Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Thank You, Mr. Grinch

My last post was about loneliness during the holidays. Maybe you can relate. Over Thanksgiving, we watched one of my favorite movies-- The Grinch (with Jim Carrey)-- which chronicles the life of someone who would fit this category. He's a bit different (being green and eating glass aren't exactly "normal" in Whoville, for example); he never really fit in, and was treated particularly cruelly during a Christmas party when he was a child. So he ran away, lives alone away from town and experiences intense anger each year at Christmastime (hilariously, I'll add. There's no one quite like Jim Carrey). 

But this film version of the Grinch is so interesting because it really emphasizes this grumpy guy's insight. He resents Christmas, sure, but for good reason. The people who are all about "Christmas spirit" down in Whoville are the same ones who used Christmas as an opportunity to shame and disgrace him as a child. In other words, the Grinch doesn't "buy" Who-Christmas because he sees through it. 

This month our church is celebrating the season of Advent, a Christian tradition that encourages those who know Christ as "the Light of the World" to anticipate His coming; to not jump in to Christmas celebration without first recalling our great need for it-- to remember that it's the darkness of His absence that sets the context for the light of His arrival. In other words, this tradition asks us to go against the grain of "Christmas" culture in a lot of ways. This past Sunday, my pastor talked about holiday commercialism and the "false self" it encourages us to put on: happy, fulfilled, rolling in cash, ________ (fill in the blank.) For the most part, we Americans tend to buy into it and work really hard to believe, "That's us." 

This "Christmas culture" encourages us to think that if we follow the holiday liturgy-- if we act happy, polish our homes, cook enough cute appetizers, drink enough eggnog, or buy enough stuff-- we'll really feel as if we've arrived at the "Happily Ever After" that's being paraded in every store-front and in every movie; we tell ourselves that if we pretend long enough that it's our reality, maybe we'll start to really believe it. Think "The King's New Clothes," Christmas style. But then we get together with family and realize our relationships are still dysfunctional; or open our new toys and discover they bring us less fulfillment than we hoped; or pull our appetizers out of the oven and wince because they didn't come out quite as cute as we expected; and we realize it may not have been worth going into debt for all of it after all. In short, something inside reminds us that things haven't actually turned out "happily ever after." 

So what do we do? We comfort ourselves that going along with it all at least dulls our senses enough to ease the pain. Better to be busy shopping-- or drinking a bit too much eggnog-- than to feel lonely, right? And at least we'll have some new stuff to enjoy temporarily, until the buzz wears off. By then, they'll put away the Christmas cups at Starbucks and we can forget about the whole thing-- about the fact that we haven't arrived, and that we really are more broken than some eggnog or a new designer sweater can fix. 

I think that's what made the Grinch so mad. He knew the pain, the dysfunction, the emptiness behind the whole charade; he knew that all the noise was just a distraction from reality. He saw Christmas culture as an exercise in dishonesty and wasn't interested. He decided he'd rather be grumpy and honest than "in the Christmas spirit" and a hypocrite. 

What does any of this have to do with Advent? Well, my pastor pointed out that Advent is about honesty-- about preparing for Christmas in a way that acknowledges the reality that things are broken-- that we haven't arrived at "happily ever after," and that we are actually in need of what Christmas brings. We start every Sunday worship this month reciting the 10 Commandments, to serve as a reminder that we've missed the mark. Remembering that we haven't "loved our neighbors as ourselves" places us in a position of humility and helps us to realize how we've wronged those who are different from us. 

But my pastor also said that the honesty of Advent is one that leads to hope. See, we can choose to drown out the reality of our brokenness with the noise of Holiday cheer, or we can acknowledge it and receive the God who chose to come into the midst of it for our salvation. We can pretend we're not lonely or we can accept the friendship of the One who came to meet our loneliness; we can try to fill the gnawing emptiness inside us with eggnog and appetizers or we can choose instead to run to the One we were created for.

Year after year I've bought into the Holiday "let's pretend everything is awesome" game. And year after year, I've been disappointed and disillusioned when I've realized it's not true. So thanks to Advent and the Grinch, I'm planning to turn over a new leaf this Christmas and cut the crap. I'm going to admit where I'm hurting-- and where I've hurt others-- and receive the much needed gift of hope that doesn't ask me to pretend. 

What is your experience of the holiday season like? Can you relate to a pressure to "pretend" everything's great? How might acknowledging your pain inform your celebration of Christmas this year? 

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