Sunday, January 12, 2014

Tis the Season

This is a true story.

Many years ago I participated in Black Friday shopping. I had only been once before and this was the last time I would participate. I remember braving the cold and leaving my house about midnight. I arrived at a local department store and waited in line with hundreds of others looking forward to the doors opening and making a mad dash to pick up what I didn’t need.

You should never shop on this day without a plan. And so I crafted a plan that would have me weaving in and out of aisles only picking up the specific items I had planned for. This was not an evening to browse. It was in aisle eleven when the incident happened. Despite the weaving, the pushing, the haggling, the madness, I did stop to browse as an item had caught my eye.  Then it happened. Out of nowhere I was struck by a fast moving shopping carriage. The carriage struck me in the ankles and I fell harder and faster than desert rain.

I lay there, not seriously injured. I lay there thinking about what had just happened. I looked up to eye the operator of the offending carriage. To my surprise I found a grandmother looking down at me. She had beautiful white hair placed in a way that it was obvious a lot of time was given to its care and style. She wore a bright red sweater with a velvet ribbon tied at the neck.  She was the storybook version of a grandmother at Christmas. 

Our eyes locked and she yelled “Move it!”

As I rolled to the side to let her pass she muttered, and I believe she even cursed. I’ve spent a lot of time recalling this incident and thinking a lot about that perpetrator. What could she have been thinking? What drove her to wield a shopping carriage as a weapon? What was happening in her life that brought her to such a state? What happened to Christmas? I learned a few things that evening. You won’t find the magic and spirit of this season in aisle 11 of a department store on Black Friday and that this magical season can bring out our shadow selves and that this season can bring us to sparkling places but to dark places as well.  Tis the season for the paradox of joy and disappointment.

My uncle married a woman named Mary. As a child Mary was one of my favorite relatives. She was bold, irreverent, challenging, and you never had to guess what was on her mind. I found her to be comical but perhaps she simply appealed to my dry and dark sense of humor. My grandmother loathed Mary. My grandmother had never met anyone that challenged her as the matriarch of the family. I’ve never known anyone in my grandmother’s 85 years to challenge her in that way since. My grandmother said that Mary cheated at cards and had poor manners.

Everyone knows you’re not supposed to talk about people when they’re in the room. But Mary did. Mary had one other interesting practice. Each year when Christmas rolled around she would announce that she was going to put up her Christmas tree. Naturally as a little one I was excited and eager to trim the tree. The next thing I knew Mary walked down the stairs from her upstairs walk in closet carrying a fully decorated artificial tree. She placed it in the corner of the room and dusted her hands and said “perfect.” Mary kept a fully decorated tree in her closet year round that made an annual appearance because she couldn’t be bothered with all the nonsense of decorating.

Mary had lost her ability to see and feel the wonder and magic of the season years before then. You see when Christmas was near, Mary began to think of her parents she had lost on December 24th  years ago. She was in pain. She also allowed feelings of inadequacy to overcome her because she felt she couldn’t have or do all that many others had this time of year. She became anxious about what the expectations of Christmas should be and must be. So she threw the whole lot away and didn’t bother. It was easier that way.

Seasonal images and stories have filled our minds since grade school days with countdowns till recess and dreams of sugar plum fairies and families with kind words, delicious food and festivities. Such visions have been installed, mostly subconsciously and consistently reinforced by media messages and consumerism. Our holidays are sitting ducks for expectations to sneak out of our unconscious minds and reek havoc with our current reality. The higher and more detailed the expectations, the steeper the potential disappointments. The season also has a knack for bringing us closer to our emotional pain.

Ask yourself about your ideal holiday and you will experience -- and can almost compute –- your risk for anxiety and disappointment. Would you prefer that your entire family be together rather than separated along the lines of in laws, divorce constraints or undeniable geography? Would you prefer to pick and choose your relatives and how they would ideally behave? Are there perfectionistic “shoulds” shouting their suggestions for your dinner designs and relentless demands decorating your internal conversations? Do these days serve as a reminder of things lost and past hurts? The power of greed and the race to being good enough tries to steal the ingredients that strengthen the magic of Christmas.

I remember being a kid, being so excited when it came closer to Christmas and being almost unable to wait until Christmas morning. Now I barely remember how soon Christmas is and those feelings I used to get, I have to try and find now, when they used to be natural. Where do those feelings go? Do we lose that childlike excitement and glee as we grow older? What was it I was looking forward to? Is it easier to welcome Santa Claus and believe in the “magic” of the season? Do we grow up and lose that?

