I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas, But Everything’s Gone Blue


Blue Christmas“Drops of pain, flow like rain, tell why your tears are falling: for humankind, so frail, unkind, or for your own life’s calling?”[1] Words from Unitarian Universalist songwriter Shelly Jackson Denham. “Tell why your tears are falling.” There’s really only one message I want to bring to you this morning, and that is, very simply, not everyone, every year, can enter fully into the joy, merriment and hopefulness of the holiday season. It isn’t always possible. For some, the bright lights, the season’s greetings, the festive music, the Christmas trees, the messages of peace and good will—all of it clashes with their internal state, clashes with recent painful experiences, clashes with difficult childhood memories of the holidays. For some there is dissonance. We’re dreaming of a white Christmas, and yet for some, everything’s gone blue. We wish you a merry Christmas, and yet for some, “tears are falling.”

We call it “Blue Christmas.” I don’t know how long this term has been in vogue. I don’t remember ever hearing it used in this way prior to 2000. I don’t know if it has any connection to the song, “Blue Christmas,” which Elvis Presley recorded in 1957, and which was first recorded in 1948 by an artist named Doyle O’Dell. Whether or not there’s a connection, the song doesn’t really express the depth of sadness and pain some people can experience during the holiday season. Some churches hold special services—often at night—for people who are grieving, lonely, in despair or anxious during the holidays. Sometimes these services are called Blue Christmas services. Sometimes they’re called “Longest Night” services, a reference to the winter solstice.

Blue Christmas

On one hand, I think it’s important to hold such services. I think it’s important for the church to make a space for people who don’t want to—or simply can’t—be present at holiday services and other activities where the predominant mood is joy. On the other hand, I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea of saying, essentially, “everyone who’s depressed, you come to church at this special time and we’ll take care of you; the rest of us will have our Christmas joy and holiday merriment on Sunday morning.” As if we can—or even should—somehow keep all the difficult emotions in a separate place so they don’t intrude on “normal” Christmas. I don’t want to isolate Blue Christmas feelings from the regular holiday worship life of the congregation. It makes sense to me to spend time when we’re all together naming the reality of Blue Christmas for many among ourselves and in the wider community. I hope and trust each of us expects to bring our whole self into our spiritual community. I hope and trust each of us expects to bring our whole self into worship. And sometimes that means bringing sad selves, grieving selves, lonely selves, uncertain selves, regretful selves, hopeless selves, selves in pain. And those of us who don’t feel that way, myself included, might have a gut reaction that says, “no, the holidays are about joy, peace, hope, festivity, etc.” But if some of us are feeling blue, that’s part of the holidays too. So, let’s name it and honor it. That, in my view, is what spiritual community is for—to meet each other where we are, no matter where we are.

Blue Christmas

Another reason I feel strongly about observing Blue Christmas in the way we are this morning is that, while I suspect most of us, in most years, experience the joy, merriment and hope of the holiday season, it is also true that our lives can change—sometimes tragically—in the blinking of an eye. I’m thinking of those who’ve lost loved ones over the past year. Christmas can be so hard in the midst of grief. And I’m thinking of the Benson and Mills families, who lost three family members in last weekend’s shooting in Manchester. And I’m thinking of Christine Keith, and her son, 14-year-old son Isaac Miller. Christine was a Unitarian Universalist from the Lansing, MI area. She and Isaac were shot and killed in a similar domestic violence tragedy a week ago Thursday. And I’m thinking of the people of Newtown, Connecticut, marking the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school.

Manchester Vigil

Human beings are resilient in so many ways. We have such incredible capacity to meet challenges and to persevere through hardship. But it’s also true that a fragility lingers at the edges of our lives and none of us can outwit it forever. Loneliness comes. Anxiety comes. Fear comes. Hopelessness comes. Pain comes. Illness comes. Death comes. It might not be us this year. But it might be us next year, or in five years. Naming it now not only affirms people who experience it now, but it prepares each of us for the day when we’re dreaming of a white Christmas, but everything’s gone blue.

