Monday, December 23, 2013

Tradition: A Place to Stand In The World

Tradition (noun) 1. the handing down of statements, beliefs, legends, and customs from generation to generation; a long-established or inherited way of thinking or acting; a continuing pattern of culture, beliefs or practices.

It is Christmas Eve, 11:15 pm or so. 

I’m done with church and work and am home. I officiated at three services this night and also shook something like 600 hands! I love it but am now finally ready to mark my own personal tradition for the night of the 24th.  I dig deep into the stocking I’ve hung by the mantle piece, and retrieve from the very bottom, an inch long plastic figure of baby Jesus. Then, I gently place him in the manger of my nativity set. 

Now…Christmas is really here for me.  Like all the years before, my holy day and holiday doesn’t start until the infant makes it into the crèche. Like all the years ahead, God willing too, I’ll re-enact this same tradition again and again and again.  It’s a tradition I received my family.  It’s one I’ll pass on too.   

Because for me if there is no tradition, well…there is really no Christmas. If there is no tradition, there is really no life either, at least not a life I want to live. There are lots of great reasons to love the holidays—Christmas, Hanukkah, family celebrations, special food and music, all the trappings of the season.  For the past month our world has been immersed in twelfth month revels, some sacred, some secular. 

And though we probably don’t think about it much, or name it as such, this is a season of tradition unlike any other time of the year. Tradition is December.  Our familiar rituals are religious. Christians look forward to yearly candles and a silent night in a hushed sanctuary. Jews light one candle each night, the menorah pushing back winter darkness. The Dutch set out clogs and shoes on December 5th in the hope that Sinterklass (Saint Nicholas) will fill them up with gifts. No matter the faith or ethnicity, the season is marked by amazingly diverse traditions.

Other rituals are secular but still so important.  Putting the same star on the top of the tree year after year, the star your grandparents put on their tree. Taking young nieces or nephews shopping or out to “The Enchanted Village” just like a loved one did for you when you were young. Watching the same cheesy TV Christmas special or weepy Christmas movie year after year after year, even though you know all the dialogue and how it turns out.  Why? You need tradition! We all need tradition.

As Tevye, the patriarchal Russian Jew sings in the musical “Fiddler On The Roof”, “Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof!” Tradition gives us a place to stand in this world, to find our bearings. Tradition reminds us we are a part of a story that is so much bigger than ourselves, one begun long ago, written by God, or initiated by family now long gone. Tradition connects us to those who came before.  Tradition binds us together in community. Tradition survives while so much of modern life fades away.  Tradition was, is, and will be, if we take it seriously. 

So here’s to tradition: Godly tradition, human tradition, ancient tradition, familial tradition. In a world where so much can be fleeting, where information flies by at the speed of light, where the digital is disposable, tradition at last, lasts. Tradition remains because at a deep spiritual and emotional level, all humans need to be reminded on a regular basis what is most important in this life: what is true and right, from generation to generation.

So whatever your holiday traditions, I pray and hope you’ve carried them out again this year. You’ve returned to a holy place.  You made the food your grandmother made for you so long ago. You sung a song that made you weep in memory and then taught it to your son or daughter. 

Tradition. I’ve got a place to stand in the world and a story to live by this December.  That’s the best holiday gift of all.

Monday, December 16, 2013

That Mysterious Holiday Spirit...When Will It Finally Arrive?

“Christmas, children, is not a date. It is a state of mind.” – Mary Ellen Chase

I’m looking for my holiday spirit—have you seen it?

I know that question might seem kind of odd coming from someone whose job it is to  “do” the holidays and holy days for a living. Pretty much from the first Sunday in December, right up until 11:30 pm on Christmas Eve, I’m in full tilt holiday mode.  Yet each year I can never quite tell on what day this month my holiday mojo, my holiday “hello!”, my holiday switch will flick to “on” and I’ll get into that December groove.  I’ll remember again the “spirit” of the season.

How about you? Has your holiday spirit arrived yet?

I tried shopping, what our culture says is the best way to get into the “reason for the season”.  Since before Thanksgiving we’ve all been buried under an avalanche of holiday commercials on the TV and radio and the Internet, telling us that the way to be really festive is to buy things for the folks on our gift lists.  Statistics suggest the average American will spend $800 in that effort. And yes there can be kind of a rush to barreling into the mall and tracking down a parking spot and weaving through the displays of merchandise to find the “perfect” gift.  There is a certain challenging energy to surfing on Amazon and clicking, then waiting for those ubiquitous cardboard boxes to show up on the front porch.  

But shopping, well, finally—it just doesn’t do it for me. Fun? Sometimes, sure. But spirit? Not so much.

I tried being busy—who isn’t this time of year?  It is so easy to fill up our calendars to overflowing in December, with parties and cookie swaps and Yankee swaps and family gatherings and abundant feasts, out every night, on the weekends too.  And so often the tempo of these efforts is kind of hyper, all of us so aware of the calendar and the clock which ticks on down to the “big day”. If we are not careful we might not squeeze every last activity in, right? I’m not sure why we seem to ramp it up so much in the 12th month. Maybe we are trying to push back the diminishing light. To get every last drop of the holidays before January descends and things get quiet again. 

But busyness? That’s not working for me either.  Gives me something to do, that’s for sure.  But spirit? Not really, not yet.

And then I remembered years past and the amazing, unpredictable moments when the holiday spirit did finally arrive. The time parishioners showed up at my apartment with a Christmas tree for me, knowing that my first holiday far away from my family was a hard one. The December a youth group I led decided to create a special care package for a tug boat captain in the church, who would be missing his loved ones on Christmas Eve.  The 24th when a generous parishioner had me give an anonymous gift of money to someone who was unemployed and had no way to buy his kids gifts. The night one Christmas Eve at church I had to stop singing a carol and instead help two recovering alcoholics who were desperate to find an AA meeting. 

Then Christmas did come, the holiday spirit arrived. But not in things or in stuff. Not in gifts or ribbons or bows or sales receipts. Not in frantic activities, or days and nights filled to the brim with running from one place to the next.  Christmas came, and Christmas will come again but when? 

Maybe when we give.  Give our hearts in unexpected and generous ways to others in our lives. Forgive an old grudge.  Track down someone we’ve lost touch with.  Give. Take some of our holiday cash and gift it to the poor, the hungry, the hurting, the ones who wonder if and when they’ll ever feel a holiday spirit. Give our time to folks who are left behind in the holiday madness: a nursing home patient or a child in a shelter or a widow or widower.  Give our hearts to the Creator, the one who gives to us the greatest gift of all, today. Life. 24 hours. Every single morning.

Giving. Maybe, just maybe that is what the holiday spirit is all about.  I’m on the look out for it.  Just a few days left to Christmas but I trust in those hours I’ll have a chance to give and give again and when I do, it will be Christmas. It will come.

Here’s hoping and praying you will find your holiday spirit too.


Monday, December 9, 2013

Want to Live to Be 100? Here's the "Secret"...

Connect (verb) 1. to join, link, or fasten together; to unite or bind            
 --Random House Dictionary

 “Just how did you get to be 100 years old?” 

That was the question my centenarian grandfather, Armand Bolduc, was asked over and over again in the weeks leading up to his 100th birthday, which my family celebrated last Saturday. To get to place 100 candles on your cake is very, very rare, even in these days of amazing medical technology and increasing life spans.  Of those who were born in the first decades of the last century, 99 percent of them are now gone. Only one percent made it all the way to triple digits. By getting to ten decades, Grandpa has beaten the odds and then some.

So what is his secret, the secret to a long life? A quick search on turned up 4,844 titles on longevity, touting everything from drinking red wine daily (bottoms up!) to special diets, even caloric restriction (think rice cakes). You could move to Okinawa, an island off the coast of Japan, where more 100 year olds live than in any other place else on earth. Closer to home, there’s Loma Linda, California, the United States’ capital of longevity.  Maybe living long is all about what zip code you call home.   

There’s genetics, the pre-configured construct of our genes but we have no control over this. That’s out our hands and yes, I’m hoping I’ve got Grandpa’s DNA, but who knows? Taking good care of your body—a no brainer. Eating well. Exercising. Not smoking. Drinking (if at all) in moderation. Having access to good health care. Some studies have shown that having faith in God or a higher power helps us to live longer.

But in witnessing my Grandfather’s life now for 53 years and seeing the longevity of so many folks I’ve served as pastor (I once did a funeral for a 106 year old woman!) I think I finally found the fountain of youth, the key to living a good, long life.  The “secret”.

It came to me as I watched a slide show my brother assembled with images of Grandpa’s life, from 1913 to 2013.  Save for a few formal photos where Grandpa stood alone, in every single other image, he is always with other people.  Always connected in relationships, loved and loving others too. 

In a sepia toned photo from his Canadian boyhood, the family out for a canoe ride, Grandpa squeezed into the boat with his Dad and siblings. Crouching down with my grandmother next to my toddler Mom squeezed into a high chair, new parents smiling proudly. Standing on a windswept Florida beach with his brother, spitting images of each other.  Grandpa as groom at his second wedding after losing his first wife to early death. He found love again at 72.  Beaming as an 82 year old great-grandfather holding his first great grandchild in his arms, generation to generation. So many photos of him: with friends, and cousins and neighbors and people and loved ones.

Connected. Connecting. 

In the book, “Younger Next Year” by Doctor Henry Lodge and his 79 year old patient Chris Crowley, they argue that long life depends on three truths humans can control.  Nutrition, exercise and most important, in my view, connection.  As Crowley writes, “We are hard wired to be deeply connected to – and caring about – one another. We get isolated at our peril....We are built to work and live in close connection….to care deeply about one another. Get isolated and you will literally get sick….A guy who has a heart attack and goes home to an empty house is four times as likely to have a second heart attack and die, as a man who goes home to a family….We are not built for being alone.”

So want to live to be 100? Stay connected. Be connected to others in a multiplicity of relationships. Family. Volunteering. Faith communities. Sports teams. Book clubs. Sewing circles. High school friends. A choir.  Your neighbors.  Anywhere with anyone who gets you outside of yourself and reminds you that you are made by God in this life not to be solo but instead to be together.

Such advice might seem obvious yet the truth is that much in modern life does its best to disconnect us from giving connections.  We’re more connected than ever before in human history—500 million Facebook users can’t be wrong, right?  Yet status updates and newsfeeds are no substitute for a face to face cup of coffee and conversation with an old friend. In person. Not on a screen.  We’re more economically prosperous than ever before yet: if all this endless work to accumulate all this stuff takes away precious time to be connected with others—is all that frantic striving really worth it?

So happy birthday Grandpa, and to all whose longevity and “joie de vivre” inspires us “youngsters” to keep on keeping on. You’ve made it this far in lives filled to overflowing with relationships and with simple human love. 

Connected. Connecting. That’s a life lesson we all need to learn.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Holiday Question: When Is Enough, Enough?

Enough (adjective) 1.adequate for the want or need; sufficient for the purpose or to satisfy desire                           
 --American Heritage Dictionary

When is enough, enough? As in having enough stuff? You know, things: baubles, bling, gadgets, toys, possessions.

Depends on who asks and who answers that question. Most Americans will be answering it, by spending $602 billion dollars in holiday purchases during the next twenty days, right up until the 25th.

Is that enough? 

According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), which calls itself “the voice of retail worldwide” that average holiday shopper will spend “$737.95 on gifts, décor, greeting cards and more.” The NRF even breaks this figure down: $129.62 on self-gifting (when you buy a holiday gift for yourself), $415.50 on family gifts, $72.14 on friends, $23.59 on co-workers, and $25.63 on others (like pets). Then there’s food and candy at $100.35, greeting cards at $28.03, flowers at $21.12 and finally decorations at $51.60. 

Wow. Who knew?  Makes me wonder if I’ll be able to meet my personal consumption quota in the next three weeks.  If I do end up spending that much in total, will that then finally be enough?

All that stuff to buy and give and get is also on top of how much we Americans already have, all of our accumulated material possessions.  We do have a lot.  Ninety one percent of us own a cellphone.  The average American household has more TVs on average (2.86) than people living within it: 2.5 folks. Then there’s our cars: 800 for every 1,000 of us.  Our computers and tablets too: about 60 percent of us own at least one. 

And we don’t even have to worry about where to store all that abundance. We’re well covered in terms of having the space to cram all this stuff into. The average size of a new American home is now 2,306 feet. In 1950 that number was 938 square feet, so in a little more than a half a century we’ve upsized home sweet home by 140 percent. 

Is that enough?

A confession.  I’m right up there with the best of consumers. I have one TV, three computers, a smart phone, a car, and a big house so I’m as convicted as anyone else of not yet saying “enough is enough”.  All of these communal stuff statistics also leave out the 16 percent of Americans who live at or below the poverty line. For many of them enough is not enough. Their shortage is not about things, but about a lack of the basic needs of human life: food, shelter, transportation, clothes, health care. Me? I do have more than enough and then some. They have barely enough, if at all. 

Makes the question of “when is enough, enough?” that much more pressing, and maybe not so hard to answer.  Do I finally enough?  Yes.  Since I already have enough, maybe I could take some of that holiday budget money and instead of buying, I could give that cash away to someone else who does not have enough. Hmmm. Just a thought.

The ironic truth is that all of this buying and consuming in the 12th month of the year has its roots in a once simple religious holiday which marked the birth of an infant boy in a backwater ancient Middle Eastern town, 2,000 years ago.  His entry into the world that evening was marked by a singular hope, sung out by the angels. 

“Peace on earth and goodwill to all people.”

Even if we don’t claim that specific faith tradition or any tradition, this vision is a beautiful one for the world, especially in these days and times. An end to war and conflict.  Enough food for the hungry. Enough shelter for the homeless. Enough love for the lonely.  Enough hope for the despairing.

Kind of puts all this talk of “enough” in perspective. The question still lingers.  When is enough, enough?  We need to ask. We need to answer.

So enough already. I’m done.  How about you?