Back from the year 2001, a memory stirs for me. I remember driving down Crockett Road in Palestine, Texas, towards Crockett Road Church of Christ, which was where I had had my first experience of organized religion, all through high school and a year or so into college. But it was years after high school, years after college, when I was driving down that road. I was 34 years old, just starting seminary, and my Dad had died suddenly and unexpectedly on a Friday the 13th which also happened to be Good Friday in Eastertime. Such a bizarre coincidence.
The day of the funeral, the sun was shining brightly. The day was a beautiful day. And I hotly resented it all. I hated that sunlight and I hated that beauty. Sadness had swallowed me whole. I was nothing but sadness. I also sensed that I ought to be that way, that I would be a bad person to let the sunlight cheer me up a bit.
All of a sudden, driving down Crockett Road towards the church, I found myself deep in conversation with myself. But would I be a bad person to allow a little sunlight into my heart? Why would that make me bad? God knows, I felt so sad, and maybe a little joy could help me cope, could help me hold my heavy grief?
Could there be sadness and joy both in my heart, side-by-side, and that would be ok?
I have come to believe that the answer is YES.
“There is some kind of a sweet innocence in being human,” says writer C. Joybell C, “in not having to be just happy or just sad—in the nature of being able to be both broken and whole, at the same time.” I think that’s exactly right. It’s being able to be sad, but understanding that there’s not something wrong with being more than one’s sadness. Letting sadness swallow you whole is not your moral duty or anyone’s duty.
One can indeed be broken and whole at the same time, and this is, in fact, a sign of mental and spiritual health.
Being blue and not blue.
This is not to deny the sadness. Please hear me. The sadness must be given its due. The year 2020 has certainly given us plenty of undeniable reasons for sadness. The President’s efforts, together with his enablers, to basically destroy American democracy is certainly one such reason. It is surreal. The Electoral College vote is cast and Biden officially won and still he tweets.
Would somebody take the power to tweet away from him already??
And then there is the pandemic. Dr. Robert Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recently warned us that the nation is facing a devastating winter, predicting deaths from Covid-19 reaching “close to 450,000” by February unless a large percentage of Americans follow precautions like mask-wearing. “The reality is,” said Dr. Redfield, “December and January and February are going to be rough times. I actually believe they’re going to be the most difficult time in the public health history of this nation.”
2020 has given us plenty of reasons to grieve.
But that’s just on top of all the regular stresses of regular daily existence in regular times. The sadness of all of that can feel so heavy. It can make you want to just lie down on the floor and stay there. I try to compartmentalize, I try to hold myself together, I try to keep a lid on it. Maybe you too. You and I try to stay busy and productive with whatever the responsibilities of our lives are, with the countless things needing to be done to stay current with a busy life, and you do this from Monday all the way through Saturday, but then it’s Sunday, and you come to worship—worship comes to you—and all that emotional compartmentalization work? All those efforts? You let go. You compartmentalize no more. And the tears come.
You come to church to cry. That’s just the truth for so many people. You come to church to cry. I know I do—and you’ve seen it. It’s not intentional. It just happens. There’s just something about the space of worship that makes it ok, makes it healing.
Tears sliding slowly down.
Especially this time of year. Especially so. Sadness of so many kinds is triggered by the beloved experiences and messages of Christmas. So ironic. A message of “home for the holidays,” for example. Not possible for many of us these days, because in these pandemic times, safety means staying in place and hunkering down. I wanted to visit my best friend who is a part of my chosen family–who is a home to me–and he lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and for a time we were happily busy making plans, but then reality struck and the infection rates sobered us up and it’s not going to happen. I won’t be able to hug him this year. Have to stay in place.
But even under normal circumstances, when travel would be possible, still, what can come up with that “home for the holidays” message are memories about the family we did not choose, the family we were born into and grew up with: memories of betrayal, memories of pain. Even the best of families can cause hurt. Even the best of families can be places where we do not truly feel seen and known.
The message of “home for the holidays” can be so very bittersweet.
