Taking a Break for a While

February 5, 2012

The church I grew up in always had the same quote printed in the order of service every Sunday:

“I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

In that congregation, it truly was silent in the main chapel before service, until that silence was broken by a professional musician playing a grand pipe organ. The music was its own kind of silence. For me, it served not to fill an empty space but to help quiet the buzzing of my mind that had begun to rebel against my command to just be in the moment for those quiet minutes on Sunday morning.

Of course, that congregation was blessed with a large building. If I didn’t want to sit in the quiet of the sanctuary, I could and often did wander to different areas. I’d make conversation with anyone who was in the lady’s room. I’d spend a great deal of time in the kitchen with my mother when she was readying for her turn at coffee hour. And I would listen to the conversation she shared with her friends who might come in the back door through the kitchen before making their way the room of quiet pews.

When I first started attending another church in college, I was a little shocked by the difference. This was much smaller church, both in building size and membership. The minister and regulars would often talk right in the sanctuary before service. On the Sundays that were well-attended that area would buzz with conversation at a volume that could have perhaps drowned out a pipe organ, had there been one in that building.

But, I still had my silence. The other difference between those two congregations was that my childhood church of the silent chapel was a mere five minute drive away from home, in the same town. The church I attended in college was the closest “real” church, but it was over an hour drive away from my campus. When I moved off campus, I not only drove an hour there and back each Sunday, I actually crossed a state border to get there. So, I still had an hour of something like quiet before service. Though my decade-old car would groan and whine as we went over river and mountain on the way to church, and the radio was almost always on a fairly high decibel, the outside world was silenced for a while each Sunday.

Those silences gave me what I needed once a week. They were part and parcel of all the other good parts of church: the intellectually stimulating sermons, the companionship of people who I cared for and respected, the reward of being part of social justice programs.

Lately, I’ve been craving the silence more than any other part of what I’ve been missing from church. I’ve also been thinking about a quote from another writer I admire, though he is more recent than Emerson and not a UU:

“Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.” -Stephen King

Replace “religion” for “art” and I can see that for years, even before starting this blog, I’ve been making a mistake. Far too often, I’ve been living my life like I’ve been on a hunt for something to write a sermon or blog about. That doesn’t leave much room for actually living. It instantly puts moments that should be lived under the microscope so that they can be dissected by writing. I don’t want to live that way.

I’ve also had to shelve several thoughts or stories that came to me because I wasn’t ready to put them out on the Internet. Some things I still need to process in deeper privacy.

So, I’m taking the next step in my journey toward whatever spirituality I’m heading toward. I’m putting the blog on hold for the indefinite future, though I’ll still be writing. I’ll be writing of a much broader scope than would fit in this admittedly large umbrella I gave myself of “what’s a uu to do?”

This UU will be spending more time enjoying the silence, rather than being panicked by it because I have to be writing something, or doing something, or at least worrying about something. This UU will still be practicing her faith and I know I’ll still be learning something new about what it means to be a Unitarian-Universalist every day. The difference is, I’ll be allowing my religion to be a source of inspiration and to help me appreciate my life, rather than using my life as something to draw from to appreciate my religion.

I may blog here again if it feels right. But, for now, I’ll just say go in peace and appreciate the silence.


The Tragedy of Entitlement

January 21, 2012

What’s the worst thing that can happen to a person? More and more, I’m convinced that the worst thing that can happen is for a person to believe that bad things happening entitle them to more than others.

It’s perhaps a natural instinct in all of us – unavoidable for our souls to desire help when we fall on bad times.  We want our lives, and especially the tragic moments of our lives, to have meaning. That’s why “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” is still a best seller.  It’s why the story of Job in the Old Testament is still puzzled over by those who want to believe in a compassionate higher power. But, just because it’s natural to hope for help, doesn’t mean its good to think its owed to you.

It used to be that we asked ourselves “why me?” when tragedy struck.  Now it seems the question is “what can I get out of this?”  I know I’ve even been victim of this way of thinking.  When I recognize it, I try to change the direction of my thoughts. Personally, I see that as a major problem for anyone who desires to grow as a compassionate human being, and especially harmful for a society that might encourage that point of view.

Does our society encourage it?  Well, consider TV shows like “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.”  That show started from a well-meaning concept.  Roll the big fancy TV bus into a town, chose a family that’s had some hard times, and make their lives easier by making their home more livable. And, rather than just put them back on their feet, the show could up their rating and the “oohh” “ahh” factor by giving these forsaken folks a home even better than the one they had before.

