Category Archives: Culture

My Curmudgeon Speaks

Yesterday I drove a friend home from her chemotherapy appointment. She was starting a new regimen and wasn’t sure how she’d react to it, so she wasn’t sure she would be able to drive herself home.  I was grateful that I was able to help her, considering there isn’t much else that I can do to help her deal with having terminal cancer.  She, on the other hand, was sorry that she had to inconvenience me.  She is uncomfortable with the ways that cancer has forced her to rely on friends for help with stuff she used to be able to easily handle on her own.  I think anyone in her situation would be terrified of just how helpless they could become and how much they might have to rely on others to care for them and for their family before the whole thing would be over.

And you can’t really blame someone for feeling like that.

I don’t think anyone likes to ask for help from others. For some of us, asking for help makes us feel weak and incapable. Here in the US, we like to think of ourselves as independent and resourceful; we don’t rely on others, they rely on us.  How that equation is supposed to work is beyond me. If everyone relies only on themselves, then being reliable for others is impossible.  The math of this equation is beyond me, and I have two master’s degrees, so I’m not going to try and figure that one out. Instead, let’s deal with the assumptions that come with asking for help, one at a time.

Here we go, folks:

The truth is that humans are weak and incapable— every day, all the time, in one aspect or another of our life and health we humans are weak and incapable. Get used to it. No matter how healthy you are today, your body is ultimately frail and bound to fail.  Eventually we will all need the services of a surgeon, a physical therapist, a mental health counselor, an oncologist, a rheumatologist, or a neurologist (just to name a few.)  Eventually the frailty of our body will cause us to rely on our family, our friends, hired help, and even skilled nursing facilities just to be able to attend to our daily needs.  Our bodies are fascinating machines, capable of so much but they are also capable of terrible amounts of sickness, frailty, and failure.

Get used to it.  It isn’t a pleasant thought, but it is important to remember that birth is a terminal disease, as the mortality rate for human beings (as it is for all other living creatures) is 100%. If you are born, you will eventually die, and the majority of people will not come on their death suddenly but instead through a process of decline and increasing disability that will require the assistance of others in order to meet simple daily needs.

Having said that (rather bluntly…but I was hoping that we could talk turkey here on this blog)…

As a counselor, I frequently ask my clients why they have not asked friends and family for assistance when they are really struggling, and I get a host of reasons:

“I don’t want to be a bother.”

“I can never repay them for all their help.”

“I don’t want to be beholden to anyone.”

For my thoughts about the first one of those reasons, see the section above.  You will be a bother occasionally, and that’s the way life works. Get used to being human for the sake of everyone who loves you, please.

But what is our issue with needing to ‘repay’ the good that is done for us?

We seem to view assistance from others as if it is a loan we receive from the bank, requiring repayment with interest.  This is especially evident in the statement “I don’t want to be beholden to anyone.”  This betrays the belief that any assistance we receive is like a debt held over our head to be called in at random when it will be most painful or perhaps even destructive.

Folks…our friends and family members are not loan sharks lurking around, hoping that we’ll need something from them so that they can squeeze us later for whatever we’re worth. If the people who supposedly ‘love’ us behave like that, perhaps it’s time to consider finding a new group of friends and putting some distance between ourselves and our extended families, because there is no love in behavior like that.

The other thing that this attitude betrays is a transactional sense of friendship and love. “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”  There is nothing wrong with reciprocity; it gets a lot done in this world. The thing about reciprocity is that it creates a closed system where you only ever give to someone who can give back in equal amounts.  The implication of such a system is that we often end up refusing to give to someone who cannot give back in equal amounts, and that puts service and random acts of kindness out in the cold. It also reduces all of our most loving relationships to simple transactions where we give only so that we can receive in kind.

And that seems to be a huge problem in our society these days: many of us refuse to give to others unless there is something explicit that we can receive in return.  And don’t start on me about how giving to others “feels good”, because the people who refuse to be beholden to others only give for the “good feeling” when their giving is to faceless others like the poverty-stricken folks in Africa.  It’s easy to give to faceless others, and so much harder to give or receive when the face before you is not only known, but in close relation to you; giving like that creates the emotional debt of “beholden-ness” that these people are trying so hard to avoid.

What would happen in the world if we simply abolished the concept of repayment when it comes to kind acts? What would happen if no one was ever beholden to the one who helped them?

I would remind you that Christ, who died so that we might know eternal life, did not expect a payback for his love or his sacrifice.  You cannot give God anything as God possesses everything.  God is not ever in need. Christ did, however, expect that we would take the grace and forgiveness that we received because of him and pass it on.  He asked that we go to all corners of the world, making disciples and teaching them everything that he taught us…basically he asked that we give away all that we’ve learned from him and all that we’ve received from him, and then teach the next recipient to pass it on just as we have.