Or, as yet another source of grief, think of beloved holiday traditions in your family. Ones that have stood the test of time. They just remind us of their beloved bearers, a grandmother or grandfather or parent or child, who are now gone from this earth—they are gone–and what’s left behind is a great big hole in the heart.
Tears and tears and tears.
As one more source of grief, there’s the message that Christmas is a time to be with the one we love. I’m talking romantic love. But, what if we are single and wanting love and online dating is challenging and frustrating (always, and especially now) and things are just what they are and we are lonely? Or, what if we find ourselves in an even worse kind of loneliness, which is the loneliness of being in a relationship that is no longer working?
Such grief. Elvis knows. Elvis knows. He sings of it in his immortal song “Blue Christmas.” This is the last stanza:
I’ll have a blue Christmas, that’s certain;
And when that blue heartache starts hurting,
You’ll be doing all right
With your Christmas of white,
But I’ll have a blue, blue Christmas.
We must give blue heartache grief its due.
But go back again to that idea I started with–being able to be sad, but understanding that there’s not something wrong with feeling more than sadness, with letting some joy in too. That one can indeed be broken and whole at the same time. That being able to grieve and to feel joy both (side-by-side and not one expelling the other) is the hallmark of sanity and maturity.
Being blue and not blue.
Which, now that another memory is stirring for me, is one I held when I was much younger, and somehow, over the course of aging, was taken from me. The memory is about watching a movie called The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. The animated version of the story came out in 1966 and I was born in 1967 and my parents plunked me in front of the TV set from early on. If Christmas time was anything, besides singing Christmas carols and gifts and seeing family in Edmonton, Alberta, it was movie time. That creepy awesome Grinch voice of Boris Karloff; his sweet faithful hilarious dog; the town of Whoville and the Whos for whom Christmas was not about things but about love and hope, which were at the center of everything, like a star, and that star rose among them as they sang together in a circle even though everything (including the roast beast) had been cruelly and outrageously stolen by the Grinch; but when the Grinch saw the Whovillians’ undaunted love and hope which he realized were things incapable of being stolen, well, that’s when his heart grew larger, it grew three sizes larger that day.
I remember. It is a Christmas memory. I am seven years old, and I am sitting down in front of my Baba’s ginormous TV—my Baba, who would die terribly of brain cancer in five more years; my Baba, whose Christmas Eve meals will never be surpassed. I’m there in my Baba’s TV room with its blue 1970s shag carpet like a blue sea, and I am watching the Whovillians sing and their star rise and rise, and I am crying.
Sadness pours out of me, because my homelife (with all the drug abuse and violence) was not at all like living in Whoville—but side-by-side with this I also felt feelings rise in me, of hope….
Joy can come in so many flavors. Sometimes bright and vivid, bursts of aliveness; sometimes more muted, more subtle, a simple feeling of relief, a simple feeling of comfort…..
I felt so much better, because of watching that movie. The sadness and the joy together. Blue and not blue.
Yes. I used to believe in this, then disbelieved, and now believe again.
But that movie—The Grinch Who Stole Christmas—I have to say was like church to me. It was the church I had, until, as I have said, I started going to official church in high school.
I suspect it’s like that with lots of people. Whether or not we have a regular religious home, when it’s this time of year, we plan on watching our favorite Christmas movies because, otherwise, the holidays feel strangely incomplete. So, we dial up Netflix, we pop a DVD in, and it doesn’t matter that we already know that Ralphie in A Christmas Story does get a Red Ryder BB gun, and that he doesn’t shoot his eye out. It doesn’t matter that we already know the movie by heart. The Christmas messages about stress and sadness and home and tradition and love unfold there on the screen, and the tears begin flowing, and just like in church, we lay our burden down.
This morning, with the Winter Solstice upon us, and Christmas Eve and Day right around the corner, I want to talk about one of these classic Christmas movies that captures the broken-and-whole, blue-and-not-blue quality of our human living. A movie that might take us straight into our own personal sadness but can also crack us up into laughter and lift our spirits with joy. And that’s ok.