There have been plenty of articles written about that particular show, which I realize is old news now.  My point is, it’s a large-scale example of a dangerous feeling that can exist in any soul.

Eastern philosophy teaches that karma may result in you being punished for something in your past – whether it was this life or another.  It’s not a far philosophical jump to then say something bad happening to us cleans our slate, or perhaps even earns us something good happening.  Or maybe that’s just a typically misconstrued western-interpretation of karma.

Here are two stories that weren’t broadcast on national television.
In the months after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, many cities saw an influx of people who had been rendered homeless by that tragedy of nature. Even a faraway small town in the northern state of Vermont had folks looking to resettle and rebuild. Coincidentally, the small apartment above my husband and my home was vacant, and one of the applicants was a woman who until recently had called the Crescent City her home.

When she told us this, we naturally had sympathy for her.  That sympathy may have even affected our decision to rent to her over another candidate, even if our better instincts told us she might not be a long-term renter since she had no roots in our area.  However, it quickly became apparent that she expected a little more than a bump on her application.  She not-so-casually brought up stories of other “refugees” who had been given the first month’s free rent and had their security waived because of what they went through. When we asked about her possible references and housing history, she didn’t provide names of people who could vouch for her as a good tenant, she named family and friends that could tell us more about the horrible experience she had gone through.

What this woman didn’t realize is that my father and his family had also lost their home and almost all of their possessions to Katrina.  Perhaps if I hadn’t had their example of quiet gratitude rather than hands-out expectation, I would have treated her as I’m sure she expected to be treated.

What was particularly irritating was that she seemed to be completely ignoring the fact that by our giving her free rent or furniture, or so on, we’d be making sacrifices.  There wasn’t a tone of “I would be so grateful if you would help me,” and definitely not “I will find a way to make it up to you,” it was “I’ve paid my dues by living through a hurricane, someone’s got to pay up, and you’re standing in front of me, so it might as well be you.”  She saw us as potential benefactors, as soulless as a TV corporation.  She didn’t care enough to even consider the fact that we would have troubles of our own, because what could our troubles be compared to hers.

That’s the problem. We’ve stopped having sympathy and compassion for another, and instead it becomes a mathematical type of equation to determine who gets to be the center of the pity party, and who gets the booty.  We don’t see each other as neighbors who should help each other out because of a sense of community.  We see each other as competitors in a good or bad luck lottery, and everybody’s got to put into the kitty because those are the rules.

There are a few other, more recent examples I am tempted to share, but I’m honestly afraid to.  I know it’s not nice to kick someone when they’re down.  And pointing out negative behavior in someone who is having a hard time does feel like kicking them while their down. Unfortunately, negative behavior has negative consequences.  Just ask any of the people who’ve lost their homes after ABC left town.

New Year – New Homes? New Challenges

January 8, 2012

So the holidays and my vacation are over.  Though it was thankfully a short first week back, I’m now facing months of the usual grind ahead of me:  40 hours at one job and about 12 at the other, plus all that “work” that I have myself and not a boss to answer to: keeping the house passably clean, acquiring groceries and turning them into meals, writing to keep myself reasonably spiritually centered, paying bills, and oh yeah, looking ahead to finding a new place to live.

Last week our landlords visited the U.S. and visited with us to let us know that their planned 3-year stay in China is going to be cut short.  So, come June, they’ll be moving back to the house we’re renting from them and my husband and I will need to be somewhere else.

When I bought my first home, my uncle shared some sage words as he was helping me shlep my stuff into the new place. His comment as he carried the last box from his pick-up over my threshold:  “This is why you buy a house – so you don’t have to move.”  It’s been eight years since then, and I have moved twice.  So, according to the statistics the “experts” like to quote about why home-ownership may be an antiquated notion, I’m right in the mean.  My husband and I have both changed jobs in that time, which of course went hand-in-hand with having to find a roof to put over our heads reasonably close to where we try to earn our bread.

Have I mentioned I hate moving?  I hate change in general, but change to my home is excruciating.  I feel like I just got used the various creaks and groans of the plumbing and heating in our latest rented space, so I don’t jolt awake in the middle of the night when the furnace kicks on.  I know we have way too much stuff, but I can’t think of a thing that we could put into boxes and not have to pull out in the next week or two.  We have a lot of stuff, but we use it.

