Friday, December 25, 2009

Pain, Christmas and… Gratitude?

    The streets are quiet. From the lofty view on the eighth floor, the world seems especially still tonight, and the only sound on the balcony is the wind flapping an unhinged piece of plastic against one of the trees below me. It is after 3am, and Christmas morning is still a few hours away. Most of the city remains locked in their holiday slumber, as I should be, but the pain has returned and sleep is not an option.

    It's been a rough two weeks. An abscessed tooth on the left side of my mouth has rejected the recent spate of antibiotics, and so after only a day or so of relief, the pain has returned on the eve of this Christmas morning to push me from my sleep. The pain is intense and comes in waves, and often feels as though someone is sawing a knife into my gums. Before the dentist was able to assign me antibiotics nearly a week ago, I'd gone through nearly ten extra strength tylenol a day, to little effect. It was only hours before I'd hoped that the pain was finally gone, but it has returned in full force, and after another night of little or no sleep, I am awake. In many ways, I feel like I've lost two weeks, because it's hard to keep track of the days when you're not sleeping and you never know when another staggering wave of pain will thrash your existence and bring you, often literally, to your knees.    And yet this morning, despite the physical agony I find myself in, I can't help feeling just a little grateful. I know it sounds like ridiculous, like one of those pat answers we hand out to people who are suffering to make ourselves feel better because we feel all right and well, we don't know what else to say. And as much as I'd like to not feel as if the dentist forgot his needle in my mouth, it does remind me of the people in this world who are in much greater pain. More than infected tissue brushing against a nerve, we are surrounded by people who suffer from recurring emotional scars that are ripped open, again and again, especially during holidays like Christmas. And while we are not meant to give up our own happiness or fulfillment to continually ponder the fates of those who are struggling, a reminder about the nature of humanity can serve, I think, to help us deal with our own pain and the struggles we all endure.

    ***

    There was a time not so long ago when Christianity was the faith of the suffering, the wounded, and the broken hearted. It was the faith that called its God the 'Man of Sorrows'. A faith that believed the Incarnation had been revealed in a poor, itinerant Rabbi during a tempestuous and violent period in the world's history. And a faith that viewed life in the light of its hardship and promised only hope.

    That faith, that version of Christianity, is no longer popular in North America or in most Western cultures. Instead, we look for the shiny red package with a bow on top, the faith that promises more goodies if only you'll choose it. Jesus, who has become a Western icon, is hard to distinguish from the morass of proto-masculine figures of the sports and entertainment world. In this world he isn't Swedish, as some would say, but more like the former gridiron star turned politician who has a good feel for people and a kind word for the women and children. He is marketable and likable and eminently successful. Massive churches and entire denominations design their advertising campaigns around him. Books promote his willingness to make you successful. Movies and music promise peace and joy if you'll just surrender to him… and donate twenty dollars to their ministry. Jesus is the Everyman, the star who fills the role that everyone can identify with, and he commands a huge market and a massive commission. With such a Saviour, we don't have much time for pain, just a quick, easy smile for the cameras before we flash forward to our next promotional visit. The underlying basis for humanity, the tragedy that enjoins us, is not important, not so long as we can get people into our building to recite our mantras and buy our stuff. The New Jesus wants to make You Better! The New Jesus doesn't want you to even think about the Negative. Focus on the Goodness! Focus on the Love! Okay, turn here, now smile… Good. Got it.

    In the world where entertainment is news and news is entertainment, the New Jesus strides across the room with a smile and a quip and presents for everyone.

    I don't like the New Jesus very much. He may earn twenty million for a movie and write best selling books that are sold in huge churches, and he might have a TV show that is shown to millions around the world and a rich following dressed in three piece suits and earnest faces, but I don't trust him. I know that I'm supposed to, know that I'm supposed to have more faith and just 'believe', but no matter how relevant or counter cultural or easy it all seems to believe in him, it just doesn't feel right. I admit that I don't know what God is supposed to feel like or look like, but when I see the New Jesus, the Jesus you see on your TV sets and the Jesus you find advertised in and by so many churches, it only makes me want to change the channel.

