This is something you may already know, either personally or you’ve seen it happen with others. You or they come to worship, and it really doesn’t matter what the music is or what the message is that morning. What you do, as soon as you sit down, as soon as the worship begins, is you start to cry. You’ve been carrying this feeling of sadness and heaviness all week long, you’ve bravely compartmentalized it while staying busy and productive with the job and with the kids and with the million other things you have to do to stay current with your busy life, but then you come to church, and you lay that burden down. You just weep. Sad tears sliding slowly down your cheeks.
This time of year: perhaps especially. The holiday season has us so busy buying gifts and going to parties and getting ready and traveling and, yet, at the margins of our lives, we’re aware of the grief that is piling up, the sadness that the beloved experiences and messages of Christmas might be triggering. A message of “come home for the holidays,” for example, can bring up memories of betrayal and pain, even as we still long for home and what it could mean. Or the experience of holiday traditions that have stood the test of time: they just remind us of their beloved bearers, a grandmother or grandfather or parent or someone else, who are now gone from this earth, and there is a hole in our heart from missing them. Or the message that Christmas is a time to be with the one we love. Yet what if we are lonely in a relationship that is no longer working? Or what if we feel love but there is no one special in our lives right now—or there is but, for one reason or another, the connection isn’t happening? Sadness.
On nights like this, I held her in my arms [writes Pablo Neruda],
I kissed her so many times under the infinite sky.
I can write the saddest poem of all tonight.
To think I don’t have her. To feel that I’ve lost her.
To hear the immense night, more immense without her.
And the poem falls to the soul as dew to grass.
It’s a Blue Christmas. Sad tears sliding slowly down.
And I am here to say, at Christmastime and all times of the year, this worship space is a safe place for your tears. “The cure for anything,” says writer Isak Dinesen, “is salt water—tears, sweat, or the sea.” “There is some kind of a sweet innocence in being human—in not having to be just happy or just sad—in the nature of being able to be both broken and whole, at the same time.” (C. Joybell C.)
And that’s exactly right. Salt water tears. Not having to be just happy or just sad. Being able to be broken and whole, at the same time. Blue and not blue. That’s who we are, together in this space. And that’s also who we are in this solstice time, as the world of nature descends into its longest night and discovers, every year, the preciousness and permanence of light and life. The light shines in the darkness but the darkness never overcomes it. In this season, light and darkness dance together like yin yang partners in a tango, in a foxtrot, in a waltz….
This is what I know about this season. Blue and not blue. And I seem to have always known it, not because I grew up in a UU congregation and heard the same thought I just shared coming from the lips of my pastor—I didn’t, I grew up unchurched—but because I grew up watching a movie called The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. The animated version of the story came out in 1966 and I was born in 1967 and my parents plunked me in front of the TV set from early on. If Christmas time was anything, besides singing Christmas carols and gifts and seeing family in Edmonton, it was movie time. That creepy awesome Grinch voice of Boris Karloff; his sweet faithful hilarious dog; the town of Whoville and the Whos for whom Christmas was not about things but about love which was at the center of everything, like a star, which rose among them as they sang together in a circle even though everything (including the roast beast) had been stolen by the Grinch; and then the Grinch’s heart, which grew three sizes larger that day and this taught me that even the worst things can change and get better, even the very worst.
I remember. I am seven years old, and I am sitting down in front of my Baba’s ginormous TV (my Baba, who died of brain cancer 30 years ago). I’m there in the TV room with its blue 1970s shag carpet like the sea, and I am watching the Whovillians sing and their star rise and rise, and I am weeping. The sadness pours out of me, as well as a feeling of hope…
I was seven years old. And The Grinch Who Stole Christmas was like church to me. It was the church I had.
I suspect it’s like that with lots of people. Whether or not we have a regular religious home, when it’s this time of year, we plan on watching our favorite Christmas movies because, otherwise, the holidays feel strangely incomplete. So we dial up Netflix, we pop the DVD in, and it doesn’t matter that we already know he doesn’t shoot his eyes out. It doesn’t matter that we know the dialogue by heart. The Christmas messages about home and tradition and love unfold there on the screen, and the tears begin flowing, and just like in church, we lay our burden down.
This morning, with the Solstice just behind us, and Christmas Eve and Day right around the corner, I want to talk about one of these classic Christmas movies that captures the broken-and-whole, blue-and-not-blue quality of our human living. A movie that can crack us up and also get the tears flowing. The movie Elf, starring Will Ferrell.
(As a side note, let me say that coming to my movie choice was hard going. For me, It’s A Wonderful Life ranks right up there with sacred scripture, but I’ve already preached on it, back in March 1, 2009—a day I remember because in here, when I was talking about George Bailey on his bridge, snow swirling about him, contemplating whether to jump or not, out there, in the real world of Atlanta, it started to snow, thick swirling flakes, in March no less! Then there’s that other venerable classic, Miracle on 34th Street, but I wanted something more contemporary. Love Always is amazing, but I wondered how many people might have seen it. Then there’s popular movies like Ernest Saves Christmas or Home Alone or National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, and those were non-starters. Way too violent. Their role is more to exorcise some of our bottled-up resentments towards family and friends that simmer beneath all the niceness and cheer. And that’s a completely different sermon.)
