia.  And today we live in a world in which Nostalgia is one of the gods we worship more than just about anything else. 

A bit of thought makes plain why this is.  Much of the world around us is rushing forward to embrace the latest and greatest technological advancement.  This is all very exciting and generally pretty convenient.  But, living on the leading edge of things like this for long can leave us feeling unmoored in a strong wind.  The truth is: As much as we like the latest and greatest, we don’t much like that feeling.  Even the most adventurous among us needs to have a place to call home; some kind of a foundation point to which we can return when things get crazy. 

Even as it is becoming more and more blandly secular in its cultural celebration, Christmas is steadily growing to become this foundation point in the lives of many folks.  Not Christmas itself, per se, but the idea of a certain kind of Christmas. Specifically, the kind of Christmas we see in art, movies, and film.  We want a Norman Rockwell Christmas kind of Christmas.  We want a White Christmas kind of Christmas.  We want an It’s a Wonderful Life or a Miracle on 34th Street Christmas.  We want a Christmas with snow, a roaring fire, tastefully beautiful decorations, lots food and family and presents, lots of smiling faces, well-behaved children, and enough love to make a Hallmark movie seem stoic.  Thanks to our Christmas cultural narrative, many of us have a memory of Christmas being like that even if we’ve never had one that remotely resembles it.  This is nostalgia.  More specifically, this is what Nostalgia offers us as a reward for giving our hearts to it in devotion. 

And what does devotion to Nostalgia look like?  It looks like these very attempts to recreate some image of something in the past whether or not it ever really existed in the first place.  It’s a clinging to tradition no matter how silly and regardless of what might stand in the way.  It’s judging our traditions and comparing them to the traditions of others, feeling prideful when we come closer to this ideal and envious when we don’t. And the more devoted to Nostalgia we become, the more we are willing to scrape and sacrifice to bring about these feelings of the past; and the more anxious and angry we get when we fall short (which we always tend to do).

And perhaps this all sounds a little silly, but it’s a powerful drug. We need this sense of stability and security.  If we can’t find it in the present with our constant stretching and reaching to the future, we’ll look for it in the past.  Nostalgia promises to deliver it in exchange for our heart.  It has.  We need. So we give. 

But the thing is, Nostalgia never really delivers on its promise.  No matter how hard we try and how much we give, we just keep coming up short on our foundation building.  We can’t ever quite recreate what was before.  Those feelings are always just around the corner. I knew of a woman who grew up with a grandfather who was a pastor and had lots of warm feelings about her time in his church.  She wanted to come to church, but more than that she wanted to come to church and find a particular feeling there that she once knew but didn’t have anymore because of the choices she had made in her life.  She came a few times, but that was it.  She was in the grip of Nostalgia and couldn’t connect with God because of it. 

In all of these efforts to recreate feelings of the past, what we are doing is writing and rewriting stories.  We live on stories.  The best stories get told and retold because of their power to take us to places beyond where we can reach on our own.  The best stories endure through the years because they are so effective at giving us glimpses and fleeting experiences of this larger story where everything is right with the world.  We do this all year long, but at Christmastime we tend to do it with a little more fervor than the rest. 

I think the reason for this is that at Christmastime we retell not just a story, but the story; the story on which all the others are based.  Sure, the details are different, but the spirit is the same.  It’s a story in which, although things are not easy or smooth, they are good.  There is wholeness and joy and a peace that surpasses all understanding.  And there is love.  So much love.  For God to loved the whole world that He gave His one and only Son.  And life too. Whoever believes in Him will not die, but have eternal life.  Every story we tell—all the stories Nostalgia gives us in return for our devotion—are merely echoes of this larger story. 

The stories we tell at this time of year are fine.  Whether they are culture-wide stories like It’s a Wonderful Life, or even just the story of your family’s Christmases past, they are good to tell and retell.  But no matter the promises of Nostalgia, we will not find what we are looking for in them. That feeling that everything is right with the world may come in a flash with these other stories, but it won’t last. And if we search the echoes for what only the original voice can sing,we’ll wind up emptier and emptier, never finding the fulfillment we seek.  The only way we are going to find that is when we stop building our lives on the echoes and start building them on the real foundation; “a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame” (2 Peter 2:6). 

This morning as we watch the slush fall in Oakboro—not quite the winter wonderland for which we were hoping—let me tell you this story. 

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole empire should be registered.  This first registration took place while Quirinius was governing Syria.  So everyone went to be registered, each to his own town. Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family line of David, to be registered along with Mary, who was engaged to him and was pregnant.  While they were there,the time came for her to give birth. Then she gave birth to her firstborn son, and she wrapped him tightly in cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. 

In the same region, shepherds were staying out in the fields and keeping watch at night over their flock.  Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them (and on’t miss this part), “Don’t be afraid, for look, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  Today in the city of David a Savior was born for you, who is Messiah, the Lord.  This will be the sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped tightly in cloth and lying in a manger.” 

Suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to people he favors!”  When the angels had left them and returned to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go straight to Bethlehem and see what has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 

This Christmas, may you follow suit.  May you go straight to this greatest of all stories and find the hope, the peace, the joy, the love, the life for which you are searching in every other story you tell.  As you enjoy your traditions, whatever those may be, may you root them deeply in this greater story so you can find the satisfaction you won’t find anywhere else. May you receive into your heart and life this baby who was born Messiah,the Lord.  And as you do, may you have the merriest Christmas of all. 

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