And not only might it be us next year, or five years from now, but it’s also more than likely that it has been us at some point in the past. We each carry a bit of Blue Christmas with us every year. How many of us have had to endure a first Christmas without a beloved family member—a grandparent, a parent, a spouse, a child? How many of us have dealt with illness—our own or that of a loved one—through the course of a holiday season? How many of us have had years wherein the joy and merriment of Christmas was overpowered by some anxiety, fear, pain or grief?

My grandmother died some years ago. Reflecting on her death reminds me that for nearly forty years, I would travel to her hometown of Hanover, Pennsylvania after Christmas Day. It was family time—and it was idyllic. I have wonderful memories. Since my grandmother died—and since my children have grown older and we’ve begun to develop new holiday routines—we don’t make that Christmas pilgrimage anymore. Most of the time during the holiday season this change doesn’t faze me. Most of the time I don’t think about it. But every once in a while something grabs my attention, tugs at my heart—I hear a brass quartet playing “Silent Night,” or I pull that John Deere tractor tree ornament out of its box, or I pass by a snow-covered farm on a cold, clear winter night—and I’m back there again, six years old, ten years old, eighteen years old. For a moment my heart aches. For a moment everything is blue.

Blue Christmas Farm

Blue Christmas. It may be any one of us this year. It surely will be each of us some day. It likely has been all of us once upon a time. Therefore, let us be honest about the holidays. Let us name the full range of feelings we may bring, will bring, have brought into this season. Let us name them not because we want to fix them or somehow miraculously make them disappear, but simply because they are real. In the midst of all our Blue Christmases, if nothing else, may we find comfort in being together in the fullness of our humanity. And with the fullness of our humanity laid bare in front of us may we, when we are ready—when we are truly ready—feel once again the joy, peace and hope, that are also real, and eventually come to each of us, like midwinter’s returning sun, like the lightly falling snow.[2]

returning sun

Amen and blessed be.



[1] Denham, Shelly Jackson, “Winter Night,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #256.

[2] “The lightly falling snow” is borrowed from Connecticut Poet Laureate Dick Allen’s poem, “Solace,” written in response to the December 14, 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. Listen to Allen’s reading at http://wnpr.org/post/simple-solemn-tribute-sandy-hook-victims

A Meditation on the Coming of Autumn

The Rev. Josh Pawelek

O sing Hallelujah, for now is indeed a time for turning, a time of transition. Autumn comes this week. Summer vacation stretches out behind us; children are back in school. Here and there among the green leaves on branches of trees a sliver of gold, a spot of red, a dollop of brown. The final harvest of the year begins. Apples and pears have ripened for picking. Though there will be warm days and beautiful weather ahead—days like we’ve had this past week—the nights are cooler now; the breeze carries on its edge just a hint of late October’s bite.

Autumn in New England is so beautiful, and yet it carries on its edge a hint of sadness, a sense of loss, a reminder that our greatest joys are always woven fine with sorrow, a confirmation that life moves on whether we’re ready or not, that change comes for better or for worse, whether we’re ready or not, that we turn and turn and turn, ready or not. Where spring awakens us to new life blooming, to creativity, abundance and possibility, autumn speaks to us of pulling back, resting, reflecting. Autum has a way, if we let it, of filling our hearts with a yearning for what has been, a deep and wise nostalgia for younger, simpler days, a profund joy for the gift of life, yet also grief for all we’ve lost.

O Sing Halleluja friends, for now is indeed a time for turning, a time of transition. As themigrating flocks slowly head off on their time-honored southern routes, may we on this morning and throughout the coming autumn look back with fondness on who and where we’ve been, on all we’ve come through to be here now. As the leaves slowly begin to change from green to brilliant gold, orange and red, may we forgive ourselves for our mistakes and transgressions and accept them as reminders of our own humanity. And as the leaves begin to fall, may we grieve well for all we have lost. And in grieving well, may we prepare ourselves to receive the new life that is always emerging.

Amen and Blessed be.

