Fifty Shades of Blue

Fifty Shades of Blue
a sermon preached by Rev. David Carl Olson
preached on December 13, 2015
at First Unitarian Church of Baltimore

Fifty shades of . . . blue. Blue. It has been a bluesy time in our community this week. You heard in Happenings the sad news of the death of Ed Haenlin, husband of Ann Litke. There were other deaths among our friends. Some totally unexpected. Others, anticipated—but what really prepares any of us for the end of life, especially the intense labor of the end of life?

Looking into the future, this means that there will be aniversaries of these deaths, anniversaries in the midst of the holiday season. Difficulties into the future, emotional challenges that the Christmas season will carry for these families, as it already carries so much baggage for many among us.

Becoming an emotional adult includes, in part, coming to terms with the incompleteness of life. None of us can live into our aspirations. None of us can live without moments of blueness, periods of sombre consideration. All life is suffering, the Buddha taught us, all of us invited to grow into the light as we come to terms with our mortality.

This world we live in, it has its great blueness, too. Yes, there are moments of golden joy, when nations unite with commitments to control our punishing effect on Mother Earth. Joy abounds in Paris, this week, and with it the call for each of us to make it so. But the killings that we read about in the headlines and the slow misery of the earth’s poor—these blues are part of the greater incompleteness of life. These are the persistent and pervasive shades of blue, not just holiday blues, but the blueness of everything. Become adult as a planet will require humanity growing in our emotional intelligence; building our spiritual capacity to face the incompleteness, and to be part of sorting out the essential from the non-essential in the quest to be ethical and moral and human. Which is something we are all called to do.

 Christmas is a romantic time, a nostalgic time, a family time. In my life, it has be unfettered and sprawling, consuming everything in its wake. For many years it was manic and depressed, it was stressful and joyful. In recent years, I have begun to value the bluer side of Christmas, the somber response to merrymaking. For just a few minutes this morning, I want to share some thoughts, and some space, to call us to a richer attentiveness to the challenges of this season: challenges to the head, and to the hands, and to the heart.

Touch your head. Bring a fingertip to your temple, a palm to the nape of your neck. Christmas challenges many of us because we just can’t embrace the thought of it, we don’t agree with its premises. These notions of the birthday of a god, the moment when supernatural forces transported a divine being into this human realm. We can’t believe that this more-special-than-all-other-babies will be here only for a time before commanding, “Beam me up, Scotty,” (or Goddy??). Even as we appreciate human evolution and human imagination and all the truth-telling in all the myth-making of human culture everywhere which has tried to explain how it is we are here on this planet, how it is that we connect ourselves to a larger Universe of things known and unknown, seen and unseen, still, this primacy of this one story, well, it “does not compute.” In our increasingly diverse country, the Christmas story as the primary religious explanation, does not hold true for us, and so it hurts our heads, it offends our intelligence, it is insufficient as a moral code, it excludes the religious sensibilities of so may of our neighbors, and even us; and it imposes itself on those in our culture who live without religion, the doubters and skeptics and agnostics and atheists whom this church so treasures.

This season (touch temple) challenges our heads. Take a breath.

Touch your hands. Examine palms and fingers, wrists and opposable thumbs. Christmas challenges us because of the (grasping) doing of it, the (driving) business of it, the (fingers rubbing) expense of it.  As the great sin of our culture has been to change us from citizens in the public square to consumers in the marketplace, we have created unsustainable expectations of our selves and of the planet. Christmas unfettered has exacerbated our unhealthy appetites, telling us not only “what you are is what you buy,” but that somehow buying something can be substituted for loving someone. I was touched this weekend when I walked into the church and found Barbara Svoboda and Judy Alexander decorating our temple with greenery not purchased from an emporium but cut from the plants in their own bach yards. The gift of their labor expressed their love for us, (touching hands, shaping) the care shown in their deecoration was unmistakable evidence of their love for our church—by extension, all of us as a church.

This season (touch hands) challenges our hands. It challenges (touch temple) our heads. Take a breath.

Place your hands over your heart. This Christmas season challenges us in our hearts. 

Many of us in this room believe in evolution, know that we are animals, understand that we are cousins, as it were, to the mammals around us. Those animals know what to do as the world becomes darker and colder—they winterize, they hibernate. Mammals find their way into snug dens and sleep off the season. But for the human animals in this culture, we expect not only the continuing levels of activity of our modern workplaces, but extra efforts in the social arena. These anti-natural activities create a false sense of what “normal” looks like; we wonder whether or not we have Seasonal Affective Disorder when we get a little blue. Despite my appreciation of modern medicine, I have to say: it isn’t a disorder! It is natural to want to stay in bed, to pull the covers up, to winterize in the winter. The need to (grasping) keep doing, to stay busy, to keep the modern machine running—this creates a blueness that many of us feel so deeply.

