For 5 years I was the pastor of Trinity International Church in Strasbourg, France. I created this blog with those people in mind. In mid-November 2018 I will become the Senior Pastor of Word of Life Church in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. The focus of this blog will therefore shift, but I pray that people from the blogosphere will continue to find it helpful wherever they might be found.
The churches' websites includes recorded sermons for those who are interested. Click the links below to access them.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Christmas Blues

We live in the capital of Christmas. The smells of vin chaud fill the air and thousands of lights dazzle the eyes as we walk down the streets of our city. It is like living on a movie set that was created for the ideal Christmas. In addition, the television advertisements are filled with pictures of people giving exactly the right gift and children squeal with delight or lovers kiss in joy as they receive it. The photography is so warm and inviting you can almost smell the cookies baking in the kitchen. This, it appears, is the way Christmas should be. Perfect people experiencing a perfect holiday in a perfect setting.

Christmas is not like that for many people. In fact, that perfect Christmas is a fantasy. There are bills to pay, diapers to change, family squabbles, and the flu is going around. The contrast between the "ideal" Christmas and reality is one reason that pastors around the world notice an increase in seasonal depression. It is called the Christmas blues.

In the majority of cases, the solution to the Christmas blues is to readjust our expectations. Simply recognising that the ideal Christmas holiday is a creation of marketers trying to get us to buy their product in order to have the perfect Christmas is enough to send the blues fleeing. The first few birthday celebrations for Jesus were spent as refugees in a distant land (Matt 2:13). Hardly the perfect Christmas! A reminder of "the real reason for the season" sets our hearts in the right place to enjoy the celebration of Christ's birth.

But there are others for whom the solution is not that simple. For them the blues cannot be chased away at all. In fact, "blues" is hardly the word to describe what they are feeling. It is more like thinly covered agony. Every Christmas tree lit and every carol sung hurts. Any reminder of Christmas seems like salt on an open wound. They may smile, but behind the smile is the agony of grief. I call these people the people of the empty chair.

For some people, there is an empty chair at the table because of death. Holidays are a reminder of their absence. If the death happened around Christmas, the holiday becomes even more difficult. I know. The funerals for my father, my father-in-law, and my grandmother were all held in church sanctuaries that were decorated for Christmas. Christmas has never been quite the same.

For others the empty chair is caused by distance. In an international church like Trinity, this is incredibly common. There are many people in the church who will be far from home for Christmas. It is too far and too expensive to give more than a passing thought of going back to celebrate. Even if they have moved here permanently and they call France home, there is someplace else that is calling their name. There is another place where Christmas is "perfect". They are celebrating a family holiday in a foreign land. It hurts. I know, because it describes me as well.

So how do you survive Christmas as a "person of the empty chair"? The advice that helps most people makes sense, but it doesn't seem to help you. What are you to do? Let me give you some thoughts that have helped me.

First, it is okay to grieve. The empty chair means someone you love is missing. The pain you feel is the price of love. If you did not love the person, there would be no pain in their absence. So feel the pain, but don't stop there. Turn the pain into thanksgiving. Thank the Lord that he brought someone into your life that causes your heart to ache because they are gone. This is part of what it means to give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thes 5:18). It does not make the pain go away, but it brings a perspective on the pain that makes it manageable.

Second, acknowledge the people who are in your life. We just finished studying 1 Corinthians and I noticed something in the final chapter. Paul writes, "I rejoice at the coming of Stephan's and Fortunes and Achaicus, because they have made up for your absence (1 Cor 16:17). While the pain of the empty chair is real, the Lord has placed people in your life today to bring refreshment. So watch for, and acknowledge, each act of kindness and love during this season. A few years ago I was feeling particularly blue when someone gave me a gift for Christmas. It was a simple gift, but the person who gave it to me had very little to begin with. When they handed it to me, they looked me in the eye and said simply, "Merry Christmas." It would have been easy, given my emotional state, to simply nod thank you. Instead, I opened the door of my soul and was refreshed by the gift of a new friend.

Third, admire the beauty. After the first Christmas with an empty chair, the pain seems to lessen. Or perhaps we just get used to it. In any case, we can do something besides feeling the pain. A good place to start is to simply open our eyes to the beauty around us. Try see cultivate a sense of wonder about the world around you. Look at the patterns of the Christmas ornaments for a little longer than you usually do. Stop to admire the craftsmanship of a nice nativity set. Allow yourself to appreciate the simplest of things: like the latte art performed by the barista at your favourite coffee shop. Give thanks for the beauty around you.

Fourth, invite others to the table. If there is an empty chair at your table seek to invite a bunch of new people to gather around the table. If Christmas finds you far away from home, find others in a similar situation and invite them to share Christmas Eve with you. As you do, you are not filling the empty chair. I don't think it can be filled. Instead, you are being a blessing to others. And there will be laughter and fun. And at some point in the evening you will say to yourself, "This is good. And if the person I miss so much were here, they would agree." You will realise that while life is different it is still good. That will be a cup of cold water to your parched and weary soul.

Most importantly, turn to God. Remember that Christmas is supposed to be focused on the incarnation. God became man and dwelt among us (John 1:14). He came because we needed salvation. He came to set us free. We were a people living in a land of darkness and he came and brought light (Isaiah 9:2). He is the God of all comfort (2 Cor 1:3) and he will comfort us. Even though now we grieve through the trial of the empty chair, there is within us a greater and abiding joy because we know the end of the story (1 Peter 1:3-7). So be refreshed and renewed in Him.

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