Curing the Christmas Blues

15 12 2018

IMG_20181216_081000197The holidays can be the toughest time of year. Especially if you’re alone.

As I write this, my wife is out of town helping a friend through surgery. My daughter is taking off on a train trip with her friends. And my son is an ocean away at university. Being alone at Christmas can make you long for the days of bickering over which Christmas movie to watch, awkward political conversations with the in-laws, and fighting both weather and traffic to visit grandma’s house.

No wonder people struggle with depression at Christmas. Being with extended family is stressful. Being without family feels extra-lonely at Christmas.

Before all the vibrant reds and greens drift into forgettable grays or those depressing blues, here are two ways to save Christmas:

  • Do something you like

In C.S. Lewis’s novel The Screwtape Letters, an older demon guides a younger demon in how to ruin a person’s life. In Chapter 13, he warns the demon to keep the human from reading a book he enjoys, or taking a walk out in nature that he loves. These simple pleasures come from God, and make the human feel “that he was coming home, recovering himself.”

Unacceptable, the older demon warns. “All the healthy and out-going activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at least he may say…’I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither  what I ought nor what I liked.’”

The demon continues: “Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man’s best years [or a holiday!] not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why.”

This Christmas, make it a point to do something you like—read a novel, take a walk, bake Christmas cookies for someone, decorate a Christmas tree just for yourself—there are a million pleasures God has given us that can bring joy to our world.

  • Engage with the human race

In the Ted Talk “How to Make Stress your Friend” by Kelly McGonigal, I learned that the neural-hormone oxytocin is released when we’re under stress; however, it’s also released when we hug someone. Kelly’s conclusion is that “when oxytocin is released in the stress response, it is motivating you to seek support. . . Oxytocin makes you crave physical contact with your friends and family, it enhances your empathy, it even makes you more willing to help and support the people you care about. . . So when you reach out to others under stress, either to seek support or to help someone else, you release more of this hormone, your stress response becomes healthier, and you actually recover faster from stress. I find this amazing, that your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience—and that mechanism is human connection.”

Whether it’s the stress of traffic, shopping, and annoying relatives, or the stress of loneliness, our human tendency to run from the pain and isolate ourselves actually makes things worse. We need people—if not someone who cares for us, at least someone to care for.

So my second piece of advice for curing the Christmas Blues is to connect with someone you love, even if it has to be by Skype or phone; and reach out to someone who needs to be loved. Babysit someone’s kids, serve Christmas dinner at a shelter, ask in your local retirement home who is unlikely to have family visit, and listen to their stories for an hour. Or check which university students near you can’t make it home for the holidays (like my son!) and invite them for dinner. You won’t just be a blessing to them—you’ll discover a stress resilience inside yourself that leads to joy.

As C.S. Lewis reminds us, wasting our holidays on “nothing” would be a shame. Joy comes when we stay active doing things we enjoy, and when we give and receive love.

Merry Christmas!





Unifying America

9 01 2017
from HGTV website

Chip Gaines on HGTV’s “Fixer Upper”

Generally, those who have reviewed my novels on terrorism and peacemaking have been encouraging if not enthusiastic. However, I was recently blessed by a brutally honest reviewer who objected to some aspects of my newest book, A VIOLENT LIGHT.

This reviewer drew conclusions that because some characters in the book acted the way they did, that I must be anti-law enforcement, anti-veterans, anti-gun owners, anti-self-defense, and anti-sharing your faith. This person decided that because of how some characters tried to build bridges across the religious divide, that I must be a universalist. All of these assumptions were incorrect.

I felt the parallels right away when I read about HGTV stars Chip and Joanna Gaines from the show “Fixer Upper” getting blasted as LGBT haters because they attend a church that preaches that Biblical marriage is between a man and a woman.

I love Chip’s response: “We want to help initiate conversations between people that don’t think alike. Listen to me, we do not all have to agree with each other. Disagreement is not the same thing as hate, don’t believe that lie.”

Those who attacked Chip and Joanna are similar to the reviewer who struggled with my novel—they perceive issues through dichotomous, black-and-white thinking: “If it’s not this, it must be that.”

  • If you don’t support the war, you must be disrespecting our veterans
  • If you don’t support gay marriage, you must hate those of LGBT identities
  • If you don’t try to convince people of other religions that your religion is superior to theirs, you must be a universalist

We heard plenty of this narrow thinking during the recent presidential campaign. One friend basically told me, “If you are critical of anything Trump has said or done, you must be supporting Hilary,” while another implied, “If you agree with any one thing Trump has said or done, you must be endorsing racism, sexism, xenophobia and a host of other evils.” Neither of these people took the time to actually understand what I thought about either candidate or the issues, having instantly pigeon-holed me with “not this, so that” thinking.

I know some of my Christian friends question why I work for peace alongside Muslims when, according to their thinking, I should be convincing Muslims to agree with my religious views first before working with them. Once again, here’s Chip’s brilliant perspective: “If your position only extends love to the people who agree with you, we want to respectfully challenge that position. We propose operating with a love so real and true that you are willing to roll up your sleeves and work alongside the very people that are most unlike you.

