Questioning Christmas (by Esther Emery)

Sometimes when I think I want to quit Twitter, I remember I met Esther Emery there. I don’t know quite how to say that I have never actually met in person someone who has laughed and cried and spoken deeply into my life. So, when she offered to write for me about Christmas and money I was thrilled. Then, I read it. Listen up y’all. Esther is about to PREACH. 

Questioning Christmas

It was the year I was five years old that I got a doll for Christmas. It came in a shiny, domed plastic package. It had styled hair, and a poofy dress. It had real shoes that you could take off and put back on again. I looked at it in absolute wonder.

It was simply inexplicable to me, how that strange thing got underneath my tree.

You see, I was never a child who liked dolls. I didn’t dream of dolls of any kind, but much less the plastic ones with fancy dresses. Surely Santa would know that my radical environmentalist mother didn’t buy things like that, and in the case of the doll I had never begged her to. I wanted toys with wheels, or animals. In my wildest dreams, maybe a microscope.

I don’t know what happened to that doll. I might have cut it up. I have done experiments with it. Most likely I just forgot about it.

It was through a mistake – an adult slip of the tongue, as these things always are – that I discovered we had received the doll along with other gifts under the tree that year – labeled from “Santa” – as charity from the church.

We had been designated a “needy” family. And for that I got a doll.

The year was 1984. My parents were divorcing. There were medical bills, a bankruptcy claim, feelings of failure, loss, regret. For all this I got sweet, sad eyes from grown ups and a gift I never asked for. For all this, I got to feel like one of the ones who need.

Oh, lucky me.   

 December comes around every year, like clockwork. ‘Tis the season, of giving to the poor. Jingle jingle. Merry Christmas!

Don’t be selfish, y’all, be generous! Give! ‘Tis the season of giving! And Christmas belongs to the poor. This is the real meaning of Christmas.

But I want to tell you that I’ve been the poor. I’ve had other people’s gifts for Christmas, and it tasted like someone else’s party. It tasted like it probably made someone else feel awesome. I’ve gone to a lot of work to reclaim my heart from that bitter taste.

You might be calling this ingratitude. I would be accustomed to that. I have often been warned (as the poor usually are) about the dangers of my own bad attitude. I still hear the voice from my childhood that says, “WHERE ARE YOUR MANNERS COME ON AND SHOW A LITTLE GRATITUDE.”

But I am no longer a child. And I have lived a searching, thoughtful path into adulthood. I have drawn the line back and back from personal feelings of scarcity and desperation to our collective compulsion to justify excess…by passing it on to others who “really need” it.

It is easier to spread the disease of too much than to try to recover from it.

‘Tis the season, of compassion. This we translate into: it is the season of buying things, some for ourselves, and some for those less fortunate.

We need so desperately, to give. We need to give, and yet we dare not have less. We will find or manufacture a need that fits the narrow range, that allows us to keep our wealth intact and skim a little off the top to meet our soul’s deep hunger for generosity.

But if Christmas is about being able to give things to the poor, then Christmas is still, really, about being rich.

And I don’t think that’s what Christmas is about.

I don’t buy Christmas gifts for anyone anymore. Used things, sometimes. Homemade things. Cans of jam and applesauce. The time and effort to fill a stocking full of candy, frost a cookie, tell a story beside the tree. There is this one story we tell about a child king who had no roof, no toys, no rattle…

How much would it cost, to buy back an hour of sacred poverty? How much would it cost, to become again the child who can receive?

I know there is resistance. Brave resistance, often. But every act of resistance is assimilated. Tut-tutting over our overconsumption at the winter holidays is now almost as popular as the shopping itself. We switch back and forth like channels.

I’m just done.

My holiday high wire act falls apart at the foot of the manger. My guilt-and-giving dance is ferociously exploded by the upside down miracle of incarnation, in which the empty becomes full, and the profane becomes sacred.

This is what happens to the rich, when we become the poor. And this is what happens to the poor, when we become the rich, not by toys or packaging, but by the pure miracle of starlight.

This is Christmas.

 estheremerywriter

Bio: Esther Emery used to be a freelance theatre director and playwright in Southern California. These days she is pretty much a runaway, living off grid in a yurt and tending to three acres of near wilderness in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. She writes about faith and rebellion and trying to live a totally free life at www.estheremery.com. Connect on Twitter @EstherEmery

How Long, Oh Lord?

The Christmas lights are everywhere. The decorations are taking over. Even on the highway I find cars with elf ears, wreaths on the front bumper, a red-Rudolph nose. Even when it all sort of blends together, there are two tiny narrative voices let me know what I have tuned out.

