Christmas Without the Hype

It has been over 18 years, and it’s not possible to experience Christmas without feeling the sharp loss of my mother.

You see, Mom was a profound Christmas elf and a button pusher of the highest order. For the last decade of her life, she pronounced each Christmas to be the biggest ever because it could be her last. Eventually she was right. It was her last. 1998 to be exact. She passed in August of 1999.

I remember decorating ever larger trees each year under her direction while my father literally yelled “Bah Humbug” from the other room. He was at least 50% joking of course. It is not possible to completely disavow someone who injected so much joy into Christmas, especially someone who could cook holiday food so well. I’m sure the price tag made his Januaries painful, but the late Decembers were worth it, probably even to him. I remember pulling feats of lopsided balance on a step ladder that was never intended to be used inside the house in order to decorate the top quarter of a 14 foot tree. My mom was not so much about safety as she was about some belief that involved a certain kind of faith and a certain kind of righteousness of purpose. At Christmas, the purpose was celebration and sharing. It’s probably safe to say that her faith kept me from falling off that ladder as I leaned way out to place the star upon the tree.

She had a great friend, Linda, whose value I completely missed until I was old enough to understand. As a kid, Linda was an interloper on our family Christmas, and I resented it. As an adult, I understood the value of her friendship with my mother, and I felt truly sorry for my childish reaction. As I write, Linda is somewhere in Kentucky, wrestling with her own struggles, and feeling the loss as sharply as I do. I have nothing for Linda these days except a deep gratitude for her support of my mother all those years. Linda has never embraced the internet, and will never read these words, but I have let her know that I finally understood, that some things are hard to understand, and yet infinitely valuable in this world.

It is not wrong to approach Christmas as a symbol of our relationship with our creator, no matter how you view that relationship, but the truth is that we are poorly equipped to deal with it on that level. For most of us, it is very hard to bring an infinite God down to our level of existence, but we always have the next best thing. We have the people who matter in our lives, who actually affect us, who move us with both kindness and cruelty, comfort and loss, lessons and support when the lesson is too hard to grasp. We have Christmas, as it exists, both in the strict framework of Christ and the broader framework of values in life. We don’t have to agree on the meaning; we only have to agree that there is meaning, that we all affect each other, and that today of all days, we choose to reflect on the positive meaning of our collective motion into a world that works for all of us and brings us closer to each other.

Some of you know I am speaking directly to you, and some of you don’t. On this day, I am speaking to all of you, with all of the meaning fully intact. If you think I have forgotten, I have not. I love you all.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Christmas Rambles on Faith

Have you ever had one of those moments in which you realize, all of a sudden, that a whole bunch of seemingly random and disconnected experiences fit together to form a coherent lesson? Wow! What a wordy way to ask it… It happens to me from time to time. I have one of those moments of connected clarity for a few seconds, and then I go back to being relatively confused. Although I would never torture you with the minute details of this quiet epiphany, I am going to try to throw the gist of it out there, just in time for Christmas.

I’m sure I am not alone when I say I get through the holiday season with the full understanding that a lifetime of good and bad pile onto the holiday. It’s a complex season.

I’m in Christmas recovery. I grew up as my mother’s Christmas elf partner-in-crime. We decorated the tree and generally had a good time overriding the cries of bah-humbug and indifference from the other room. A half-decade ago, a certain ex-wife managed to destroy the holiday spirit in me. It was vaporized when she invited her ex-husband to spend the holidays with us. Long story… No one died, ’nuff said. Now, I’m beginning to feel Christmas again, thanks to the bubbling joy in my new life, and thanks to the fact that a whole bunch of you read my story this year, which affords me the opportunity to celebrate properly. It’s a potent combination of Christmas spirit recovery.

