It’s Christmas time. We can hear Carols playing everywhere we go; sometimes they’re even pumped onto the sidewalks telling us it’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year. Everyone is working hard to instill or remind us about the warmth of the season. This is the time to catch up with old friends, to maintain contact with people we don’t see any more if only by sending a card, to enjoy traditions like cookie swaps and Secret Santas, to read holiday poetry and snuggle on the couch with perfectly choreographed holiday specials that always end with twinkling Christmas trees topped with angels or stars shining hope and light on all the land.
But with all that joy and cheer, there’s also the reminder of the places in our lives things aren’t perfect, a reminder of the people who used to be part of our lives, but aren’t any more, a reminder of the relationships we hoped we’d have one day, but that have not come pass. Because of the joy of the season, pain or loss can be experienced in stark relief, far bolder and brighter than most of the year.
This can be a wonderful time of year, but often it’s not when we’re weighed down by worry or resentment or loneliness. Life feels heavy. This service won’t fix that, but it might help you not feel so alone and it might give you the tools to let go of some of the burden you’re carrying on your back.
Here in this congregation, we lost two of our own. Monica Rose and Dorothy Francis found their way home over these last 10 days. These weeks between Thanksgiving and the New Year are designed for maximum joy which alone can amplify grief. When all of society appears to be celebrating, our own sadness feels even more isolating.
Today, I’m asking us to consider the burdens we’re carrying. The difference between delighting in these few weeks and dreading them is often related to the emotional baggage we’re carrying on our backs. Even for those of us who are enjoying the Christmas season, there might be a lone resentment, a grudge popping up from time to time, preventing us from being merry and bright. And for some, this might be a time when the burden feels most heavy. All that cheerful holiday music can amplify the loneliness or anger or hurt or guilt that isn’t more than background music the rest of the year.
What burden are you carrying this holiday season? Take a moment for a little moral, emotional inventory. Is there someone you think owes you an apology? Is there a regret you’re nursing? Is there a hurt – past or present – you’re hanging on to? Sadness? Anger? Self-righteousness? Fear? Resentment? What concern have you picked up and have not set down?
The story Janice Marie read for us is a Buddhist story that speaks to our choices. One monk, the elder monk we all wish we could be, knows how to set aside a rule, help someone in need and then let it go. The younger monk stresses about it, wants to follow the rules even to someone’s detriment and is annoyed when someone doesn’t do it the “right” way. I imagine we’re all potentially both monks.
The spiritual lesson being offered is the letting go. The staying in the moment. Whatever that was, it’s over. We are here now. We can only be present in the now, if we let go of past attachment, those things that cling to us as we walk through life. The Buddhist wisdom here is a realignment of the mind with the body. I am here. My mind is here. I am worried about something else, my mind is no longer here. The things that drag my mind from my immediate experience are preventing me from living my whole life and keeping me from peace.
I need pause for a moment to acknowledge the shallowness of this concept for people experiencing profound grief. I think of the parents of Sandy Hook victims who have to go through December every year pushing through thick walls of pain. And they aren’t alone. We had a service here a few weeks ago recognizing that grief needs to be attended to. I’m not addressing that kind of anguish or heartache. I’m talking about the little things, the resentment, the brooding, those things that attract to our legs like dust with static cling.
There’s an old spiritual called Down by the Riverside. It was sung by enslaved people who often wrote songs to give them hope for freedom, songs the white people wouldn’t fully understand with messages embedded in them. This one was ostensibly about baptism and salvation, but it was actually about the passage to freedom. We’re going to sing it today. We’re singing it because the idea that laying down our burdens means we aren’t going to prepare for war includes the idea of letting go of what we’re carrying so we don’t fight with each other. When I lay down my burdens, I have no need to prepare for war. When I let go, when I release my anger and fear and hurt and resentment, I can rest. There will be no grudge match today, no fight to the death. When I open myself up, allow the vulnerability of authentic emotion without the need for revenge or self-protection, I am preparing for peace.
Are you carrying a burden today? If we went down to the riverside, would you have a burden you need to lay down?
I carried a very heavy burden last Christmas after a fight with my sister. A trust was broken. My first response was anger. “How could you do that to me?” Second was self-defense. “Never mind. I don’t care and I don’t need you anymore.” Third was sadness. Disappointment. There was a sinking. I needed to be there for a little while.
Then I talked with someone, actually a lot of someones. I told my story. And each time I told it, the intensity of the sadness decreased. I was laying down my burden. I put it on the ground between me and trusted friends and colleagues and together, we looked at it. What is that, exactly? We brushed away the fear and anger and hurt like sand on an old bone.
Burdens are easier to deal with when done with friends. Sadness and hurt and disappointment and grief and guilt; they all dissipate when the right partner is helping.
Some burdens are more difficult than others to lay down. Some hurts are so old, they have grafted themselves on to our spirits. They become part of us. In my childhood home we had a brick chimney that had been overtaken by vines. Taking them down meant ripping out some of the brick and mortar. Two friends of mine climbed all the way up on a two story ladder and starting tearing down those thick old vines. They needed heavy gloves and brute force and with each tear, pieces of my house were torn out with it. They threw it on the grass and all those old parasitic vines began to wither, leaving behind pieces of crumbled brick, but exposing the still standing chimney to the sun, ready now for healing.