And then there’s that nagging question of what to do with the home we still own.  Given the nightmares we’ve had with trying to “hold on to it,” all logic says to cut our losses and run.  But then there’s the illogical side of me that thinks it wouldn’t be so bad if we had to commute over an hour each way (in good weather).  There’s the running soundtrack of It’s a Wonderful Life that goes through my head, as I hear Jimmy Stewart extol the benefits of home-owners,

Doesn’t it make them better citizens? Doesn’t it make them better customers? You…you said…What’d you say just a minute ago?…Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about…they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath?”

Meanwhile, our congregation will soon be moving back into the historic building that has undergone much needed renovations.  It would be a good chance for us to try attending again – a fresh start on many levels.  But, the problem with trying to make a fresh start in an old place are that there are so many reminders of what you’re trying to leave in the past.

And I know that I haven’t done enough work to get past the feelings that I just no longer belong at the church I called home. I still feel don’t belong because I can’t get comfortable with the spirit talk and meditative direction of services that is just as uncomfortable for me as an angry patriarchial god whose dogma states I am not a good person.  And, even if I could get past that larger hurdle, there’s still the problem that we can’t afford to give the kind of money we’ve been asked to.  Especially now that we have to start saving again for moving expenses and have no way of knowing what our next rent will be, or if we’ll be filling the gas in our car every day just to get to our jobs.

I guess the larger problem is that I don’t feel I can bring these concerns, or any of the others about how I feel about the world, into my congregation.  I feel I can only go and pretend that I have no worries.  I must pretend that being in a pretty room with pretty organ music is all I need to feel centered again.  Do that for an hour a week, pay my fee, and maybe I can have access to the parts of the congregation that still are positive for me: my friends in the congregation and the (very) occassional social justice project that involves more than writing a check.

And, I can’t do it. I can’t stifle the longing for more.  I can’t stop thinking about the first time I talked about my religion with my husband (then just my friend).  I told him there was never a moment in my life when I didn’t feel like a UU.  I stopped attending services when I realized that I didn’t feel like a UU for the hour + I was in that building on Sunday mornings.  Now, I’m starting to feel like a spiritual fraud with no faith to claim whenever I’m asked about my faith.

I realize I can’t even write in this blog all the reasons why I’m not attending church services.  I may have to write off-line to get it out of my system.

New Year’s – Blogging Like No One’s Reading

January 2, 2012

The few weeks of using recycled material gave me some time to think about why I want to blog, rather than what I want to blog about.  It was a nice break, and even more useful for me to consider my abysmal statistics.  I certainly can’t fool myself into thinking that I’m blogging in order to share great wisdom with the world.

So, why am I blogging, rather than just keeping an off-line journal?  Do I want to continue writing about Unitarian-Universalism?  If not, where does that leave the estranged relationship I now have with my chosen faith?

The months of writing this blog have cemented a few truths in my mind.  Things that I already knew, but it was good to be reminded of:

  1.  I am a Unitarian-Universalist.  Even if I never again find a congregation I feel at home in.  Even if Peter Morales himself were to write me a personal letter asking me to stop trashing the faith and that I have no claim to it (which of course I’m a 100% certain would never happen.)  Even if the UUA were to rewrite all the principles and ask for anyone who wanted to belong to the faith to sign a credo I would never agree to.  I am a UU. It’s history grounds me and for all it’s ambiguity and flaws of its current practice, I know that the aspirations of this faith are my own aspirations for myself as a person and for the world as a whole.  Nothing would make this fact untrue.
  2. There are some things about belonging to a church that I can’t recreate while sitting in front of a computer with a cup of coffee for an hour or two once a week.  I can’t duplicate the feeling of connection to something larger than myself – I guess because I don’t feel connected online, which is linguistically ironic.  I have no hope of doing good on a scale that a small group of committed people can do together.
  3. Nothing moves or motivates me spiritually like stories – whether that means telling my own or listening to someone else’s.

I’m still deciding what to do about #1 and #2, but the third lends itself to pointing me in a clearer direction for this blog, and perhaps even a broader spiritual practice for the coming year.  Call it a resolution, if you wish.

I will pay greater spiritual attention to the stories I encounter in the week.  It may mean seeking out the stories from writer’s I admire on a religious basis.  It may mean taking greater care to capture the stories of my own life and wrangle them into words.  The blogs I’ve best most proud of so far have been little episodic vignettes from my life.  These have also been the easiest to write.

So, with that resolution in mind, I want to describe how my husband and I spent our New Year’s.  It probably has nothing to do with Unitarianism in the broader sense, but I feel I need to stop looking for the broad and start paying a little more attention to the small and the immediate.