Jesus…turns out he’s the guy who invented “Pay it Forward.”

Perhaps that’s the answer to our feelings of indebtedness when someone helps us. Don’t pay it back! Take the grace that we’ve been given and pay it forward to the next person who needs us. Give to others as we have been given to. Help others as we have been helped.  And give without thought of repayment because we have been given to by Jesus without any thought of repayment.

And when that day comes that we can no longer give to anyone—on the day that we find ourselves helpless to pay anything forward ever again—let us pay back the service we receive in humble thanks and genuine gratitude, something else that is in short supply these days.

Thank you for enduring my curmudgeonly frustrations.  It isn’t often that I want to use this space to rail against human foolishness.  You are a generous, giving reader and I intend to pay your kindness forward with a less curmudgeonly post shortly in the future.

That is all.

Calling It Like I See It

Today my colleagues and I were at an all-day meeting where we tried to discuss our differences and come to consensus in regard to ordaining LGBTQIA persons.

Say whatever you will about the church in general, or what you think of the church’s hang-ups about sexuality, or even what you think about LGBTQIA persons…you have to admit that this is a hot-button issue when it comes to church politics.

And of course, we didn’t really resolve anything or come to any stunning conclusions. I, however, came home having learned some things.  Take these for what they are worth—I’m not saying that there is any real wisdom here—but since I committed to honesty today, that’s what I’m going to put in my blog.

Our moderator for the day asked us to think about what we were willing to do to in order to bring more maturity and wisdom to the debate.   With the moderator’s encouragement, many of us chose to speak our “I will…” statements out loud to the entire group.  I’m not sure if we did that so that we could be held accountable for our commitment, or just so that it would be food for thought for the group.

Anyway, I committed to being “scarily honest.”  Shortly after making that commitment, we broke into small groups and began discussing what we personally needed to do in order to contribute to consensus and understanding (instead of increased conflict)…and I immediately started shutting down and refusing to be honest.  I realized that I was struggling to trust one of the members in my small group (I’ll call him ‘Bob’) who wasn’t joining the conversation except to make light jokes to break the tension. Bob appeared to be very closed off, as if he was hiding himself from the group. Being committed to honesty, I challenged Bob about it (poorly…I think I came across as judgmental and self-righteous instead of as honest and questioning) and discovered that I was right: he admitted he was purposely hiding himself from the group.  The thing is that Bob had a really good reason for not risking trust with us…and he chose to be scarily honest by telling us why.  Bob revealed that he had been badly burned when he reached out to several colleagues in ministry for advice and a listening ear. Bob asked them for confidentiality, only to have them break his confidentiality and cause him a great deal of emotional pain.  My heart broke for him. No wonder he didn’t trust us! I cannot imagine what it must be like to be so deeply betrayed by people you are supposed to be able to trust. The paradox of the moment was that Bob’s choice to share his pain with us broke down the wall of mistrust. I immediately felt comfortable trusting Bob, and he contributed a great deal to the conversation after that. For all my commitment to scary honesty, it didn’t take much to shut me down…luckily it didn’t take much to open me back up, either.  Again and again I learn that honesty pays off in the strangest and most amazing ways, even when your honesty is clumsy and unkind (as I think I was.)  My hope is that Bob found our small group to be trustworthy (and that’s why I’m not using his real name) and that he will continue to trust us, even if just a little.  Unconditional trust takes a while to earn, and we were only together for a few hours…but it is a great start!  Bob if you see this…you are one brave dude and I greatly appreciate the risk you took in telling us how badly you got hurt.  Hang in there man, because I think you are one great minister!

It turns out that the small group experience was the best part of the day. Once we reconvened as one large group, I found myself increasingly frustrated with what I’ll call ‘corporate happy crap’. I spent plenty of years in the corporate world before going into ministry, and I heard way too many of my managers say things that sounded decisive and committed but that actually meant very little and were frequently used to sidestep the commitment later on.  I thought I had escaped corporate happy crap when I went into ministry, but no.  Sadly, I heard a lot of corporate happy crap today.  I heard my colleagues speaking sincerely about committing to pray or to listen.  I expect clergy to pray, so that seemed like a no-brainer, but the commitments to listening riled me up a bit. Despite all those commitments to ‘listen’, those same colleagues did not offer to genuinely try and connect with the pain and struggle of the ‘other’ side.  The truth is that listening is easier than you think.  I listen to all sorts of things: talk radio, close friends, music, lousy sitcoms, my counseling clients, my family, etc.  I spend a huge portion of my day ‘listening’.  Despite all that listening, the only things that actually impact me are the things I open my heart to, which is usually my friends, my clients, and my family.  Talk radio, sitcoms, etc…not so much, but oh my Lord don’t I listen to them.  I open my ears and the sound comes in and I don’t protest. Sometimes I can actually repeat what I hear—verbatim—to confirm that I’ve understood what I ‘listened’ to. But let the words in deep enough to let them impact my emotions?  That only happens when I open my heart on purpose and let the speaker’s words all the way in.  And this is what I mean when I call it corporate happy crap: it sounds SO good but it actually doesn’t require much real commitment.