Old hurts can do that too. They also become parasitic, feeding off our bones, sucking life from us. Psychological and spiritual hurts can become so much a part of our internal landscape that we have trouble recognizing them. But if we’re paying attention, we can see them in action. We see those old hurts separating us from other people, creating empty spaces and loneliness. Or we see it fire our anger inappropriately or bring us to tears unexpectedly. Often we don’t know ourselves without these hurts; they have become part of who we are. We act and react out of them without even suspecting they can be healed, that we can let them go.
So, we have two monks. One picks the woman up on one side of the river, and puts her down on the other. The other carries her for miles in his mind. He broods and worries and resents.
Which monk are you going to be this Christmas season? Are you carrying a burden that will ruin your journey? Do you know how to put it down?
After my homily on Thanksgiving, someone asked me if my family is really that perfect. Perfect? No. And, yes. A lot of life is a matter of perspective. I use a lens of gratitude when I can. I know that if I don’t love what I have, there is nothing I can get that will make me happy.
This is to say, sometimes living a burdened life is a choice. It’s a choice for the monk in the story. He can let it go if he wants, like his travel companion. Or he can hold on to it for miles and miles. Of course, it’s not always a choice. Gruesome, horrible things happen and there are seasons of grief that cannot be denied.
But sometimes, the burden is a choice and it’s good to know when those times have come. Sometimes, carrying, being weighed down by our burdens, is optional. We can set them down. We can lay them down between friends. Sometimes we need to brush off the sand and see what’s really going on. Sometimes, we just need to walk away. Lay it on the side of the river. And walk away. That’s not mine any more.
The beauty is that, either way, they aren’t on our backs. We can put them down and decide what do with them once we are unencumbered. They haven’t grafted themselves to our bones; we are not they.
In one version of that story, both monks carry the woman across the river and set her down. 5 miles down the road, one monk is complaining that his back still hurts. We carry our burdens, our stress, our worry, in our bodies. Can you feel it? Is there a place in your body you are carrying your stress? How might you let it go? Set it down?
Thich Nhat Hahn, the great Vietnamese Buddhist teacher tells us “Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything — anger, anxiety, or possessions — we cannot be free.”
How will you lay down your burdens this Christmas season? What are you carrying on your back today? What are you afraid of? How is it informing your behavior? Can you lay it down? What has made you angry? Is it inspiring anger in other areas of your life? Has old anger grafted onto your spirit? Can you see it anymore? Do you know when old anger is fueling new anger? How will you lay down your burdens today?
In the Buddhist tradition, the letting go is done through breath. We breath into meditation and in our breathing, we become mindful of ourselves here and now, letting go of all that was. We don’t have time now for a full meditation, but we can breathe in and out a few times. Breathe in, aware of how the air feels in our noses, cold and clean. Breathe out feeling the warmth of our breath pass from our center. Breathe in, filling our lungs with oxygen. Breathe out, feeling our muscles letting go. As we breathe we feel the chairs beneath us, we feel our feet and legs and backs. We become aware of our bodies in this space. We breathe and we are present, here and now.
When I let go, there’s a new feeling in my body. My shoulders drop. My muscles relax. I can stand up straight. I can hear people again, rather than hearing my own voice. I can see them again rather than seeing the ground which is what happens when I’m bent over. When I’m no longer carrying my fear and sadness and guilt, my embarrassment, my loneliness, my anger, my hurt I’m focused and present and connected. I can be part of a community again when I lay my burdens down. I can connect with other people more authentically, rather than connecting with them in the hope that they will perpetuate my own anger or affirm my deep hurt.
Next week we’re talking about Hanukkah and the winter solstice and a few days later we’ll be in this room for our candlelight and our Messiah services on Christmas Eve. We’ll remember the glory that is our lives and proclaim Joy to the World. We’ll celebrate our community and sing traditional carols in gratitude and enjoy apple cider and meeting each other’s families. But that doesn’t mean this isn’t sometimes a difficult season. All that delighting doesn’t negate the daily living we’re all doing.
We have a chance to prepare for a little more holiday cheer than we might have expected this season, if only we’re willing to let go of some of the things that are weighing us down.
The older monk knew something the younger monk didn’t know. He knew that the woman didn’t matter. He knew that picking her up and putting her back down again was trivial and ultimately irrelevant. He knew that nothing was lost and something was gained and once he put her down, he walked silently through the woods, enjoying the glory of the day. He’s the older monk, the one who’s done this before, the one who has a little experience under his belt. The younger monk missed the trees and the opportunity to be with his friend because he was distracted by an irrelevant detail.
There are things in this world that matter. Thousands of people will march today in support of impeaching the President. We’re in an unprecedented climate crisis and the United Nations in Madrid isn’t giving us much reason to hope. There are fathers burying their children, mothers worried that they don’t have enough to feed their families or heat their homes. The older monk knew that. And we know that too.
This Christmas season, we have a choice. We can lay down our burdens and keep walking. We can lay down our hurt and anger, our sadness and grief, our disappointment and resentment, our humiliation and our guilt. We can let them go. We can stand up straight and open ourselves to the world around us. No need to walk into the woods weighed down, bent over. It’s here we let it all go and walk freely and joyfully into the glory of the season.