Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Sermon: "Staying Healthy and Sane During the Holidays" (Delivered 11-24-13)

Call to Worship
It’s cliché to note that the “Holiday Season” seems to creep earlier each year.  This year it’s true though.  Hanukkah begins this coming Wednesday and people are already talking about plans to celebrate Thanksgivukkah this year.  NPR recently interviewed a young Jewish boy who had invented the menurkey, a menorah in the shape of a turkey meant to decorate the Thanksgiving table.

Welcome to this crazy-making time of the year, a headlong rush into the holidays of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving, of Christmas and Solstice and Yule.  Welcome to the season of feasts and sweets and resolutions we plan to keep in January.  Welcome to Black Friday, which is hardly even Friday anymore, this time of giving and receiving gifts and our complicated relationship with consumption.  Welcome to this time of travel, of packed airports, of visits from family and friends.  Welcome the decorating, the baking, the lighting ceremonies, the holiday parties, the concerts and pageants.  Welcome faith observances crammed in there somewhere.

Maybe you find all this energizing and wonderful.  Maybe you find all this stressful.  Maybe you’ve already started a to-do list on your order of service.

But take a time to breathe.  Come into this hour of worship.  Come in and be here, now.  Come to be mindful of habits of health. Come to be grounded in your values.  Come, let us worship together.

This reading is adapted from Jane Rzepka’s meditation manual A Small Heaven.  This piece, “Important Notice,” can be found in its original form elsewhere on the web.

The following correction to an advertisement once ran in a small town newspaper in Virginia:

IMPORTANT NOTICE. If you are one of the hundreds of parachuting enthusiasts who bought our Easy Sky Diving book, please make the following correction: On page 8, line 7, the words “state zip code” should have read “pull rip cord.”

I worry about things like this during the holiday season.  Had I been a parachuting enthusiast, and had I breezed through Easy Sky Diving, I’d still be flying through the air, picking up speed, shouting my zip code.

Zip codes aren’t important.  Rip cords are. During this season, it’s all too easy to confuse one for the other.  The “zip codes” of the reason – the cards to mail, the four sticks of butter, the fruit-by-mail catalogs, the party shoes – have our attention, and before we know it, we’re picking up speed and shouting out those “zip codes” without ever asking why.

Perhaps we should look to our rip cords. Our life-lines, these days as always, are our inner quiet, the love we exchange, and our efforts to make the world more whole.  We can slow the descent.  We can take in the view.  And we can anticipate a gentle landing to come

The last time I met with the worship team, it was recommended to me that I preach on the topic of how to stay healthy and sane during the holiday season.  Honestly, my reaction to their suggestion was to ask, “Is that even still a thing?”  Are we still struggling with this?  Is this still a challenge?  I mean, it used to be that churches, even our church a decade ago, would come to the months of November and December and trot out well-worn courses about rethinking our approach to the holidays so that our celebrations become less stressful, less materialistic, less out-of-control, and more grounded in the values and priorities by which we hope to live.  One such course was based on the book Unplug the Christmas Machine.  Amazon.com describes the book as follows,

Sixteen years after it first appeared, this perennial favorite is still the book that thousands turn to for sound, no-nonsense advice on how to combat Christmas commercialism and create a joyful, stress-free holiday season. The authors answer all the most commonly asked questions, from "How can I reduce the stress of preparing for Christmas?" to "How can I teach my children that Christmas means more than just presents?" and many more. 

Buy new for $10.19. Free shipping on orders over $35. Only 13 left in stock. More on the way.  Gift wrap available. Want it Tuesday, November 26? Order in the next 7 hours and choose one day shipping at checkout.  Add to wish list. Frequently bought together with Christmas is Not Your Birthday by Mike Slaughter. Customers who bought this item also bought: The Hundred Dollar Holiday by Bill McKibben, Celebrate Simply by Nancy Twigg, the Unplug the Christmas Machine workshop guide, and Simplify Your Christmas: 100 Ways to Reduce the Stress and Recapture the Joy of the Holidays.