    ****

    Some of my friends don't like Christmas very much. In fact, there are quite a few people who don't like our current holiday creation, for a variety of reasons. For some, it is simply a matter of being too commercial, a created holiday for stores that has nothing to do with God or anything else. For others however, Christmas is a painful time because of what it recalls. Painful childhood memories of dysfunctional and abusive homes. Loved ones we've lost and lost loves. Suicide rates hit their peak during the Christmas season, and as every youth worker knows, it is often hardest on the young, who are forced to watch glamorized tales of perfect families and holiday rancor before heading home to a world filled with pain. For them, and many others, Christmas is far worse than even the worst sort of physical pain, because there is no operation and no painkiller that can take away the deep ache inside, an ache that Christmas seems only to highlight. For them, December 25th is the yearly reminder that God doesn't love them or doesn't exist. The New Jesus does not make them want to change the channel so much as it does break the television. Of course, there's another Jesus, but we don't talk about him much these days…

    ****

    On a wind swept Judean hillside, the night is cold, and a young couple huddles together over a fire. Stars blanket the night sky like glittering diamonds, but the woman doesn't notice. Her legs and arms ache from the ride and she runs a trembling hand over her stomach. The time is soon. Her husband looks on anxiously and tries to wrap her in his blanket to keep her warm. The fire has little effect. Her hands feel numb with cold, though her forehead is covered in sweat. He tries to get her to eat, but she isn't hungry. They need a place to stay. It's soon, she tells him. He nods and puts out the fire. He has his own worries. Normally, the inns would have plenty of room, but with the Census, the roads are packed with travelers, and the young couple does not have enough money to buy someone out of their room. He is a simple man, and he worries about his young wife. He feels guilty that he cannot do better for her.

    He moves them back onto the road, which even now sees a fair share of travelers. No one speaks to them, however. No one offers them help, though the woman is clearly pregnant and struggling to stay on their donkey. Everyone is headed somewhere else. Everyone except for us, the man thinks. Alone in his thoughts, he reaches up to hold his wife's hand. Her fingers feel cold in his callused palm. They go as fast as they dare, but it is still slow going and the night is cold. He prays under his breath for Yahweh to help, but God seems absent this night. For years he was content in his work, until he met her, when suddenly things changed. He never could have anticipated this, however.

    She grasps her husband's hand and holds tight. She remembers the strange vision, and the visit from her cousin, but all she can think about is the pain. Everything hurts. She wonders why no one offers them help. But these are not people she grew up with. They are strangers, culled from the countryside at the beckons of their King, all anxious to be home. She sighs. The thought of a home, like the thought of no pain, is too much to hold onto. There is only the next minute. The next hour. The child must come, but she wonders why God has made this so difficult. Why he has chosen her? If he has chosen her. Doubts come and the pain is relentless, but she holds onto her husband's hand and tries to hide her face from the cold.

    The stable is dirty and stinks of cows and manure. Does it have to be here, she asks? Her husband nods, the misery and worry etched onto his face. She smiles at him, though her heart is filled with fear. She will not have any help. Not her mother or aunt or anyone else. She will have to do it alone. They will have to do it alone.

    He watches the way his wife accepts their fate, accepts his poverty, and smiles at him. Momentarily he hates himself for it and curses God for putting him in such a position. He sighs and asks forgiveness, grateful that his wife has a place to lie down. There is so much to be angry about, but the stable is better than the road. He thinks about his family and wishes his parents were still alive. He puts the thought out of his head. There is no one else now. Just him and his wife and the baby.

    Oh Yahweh, where are you?

    ****

    The gurgling sound seems to rise above the cacophony of the animals and he stares in wonder at the little boy. His wife is soaked in sweat but she is smiling. God be praised, he thinks, they've done it. What he doesn't understand is why they've had to do it alone. Or have they? He worries about where they will live and the rumors of war. He worries about the little boy being healthy and his wife getting sick.

