Saturday, December 19, 2009

Celebrating Together

(Read Luke 1:39-45)

In last year’s December 1st issue of the New York magazine, the feature article was about loneliness. Perhaps the publishers of the magazine chose this topic because Christmas is not only considered the merriest time of the year, but also for many people, the loneliest. For those who live far away from the ones they love, for those who are mourning the death of a loved one, for those who are having trouble in their relationships or don’t have close relationships, Christmas can be a tremendously sad and lonesome time of the year.

The other night as I was listening to Christmas music, I paid close attention to the words of “Blue Christmas.” They go: I’ll have a blue Christmas without you, I’ll be so blue just thinking about you, decorations of red on a green Christmas tree won’t mean a thing if your not here with me.” Sadly, this sentiment conveys the painful reality of so many people during this supposedly festive season.

A dear friend called me the other night confirming the sorrow-filled condition of many. She lives away from her family in a small town with very few close friends and only a handful of meaningful acquaintances. While at a Christmas party last weekend, she was overcome by feelings of loneliness. Sure the party was filled with people, and she was never without someone to talk to, but the conversations were mostly devoid of substance, and the people, although physically close, seemed very far away.

Perhaps you have had a similar experience during the Christmas season or at some other time of the year. You’re in a room filled with people, and yet for some reason, you feel more alone than ever. Or you’re in a room with someone you love, but because he/she isnt’ being there for you or you are not seeing eye to eye, the lonliness you feel is worse than if you were just by yourself. Unfortunately, feelings of isolation, sadness and loneliness create a tragic aspect to Christmas.

The article in New York magazine explored the myths and reasons for loneliness. Many believe that people in cities are the most lonely because the people who live in cities tend to be transplants, living away from their hometowns, family and friends, and also because people living in cities are more likely to be single than married.

For example, in Manhattan, one in every two apartments is a single occupancy apartment. That’s 50%. 50% of the apartments in Manhattan house only one person. While I don’t know the percentage of people in this area who live alone, you can bet that the number is significantly lower. One would think then that Manhattan is one of the loneliest places to live, but it isn’t. According to the research of social scientists, Manhattan is actually one of the least lonely places to live.

The article offers several explanations for why this is so. One explanation is that city dwellers have to work collaboratively with so many people, and they have to trust so many people on a moment by moment basis just to survive. Think of trying to cross the street in NYC. You have to work with and trust literally hundreds of people every time you cross a street in NYC so that you don’t get run over. The significance of such a simple thing like relying on others to cross the street safely is actually quite large. Researchers have found that being a part of a social network, a network of people that depends on each other to get by, contributes to a person feeling less lonely. Instead of feeling isolated and alone, those in cities actually feel like they are a part of a group, like they are a part of something bigger than themselves, like they belong.

While a close and healthy marriage is the best way to avoid being lonely, it certainly is not the only way. Harvard epidemiologist Lisa Berkman says, “Friends substitute perfectly well for family” in combating loneliness. And here’s the statement in the article that I found most interesting. “There’s evidence to suggest that the religious people who live the longest are the ones who attend services most frequently rather than feel their beliefs most deeply.” That means that its being together, that its living in community that makes us happy and extends our lifespan. (Senior, Jennifer. New York. Dec. 1, 2008. pg. 28). We are in the midst of blessing, here, together.

In Luke chapter 1, the angel Gabriel is sent by God to tell Mary that she has been chosen to be the earthly mother of the Son of the Most High, whom she is to name Jesus. And do you know what she does immediately after she is told? She goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth and share with her the very important news she has just been given. She goes to be with and talk to someone she loves, and she stays there for three months.

Let me ask you this: Think of all the people you have bought or are going to buy presents for this Christmas. In the busyness of this month, have you spent any quality time with them? Have you talked to them on the phone or in person about what is really going on in their lives right now? Have you made time to watch a movie together or enjoy a nice dinner? More important than giving presents, have you given them love and connected with their spirit?

The wise and compassionate teacher, poet and Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, says, “To love means being there for your beloved, recognizing his/her presence as important. To be there, to be fully present, to appreciate the preciousness of your beloved, this is the practice of true love” (Thich Nhat Hanh. The Art of Power. New York: Harper One, 2007. Pg. 115).

He says that there are three declarations of love that we can make to those for whom we care. The first is, “Darling, you know, I am really here for you” (pg. 117). It’s that simple. When you don’t give your attention to a person, it’s impossible for that person to feel loved by you. Whereas just telling someone you are there for them will make them feel special, loved and cared for.

The second declaration of love is, “Darling, I know you are there and it makes me happy” (pg. 119). This is to recognize, to acknowledge the presence of the one you love. And the people that you love most deserve to be recognized and acknowledged. They should know that just them being alive fills your heart with happiness.

The third declaration of love is, “Darling, I know that you suffer. That’s why I am here for you” (pg. 120). You don’t have to fix their suffering. You just have to be there for your loved ones in their suffering. That makes all the difference in the world right? When someone is there for you in your sadness, worry and pain? “Darling, I know you suffer. I am here for you.”

Thay also teaches that you cannot truly be there for your beloved though until you have learned to be there for yourself. So I ask you: Are you present to yourself? Do you take care of yourself? Do you understand, accept and love yourself? Because if you don’t, it will be quite impossible to understand, accept and love another person. The first step of being able to love is loving yourself, and the second step is extending that love to others.

Elizabeth strikes me as someone who loves herself, and I think that because of how present she is and how loving she is towards Mary. Elizabeth is so excited when Mary comes to visit her. She exclaims, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy” (Luke 1:42-44). Elizabeth is truly acknowledging Mary and rejoicing with her.

My dear friends, we are blessed to have each other, to be the body of Christ together. And beyond that, each of us is blessed with family and friends whom we love. This holiday season, let us celebrate together with the ones that we love. And may each person know that you are truly there for them, that you are happy because of them, and that you will stay with them in suffering, as well as in celebration.

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