I’m not a fan of crowds or pomp and circumstance, so New Year’s Eve hasn’t ever been a holiday I look forward to.  I’d much rather fall asleep before ten in the quiet and warmth of my own home than be showered with confetti in a great crowd somewhere like Times Square (shudder).  So, it was an act of love for my husband that we planned a trip to another fairly large city to ring in 2012.  I agreed that we could go to First Night in Boston, not entirely but in large part because the great soul singer Mavis Staples was going to be part of the festivities there.

This would of course required planning.  I had been to First Night as a teenager and learned that although it sounds amazing to be have dozens of acts to chose from, if you don’t make those choices ahead of time and pay close attention to where you need to be when, you’ll spend the night wandering around the crowded streets, which is fun in a way, but you don’t need to buy a button for it.

I’m not a good planner.  In fact, plan is the dirtiest of four-letter-words in my vocabulary.  Most often for me, the definition of plan is: (verb) to think things are going to work in a way they will definitely not work, thereby creating a headache.  

Fortunately, however, my husband is very strategically minded, and forced me to narrow down the events I was most interested in from the little booklet we received in mid-December when we ordered our tickets online.  He also made sure that I sent a message to some friends who still live in Boston asking if they would join us.

Many things went “wrong” on this trip:  we initially planned on saving some money by crashing at our friends place, but a few days before ended up getting a hotel room instead.  The restaurant I had chosen and planned our schedule around while drooling over the online menu ended up not being open for dinner on New Year’s.  The subway tickets we purchased after planning our routes, counting the number of rides we would need, mostly went unused, therefore wasting more money.  The midnight fireworks we waited for turned out to have been scheduled for 9:30 pm, when we were in an entirely different part of the city.

But, then, many things went right. Beginning with our decision to just walk away from the House of Blues, which was black, cold, and absolutely lacking the scent of the barbeque we’d been hoping for.  That walk through the unseasonably mild night gave me a chance to point out some of the places I remembered and share stories that wouldn’t have otherwise come to mind.

Though we had no particular dinner destination in mind, and knew that options were probably getting slim as the evening got later, we ended up getting the last table without a wait at a Pizzaria Uno’s.  This particular location turned out to serve the original style of deep-dish with a buttery, pastry like crust that I hadn’t had in years thanks to the homogenization of the chain.  My husband had never had pizza like it, which led to more conversations about our various gastronomical travels.  Food is one of our favorite topics of conversation, yet we haven’t run out of things to say about even the subcategory of pizza.

We got lost on our way to finding the comedy Improv show we wanted, somehow walking through a back door I’m sure we weren’t supposed to.  As we tried to figure out where we were and why there were so many chairs in the warehouse-like room we found ourselves in, we noticed the stage on one side of the hall and about a hundred or so people walking agressively toward those chairs.  “Do you think this is it?” I asked, then pulled my husband into a seat without waiting for his reply.  As we settled in, I overheard those seated around us griping that they had been in line over an hour hoping for a good seat.  But, there were still quite a few empty chairs around us, so we didn’t feel too guilty about “cutting the queue.”

The comedy show was decent, but also showed the risks of working too hard for the pleasure of seeing anything improvised. Many of the grumpy folks remained grumpy, which is somewhat detrimental to a comedy show.

After that we made our way to Symphony Hall, which I had never been inside, to catch the last couple songs of Mavis’ opening act and the soul legend herself.  At first the ticket taker was discouraging about the possibility of getting a seat, even though we had preferred tickets.  So, we contented ourselves with going up to the balcony, where there was ample room, great accoustics, and a fabulous view of the oppulent sculputures and filligree lining the walls of the Hall.

The highlight of the evening was another surprise.  A few songs before her finale (“I’ll Take You There”) Mavis broke out into “our song”: We’re Gonna Make It  It was a song that has defined our relationship since we first started dating, and every time “life seems so hard” we play Taj Mahal’s version to remind ourselves of what’s really important.  Since I didn’t know much about Mavis, aside from her big bullet, I hadn’t realized she recorded this song as well.  It was completely unexpected, and the first time we had ever heard the song performed live.

After that amazing show, we wandered some more, kissed on Boston Common at midnight and managed to get on a surprisingly uncrowded train back to the hotel.  Again, that hotel had been a last-minute arrangement, but it worked out perfectly.  We fell into a wonderfully comfortable bed in the wee hours of morning.

