The word meditation carries with it the meaning “devout preoccupation.” I invite you during this time to be preoccupied…but devoutly. We are, all of us, preoccupied already, right? That’s why we’re here. We want to be joyful….we want to be part of the holiday celebration…we want to get carried away into ecstasy with decorations and preparations and song and loved ones…but, we are preoccupied. You ever go to the bathroom on an airplane, and the door won’t open right away, so you push harder, and ram it with your shoulder a little before you realize…someone’s in there? The bathroom is occupied. Or, rather, it is preoccupied, it has someone in it, so there’s no room for you. In this holiday season, We are preoccupied with sadness, sorrow, pain, hurt, mourning, loss, loneliness…so how can we possibly make room for this Christmas cheer we hear so much about? We can go through most of this season being preoccupied with our pain…but tonight we create a sacred space…a meditative space…where we can be DEVOUTLY preoccupied. Tonight we sit with our preoccupations…with devotion. And I wonder if that doesn’t make room for something new.
Have you heard of the movie “Love Actually?”
Last week I made the mistake of saying to a friend, “That is the worst movie.” It’s a British comedy, it takes place at Christmas, so EVERYBODY talks about it EVERY year. It’s one of those star-studded romantic comedies where everyone is attractive and witty and cute, and even though they tell a bunch of different stories, it turns out they are all tied together in the end, isn’t that cute, and everyone lives happily ever after.
It’s awful. I went on record as saying “I actually don’t see any Love in this movie, actually. Love is more difficult and complicated than what is presented here, actually. I’m kind of offended by anything in this movie being called love, actually.”
It seems that everyone else I know LOVES this movie, so they challenged me, in person, on Facebook, on Twitter, they challenged me: “When was the last time you saw it?” And I said, “When it came out in the theaters.”
“But that was more than 10 years go.”
“Yeah, and if my 20 year old self thought it was too superficial and simple to represent real love…what are the odds I would change my mind a decade later?”
“Maybe your attitude has changed in the last 10 years. Give it another try.”
Now…in many ways…my tastes have definitely changed in the last ten years. I like tomatoes now. I prefer a quiet dinner with friends over a raging college party. I actually grow tired of eating too much pizza. But when it comes to Love…I feel pretty confident that my attitude toward love, my belief about love, my understanding of love has over the last decade, grown, matured, deepened…but changed? No, sorry.
Still, I gave them the benefit of a doubt, I watched the movie, and sure enough…everyone was right. I was right…because this movie does not have much to do with what I would consider love. Love involves hardship, and long term commitment, and struggle, and loss…it’s the stuff that holds the universe together, so it’s not the same thing as a fleeting kiss, or a passionate tryst. Love does not always reside in a chance encounter or a romantic meet-cute. Often times Love is dressed in the clothes of the undesirable, the outcast, the excluded. We need look no further than our Christmas story to affirm that.
However, everyone else was right too. Because this time around, I was not offended by this movie, this adorable movie full of funny and attractive people…it wasn’t as terrible as I remembered it being. Simple and uninteresting? Yeah, a little bit. But certainly not infuriating. As it was to me the all those years ago.
See the first time I saw this movie…which I now realize was exactly 10 years ago…I had been badly hurt in a break-up, my family was being reshaped in the wake of divorce, and I was in the middle of a bout with depression. It was my first major depression…but it would not be the last. I was in my senior year of college, with no idea what life would look like next. My view of the world was shaped entirely by uncertainty, darkness, shattered dreams and a broken heart.
Love Actually, this holiday movie, is all about the promise and power of Love, and in this movie it delivers for everyone. No one goes home unhappy, no one is denied a Happily Ever After. (Side note: Even the people who should be devastated and wounded wind up smiling and satisfied for no believable reason. That’s my problem with this movie…but I digress.)
So…why not me? Why is my life made imperfect, why am I made to be unhappy? I was so weighed down by my pain, so much darkness, so much heartbreak and uncertainty…I was so weighed down by that…I could not bear the love and joy this movie was trying to foist on me. The joy and love shared by others—even fake others—was one burden too many. So I rejected it.