I realize that I don’t know what was in the hearts of my colleagues as they committed to pray, or to listen, or to try not to jump to judgment.  They might have been deeply sincere and truly trying to do the right thing. On the other hand, I heard way too many hollow commitments during my corporate days, and it left me with a finely tuned radar for words that serve as escape hatches to avoid conflict and real commitment.  I fear that I heard a lot of corporate happy crap today and it leaves me frustrated and sad.

Please understand me: I don’t claim to have any of this figured out. I am not somehow smarter or better than my colleagues. I have, however, repeatedly discovered the value of scary honesty as a way of moving past conflict and differences of opinion to reach vulnerable places of connection and deep, heart-felt compromise.  I may have done a poor job of being gentle with my honesty, but it worked anyway. Honesty is vulnerable, and vulnerability invites intimacy, and my honesty—flawed as it was—reached right into Bob’s heart, and he stepped into the relationship space and the whole group became closer and more honest with each other because of it.  I risked honesty and Bob risked it back and everything changed in an instant. Our group may not have solved anything, but we got honest about difficult topics; we became free to admit our failures and fears; we genuinely laughed and genuinely ached together.  And the best part is we came away better friends than we were when we started.

To my LGBTQIA colleagues and friends, know that I will do my best to use my straight privilege to create honest dialogue wherever I can and to help you in your quest for full inclusion and equality. You have a voice that needs (and deserves) to be heard and I will do my best not be foolish and speak for you just because I already have the privilege and therefore the floor (so to speak.)  I also promise to avoid flinging any corporate happy crap your way.  If you catch me flinging crap, call me on it. I committed to scary honesty and I’m sticking with my commitment. If it keeps paying off the way it did today, it will be worth everything I put into it.

It’s A Conspiracy!

Can we discuss “the peace that passes all understanding”?

I have heard that phrase for years. I remember hearing it as a child and wondering what it meant and how I was supposed to get something that I didn’t even understand.

Don’t get me started about trying to understand something that says, in its title, that you will not be able to understand it.

But I digress.

“The peace that passes all understanding” turns out to be one of the Christian code-phrases we hear about when millennials and agnostics write about the Church; words and phrases that appear to have no context for meaning if you are not already faithful.

I’ve got news: I grew up in the Church and accepted Jesus as my personal savior when I was only five years old, and I still did not understand lots of those Christian code phrases.  It isn’t because you’re young or seeking or simply unfamiliar with the Church; you don’t understand the code phrase because…well, because we Christians hardly ever take the time to define what the heck we are talking about and we pastors can be even worse.  We just throw the phrase out there like it means something and expect everybody else to understand it intuitively.  The evangelical movement has a ton of these phrases:

“Walking in victory with Jesus”

“Growing in grace”

“Die to self”

“Washed in the blood”

“The peace that passes understanding”

“Pray a hedge of protection”

There are plenty more but I figure you’ve probably gotten the point by now.  I remember hearing these phrases and wondering what they meant but never really asking for an explanation. Even when I did ask for clarification, the answer I received was often just as baffling as the code phrase itself.  “Walking in victory is when you have grown in grace enough that you are able to ignore the attacks of the Enemy and follow the will of God wherever it leads you.”  Okay, so how do you ‘grow in grace’ enough to ‘walk in victory’?  “You grow in grace when you ask Jesus to wash you in His blood and help you die to self.”

The explanations were kind of circular in nature.  After a while I just gave in to the thought that perhaps my experience of faith would explain these concepts to me and I would finally understand what no grownup seemed able to fully explain to me.

Don’t get me started on why I thought growing up would cause me to understand what other grownups were incapable of explaining despite their advanced age.

But I digress.

