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November 9, 2008: “When the Holidays Hurt”

There was once a young Unitarian Universalist child who was dining with parents at the home for the first time of an elderly great uncle, who was known to be very religious. Just before they started eating, after watching the old man bow his head and speak in a soft voice, the young Unitarian Universalist asked, Mom, what did Uncle Bob say to his plate?”

I heard about one 4-year-old boy who was asked to return thanks before dinner. The family members bowed their heads in expectation and waited–and waited. After a long silence, the young fellow looked up at his mother and asked, “But if I thank God for the broccoli, won’t he know that I’m lying?”

We are approaching those times known simply as the holidays, but which many of us dread. However, were supposed to be happy for the holidays, and merry for Xmas; we're supposed to get into the holiday spirit.

We are supposed to worship God and his creative assistant in charge of holiday decor, Martha Stewart , though personally I believe that she is actually the Antichrist.

I suggest instead the sign I saw recently that is supposed to go on ones front door or perhaps in the kitchen. It says simply Martha Stewart Doesn't Live Here; Don't Expect Much.

Indeed, this could be our mantra for surviving the holidays, so repeat after me: Martha Stewart Doesn't Live Here; Don't Expect Much!

 Surely during this economic recession, crisis, the holidays will be even worse than usual, but we can still survive them. We all come to the holiday season with different baggage, different situations. Some have just experienced a deep loss of someone close and wonder how they will get through his most family-oriented season of the year. For others, the crisis may be economic or still others, it might be physical illness, cancer, you name it. Oh sometimes, when we find out what our neighbor is going through, it puts our situation into perspective. But even if things are going relatively well, this time of year is severely stressful, so let's be aware of that up front and not be surprised by it!

For the truth is that we can never please everyone, and we can't buy everyone the right present, and furthermore, it's not all going to turn out all right! These holidays are a stressful time extraordinaire for everyone. For many people who are already struggling with their life and its presenting problems, a time of forced good cheer can wreak havoc on our mental health in varying degrees.

Sometimes it's hard to share your feelings with people who seem to have graduated from the Martha Stewart School of Obsessive Creativity. . Someone once said Trouble is a part of your life, and if you don't share it, you don't give the person who loves you a chance to love you enough. (Dinah Shore) And we might add that trouble during the holidays seems even more stressful, especially in a room full of relatives! That's why I usually say after we share a time of Joys and Concerns during worship that we all have things we need to share with others, and it's important that we find someone to share with, for we know sometimes that simply talking about our problems actually helps us feel better! I know that learning how to truly and deeply listen is difficult for most of us UUs,  who would, of course, usually rather talk than listen. It is an important lesson for ministers for exactly that same reason!

Supposedly also, of course, God talks and we ministers are supposed to listen, and that's difficult, because it seems like throughout history, someone evidently is not listening very well, because we are not agreeing on what we hear! Like a theological whisper down the lane game! My theory is because most of us haven't learned to truly and deeply listen to God (and as usual I use that term to mean many things, including the Idea of God, but not limited to him, her, it.), to the Bible, to other holy scripture, and perhaps even most importantly to each other., because we are too busy listening only to ourselves and our desires, ego, particular beliefs, etc.,. We hear what our egos want us to hear not what we need to her! 

For a an all -powerful Supreme being Ruler of the universe, creator of the world, God seems not to be able to speak out loud, or at least loud enough for all of us to hear the same thing! Put that down as one of the proofs for the nonexistence of God, but more on that in another sermon! One of the practical things I learned in seminary was how to truly listen, and I have been told many times when someone with that just needs to talk comes in that I have really helped someone when what I really have done is to listen to them, let them express themselves, and  let them get it off their chests!

My theory is that religion, religious language, religious behavior like worship, however, is a special kind of event and community  that even we heretical UUs need. Not everyone does. But I will argue that everyone finds something similar somewhere in their lives. At work, in recreation team, family situation, social or fraternal or civic organization, some kind of community. I also want to argue that for many of us, we find scripture in many different writings that are contemporary and whose criteria are simply that they speak to us or inspire or inform us in some way, whether it be poetry, song, essay, or theology. One of my favorite scripture writers is Kathleen Norris, and I often quote from my favorite book of hers, Dakota, A Spiritual Geography, but I would also recommend Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, and The Cloister Walk. She's a liberal Christian who always challenges me to think and of course translate into my own language of faith, but she does inspire me, thus I continue to find in her writing scripture for my soul. Her latest is called Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writers Life, written after the death of her husband of more than 30 years from cancer recently, so she's close to my age. Now, the word, Acedia, takes some explaining, but it's worth it for this topic and for many of us of her baby boomer age because the word is related to depression, something so well known that  antidepressants have now become the  most commonly prescribed medications in America!

