Santa and Grief

Red_bag_with_gifts_for_Christmas_6357266530 years ago, nine days before Christmas 1986, my sister Susan was born. We had learned two days earlier that she was going to be stillborn. I was 13 at the time. It was my first real experience with death and in the days that followed I learned certain things. That life has a startling way of moving forward even when it feels like it should have stopped, for instance. That it’s possible to momentarily forget grief and be sideswiped by its return. That my grandmother could cook a meal and clean a kitchen like a normal person. That my grandfather could be funny. That people feel the same but often behave differently when they hurt.

A mere week after we held a small burial for Susan, it was Christmas. We attended Christmas Eve children’s mass as usual. After service, several people came to offer condolences to my mother. I was sticking pretty close to her side those days and although I don’t remember anything that was said, I do remember my mom shedding tears while talking with people. We went home in a pretty somber mood.

Later that evening my mother and a couple of us sibling were in the kitchen preparing a beef tenderloin and mashed potatoes for our traditional fancy Christmas Eve dinner when the door bell rang. When we got to the door, there was a large sack of presents on the front steps but no one in sight. The presents were simply labeled to our family, from Santa. My brother went out to check around the bushes or look for a trail in the snow, but found nothing. Whoever had left it had made a clean escape.

We took the bag inside and everyone began opening the gifts. They were little things like boxes of candy, card games, scented soaps, small toys and such. But as we opened them my mother and I kept exchanging confused glances. Who had done all of this? Who ever had left these gifts had gone to a great deal of trouble, but had left no trace of their identity. It was all from Santa. Finally, after the last gift had been opened, I turned to my mom and said, “you don’t really think Santa left these, do you?” She just shook her head and said, “I don’t know. Maybe.”

Once the gifts were opened and the mess of opening them was cleared away, we went back to preparing dinner with much higher spirits than we’d had just a few minutes earlier. I wondered if maybe this was how Santa worked these day; only coming to those who needed him. Maybe there really was magic and we just hadn’t needed evidence of it until now.

Later that night, my brother found the smoking gun which gave away the identity of our Santa. The last name of a family friend was written in small letters on the plastic wrapper of a box of candy. Bingo. It wasn’t a fat man in a red suit, but it was magic, just like I suspected. The gifts had been left by a young widow, a woman with three kids 10 and under whose husband had died suddenly just a year and a half earlier. On the same day that my youngest brother was born, no less. It was only their second Christmas without him yet she and her children had taken the time to wrap dozens of presents to lift our spirits. It helped. A lot.

I’d just like to encourage you to do something special for someone who is facing a dark Christmas. Something up-close-and-personal. Helping through charities is great, but there’s just nothing like being able to spot a need which no one else is going to meet to make the sort of difference which will still be remembered dearly 30 years later.

BTW, in cased you missed the recording of “The Christmas Bird” I shared a couple days ago, you should go check it out. It’s great for kids – and only 11 minutes long. Consider it my wee Christmas gift to you and yours.

The Christmas Bird

Instead of doing my Christmas shopping a couple of years ago, I recorded this. It’s perfect for sharing with the kids, if they are the sort who will listen to a recorded story.  Grab a cuppa whatever suits you best and listen to the dulcet sound of my voice sharing a heartwarming Christmas story about a farmer, a bird and a little boy. It will be the best 11 minutes of your day. 🙂

For those of you receiving this via email, here’s the link to the recording on soundcloud.

Santa, God and the Problem of Certain Belief

I once knew a family that didn’t do Santa Claus with their kids at Christmas. The reason they didn’t do Santa Claus was because they felt it might lead their children to doubt the existence of God. You see, Santa is basically an old man living far away at the top of the world. He gives you what you want because he loves you. But nobody ever gets to see him. And many children think of God as an old man living far away in heaven who answers our prayers (gives you what you want) and you never get to see him either. So their concern was that when the kids discover that Santa isn’t real (sorry if that’s a shock to you), that would sow the seeds of doubt about whether they were being similarly bamboozled when it came to believing in God. No seriously, that’s what the mom told me. I’m not making it up at all.

I actually think that the experience of finding out that Santa isn’t real, when handled decently well, is a good thing for kids. It’s a safe way to teach them that sometimes you believe things that aren’t actually true. And it’s OK. Life doesn’t end. The presents don’t stop coming. Yeah, you lose a little bit of the magic. But it’s not the end of the world. The real fun of Christmas doesn’t come from in believing in magic; it comes from expanding what brings you joy beyond just receiving. Christmas is much bigger and richer than presents that show up by magic if you’ve been good. It’s just like Christianity that way.