The problem with these Christian code-phrases is that they can lead to a conspiracy of lies around what it is to experience the Christian life.  It makes it sound like good Christians don’t experience fear or anxiety or depression…after all, they have the peace that passes all understanding!  And of course, they don’t struggle with finances or with adverse situations, because they are “walking in victory with Jesus” and victors aren’t losers! Only losers struggle.  If you’ve truly ‘grown in grace’ then you probably ought not to curse or lie or speak unkind words…in fact you can’t be even remotely sinful…because growing in grace implies that you are continually becoming more holy and holy people are squeaky clean!  And goodness knows that those who ‘die to self’ don’t act selfishly since their ‘self’ no longer matters.  Those who have ‘died to self’ just give and give and give and never get tired of giving because they receive all they need from Jesus…

Really?  Because that’s a bunch of BS.

Christian life is full of struggle and fear and pain and failure and sin and self-focus and self-care and prayer and reflection and growth in grace…

There! I said it!  One of those Christian code-phrases makes sense to me!  I understand growing in grace, because I came to understand grace when I became a Methodist.  Grace is an unmerited gift from God that helps me become all that God created me to be, by drawing me deeper and deeper into a relationship with God, which slowly changes me until I am conformed to the image of Christ.

Oops! I just used another Christian code-phrase.  In fact I used several.

The truth is that these phrases do have meaning.  Some are symbolic (since no one really bathes you in blood, thank goodness) and others are more representational of Christian life and faith as it is actually experienced, because I really should become much more like Jesus Christ as my relationship with Him grows deeper and stronger. To me, becoming more like Jesus (more Christ-like) means that I should be more loving and accepting of those on the margins of society and that I should actively seek social justice and equality for all people.  The Jesus I know is a bit of a rabble-rouser.

I want to get back to the conspiracy of lies.

In all honesty, the conspiracy of lies starts as a conspiracy of expectations. I grew up in a fundamentalist, evangelical faith tradition that emphasized orthodoxy (right belief).  We were taught that orthodoxy would lead to orthopathos (right experience). In other words, believe the right things and you will experience the right things.

That’s a powerful draw to faith!  Think about it—according to that concept, believing the right things will lead me to experience the “right” things: peace, prosperity, happiness, success, achievement…you name it, whatever this culture deems “right” is what I will get if I believe in the right ways.

Here’s a few things that our culture does not deem “right” despite their frequency in the general population:

Poverty

Domestic Violence

Divorce

Having children who commit crimes or use drugs

Addiction

Mental illness, including depression and anxiety

Unexplained or chronic illnesses that are difficult to manage

Wow.  Just wow. Can you imagine what it’s like to grow up believing that none of these things should happen to you if you have “right beliefs”?  And it doesn’t help to acknowledge that (of course) these things ‘happen’ to Christians, it’s just they don’t persist and (of course) Christians count on their faith to give them “victory in Jesus” over all these circumstances.

This is how you end up with a conspiracy of lies.  If right belief means right experience, then I better not let anyone know that I am having the wrong experiences, and if I do tell the truth for a brief moment, I better not let anyone know that my wrong experience is persisting.

The funny thing is that Jesus told us that He is “the way, and the truth, and the life”. (John 14:6) He also said that if we continue in His word, we are truly His disciples and we will know the truth and the truth will make us free. (John 8:31-32).

Does the “truth that will set us free” include telling the truth?  I think so. I also think it means that we will stop fearing the truth as if it will destroy us and invalidate our faith.  Get real people! We worship a Savior who cried out “My Father, my Father, why have you forsaken me?” as he hung on the cross, dying.  Jesus didn’t say that to quote a Psalm and look impressive. Jesus said that because it was His experience as He died a horrific death.

If Jesus didn’t lie about His pathos…and I don’t think we should either.

Skip the conspiracy…both the conspiracy expectations and the conspiracy of lies…and stick with the Truth.

It’ll set you free. Trust me on that one.

The Economy of Lent

Matthew 20:1-16  1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. “He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’  “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ 13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’   16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

A couple of weeks ago my pastor preached on Matthew 20:1-16, the parable of the Vineyard. She did a great job, but I cannot say that for some of the other preachers I’ve heard tackle this passage.   This is one of those passages that is really hard to preach because if you are not really careful, you risk endorsing things that are horrifying, or making God seem like a jerk who rewards laziness.

If you just preach it straight from the text, no implications, you can end up with a God who doesn’t seem to reward hard work. Let’s admit it: we are all tired of dealing with the coworker who barely works at all and yet gets paid the same wage that we do. And it’s really hard to read this passage and not bristle at the vineyard owner’s ‘generosity’ because what the vineyard owner seems to reward is laziness. God endorsing this kind of behavior doesn’t work very well with our middle-class sensibilities.  But God is not interested in our middle-class sensibilities, and our work ethic is not the point of this passage of Scripture.