Flash forward 10 years…not a whole lot has changed. I’m still in mourning over past relationships…still burdened with periods of sadness…still denied any semblance of a picture-perfect holiday season…but this time, rather than being saddled with my sadness, I found that I have learned to carry it. Rather than this weight on my back…my sadness, my pain, my burdens, are now something I can choose to carry. And it was surprising to me how nice it felt to set all that heavy stuff down for awhile, to stop carrying it, long enough to watch a movie about fanciful….silly….hopeful….love.
Our Christmas story centers almost entirely on what people carry with them. And it has almost nothing to do with being cheerful and happy. 3 wisemen from the east bring gifts to laud upon a great king…but they are caught up in a political struggle…their own lives put on the line when they refuse to tell King Herod about the newborn baby boy they have found. Shepherds carry and walk their sheep to see this baby, and they make the trip because of something else they carry with them: fear. The sky opened and a terrifying chorus of angels poured out and told them to. They’re terrified, though the angels have urged them not to be, having no idea what they are going to find, and what this kid will mean to them. They go because they are too scared not to. Angels carry messages…words about what is happening and what is about to happen, and they’re willing to pierce the barrier between heaven and earth to carry that word to those who need to hear it. I often wonder, what do angels give up by coming to our earth…or choosing to go back to heaven…what do they risk to deliver their messages? Joseph, carrying his pregnant partner on a donkey, on a long and arduous, and unjust journey. Not to mention the fear and doubt he also carries…he’s really going out of his way to trust Mary, this young pregnant girl….trusting that this isn’t some game, some sick joke…that he won’t be made a laughing stock. Joseph carries all the darkest parts of Love with him.
And Mother Mary. She carries with her the precious child…the Holy One that is to be born Emmanuel…God with us. And in choosing to carry him, she chooses to carry her own doubts. Her own fears. She carries discomfort, and she carries uncertainty…she carries pain. She carries with her faithfulness and trust, sure…but she also carries with her shattered dreams. She had visions of her future, she had hopes for her life, she had visions of what might be….now they are all shattered…because God chose her for this.
When we lose loved ones….when relationships end….when sadness sets in…when life’s imperfections show themselves…we can’t help but feel we are being punished. We see others being happy, others having things go RIGHT for them…we can’t help but feel someone or something is deliberately getting in the way, getting in between us and the joy, the love, the life we were meant to have. But if our Christmas story teaches us nothing else, it should teach us this: God does what God does…and we get a choice. We can either accept what God does, and carry the consequences with us, or we can reject what God has done….and be burdened with it anyway. Nothing about our story promises that life is meant to be always happy and joyful and easy…happily ever after is for the movies.
What our story promises is that those who are willing to carry their hardship, carry their pain, carry their fears, actively carry their own burdens…they will find a place to rest. God will, eventually, provide a place for us to set down what we carry. Andover Newton Hebrew Bible Professor Greg Mobley has told me for years now, “Your burden is your prophecy.” What you carry, hard and painful though it may be, can also be a gift. When Jesus himself saw that his time of death was inevitable, he was able to carry that burden, and offer to us his ultimate gift: His body broken, bread to eat, his blood shed, crushed grape finding a new way of life after death. Nothing about our story is easy…but when we learn from our story…when we learn to carry what God has burdened us with devoutly…magic does happen. Miracles do occur. There is somewhere we can deliver our burdens, so they become blessings to the world.
Friends, we are an advent people. We are a people waiting. We do not give in to the shallow joy that surrounds us, or the simple love that everyone sings about…we have no use for peace that is won through violence…our hope is greater than mere wishing. We are a people who lie in wait for God to come and set things right. But, friends…we need not constantly suffer in the waiting. When we are willing to carry our burdens….God grants us the gift of rest. I wonder if we can, for at least the time we are gathered in this space, set our suffering aside. Perhaps we can shine a light on what preoccupies us. Perhaps, just in this space, we can create room for something new…if for a moment…let us rest…and then with renewed strength, we can help one another carry what is ours to carry…until the day God delivers us for good.
The Benediction: Friends, go forth from this place bathing in the Joy of God. But, if there’s not enough room for Joy…at least go forward wrapped in the Loving embrace of our God. And if we are still preoccupied, if there is not yet room for Love…may you go forward with a small bit of Peace…enough to help you through this dark night. And if there is no room for Peace…know that you carry Hope with you. Hope that a new day is dawning, and there is light in the blackest night. Hope that God hears our cries…Hope that God will…someday…help us to deliver what we carry.