The Blue Hue of Christmas

Merry Christmas! He Qi is one of my favorite artists. His Nativity speaks to me so much so, that I can’t help but contemplate it each year at this time. He Qi brings the Nativity into his own Japanese culture. It’s a reminder that no matter our culture, our Christ comes to us. What strikes me about this work more than anything is the piece of fruit in Jesus’ little hand. I believe it’s significant. Read on to find out why.

Nativity, by He Qi. Used by permission. Click here to view and purchase prints and posters.

A few years ago I wrote a meditation on this piece of art. I’d like to share it with you again for this Christmas of 2016:

The hue is blue, but the mood is not. Into the pale, dark depths of a broken and fragmented world, a Star falls and lands into the waiting arms of a young lady, pink and pure.

Faceless angels spread their arms in blessing, while sheep and goats bow their heads in praise. A father’s lantern wants to lend some light, but the Star provides a beam that will not be overcome.

Lost in wonder, rag-topped men can do nothing else but crane their necks and gaze into the sky. From whence this light? From whence this love? From whence this Beaming Babe?

A Star has fallen into the waiting arms of a young lady, pink and pure. And in His tiny hands, Eden’s fruit that, this time, will not be consumed.

Spread your arms in blessing. Bow your head in praise. Bask in the light that will not be overcome. Lose yourself in wonder and crane your neck in eager expectation.

The hue is blue, but the mood is not! The Morning Star has come to bring His beaming brightness into the pale, dark depths of a broken and fragmented world. The hue is blue, but the mood is not.

How does this version of the Nativity speak to you?

Five Things to Do the Week Before Christmas

The countdown is on. Christmas is coming more quickly than most of us would care to admit. The busyness, the hustle, the bustle is coming to a head this week. It’s going to be a blur, so be sure to do what you can to slow down time and take it all in (as if we’re really able to do that).

Here are a few suggestions for enjoying the week and taking it all in. It’s the season of peace, so each of the things to do this week before Christmas starts with a “p”:

  1. Pause. I know. You’re busy. But take just a few minutes sometime this week to pause. When you pause, try this: write down a few things for which you’re thankful; jot down a few goals for the new year; recall some of the highlights of this past year; write a thank you note to someone who had a positive impact on your life this year.
  2. Pivot. Things this week will probably not go as expected. Families will be delayed. Gifts will be too big, too small, or break. Traffic will be maddening. There will be disappointments. Make the decision right now to pivot to the positive. Turn the conversation. Make it better. Bring joy into the situation.
  3. Pitch. This time of year things tend to come into the house. Make room for those things by pitching (or recycling, or donating) stuff that you no longer use or need. Make the things in your life more minimal. Make room for things that are important (and those aren’t necessarily material things).
  4. Ponder. Think about the real reason we celebrate at Christmas. It’s the celebration of the son of God taking on frail human flesh. One of my favorite poets, Luci Shaw, puts it like this: Down he came from up,
    and in from out,
    and here from there.
    A long leap,
    an incandescent fall
    from magnificent
    to naked, frail, small,
    through space,
    between stars,
    into our chill night air,
    shrunk, in infant grace,
    to our damp, cramped
    earthy place
    among all
    the shivering sheep.And now, after all,
    there he lies,
    fast asleep.
  5. Pray. Pray for peace in this world. Places like Aleppo, the Middle East, North Korea, and our own country really need it. Pray for peace in your heart. That kind of peace only comes with the forgiveness of sins purchased by Jesus’ blood on the cross. Pray prayers of thanks and praise. The Prince of Peace is coming.

What would you add to this list?

How to Extend Your Christmas Holiday

Raise your hand if your Christmas holiday went too fast. You can’t see me, but I’m raising my hand. My Christmas holiday went far too fast. It always does. Our son, Ben, came home the Saturday and left the day after Christmas. While he was here he got engaged to his girlfriend, Emily, who had also flown in for a couple of days. Her family surprised her by flying into Orlando the night they were engaged. My parents came in the day after Christmas. In the midst of it all our daughter, Ashlyn, and her husband, Josh, were at our home Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Crystal Pier in Pacific Beach, San Diego, CA

For weeks we had anticipated this time together with our family. More than that, we had anticipated everything the entire Christmas holiday stands for. Advent worship services prepared us. Devotional time got us ready. We did our shopping (mostly online) for Christmas gifts. We had a party. We cooked and baked things that we seem to have only this time of year.

We didn’t want it to end. But now Ben and Emily have gone back to Nashville. Most of the food and baked goods have been eaten. Wednesday Advent services are finished for another year. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, when we sang, “Glory to the newborn King,” are but memories that will linger for a long, long time. The gifts are opened. Some have already been returned. People in our neighborhood are inexplicably taking down their outdoor lights.

Now it’s all over.

Or is it? Though it may seem the the Christmas holiday is over, there are certainly ways to make sure that it is extended. I’m not delusional enough to say that the “Christmas spirit” can last the whole year. But it can most certainly last far longer than the radio stations or retail outlets will lead you to believe.

Here are three ways to extend your Christmas holiday:

  1. Count to twelve. There’s a good reason for the song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” The church has always celebrated Christmas for twelve days. It’s the number of days between Christmas and the day of Epiphany (which is the remembrance of the visit of the Magi). Even though most of the world has already moved past the Christmas holiday, thousands of years of tradition allow us twelve good, long days to celebrate the birth of the Savior of the world, as well as the love of family and friends, and an extra measure of peace. Be intentional about using all twelve days to celebrate. Keep cooking the good food. Make one more batch of cookies. Give a few more surprise gifts. It doesn’t all have to end quite yet.
  2. Record your memories. Every Christmas Eve since Tammy and I have been married, we have taken a picture of our family on Christmas Eve. Each picture now resides in a little photo album that comes out each Christmas holiday. It’s a great way to extend the season as we look through it these days after Christmas. There are other ways to record your memories, as well. You could start a journal in which you write the memories of the season. Then bring it out next year and write in it again. In this video age you could put together a Youtube “trailer” of this year’s events. It would be a great project to bring you into the new year and leave you memories to cherish in the future.
  3. Be counter-cultural. Keep the Christmas spirit. Despite the lack of Christmas music on the radio and in the stores, keep playing it in your home and in the car. Don’t give in to our throwaway culture that wants to immediately move on to the next thing. Linger a little while. Bask in the warm glow of Christmas. A new year may come and go, but Christmas lasts until January 6th. Keep it going. If we all do this, maybe we’ll start a movement.

How do you extend your Christmas holiday?

3 Things to Remember as You Open Your Christmas Gifts

When do you open your Christmas gifts? For our family, the tradition has been to open our Christmas gifts on Christmas morning. Since we are a pastor’s family, we’ve always had to work our gift opening around Christmas morning worship. That meant that when our kids were little they would come bounding into our room at the crack of dawn so that we could open our gifts and have some traditional Christmas breakfast before we would head to church.

Christmas Gift Giving

In the mad dash to get the Christmas gifts open on Christmas morning (…or Christmas Eve), sometimes it’s difficult to remember the purpose of gifts. If we really admit it, we can tend to be selfish about our gifts, whether it’s what we wanted, whether it fits, whether it’s money or just a “trinket” that we’ll just end up throwing away. But there is a deeper purpose behind gifts. And there are numerous reasons for us to be appreciative of the time, thought, and effort people put into giving us gifts.

When you open your Christmas gifts this year, try to remember these 3 things:

