I’ve been remiss posting to this blog over the last several days. I have few viable excuses to offer, except this: “You teach best what you need to learn.” – Richard Bach, American writer, author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull
As I join you in using Prepare Your Hearts for a Great Christmas, I find myself missing the mark sometimes. As a close friend of mine said, “You know you’ve created the perfect example of IRONY, don’t you!! You’ve created a peaceful plan for everybody but you!! Oh, but hopefully, it’s the good kind of busy ….”
Yes, I have been busy. This has made my daily reflection time more difficult to carve out, especially with a snow storm over the weekend, my husband’s surgery yesterday, and the details that go into my daughters’ last week at school before winter break. All these, plus events surrounding the book, and attending to creating a Great Christmas for my family, have added to my delinquent blog posts.
There are a couple of deeper issues, too, that perhaps you’ll understand. The biggest one is how much I’m missing my father this year. It has been 12 years since his passing. He celebrated his birthday with mine during the month of December, and I don’t know what triggered it, but this year my sadness at his absence is especially strong. I’ve managed it by having a few heart-to-heart talks with my husband, and a good cry.
These feelings echo my first Christmas without my dad. Here’s a piece I wrote for my agency newsletter that year:
So, who’s in the Christmas spirit?
Although ‘tis the season, my heart is having a hard time getting into the mood. Perhaps it is because the holidays have snuck up on me once again. Or maybe I’m disgusted with the commercialism of it all. Or maybe it’s the anxiety over the stress (which is imminent) that comes with preparing for family gatherings and buying and shopping and baking and wrapping, etc. Truth be known, my real hesitation comes from knowing my kid’s grandpas and other folks we love who’ve died won’t be here this year. At least, not in person, anyway.
Whatever it is that keeps the Christmas spirit away—the swift passage of time, the stress, or the loss of a loved one—they all have one thing in common: emptiness. So why should I feel empty, as the world seems to revel in anticipation, red ribbon and computer chip carols?
A wonderful story tells of the elves deciding to give their generous employer, Santa Claus, a special Christmas gift. They thought and thought about what to give him, and even asked Mrs. Claus’s advice. They were stumped. What do you give to a man who gives so much to others, and has such simple needs himself?
Finally, Christmas Eve arrived, and the elves presented Santa with a beautifully wrapped gift. Santa eagerly tore open the paper, and discovered…an empty box! The big guy in the red suit was puzzled. The elves explained:
“Because we love you, Santa, we’ve given you the one gift you truly need — nothing! Your gift box is full of the precious gift of emptiness.”Santa Claus looked at his gift of emptiness, and fear howled like a timber wolf in his heart. For Santa, to be empty was to be needy…Santa feared being needy, for who loves a needy person? People seem to love only those who are full of talents and can do many things!
“The elves said, ‘the gift of emptiness is to be needy in a way that isn’t bad, Santa. Emptiness is an enchanted, hollow space that we all need in our hearts…that only another or others can fill.”*
Like Santa, we all may fear being empty and needy. During the holiday season, the many things that keep us busy can also keep us from facing the emptiness inside. We’ll still feel hollow, though: material thinks will never really fill us.
The stress and anxiety that comes with “decking the halls” can send us “climbing the walls.” We may get caught up in the “stuff” of Christmas and lose sight of its real meaning. Yet, the material gifts we work so hard to pre pare are really only faint shadows of the wonderful gifts God has given us in our talents, relationships and in creation.
Faith calls us to look at life through this lens: all is gift from God, and it’s all pretty terrific, if we just pay attention! In the hit movie, The Santa Clause, Tim Allen plays a father who unwittingly takes on the job of Santa Claus. After his first night delivering gifts, the reindeer return him to the North Pole, and he sees Santa’s Workshop. After witnessing the elaborate assembly of machinery, elf workers, and toys, he says, “Wow! If I hadn’t seen this with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it!” His elf companion replies, “Most people say, ‘Seeing is believing,’ we say, ‘Believing is seeing.’“
Believing is seeing. Faith gives us the opportunity to view ourselves, others, and life (even with all its stresses), as gift. Just as Santa’s empty box was transformed into an opportunity to let God into his heart, so can our concerns, joys, frustrations, and yes, even our emptiness, be transformed.
This is the hope that Christmas offers. As we remember the baby born in Bethlehem, we see life, innocence, potential and trust born anew to a world hardened by death, deceit, suffering and broken dreams. Christmas is really about new beginnings, and hearts filled with hope. But our hearts need to be empty to receive.
The title “Deck the Halls Without Climbing the Walls” suggests a “how-to-do-it” for getting through the holidays. Well, here’s my suggestion: During December, as we prepare for the holiday season, or procrastinate until there’s little time left, or face the empty place at the table where a loved one used to sit, let’s say a quick prayer. Instead of trying to push away a negative feeling, let’s invite God to be with us in it. At the core of that feeling is an emptiness that God is waiting to fill. As he was born into a stable hardly fitting the Creator of us all, so too does he desire a home in our hearts. Morton Kelsey writes:
“I myself am very glad that the divine child was born in a stable, because my soul is very much like a stable, filled with strange unsatisfied longings, with guilt and animal-like impulses, tormented by anxiety, inadequacy and pain. If the holy One could be born in such a place, the One can be born in me also. I am not excluded.”
Believing is seeing. Even our emptiness is a gift. So, find that empty spot, ask God to join you, and just wait.
*Excerpt from Santa’s Gift: A Christmas Parable, written by Edward Hays. Reprinted with permission of Forest of Peace Books, copyright 1986.
If you’re reading Prepare Your Heart for a Great Christmas this year, you’ll recognize bits of the above reflection scattered throughout the book.
I mentioned above that there are a couple of issues behind my blues this Christmas. The other has to do with the unrelenting cheeriness of holiday music! Today my husband and I entered the lobby of his doctor’s building and were immediately assaulted by LOUD elevator music, a tinny instrumental version of We Need a Little Christmas. Readers may recall that this song, the version with vocals, provided the soundtrack to a very memorable Christmas Moment of mine. But this morning, in my current funk, the music demanded my participation, and I didn’t like it much.
Reflecting on this, I see how the expectations of cheer this time of year can create yet another burden on people. It may contribute to the Blue Christmas many experience. And I’m included, with the sadness that snuck up on me when I least expected it.
I’ll take a fresh look at my wise words from 12 years ago, and invite God into this sad spot in my heart (stable). One of my blessings this year, I am beginning to see, is how the wisdom of Prepare Your Heart for a Great Christmas was intended to help keep my mind, heart and soul in tact, too! And speaking of stables, here’s a great song by the same name, written by Peter Mayer and available through his website off the CD Midwinter (1st track). This song was a great inspiration to me as I wrote the book, plus you’re not likely to hear it in an elevator anytime soon:
In Bethlehem a manger waits
Long ago and so today
Where hatred-weary people pray
Love will come and lay there
In Bethlehem a manger waits
And so do countless stables stand
In hearts as harsh as desert lands
Rough shelters in the wind and sand
That love may come and stay there
Love that opens fists of hate
Heaps up gold on beggars’ plates
Love that shows a kindly face
To enemies and strangers
And the walls of stables tremble so
When the winds of fear and judgment blow
For a stable hopes in love alone
And knows that love’s the answer
O Love, the prophet’s only word
The only lesson left to learn
The only end of heaven’s work
And the only road that goes there
Love that sees with mercy’s eyes
Holds its arms out open wide
Threads its loom with separate lives
And weaves them all together
So may the lamps of stables glow
Brightly that their light may go
For miles in the darkness, so
Love will find its way there