Christmas in My Heart

This morning I set my mind to the task of writing to you, dear reader, and promptly made hot chocolate…and watched White Christmas. Having successfully burned two hours, I then reviewed my holiday calendar, read the Christmas story in Luke 2, and played carols on the piano. The holidays offer much material for creative procrastination.

The lilting melody of “He is Born” tugged at my heartstrings and, as beautiful music often does, turned my mind to deeper things. I thought about my Grandma, who loved Christmas and me dearly and whom I miss terribly this time of year. I thought about two friends—one overjoyed because her adoption journey recently culminated in a precious baby boy and one heartbroken because her arms are empty when it should have been her baby’s first Christmas. I thought about the relatives I can’t wait to see in the next few days at our family gatherings and the ones in whose presence I'm not as eager to be on account of unresolved conflict.

Ever pragmatic when it comes to my emotions, I decided that this sentimental reverie wasn’t doing me any favors in this “season to be jolly,” so I got up from the piano bench and looked around for a present to wrap or a batch of cookies to bake. Finding myself up to my eyeballs in gingersnaps and snickerdoodles and not quite crazy enough to mash my potatoes four days in advance, I determined that my physical preparations for Christmas were done. The irony of my vastly different states—outward completion and inner turmoil—was not lost on me, and I realized: it was Christmas in my home but not in my heart.

This is a classic struggle of mine—allowing hands-on work to crowd out space for mental, emotional, and spiritual work—and it’s a battle familiar to our culture, perhaps especially during this "most wonderful time of the year." Several chapters over from the Christmas story, Luke shows us one such scenario:

“As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!’ ‘Martha, Martha,’ the Lord answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her’” (Luke 10:38-42).

Though today by some Christmas miracle I find myself mostly ready for the coming days of seasonal get-togethers, numerous snapshots of my state of being over the course of the last month could be captioned “worried and upset about many things.” And heaven knows between the shopping, wrapping, baking, visiting, gathering, and attending, I’ve been “distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.”

What might it look like during this season to sit “at the Lord’s feet listening?” Or to choose “what is better?” Flipping back to Luke 2 with fresh eyes seems like a good start, so I begin to read, and what stands out to me this time around is completely different—“placed him in a manger,” “no room for them in the inn,” and “shepherds living out in the fields.” This is no Precious Moments nativity scene; this is a newborn in a feeding trough, a young family unable to find decent accommodations, and society’s lowest of the low. It’s into this messy and far-from-ideal set of circumstances that Jesus is born. “But the angel said to [the shepherds], ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-12).

That the Son of God and Savior of the world entered this planet in humble and even grimy circumstances is another irony not to be missed, one that has something to say to the full gamut of my earlier wonderings--to Christmas memories of my Grandma and longing to see her again, to both my rejoicing friend and my grieving friend, and to my peaceful family relationships and also those that are filled with strife. Good news. Great joy. For all the people. A Savior. Christ the Lord. Christmas in my heart.

What about you? I’d wager a bet it’s Christmas in your home, but is it Christmas in your heart? Amid the preparations that have to be made, how can you create space to ponder how Jesus’ birth meets you in the joys and messes of your own life?

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10 Things I Learned from George Bailey

One of my favorite Christmas movies is the 1946 classic, It’s a Wonderful Life.  The movie tells the story of George Bailey, a good-hearted but discouraged man who is given the unique experience of seeing the world as if he'd never been born. He learns a good deal along the way, and we can learn from his journey as well. If you haven't seen the movie or need a refresher, I've provided one in the next two paragraphs. If like me you've watched this holiday film several times this year,  continue on to find 10 Things I Learned from George Bailey.

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, which means that I may receive a small commission if you make a purchase through one of the links I've provided here--at no additional cost to you. Please check out my disclosure policy for more info, and thanks for your support!

It's a Wonderful Life Synopsis

George is a benevolent man who sacrifices his dream of traveling the world in order to run his family’s business, a bank that provides loans based on trust and consequently homes for families who otherwise could not afford them. The wealthy and conniving Mr. Potter continually tries to take over The Building and Loan, and time and again George chooses to do what’s in the best interest of the people of his community instead of advancing his career or making his life more comfortable. He watches while his brother and friends achieve great success and wonders if his holding fast to principle is worth it.

