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It Takes Two Hands

In my extended families we stretch out Christmas for several days and try to keep our family meals and gift exchanges to one-per-day. Christmas 2011 is in the books now. It was enjoyable for the most part (although judging a Christmas on an enjoyability scale is problematic in its own way).

As much as we theological types like to go on about deeper meanings of Christmas – and we should – there is a set of complicated cultural expectations that are also nearly impossible to avoid. These expectations and what they do to set up disappointment and let down are what need attention on this fourth day of Christmas.

Speaking of the Twelve Days of Christmas . . . we are not entirely finished with the holiday in our family . . . a twenty-year tradition of twelve-days-gift-giving continues until Epiphany at our house. My spouse and I exchange small tokens each of the twelve days. They tend to fall into one of several categories: 1) pragmatic, 2) fun or funny, 3) thoughtful.

So far this year, I’ve received pink duck tape (yes, duck tape), a set of emery boards (after about 8 years of saying ‘no more!’ to emery boards, I actually asked for them this year), and a little spatula for turning eggs and pancakes in my smaller skillets. I’ve given a doo-hicky to hold up a smart phone (sorry I don’t recall its official name), a mat for wet shoes and boots (which arrive daily by the back door), and a Farmer’s Almanac. So, funny, pragmatic and even sometimes thoughtful.

This hardly sounds like a let-down. It is not. Although, my espoused does complain that after nearly 300 gifts, he is completely out of ideas. (He likes to exaggerate, and besides that, he’s given me emery boards at least ten times.)

Ways Life Lets Us Down

It may be Twelve Days of Christmas for some, but for a lot of people it is more like the Twelve Days of Let-Down. People do lot of maneuvering to fend off feelings of disappointment and internal or relational suffering, yet those feelings have a way of persisting.

The let-down sneaks in for lots of people around gift giving, or receiving, or the lack of satisfaction therein. Many adults that I know can say they are not affected by gift-giving. They say things like “it’s more blessed to give than receive!” Or they put it this way: “It doesn’t matter what I get. I don’t need a thing!” Yet gift-giving-and-receiving persist as little scenarios of expectation, hope, disappointment and recovery (or downward spiral) for many people.

Another set of let-downs in the holidays are rooted in relational pain. Past hurts and anxieties about the holidays come floating up to the surface. Childhood disappointments reappear. An accumulation of memories can assault the soul: the season of Christmas and New Years that turned into a nightmare; being stuck in a house with other hurting, intoxicated or raging people; feeling alone and adrift. Such emotional and psychological dramas leave scars. Internalized stories, which are hard to untell or re-frame, are often hounding those who suffer at the holidays. Even if they have worked to live into a different more hopeful story, the situation of the holidays has a way of turning up the volume of deeply entrenched narratives and the external world seems to oblige each little obsession with more evidence that things will never change.

For many, the season is a let-down because their focus turns to unresolved (sometimes complicated) grief. The loss of family members, friends, pets, jobs, relationships, physical health and well-being, and even hopes or dreams for something different from life have a way of begging for attention during the holidays. The need to attend to and honor one’s grief is real and profound. The missing person, plan or hope deserves our care and time for healing. Yet the emotional cost of attending to such losses is high, and the longing for joy and comfort can be buried under the weight of grief still working itself through.

For some there is a general dissatisfaction with how one’s life is going. Media generated images of people and life in the world of advertising, feel-good stories, facebook posts, all seem to portray a bland sort of happiness, or a fairy-tale ending, or compel you to think your life will be better with just one more car, gadget, diamond, book, meal, song, movie, etc. Best-of lists (which I confess I like to read) can also have a way of pointing out how much you are missing, or how un-cool you are, or how consumer-oriented and lamely self-preoccupied and shallow the culture can be.

If you are a chaplain, pastor, counselor, church leader, or a compassionate human being, you may find people in your care floundering in a season of disappointment. You may even find yourself there. The number and sources of let-down are more than I can enumerate here. They cause suffering that takes many forms. You may be tempted to dismiss some of the kinds of internalized and relational suffering that I’m describing as petty or self-imposed. However, that kind of dismissal can be its own form of denial about the suffering that is a part of every human life. What we disavow in others can be what we don’t want to see in ourselves.

Listening and Speaking to Disappointment 

Those who bear the vocation of caring for others have a dual calling and obligation. On one hand we are to listen, attend, honor and name the suffering of others. On the other hand we are to bear witness to the reality that there is more in life than the suffering we see and know. Holding these two hands together can be among the greatest challenges of genuine pastoral leadership.

As you set out to meet the next person for coffee or plan your sermon or prepare to teach here are three ancient gifts with which to fill your two hands as you reach out to those who have just come through a perennial season of high expectation and let-down (a.k.a. the holidays). First there is deep listening. Then there is the wisdom and solace of the psalms. Also there is the healing of the earth itself surrounding us with life. And finally, there is healing of silence in prayer.

Listening carefully and compassionately – not judging, fixing or proselytizing – but seeking understanding holds amazing healing powers all in itself. The work of confessing one’s pain and hearing it aloud (instead of bouncing around in one’s skull) has a therapeutic effect. Just listen to the others and their pain. South African pastor and activist Trevor Hudson says, everyone is sitting next to a “pool of their own tears.” Sit alongside and hear the pain without getting lost in it yourself.

The Psalms offer an honest roll-call of feelings and travel the full length and breadth of the emotional landscape. That scriptures capture such a range of human experience is its own kind of encouragement. Later in January, I’ll be teaching from Brueggemann’s little book Praying the Psalms. He uses the images of the “pit” and the “wing” to describe the depths and heights of the Psalms in their address of the human condition. God is with humanity even in the deepest pit of despair, and we can and must turn the tables to plead with God for healing, justice and mercy. When we are disoriented by the depths of despair, God also waits to lift us on the wings of mercy to  reorient our lives. This story of disorientation and reorientation heals the ones we tell ourselves which leave us mired in pity, loss and suffering.

The earth awaits us with a thousand images of life and the cycle of change, death, healing, presence and growth. But to know this wisdom, we must engage the earth itself. Get outside in it. Feel its cold wind. See the bareness of trees in winter. Hear the cry of doves. Walk and move ourselves through a landscape of God’s creative and generative presence. Get outside our despair and turn our hearts to the fullness of life.

Deep listening, the poetry and poignancy of the Psalms, the hushed earth . . . all lead to the silent, healing presence of God. That presence underlies ancient wisdom, the immediacy of human presence and all of creation to the far reaches of the universe. We have access to all of this healing goodness. But we get lost in the suffering of human living. To enter again the silent land of God’s abiding presence will not cause our suffering to disappear, but it will help us not to live captive to it. As Martin Laird puts it: “One of the great paradoxes of the spiritual life is that our struggles are not separate from the luminous vastness within each of us.”

If you are among those who have said yes to a vocation of offering both of your hands to a world that suffers – on the one hand listening and on the other speaking a word of hope and healing – then blessings to you in that work. And God’s peace.