We are finishing up addressing our Christmas cards.

I have started to see this little tradition as a discipline of grace, gratitude, and outreach.

For me it is a miniature act of relational jubilee, an opportunity to reach out and say thank you for whatever you have done to bring us together in the past or the present.

Somehow, in spite of many moves and in spite of growing far apart from so many people as our life has changed so much and so quickly, our Christmas list remains abundant. And I find that beautiful even when I am at my loneliest or poorest or most full of regret or doubt.

Finances have always been a stretch this time of year ever since we got married, as it is for many people, but I cherish budgeting for this little project.

In fact, for our eldest son’s first Christmas we were so broke that we weren’t going to do anything on our own for him (we did fly to be with family later that day). But my lovely husband took our baby’s stocking that we had ordered the previous year and filled it with an orange and tiny beanbag Winnie the Pooh that he bought last minute at the grocery store on Christmas Eve with some of our last few dollars. He did that to surprise both me and our baby boy on Christmas morning.

Tears of joy, tears of fear, tears of hope, tears of shame, tears of gratitude. They all came pouring out mixed together that Christmas.

Sweet mercies of tender gifts of love amid hardship.

We still sent out cards that year. The list was more restrictive, for a variety of reasons, but we sent them.

It just felt right to say hello and thank you and bless you to the people on our hearts or to all the people who had supported us up to that point. Perhaps most of all we did it back then precisely because life was so hard. One of the surest ways to find hope in a hopeless situation is to offer it and send it to others first.

But there are some cards that I just cannot send.

I don’t know exactly why this person and not that person. How we forgive and how we stay in touch and how we can or cannot bear to keep trying can be hard to tease out or explain.

Sometimes it’s because I think a person must not care anymore. I often wonder if some people on our list just look at our cards and then throw them away, not really caring if they ever hear from us again. It can be hard to know, you know?

That’s the vulnerability of the whole endeavor.

To give anything is to risk rejection. But to risk nothing is no way to live.

We cannot love if we cannot risk.

Sometimes it is even darker and harder than all that.

The elder cousins who played monkey in the middle with me as a child, who always put me in the middle as joke and who never really changed how they related to me as we all grew up, well, they still get cards.

It’s a small gesture, but it helps my heart to make peace and sense of the disappointment or the disconnect or the distance.

The person who once wrote that it would be better off if me and my family were ashes in urns on someone else’s mantle rather than alive and making independent choices does not get a card. They probably never will again.

Some things this side of heaven are too much move past, even as I ask my heart each year to release more pain and anger and to forgive. It’s a process. And nothing about forgiveness requires that I send anyone else a Christmas card.

Some wounds must ultimately be turned over to God, for his work and wisdom and grace. Some pains really do sear. Some words just cannot be taken back. Some relationships just cannot be lightly put back together, even in just a symbolic way.

That is sad but that is also the truth.

We tend to send out cards early, mostly because we kept moving and I wanted people to know that we had a new address. I am absolutely terrible about proactively reaching out and staying connected with other people, but on this one small tradition I keep trying.

We lost touch with some folks along the way, but the further we go the wider I want to leave open this door. Now I am working to track down any people from my past who may still care to know or be known.

Each year I am grateful to do this as an entry into advent.

These cards are a joy but they are also a darkness. The sifting through all your family and friends, old address lists and text messages and emails, is a journey. Every year it is a journey.

Revisiting the joys, yes, but also the pain.

This world can be so inspiring.

This world can be so hard.

This world can be so broken.

It seems no coincidence that revisiting all of this enters our life just as we begin to turn our eyes and tune our ears to the longing of the prophets for the coming of the King.

I send out my cards with a lot of peace and hope and well wishes. No matter who we are sending them to this is my heart behind every one of them.

But it would be such a lie to say that they are not also sent with a myriad of tears or fears or trepidation. Unresolved wounds of the past, sharp sighs of regret or might have beens, anxiety about the future, or a weighty remembrance of who is not included and why.

Deaths, of body or of relationship, are never easy to confront anew, no matter how much time has passed.

This heaviness coexists with the lightness of festive jubilation.

It is the humbling feeling of advent and the exuberant feeling of Christmas all sealed together in a stack of envelopes and then sent out to the many corners of the country for reasons as vast and varied as life itself.

To me, this is the strangest thing about the holiday season. How it so often pulls together our brightest and darkest moments and then ties them all up in a bow.

Advent is about allowing ourselves to feel these discordant yearnings, sighs, and uncertainties.

Preparing our hearts for Christ is no small task.

And yet sometimes it is through very small things, such as the disciplined custom of annually confronting of our complex life story one stamp at a time, which nonetheless stirs and shouts for us to get ready.

For He who forgives, and He who provides, and He who loves, and He who heals, and He who protects, and He who saves is coming again.

“O come, O Bright and Morning Star,

and bring us comfort from afar!

Dispel the shadows of the night

and turn our darkness into light.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel

shall come to you, O Israel

O come, O King of nations, bind

in one the hearts of all mankind.

Bid all our sad divisions cease

and be yourself our King of Peace.”