I’ve also heard this passage preached in ways that not-so-subtley encourage oppression. I’ve heard it preached where the point is to “Be a servant here so that you can be first in Heaven!”  I’ve also heard a few preachers add insult to injury by implying that this passage is God’s way of evening up the score for those who end up on wrong end of the social stick. In other words, God is going to make it better for the impoverished and those who are oppressed when they get to Heaven. This encourages the idea that lack of equality on earth is ‘just the way it is’ and we can count of God to set it straight in the afterlife, so we don’t really have to do anything to overcome inequality and injustice now.  God’s got it handled.

(Yes indeed, God does have it handled, but we’ll get to that later.)

Neither one of these interpretations work for me.

Seriously?  Be a servant now so that you can the first guy later?  It makes it sound like we’re in a competition to see who can impress God the most and therefore score the good seats at the Heavenly banquet.  Faith is not a competition, and our good works are supposed to spring from the depths of our faith…they should not be some showy way of impressing the Lord so that He thinks more highly of us.  Trust me, God already likes us.  If you need evidence…Jesus is evidence.

The second interpretation is even more egregious, because that kind of thinking has been used to justify the oppression of women and people of color for centuries.  This was an awesome way for the preacher to tell those who were oppressed be good little servants and willfully participate in their own oppression…and God would reward them later after they were dead…as long as right now they shut up and did what they were told like a good servant should.  The funny thing is that you can bet the person preaching the sermon didn’t think that they personally were going to be last in line in Heaven since they had given up a potentially lucrative salary to be a lowly preacher and servant of God…despite that preacher’s elevated social standing and overt power over their parishioners.  It’s just oppression with a clergy collar on it, and that doesn’t fly with me. Not. So. Much.

The funny thing is that God isn’t buying into our ‘best servant’ competition, nor is God willing to endorse our oppressive behaviors.

And that’s the entire problem with this passage: we keep trying to interpret it according to how things work here on Earth instead of how things work when God is in charge.

My professors in seminary used to call this the difference between God’s economy and humanity’s economy.

We all think that if we are last in line, that we’re going to get screwed.  That’s the way it is on Earth. Last in line for tickets means you get the crappy seats.  Last in line at the church potluck means that you get the leftovers that are mostly cold by that point. Last in line on Black Friday means that the good merchandise is all gone.

Last in line sucks…in our human economy.  On earth, being last in line is no fun.

The thing about God’s economy is that it looks nothing like human economy.

In God’s economy, last in line for tickets gets great seats. Last in line for God’s potluck finds a table overflowing with piping hot food, looking like God saved the good stuff saved for last, even though the folks who ate first seemed to look like they got really good stuff too.  Last in line at God’s Black Friday sale means that you get the things you really need and you don’t have to fight for them as if your life depended on getting that last box…because there is always at least one more of whatever it is that you need.

God never runs out of anything. God never gives anyone the small portion. God does not hand out consolation prizes.

In God’s economy, everybody wins. In God’s economy, everyone gets the good stuff. In God’s economy we don’t have to worry about where we are in the line because there is an endless supply of everything we need, especially God’s love, time, and attention.

And how does this resolve our bad behaviors? How does this challenge our oppressiveness? How does this set right the poverty of the Third World nations, or violence, or terrorism, or war or human trafficking or…

Again…we’re trying to figure this out with a human economy.

We want God to punish the bad guys and reward the good guys.  We want God to declare somebody the winner.  We want God to make clear who was right and who was wrong.

In God’s economy, Jesus’ death saves ALL humanity.  Jesus saves the good and the bad, the right and the wrong, the winners and the losers. God saves the oppressed and their oppressors.

God redeems it ALL and that is what erases the human economy, because there are no winners and losers left in God’s economy. No one gets the small portion…not even the last guy in line.

As we walk the journey of Lent for the next six weeks, maybe the thing we should give up for lent is our human economy. Maybe we ought to try living by God’s economy and see what changes in our life.

It may be the closest we can get to finding Heaven on Earth.  Check in with me in six weeks and we’ll see what happened.

The Tchotchke Kingdom

I’m back!  I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving, because I did. But now, it’s on to the next holiday.

I am a major fan of the Christmas season.

I am one of those weirdos who decorates the entire house the weekend after Thanksgiving.

The tree is up. The lights on the front of the house are up (thank you, darling hubby!) There are Christmas tchotchkes*** all over the house. They are everywhere: on tables, in front of the TV, on the piano, hanging from doorknobs, on the countertops.  If you can see it, I have something placed there to remind you that it’s Christmas.