Acedia, is according to Online Medical Dictionary,2000; A mental syndrome, the chief features of which are listlessness, carelessness, apathy, and melancholia. It is Latin for Sloth, one of the 7 Deadly Sins, (and lets all say them together, now!) Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, and Pride. Its also often called boredom, but an almost terminal or pathological boredom. It is also called the noonday demon in monastic life through ancient writings because it was such a common problem in religious life and still is. I would wager that there are few among us in religious and other helping vocations who have not felt it ourselves, that deep questioning of the call after many years or after many frustrations! But more generally, it is related to that feeling of depression that so often comes in our later years and even when things aren't necessarily bad! Like, for instance, during the holidays!

And as I've said, I translate her writings, when she uses Christian scripture, I translate into what makes sense to me and gives me meaning. But I also like her sense of humor. She says that she finds solace from sayings on her refrigerators like: Psalms 46:10 Be still and know that I am God; Jeremiah 29;13. When you search doe me you will find me;  I can usually manage to laugh out loud at the postcard next to them, an artist's depiction of an interstate highway in which the standard green directional signs read: Depressed for No reason, Depressed for Good Reason, and further on, Still Depressed. My favorite, probably because it is the lane I most frequent is a small orange sign in the foreground that sports a right turn arrow: Just depressed, Don't Want to Analyze It.

Now the way I translate God is the power within, and I don't know where it comes from or how it gets there, but I have felt it get me through times where I need help and strength I didn't know I had. Maybe that's the same thing as the God she's speaking of, but that's only my translation. You will have your own.

 She entitles  one of her sections,: Lowering My Standards can Help.... and see if you don't thin k this might be good advice for weathering the holidays, even in this case if it is about a monk who is feeling down or a writer who is feeling blocked.

In an article in Cistercian Studies Quarterly, a French monk quotes  a passage from an 8th century monk of Syria who found himself suddenly unable to pray, and before he left as a failed monk and received an inspiration to recite only Psalm 117, the shortest Psalm of all with only 2 verses and it worked! On reading this I laughed aloud, and I suspect that many monks and nuns would do the same. What a lazy fellow, to content himself with so little: O praise the Lord, all you nations,/Acclaim God, all you peoples!/ Strong is God's love for us;/the Lord if faithful forever. The story reminds me of what the late poet William Stafford used to say about writers black. He claimed to have never experienced it, because as soon as he felt it coming on, he lowered his standards.

She talks about the treatment for depression since her husband had attempted suicide and was suffering from clinical depression. Now that antidepressants are the most commonly prescribed medications in America, she writes, we need to know (if they work), but the evidence is spotty.  A 2002 article in Prevention and Treatment reported on a study in which approximately 80% of the response to 6 antidepressants that became popular during the 1990s was duplicated in control groups who got a sugar pill.  A more recent National Institute of Health study, the largest, non-industry-sponsored test of antidepressants to date, revealed that the drugs failed to cure the symptoms of major depression in nearly half the people taking them. Although the drug tested -Celexa, Wellbutrin, Zoloft, and Effexor-work in different ways, they had roughly the same effectiveness or lack of it.

The sugar pill placebo antidepressant works because we believe, brothers and sisters. Just like we were at a revival, is it not salvation in a sugar pill? Our belief does make us whole, but unfortunately not always. Which is more important-the belief in God or the existence of God? If the belief in God can cure us, who cares whether God exists?   But sometimes we need the miracle of modern chemistry and pharmaceuticals to balance the chemistry in our brains which may need some adjusting. Psychiatrist Peter D. Kramer depression is to our culture what tuberculosis was 80 or 100 years ago...a disease with spiritual overtones. So I suggest that we not give up either the psychological or the spiritual help! 

Norris says about her need for church, and especially her need for monastic life, though a Protestant. She does not go for the obligatory, Goals and objectives:

They are not what I have in mind, she writes, when I go to church on Sunday morning, but I'll let that pass Sometimes I persuade myself to go because I know I'll receive a blessing, or because I need to listen to the words of Scripture and give them a chance to work on me. I may desire to sing hymns with others, or be cheered by the sight of children perched on their favorite climbing tree before and after service. If I go to church feeling depressed a congregation, by its very nature, reminds me that I am not in the struggle alone. You see how the simple act of church going can be deeply therapeutic both psychologically and spiritually. 