The movie Elf, starring Will Ferrell.
To my mind, the key line in the entire movie is when Will Ferrell’s character, Buddy, is writing a goodbye note to his biological father and his wife and son, saying, “I’m sorry I ruined your lives… And crammed eleven cookies into the VCR. I don’t belong here. I don’t belong anywhere. I will never forget you. Love, Buddy.” Next thing we know, Buddy is outside in the dark, high up on a bridge looking down into the choppy waters below, and it’s George Bailey all over again from the immortal movie It’s a Wonderful Life.
I mean, what in heaven’s name could have given Buddy such a blue heartache? If you’ve seen the movie before—or perhaps you were able to watch the video clip that was sent out to folks this past Friday through our weekly e-news—you know that Buddy the Elf is the Energizer Bunny of Christmas cheer. He is a relentless smiler and optimist.
But there he is, on the bridge, just like George Bailey, about to throw his life away….
Because the question for him, as it may be for many of us (maybe us all?) when there is heavy sadness hanging over everything, is Can joy be a part of this picture too? Can there be some variety of it, from the maximum of raucous aliveness to the minimum of simple relief and kindness? Buddy the Elf represents joyfulness in its full continuum of expressions. “I like to smile, smiling is my favorite,” says Buddy at one point. Growing up at the North Pole, he was always taught that “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing out loud for all to hear.” Raised as an Elf, in Santa’s workshop, he came to know that the four basic elf food groups are: “candy, candy canes, candy corns, and syrup.”
The central question is, Is there room in the real world beyond Santa’s workshop for such perfect sweetness? God knows, there is so much sadness. But what about the joy?
The fourth time I watched this movie—all part of serious sermon research, I hasten to add—I found myself itching to do something I haven’t done in years. It’s related to the scene where Buddy transforms the Christmas section in Gimbel’s department store overnight. It’s amazing what he does with Etch-A-Sketches and Legos and Lite Brites (remember those?) and also with the snowflakes you make by folding up pieces of paper and going at them with scissors. That’s the part that got me itching. I found some paper and scissors and started making paper snowflakes. Suddenly it was like I was nine years old again, and I was back in my fifth-grade classroom, and I was getting the message that my teacher was sending, which was that this sort of creativity was fun—was good because it was fun.
I remembered that—but then I also remembered what it was like to leave that fifth-grade classroom for the day and go home. Hours later, my Dad would come home from work, and the hunched-over person I saw was exhausted. That man I saw worked like a dog, and the work was neither creative nor fun. He, too, was sending a message, just by his very demeanor: that growing up was no fun. Growing up was all about giving up the creativity and the fun and allowing yourself to be swallowed up in sadness and grimness–as if it were your duty.
Buddy in the movie encounters that sort of message all the time, and so do we. Grow up, give up the fun. Even though Buddy is the embodiment of most everything we celebrate as good at Christmastime!
I watch Buddy on the screen, and I love him. I see all the things that I have lost in my own life, and here is yet one more source of sadness. But I also see things that still could be, joyful possibilities, and so wonder: would the people in my life accept this from me? Me being more playful and more creative and more fun?
Could I accept this myself?
When are the fun and creativity genuinely irresponsible escapism and grief denialism—and when do they help me hold my sadness and enable me to live in a truly authentic, healthy, holistic way?
There are so many Grinch-like experiences and people. Winter itself, with the cold and the dark, is Grinch-like. Buddy the Elf encounters it all, in the movie. The main version he faces is his own father, who has no idea that he had a son born out of wedlock and put up for adoption, who somehow made his way to the North Pole, who was raised by elves as an elf, who is now wanting to discover his real Dad and understand what it means to be a human. No idea! And he also has no idea how to respond when he hears his 30-year-old son say, “I love you, I love you, I love you!” or that what he most of all wants is to hold hands, go ice skating, have tickle fights, make snow angels, and snuggle.
“I love you,” he calls out to his Dad at one point, and the response? An uncomfortable and hesitant “Ok.”
Is this what “toxic masculinity” looks like?