Part of the reason that I love the holiday is that it is the best high holy day of the Christian year.  Every pastor has their favorite Christian holiday, and mine is Christmas.

I have a lot of fond memories of Christmas from my childhood. The tree went up soon after Thanksgiving, and my mother decorated the entire house. Every room had some sort of Christmas decoration, even the bathroom.  The last week of school before Christmas vacation, I’d come home and the aroma of nut breads and cookies would hit me the minute I walked through the door. Christmas music would be playing in the background, and my mom would be busy working in the kitchen.  My mom loved the Christmas season, and she seemed to delight in planning all the delicious treats she would make for the holiday.  Some of the treats were for our family, and some were to give away as gifts.  My father always joined her in the treats-to-give-away department, making homemade chocolate covered caramels and chocolate nut clusters.  One year he even made cherry cordials with just a drop of cherry liquor in them.  My grandfather loved those so much I think he ate almost the entire batch all by himself.

Once the baking was done, the gift wrapping would begin. This was back before gift bags became popular, so everything had to be boxed and wrapped and of course you can’t forget the ribbon and bows.  My parents were master gift wrappers, and my mom even knew how to make her own bows!  My dad specialized in curling ribbon and would spend hours making spectacular displays of curly fluff for every package he wrapped.

It might sound like we were trying to make our house into something out of Home and Garden magazine, or like we were trying to impress everybody with our amazing display of Christmas spirit.

That wasn’t it at all.

In my family, Christmas was about extravagant giving to others.

When I was a little girl, I was dazzled by all the cookies and the gifts and the decorations.  As a little girl, Christmas was all about what it could be for me and I loved every minute of the holiday.

I think I was 12 years old when I began to understand the holiday at a deeper level, when I began to move towards my parents point of view.  They always said that Christmas was about the giving.  You know: It is more joyful to give than to receive.  As a child that made no sense to me at all.  My dad would help me choose a gift for my mom, but I had no money; while it was nice to choose a gift for my mom, I didn’t really have any skin in the game, you know?  It was the same way when my mom would help me buy my yearly gift of slippers for my dad.  What changed was that I started babysitting when I turned 12, so I was able to contribute some money when my parents helped me buy Christmas presents, and that’s when I started to change my point of view.

Then I got my first real job at 14 years old. I saved enough money to buy gifts for my family without any assistance (unless you count the ride to and from the mall).  I went Christmas shopping for my parents all by myself. That was my first real foray into the frustration of finding meaningful gifts for each person on my list.  It was also the first time I spent December filled with anticipation to watch other people open their gifts.  For the first time ever, I was more excited about what I was giving to other people than I was about what I might receive.  That year, Christmas Eve was almost unbearable for me because I was so anxious for my parents to open their gifts.  Previously, I had resented having to wait until Christmas morning to open gifts because I wanted my gifts now.  That year, all I wanted was for my mom and dad to open their gifts so I could see if my gift had made them happy.

There are a lot of complaints about the commercialization of Christmas, and I don’t necessarily disagree.  However, I don’t believe that Christmas has become tainted to the point that it fails to be all about the coming of the Christ child.  If you take a good close look at Christmas, and the preparation for Christmas, it seems to lift up what Jesus and his disciples taught us over and over.

All those decorations that we put up remind us that it is good to have reminders of the things that bring us joy.  So often we end up focused on what is dissatisfying, upsetting, or failing…and we end up consumed with negativity because we choose to focus on everything that’s wrong.  At Christmas we take an entire month to surround ourselves with things that remind us of family, friends, and celebrations both past and present. For some people that can bring up sadness, but usually that’s because the people they love are far away or have passed on…and tears shed over love are never the wrong answer.

“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Philippians 4:8

All that shopping and baking and cleaning and cooking…have you ever prepared for your first baby? Oh yeah, you’ll do a lot of shopping and baking and cleaning and cooking! Babies are an exercise in preparation for a major life changing event, and the birth of the Christ child is a major life changing event. Christmas, the way we celebrate it currently, is an accurate reflection of preparing for the birth of a child in every way.  It is beyond appropriate to spend an entire month (or more) preparing your home for the entry of the Christ into the world, preparing your heart with excitement for all that is to come.  All that work only serves to remind us that this is no small event and thank goodness, it is something we celebrate again and again, inviting ourselves to let Him into our hearts again and again.