Unfortunately, this whole “never allow doubt, never consider that you might be wrong, never question the reality you’ve be taught” mentality is exactly how a good number of people teach their kids to approach the faith. I know that the people who do this and think this way believe they are doing the right thing. But the hubris of it is astonishing.

In order for me to teach my child never to doubt, question or challenge what they have been taught about God, I have to be confident that what I have taught them about God is 100% accurate and complete. I have to be so certain that my faith experience and theology represents the pinnacle of the Christian faith that it would be foolish and dangerous us for them to ever seek anything better than what I’ve got. And if you believe that about your faith, um, well, I don’t know how to tell you this, but, hmmmm . . . how to put this delicately? Maybe if I pet your unicorn while I figure out how to say this without sounding like a jerk? I know they must exist somewhere in your world, because your world clearly doesn’t work the way my world does.

In my world, God is bigger than I can imagine. In my world, we have barely begun to grasp his goodness. In my world, we’re still struggling to live according to his Kingdom ways. In my world, the way we’ve been doing it hasn’t been universally embraced and resulted in the meeting of heaven on earth, so clearly it’s not good enough. In my world, what I know and what I have experienced is the jumping off point, not the end destination.

If you think that what you know about God and how to live according to his Kingdom ways is good enough, well, flowers better be springing up around you everywhere you walk. Because that’s a mighty big claim to be making. Big claims require big proof. If the faith you are passing on is so delicate that learning that Santa’s not real might threaten it, that’s big proof alright. Just not the sort of proof that points to you being right.

It occurred to me this morning that our problem is that we are looking for a once and for all solution to everything. We want to get our theology right once and for all. We want to get our parenting right once and for all. We want to get our governments right once and for all. We want to get our sexuality right once and for all. We want to get our economies right once and for all. We want to get our laws right once and for all.

But this runs utterly contrary to how God created the world to work. There are no once and for all solutions on planet earth. You can’t water a patch of earth once and for all. You can’t grow food once and for all. Everything changes. What was once a jungle is now a desert. What was once a dominant male lion is now a fallen carcus being eating by scavengers. There is no once and for all. There’s only a process.

Then I thought, “but God does promise a once-and-for-all, doesn’t he? He promises salvation and redemption once-and-for-all. Right?”

And then I had one of those ah-ha moments. We want a once-and-for-all, but God gave us a process. There’s a Way of doing things. It’s why Christianity was called The Way very early in its development. It’s a way of doing life. A process for challenging the powers and principalities which rule this world. The process IS the once-and-for-all solution we’ve been looking for.

The process works when we are continually looking for a better way. When we are driven to do better and expect more from ourselves. We can always love better. We can always find better solutions. We can always learn from errors. We can always go deeper into God. We can always become more of who He created us to be. We can always experience our salvation more fully. We can always grow in deeper unity with each other. To embrace this process of continually learning better ways to follow Jesus’ teachings is to embrace God’s once-and-for-all solution.

The moment you insist that your way is THE way, that what you know about Jesus is what there is to know, that your theology is not only good enough, but unable to be challenged, you are cutting yourself off from God’s solution. You are like a child who refuses to mature. It’s not a good look, frankly.

Learning to be wrong is a skill. Most of us weren’t taught it. In fact, the more religious your upbringing, the less skilled you are likely to be at it. But refusing to be wrong doesn’t make you right. When I confront my children about their unwillingness to admit when they are wrong, I sometimes remind them of someone I knew growing up. He would never, ever admit he was wrong. He believed that it was his job to never be wrong and that to admit error meant he was failing at his job.

I ask my kids, “do you think he was ever wrong?” And of course they say yes. Everyone’s wrong sometimes. Then I ask them, “do you think that him never admitting when he was wrong fooled us? Do you think that we actually thought he was never wrong?” And of course they say no. We knew he was wrong even when he wouldn’t admit it. “Do you think you’re going to convince us that you’re never wrong just because you are unwilling to admit it? Do you think it will work better for you than it did for him? Or do you suppose we’ll all just think you’re kind of an idiot for never being able to admit when you’re wrong?,” I ask.