“Look! White lights”

“I see Santa!”

“A Santa hat light up dinosaur, that’s weird!” (Juliet is right though, that is a little weird.)

Our stockings are hung. Our tree is up. We even have a train around the tree-skirt that the girls keep knocking off the track because they cannot resist touching it. (Even they have been told repeatedly to keep their little hands off the tracks.) The nativity set has been set up and yesterday Priscilla was having the angel and Mary protect baby Jesus from a flying dragon.

But I’m not ready.

I’m not ready for the sparkles and the sugar and the general holiday cheer. I am just not ready. I read somewhere that Advent, the time leading up to Christmas, used to be a lot like lent. Somber, thoughtful, sad even. The Jewish people waited a long long time for the savior to come, and  Advent is a season to remember the waiting.

And aren’t we all waiting? Waiting for the very things we light the candles for, for hope, for peace, for joy, for love.

How long, Oh Lord?

And some of us are waiting for things we have been promised, hopes whispered into the air, dreams buried deep into our hearts. Another year is coming to a close and still there is no…… How could that be?

How long, Oh Lord?

Some of us are just waiting for this life to hurt a little less, to be a little easier, for space to breathe. We need something to give and we are afraid it might just be us.

How long, Oh Lord?

I am done fighting the darkness with fake cheer and a light up dinosaur clad in a Santa hat. I am leaning into the darkness, the waiting, the lament.

How long, Oh Lord?

And I am lighting the candles, of Hope, of Peace. I am choosing to say, I know the end, and this is the waiting. We are waiting, but we are lighting the candles anyway, because we believe that the Lord will come.

But you can hear us crying in the darkness,

How Long, Oh Lord?

A Place to Belong

I didn’t cry when my parents dropped me off for college. And I didn’t cry when I went to sleep that night or the next day or the next. I wasn’t sad, I was just excited. I didn’t cry about leaving home because I didn’t feel like I had left home. It felt like the times I had stayed at a summer camp, or a youth rally. Even when I started going to classes and managing my own food, it still didn’t hit me that I was not home.

It took until the first Sunday that I cried. I walked across the campus and into the church that mother had gone to when she had been on the same campus years before. I walked into the unfamiliar place, and suddenly realized I had no idea where to sit. There were lots of open chairs. The problem wasn’t that there wasn’t a place for me to go; the problem was that I didn’t already have a place to belong.

I am writing for You Are Here Stories, a new collective blog that has put out some really high quality stuff. I am honored to be a part of it. You can read the rest there.

On hope for the weary and pizza and rest

Yesterday was the first Monday of Advent, and already I felt as though I have missed it. I got sick over Thanksgiving and I was seriously just trying to make it through my first day back at school. I turned the heat up and the lights off, but my nose wouldn’t let me nap. I had to blow it too often.

I was weary. I am weary.

I could tell you that it is the illness, the long drive home, the too little sleep. I could tell you that and it would be the truth, but not all of it.

Every single one of my plans for the significant future shifted beneath my feet this fall. The landscape of my summer, next fall, beyond, became unrecognizable and impossible for me to navigate. Where I once had a solid three-year plan, I now have a lot of questions.

I was, for a while, trying not to be angry, but have learned it is best for me to be hospitable to my own emotions, to feel whatever it is I want to feel. I have learned that anger is almost always my way of defending against a grief I am trying to avoid.

I am so weary.

Of promises not  kept, of dreams deferred, of disappointment.

I am wondering how long, not yet really is. How much longer will not yet last?

I’m asking these questions for myself, but also for the world.

How much longer will violence prevail, will kids be shot, will death win out?  How much more can our world be ravaged, can our communities be broken, can our souls take?

How much longer? How much more?

As I begin this season, the slow and steady walk to the manger, I can’t be shake my head a little. The balm the Lord has to offer seems a little thin.

We have a world need rescuing, and you sent a baby? Born to a poor woman? In a manger that is not even in her home town? Are you serious?

I am weary, thirsty, and so very tired, and you give me….hope? What good is that going to do? I need a PLAN! I need ACTION! I need HELP! and I get a baby, in a manger, and the promise of hope.

Isn’t that just like God? Isn’t it just like God to give me the solution that I am sure is not going to work. Isn’t it just like God to give me a baby in a manger and an invitation to the whole world to come, when what I want is some sort of Rambo figure coming down to take care of the pieces I don’t want redeemed? Isn’t it just like God to offer me hope to cling to when I am wishing for a binder full of the plans for the rest of my life.