  1. Someone loves you. I am a notoriously difficult person to shop for — at least that’s what my family tells me. I guess it’s because I’m picky about things, and I tend to get myself most of the things I need. I don’t deserve the time and effort they put into the gifts they give me. But I know that very fact that they have put time and effort into getting me — a very difficult gift-receiver — shows that I am loved. It feels good to be loved.
  2. You’re not worthy. The very nature of a gift is that it is something “undeserved.” Chances are that over the course of the past year you did something to hurt, offend, or betray the very person who is now giving you a gift. I know that I certainly don’t deserve any gifts from my wife. I have far too often been frustrated or lost my temper when she didn’t deserve any such treatment at all. Face it, even if it was a minor infraction, you don’t deserve any gifts. But a gift carries along with it offenses smoothed over and sins forgiven. For me, that’s a comforting thing to know.
  3. Christmas Gifts are a reflection of the Greatest Gift. There is some dispute as to the origin of gift giving at Christmas. Some say it reflects the giving of the gifts of the Wise Men. Others say the origin comes from St. Nicholas who lived in the third century and was known for helping the poor. But the origin of gift-giving doesn’t come from human beings at all. It comes from God Himself. In the very beginning God gave the gift of life itself to Adam and Eve, and subsequently to each of us. But they, and we, turned against Him through our sins of thought, word, and deed. As you open your gifts, remember that God loves you though you are not worthy. In fact, He loves you so much that He gave the gift of His one and only Son, Jesus Christ, who would sacrifice Himself on a cross for every last one of your sins. The small gifts you receive this Christmas are but an infinitesimal reflection of the world’s Greatest Gift, and the Gift you have been given in the forgiveness of your sins and the assurance of eternal life.

As you open your Christmas gifts, remember that you are loved, you are unworthy, and those gifts are but a small reflection of the world’s Greatest Gift.

What does the act of gift giving bring to mind for you?

A (Joyfully) Blue Christmas

It’s going to be a blue Christmas. But despite what Elvis sings, it’s not because I’m going to be without you. It’s because of the joyfully blue Christmas one of my favorite artists, He Qi, portrays in his Nativity. He Qi uses blue Christmas tones to portray the deep of the night on that Night of all nights. Everyone is “blue” that Christmas night except the virgin Mary, meek and mild, and her tender child who’s holding (of all things) a red apple in His hand.

The red apple symbolizes the reason why your Christmas and mine should be truly blue: like Adam and Eve we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But because Jesus came into our flesh to bear our sin and be our Savior, our spiritual night has been turned into day, and we have been saved. The angel tells it. the shepherds stand in awe. And Joseph stands watch. The Light of the world has come.

Here’s something I wrote a number of years ago, reflecting on this piece of art, and on the Nativity itself:

Nativity, He QiNativity, by He Qi. Used by permission. Go to to view and purchase prints and posters.

The hue is blue, but the mood is not. Into the pale, dark depths of a broken and fragmented world, a Star falls and lands into the waiting arms of a young lady, pink and pure. Faceless angels spread their arms in blessing, while sheep and goats bow their heads in praise. A father’s lantern wants to lend some light, but the Star provides a beam that will not be overcome. Lost in wonder, rag-topped men can do nothing else but crane their necks and gaze into the sky. From whence this light? From whence this love? From whence this Beaming Babe?

A Star has fallen into the waiting arms of a young lady, pink and pure. And in His tiny hands, Eden’s fruit that, this time, will not be consumed. Spread your arms in blessing. Bow your head in praise. Bask in the light that will not be overcome. Lose yourself in wonder and crane your neck in eager expectation. The hue is blue, but the mood is not! The Morning Star has come to bring His beaming brightness into the pale, dark depths of a broken and fragmented world. The hue is blue, but the mood is not.

What’s the reason you celebrate the joy of a “blue” Christmas this year?

Managing Expectations at Christmas

It’s difficult to manage expectations at most any time, but it can be even more difficult at Christmas. Kids expect certain gifts under the tree: exactly what they wrote down on their Christmas list. Parents expect the perfect family gathering when everyone comes home for the holidays: no arguing, no fights, no misbehavior. Families expect the coming Christmas to replicate the treasured and cherished ones of the past: when the perfect moments came together, everyone got along, and the gifts were those once-in- a-lifetime, well-thought-out possessions.

Broken Ornament

In my experience, every church has at least one family that has exceptionally high expectations. They expect their pastor to be a mind-reader, to show up at the exact moment they want him, they want a phone call immediately after church wondering where they were if they have missed just once, and they are furious if their unrealistically high expectations aren’t met. It’s a tough standard to live up to.