What exactly is the magic of the season? Is it the belief in a magical man who can bring you whatever you want? Or is it simply the belief in magic? The belief that what you can’t see is possible, that if you dream it and do good then you can achieve or get things that you want. As we grow up in the world, we often see those who really struggle and try, at times still fail. We see families that lose everything. We see homelessness, we see heartbreak, we see sadness. We see how little “magic” there really is, so why not at least try to hold on to a little of that during the holiday season?

I won’t leave you in that dark hole I brought you into. Your best shot against being overtaken by holiday disappointment — the shadow side of holiday joy, is to take stock of what you expect, what you wish, what you need and what you desire. Tis the season for discernment. If we can shine a light on what we are expecting of ourselves and others, we can modify and lighten up the unwanted cloud of depression that can often get in the way of holiday joy.

Keep it as simple as possible and focus largely on the heart of the matter. When in doubt, remember that grace and gratitude are mindsets that increase  contentment for our holiday season. And needless to say, the less stress we accumulate during this season, the less of an exhausted (physically and financially) backlash you’ll experience in January!

Which by the way is the small group ministry topic for January. There's an old American Shaker hymn, "'Tis a Gift to Be Simple," which reminds us that simplicity brings freedom and delight. In the end, the hymn tells us, through simplicity we discover love; through simplicity we find ourselves in just the right place. The heart may grow cold but we have the ability to restore its warmth and the wholeness of the season.

There are those who find it in faith and the belief in a higher being. There are those who find it in nothing like that at all. There are those who simply think that we live this life and that is it. No matter what you believe, we all need to believe in magic sometimes. We need to believe in dreams. We need to believe in the possibility that good things can happen. We don’t need to keep it only to the holiday season, but if we can somehow hold  onto what we felt when we were younger and hold on to that feeling all year around, then maybe we will be headed in the right direction.

Speaking of the right direction, some of us celebrated the winter solstice yesterday evening sometimes called the longest night because it is, after all, the longest night of the year. The celebration commemorates the night this year with the most darkness and to celebrate the coming of the light. In that spirit, I invite you to listen to a “Blessing for the Longest Night” written by the artist Jan Richardson. This blessing is written in the hope that being authentic and honest about our experiences of this season can be part of what leads us — sometimes without us knowing how or why in advance — to a different time, a different place, and a different space in on our journey through this life. And perhaps the pagan practice of choosing to celebrate the “coming of the light” precisely on the darkest day of the year can point us toward the hope that on the other side of even the darkest night, dawn will come.

I offer you this blessing:

All throughout these months as the shadows have lengthened, this blessing has been gathering itself, making ready, preparing for this night. It has practiced walking in the dark, traveling with its eyes closed, feeling its way by memory, by touch, by the pull of the moon even as it wanes. So believe me when I tell you this blessing will reach you even if you have not light enough to read it; it will find you even though you cannot see it coming. You will know the moment of its arriving by your release of the breath you have held so long; a loosening of the clenching in your hands, of the clutch around your heart; a thinning of the darkness that had drawn itself around you. This blessing does not mean to take the night away but it knows its hidden roads, knows the resting spots along the path, knows what it means to travel in the company of a friend. So when this blessing comes, take its hand. Get up. Set out on the road you cannot see. This is the night when you can trust that any direction you go, you will be walking toward the dawn.
Tis the season to discover that no matter where in the darkness you find yourself this season, walk in any direction and you will be moving toward the dawn. I leave you with the words of Donna Morrison Reed:
Fill your heart like a vessel with the Christmas spirit. Take the time to let your vision clear and your concern deepen. Allow your heart to overflow with all the authentic gifts that this season has to offer. The blessings and the wealth of Christmas can overflow from each of our hearts, if we take the time to fill our hearts first. We are a world of materially rich men and rich women who are spiritually impoverished by our very wealth. The signs of that impoverishment are all around us. They push and shove to get our attention, especially at this time of year. But let us stop the rush and allow the spirit of the season to enter our being. Let us clear our vision and deepen our concern. Let it move us away from an isolating concern for self to a relationship of love and care and wonder and joy with all of life around us.
May it be so.

Tis the Season, a sermon by the Rev. CJ McGregor, presented at 1stUUPB, Dec 22, 2013.

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