Last night, we didn’t decorate the tree, or even finish unpacking. I got pizza, and noticed a candy coated sky. Then I fell asleep at 6:30. What I wanted was to do all the holiday things, but what brought me healing was rest.

A baby, a manger, a promise of hope. Okay. Let’s try it this way.

Coming Home for Christmas- An invitation from Tara Owens.

I am very excited to introduce you to my friend Tara Owens. Tara is a spiritual director and just totally the real deal as far as genuine and authentic people online. She is running an e-course that I think is really worthwhile, so I invited her here to share with you about it. Everyone who took it last year raves about it. Here she is.

I have a penchant for depressing Christmas music, I admit it. As the winter closes her dark wings

over us, my husband and I like to turn off all the lights, ignite the (admittedly, depressingly fake)

fire and listen to Christmas music that makes us ache. The tree twinkles, the house creaks in the

wind, and we sit in semi-darkness, feeling the edges of ourselves. This year, I’m listening to a new

album, Blood Oranges In The Snow, that has a line that makes the hair on my arms stand up and

my gut clench. The song is called “Let It Fall”, and the lyrics are an invitation into something I

can’t quite name:

’Cause rain and leaves

And snow and tears and stars

And that’s not all my friend

They all fall with confidence and grace

So let it fall, let it fall

My husband and I, we’re not masochists, I promise.

And I don’t think we’re alone.

There’s something about this season filled with thanksgiving and tinsel and joy and song that feels

a little like homesickness to me. It’s not strident, it’s not brash, but the undercurrent of the

holidays tugs at us with its longings for something more. Something we struggle to name,

something about hope and about disappointment, something about desire and about loneliness,

something, I would hazard a guess, about where Home really is.

I’ve had the familiar tune, “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” wending its way through my thoughts

and emotions since, oh, probably late September. It appeared as a snatch of a song, and it has

been persistently presence—you can count on me—almost every day in some way—there’ll be

snow and mistletoe—shape or form.

It takes me a while to catch on, sometimes, and that’s why God winds melodies into my story to

suggest, to invite, to point me in the right direction. It happened when I first came to know Him

with a hymn I’d learned during choir practice, and this year, it happened again with my Christmas

earworm.

If you’d told me in August just before our daughter was born that I’d feel compelled (with joy,

even) to offer a 6-week interactive online journey and retreat through Advent, Christmas and

Epiphany, I’d have laughed and called you crazy. This holiday season is busy, after all. There are

so many things to juggle, so much pressure from consumer culture shot through with a desire to

redeem the time, to find the sacred in all this mundane, to listen with my heart’s ear to the story

of Christ in the world, Emmanuel, God with us. And this year, as I hold a babe in my arms, it

would be easy to let the overwhelm of this new life we are living pull me away from the rhythms of

Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. Easy, and understandable.

I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.

The plaintive last line of the song calls me back to myself and to what, I suspect, is going on in

more than a few of us. I’d rather bury the ache with busy-ness than face it head on. The hope, the

desire, the longing for more. I’d rather not risk the homesickness getting deeper, wider in me,

instead I’ll cram my calendar full so I can’t feel any of the empty. I’d rather try to dress it up with

decorations than press into it, let it bloom into something that might, just might, lead me closer to

that which I’m longing for.

But what if the Christian calendar actually invites us to less, not more? What if coming home isn’t

about the destination (the perfect turkey, the Martha Stewart tree, the ideal present wrapped

flawless for everyone) but about the journey?

Here, I’m back to the depressing Christmas songs, not because they are dark, but because they

acknowledge the complexity of this time of year. It’s no coincidence that the longest night of the

year occurs right before Christmas itself, that within the rhythm of the seasons there’s an

acknowledgement that things come with a cost, that they aren’t as they should be.

And there are treasures of darkness to be found, too (Is. 45:3, NKJV). There is something to

dwelling in the hidden places in this season of flash and fanfare, letting the desire for more rise

through us as we wait for the light to increase. There is something to choosing silence while the

world turns up the Christmas carols, something to finding solitude when the holiday-party-

merry-go-round starts spinning.

So, instead of running from Bing Crosby’s siren call, I’m pressing in again, listening. What I hear

is the call of the One who loves us most, the incarnational hope of the One who became small

enough to hold. Can I trust God’s voice? Can I lean into a call and a community this Advent,

finding and forming a journey together into complexity of what it means to come home? Can this

be about more than my strength, but the glorious weakness and wonderment of a group of

pilgrims journeying together toward home?