The experiences I’ve had have taught me a bit about how to manage expectations, and how to manage those who have high expectations. My more than fifty years of Christmases have, as well. This holiday season, consider these five suggestions as you navigate potential land mines and find your way to a truly merry Christmas:

  1. Lower your expectations. The lower your expectations, the easier it will be to have them exceeded. It’s very difficult to replicate the past, so don’t expect things to be the way they were before. Recognize and understand that with time, things change. Accept that change with lower expectations of the way things will be and you will have a much happier holiday.
  2. Go with the flow. If things go in a direction that make you uncomfortable or uneasy with family members, do your best to go with it and salvage the situation. Instead of digging in your heals, go along for the ride. Be the bigger person. When our kids were little they didn’t want to ride roller coasters. When we finally got them on the rides their fears turned into laughter and exuberant screams. Roller coasters are scary, but in the end they’re actually fun (for most people). There will be ups and downs this holiday season. Turn your terror into laughter. Go with the flow. Have fun.
  3. Retain your sense of humor. When you go with the flow you can find humor in things that otherwise might make you mad. Put a smile on your face to help diffuse the situations that annoy you. Your heart and mind will follow the smile on your face, and the whole situation will be better for it. Some well-placed humor will diffuse most any tense situation.
  4. Create new memories. Since we can’t replicate the good times of the past, go into the holiday expecting to make new memories. Come up with some new games to play, places to go, or traditions to create. Introduce them to your family and friends with a positive attitude and set the tone for the time together.
  5. Get some “me” time. If things get out of hand (from your perspective), use your common sense to remove yourself from the situation. Instead of allowing things to escalate, your “me time” will put out a lit fuse. Take some time, some deep breaths, read a book, or listen to some music. Then reintroduce yourself with a better attitude. You will feel better, and your family and friends will be thankful that the gathering has a preponderance of Christmas peace.

Make this year’s holiday a season to remember…for all the right reasons.

How do you manage expectations during the holiday season?

5 Things To Do the Weekend Before Christmas

It’s the weekend before Christmas, and the Holiday is just around the corner. If you’re behind on your holiday shopping this could be a stressful weekend. If all your gifts are under the tree, maybe you have some baking to do. If everything is set you’ll have extra time on your hands. Whatever your situation this last weekend before Christmas, here’s some encouragement to do five things.

computer generated background image with christmas theme.

On this weekend before Christmas:

  1. Experiment. When you’re out and about do an experiment: put a smile on your face. This tradition comes from my wife and her father. When Tammy was just a little girl, she and her father would go out Christmas shopping and experiment by putting a smile on their faces and and see if anyone would smile back at them. Their experiment wasn’t always successful, but it most certainly made an impact. You can, too. Smile.
  2. Give. Be a little generous this weekend. Drop something in the red pot. Make a donation to the local homeless shelter or thrift shop. Give a couple of bucks (if only this once) to the person asking for it on the street. There are needs all throughout the year, but needs are especially urgent at this time. At our church we are collecting brand new pairs of socks because it is the least donated item to homeless shelters, and helps people at this time of year with comfort and prevention of disease.
  3.  Rest. If you’re like me, you’ve got a great deal going on in the next week. There was a pastor I worked with years ago who got sick every Christmas. I’m convinced it was because he was worn down and viruses were able to take hold in his system much easier. There are parties, family gatherings, traveling to do, places to go, people to see. Use this weekend to bank some rest and get ahead of the game. A well-rested you will be much more pleasant to be around and you hopefully won’t miss out on any of the holiday fun due to illness.
  4. Listen. I find it difficult to listen to Christmas music until late in the season. If you’re like me, this weekend is the time to break it all out. Blast the carols (or the first A Christmas Album by Amy Grant) in the car and sing at the top of your lungs. Then listen for the music you can only hear at this time of the year at the mall, on the radio, in people’s homes. Let it wash over you and bring you the joy, hope and peace of the season.
  5. Worship. This Sunday is the last Sunday in Advent, the Sunday when the church’s focus is Mary and her waiting and expectation of the Nativity of Jesus. It is a Sunday of great joy, great expectation, and great hope. If you haven’t been to worship recently, now is a great time to get back to it, feel the joy, and receive the gifts that only God can give. They are gifts that far exceed anything you’ll find under the tree.