“For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of His government and peace
There will be no end.”  Isaiah 9:6-7a

“But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Luke 2:10-11

Think about it: the majority of what you do during the Christmas season is done for others.  You buy gifts for others. You bake cookies for yourself, sure, but also for others. You spend time planning a delicious meal for others.  So much of what we do at Christmas is focused on creating opportunities for others to feel joy, for them to feel honored and loved.  We consider their wants and their needs and tailor their gifts and the meals we make specifically to make them happy.  Christmas takes us outside ourselves and our own wants and asks us to focus for an extended period of time on the needs and wants of others. Do you think this might be why we are kinder to each other in public during the Christmas season? Do you think this is why we give more to charity during this season?  Perhaps this is why we are more prone to random acts of kindness during this season.  Christmas is the ONE HOLIDAY OF THE YEAR that is all about everyone else but ourselves…and look at what it does to us!  If we could behave all year long the way we do during the Christmas season, what a different world we would live in.

“Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.”  Romans 12:11-13

To me, Christmas feels like a taste of the Kingdom, a moment when our hearts turn in the right direction.  We find ourselves focusing on the good, taking joy in the coming of the Son, and turning our hearts to serving others over self. Secularization may have changed Christmas somewhat, but it has failed to change it at the very heart, and failed to change the truth of the Bible that lies beneath it: that God has called us into a community of love and service to one another through the birth, life, and resurrection of His son Jesus Christ.

Turns out, the Kingdom is among us and within us after all, and not even the power of common culture or the mighty dollar can wipe it out.

“Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” Luke 17:20-21

Enjoy the season and may I be the first to wish you a very merry Christmas!

*** a tchotchke is a small object that is decorate rather than strictly functional; a trinket or bauble.

Tradition!

** Please forgive me if the title makes you want to sing show tunes from Fiddler On The Roof.

My daughter is getting married two weeks from today.   Getting ready for the wedding has been an exercise in remembering exactly why weddings are stressful and expensive.  It has also been an exercise in tradition, because weddings are full of traditions.

As I sit and write this, I realize that no one threw a bridal shower for my daughter…but then again, what would we give her for her bridal shower? She hasn’t lived at home for three years.  She has plenty of kitchen utensils and cookware. Her household is already established.  When it came to her wedding registry, she and her fiancé registered at places like REI so that friends and family could get them the things they’d like to have, especially when it comes to camping gear.  So what’s left? Lingerie and marital aids? Can we be honest and admit that she already has plenty of those, too? She’s been living with her fiancé for almost a year now!

So there goes that tradition out the window, at least for this wedding, not that it matters. Some traditions just aren’t that important to me.

That’s a strange thing for me to say, because my family has a huge value for tradition.

In my family, tradition is the way that we remember who we are and what really matters. I couldn’t have explained that to you when I was younger. It wasn’t until I needed tradition to anchor my family during a difficult time that I came to understand what purpose tradition served.  Since then, I have come to value our family’s traditions more and more, not just for the act of repeating the tradition but for what the tradition represents.

My mother’s family is full-blooded Sicilian; they immigrated to this country sometime in the late 1910’s.  My grandparents were both 1st generation Americans, but they were born to families so entrenched in Sicily’s culture that I could swear that my mom and her brother are the 1st generation Americans in their family instead of their parents. Every Christmas, my mom and I (and now my youngest daughter and I) make Cuccidata, a traditional Italian fig cookie.  Cuccidata make Fig Newtons look sad and paltry by comparison, and they are best cookies I’ve ever had.  And cuccidatas aren’t the only thing we make for the holidays, because when it comes to holidays, Sicilians love to cook. Actually, Sicilians just love to cook in general.  The food at our house during the holidays is plentiful, rich, delicious, and did I say plentiful? This is another way we celebrate our Sicilian heritage and part of the reason that most of the women in my family have childbearing hips (what a lovely way of saying ‘Baby got back’) and the men have the tummy that comes with a wife who cooks good food frequently. Our holiday dinners may raise our cholesterol counts a few points during the first few months of every new year, but it’s worth it.

Not all traditions come from generations past.  Every year in December my husband and I take our kids to Flagstaff to re-enact the year that our oldest daughter was in drug treatment. We couldn’t bring her home for Christmas and so we chose to celebrate Christmas in a hotel in Flagstaff during her two day, off-campus visit in December. You might think that remembering such a difficult time in our lives would be depressing, but it isn’t…in fact it’s incredibly joyful.  That first year we sat in the hotel and went through as many family traditions as we could: decorating the tree (albeit a smaller, sparser, fake tree); opening the stockings on ‘Christmas Eve’; going to worship on ‘Christmas Eve’ (an AA meeting sufficed); opening the few presents we brought on ‘Christmas Day’; and spending as much time together as possible before we had to take our daughter back to her treatment facility.  Each year we repeat the exact same things we did the first year, bringing the same fake tree and decorating it; then we declare our first evening in Flagstaff as ‘Christmas Eve’ and go through all our Christmas Eve traditions.  Every year we return to the same hotel, the same restaurants and coffee shops and local stores…and every year we revel in spending time together as a family and remembering that our family is stronger than almost anything that would try to destroy us, including drugs and alcohol.

