Sunday, December 25, 2011

Tradition, Tradition!

People are always talking about traditions at Christmas time.  I had dinner tonight with a family whose tradition is fondue on Christmas Eve.  They asked me if I had any family traditions for Christmas.

We always had pickled herring on Christmas.

Pickled herring is pretty much the only seafood product that I don't like.  At all.  I will eat almost anything that comes out of water.  I cannot stand pickled herring.  Seriously, pickled fish?

We had a lot of transition in my family, and thus, not much tradition.  It equipped me well for ministry, which is change, change, change.  Not so much for the congregation (if you want to keep your job), but for the minister.  We move.  We adapt to the traditions of our congregations.  If we don't, we cause trouble.  I've actually come to appreciate tradition, although I don't really get it.  The stabilizing force in a community is tradition.  The things we share, over and over.  I'm very good with change, but not so good with continuity.  It's taken me eight years to realize that most people's faith journeys are built around the things they do every season, every year, every week.  I don't have that.  I have change, and pickled herring.

My family is 1,500 miles away, and this is the tradition they have gotten used to: I won't be there.  They will work out their plans with my brother and sister who are married and now have other traditions to be part of, and they will all know that I am not part of those negotiations.  If I'm good, as I finally was this year, I'll manage to send boxes of gifts that contain the hope that my nieces and nephews will remember who I am, that I can somehow be a part of their lives even though they see me once or twice a year.  I don't think it's working.

I don't want to move back there, and I can't - I've made a name for myself as a troublemaker, a liberal.  I've made myself an east-coaster through and through.  Where I grew up, I would be abrupt, aloof, rude. I'm the outsider, now.  And I've started to put down roots where I am.  When one of my kids fainted in the Christmas Eve service tonight, I thought, "This will be the thing I remind her of when she's a senior and moving on."  I'm having a hard time imagining leaving, and that is the hardest thing of all, seeing myself as someone who might stay.  I have a life here in a way that I haven't before, anywhere, and that in itself is scary, because what do I do when I have to leave?  And even scarier, what do I do if I stay?

One of the many things that is hard about it is realizing that I might never be at another Christmas gathering where there is pickled herring, where it is the people who have known me my whole life, where they will put out crazy fish products because we're Scandinavian but know that I won't have anything to do with it.  I haven't been there for twelve years.  Chances are, I'll never be there again.  I am, through and through, a minister.  Even if I could be away for Christmas, I wouldn't.  I've spent the last three years with a friend's family; this year I wasn't invited.  It reminded me that I am still a guest.  That's not my family.  If I flew home tomorrow I could still show up, unannounced, for my own family's pickled herring day.  Here, in the life that I could very well have for the rest of my life, I will have to be invited.  There is always that chance that I may have nowhere to go.

It's Christmas, and more than any other day of the year, I don't know who I am or where I belong.  Home is my apartment, my dog, my roommate, the life I've created for myself.  But I come home on Christmas Eve and I wonder, why is there no pickled herring here?  Or something else I come back to on a holiday, something I can call my own, something I don't have to be invited to?  Where is the thing that will hold me together?  What is my tradition?  


Thursday, December 22, 2011

Annual Celebration of Exhaustion and Inadequacy

Sometimes I wonder why we continually subject ourselves to modes of celebration that seem specially engineered to make us feel bad.  Christmas is the prime example of this.

We spend hours/days/weeks shopping for the perfect gifts, so that we can worry about whether they're good enough (probably), whether they capture exactly what we're trying to express (no, it's just an object, you might have to actually say what you feel), whether we've spent equally on everyone so that no one feels bad (yes, but someone will still feel bad), whether it will arrive on time (probably not, as the postal service seems surprised every year by the amount of stuff that people want shipped), and whether we will ever be able to pay off our credit card bills (no, that's the whole point of credit card companies).

We create "traditions," which I have come to know alternately as "excuses to get mad when people don't do what I want."  So instead of being happy about the celebrations we do get to have, we get to be angry because so-and-so has to work instead of coming to the family dinner, or Rev. Changeverything has picked the wrong carols for the Christmas Eve service, or the new sister-in-law is making roast beef!  When everyone knows you're supposed to have ham!

Or, if we are me, "we" get to be a little depressed because somewhere, many miles away, there are family traditions happening without us, and all around us there are other people's happy gatherings happening, and every five minutes we are reminded of the fabulous gift someone else is getting, while we know that what we will be getting is a pound of Caribou coffee (which we love and look forward to for months, don't get us wrong) and some sort of decorative item from the parents, and that's about it.  (Okay, I'll stop speaking in the royal we now.)  And it's not really about the gift-getting.  The fact is that no matter how much I hate all those diamond commercials, because diamonds are socially irresponsible and absurdly expensive and have no actual bearing on the quality of love between two people, they still remind me that there is no one in the world who loves me enough to even consider such a gift.  That I will come home after working a bazillion hours on Christmas Eve to just my dog, and spend Christmas Day semi-awkwardly attending someone else's family festivities.  For about a month, several times a day, I get the supreme joy of remembering that, despite the fact that I do have a lot of friends and a pretty active social life, there just aren't that many people who care all that much about me.  

