A few days ago I received a Facebook message from a former congregant from a church I served in Massachusetts. Struggling with divorce, the loss of his 14-year-old son, and other stresses, he was reaching out. He writes, “Some thoughts as I enter the holiday season...It is important to remember that not everyone is surrounded by large wonderful families. Some of us have problems during the holidays and some of us are overcome with great sadness when we remember the loved ones who are not with us. I have no one to spend these times with and I find myself besieged by loneliness. I need caring, loving thoughts right now. I know you may be overwhelmed with giving a moment of support for all those who have family problems, health struggles, job issues, worries of any kind and just need to know someone cares. Do it for all of us, for nobody is immune. I’m sorry this is my holiday message, but it is real and painful. Pray for me.”
I share this with you not to be a drag or to bring you down. I promise to bring you back out of the dark places we visit this morning. I offer this to remind ourselves that this season is sometimes labeled “Blue Christmas” and some of us here struggle this time of year needing our attention and affection.
The Rev. Phyllis Hubbel writes, “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? What about those we’ve lost or those we’ve lost and struggle to recall. Would you prefer to pick and choose your relatives and how they would ideally behave? What about the state of things all around us? Are there perfectionist “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, the race to be good enough, our losses of people, our safety and well being, our health, and wealth tries to steal the ingredients that strengthen the magic of this season. 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. 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 downheartedness that can often get in the way of holiday joy.
One particular family and community we can’t ignore this morning is the family of Michael Brown and the community of Ferguson, Missouri. You will remember Brown as the black youth shot and killed by police and most recently a grand jury decided that the police officer would not be held accountable for his crime. This season will go on Ferguson, Missouri. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal report that the Thanksgiving parade that was canceled due to protests will be rescheduled, the Twilight Tour of Homes will begin December 9th, shoppers are being rerouted to stores that are away from the hot spots of Ferguson, and decorating has commenced. The decorations are being placed over boarded up and broken store fronts, but the holiday season goes on despite the grieving family, community, and the injustice. We remember them this morning. We hold them in our hearts. And so will the bright lights, greeting cards, carols, parties, and events go on around us though we may be in a space not worthy of celebration.
We cannot easily compare grief. “Some tragedies,” says Hubbel, “are clearly more soul searing, traumatic, than others. What we do know is that tragedy visits all of us. When it comes, it challenges us. Some of us break. Some burdens are too great for any to carry. Some of us are not strong enough to handle even the ordinary heartbreaks that are part of our human experience. God or the universe does sometimes give us burdens too great to bear. Some of us find strength we didn’t know we had. Some of us grow stronger, more compassionate.”
I’m talking about a Blue Christmas. We will all sometime face the birthdays, the anniversaries, Thanksgivings, Hanukkahs, Christmases and New Years with loss heavy on our hearts. Too often, the heartache actually occurred at one of those special times. Even if the heartache didn’t happen near an important holiday, these special times with special memories -- these times when our loved ones are supposed to be with us, when we are supposed to be happy -- bring our loss right back to us. December is especially bad as it is a whole month intended for celebrations with those we love.
“Yes, here come the holidays,” says the Rev. Arthur Severence, “full of unrealistic expectations and psychological baggage heavy enough to choke any airport carousel. Let’s put the fun back in dysfunctional family get-together as so many of us start our regimen of over self medicating for the holidays and counting the days until we can get back to so- called normal when we don’t have to pretend that we’re happy or in good spirits! That’s part of the problem, you see, with the holidays; we’re surrounded by them!” Surrounded by people and songs wanting us to be of good cheer and in the holiday spirit after all, right? Where’s your holiday spirit? someone will ask us if we’re not appropriately happy. That dreaded holiday spirit, mostly in the form of endless songs seems to surround us everywhere we go. It can quickly have the opposite effect!
Severance shares his ten commandments of making it through the holidays. I offer you an interpretation of seven of the ten because three of them were absolutely despairing in my eyes. My apologies to Rev. Severence.
- 1. Remember that Pain is Inevitable; suffering is optional. Accept this at the beginning that there will be a variety of kinds of pain from physical to mental to spiritual -- all connected, by the way -- depression to headaches to heartaches to anger and so on.
- 2. Express Yourself Clearly. Talk about how you’re feeling to someone who will truly listen. Remember what happens when we ASSUME we know what someone is feeling? Remember that your minister reminds you to call him if you feel the need to talk!
- 3. Beware of Nostalgia. Don’t let comparing the past ruin the present, especially because no one can ever bake a pie like grandma use to bake when we were children! At the same time, let yourself enjoy the positive parts of basking in the glow of warm memories. Just don’t expect the present to measure up to your nostalgic past!
- 5. I love #5! Take it easy on yourself; lower your standards. Martha Stewart doesn’t live here and isn’t likely to visit! Don’t compare yourself to the family favorite or success story; be glad for who you are.
- 8. Spend more time with people you love! (and yes, that may NOT be relatives) If you can't, or don't want to, be with family, get with friends, go to church, or volunteer somewhere, but be around people!
- 9. Reach out and touch someone (and be touched)! We need the human touch; we need to be hugged and touched on a regular basis.
- 10. Come to church! You didn’t see this one coming, did you? Cultivate your spiritual dimension that is in community with others and that sense of the divine, however you define that. Relationships are at the core of all religion!
Something that Severence found out during this season as UU ministers share stories, the author of It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, a Unitarian minister named Edmund Hamilton Sears, had had a difficult time in ministry and his song was written as a protest song against the Mexican war, in the 1840’s, but was written after he first had suffered a nervous breakdown! The third verse, especially, sounds like it could have been written yesterday and reflects our times:
But with the woes of sin and strife
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love song which they bring:
Oh, hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.
Along with this we look to the celebration of the Winter Solstice which commemorates the night of the year with the most darkness and to celebrate the coming of the light . In this spirit, I invite you to listen to a Blessing for the Longest Night written by the artist Jan Richardson. The 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.
This is a season for holding on. No matter where in the darkness you find yourself this season, walk in any direction and you will be moving toward the dawn. 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 this season of peace on earth, good will to all be one of potential that may be realized in all of us. Let love be born in us, let love never die. May we walk together and love one another. Hold on.
May it be so.
Holding On, a sermon delivered by the Rev. CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB, Nov 30, 2014.