My family has tons of traditions: opening the stockings on Christmas Eve because Santa always manages to come to our house while we are at Christmas Eve worship; dedicating Memorial Day and Labor Day to spending time with our children, a practice my husband and I started when we were both in graduate school; Friday night ‘date night’ at our favorite restaurant; and a big homemade dinner for the family on Sunday evening.

In a million little ways, traditions remind us of who we are and what really matters.

Sadly, some traditions remind us of who we were and they highlight beliefs that are damaging and need to stop right now.

I’ll give you an example.

Before my wedding, my husband’s groomsmen let me in on a prank they were going to pull on my husband during our reception. They gave me all the details and told me my part in the prank. While it sounded a little silly and kind of sexist, I wanted to be a good sport and it was going to be funny, so I just went along with it. About 60 minutes into the reception, before the dancing was going to start, my husband’s groomsmen grabbed him and lifted him off the floor and attached a ball and chain to his ankle. I had the key stashed in my bra, and I coyly pulled the key from my cleavage, giggling and teasing my husband.  I figured that was the entire joke.  I cannot tell you how disappointed my husband’s friends were when I immediately freed him from the shackle around his ankle and set the joke aside.  They wanted me to leave it on him and make him roam around our wedding with a ball and chain attached to his ankle. And that’s when I realized that I had misunderstood the seriousness of their joke. I thought it was just supposed to be some temporary fun with an old symbol of marriage. The reality made me sick to my stomach. To my husband’s friends, I was a ball and chain.  Did they really mean that?  Probably not…but then why was it important to make him wear a 15 pound ball chained to his ankle for more than a minute or two?  What exactly is funny about making someone actually wear a ball and chain while they are trying to enjoy their wedding and dance with their bride? Nothing…unless you are in it to make a point.  And that’s what made me sick to my stomach.

If anyone pulls that stunt at my daughter’s wedding I will not be so gracious.

The thing about any tradition is that it only has meaning in as much as it represents what we truly believe in, what we deeply value, and what gives us life.

The thing about weddings is that they are filled with traditions that often speak loudly to the idea that our culture thinks marriage is an institution that benefits the bride, shackles the husband, and still represents the transfer of a woman who is property from one man to another.  All we are missing is the bride price and the dowry, and we could easily be back in the old country.

What the heck, people?!

I’m not going all feminist on you here.  Because it’s not just marriage traditions that are filled with not-so-subtle reminders of much less egalitarian times.  You don’t have to look hard to see the evidence of racism and sexism in our society.  Size-ism and body shaming are all over social media and television. Ageism is a major problem both in Hollywood and in corporate America. We have all sorts of behaviors that give testimony to our unwillingness to truly root out the ugly undercurrents of hatred in our society. Even our most hallowed traditions—our marriage traditions—are rife with symbolism that when closely examined, fail to match up to what we say are our dominant cultural values.

So which is it? Are we still sexist and racist and hateful…or are we just slow to challenge old behaviors?

I want the traditions that my daughters participate in as they live their adult life to be much like the ones that they have already experienced in their family: traditions that hold up what is most precious and worthy of respect and honor. Traditions, that when examined, are filled with deep meaning and connect us to the things we value most.  You might be thinking that a cuccidata is just a cookie, but in my family it is the thing we do to remember where we came from and who we are. It connects us to all the generations that came before us. Cuccidata are delicious…and they are living history.

As we head into the holidays, I encourage you to pay close attention to the meaning and the hidden messages in your family’s traditions.  Ask yourself if what you are re-enacting in these traditions is something you actually want to teach the children in your family.  Does it represent your highest values? Does it represent your faith?  If it represents your heritage, does it represent the part of your heritage that doesn’t participate in the oppression of other people?

Don’t just blithely stumble along, doing the things you’ve always done just because you’ve always done them.  A part of moving our culture forward is knowing what part of that culture should be abandoned so that the culture can be refined.

And this isn’t just about ‘culture’ and American society as a whole.

Remember that your life is a story that you tell to the world.  No one else can tell this story, and it should express what you’re worth and what you believe truly matters.

Tell the best story you can, and when the story you are telling doesn’t represent who you are or what you believe, change the storyline until it does.

Here’s to the traditions that color your story bright and beautiful!