Later, after not quite enough sleep, we were trying to come up with something to do to kill a little more than an hour before heading off to our friend’s for a New Year’s Day lunch.  The little book of amenities mentioned the hotel had a pool table, so we grabbed some cues and balls from the front desk and played five rounds of some of the worst pool any of the amused passerby’s probably ever witnessed.  Again, my husband and I learned more about eachother, as we both shared that it was a game we loved despite being horrible at it.

The perfect little getaway was topped off with several hours of conversation and laughter with my friend and her wife.  Resolution: make greater effort to see or at least talk to people who make you laugh and smile.

As we were driving home, I realized that the vacation was over, not just from our work, which was waiting for us Tuesday, but also from my blogging.  Maybe it doesn’t “fit” to describe this in a blog that is supposed to be about spiritual searching as a Unitarian-Universalist.  But, the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that life and religion have something important with writing.  It’s all about the details.  Even when they don’t seem particularly relevant, they make it richer and more worthwhile.

The Post Christmas Support Group – Conclusion

December 25, 2011

Continued from December 11th & 18th.  Four characters are meeting in a church basement to lend each other emotional support.  But the stresses of the holidays seem to be a little too much for them.  Will anyone be able to remind them of the true spirit of Christmas?

Just then we heard the door open and someone running down the stairs.  A young, round-faced boy with glasses and wearing snowpants and a stocking cap bounded into the hall.  “Where’s the bathroom?” he asked.

I pointed to the back corner, but recommended he leave the bb-gun he was carrying by the door.  He clutched the gun for a moment, but apparently decided we were trustworthy, because he left it propped by the door and went running toward the bathroom.

The four in the circle were now all staring at me, as if expecting me to share my own story about the holidays.  I thought for a minute, hesitating to say anything.  I wanted to offer help, but I’m not a minister and have only been on the receiving end of professional help from a therapist.  But, I felt I had to say something, so I did my best to come up with what I thought would be some good perspective.

“I hear all of your concerns, and I won’t deny that its hard getting through the holidays, and sometimes even more difficult to see them come to an end, but surely you wouldn’t rewrite your Christmas stories if you could.  Haven’t you all learned lessons more valuable than anything that could have come from a store?” I asked.

“Happy endings only last for so long,” said the Grinch.  “Life keeps going after the Who’s sing their song.”

“Yes, life keeps going, and the bills and the challenges keep piling up,” said George.

“And people will keep talking behind your back, even if you’ve tried to prove you’re worthiness to them face to face,” said Scrooge.

“And every year, there are more children who stop believing in Santa, and more parents who forget that home and family are more important than anything for sale at Macy’s or any other store,” said Kris.

“So, what you’re saying is that you’re not sure its all worth it, if after all the songs are sung and presents are opened, all we’re left with is the blues?” I asked.  “That you wish that there hadn’t been that high of Christmas if it means the low that comes after?”

“Are you crazy?” said the snow-suited boy, coming back from the kitchen.  “Of course it’s worth it.”

We all looked at him in surprise.  We hadn’t expected him to be listening to our conversation, and were even more amazed that he felt he needed to set us straight.  But, clearly Christmas was something he felt strongly about.  “Don’t any of you remember what Christmas was like that morning you unwrapped the greatest gift of all time.”

“Presents don’t last, those moments soon become the past,” countered the Grinch.

“And even the Greatest Gift can have unintended consequences,” said George.

“Well, duh,” said the boy.  “Look, it hurt like anything when I almost shot my eye out – it hurt my eye and it hurt my pride.  But I still think this Red-Ryder BB gun is the best present I’ve ever received.  You know why?”

We all shook our heads, and he rolled his eyes at us, going on.  “Look, it didn’t take too long for me to figure out who gave me this gun.  It wasn’t Santa,” Kris nodded.  “It wasn’t magic.  It was my dad.”  George seemed particularly interested as Ralphie went on.

“All December long I was so afraid that I wouldn’t get what I really wanted, and I thought nobody cared.  But, the truth is, we all have someone in our lives that wants us to have the best Christmas ever.  My dad and mom worked really hard so I could have what I really wanted.  And, all over the world, people are doing the same thing for the ones they love.  You think everyone drives all over, cutting down trees and spending hours in the cold stringing up lights because they want Santa Claus to deliver something just for them?  They’re all just trying to make people happy.”

It made sense.  That was the Christmas magic after all, the goodwill that drives people to great lengths to make their loved ones happy.  And, even if many people today would be better off if we spent more time and less money, hearts are still in the right place with all that extra effort. “But, when Christmas is over, why do we all stop trying to make people happy?” I asked.

