Finding Joy When the Holidays Aren’t So Merry

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Holidays can be really strange when you’re an expat.

On the one hand, my Facebook and Instagram feeds are jammed with photos from traditional celebrations back home. On the other hand, I’m faced with the reality of celebrating abroad.

The contrast in my brain is just … weird.

Before I go further, let me say—I’m blessed to have very merry celebrations here in Dubai with beautiful friends and family from my church, GateKeepersBut that doesn’t mean I don’t notice or remember holidays past. Or imagine what it would be like to step off a plane in snowy Chicago, and catch a bus home to Milwaukee to surprise certain people there.

It’s not so much that I miss home during the holidays. It’s that I realize how much my life has changed in the year and a half since I left home.

I mean, think about it…

Holidays are a tool we use to mark the passage of time in our lives.

We recall where we were in our lives last Easter versus this Easter. Last Thanksgiving versus now. Or, more recently, last Christmas versus this one.

In these moments, I become acutely aware of the world I left behind. Of the realities of my life here–which is wonderful, but also has its own unique forms of stress I never faced in the States.

For some reason, the promise of Christmas also highlights the very real promises of God in my life which I’m still waiting on. I also become acutely aware at these times of the dreams or plans I had for 2019 that didn’t come to fruition.

Another Christmas without the laughter and joy of children of my own.

Another Christmas without a “love of my life” as my plus-one.

Another Christmas as someone’s “single dinner guest.”

Just add some red desert sand, a few palm trees, and the low rumble of the azaan (Islamic call to prayer) blending with Christmas bells over the mall sound system… and you have a very good sense of my Christmases in Dubai.

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I know I’m not the only one who experiences this sense of “time warp” at the holidays, and notices what has changed in life… and (sometimes more painfully) what has not.

This beautiful season has the capacity to bring me to heights of joy, and reduce me to tears, all at the same time.

But my position as a foreigner in a country, with no fixed status and no discernible future here, is also a powerful reminder of Jesus’ status when He came.

Thought the creator of the planet, he was treated as a foreigner on it. He had “family” here on earth, but in exchange, He left the intimate fellowship of the Godhead in Heaven. In one unbelievable moment of birth, He found himself dropped into a cold, violent world that was unfriendly to His mission and his message.

Jesus knows what it means to be an expat at the holidays. He knows what it means to be separated from Family. He knows what it means to have no discernible role or future in the world around Him.

Yet, He found joy even in this uncomfortable reality.

Hebrews 12:2 says in The Passion Translation:

“We look away from the natural realm and we fasten our gaze onto Jesus who birthed faith within us and who leads us forward into faith’s perfection. His example is this: Because his heart was focused on the joy of knowing that you would be his, he endured the agony of the cross and conquered its humiliation, and now sits exalted at the right hand of the throne of God!”

In situations where there was little joy to be found from a human perspective, Jesus still found a joyful place to focus His heart.

Throughout His earthly journey, He had choices about where He chose to focus His attention. And He focused it on the results of our redemption.

In other words, He was able to look past His present sufferings—to see what would be the result.

Perhaps this is the key to finding joy at times like the holidays where we might be more easily tempted to sadness or even despair. We must find a place to focus our hearts on something other than the sense of loss or distance, or the constant temptation to judge why our realities don’t (yet) match what we hoped for by this point in life.

If Jesus Christ needed a fixed focus to maintain His joy, how much more do we?

This Christmas, if you (as an expat or for any other reason) find yourself discouraged or isolated … I encourage you to sit down and sort out what you want to focus on.

Not on losses …. but on your riches in Christ.

Not on alienation … but on your acceptance in the Beloved.

Not on upset plans … but on the consistent goodness of God’s plan for your life.

Not on delayed desires … but on the tangible blessings you possess now.

Not on future uncertainty … but on God’s immediate provision.

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You might not be able to change your circumstances this holiday season, but you can change your focus.

Let the peace and joy of God—which are always available—be the place you look to.

After all, we are about to enter a brand-new decade.

Old things are passed away. Behold, all things are becoming new.

Let your focus be on God this Christmas, regardless of your circumstances. I can think of no better way to enter 2020—no matter what things might look like physically. God is well able to transform all that we face into a glorious story of triumph.

That story of triumph begins within us.

Merry Christmas, one and all.

– – –

What do you feel and think about the holidays? How do you handle sadness or loneliness that arise? Share your thoughts below. 

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