Perhaps there is no better source to seek for inspiration at a service like this than the future scholar and theologian Charlie Brown. One day in mid-December he confides to a friend something deeply troubling:
I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel. I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents and sending cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy.
Charlie Brown sighs a deep sigh and says, “I always end up feeling depressed.” Linus, who has been listening patiently, reflects for a moment and says, “Charlie Brown you’re the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem.”
I suspect most of us here tonight know exactly what Charlie Brown means when he says not withstanding all the joyous things associated with this time of year he still does not feel happy. And I also suspect most of us fears if we reveal how we really are feeling people will react exactly the way Linus does. Not only might there be something wrong with us, but we stand to ruin the fun for everyone else.
But allow me to suggest something different. I think we are the normal ones. We are the ones who are in touch with our deepest feelings and are courageous enough to be here tonight to affirm them as being a legitimate part of who we are.
Dr. Milo Thornberry, a Methodist pastor and active blogger until his death last year, identifies six reasons people encounter depression during the holidays. First, this is a time of tremendous stress for many people. Preparations for Christmas and wrapping up details at the end of the year places heavy burdens on us. Like the song says, it’s the most wonderful time of the year, but it is also the most demanding. More than one person has muttered, “I’ll be glad when this is all over.”
Second, fatigue. Increased demands lead to decreased rest and exercise. We get worn down and worn out and all too often come down with something as a result. Being tired and being depressed go hand-in-hand.
Third, family-related issues. You can spend all year avoiding that certain someone in your family who grates at every nerve and fiber of your being, but you cannot escape them at Christmas. The only thing worse than dealing with this person or persons is the anticipation of dealing with them.
Next, many of us experience a tremendous sense of loneliness at this time of year. We may not be able physically to get home to the place where loved ones will gather. For some of us there is no ‘home’ to go to. I remember after my marriage ended walking my dog on cold December nights passing home after home lit up inside and out for Christmas. More than once I could see a party inside, which did nothing but fuel my sense of loneliness.
Then we have to deal with unrealistic expectations. How can Christmas live up to all the hype, especially if we grade it based on, oh, let’s say getting a brand new Lexus with a big red bow the size of a large dog house on top. The truth is, none of us gets the picture-perfect Christmas we imagine. And while Thornberry doesn’t mention it directly, Christmas can be a very difficult time for people who don’t have the money to spend of gifts, decorations, and lavish meals. It can be especially depressing for those who can’t afford Christmas, but go ahead and shop to the limit charging everything to credit cards they can’t pay off.
Finally, the reduced sunlight at this time of year is itself enough to bring on a case of the blues. Seasonal Affective Disorder is very real and we are programed at some deep level to retreat into an emotional hibernation from now until at least April.
While Thornberry includes it under loneliness, I think grieving the loss of loved ones deserves its own place on this list and it should probably be at the top. You cannot celebrate Christmas present without remembering Christmases past. Our memory of Christmases past always includes loved ones who will not be with us this year. Period. And the more recent the loss the more acute the pain. Period. Period.
So, given all of this – stress, fatigue, family issues, loneliness, unrealistic expectations, reduced sunlight, and grief – who do you know who does not have a reason to be at least a little down as Christmas approaches? Let me say it again, we are the ones who are in touch with our deepest feelings and are courageous enough to be here tonight to affirm them as being a legitimate part of who we are.
I saw in the Suffolk News-Herald that Oakland Christian Church in Chuckatuck is having a Longest Night service tomorrow. The paper praised the service as necessary and even included an editorial thanking the church for offering it and commending it to the community. I am pleased it received this recognition and am heartened to have confirmation we are doing something important here tonight.
This is now the second year we have held this service. As I have said in the announcements leading up to tonight, last year we found how giving our sadness its due frees us up to lay it aside in order to experience more fully the joy of Christmas.
In a psychological sense, we are refusing to turn to disassociation as a copying mechanism. Through disassociation, we bury certain “undesirable” feelings in an effort to pretend they do not exist and forget the experiences causing them to pretend they never happened. But what we suppress has a way of finding a way to express itself… and it usually it’s expression is neither appropriate or pleasant. Depression manifests itself in many different and damaging ways. The best way around it is through it, by affirming our own limitations and the limitations of this season as well as remembering all those we love but see no longer.
In a spiritual sense, we come here to affirm God treats tenderly the bruised reed and the dimly burning wick (Isa. 42:3). This is a safe place to allow our vulnerabilities to surface. This is a remarkable place because here we find God’s hope and help and healing.
Christmas began two centuries not with cards being sent in the mail, not with decorations covering every surface of your house (indoors and out), not with wrapped presents piled under an artificial evergreen, not with non-stop parties at the office, school, and homes of friends, and not with a sumptuous meal served on fine china bathed in candlelight spread a warm glow of love on all our gathered family (with no one missing!). Christmas began in a meager setting that served to highlight a singular truth – God loves us and loves us enough to come and be with us. God loves us where we are, as we are. And because God loves us where and as we are God loves our sadness and our pain. God loves our loneliness and our sense of loss. God loves our fatigue and our disappointment. God knows this is a part of who we are and God loves it about us.
Let God hold and keep you in these places. Know that they are not to be hidden, shunned, or shamed. And as you let God love all these things about you, may you begin to feel anew all of God’s love for all that is you, including that which gives light and joy and happiness and fulfillment and purpose and meaning and goodness. May you sense all of this more powerfully this Christmas even as you embrace what it is that makes you blue. After all, there is more than a little bit of Charlie Brown in each of us.