So I guess this is still a thing.  But why?  Didn’t we all develop spiritually?  Haven’t we increased in our awareness?  Haven’t we grown in our capacity to exercise some control over our lives, including the power to choose joy and avoid stress?  Judging by the fact that the book is still in print decades later, it is clear that the Christmas machine has not been unplugged.  Maybe our culture has utterly subsumed us.  Perhaps we should just throw up our hands and admit, like civilizations that encounter the Borg in Star Trek, that resistance is futile and that we will all be assimilated.

When the topic of Holiday stress was suggested to me, my first thought was, “Is this even still a thing?”  My second thought was “#firstworldproblems.”  Let me explain that saying so that we’re all on the same page.  A few years ago there was an internet meme called “First World Problems.”  According to the helpful website, knowyourmeme, first world problems “are frustrations and complaints that are only experienced by privileged individuals in wealthy countries. [The term] is typically used as a tongue-in-cheek comedic device to make light of trivial inconveniences.”  People would go to humor websites and post examples of complaints they had overheard that could only be described as first world problems. These complaints included: “I’d like to enjoy my glass of wine in the garden, but my wifi signal doesn’t reach that far.”  “I prefer to use my iPad3 but it doesn’t warm my lap as much as my MacBook Pro.”  And, many complaints about the holiday season sound an awful lot like first world problems.

Maybe all it takes is seeing our own lives through a different frame.  If we’re feeling annoyed or on edge or under stress, maybe the thing to do is to widen our perception and ask, “Wouldn’t the majority of people living on earth today actually envy me for the complaints I have?”  Maybe it’s time to name entitlement, to recognize privilege.  Maybe it’s time to say it: holiday stress is a first world problem.

Of course, being judgmental of others is not exactly enlightened behavior.  So while I’m tempted to stand here and pass judgment on the people making self-defeating financial decisions at the malls, to pass judgment on the stressed out shoppers on the verge of rioting outside the big box store, to pass judgment on the whiny child who throws a tantrum because the must-have toy this holiday season was sold out, or to pass judgment on the pained person over-serving himself at the holiday party, the truth is that judgment isn’t healthy behavior either.  Ministers aren’t supposed to aspire to be AM talk show hosts.

What are we to make out of holiday stress?  I have a theory.

One of the insights that ministers learn is that major life events in families such as the birth of a child, a marriage, or a death tend to be the times in the life of a family that are often filled with drama and the surfacing of tensions.  These are stress-raisers.  At the same time, there are important religious rites to mark these occasions.  People observe baptism and bris and child dedications, weddings, and funerals or memorial services.  (My clergy friends refer to these as hatching, matching, and dispatching.)  Anthropologists who study these rituals describe how these rituals around major life events create what they call liminal space.  The word liminal means threshold and our rituals are designed to move us across these thresholds, through the ambiguities and disorientation that occurs within a system when things change.  When a child is born or a family member dies or two families are formally joined together our relationships become restructured and rearranged.  These rituals structure and mark the important rearrangements in the life of a family.

I wonder whether our annual holiday gatherings, our seasonal celebrations of Thanksgiving and Christmas, are actually miniature versions of those major gatherings that are such a source of tension and anxiety.  Demographically, the Americans present in this room this morning tend to live in small or very small family units.  We tend to have limited and rather scheduled contact with relatives outside our immediate family.  And, we tend to have scheduled lives and set routines.  And then the Holiday season comes along and all of our schedules – family, work, social, rest, sleep – go haywire.  Many families spend way more time with each other.  There is often a massive rearrangement of our lives and our roles.  And, anthropologically speaking, we mark these rearrangements with ritualized acts of feasting, libations, gift exchanging, decorating, and even vestments.  “Don we now our gay apparel.”

So, it’s my theory that we approach each December as a smaller and simpler version of how we approach major life passages.  It’s my theory that the anxieties raised by changing family roles and relationships get psychologically projected onto worries about presents, decorations, food, and so on because we’re attempting to devise a ritual for moving us across a threshold and through complex rearrangements.