Norris, like many of us and millions, even billions of others, go to church, I will argue, not because of orthodox belief, but because of the need for that relationship of community, that special religious  community, that beloved community, where one feels connected, whether it is Roman Catholic or Unitarian or Southern Baptist. It is obviously not that they are all alike, because we do not feel at home in all of them; it is the humanness that is the same, the particularity of the personality that differs.

I need the words of Scripture she says, because of the challenges they bring and because what I find in them I can find nowhere else I also need the monastic version of self knowledge that finds expression in the Benedictine vow of conversio morum. Literally this is conversion of morals, but in spirit it signifies a willingness to keep living together with, which is one meaning of conversio. The vow asks me to perceive my essential human task as living with myself as I am even as I continue to confront myself and my behavior so that I might more fully conform my ways of thought , talk, and action to what is good....    I can imagine a life without psychotherapy, but not without conversion, for it promises to help me distinguish between fruitful self-knowledge and sterile self-consciousness. It also continues that idea of living with one another, of walking together.

So we must find our own words of Scripture that comfort us, that call us to action and social justice, that help us believe in the transforming power of love, which some call God, but also may be one another. The beloved community gathered tougher on Sunday morning for religious purpose calling us to get beyond ourselves and our sometimes petty problems to help solve the worlds, as well as each other's problems. Part of the religious purpose calls u to live together, to get along with one another. Love and understand and support one another. 

When I took chaplaincy training, we learned about something called a Theology of Presence, from a Catholic writer, Fr. Tony Steger- and listen how UU this sounds:  Basically the Theology of Presence consists of 5 stages- listening, clarifying, sharing, activating, and supporting. All are important, yet ones presence or being with someone can and does at times mean more than all of the skills and degrees we attain... Presence is a mysterious thing. No one can totally understand all the factors that go into presence. However we do know by experience, that one's presence in dealing with people does accomplish some miraculous things, which words and medicine cannot touch.  And here are 2 quotes about angels that even a humanist can love taken together to form a kind of theology  I want to share because they can also be mantras for surviving the holidays, depression or just tough times:
  1. We are each of us angels with only one wing, and we can fly embracing one another..( Luciano De Creschenzo)
  2. Friends are like angels who lift us to our feet when our wings have trouble remembering how to fly. (Fr. Hal Stockert) and lastly I give you :

The Ten Suggestions for Making it Through the Holidays 2008

  1. Remember that pain is inevitable; suffering is optional. Accept this at the beginning, no matter your actual physical condition, that there will be a variety of kinds of pain from physical to mental to spiritual- all connected, by the way-depression to headaches to heartaches to anger and so on.

2 Express Yourself Clearly- talk about how you’re feeling to someone who will truly listen. Remember what happens when we ASSUME we know what someone is feeling? Remember that the minister reminds you to call him if you feel the need to talk!

  1. Beware Nostalgia and Comparisons! Don’t let comparing the past ruin the present, especially because no one can ever bake a pie like grandma use to bake when we were children! At the same tie, let yourself enjoy the positive parts of basking in the glow of warm memories. Just don’t expect the present to measure up to your idyllic childhood!
  2. Drop a $20 Bill in the Salvation Army bucket; find a way to help out another family over the holidays. If there is one way to make you feel better, here it is.

5 Take it easy on Yourself; lower your standards. Martha Stewart doesn’t live here and isn’t likely to visit! Don’t compare yourself to the family favorite or success story; be glad for who you are.

.6. Cry as much and whenever you feel like it; tears are therapeutic and crying is good for you. Don’t tell other people not to cry or that everything will be all right; encourage them to cry and ask if you can help or if they’d just like to talk.

  1. Laugh as much as possible; bring out the child in you. Laughing also is good therapy; rent some comedies for holidays along with the tearjerkers!

8.8. Spend more time with energy-givers and less time with energy-drainers. Be around people you love!(and yes, that may NOT be relatives) If you can’t, or don’t want to, be with family, get with friends, go to church, or volunteer somewhere, but be around people who lift you up and make you feel good!

  1. Reach out and touch someone (and be touched)! We need the human touch; we need to be hugged and touched on a regular basis. We’ve all heard about the studies about babies that were held and babies who weren’t…
  2. Go to church! Cultivate your spiritual dimension that is in community with others and that sense of the divine, however you define that. Relationships are at the core of all religion!

Amen, Shalom, (Peace in Hebrew), Assalaamu Alaikum(may Peace be upon you in Arabic), Abrazos a todos (Hugs all around) Namaste, (A Hindu greeting the divinity within you) Blessed Be, and let me add one more blessing that I adapted from the Spanish long before I went in to ministry. Vaya con Dios is Spanish for Good-bye, but literally is Go with God, So I adapted it to say Vaya Con Su Dios, Go with your idea or interpretation of God.