Transitions

The Rev. Josh Pawelek

There’s a reading in our hymnal entitled, “Change Alone is Unchanging.”[1] It’s attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher, Heraklietos, also known as the weeping philosopher. “In searching for the truth,” he says, “be ready for the unexpected. Change alone is unchanging.” These words ring true to me, the same truth I encounter in Vanessa Rush Southern’s meditation, “Expect Chaos.” She says, “Perhaps change is life. Frustrations and snags are life. Maybe instead of being taught to expect stability and predictability, we should have been taught to expect chaos or at least constant transitions.”[2]

Change alone is unchanging. As long as I’m alive—and conscious of my living—I can expect to experience change. Certainly there will be changes in the wider world around me: nations and governments change; cultures and social norms change; human knowledge and technology change; ecology and climate change; the seasons and the positions of the stars in the night sky change. Certainly there will be changes in the more immediate patterns of my life: my children will grow older and my role in their life will change. My parents will grow older and my role in their lives will change. My wife will grow older; I will grow older. I can reasonably expect changes in my work life. I can reasonably expect changes in where I live. People will come in and out of my life—friends, parishioners, colleagues, peers, activists. I can expect the changes retirement brings. I can expect the changes illness brings. I can expect the changes loss brings—the changes that come when a loved-one dies.

And as a result of all these changes and transitions I can also expect my inner life to change in response: what I believe, what matters to me, the things to which I feel called to dedicate time and energy, my understanding of the Sacred. All of it has already changed through the course of my life. I can only conclude more change lies ahead.

Change alone is unchanging. I suspect this is not news to you. At some place deep in our bones we sense this idea is true. It speaks directly to Unitarian Universalists’ common yearning for a religious life not bound by doctrines, creeds and revelations presented to us as the one, eternal truth, a permanent etchings upon stone tablets, as the final word revealed once long ago and sealed forever. We long for spiritual openness. We are comfortable, even, with spiritual open-endedness. We long for a spiritual community that asks us not to submit to one truth but to explore truth from many perspectives and construct meaning from many sources. We long for a faith informed as much by scientific discovery and changes in human knowledge as it is by ancient wisdom. We certainly don’t long for chaos, and we want our children to experience stability and predictability. But when we encounter this idea that “change alone is unchanging” often something stirs in us. Often our gut response is “yes.” We want to hear more because we experience our lives, all life, the earth, the universe not as static, but as dynamic. Change is life.

But let’s be honest: as a concept, as an intellectual proposition, as a starting place for deeper theological reflection, this idea is fabulous. Change alone is unchanging. But as a practical matter, when it comes to dealing with day-to-day life, when it comes to navigating our life transitions, it’s not so fabulous. It doesn’t matter what height of spiritual discipline you’ve achieved, the unexpected can really mess up your day. Even Jesus lost it from time to time. For human beings (and I’m sure for other creatures as well) change is hard. As spiritually and intellectually exhilarating as the idea of change is, the physical and emotional experience can be a real drag. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is why the ancient Greeks referred to Heraklietos as the weeping philosopher.

Our ministry theme for September is transitions, an obvious theme for this time of year in New England as summer vacation ends, students return to school, the leaves begin to change colors and fall, local farmers begin their final harvest of the year, apples and pears have ripened, and the grocery stores now offer orange and black Halloween promotions. I also note the Jewish High Holy Days occur during this season. This year Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins this evening. For Jews the High Holy Days, which culminate in ten days on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, can be understood as a time of transition, a time of reflecting on the past year and preparing for the next. As we said in our opening words from Rabbi Jack Riemer, “Now is the time for turning…. But for us turning does not come so easily. It takes an act of will for us to make a turn. It means breaking with old habits.”[3] Here’s another truth: successfully navigating the transitions of our lives requires us to break with old habits. Perhaps change is life, but we are also creatures of habit and habits by their very nature are hard to break.