In a series of unfortunate events, including the loss of a large sum of money which could result in bankruptcy, George becomes so distraught that he makes his way to a snowy bridge, intending to end his life. Before he can jump, a kind old man, who is actually an angel named Clarence on a mission to earn his wings, jumps into the raging river below and shouts for help. George dives into the river to save Clarence, while Clarence insists that he jumped in to save George. Clarence then takes George on a walk through town, showing him what the people and places familiar to him would be like if he’d never been born. George is surprised to see how different the world is without him in it and realizes that he actually does have a wonderful life. When he returns to reality, the friends and neighbors whom George has helped over the years rally together to give money in order to save the bank and encourage George, and Clarence has earned his wings.

10 Things I Learned from George Bailey

1.  Discouragement is the worst! It’s a Wonderful Life opens on several stars in the night sky—presumably God and several angels—talking about George’s predicament. Clarence, George's guardian angel, says, “Is he sick?” The “God” being says, “No. Worse! He's discouraged.” Discouragement can be nearly debilitating, and perhaps it's such a formidable foe because it flies under the radar. Major crises like death, illness, and divorce scream at us, while discouragement whispers to us. Because our lives are more obviously affected by the “big” things, we’re more likely to seek help and growth through them. “Little” issues like discouragement don’t seem to warrant our time and attention, so they’re allowed to live on unchecked, and there’s nothing “little” about the influence they have on our lives.

2.  The most valuable investments are relational. George and his wife experience the joy of helping a poor family move into their first home, and immediately following the celebration George watches his old buddy Sam pull up in a fancy car, and Sam’s wife steps out wearing a fur coat. George sees the contrast between the life he could have had and that which he’s chosen numerous times and still continues to value people over possessions. He celebrates the successes of those in his life—his brother’s receiving a congressional medal of honor among them—even when he’s experiencing hardship.

3.  Boundaries are good. Though the primary lesson we learn from George is one of putting others before oneself, we see another side to his benevolence: someone says of George, “he never thinks of himself; that’s why he's in trouble.” No one could live the life George Bailey lived and not experience some serious burnout. There’s a fine line between being willing to help anyone at any time and having no boundaries which protect yourself and your family. Prioritizing oneself may seem selfish to the outside observer, but those who take care of their own selves are much healthier and better equipped to help others.

4.  Unresolved anger eventually erupts. George experienced so many setbacks, it’s no wonder he grabbed his uncle by the collar, lashed out at his children, and yelled at his daughter’s school teacher; he had good reason to be mad. Anger needs an outlet, and knowing this can help us find an appropriate channel that works for us so that we don’t hurt our loved ones with our explosions.

5.  Help often comes in a different way than we expect. When the odd Clarence tells George that he is his guardian angel, George says sarcastically, “Well, you look about like the kind of an angel I’d get.” Help often comes to us similarly—in a different package then we expected. Recently I was in a situation in which I had to ask for help from someone towards whom I’ve had many judgmental thoughts. Help was given, and I was humbled.

6.  Prayer works. George prayed desperately in the bar: “Dear Father in heaven, I'm not a praying man, but if you're up there and you can hear me, show me the way. I'm at the end of my rope.” His prayer was not pretty or articulate, but it moved God to send Clarence. I believe God would rather have our desperation and honesty than our polish and pretension any day.

7.  Each man’s life touches many others. Seeing his town as if he’d never been born helped George realize that he had been a powerful force for good in his community. For instance, George may have felt like he wasn’t making much of a difference when he loaned a little money to his struggling friend, Violet, but in the universe in which he didn’t exist she was fighting with the police on the street. We don't get to see what others' lives would be like if we weren't in them, but we should never underestimate the power of a small act of kindness, a friendly conversation, or a humble service.

8.  We need other people. George never found the lost $8,000, but his friends and neighbors saved the day by donating enough money to cover the loss. Without their help, George’s bank would have gone under. I’m pretty independent, so sometimes I forget that I need other people. This week a friend was able to encourage me in a way that only she could have done, and it brought me some hope that I could never have manufactured on my own.

9.  There will always be naysayers. When George and Mary walk down the aisle, we see Mary’s mother crying, and they aren’t tears of joy. In the end she comes around and donates money to help George’s cause. Some of our critics will change their minds about us too. But not all of them will, just as Mr. Potter remains greedy and grouchy, and we shouldn’t be surprised by this.

10.  Helping others helps us. On occasion when I’ve been feeling sorry for myself for some reason or another, my husband has suggested that I help someone else so that I’ll feel better. I admit I haven’t been too appreciative of that recommendation, but he is right—when we’re feeling blue, helping others takes the focus off of ourselves, gives us a perspective check, and benefits someone else. Saving Clarence from drowning saved George, and helping George allowed Clarence to earn his wings. And George Bailey’s life and legacy have helped us too!

