Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Mourning a Loss at Christmas: A Tale of Two Trees

For many people, Christmas is a season of loss and loneliness. As the days grow shorter, the darkness on the outside works it's way inside us by imperceptible degrees. In defiance, we string up twinkling lights and bake cookies to the soothing sounds of Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole. But all of our merry-making doesn't make a difference in the end. There are green trees aplenty, supposed symbols of life and hope. But we know the truth about these trees -- that there are only two kinds, namely, the ones that are dying and the ones that were never real to begin with.

I am mourning a loss this year. But its not the usual suspect. I am not mourning the loss of loved one, though I do always miss my grandfather the most this time of year. If he were here, he would be telling anyone who would listen that he didn't need anything and that he didn't care all that much about Christmas. And he would conclude his anti-holiday rant the way he always did, namely, by assuring us that he would be glad when the whole fuss was over and we could get back to the business of everyday life. 

The loss that I am mourning this year is more difficult to name. It's not the loss of any particular person so much as it is the loss of a way of life. The way of life that I have in mind, if I may put it somewhat crudely, has to do with giving a damn about the well-being of one's neighbors and one's community -- really giving a damn. I don't mean the kind of giving a damn that happens when we send a greeting card or drop a few wrinkled one dollar bills and some loose change in a Salvation Army bucket as we leave the grocery story with two loaded down shopping carts in tow. Rather, I have in mind a form of giving a damn that knows not the meaning of inconvenience. 

The sad truth is that most of us don't mind helping even a stranger at this time of year so long as it doesn't inconvenience us. But if our closest neighbors or fellow church members' needs happen at an inconvenient hour of the day, we will go out of our way to assure them after the fact that we really do wish we could have been there -- that we really do wish we could have helped -- but our kid had soccer practice.  

I recently witnessed the loss of this way of life in a most dramatic way. The United Methodist Church that I attend averages around 200 people on Sunday morning. For the last several weeks, the children and youth of the church met together early every Sunday morning to practice a special Christmas play. They worked very hard on costume and set design and on memorizing their lines. Unfortunately, the play was scheduled at an inconvenient time, namely, on a Sunday afternoon. I can not begin to describe how empty the sanctuary was, which is to say, how lonely. The pastor and his wife, a smattering of parents, and a few members of the hospitality committee who were tasked with organizing refreshments afterwards sat together on the front pews in an effort to mask the fact that no one had bothered to come.
A church that doesn't make supporting its children and youth a top priority can't expect to be around for very long. Thus I am tempted to say that my church is the first type of tree that I mentioned above -- the kind that is dying. But that is not the case. My church is actually the second kind of tree -- the kind that was never real to begin with. Hence, I am not sharing this story in order to shame the good people of my church. In fact, this story isn't even about my church.  

This is really a story about where my church is located, namely, the suburbs. Suburbs are those places in America that were never real to begin with. Like artificial trees, the whole point of suburban life is convenience. After all, the reason people move to the suburbs is to escape the inconveniences of rural and city life. However, over time, which is to say, by imperceptible degrees, the allure of convenience morphs into something far more insidious, namely, the spirit of not really giving a damn. To be sure, we never intended for this to happen. We are well-meaning types. And that is why I don't really blame anyone for not showing up. We simply don't realize what has happened to us.   

The good news is that there are places in America where people still give a damn, namely, those urban and rural areas from which so many of us have fled. The people who have lived long in those places know not the meaning of inconvenience. They will give you the shirts off their backs and not think twice about the time of day. The bad news is that, like fresh cut trees at Christmas, these places are dying. And we have only ourselves to blame.   

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