“It gets to be too much, doing all that extra work to make a nice meal, have special decorations, and be extra cheerful,” said George.  “People aren’t up for that effort all the year round.”

“It wouldn’t be special if it was all the time,” replied Ralphie.

“So,” said Scrooge, “What you’re saying is just because we can’t keep up the Christmas pace all year round, it doesn’t mean we’ve failed.  We have to work to make the holidays special, and we have to accept there is something of a let down when its over.”

“It doesn’t have to be a let down,” said Kris. “If you remember that you were trying to make a special time, not change your everyday.  And, there are some parts of Christmas that CAN last all the year round, as long as you’re willing to put in that little extra effort that comes naturally in December.”

“Like remembering to give someone a smile, even if they don’t return it for awhile,” said the Grinch.  “We toss the unwrapped paper and take down the lights, we get back to the grind and still have our fights.  But Christmas will surely come in another year, then we’ll work hard again to spread our cheer.”

“It’s the cheer that’s priceless,” said George, “And for that matter, free.  I guess I spend so much time thinking about money, that I forget what really counts.  You’d have thought I’d have that lesson down pat.”

“That’s why Christmas comes once a year,” said Kris.  “We all need reminders.  And, even if most of the world doesn’t believe in Santa Claus, every day, we all have at least one person who believes in us.”

It was then I realized how fortunate I was to have heard these characters stories, both the happy endings I had heard before then, and the sequels they had just shared with me. Whether you call it Christmas, or solstice, or something else, we all need some light to get us through the darkest time of the year.  And, Ralphie was right, it is special because we give a little bit more than most of the time.

The true meaning of Christmas is hard to remember, and even more difficult to honor year round.  I’m betting a lot of you are pretty tired right now.  All that effort you put into your holiday, whether it was traveling to see family, or preparing your own home for hosting a party, or even the shopping, can wear a person down.  Then it all comes to a screeching halt, the lights come down, no one is out ringing a bell to remind you of the less fortunate, people don’t greet each other with reminders to be Merry.  All that work is behind us for another year.

But that’s just it, we know its work at Christmas.  Do we chose not to put in the effort to be festive or even to give goodwill toward men the rest of the year?  Is that why marketers are allowed to stretch the Christmas season, so now it begins in September?  Do we hope that somehow, the cheer will come with the commercialism?

Is it possible to keep the spirit of Christmas every day of the year, as Scrooge was said to have done?  I don’t know.  I do think that Dickens may have exaggerated a little bit, because the Ebeneezer I met yesterday seemed to have had some bad days now and then.  But I do know that it would take work to do so, just like it takes work to make the most of the holidays.  In the end, it is not just better to give than receive, but it is impossible to live without giving of yourself.  Otherwise, we’re just taking up room like books on a shelf.

Maybe it’s impossible, but as Gailey said “Faith is believing in things…when common sense tells you not to.”

The Post-Christmas Support Group – Part Two

December 18, 2011

Last week we heard from a strange green character and a man with the odd name of Scrooge of how they were dealing with the expectations of the Christmas Season.  There are more at this gathering who have their own stories…

“You should meet my lawyer, good man,” said the more kindly faced gray-haired man sitting next to Scrooge.

“Oh, I know you believe Gailey can perform miracles, Kris, but I think it would take more than that to wipe greed from men’s hearts,” replied Scrooge.

“Well, I guess I can’t argue with you there,” replied Kris.  “I remember it was decades ago I was saying to him, I’ve been getting more worried about Christmas. Seems we’re all so busy trying to beat the other fellow…in making things go faster, look shinier, and cost less…that Christmas and I are sort of getting lost in the shuffle.

Now it’s not just a Santa here or there that gets dragged into court.  The whole holiday is on trial it seems.  Stores that count on Chirstmas-spending to survive tell their employees not to even use the word.  People argue about whether it’s politically correct to wish someone you don’t know a ‘Merry Christmas.’”

It seemed the man was getting quite emotional as he went on, and perhaps the Grinch had seen him fly off on this topic before, because he interrupted,
“The world out there now has grown more diverse,” he said.
“And that at times can be a blessing and a curse.
There are people of all faiths, and skins of many colors
Some see Christmas as a symbol of how their faith isn’t as accepted as others
When so many have been hurt by the pressure to conform,
You can’t blame them for not wanting just one faith treated as the norm.