What’s so ironic is that Buddy’s father has elf potential within him. He absolutely does. He works for a children’s picture book company, for Buddha’s sake! If anything is creative and fun, it’s children’s picture books! But something has happened to him over the years. Not enough of the four main elf food groups in his diet. He’s become emotionally constipated. He’s become a Grinch. Toxic masculinity indeed. Our introduction to him is a scene where he’s telling a nun that the kids in her orphanage have to return the books they were given (and love!) because they aren’t able to pay. Then there’s the scene where he refuses to reprint a picture book because the stupid kids (he says) won’t understand what’s going on in the story anyhow.
No doubt about it: he’s getting coal for Christmas.
What happened to him? Same question I’ve asked about my own father and mother and other adults in my life, and maybe you too. Same question I ask about myself sometime, when Christmas cheer is radiant in the Christmas lights shining and I can feel the same light shining within me, but I can also feel a part in me that wants to tone the cheer down, a self-censoring part that is not too comfortable with elf enthusiasm–maybe a self-protecting part that just doesn’t want the heart to soften enough to be available to joy, because a soft heart is also a heart vulnerable to pain.
Maybe this is what Buddy’s Dad feels….
The movie never really tells us what happened to him, but there’s lots of hints. Take the scene where Buddy goes down into the basement of his father’s publishing company: the mailroom. First thing Buddy says when he gets there is, “It smells like mushrooms and looks like everyone wants to hurt me.” Any of you say that about your place of work? What’s ironic is that we could say exactly this about our own work life, with sincere regret, and yet, when we see someone else who looks like they are having a bit too much fun on the job, there’s an inner impulse to reign them in, tell them to get back to the grindstone! We can’t help but spread the misery, even as we wish for something better.
Being human is so complicated….
We need to help each other. Giving grief its due, we also need to collectively affirm and honor the elf potential that is in each of us, that needs a portion of every day to hold hands, go ice skating, have tickle fights, make snow angels, and snuggle. Life of course can’t be all about that. The grief in us, the tears in us, are real and undeniable. But so is Buddy the Elf who lives inside each of us too. Why not give him his due too?
Maybe the sadness is so heavy that even to suggest an activity like tickle fighting is cruel. I hear that. But let us remember that joy is a continuum, and all that our inner Buddy the Elf might need is a little TLC. Go for a walk. Take a hot bath. Be kind to yourself in a small simple way.
Sunlight deficiency in wintertime can bring a person down fast. So, start taking a Vitamin D pill every day, to counteract this.
Even this is a way of giving our inner Buddy the Elf his due.
Joy is a continuum, and we can express this energy of aliveness in so many ways.
I know these are tough times. The year is tough. The holidays are tough. From the President’s destructive behavior, from the disruptions of the pandemic, from the bittersweet “home for the holidays” message, from missing loved ones, from memories of hurt, from feelings of loneliness, from what we heard Grace talk about earlier, from all of this and more, a blue heartache starts hurting. It’s a blue heartache these days. But, can we still make room for some joy? It’s not about denying our sadness. It’s that we are larger than that. Our hearts are way larger than that.
Who knows how long a journey it’s been for the joy to come into our lives? Buddy the Elf himself says, “I traveled through the seven levels of the candy cane forest, past the castle of the abominable snowman and past the sea of swirly, twirly gumdrops. And then I walked through the Lincoln tunnel.” He comes to us from far away, a visitor from Santa’s workshop. And God, we need him. It’s crazy for Buddy to be on the bridge with George Bailey, considering suicide. He does not belong on that bridge.
Sadness comes for us without ever asking permission. It grabs us. It won’t let go until it says so.
But as for joy coming—we need to let it. We need to allow the joy. We need to let the Elf that lives within us know that he belongs too.
Otherwise, it’s a blue, blue Christmas and only ever blue.
Otherwise, life becomes too small for all of who we are.
To be human is to be broken, yet whole.
Buddy tells us, “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing out loud for all to hear.”
To this I add, when you hear someone singing out loud for all to hear, don’t hush them up.