We are talking about Elf today, and the key line in the entire movie is when Will Ferrell’s character, Buddy, is writing a goodbye note to his biological father and his wife and son, saying, “I’m sorry I ruined your lives… And crammed eleven cookies into the VCR. I don’t belong here. I don’t belong anywhere. I will never forget you. Love, Buddy.” Next thing we know, Buddy is outside in the dark, high up on a bridge looking down into the choppy waters below, and it’s George Bailey all over again. I mean, what in heaven’s name could have put Buddy into such a blue Christmas heart space? You saw him on the screen a moment ago: the guy is the Energizer Bunny of Christmas cheer! Indefatigable! A relentless smiler and optimist! But there he is, on the bridge, just like George Bailey, about to throw it all away….
Because the question for him, as it is for all of us this time of year (and all year long) is, Do I belong? Where do I belong? And not just any old parts of me, but the parts that have to do with joyfulness and creativity and vitality. “I like to smile, smiling is my favorite,” says Buddy at one point. Growing up at the North Pole, he was always taught that “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing out loud for all to hear.” Raised as an Elf, in Santa’s workshop, he came to know that the four basic elf food groups are: “candy, candy canes, candy corns, and syrup.” The question is, Is there room in the real world beyond Santa’s workshop for such perfect sweetness?
The fourth time I watched this movie—all part of serious sermon research, I hasten to add—I found myself itching to do something I haven’t done in years. It’s related to the scene where Buddy transforms the Christmas section in Gimbel’s department store overnight. It’s amazing, what he does with Etch-A-Sketches and Legos and Lite Brites (remember those?) and also the snowflakes you make by folding up pieces of paper and going at them with scissors. That’s the part that got me itching. I found some paper and scissors and started making paper snowflakes; and it was like I was seven again, or eight, or ten; and the message my teachers in school were sending was that this sort of creativity was fun, was good because it was fun. But then when I got home and saw my Dad, I saw a man who worked like a dog and it was neither creative nor fun. In fact, that’s what growing up was all about. Giving up the creativity and fun. No fun.
Buddy in the movie encounters that sort of message all the time. Grow up, give up the fun. Even though he is the embodiment of most everything we celebrate as good at Christmastime!
I watch Buddy on the screen, and I love him. I see all the things that I have lost in my own life, and I weep. I see all the things I still am and could be, too, but wonder: would the people in my life accept this from me? Is there room for them in this world? When is the fun and creativity genuinely irresponsible escapism—and when does it save lives and make life worth living?
There are so many Grinch-like people and places. In the movie, Buddy encounters one after another. The main one is his own father, who has no idea that he had a son born out of wedlock and put up for adoption, who somehow made his way to the North Pole, who was raised by elves as an elf, who is now wanting to discover his real Dad and understand what it means to be a human. No idea! And he also has no idea how to respond when he hears his 30-year-old son say, “I love you, I love you, I love you!” or that what he most of all wants is to hold hands, go ice skating, have tickle fights, make snow angels, and snuggle. “I love you,” he calls out to his Dad at one point, and the response? An uncomfortable and hesitant “Ok.”
What’s so ironic is that Buddy’s father has elf potential within him. He works for a children’s picture book company, for Buddha’s sake! If anything is creative and fun, it’s children’s picture books! But something has happened to him over the years. Not enough of the four main elf food groups in his diet. He’s become emotionally constipated. He’s become a Grinch. Our introduction to him is a scene where he’s telling a nun that the kids in her orphanage have to return the books they were given (and love!) because they aren’t able to pay. Then there’s the scene where he refuses to reprint a picture book because the stupid kids (he says) won’t understand what’s going on in the story anyhow. No doubt about it: he’s a cotton-headed ninnymuggin. He’s getting coal for Christmas.
What happened to him? Same question I’ve asked about my own father and mother and other adults in my life, and maybe you too. Same question I ask about myself sometime, when Christmas cheer is radiant in the Christmas lights shining and I can feel the same light shining within me, but I can also feel a part that wants to tone the cheer down, a self-censoring part that is not too comfortable with elf enthusiasm….
The movie never tells us what happened to Buddy’s father. But there’s lots of hints. Take the scene where Buddy goes down into the basement of his father’s publishing company: the mailroom. First thing Buddy says when he gets there is, “It smells like mushrooms and looks like everyone wants to hurt me.” Any of you say that about your place of work? What’s ironic is that we could say exactly this about our own work life, with sincere regret, and yet, when we see someone else who looks like they are having a bit too much fun on the job, there’s an inner impulse to reign them in, tell them to get back to the grindstone! We can’t help but spread the misery, even as we wish for something better.
Being human is so complicated….
We need to help each other. We need to honor the elf potential that is in each of us, that needs a portion of every day to hold hands, go ice skating, have tickle fights, make snow angels, and snuggle. Life of course can’t be all about that. But why not a portion? Why not give Buddy the Elf, who is alive inside each of us right now, his due? And not just to save it up for the holidays, but do it each and every day?
Who knows how long a journey it’s been for the joy to come into our lives. Buddy says, “I traveled through the seven levels of the candy cane forest, past the castle of the abominable snowman and past the sea of swirly, twirly gumdrops. And then I walked through the Lincoln tunnel.” He comes to us from far away, a visitor from Santa’s workshop. And God, we need him. It’s crazy for Buddy to be on the bridge with George Bailey, considering suicide. He does not belong on that bridge. He belongs in our lives.
Otherwise, it’s a blue, blue Christmas. Life becomes too small for all of who we are. Too small for joy.
Buddy tells us, “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing out loud for all to hear.” To this I add, when you hear someone singing out loud for all to hear, sing back.
Video before the sermon: