Rust Belt Christmas – Tracey Lind
Every year I go looking for my Christmas sermon. For nearly three decades, my sermon search has become part of my annual holiday tradition. My brother might say it takes the place of our childhood tradition of looking for yet unwrapped, but carefully hidden Christmas presents.
It’s not like my sermon is ever really lost; I haven’t misplaced it; I just don’t know where to find it. I’ve always found it, often in some pretty odd places like an abandoned house in a run-down neighborhood or a discarded Christmas tree on a New York City sidewalk. I’ve become aware of it sitting by the bedside of a dying woman or in a maternity ward waiting with a teenage mother in labor. I’ve unearthed it in holiday lights, newspaper headlines, music, film, poetry, and art. One year, I came across it while reading a letter from a former youth group member serving in Desert Storm. And if I’m honest, like many of you, I’ve found the essence of Christmas in a sentimental card or sappy Hallmark ad.
This year my Christmas sermon actually found me, not once but twice: first, in the memory unit of a nursing home, and then in a doctor’s office.
Last Thursday evening, I attended the Christmas party in the memory unit of Judson Park, the retirement community where my mother lives. I joined the holiday festivities with some fourteen of my mother’s companions, their caregivers, and a small handful of what I like to call “designated daughters and sons.” We are the ones who live near-by and frequently visit this little peculiar world of aging with memory loss.
My mother’s peers are a fascinating group of women and a handful of men who, in their prime, were doctors, dentists, lawyers, nurses, therapists, college professors, business executives, sales clerks, homemakers, civic volunteers, and church leaders. And now, because of dementia and memory loss, they live in a small and protective world, vulnerable and dependent on the care, compassion and respect of others.
Last Thursday evening, after a long day of pastoral visits and a poignant memorial service in another retirement community for a member of the cathedral congregation, I walked into the unit singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” and then offered hugs, kisses and season’s greetings all around. My mother looked up, smiled and greeted me with her usual: “Where did you give from?” And as usual, I responded: “Mars,” and sat down next to her.
For the following thirty minutes or so, we sipped wine and coffee, ate cookies and brownies, opened bags of candy and ornaments prepared by local school children, and listened to Christmas carols and sentimental holiday music played on the piano by a delightful Jewish cantor. I even did a line dance with some of the staff as my mom and her friends looked on and laughed.
With the evening coming to a close, the pianist began the familiar refrain of “Silent Night.” I put my arm around my mom and started to sing, and so did she. I glanced around the room at this little community of women and men who probably could not have told you what they had eaten for dinner, and most of them were singing or humming as well. I saw two other daughters and one son with arms around their moms, and I realized that we all had tears in our eyes. For here we were: adult children holding our vulnerable, elderly mothers in our arms as they held us when we young; middle-aged children laughing, singing and playing with our aging mothers who now see the world through the eyes of a child; grown-up children helping our mothers eat cookies and drink from their cups in the same way they helped us when we were little.
In the singing, feeding and holding our vulnerable mothers, we – their daughters and sons, the fruit of their wombs – were given permission to be vulnerable. After all, they were still our moms. The roles were reversed, but the honesty, vulnerability and grace of love remained. There we were – authentically ourselves in this time and space none of us ever thought we would be. As Madeline L’Engle once wrote, “When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability…To be alive is to be vulnerable.”[i]
Christmas is about vulnerability. God dared to come into the world in the most vulnerable way possible – a newborn baby. No matter how you understand or explain the complexity of this mystery we call the incarnation, Christmas asserts that the very character of God is revealed in a naked, needy, dependant, gurgling, grubby, smelly, sometimes happy and sometimes cranky, vulnerable baby. The infant Jesus had no more ability to care for himself than any other newborn baby, severely disabled adult, or old person with memory loss, but that is how God chose to come among us on that first Christmas. In Jesus, God became vulnerable so that we would have the courage to be vulnerable and have compassion for the vulnerable among us.
The next morning a friend asked me about my Christmas sermon. When I said that it would be about vulnerability, she looked at me like I was out of my mind and replied, “I don’t want to be told to be vulnerable. That’s scary.”
For many, if not most of us, the idea of vulnerability is scary. We’ve been taught just the opposite. We’re supposed to be strong, capable, and in control. You know the messages: don’t let them see your vulnerable side because you might get hurt, embarrassed, or rejected. Don’t make yourself vulnerable because you might appear to be weak, stupid, and out of control. Unfortunately, we learn it from our parents, our teachers, our playmates, and our colleagues. We pick it up on television, in the movies, in politics. You name it – the message is clear. It’s not safe to be vulnerable.
Being vulnerable is actually a great sign of courage. The word “courage” comes from the Latin word cor, meaning, “heart.” In Middle English, courage meant to speak the truth of one’s mind or one’s heart. According to bestselling author and research professor Brené Brown, courage is, “all about putting our vulnerability on the line.” Based on years of narrative research, Brown has concluded that, “We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known.”[ii]
In the incarnation, God cultivated love by becoming vulnerable, and making the Divine Self deeply seen and known, speaking his mind and sharing her heart with a weary world. In Jesus, God appeared on earth as the most vulnerable creature imaginable so that we would take him into our hearts and be equally courageous and vulnerable, and then to courageously care for the vulnerable among us, those with whom God is pleased to dwell.
The morning after Mom’s Christmas party, I awoke with a fever, cough, and headache. It got worse over the weekend, and Monday found me sitting in an urgent care doctor’s office explaining to a stranger that I had to be well by Christmas Eve.
At the end of our visit, with prescriptions in hand, I thanked her and asked what was she doing for the holiday. She smiled and said, working, so her Christian colleagues could have the day off.
Chatting for a few more minutes, we realized that we actually had many friends in common through Greater Cleveland Congregations, our local interfaith organization. “Well, at least we got a nice holiday gift in the expansion of Medicaid,” I quipped as she was leaving the examining room. She abruptly turned around and said, “Without Medicaid, my family would be bankrupt and I wouldn’t have a life.” Then closing the door, she began to tell me how important Medicaid was for her severely disabled child.
Like any proud parent, she took out her I-Phone and showed me photos of her eleven-year-old daughter Maddie who can’t walk, talk, or feed herself. I asked if she could see. With a thoughtful smile, she responded, “Just a little. At night when the lights are low, and I get her ready for bed and say goodnight, she smiles, and I think she can see me.”
I thought to myself, that’s how I feel at Christmas. I know that bad things happen to good people, that we don’t always get what we want or deserve, that when we offer ourselves fully, we might get rejected, and when we have the courage to make ourselves vulnerable, we might get hurt. But every year, on this holy night, no matter what’s going on in the world or in my own life, when we darken the cathedral, light the candles, and sing “Silent Night,” if I look carefully, I see the face of God, if I listen closely, I hear the voice of God, and if I make myself vulnerable, I feel the love of God enter my heart and be born anew.
And that is my Christmas prayer for each and every one of you. May you look carefully and see the face of God in those around you, may you listen closely and hear the voice of God in those around you, may you make yourself vulnerable and feel the love of God enter your heart this Christmas, and then may you have the compassion and courage to speak out and care for the vulnerable ones with whom God is pleased to dwell.
[i] Madeline L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (North Point Press, 1995)
[ii] Brene Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (Gotham Books, 2012)