When I use the word habit I’m not speaking simply of addictions like smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol or overeating, though I certainly include them. I’m speaking more generally of habits as modes of life to which we become deeply accustomed. As an example, I go back to the summer of 1999 when Stephany and I first moved to Connecticut. Over the previous ten years I had grown deeply accustomed to my life in Boston. I was grounded in the student culture in Cambridge. I was grounded in the local rock music scene. I was grounded in my ties to the Unitarian Universalist Association which is headquartered in Boston. My twin brother and some of my best friends lived there. I was embedded in a rich network of peers, clergy, UUs, musicians, activists and Ultimate (Frisbee) players. I knew all the running roots along the Charles River. I knew my way around by car and public transportation. My life had a certain stability and predictability to it. We moved to Connecticut that summer and I became ill. I was chronically dizzy and nauseated. I lacked appetite. I lost weight. I drank ginger tea all the time, hoping it would settle my stomach. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before. It took many medical tests to prove to me there was nothing physically wrong with me, and two or three years of therapy to convince me that what had caused these symptoms was anxiety brought on by a major life transition. Put another way, I had been happily and healthily habituated to my life in Boston; and as much as I welcomed a life-change intellectually, making the transition turned out to be immensely difficult. As much as I was genuinely excited to begin my professional career in a new location with new people, when I allowed myself to look closely at the life I had left behind in Boston and get in touch with what leaving meant to me, I realized I was sad. I was grieving my younger Boston self and really didn’t know who my new, professional minister self was. Move to a suburb? What? Buy a house? What? Have children? What?

I’m not suggesting my experience of a big life transition is somehow a universal experience, but I do suspect that at the heart of our major life transitions there is always some amount of grief, some sadness at the loss of what came before, and it stays with us. The Rev. Robert Walsh writes, “Sometimes tears come to my eyes. Is it about the war? Is it from getting older? Or is it just autumn? I’m self-conscious about it, afraid people will think I’m grieving or that I’m a sentimental old fool. I guess they’d be right if they thought those things.”[4]

A book called A General Theory of Love, published in 2000 by three psychiatrists, describes the way our relationships, particularly our very close, intimate relationships, shape us—not only shape our emotions and our outlook on life, but shape our body chemistry, our physiology, the development of our neural pathways. When two people live together in a long-term, intimate relationship, when they share meals, leisure time, vacations, chores, money, a bed, child-rearing, etc., over time their bodies become deeply intertwined. Here’s a quote. “The human body constantly fine-tunes many thousands of physiologic parameters—heart rate and blood pressure, body temperature, immune function, oxygen saturation, levels of sugars, hormones, salts, ions, metabolites…. [But] an individual does not direct all of his own functions. [An intimate partner] transmits regulatory information that can alter hormone levels, cardiovascular function, sleep rhythms, immune function and more…. The reciprocal process occurs simultaneously: the first person regulates the physiology of the second, even as he himself is regulated.”[5] This is why living when a loved-one has died isn’t just emotionally painful; it physically hurts. This other body that has been regulating aspects of our physiology, this other body to which we have become deeply accustomed—to which we have become habituated—is no longer present, no longer close by.

 

I assume it’s not just intimate loved ones who regulate our bodies in this way, although they may have the most impact. I assume where we live—the place we call home, our neighborhood—regulates our bodies to some degree. Where we work regulates our bodies to some degree. Our daily routine regulates our bodies to some degree. We become habituated in all sorts of ways. We become grounded in all sorts of ways. Thus any transition, any change that requires us to break out of our habits will bring some pain, even if it’s a change we want. I was ready to leave Boston in 1999. It was the right time for a life transition. But I see it so clearly now: despite how right it seemed, my body was still wired for its patterns of life in Boston. And because I didn’t know I grieving that life, I became ill.