Now, that’s just my social scientific theory, but the humor website The Onion recently ran an article that humorously hints that this theory may just have some element of truth to it.  The headline of the article was “Siblings Gather Around PowerPoint to Discuss Off-Limit Topics for Thanksgiving.”

Delmar, NY – In an effort to ensure a smooth and enjoyable dinner with their relatives, siblings Jason, Alyssa, and Leslie Conroy reportedly sat down together Tuesday evening for a PowerPoint presentation covering all of the conversation topics that will be off-limits during the family’s Thanksgiving gathering…  The siblings’ 48-slide presentation… reportedly featured pie charts breaking down the state and national voting histories of extended family members as well as Venn diagrams illustrating what each relative knows about their father’s upcoming surgery.

I think that if you asked most people what they wanted for the holidays, they would tell you that they want less stress, less chaos and busyness, more quiet, more peace, more time spent in enjoyable ways.  They would tell you that they want less extravagant gifts and a few simple family rituals.  There is a gulf between how we say we want to live and how we actually live.  This is true for so many aspects of our lives.  There is a gulf between how we say we want to spend our time and how we actually spend our time.  There is a gulf between how we say we want to spend our money and how we actually spend our money.  There is even, as I pointed out in sermon I gave quite a long time ago, a gulf between how most Americans say they want to die and how Americans actually die.  There is this major cognitive dissonance between how we say we want to live and how we actually live.  It’s like what Paul said.  “I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

The children’s book I selected for this morning, I’m in Charge of Celebrations by Byrd Baylor, was chosen for a reason. [My thanks goes to Rev. Judith Cady who used this book for the children’s story when I preached at All Souls a few weeks ago.]  “How could I possibly be lonely?” asks the narrator.  “I’m in charge of celebrations.”  The girl in the story is a model Unitarian Universalist.  She’s creative.  She creates her own meaning, develops her own traditions, practices her faith in a way that is aligned with what she most cherishes and values.  However, when she announces, “Last year I had 108 celebrations,” I wondered whether she was truly in charge of celebrations, or whether the celebrations were in charge of her.

I wonder it would take for each of us to be able to say, “I am in charge of celebrations.”  Here are a couple of pointers, a couple of ideas that I invite you to consider.

First, when I meet with couples who are planning a wedding, one of things I tell them is that while they may have created an elaborate mental picture of how the celebration will go, they’re the only ones who have this mental picture of how it is supposed to go.  If something doesn’t happen exactly that way, they may notice, but nobody else will notice because it wasn’t a part of their expectations to begin with.  Don’t assume that everyone else has the same expectations that you do.

Second, say no.  You are allowed to turn down invitations.  You are allowed to prioritize your activities and avoid the ones that are less important to you.  If anyone has a problem with that, just tell them your minister said so.

Third, you do not always have to reciprocate.  This is hard for some people to accept.  But different people do express care in different ways.  If someone brings you cookies, you don’t need to go to your kitchen and whip up a bunch of brownies in order to reciprocate.  You can just thank you and write a gracious thank you card.  Trust that they are acting out what they need to do to make the holidays feel good for them.  But, be self-differentiated.  Be yourself.

Fourth, remember the difference between” zip codes” and “rip cords.”  Our rip cords, “our life-lines, these days as always, are our inner quiet, the love we exchange, and our efforts to make the world more whole.”

Fifth, get out of yourself.  Kick off the season by going to volunteer at Harvesters, as 64 of our congregants did last Saturday.  Or adopt a family.  Or participate in a winter coat drive.  Or rake leaves for an elderly neighbor.  Doing this helps to keep other things in perspective.

And, sixth and finally, remember that you are in charge of celebrations and not the other way around.  That’s a very Unitarian Universalist way of thinking.  There is no fixed ritual that must be performed.  So sayeth your minister.

Breathe.  All will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well.  Amen.