The inattention to natural rest and rejuvenation, the required holiday cheeriness, the unthinking purchase of required gifts, the expected appearance at the showy parties of superiors at work, the need to make a home into a Martha Stewart showplace, the externally driven, competitive, unsustainable activities which have somehow become Christmas to many in our culture, these challenge us. Around us for weeks now has been non-stop cheeriness; twinkling lights and enthusiastic muzak. Maybe the business has kept us distracted; maybe the expectations we place on ourselves has kept us in automatic mode and we just don’t feel anything.

But if we were to stop, if we were to consider, if we were to feel our real feelings, we might find ourselves blue, (touch heart) very blue.

This might be a holiday season where there has been change. I set up my first Baltimore Christmas on Roundhill Road this weekend; and while I am so happy to be here, and even so looking forward to being here for the rest of my pulpit career, I had a bit of sadness as I unpacked my holiday decorations. I remembered the big parties I had in the old Victorian house I rented in Dorchester; I thought of the cramped parties in the condo next to Fenway Park; I missed the neighborhood friends in my grand home in the Woodcroft Estates neighborhood of Flint . . . and mostly I thought of friends and family . . . some now living in memory . . . parishioners who are now in a colleague’s care . . . and precious sweethearts, gone to death and gone to others. This holiday season hurts in my heart.

For some of us, blueness may arise because of the change in our status. A promotion with new responsibilities. A new marriage. Retirement. Start of a new school. New babies at home. Unexpected divorce. Long-anticipated divorce. Children moving away from home. Chiulkdren moving back hopme. Movement from independent living to assisted living. I paid a pastoral call this week where one of our members said, “I like change . . . change is the way we grow . . . change can be good, but I know there are bad changes, too.” Changing jobs can be stressful; retiring can open up one’s life, but may require learning a new way of spending and saving; having an operation can be life-affirming, life-saving when it leaves a body better able to live beyond discomfort or without disease; but it is stressful on the body, too, stressful beyond our expectations. It can affect the way we see ourselves, they way we feel about ourselves.

Holidays can be particularly painful in the (touch) heart if the change involves great loss. The first Christmas after my Dad died, I didn’t know who I was for a while; didn’t know who I needed to be for my Ma; didn’t know to whom I could turn when I had questions. More than once I picked up the phone to ask him a question about the furnace. But he was gone. There was an emptiness in the house, a sadness when I sat with my Ma in the quiet of Christmas morning. We had pretty much all moved out, we kids, and Ma and Dad were left together . . . and then Dad was gone. The church sang “Joy to the World,” but where was the joy? I sat and let my mother cry; I put my arms around her, and said only, “I know, I know.” And from one point of view, I did know, I did feel the heartbreak; because I felt my own.

When my partner Leonel died, I was blessed to participate in a long-term peer-support grieving group. While there was a lot of talking going on, this was not a “head” group, figuring out the answer to that question. While plenty of advice was shared about how to deal with things as they came up, this was not a hands group, figuring out what to do. No, this was a heart group: a place to feel feelings; to recognize the numbness that is part of grief, and the crazy combination of sad and glad and mad . . . and scared . . . that people grieving feel.

In my group, when the holidays approached, we thought about how complicated the holidays are. Families are complicated, and holidays often stimulate the challenges of family life and the idealization of a “golden past” that is part of family living. Knowing that holiday times contain both real memories and the replaying of other people’s invented scenarios, our sober assessments and our own self-delusion, and miriad other unrealities—as well as our own very real emotions, feelings of sad and glad, of mad and scared; the way we get through, my grieving group asserted, was to tell our stories, to hear someone say, “I know, I know,” and to be held, if only for an hour, in the network of love which the group provided.

All around us are people whose emotional distress needs to be acknowledged, recognized, taken seriously, held. All around us are people whose hearts are hurting. We may “deck the hall with boughs of holly,” but not all hearts can say “Fa la la la la la la la la.”

Nor should they be expected to. I don’t know how the families of the people killed in San Bernardino will ever detach their grief from these holiday festivities. I don’t think it will ever be possible. Just as I don’t believe any Baltimore mother or father, grandparent or sibling, can detach their grief from the murderous actions that intentionally or accidentally take the lives of too many children, youth and young adults every day. The grief will always be there.

But a community will always be there, too, to acknowledge depression, confusion, sadness, anger, numbness, disorientation, aloofness, clinginess, fear that accompanies this human project which is our lives. We are “lives affirming life in the reality of death,” and there will be a community here that will save us all as we become the community we so desperately need. We can handle the blueness of the holidays as we find the grace to co-create the space which can contain our love. Our love, (touch heart) our love, which is part of the Eternal and All-Encompassing Love which my faith says is at the center of all things, at the heart of the Universe, at the destination of our living.

The holidays challenge us head and hands and heart. We sit with one another and say, “I know. I know. I know.” We acknowledge and encourage one another. And Love brings us just one more day, one more holy day, one more holiday.

Blessed be! Ashe, ashe! Salaam, Shalom! Peace, Amen!

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