What would you suggest people do the weekend before Christmas? 

Why There Is Unusual Comfort at Christmas

The older I get the more I feel an unusual comfort at Christmas. It wasn’t always that way. When I was a young child I remember having severe stomach aches and sad feelings at Christmastime. Maybe it was an illness. Maybe it was some sort of mental challenge. Whatever it was, it wasn’t fun. When I should have had the joie de vivre that any kid has at Christmas, there were a couple of years where I really felt buried under.

Closeup photo of family feet in wool socks at fireplace

Now I love this time of year and the comfort that it brings. I love going to the grocery store and seeing more smiles on faces, extra energy, and the displays that entice me to buy things that are unavailable other times of the year. There’s comfort in the hymns that we get to sing in church, with words like “All praise, eternal Son, to Thee, whose Advent (coming) sets Thy people free.” I can’t wait to eat the coffee cake my wife makes for us every Christmas morning (even though she doesn’t really like it; it wouldn’t be Christmas for me without it). It’s the same coffee cake my mom used to make for years and years, and now we have it in our home every Christmas (it’s a true “comfort” food).

There’s comfort in seeing Rudolph and Charlie Brown and Frosty. And even though I’m pretty sick of some of the Christmas music on the radio (can we please get rid of that Mariah Carey song??? …I won’t even mention it by name…), there is a certain contentment in resurrecting particular songs year after year (my “go-to” album has become Over the Rhine’s Snow Angels … check it out and see if you don’t agree with me that there is some hauntingly beautiful music that simple must be resurrected every year).

These are the ways and places I find an unusual comfort during the holiday season. But I think it’s what lies behind them that brings the reason for unusual comfort at Christmas. As I thought about it I realized the thing that really brings comfort can be boiled down to one word: Tradition.

Tradition has gained a bad reputation in this day and age of new technology when everything has to be up-to-date and “relevant.” But there’s a reason why A Charlie Brown Christmas has been shown for fifty years. There’s a reason why I enjoy my wife’s coffee cake on Christmas morning. There’s a reason why the liturgy of the church and many of its hymns have lasted for generation after generation.

Tradition is why there is an unusual comfort for me at Christmas. Here’s why:

  1. Tradition reminds us that others have gone before us. I find comfort in knowing that generations before me have celebrated a World-Changing Event in the same way that I do. They have spoken the same liturgy, sung the same hymns, even seen the same simple TV shows.
  2. Tradition reveals the things that have stood the test of time. There is comfort in things that are well done, that one generation hands to the next. The older I get, the more I appreciate the things that aren’t “cheap,” the things that have quality.
  3. Tradition respects the richness of things that remain the same. In other words, there is comfort in things that are known, things that are understood, things that we’ve experienced before and bring back memories of joy, security, and contentment.

All of this put together brings about the unusual comfort that is felt during the Christmas season. So enjoy those old songs, enjoy those classic TV shows, enjoy that ancient liturgy. It’s all comfortable like an old pair of jeans or the soft clothes you put on at the end of the day. Celebrate the joie de vivre and the spirit of the Holiday.

Where do you find comfort during the holiday season?

5 Creative Christmas Gifts to Bring Out the Artist in Anyone

It’s probably not a surprise to you that I like to encourage creativity by giving Christmas gifts that do the same. Christmas vacation is the perfect time for people to crack open their creative selves and start the new year on a fresh, creative note. I also find a deeper meaning in creative Christmas gifts when I remember that the Ultimate Christmas Gift was the most creative gift ever given. God, the Father, gave His Son into human flesh to bring about human forgiveness and salvation.

Packets of presents under the Christmas tree on the background of colored lights

Our human creativity is but a small reflection of the creativity of the Creator God. Why not encourage that wonderful gift in the lives of those we love?

Years ago I received a book for Christmas called: Watercolor for the Artistically Undiscovered. It was a book that came with a paint brush and set of watercolor paints. I loved dabbling with watercolors, but had never really had any instruction. The book I received (meant for any age) gave me both simple instructions in watercolor painting and the opportunity to actually do what I was learning. The book was meant to be painted. It was meant to be an opportunity to experiment right then and there with what I was learning.

