Our reading today is title “Lucky” by Rev. John Gibbons.
The lost-and-found pet notice reads as follows:
Lost. One large and lively, multi-colored nondescript mutt. Ragged left ear, one-eyed, three-legged, missing tail. Answers to the name “Lucky.” Reward. Beloved.
And so the holiday season is upon us: large, lively, multi-colored and hard-to-describe. The celebrations are a bit worse-for-wear, sometimes shabby, oft-abused. We the celebrants — at least those above a certain age — are a bit dog-eared ourselves. Some of us bear the scars of unfestive frays past.
Nonetheless, the old bounding mutt of December still answers to the name Lucky. Despite all that is missing and all that is too much, there is in this season an abiding delight that we are still alive, still sniffing, still licking hands and faces, still barking at the moon, still rolling in trash, still chasing cars, rabbits and rainbows, still risking life, limb and tail, and still able to sleep and dream, curled warm on the rug. We are disfigured; life has taken its huge toll, but no more, and more remains.
We are lucky to be living in these beloved days and beloved nights. May we find delight, and may delight also find us. There is a reward.
I don’t quite remember how old I was when it happened. I was young, I know that much, probably five or six years old. It was Christmas morning and, as most children that celebrate the holiday would be, I was ecstatic. I woke up knowing there would be presents that appeared magically under the tree and I could stay in my pajamas as long as I wanted.
I never really ripped paper off of presents in a flurry. I was somewhat meticulous. I began to open my presents and, to my surprise, something odd was in one of them. I knew what it was immediately. It was an object most children hear about in legend, something you never want to see, something that represents the worst case scenario for Christmas.
Out of the box rolled an unmistakable black lump of coal. I’ve been told my response was less than enthusiastic. Those couple of months leading up to Christmas, I was doing what many kids my age might do. Testing the waters. Pushing boundaries. I expected to receive certain presents, I knew they would come, how could they not?
The world was mine for the taking and I wanted something! I felt that I had the power to command the world — and more importantly — command Santa Clause. I didn’t really know it then, but the coal in my present was a lesson in gratitude and humility. My mother, in her complicated and very wisdom, was purposefully teaching me that it wasn’t always about me.
And that sometimes, life gives you the exact opposite without asking you. The lesson didn’t immediately soak into my young brain, but, the story remained and over time it began to click. That dusty lump of coal that left residue on my fingers and shocked me to the core has shown up more than I’d like throughout the years.
It isn’t just restricted to holidays and gift giving but it can roll its way into your presence at any time. And no matter what anyone tells you, politician or pundit, there is nothing clean about coal.
I think about all of the times I have felt demanding, assured of my correctness, smug in my resolve to no longer listen to those around me, disconnected from the world — and how the Universe responds. I won’t call the Universe intelligent, but sometimes it certainly feels that way.
There is a way of being slapped in the face, and an unmistakable biting edge to all of life’s lessons. Sometimes, whether we are good or bad, deserving or undeserving, we all find a lump of coal sneaking its way into our personal, familial, and community lives.
We find it on the brightest of days, the happiest of moments, the sweetest snapshots of life — we might think that for once we finally seem to have everything coming together — and there it is.
It happens. To everyone. To some more than others. We find ourselves faced with a world where people are still oppressed, downtrodden, slavery is still a reality, inequality, endless cruelty exacted on certain communities over and over.
I wish that I was not standing here with the events of Colorado Springs tearing apart my heart, where a domestic terrorist attacked a Planned Parenthood office, or with the events of my hometown of Chicago — the coverup of the murder of sixteen year old african american kid, Laquan McDonald.
It is one thing to tell ourselves various myths every holiday season — that of the founding of our nation, the coming of the messiah, the triumph of the sun, or the burning of oil — where we try to find ourselves thankful for everything that has come upon us even when it is painful. It is another to realize that that is, perhaps, not enough. How could it be?
Sometimes, this season is all about coal for some people. That is their reality. That is their life. And I know we all still find ourselves hoping. We still find ourselves asking for something different. There is great power in hope. Even then, life might still greet you with what you didn’t expect.
It is not just the great challenges of the world we are greeted with — racism, bigotry, extremism. There are things we can all relate to: Joblessness. Illness. Despair. Trying to find our way. Pressing on in the darkness, waiting for a simple spark of light. These are things we all know either through ourselves or others. No amount of tinsel can make a dusty lump of coal look beautiful.
This month we have been asking ourselves what does it mean to live a life of restoration. To be honest, I still don’t have it figured out. Where is the restoration when there’s a giant lump in the chest of our nation? Where is the solace, where is the balm of Gilead, where is justice and harmony?
I know that with these questions the days will press on — candles will still be lit, hymns will be sung, and all of the holidays will descend, unfold, and speak their ancient myths to us once more when the light is at its most diminished state.
Perhaps carrying out our familiar rituals is a simple and sensible thing for us to do to grapple with the turmoil around and, perhaps, within us. But the questions remain and there are no easy answers.
But one thing the world is certainly teaching me these days is that we should never expect to live our lives without being wounded or in the presence of woundedness even when we are told that we must be thankful or we must be joyous. It doesn’t always work.
Yes, there is a lot to find in our lives, no matter our situation, to be grateful for. That doesn’t remove pain from the world. It doesn’t extinguish difficulty. But we know that the myths we tell every year are not just cheery and rosy affairs that are only about singing carols, spinning dradels, and decking the halls.