It's a wonderful life! Merry Christmas.

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Christmas Quick Reads

The cozy glow of a Christmas tree provides an ideal context for pajama-clad, cocoa-sipping reading. My favorite Christmas-themed literature, developed through years of just such tree-side reading, includes Clement Moore's famous poem, "'Twas the Night Before Christmas,"  the humorous and grace-filled book, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, and Charles Dickens' classic redemptive short story, "A Christmas Carol." This year I've been reading blogs, and I've got some quick but reflective reads for you. Enjoy!

Celebrating St. Nicholas, the real Santa Claus

Tsh Oxenreider discusses the historical St. Nicholas at The Art of Simple.


Just Drop the Blanket: The Moment You Never Noticed in A Charlie Brown Christmas

Jason Soroski provides some clever insight into the classic Peanuts Christmas special via Crosswalk.


What We Get Wrong About Advent

Stephen Miller discusses the real significance of Advent via Relevant.


Naughty or Nice?

Duck Dynasty's Missy Robertson explains why we may think of God the same way our young selves thought of Santa.


How to Remember When You'd Rather Forget

Emily Freeman talks about what to do with the mixed feelings Christmas sometimes brings on the (in)courage Blog.

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, which means that I may receive a small commission if you make a purchase through one of the links I've provided here--at no additional cost to you. Please check out my disclosure policy for more info, and thanks for your support!

What are your favorite Christmastime reads?

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I Heard the Bells

Several years ago I worked as a piano accompanist for a high school choral music program. Between rehearsing with the whole choir, pounding out individual vocal parts, and practicing on my own, I’d play any given song approximately 47.38 times from first run to concert performance. This overexposure endeared some songs to me and caused me to loathe others—sorry, “Seasons of Love,” it’s loathing for you.

One song I came to appreciate through this process was “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” I love this holiday hymn because its lyrics, written by the poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, have a rich historical background and speak to me personally as well, and its music, composed by Jean Baptiste Calkin, beautifully adds emotion to tell a more vivid story.

Read the lyrics of this song, keeping in mind that the tune places emphasis on the second line of each verse and finishes with a sense of resolution by the fourth. (If you need a refresher on the music, listen to this rendition by Echosmith.)

“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”


I heard the bells on Christmas day

Their old familiar carols play,

And wild and sweet the words repeat,

Of peace on earth, goodwill to men


And thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along th’unbroken song

Of peace on earth, goodwill to men


And in despair I bowed my head:

“There is no peace on earth,” I said,

“For hate is strong, and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, goodwill to men”


Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,

With peace on earth, goodwill to men”


Till ringing, singing on its way,

The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,

Of peace on earth, goodwill to men!

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned these words in the midst of great heartache in his life. Several years earlier, his wife tragically died in a fire, and not long after that, the Civil War began. Longfellow’s soldier son, Charley, was shot in battle and nearly paralyzed, and it was while nursing him back to health that Henry wrote these lyrics.*

The Christmas bells that so encouraged Longfellow during such a dark season were undoubtedly church bells, and I imagine that hearing them was so comforting to him because they reminded him of the teaching he’d received within the church’s walls, foundational truths that transcended present circumstances.

The litany, “of peace on earth, goodwill to men,” comes from the angels’ pronouncement to the shepherds at the birth of Christ; they were told to fear not and to receive the good news for all people that a Savior was born (Luke 2:8-11). “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’” (Luke 2:13-14) The birth of a Savior meant peace on earth and good will for everyone, and that has remained the greatest reason for celebrating the Christmas season from Bible times to the Civil War to the present.

Longfellow certainly had reason to bow his head in despair, lose faith in the possibility of peace on earth, and be overwhelmed by the hate he observed in the world. Most of us have found ourselves in a similar spot at one time or another, whether due to the turmoil we’ve seen on the news or the turmoil we’ve experienced personally through broken relationships, loss, and unfulfilled dreams. As implied in the song, it can be tempting to think that God is dead. Or for those like myself who remain convinced that God is alive, it can be even more tempting to believe that He is asleep at the wheel, snoozing on the job. I’m comforted by the same words in which Longfellow found solace:

“I lift up my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip—He who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord watches over you—the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all harm—He will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.” (Psalm 121, emphasis mine)

This Christmas season, let the music and traditions remind you of some transcendent truth you may have forgotten about—such as the truth that whether in this life or the next, the wrong will fail and the right prevail (2 Corinthians 4:16-18). Even if you’re skeptical about the Bible, read a few chapters and see if they have something to say to your modern life; let its words bring you comfort that’s outside of yourself—of peace on earth, goodwill to men.

