A blog post by Terri Elton
Image Credit: Chocolates by Jonathan Reyes on Flickr
Bittersweet -- there is no better word for the days of Advent, Christmas, and New Years than that. Sweet sums up the excitement of being with family and friends, of living in a season of giving, of having an intentional season focus on serving, and, of course, the yummy treats which delight our taste buds. Sweet describes the gift tradition is and the opportunity for passing things on from one generation to another. And sweet could also be the word used to express our joy as the creator of the universe came to this earth -- as a baby, no less -- to live among us. The holiday season is sweet.
But the holidays are more than sweet. They are also bitter. Bitter is the less exciting aspect of the season and the truth less talked about, but just as real. Each December the bitterside of our world becomes evident. Maybe it’s close to home, as family or friends struggle with health issues or as we mourn the death of a loved one. Maybe it’s a communal sting, like budget cuts at work or a transition of congregational leadership. Or maybe it’s a national heartbreak, like last year’s Sandy Hook school shooting. Elementary school children, really? Bitter is always present in our world, but somehow during the holidays its reality cuts deeper as it stands in contrast to the joy marketed, the expected excitement, and the string of party invitations. The holiday season is bitter, there’s no doubt.
And yet like rich dark chocolate, the holiday’s bittersweet character is what makes this season a gift for Christians. Done poorly, it leaves an odd after taste, but with the right mix, it’s a savory experience. (OK, for those who don’t like dark chocolate, just give me a little slack and go with the image.) Take serving as one example. Serving is always good; it turns our focus off of ourselves and toward another. Preparing a meal at a shelter or making cookies for the homebound is a good thing, no matter how it makes us feel. But think about the impact of baking cookies for a widow, right after you have just experienced the death of a grandparent. Or what if your family has been struggling financially and now mom got a new job. Now you have new eyes to see what making a meal for another person in a similar situation might mean to them.
The sweet nature of the holidays does not come pre-packaged at Target or from copying Martha Stewart’s holiday party. The sweet part of this season is only sweet because of the broken, bitter parts. The two work together. For Christians, the sweetness comes as the good news of Jesus is proclaimed in ordinary, broken, everyday parts of life. As Douglas John Hall says, the good news is only good news in conversation with bad news. What makes the season “sweet” for one person, one family, one congregation is not necessarily the same as for another. Why? Because the “bitter” part is different for us all. Just use Christmas family gatherings as an example -- for some these are rich and abundant, for others they are tense and painful. And our experience can vary from year to year.
How do I not get lost in the holidays? I don’t’ shy away from the bitter parts of my life and our world. Because I know that letting myself live in those places will allow me to hear and experience the sweet parts more fully. This means looking past the ads and tinsel and seeing people, seeing their hearts. It means claiming space in the busyness and being intentional about my attitude and gift giving. And it means setting my expectations for the holidays aside and being open to God’s movement among us.
What keeps things real during your holiday season? Leave your thoughts and comments.
Terri is passionate about young people and their families, and loves the church. No really! She's our Associate Professor and teaches with an eye toward developing leaders and leading change. She also serves as Director of the Center for First Third Ministry and hopes to help ministry leaders create environments that cultivate a faith that matters. Growing up in southern California, Terri discovered her love for the city, cultural diversity and the beach. You can usually find Terri running or biking the streets of Minneapolis/St. Paul, or wherever she happens to be. When not moving, she's watching a movie with her husband or traveling with her two young adult daughters.