When I was a child, we lived within an hour of both sets of grandparents. Our routine was consistent throughout the years. On Christmas Eve, we drove to my mother’s family gathering. It was organized chaos at best with tons of food and a sea of people all gathered in a tiny farm house.
Even the gifts were consistent– we drew names so we got one gift and gave away one, with the exception of the grandparents who gave and received dozens. One of my uncles always gave a toy John Deere tractor to one of my cousins and my grandma always give us socks and underwear. Around midnight we would make our way home.
Even though my parents were poor, they followed my grandma’s example and found a way to give us something on Christmas morning before we raced off to the other grandparents.
My father’s family was much more regimented. He was a retired Air Force Sergeant who was surprisingly gentle, but very regimented in his daily routine. The lunch menu was neatly organized on the table as was his envelopes of cash he gave as Christmas gifts.
When we started our family, we lived about 4 hours away from my grandparents and my parents. For several years, we tried to make the trek from Dallas to Oklahoma City to Southwest Oklahoma and then back to Dallas.
All this was exhausting, trying to see everybody, and it only got more difficult as we began to have children. Eventually we added in church activities, which either demanded our volunteer hours or our attendance and limited the others excursions we could make.
When I became pastor, all of this transformed dramatically. Because of the codependency I had with my congregations, I never liked to miss a Sunday. Sure, I was tired and they frustrated me, but I got something from being there and it was fairly easy to plan getaways at other times where I missed the least amount of time possible.
It was never really acceptable to be gone during the holidays, especially the big ones: Christmas and Easter. These were the times when the most people would be visiting the church. Since we considered them prospects, we wanted to be there when they came for the first time.
I have four siblings that I have grown apart from, mainly because I missed so many family gatherings over the years, but also because of my intense dedication to our ministry. I blame myself more than the church for not setting boundaries, but both of us are at fault.
When we stepped down from ministry and started attending a larger church, it was strange at first. The larger church had a big Christmas program with rehearsed music and a production that included live animals such as camels that the Magi rode into the sanctuary. It was an impressive display, but we noticed immediately we didn’t enjoy it like some did.
Maybe the reason was because we knew how much work it took to put something like that together. In the long run, it is really about attracting members, but the current members spend many hours away from their family during the holidays making it “happen.” We only went once and sought out quieter ways to enjoy the holidays from that point forward.
This year, after my stroke, we didn’t even really celebrate Easter or many of the holidays until this Thanksgiving. I did my best to prepare a meal for our family with one hand and limited mobility. The meal turned out pretty good, but only one of our children was able to come, and most of the Thanksgiving holiday was spent with just the two of us.
It brought up some trauma that we didn’t know we had to face. Because we’ve done some work in the past, it was easier to deal with, but doing the work is always hard. In my estimation, the challenges of this holiday fell into two categories.
1. Our Past
Even something as simple as cleaning the bathroom can cause triggers to unprocessed trauma. I attribute some of this to organized religion. The time we spent doing ministry, attending services, preparing for special presentations took us away from time with our real family and the time we needed to heal our past wounds.
Part of it was also that we didn’t know what to do to heal. Again, part of this blame goes to organized religion which was teaching us to pray for a miracle resolutions, but it never quite delivered. What we really needed was time to talk to each other instead of listening to another Easter cantata or living Christmas tree presentation.
I know that Jesus’ culture had lots of feasts and we benefit from connection and gathering in the larger group. But when I honestly assess the last 30 years of my life, and I think about all the programs and services I attended and orchestrated and volunteered for, I can’t help but see most of them as wasted time and time away from my family.
The time we needed to heal our wounds was bypassed for the good of the organization, with hopes that corporate well-being would trickle down to all of the members. It never really happened–we were all left with the same wounds we came in with, ones we barely realized we had.
2. Our Future
This weekend, we celebrated Thanksgiving on Sunday. Since we don’t go to church, it was totally free and we were ready for a day of football, food and family.
But as the day approached, we noticed growing anxiety even though it was just our two daughters and their families and my mother-in-law that were attending. In a way, slowing down gives us time to think, and sometimes thinking too much is our worst enemy.
We remember the past, and we dread the future. Sometimes this is for very valid reasons and other times it’s because of the trauma I mentioned before. We worry about what someone might say or what might happen or we imagine forgetting something important that will ruin the holiday.
Some of this anxiety comes from the natural tension we find in all activities. We thrive on making things happen within the church and organizing, practicing, and hoping someone would come. I noticed that clergy sometimes thrive on this rush of adrenaline.
In a very real way, we depended on the church and other organizations to plan our time for us. Us. In the past we were so busy that we didn’t have time to think much about it. We just went through the motions, absorbing the stress, and never considered what it was doing to us.
Laura and I have done a lot of personal work including shadow work and counseling and group work with other individuals. We have come a long way and wouldn’t have been able to survive the stroke recovery without it.
But the challenge in learning to BE is that it has to be authentic. With much less programmed activity and more time together, we will encounter what we have been ignoring. We are much better at facing it now, and every time we face it it gets better, but it’s still not easy.
In our book, Out into the Desert, we talk a lot about how religion helps us bypass the things we really need to spend time with. A sermon, or concert, or Christmas Eve service makes us feel better for a little while, but doesn’t address or deepest needs.
More than anything now, I am learning to be comfortable stillness. I am learning to do the hard work of facing my woundedness. And I am trying to be a better listener. I am conscious also of the fact that organized religion debilitated me in a way and it’s harder than I imagined to take the healing path.
So, my holiday wasn’t all Instagram highlights and picture perfect memories. But, it was a time of deep reflection, a time for so much needed discussion, and a time for healing. I still won’t go to the Christmas Eve service next year and I don’t regret it.
Be where you are,
Be who you are,a