“Hmph,” Kris acknowledged the Grinch’s comments, but continued in the same vein as before. “I make no apologies that I was born and raised a Christian, and I believe the true spirit of Christmas is found in the gospels.  But, just like every person has love inside of themselves, everyone has Christmas inside of them, whether they choose to call it Christmas or something else.”

He continued, “I do know a thing or two about not fitting in.  I’ve been fortunate to have some very kind friends.” Kris continued.  “They welcome me even though they think I’m different.  I try to overlook the fact that they are concerned about my difference, and focus on the fact that they care about me.  But, it does get tiring being treated like you may be dangerous or are some kind of liar when it’s really everyone else that is telling themselves a lie.”

“I know what you mean,” said the Grinch. “Though I’ll add its not easy being green.”

“Well, I’m one man who knows how fortunate I am.” said the final man, who had a quite distinctive speaking style.  His story was particularly heart-warming.

“Everyone wants friends who they can count on in a really tough time,” George began, “Well, I’ve not only got great friends, but I know I can count on them, because I’ve been through that tough time.

“I know you’re all tired of hearing about this, but I can’t stop thinking about that Christmas Eve that I almost lost my business.”  He looked down at his empty hands as if he expected something to be there and for a moment reached out into the air as if to grab at something that had been taken from him.

“There’s that loose end of the money that my uncle lost.  I still can’t understand how it could have just disappeared without someone turning it in.  I have to admit, I’ve caught myself watching my friends and neighbors, waiting for one of them to show that they’ve got a little more spending money.  But the only person in town that seems to have any money is that Potter.  And well, I suppose I can’t feel too bad about that, since he’s because he’s been dying in the hospital for years now.  And that means he’s probably about as broke as the rest of us.”  George looked up from his hands, and smiled at the other man of business in the circle.  “That is, unless you decide to help him out, Ebeneezer.”

The others all laughed lightly, and Scrooge replied wisely, “You’re lucky to have that sense of humor, Bailey.  It’s probably part of why you have so many great friends.  And haven’t you told us that ‘no man is poor who has friends.’”

“True,” replied George. “I’ve learned that money isn’t the most important thing in the world, but life does go on and life takes money whether we like it or not.  I’ve got my life and my family, which are worth more than anything, but I’ve also got a lot of debt to those friends that I don’t know how I’m ever going to repay.  I worry about saddling my children with a great responsibility, and I know how that feels, having inherited my father’s business against my will.  I don’t want my son to be stuck behind a desk that’s stained with the sweat and tears of his father and grandfather.”

George concluded, “I know I’ve had a wonderful life so far, and the past does sustain me at times.  But the truth is, you can’t always keep looking back, and as hard as it is to see the role you’ve played in the past, it’s a heck of a lot harder to see how you’ll be able to keep making a difference in the future.  I’m getting tired.  Its hard to keep it going.”

Just then we heard the door open and someone running down the stairs.  A young, round-faced boy with glasses and wearing snowpants and a stocking cap bounded into the hall.  “Where’s the bathroom?” he asked.

To Be Continued… Can anyone get these characters out of the post-holiday funk?

A Holiday Story: The Post-Christmas Support Group – Part One

December 11, 2011

The busyness of the season has gotten the better of me.  Though I’ve got a lot of thoughts percolating in my mind, I don’t think I’ll have the time to corral them into the part of that organ that can actually create sense from them. So, for the next few weeks I’m going to be recycling a piece I wrote as a sermon a few years ago about the feeling that comes after the holidays.

Hope you enjoy.

PART ONE: A Most Strange Gathering

Whether you are the type of person who takes down your tree and decorations the second Christmas Day is over, or you are holding out until New Years, or perhaps even stretching out your decked halls until January 6th, the day of the Epiphany in the Christian tradition, many of us experience a feeling of loss when the holly and tinsel come down.  We are now faced with months more of winter with no carols to buoy our hearts with song, or special feasts to feed our souls with the companionship of friends and family.  At least, not without the same celebratory tone of Christmas.

When I take down my tree and stockings, I’m always struck by how the house seems not only bigger, but emptier.  Not only that, but with all the build up, it’s easy to feel disappointed if your Christmas didn’t bring peace on earth or Rockwell or Capra-esque healing of family.  It’s no wonder that many people experience a seasonal depression in the dark months of January and February.  Even Mary is reported to have had a pierced soul following the miraculous and joyous birth of Jesus.  What hope is there for the rest of us?