Being excited about Christmas gives me the emotional energy to explore some of the deeper meanings of the season, and that’s where my nebulous point comes back into it – sorta. Not long ago, I was having dinner with one of the best friends I have ever had, and his ex. Another long story, and not mine to tell. Anyway, somehow the conversation turned into one about faith, in the spiritual sense. My friend looked very uncomfortable and stayed mostly out of it. Never discuss politics and religion, right? I found myself having the entire conversation with his ex, a woman I read as someone who has lost a great deal of faith in her life, and with good reason. Like many conversations of the sort, the main thrust was in the problems of religion versus spiritual beliefs. After listening to my friends, I gathered that religion and it’s various failings were standing in the way of some sort of belief and faith.

The thing is, I know my friend has some kind of faith. I just don’t know what it is. The other thing is, I don’t care what kind it is. For a kid who grew up in the Bible Belt, I have an open policy when it comes to the form of faith or religion. As long as you are not out there hurting people with your version of God, it’s okay by me. My basic take is that if we want to call God – or whatever you call the larger-than-yourself – the creator, the connector, and the infinite, then we should deal with God as infinite. Now, infinity is a tough concept, but for now, let’s just slice off a piece of the infinite and say that a truly infinite God would have an infinite number of ways to deal with any one of us – or anything else for that matter.

Religion, the organized kind, deals in limiting God. Before anyone gets offended, let me say it makes perfect sense. If we were all forced to live on the hairy edge of trying to capture a glimpse of something infinite every time we went to church, well… It would be very tiring. How do you organize around infinity? It’s much simpler for all of us if religion sets out some rules to follow, a community standard of behavior, and serves to reinforce those rules in a way that holds together. If it works, it’s a great thing to be a part of that community. If it doesn’t work, then people get hurt, and if that isn’t a definition of the human condition, I don’t know what is.

The point is, we just don’t know. None of us has a a real bead on the TRUTH. What we have instead is faith in our own truth. Some have strong faith, some need a weekly reminder, and some would rather ignore the whole issue. Some seek out a connection in the shared experience of a glowing community. Some prefer the compelled discipline of a demanding religion. Some feel it best while standing in the forest, or on a mountaintop. Some feel God while ringing the the Salvation Army bell, or serving food to the homeless. Again, if it isn’t hurting people, it’s all good.

Another recent exchange plays into my thoughts. I saw an unusual take on the conservative view of the Occupy movement and posted it on Facebook. One of my oldest friends, a very smart individual, jumped on it immediately. He disagreed with the facts of the post, and proceeded to argue against it entirely on the basis of opinion. I didn’t point it out at the time because I was more curious about where he would take it than to hold any particular position. I suppose he got bored when I refused to engage on the “facts” and left it there. In fact, one of the few points I did make is that there is no baseline of objective truth in American politics. Take any political belief and I guarantee you can come up with some “facts” to support it. You can prove this fact easily by simply having two political conversations, preferably with both sides of the party divide, and comparing the results. If I talk to most Western Washingtonians, it’s the Republicans’ fault. If I talk to the people I grew up with in Tennessee, for the most part, it’s the Democrats’ fault.

I think it’s everyone’s fault, but the point is that politics has become an article of faith, not fact. If you find yourself watching the news and become aware of the slant and spin – there’s always a slant – then you understand that we are being fed a set of beliefs, a faith, not anything that could be arguably presented as fact by enough people to yield even a general agreement on the truth. In terms of the functioning of our wobbly republic, it matters, but in terms of you, the individual believer, well… Your faith is your own, and it’s probably just as valid as anyone else’s faith, whether we want to discuss religion or politics – or cookie recipes.

Before this turns into a dark dive into the foibles of humanity, let me say that it’s Christmas. Like anything else, we can argue about the true meaning of Christmas forever. Instead of arguing, I would say that let’s take this holiday, at the very least, for it’s unadulterated symbolic value. Whether we believe in God, politics, science, nature, money, or family, let’s take the opportunity to gather all of those beliefs around us like a warm blanket this Christmas. Let’s throw in some loved ones, the best food we can muster, and all the happiness we can collect. Let’s practice love and forgiveness and sharing, because no matter what we believe, our beliefs matter. Our various faiths sustain us, keep us moving forward, and help us change the world.

May our collective faiths deliver a better future, my friends.

Merry Christmas.