    His wife holds up the boy and hands it to him. He takes it, cradling it in his arms, surprised by how light the baby is, how warm he feels. He asks his wife if its normal, but she just smiles as if he's said something in Greek. His worries vanish for the moment as he runs a finger over the boy's dark, wrinkled skin. He rocks him gently while his wife dozes. He wants to plan for the future, plan for his family, figure out a way to ensure they can survive the cold winters and blazing summers, but for the moment he is lost as he stares into his little one's eyes, and all he can do is whisper a quiet thanks.

    Merry Christmas, everyone.


 

-Steve


 

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Halloween, Christmas and Other Atrocities


 

    The knock took me by surprise. I looked over at Bethany and checked the clock. 9pm? Who'd be coming by at this hour? She answered the door and I heard a familiar chorus.

    "Trick or treat!"

    "Hold on a minute, guys." She said. I caught a glimpse of their costumes from the living room. Two little kids, who couldn't have been more than five or six, dressed as executives. (They clearly hadn't been following the news.) She gave them some candy, and I heard their thank-you's as the door closed. Since we live on the 8th floor of an apartment building, they were our only visitors. I thought about telling them that Halloween was the Devil's night, that Jesus would be very unhappy with them, and asking them where the tradition of Halloween had come from, but as they were only kids, they probably wouldn't understand what I was saying. Of course, age rarely comes into play when it comes to understanding, just as ignorance wears a variety of masks…

    

    When I was a kid, we dressed up every year to go out for Halloween. We didn't have a lot of money, but my mom worked hard on our costumes -- I still remember my sisters going out as Raggedy Ann and Andy -- and we always had a lot of fun, especially afterwards when my sisters and I would sit on our beds and 'trade'. (Any trade that brought you a chocolate bar was a winner. 'Best player in the trade' mentality.) Our home was traditional Catholic, but it never occurred to anyone in my family that somehow by putting on costumes and going door to door we were dishonouring God. That changed when I went into ministry. The Pentecostal church where I was working thought Halloween was the devil's night and had videos to prove it. Not only that, as we were taught in excruciating detail, the roots of Halloween went back to a dangerous and ignorant time, when the masks and costumes were worn to scare evil spirits, and trick or treat involved a sacrifice to these spirits. Sometimes, they said, those sacrifices included human sacrifices. I was horrified. I did some research, and wouldn't you know it, it was true. Halloween had indeed been a pagan holiday. They had indeed used masks in an attempt to scare the evil spirits. The idea that Christians celebrated such an evil holiday was an atrocity. I immediately crossed Halloween off my holiday list.

In my second year of ministry, my senior pastor informed me that they were going to offer an alternative costume party for the kids. I thought it was a great idea. This way, he said, the kids would get their candy and not be left out, and the church could reaffirm the glory of God instead of partaking in some old pagan/satanic ritual. It would be years before I would reconsider this idea of Halloween as the devil's night. Halloween was evil. It was right there in the history books. Or was it?

When my sister first told the family a number of years ago that she wasn't celebrating Christmas anymore and that it was a pagan holiday, I thought she was nuts. It was the birth of Jesus! For crying out loud, I thought, you couldn't get any more 'Christian' than that! She was vey calm.

"Christmas is a pagan holiday. The Romans changed it when the church came into power. December 25th was traditionally the celebration of Winter Solstice. And historians have long confirmed that Jesus was born sometime in February. Also, Christmas trees were a form of pagan worship, particularly popular in Germany, but also known throughout Ireland and Scotland."

"That's not true," I said, unwilling to stay quiet. "The trees are evergreens, they represent Jesus' limbs and how they reach out all year round… or something like that."

My sister just looked at me and I shuffled uneasily under her gaze.

"Okay, fine. But how about St. Nick? He was a real saint who helped orphans and-"

"-now he's a fat man with a red coat and talking reindeer who lives at the North Pole. Christmas is nothing more than a big bloated business opportunity!"

I looked at my sister's serious expression and waved my hands.

"Bah humbug!"