They are dangerous stories. The Advent story introduces us to Mary — a refugee woman, pregnant not by her husband, wandering about in the iron age. The miracle of Hanukkah is steeped in warfare, the solstice with its cosmic battle between light and dark, and Kwanzaa with the story of a people whose oppressions are still headline news. Yes, these are dangerous stories.
And the holiday season is descending upon us and the New Year is quickly beckoning us forward. Traditionally, for our Christian friends, as Advent begins, this is a month of deep reflection. Reflection on our lives, our communities, and the year ahead.
Some of us have had a splendid year, for others it is bittersweet, and for others still we found unwanted moments creeping into our sight time and time again. What do we do about all of it? How do we meet the good and the bad in the spirit of restoration? How do we meet each other — friend and enemy — kindred and stranger — in that spirit? When faced with the stream of events, day after day, what shall we do?
We can ask ourselves these questions and try to answer them as we have been doing every time such a season comes upon us — and for some of us, we’ve been asking these things our entire lives. The answers might come to you. They also might not.
But one thing is for certain, this season will pass and it will revisit us and our loved ones again. And many holiday seasons will flow from our sight and we may still never answer this question. How do we live a life of restoration? Since we are not fundamentalists, it is likely such a question will never be fully answered.
It rests, instead, in how we wake up in the morning and greet not just the good or the bad that we are faced with, but how we greet and interact with one another. How do we greet the news that a family member is ill? How do we greet the news that people are still losing their lives because of the color of their skin or because they support women’s rights? How do we greet a promotion, a graduation, a new birth, any passing moment?
That is where the real work begins. And I believe it is also rooted in how we are as a community. How do we communicate our needs with one another and how do we — as I said months ago — allow ourselves to say no so a more authentic yes can emerge in our lives. How do we speak clearly and directly — to honor our joy, to honor our pain, to state our needs, to function as a church?
Will communication solve the worlds problems? Not completely. Will communication solve any problems we may face as a church in the future or from the past? Not completely. But learning to communicate directly means that we will not be surprised with lumps of coal — wrapped in pretty packaging with bows and ribbon.
Now I’m a good Midwesterner, so I’m used to apologizing for pretty much everything and always saying “I’m fine.” And in my time here I’ve witnessed or been subject to a few “bless your hearts.” Those phrases are the tidy packaging on our life’s problems.
We need to cast aside the wrapping paper and the decorative boxes — the “bless your hearts” and the “I’m fines” — and get to the heart of the matters before us. This is especially important in a church community. While the bulk of what we do here at church is hope to inspire and build relationships, if we can model what it means to be direct and honest in our needs and in our desires, then we can be examples in the work we do outside of this building.
And we know there is work to do — even if you ignore the newspapers and tv, it is apparent. Racism will not heal itself, warfare may end but refugees will still need a place to go, and so on and so forth. How can any community address the pain of the world when they cannot address their own?
One of the things every church asks itself is “How do we solve our communication problems?” A wise colleague of mine said recently: “You solve your communication problems when you communicate.” Outside of sounding like something you would find on a fortune cookie — it is true that the myth of our communication problems is not in finding a magical newsletter format, a million e-mails or announcements — it rests in being direct.
Directness is not about showcasing debate skills, proving you are right, or oversharing every detail of xyz. Directness is about listening, sharing your perspective openly, making room for disagreement, and being compassionate. It’s not about being trampled and being silent, it’s about stepping forth and not being afraid to speak your truth amidst many truths. It’s about dialogue. And yes, it can be scary.
When you have the ability to speak directly, from the heart, and with honesty, then you are being vulnerable. And, if you believe the words of Brene Brown — a researcher out of the University of Houston — whose work on the subject is well known, vulnerability is not a path to courage but a path through courage and we need courage to face the work of restoration.
There is no holy grail we will grasp and say, yes, this is restorative, no message that will make us content, no holiday that will make everything seem whole, but, rather, an ongoing path. That path is about gratitude, humility, courage, but also in being direct. In being honest.
In communicating our needs. In communicating our openness. The one piece of all those dangerous holiday stories is that while each of the people in those stories faced more than a lump of coal, they faced odds that threatened their lives — ultimately they came together as a community and forged a way forward together.
There is no magical bandaid for what our world faces, but I’m convinced that if communities such as ours — and it will need to be many communities, not just us — if this can be done then perhaps there’ll be a star to guide us along — in our often shabby, bounding, and sometimes worse-for-wear selves. It will still be bittersweet.
But reminding ourselves of where we are, in this faith and in this community, helps us on that ongoing journey to restoration for this church and for the world. It requires us to visit things that are painful — that we do not want to listen to or remember — it requires us to listen, to let go of always being right, to cast aside our pretenses, and to hold on to compassion.
We can pray. We can hope. But ultimately, the moment of change, the moment where restoration comes quietly with each and every single person begins right now. It began yesterday too. And It will begin again tomorrow. Redemption and healing, for ourselves and others, does not run out of possibilities.
We bring hope. We bring love. We bring courage. We bring so much to an otherwise silent and dark expanse surrounding us. Such knowledge has an immensity to it. It can be overwhelming.
So, as this holiday season starts to unfold, remember that our jobs as people of faith is to speak truth to power, but to also care for this community. With all the good work that needs to be done in our world, we need to take care of ourselves and to let go of trying to command the world.
Be direct with yourself. Be direct with others. Be direct when it is something you fear. If we start to communicate more openly and honestly, imagine what that could do for UUCL and beyond.
Happy Holidays — they’ve just begun. Blessed Be. Amen.