In what truth are you finding comfort this Christmas season? Tell me in the comments.

*Biographical info taken from Come Let Us Adore Him by Robert J. Morgan.

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My Life Is Not a Hallmark Movie

I’d like to talk to you about my favorite Hallmark Christmas movie, The Christmas Card. I hesitated to write about Christmas since we have not yet celebrated Thanksgiving, but then I remembered that the Hallmark Channel’s “Countdown to Christmas” movie marathon begins each year on Halloween, so I think I’m in good company. Oh, and I won’t be offended if any of you holiday purists would like to save this article for your December reading.

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, which means that I may receive a small commission if you make a purchase through one of the links I've provided here--at no additional cost to you. Please check out my disclosure policy for more info, and thanks for your support!

The Christmas Card tells the heartwarming story of a soldier stationed in Afghanistan who receives a Christmas card from a small town charity project. The card becomes a lifeline for him and takes him to charming and hospitable Nevada City, California, on his next leave just in time for Christmas. Enter a classic Hallmark Channel love triangle with a predictable juxtaposition: girl must choose between long-time-nice-guy-city-slicker-boyfriend and mysterious-new-yes-ma’am-manly-man. In The Christmas Card, it’s Faith choosing between Paul—a wine broker with bad hair—and Cody—our kindhearted and studly soldier. We all know there’s no contest here.

Several years ago The Christmas Card was serendipitously on TV on Thanksgiving Day, so my family and I watched it. Why was this serendipitous? The character of Paul—yes, the one with the bad hair—and the obviousness that Faith should not choose him gave my family a personification of their feelings about the boyfriend I’d brought home for the holidays. Like Paul, he was a decent guy but a bit disengaged and very different from me. For these reasons and others, that this boyfriend and I were a mismatch was as clear to my family as the Hallmark viewer’s knowledge that the girl should always choose the masculine newcomer. My family told me as much—though they did so gently and expressed confidence in my ability to make a wise choice. I’d already begun to have a few concerns about this boyfriend myself, so my family’s confrontation simply forced me to face them head-on.

Up to this crisis point in my story, I’d been feeling like the heroine in my own Hallmark movie. All the necessary elements were present—holiday traditions, loving family, cozy fireplace, visiting boyfriend. As the reality of the decision before me sank in, one simple fact harshly reminded me that my life was in fact not a Hallmark movie: I had no Cody. While Faith had to choose between Paul and Cody, I had to choose between a decent-though-not-quite-perfect-for-me boyfriend and no boyfriend, a much more difficult choice. I could imagine a man who’d be a better fit for me—thanks, Hallmark—but there was no guy in my life who fit the bill, much less one in my immediate circle, conveniently around for the holidays in case I decided I needed a boyfriend upgrade.

Over the next six weeks I thought and prayed and talked to wise friends, and then I ended my relationship with this boyfriend. I knew it was a risk to forego “Paul” in hopes of finding “Cody” because the real world doesn’t deliver happy endings as frequently or as quickly as Hallmark—but I decided it was worth it. Almost three years later, my risk paid off in the appearance of my Cody—my husband, Greg. He is just as handsome, genuinely goodhearted, and amazing as Cody—and even more so because he is a real person. I’m so thankful that I didn’t allow my immediate desire to have a boyfriend keep me in a mediocre relationship that would have cost me my wonderful husband down the road.

I don’t believe that if we’re simply willing to wait long enough, every circumstance will end happily. Life is complex and messy and hard. However, I do believe that many areas of our lives—relationships, career, spirituality—remain less than what they could be because they go unchallenged. Good enough supplants best. This principle is applicable to every person in every stage of life, but I’m thinking specifically of the girls I’ve mentored over the past years, most of whom are now ages 18 to 25. They are going to college, dating, getting their first “real” jobs, getting married, and moving across the country. I hope that they’ll have the courage to ask hard questions, take risks, refuse to settle, and live with a little ambiguity.

By the way, those who have a relationship with God through Jesus (John 14:6) will receive the ultimate happy ending—heaven (Revelation 21)—as well as numerous earthly blessings (Psalm 31:19), like peace (Galatians 5:22), comfort in hard times (2 Corinthians 1:3-4), and answers to prayer (Luke 18:1-8). God even promises to give wisdom to those who ask Him for it (James 1:5), so we can be confident that we don’t have to navigate difficult decisions alone (Matthew 28:20). Maybe life isn’t a Hallmark movie, but with God it can be even better.

If you haven’t seen The Christmas Card, do yourself a favor, and make time to watch it today!

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