One of the standard seminary books on understanding grief is C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, in which he writes about his experience after the death of his wife (whom he refers to as H.) and his recognition of how deeply ingrained in him the habits of being her husband were. He writes, “I think I am beginning to understand why grief feels like suspense. It comes from the frustration of so many impulses that had become habitual. Thought after thought, feeling after feeling, action after action had H. for their object. Now their target is gone. I keep on through habit fitting an arrow to the string, then I remember I have to lay the bow down. So many roads lead thought to H. I set out on one of them. But now there’s an impassable frontierpost across it.”[6] I assume something like this happens with any life transition. A new school means different teachers, different peers, a different pattern to the day—the old ways have to shift. You or your partner receive a life-threatening diagnosis and in the blink of an eye all routine becomes geared towards treatment; life’s daily familiarities and pleasures become elusive such that even food tastes differently. You lose a job—especially one that really matched your identity and sense of calling—and you must break with the habits of that job. You have a baby, and you must break with old habits. You retire, and you must break with old habits. Aging at any time in our lives, but certainly as our bodies and our minds begin to decline, requires that we break with old habits. Or consider becoming sober: for addicts the body is utterly enmeshed with a substance, completely regulated by the need to have that substance. Getting sober is a grief-ridden process. Caroline Knapp, the late Boston-based journalist, said of her addiction to alcohol, “this is a love story. It’s about passion, sensual pleasure, deep pulls, lust, fears, yearning hungers. It’s about needs so strong they’re crippling. It’s about saying good-bye to something you can’t fathom living without.”[7]

At the heart of our life transitions there is always some degree of grief, some sadness at the loss of what came before, some level of pain. “Sometimes tears come to my eyes,” says Rev. Walsh. “I’m self-conscious about it, afraid people will think I’m grieving or that I’m a sentimental old fool. I guess they’d be right if they thought those things.” “Change alone is unchanging,” said the weeping philosopher. But it’s also really, really hard. Even if we’ve moved on in our minds, our bodies long for the way life was.

In the midst of the grief that comes with life transitions we have spiritual resources available to us. Perhaps most importantly we have our own capacity for quieting down, becoming still, being peaceful, paying attention, breathing. When I open worship I ask you to “find that place inside, that place where you may go when you long for comfort and solace, when you yearn for peace.” We don’t typically go there when confronted with a major life transition. We don’t typically go there when the going gets tough, when we’re in pain, when we’ve just lost our job, when we’ve just received the diagnosis, when the funeral director is talking to us about arrangements for a deceased loved-one. We’re just as likely to be screaming or panicking, passing out or curled up on the floor in the fetal position. It takes real discipline to find a place of strength and grounding inside when your sources of strength and grounding outside have just disappeared.

In C.S. Lewis’ theology, that place of quiet and stillness inside would be the door that opens to his relationship with God. But in the midst of grief he writes of that door being shut and bolted: “Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face? The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.”[8]

In moments of life transition we need to stop and grieve for the life that is—for better or for worse—slipping away. We need times of quiet and stillness to say, think and feel whatever it is we need to say, think and feel about our old life before we can fully embrace the new. We need times of peacefulness and paying attention in order to break well with old habits.

Caroline Knapp wrote about her experience of finding that place of silence and stillness in community—in AA meetings. She said “When people talk about their deepest pain, a stillness often falls over the room, a hush so deep and so deeply shared it feels like reverence. That stillness keeps me coming, and it helps keep me sober, reminding me what it means to be alive… what it means to be human.”[9]And Rev. Walsh is right. We can expect tears. Because in those silent, still places, where we find comfort and solace, and even joy, there we can grieve, and in grieving well we can make ourselves ready for whatever new life awaits.

Amen and Blessed Be.



[1]Heraklietos of Ephesos, “Change Alone is Unchanging,”Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #655.

[2]Southern, Vanessa Rush, “Expect Chaos,” This Piece of Eden (Boston: Skinner House, 2001) p. 45.

[3]Riemer, Jack, “On Turning,”Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #634.

[4]Walsh, Robert, “Tears” Stone Blessings (Boston: Skinner House, 2010) p. 6.

[5] Lewis, Thomas; Amini, Fari; and Lannon, Richard, A General Theory of Love (New York: Vintage Books, 2000) p. 85.

[6]Lewis, C.S., A Grief Observed (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996) p. 47.

[7]Knapp, Caroline, Drinking: A Love Story (New York: Delta Book, 1996) p. 5.

[8]Lewis, C.S., A Grief Observed (San Francisco:HarperSanFrancisco, 1996) p. 46.

[9]Knapp, Drinking, p. 256.