It was all I had left. The sad thing of it all was that my sister was right. Her church, at least when it came to celebrations, was very consistent. They didn't celebrate anything except birthdays, which is to say, they didn't celebrate anything. (Loads of fun for the kids, but hey, they're consistent, and isn't that what's really important?)

I guess it was after that I started thinking about Halloween. The truth, conveniently ignored by those of us in the church, including me, was that all of our customs and rituals had ties to the past. Except that for most evangelicals, Christmas made the cut and Halloween didn't. I could only wonder at the discrepancy. Of the two holidays, Christmas seemed far less "Christian". It encouraged consumerism and gluttony and materialism. Jesus was as much a footnote to our cultural practice of Christianity as Satan was to our cultural practice of Halloween. And I certainly didn't see people offering sacrifices to evil spirits on Halloween. Oh, I had no doubt there were people who tried to re-enact the pagan rituals on October 31st. These so-called occultists. So what? I didn't see why it mattered so much. If a group of people decided to worship suitcases every July 4th, would Christians declare that to be a no-travel day as a form of protest? In essence, what the church was doing was giving Satan equal billing with an omnipotent God.

The more I thought about it, the more I wondered why they persisted in producing so much anti-Halloween material. It had become so ridiculous to me, especially when I saw the medieval images of Satan wearing horns and a tail and usually in red tights. How was this seen as biblical? I brought it up with some of my Christian friends as a joke, but they never laughed. Mostly I got disapproving frowns. It was spiritual, they told me, and there was nothing 'trivial' about it. Well, I agreed with them about that. It certainly wasn't trivial. And as I'd found out this past year, the anti-Halloween movement hadn't slowed at all. It was all kind of sad and rheumy, like finding your grandfather's favourite old rocker in the garage covered with dust and being sold as something new and fresh.

But I guess we're taking a stand, aren't we? I just wonder when we're going to wake up and see that in all of our rhetoric, we're committing a much greater atrocity.


 

***


 


 

For me, the saddest part of all this is that my sister hasn't celebrated Christmas with my family in fifteen years. Her church has taken a stand, and God Bless Them, they're consistent. There will be no pagan celebrations in their family. And for many of my evangelical and charismatic friends, there will be no Halloween celebrations in their family either.

I guess that's okay. I don't like consumerism very much, and most people don't want to honour evil, but what if we're wrong about these traditions. What if the meaning of a tradition is simply the meaning you ascribe to it?

When I think about Christmas growing up, I don't think about the fact it was a pagan holiday or that Jesus was born in February. Instead, I remember family gatherings, getting together at the Croatian Hall with my cousins and waiting for Santa to appear, or our tradition of opening presents one at a time on Christmas morning. When I think about Halloween, I don't think about the occultist ties or ignorance of scaring spirits, I think about the costumes my mom made for us, trading candy with my sisters, engaging with our neighbours, and later, with my neighbours' children.

It's easy, I think, to take a perpetual stance of condemning culture. It's easy to automatically label customs as wrong or sinful and even easier to find reasons not to participate. Maybe that happens because it gives us a sense of both self-importance and self-sacrifice and doesn't really cost us anything. Except that it does. It reinforces the idea that Christians are proud and elitist. It reinforces the idea that Christians think that they are better. It tells the world that Christianity is as exclusive as a yacht club, and forces some of us who love Jesus to explain to our friends why these other Christians are such cultural snobs. Perhaps the worst thing about it though, is that while we're celebrating our differences from the world on these holidays, there will be people at work and on our streets who have no one with whom they can share anything. It goes without saying, I think, that the real atrocities of life are never concerned with issues, just people. The same people the church insists that it loves.

I miss our family Christmas. I miss the fact we can't gather together as a family because a portion of the church insists on teaching anti-culturalism. My hope this year is that we will remember to celebrate the holidays (yes, all of them) as seasons of hope and giving. That we will look at the world as not a place to condemn, but as a family to join. And that we will hold close not the doctrines that divide us, but the relationships that make this whole thing matter.

-Steve


 

    

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