If you are feeling any of this disappointment and malaise, I wanted you to know you are not alone.  In fact, last year I heard some first-hand accounts of how difficult it is to emotionally recover from even the happiest holiday experiences.  I had stopped by my church to check on the heat, and four amazing characters were there in our basement gathered around coffee-hour table.  I’m not sure who called this impromptu support group, but no one seemed to be in charge or surprised to see the others, though they were a most unusual group.

Before I knew what was happening, the tallest and most unusual one of all had grabbed me by the arm and made me sit down next to him.  He then said hello and his name, and the others all greeted him in unison.  This was my first clue that it was a support group of some kind, which became even more clear when he continued with his story.

My doctor told me I should come here, and everyone takes his advice,
So my dog Max and I got in our sleigh, we didn’t think twice.
Though this Christmas was more joyful than any I’ve known,
I can’t help but feelings there’s something I’ve blown.
While I was gathered hand in hand with them on Christmas ‘morn
The Who’s were all welcoming and not the least was I torn.
I felt so happy to sit at their table and carve the Christmas beast,
The years I’d spent hating Who’s bothered me not in the least.
But the very moment the beast was all eaten and the celebrations came to an end,
It seemed there was no longer a place for me in the circle of Who-friends.
And I felt so sad as I thought of the cold journey up to my cave all alone.
It was a feeling I’d never had before my heart three-sizes had grown.
I’d spent nights without number contentedly hating those Who’s
But after that amazing Christmas, I had no idea what to do
I was ready to fill all the free time I now had with good deeds,
But some Who’s still treated me like I was nothing but a stealing sleaze.
The truth is true forgiveness takes time and effort from both sides
And some Who’s made it clear they don’t want to open their hearts wide
It feels like my invitation to be part of Whoville was for a short time only
And though I’m no longer grinchy, I have to say now I’m lonely.

Several of the others nodded their heads in understanding.

“I know what you mean about people not fully welcoming you because of your past,” said an elderly gentleman in a silk hat and black frock coat.  “But, for me, it’s worse than that. People either still treat me like I’m a horrible miser with no compassion for my fellow man.  Or, they expect me to be able to save the world’s problems because they’ve heard of my er… my well, let’s just say my change of heart.”

The other gray haired man next to Scrooge nodded empathetically.  “You mean they expect the impossible of you?”

“Well, yes,” Scrooge replied.  “I fully accept responsibility for my past.  In my younger years I did nothing to help my fellow man.  I was able to walk the streets of London and barely see the many destitute who are in need of the basic necessities of life.  Well, they say ignorance is bliss.  Maybe I wasn’t exactly happy, but… now.  After making sure that Tiny Tim got the medical care he needed, I was flooded with requests for help, and I’ve done my best.  But, paying for treatments of even small ailments are incredibly expensive.  It’s not as if I can change the entire health care system!  The Cratchet boy, thankfully, did not die, but there have been others.”

Here he stopped for a moment, and the rest of us watched as he struggled with his tears for a moment.  “I was blind to their pain before.  If I considered their deaths at all I could consider it a necessity due to the overpopulation.  For awhile, I thought that if I worked hard and gave everything I had, I could erase all that pain and suffering, but some things no amount of money can fix.”

At the word money, it seemed he gathered himself together some how.  The familiarity of a topic which could be dealt with rationally gave him some comfort, and he had a deep well of financial experience if little familiarity with the feeling of helplessness and sympathy.  “And, quite frankly, my business isn’t doing as well as it once was.  I was successful because people were afraid of me.  Now, there are many people who won’t settle their accounts with me, because they say they don’t have the money, and won’t kind, good-hearted Scrooge, just forgive their debts.  Meanwhile I see the tailors and the butchers and all kinds of services coming and going through their houses, and I’m sure they’re being paid quite handsomely.”

You could see  Scrooge’s resentment and discomfort with this new truth: that he could be taken advantage of.  He sighed, and went on, “I have to ask myself, who deserves the help, those who say they may loose their charming homes if I insist on my debts, or those who never had a home to begin with?  It shouldn’t be that hard of a question, but I really expected that once given a little help, some of these people would be more capable of helping themselves.

Meanwhile, if I refuse to help even the most obvious swindler, who doesn’t need a farthing from me, but dresses his children in rags and has them sobbing on my doorstep, I’m the ‘same old Scrooge,’ and it starts all over again.  The children fearing me, the women turning their faces away from me in disgust, and men talking about how no one will miss me when I’m dead.”

Will this Support Group Get These Characters Through Their Holiday Blues?  Who Else May Have a Story to Share?  To Be Continued…