“Fear dissolves in close proximity. Our stereotypes and vain imaginations fall away when we labor side by side. This is how a house gets unified.”

What a good word for America, and for our world! Disagreement should never limit our capacity to love and serve others. Can we post this on the wall of the Senate and House chambers? How about at city-wide pastors’ meetings? Or at any community event?

The truth is that most issues are complex, most people are complex, and anyone who tries to get a group of people to agree on every single thing is probably a cult leader. Assuming that someone who disagrees with us must be on the opposite end of the spectrum from us, must be intolerant or a hater, does not extend to them the grace that we wish would be extended to us in all of our complexity.

Where I live and pursue peace in Indonesia, our current president Joko Widodo models well what Chip is saying. While the extremists were issuing fatwas forbidding Muslims from even wishing Christians a “Merry Christmas,” our Muslim president ignored them and joined the Christians in their Christmas celebrations. Yasser Arafat did the same every Christmas between 1995-2000 attending Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and Armenian church celebrations with the Christian minorities in Bethlehem.

Both cases opened the door to accusations from the black-and-white thinkers. Christians speculated that the president must have become a Christian. Muslim extremists concluded that the president must have left the true faith. Both sides were guilty of dichotomous fallacies; the truth was that though Joko Widodo and Yasser Arafat disagreed with the minority Christians in matters of religion, it didn’t stop them from showing honor, support, and perhaps even love. Nelson Mandela, a Christian, experienced the same treatment when joining prayers at a mosque of minority Muslims in South Africa. But these men rose above such narrow thinking because “this is how a house gets unified.”

Our divided nation cannot wait for us all to agree as a prerequisite to progress. It’s time we “roll up our sleeves and work alongside the very people most unlike us.” As we do, we’ll learn to understand each other, and undoubtedly change each other in the process.





Christmas in the Bible and the Al Qur’an

19 12 2016
Govert Flinck – Angels announcing Christ’s birth to the shepherds (1639)

Govert Flinck – Angels announcing Christ’s birth to the shepherds (1639)

“Why do you think God announced the birth of Al Masih (the Messiah) to shepherds?” I asked my Muslim friend.

We had been talking about the Christmas story, and how the Al-Qur’an and the Bible emphasize different aspects of the story, but the Bible definitely includes a lot more detail.

Already mentioned were the similarities between the two accounts—of God visiting the virgin Mary to announce to her the miracle He was about to do by giving her a special son. The Bible tells how God chooses the boy’s name to be “Jesus,” literally, “God saves,” and that he will be called “Son of God” and rule over an everlasting kingdom. (Luke 1:26-38) Later God adds to the shepherds that Jesus is the “Savior…Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:1-20) The Al Qur’an contributes that Jesus is a “mercy” from God, His Word and Spirit. (Surah Al-Maryam 19:16-21; Surah Al-Nisa 4:171)

The chapter of the Al-Qur’an named after Jesus’ mother Mary (Surah Al-Maryam) focuses in on the story of how Mary’s neighbors reacted wrongly to this immaculate conception, causing Mary to take refuge from them outside the village, but how God took care of her there.

The Bible accounts of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke use a panoramic view to include several other characters in the story, such as the sky being filled with singing angels announcing Jesus’ birth to the shepherds, and the star leading wise men from the east to bring their gifts in worship to a new “king.”

So I asked my friend, why not announce Jesus’ birth to the governor or the king? Why not to the religious leaders? Why shepherds?

“Rich people often use their wealth for evil,” he replied. “Maybe the shepherds had pure hearts.”

“That’s so true,” I agreed. “And I think God wants us to know that He sees all of us. He sees the everyday people, like the shepherds, and He wants to include them in what He’s doing.”

“I have some goats,” my friend boasted. “I’m a shepherd too, you know.”

I smiled at him. Yes, I did know. And I knew that he lived a self-sacrificing life trying to raise four children after the untimely death of his wife, but he had never resorted to wrong ways of obtaining money. He’d worked hard, treated people well, and trusted God. He had a pure heart. And I knew God saw this, and loved him.

“How about this one?” I continued. “Why did God announce the Messiah’s birth to foreign wise men? Were there no wise men in Israel?”

My friend had no answer for this. So I shared my idea: “I think God wanted us to know that this Messiah’s birth was not just for the people of one country, but for everyone around the world.” And for me living in Indonesia, I wanted to add, “I’m a foreigner too, you know.”

No other birth in history has been marked with so many signs—a special star, a heavenly choir, a virgin-birth miracle, so many people receiving dreams and visitations, numerous prophecies fulfilled… No other baby has been given such illustrious names to live up to—Savior, Son of God, eternal King, God’s Word and Spirit, God’s mercy to mankind… Truly this is a birthday worthy of being remembered by Christians, Muslims, and anyone who respects what Jesus brought to this earth.

But for my friend and me, this Christmas we’re challenged to remember that God cares enough about us to include us in what He’s doing—even if we’re only lowly goatherds or foreigners—perhaps He’s just looking for someone with an open heart.

Merry Christmas!