And if the self-pity gets to be too much, I remember the clergy who have spouses/kids/closer families and how their holiday is so often spent juggling church and family gatherings, feeling guilty about sacrificing family time for work or vice versa, and not really getting that reprieve that I get when all the services are done and I can just sleep and not worry about being "on" for anyone else.  And the other people in the world who don't just feel a sense of aloneness, as I do, but genuinely are without family, friends, or a faith community (all of which I have and am grateful for, when I can get over myself).

Its all just a lot of pressure for a holiday that got its start in a stable.

I wish I could be a like more Jesusy about the whole thing, a little less self-absorbed, a lot less sad.  I'll get there around Christmas Eve.  And there's something very Advent about feeling the darker side of the holidays, something very "in sin and error pining" about experiencing some sense of loss and lacking before the celebration of hope and joy.  At least that is what I'm telling myself.       

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Advent Schmadvent

Like a lot of clergy I know, I'm quite attached to Advent - as in, observing Advent before we celebrate Christmas.  Like a lot of churches I know, my congregation is not so much into Advent.  They want to sing Christmas carols in, like, July or something.  I've been fighting the good fight on this one for quite some time, through a college chaplaincy and three congregations, and I've gotta say, I'm about ready to throw up my hands and just let them sing "Jingle Bells" every Sunday from November on.  I'm tired.  It's exhausting trying to convince people that delayed gratification is a good thing, that a time of contemplative waiting is in order before we pull out all the bells and whistles, that we really are still a people in waiting for God, that the assumed happiness of the holidays is difficult for many people, that sometimes we need a little quiet in the midst of all the cultural pressure to be jolly.

I don't want to explain these things anymore.  I don't want to spend Advent fighting over every little thing.  And it seems that in order to do that, I may just have to step back and say, "Fine, rush right into presents and parties and jumping for joy, and forget all about the reason it all happened in the first place."

Yes, I am feeling cynical and annoyed today, why do you ask?  I have something more constructive brewing in my mind about Christmas traditions, but it'll have to wait until I can stop rolling my eyes.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

War on Christmas

So apparently there is a War On Christmas happening.  Have you heard?  The poor, beleaguered Christians are being subjected to such violent acts as - drumroll, please - having store clerks wish them "Happy Holidays."  Children in school may be forced to endure generalized seasonal festivities instead of being taught about the birth of Jesus by public school teachers who may or may not know or believe anything about that event.  How very appalling.

'Tis the season to be cranky and demanding, it seems.  I can't turn around or log onto Facebook without someone complaining about "taking the Christ out of Christmas."  Since I'm a minister, a professional Christian if you will, I wonder to myself, "Is this something I should be upset about?"

So, I go to the Rite-Aid, where the woman at the register cheerfully wishes me happy holidays, and this feels to me like a pleasantry, not an attack on my faith.  At the same Rite-Aid, I can buy a button that says, "Jesus is the Reason for the Season," a nativity scene, and ornaments with angels, Jesus, and Mary on them.  "Joy to the World" and "O Come, All Ye Faithful" are piped over the speakers.  If I were a celebrator of Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, I'd be out of luck in the music and product departments.  My visit to the store doesn't make me feel persecuted for my faith; if anything, it makes me feel unnecessarily privileged.

The kids in my youth group have holiday parties instead of Christmas parties at school, it's true.  They also have their major school breaks structured around their religious holidays, so they never have to worry about how to manipulate their schedules to allow for both school and religious observances.  And they learn about their faith from their parents and the church people who have taken baptismal vows to them, people who know and care about Christian faith, not from teachers whose training and jobs are to instruct kids in academic subject matter.  In return, I don't have to teach them about math, for which everyone is grateful.

This country that is supposedly waging a war on Christmas is also a country where a presidential campaign is peppered with discussion of whether a Mormon is Christian enough to be electable.  The last election involved accusations that Obama was a secret Muslim.  We've had some Unitarian, deist, and non-affiliated presidents, but it's been quite some time (80 years or so, if my brief Google search is correct).  Now the assumption is that only a Christian would be electable as president, even though the we have no law regulating the religious beliefs of any elected official.

All of this is to say, we're not exactly being persecuted.  Despite separation of church and state, despite declining church attendance, Christianity is still the cultural norm.

Which leads me to the thing that really bugs me about all this "war on Christmas" business.  Christians complaining about being persecuted.  Not because they're being imprisoned or killed for their beliefs, but because a store dares to ask its employees to be sensitive to the fact that not everyone passing through their lines will be Christian.  Because the government protects kids from having religion - any religion - forced upon them in what is supposed to be an environment where all kids are welcome.  Methinks the definition of persecution may be a bit skewed here.  And really, you're going to whine about corporations and government agencies persecuting you because of your Christian faith?  Have you ever read the gospels?  Remember that Jesus guy?  It seems to me that we shouldn't be surprised not to have everyone go merrily along with our beliefs, since we follow someone who was killed for his.  Just a thought.