What I don’t tell them is that this person actually did manage to convince some people that he was as perfect as he claimed to be. It was shocking and hurtful to them when they finally had to face the reality that he was just as, if not more, prone to error than the rest of us. Even sadder was that he wasted many years dedicated to never being wrong that he could have been using to learn better ways of living and being.

So, I suppose that all of this is to say, there’s nothing wrong with your kids finding out that Santa isn’t real. And refusing to ever allow for doubt, questioning or error isn’t going to make you right. It’s just going to turn you into the kind of idiot who teaches their kids that God is like Santa Claus in the sky. Which is fine if you’re into that sort of thing. But it’s not nearly good enough for me.

*Originally posted May 2014.

The Christmas Bird

Instead of doing my Christmas shopping, I made this for y’all. Grab a cuppa whatever suits you best and listen to the dulcet sound of my voice sharing a heartwarming Christmas story about a farmer, a bird and a little boy. It will be the best 11 minutes of your day. 🙂

Santa and Grief

I had every intention of posting some interesting theological ideas I have with y’all today, but I’m just not feeling it. So instead, I’d like to share a story about grief and Santa Claus. 26 years ago yesterday, my sister Susan was born. We had learned two days earlier that she was going to be stillborn. I was 13 at the time. It was my first real experience with death and in the days that followed I learned certain things. That life has a startling way of moving forward even when it feels like it should have stopped, for instance. That it’s possible to momentarily forget grief and be sideswiped by its return. That my grandmother could cook a meal and clean a kitchen like a normal person. That my grandfather could be funny. That people feel the same but often behave differently when they hurt.

A mere week after we held a small burial for Susan, it was Christmas. We attended Christmas Eve children’s mass as usual. After service, several people came to offer condolences to my mother. I was sticking pretty close to her side those days and although I don’t remember anything that was said, I do remember my mom shedding tears while talking with people. We went home in a pretty somber mood.

Later that evening my mother and a couple of us sibling were in the kitchen preparing a beef tenderloin and mashed potatoes for our traditional fancy Christmas Eve dinner when the door bell rang. When we got to the door, there was a large sack of presents on the front steps but no one in sight. The presents were simply labeled to our family, from Santa. My brother went out to check around the bushes or look for a trail in the snow, but found nothing. Whoever had left it had made a clean escape. Continue reading

First Sunday of Advent – Waiting

I’ve said before that the events which lead to my husband and my separation last year was so intense and sordid that it would have made a great episode of Dateline Special Edition. If only we had no shame and one of us were a homicidal maniac. But, since we enjoy healthy levels of shame and we didn’t devolve into poisoning one another (not that such a thing was never contemplated), it’s a story which will have to wait ’til the great by and by to be widely disseminated. Suffice it to say, it wasn’t really anything either of us did that pushed us over the edge. Rather, it was the way the response to events unfolded which undid us.

In his book, Passionate Marriage, Dr. David Schnarch says that couples are pretty much always working at about the same emotional level. It’s why they are able to bond to each other. Couples who are a mismatch in terms of emotional depth, maturity and functioning who somehow marry each other nearly always end up with a failed marriage within the first two years. What happened with us, and what I believe happens to many couple facing an intensely traumatic experience, was that as we coped (or didn’t cope) with what was going on, we were jolted into wildly different places emotionally speaking. Instead of being matched and basically moving forward and growing up emotionally in the normal push and pull ways that couples do, we were suddenly completely out-of-sync. And within two years, our marriage was kaput.

Of course, we’re back together now although I can’t begin to say that everything is fixed. Instead, we seem to have stumbled into a way forward which is familiar to any serious Christian: waiting. We’re just waiting. Waiting for the other to work through their issues. Waiting for greater empathy and understanding to form. Waiting for time to take away the sting of the past. Waiting.

Waiting on God and for God is a theme found all throughout scripture. Abram waited. Joseph waited. Moses waited. The psalmists waited. The prophets waited. Jesus waited. The women and the disciples waited. We still wait today through dry times and unanswered prayers and silence that as a psalmist said is like a dark cloud God wears about him. As Christians, these waiting times are frustrating. We know that somehow this waiting is for a reason. Usually. Maybe it’s for our benefit. Or maybe it’s because there’s a problem elsewhere that needs to be worked out. Which is part of the frustration – we don’t really know. Continue reading