My heart said yes, as it had been saying yes since the first strains of the song sang through it.

And that’s how Coming Home: An Online Journey Into Advent, Christmas and

Epiphany was born last year, and reborn again this year. Just as the Christ child is reborn again

and again in our remembering and reliving what is true right now.

It’s a risk, I know, to step in when everything pulls at me (and you, I’d wager) to step out. It seems

so much larger than me, and that’s probably the way it should stay, because I can’t control God

any more than I can control the winter wind. I’m excited and terrified and hopeful and full of

longing. I’m wondering and nervous and brimming with the sense that the Wild One is up to

something gloriously good. And gloriously good yet again.

“It is as hard to explain how this sunlit land was different from the old Narnia as it would be to

tell you how the fruits of that country taste. Perhaps you will get some idea of it if you think like

this. You may have been in a room in which there was a window that looked out on a lovely bay

of the sea or a green valley that wound away among mountains. And in the wall of that room

opposite to the window there may have been a looking-glass. And as you turned away from the

window you suddenly caught sight of that sea or that valley, all over again, in the looking glass.

And the sea in the mirror, or the valley in the mirror, were in one sense just the same as the real

ones: yet at the same time they were somehow different—deeper, more wonderful, more like

places in a story: in a story you have never heard but very much want to know. The difference

between the old Narnia and the new Narnia was like that. The new one was a deeper country:

every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more.” ― C.S. Lewis, The

Chronicles of Narnia

So will you join me? Will you let the call of less, of longing, of love lead you into

something different this Advent? Will you walk alongside us staggering pilgrims, the

ones who chose for the ache, who press into the darkness, in order to find the light

on the other side? I’d be honored, so honored, if we could walk Home together this

season.

I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams…

To learn more about the Coming Home eCourse, you can click here

Learning to Swear: A Spiritual Discipline (A Guest Post)

I love this piece and I love this girl. It has been an honor to watch her learn to swear.

I learned to swear last summer.

I had tried for a long time, muttering Mumford and Sons under my breath to get used to the taste of the taste of the things I wasn’t supposed to say. I had toyed with four-letter words when I wanted to shock or when I thought them necessary for emphatic effect, but every time the words left my lips, they sputtered with hesitation, a pause that made it clear my words were not my own.

The dam broke when a woman I respected told me I had to learn to swear properly. She stood on a chair and told me to cuss, to rage, to shout at all the things that had stifled my words and stopped up my emotions. At that moment, I realized that, actually, I didn’t have to swear if I didn’t want to, because my words were mine. In realizing I didn’t have to swear, I suddenly could. It wasn’t the words themselves that were stopping me. It was my right to choose them.

It was my agency – my ability to choose my own path, verbally, physically, and emotionally – that had been taken from me.

Agency can be taken from us in a variety of ways. It can be taken by force. It can be taken by illness or addiction. Every subduing of another’s will – physically or emotionally – is a crime of power, and it is wrong.

But our freedom to choose, to speak, to act can also be stolen in much more subtle ways. It can be taken by cutting words that constrict our choices. By ideologies that make obedience, not wisdom, their cornerstone.

These kinds of thefts may not leave physical marks, but their conditioning can leave emotional imprints that reach to our very core. They teach us to own and identify with our powerlessness, our fear, our shame rather than our strength. They break our spirits while claiming to make us whole.

They warp our understanding of freedom, wholeness, health, and beauty until our consciences become our blindest guides.

Unlearning this takes hard work. I shut my eyes tight every time I act in ways that aren’t clearly spelled out in the rule books. I can only do it by holding tight to the arms of friends who won’t let me settle for a pre-scripted life anymore.

I do it by storing up images and items and phrases that make me strong, things that cannot be bent by the pressure of others. Mantras like “I am not wrong,” “that is not OK,” and “I am in charge of my own words” (and my own body, of course, because the two are intertwined) become my strongholds when someone walks over my boundaries or threatens my agency with shame or fear.

Sometimes, it takes a few foul words to begin the long, slow unraveling of a worldview that conforms us to an unhealthy ideal. Honesty and truth can’t always be expressed without allowing their rough edges to show.

But I know there is as much power in a single, honest cry of “fuck that shit” when times are hard as there is in the heartfelt prayers I said growing up.

There is as much holiness, too.

Elizabeth grew up on the more moderate fringes of conservative Christianity in the US, and then explored Europe for five years while she studied abroad. Now, she explores her past, present, and future on http://ellieava.tumblr.com/