How about reserving one gift that encourages creativity for everyone on your list this year? No matter their station in life, everyone could use a creative boost, and whether they admit it or not, will appreciate a creative Christmas gift.

Here are my five favorite picks for creative gifts this Christmas:

  1. Drawing: For the Artistically Undiscovered (Klutz) I am not a great visual artist. Having said that, I’m better at painting than drawing. This book will do for your drawing what the aforementioned Watercolor for the Artistically Undiscovered will do for your painting. This book is great for either kids or adults. Unleash someone’s artist!
  2. The Steal Like an Artist Journal: A Notebook for Creative Kleptomaniacs Steal Like an Artist is one of my very favorite books on the creative pursuit. It’s simple, easy to read, and yet extremely profound. Now Austin Kleon has come out with a journal that will help you interact with your creative self and begin to make great art.
  3.  The Creativity Challenge: Design, Experiment, Test, Innovate, Build, Create, Inspire, and Unleash Your Genius This book will help you change the way you usually think to help you gain creative insight and art of any kind. There are over 100 different challenges and exercises to help you with new ideas and new possibilities in your work or play.
  4. 344 Questions: The Creative Person’s Do-It-Yourself Guide to Insight, Survival, and Artistic Fulfillment (Voices That Matter) This book, entirely filled with questions, is a great way to spark creativity by thinking through things and jotting thoughts and ideas down right into the book itself. The book even includes the questions many celebrities asked, or wished they had asked themselves, on the way to success.
  5. Wreck This Journal (Black) Expanded Ed. The title of this book says it all. I’m the type who cringes when a page in one of my books gets folded or wrinkled. But this book makes me change my fastidiousness and gives me the opportunity to write, poke holes, fold, and generally wreck this book while at the same time moves me massive step forward in my creativity.

What gift would you give to spark someone’s creativity? 

How My Mail Man Makes My Day

My mail man makes my day every day. You might think it’s because of the parcels and envelopes he leaves behind when he stops by my office. He usually leaves behind junk mail, magazines, or a rare card or note. Those are all fine and well. But every single day he leaves behind something even more important.

Mail box. 3D illustration isolated on white

My mail man barely spends five seconds dropping off our office’s mail. But he leaves behind something far better than a card or letter. When he walks in the door he leaves behind a positive attitude and happy energy. He comes bounding in the door at about 10:00 every morning and says the same thing:

You have a fantastic day!

Sometimes I’m not even in the same room, but I can hear him speaking to others all the way from my office: “You have a fantastic day!” It’s infectious. It’s inviting. It’s positive. It comes from the bottom of his heart. It lights up the whole room and everyone in it.

After my mail man spends five seconds in my presence, my entire day is made. If I am deep in thought or in the inner recesses of my mind, he pulls me out of it and makes me aware of the blessings of the people with whom I work. If I am getting ready to head out and visit people he transfers his attitude to me, and then I, in turn, transfer it to the people I meet. If I am trying to pull myself out of my early morning grogginess, he lights up the room and wakes me up.

Five seconds with five kind and encouraging words can make a person’s day. I’m trying to replicate what my mail man does for me. I’m trying to be an encouraging presence and a shining light in people’s lives.

You can, too. Let’s call it the “Mail Man Effect.” Let’s light up this year’s holiday season with the “Mail Man Effect.” Here are some ideas:

  • Ask the clerk at the store how her day is going.
  • Tip the waiter or waitress more than 20% and add a note of encouragement on the receipt.
  • Buy a few small gifts and give them to random people at unexpected times.
  • Say, “Merry Christmas.”
  • Take some Christmas cookies to your next door neighbor.
  • Drop a note in the mail to someone who has been an encouragement to you.
  • Give a candy cane to a kid.
  • Send an email to an old friend.
  • Throw a party.
  • Invite a friend to church for the Christmas Eve service.

Or, you could even greet your own mail man with the words: “You have a fantastic day!”

What ideas would you add to spread the “Mail Man Effect” this holiday season?