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Christmas form letters…

December 3, 2007


If you are praised, be silent. If you are scolded, be silent. If you incur losses, be silent. If you receive profit, be silent. If you are satiated, be silent. If you are hungry, also be silent. And do not be afraid that there will be no fruit when all dies down; there will be! Not everything will die down. Energy will appear; and what energy!

St. Feofil, the Fool for Christ

The way of humility is this: self-control, prayer, and thinking yourself inferior to all creatures.

Abba Tithoes 

And that’s the news from Lake Wobegon:  where all the women are strong, the men are good-looking and the children are above average.

Garrison Keillor

Well it’s that time of the year again. Time for the annual ingathering of Christmas form letters. I must confess, even though it is nice to be remembered by friends and family, I sometimes open them with a twinge of dread.  Perhaps that is why our household has not produced a year-end missive in over ten years.  Heather and I joke sometimes that we ought to put out a letter with a healthy dose of realism–one that doesn’t cut out the rough edges of life.

Occasionally I get a squeamish feeling in my stomach as I read.  A feeling not unlike the one I got the time we went to that free weekend get away in Williamsburg, Virginia. You know the one I’m talking about—the one where if you listen to a presentation about time-share vacation packages, you get two free nights in a hotel and a buffet meal on Saturday night. The one where the promised one-hour no-pressure sales pitch turns into 2 hours of being run through an obstacle course of shiny pamphlets, flat screen televisions, and model condo.

The one where you come away with a dirty, cheap feeling that comes with consuming a junk food binge of “good life propaganda.” The good life we are supposed to want for ourselves, the good life our kids need to be happy and healthy—ski resorts, plush golf courses, pristine beaches, Disneyworld. I think the salesperson was shocked when we said we really didn’t have any plans to take our kids to Disneyworld. What?! How could we deprive our kids like that?! O the guilt, the shame of being such killjoy parents.

Alas, I digress. The point is that the image of “the good life” presented in that sales pitch is sometimes evoked by the form-letter genre. The month-by-month recounting of life lifts out the exotic trip, the family vacation; the successes in school, work and sports; all benchmarks of achievement and growth and living the blessed good life. For Christians, this summary is usually framed with language that attributes and gives thanks for these many blessings to God. The letter is usually accompanied by the requisite happy picture with everyone in coordinated wardrobe with complementary colors framed in the holiday trimmings. stainedglassnativity.jpg

I have been trying to analyze what it is in all of this that rubs me the wrong way. I am coming to the conclusion that there are several things which contribute to the potential weakness of the form-letter genre–and thus, my distaste.

My first observation is that the genre, like portrait that is usually stuck inside, is posed. It is a contrived shot to show something good, but it is not the whole picture.  In many ways it is not real.  It’s not like there is no value in the genre. The form letter genre lends itself to stepping out of the fray of chaotic, uncontrollable life. It is an attempt to connect the unpredictable twists and turns of our experience, our stories, with some larger script. It is a way to connect our lives with our community. It is in the telling of stories in community that life has meaning.

As Christians, that larger script through which we attempt to make sense of our lives is God’s story. If we are honest, there are ways in which other scripts also influence the way we tell and interpret our stories—cultural and secular narratives. Sometimes these overarching scripts bleed together without our awareness and we interpret our stories from a blended script that draws from both Kingdom values and cultural values. Perhaps that is where my discomfort lies—from the way we tell our stories under the umbrella of God’s script, but drawing from the Empire script to categorize and quantify the blessing of God.

Any attempt to tell our stories honestly is fraught with perils. We don’t always see how the dots connect. We aren’t always able to see how God is present in various pieces of our stories. Yet we trust that God is present—there is mystery, communion, and hope even in the chaotic process of life, of becoming. Sometimes we walk in light, sometimes in darkness. Fractal grace is the reality of our lives.

It is at this point where I find another source of discomfort in the way we tell our stories in the typical form-letter. We often underplay the ambiguity of life and oversell our sense of how certain dots connect nicely and neatly as we interpret our story through God’s story. I get the sense some times that the dots connect in such a way that correlates almost directly (almost mechanistically) with God’s story. I am uncomfortable with this telling of our stories. It’s okay if we don’t spill the beans on all our problems in the Christmas form letter—but let’s not pretend there is no ambiguity in our lives. I believe that the telling of our stories will have more integrity when we chose to disclose the both/and of our journey—that we are sinners and saints, that we are wounded and being healed…. Perhaps this point is well illustrated by the story of what is happening at Oral Roberts University these days. ist2_2560181_retro_family_christmas.jpg

My point is this. If our stories are going resonate and in fact not alienate others, they must go beyond the artificial staged poses. They must be told with a sensitivity to others and with an honesty that embraces the points of ambiguity in our journey.

The principal at the high school where I teach demonstrated this type of awareness in an email she sent out to the faculty recently regarding the holiday season that is upon us:

I remind everyone that the next several weeks, for many, are not the happy days depicted on the TV ads created to heighten consumerism. For some, the holidays and the idyllic advertisement scenes unearth the deep pain of lost loved ones, heighten the feelings of loneliness, and emphasize the reality of personal poverty. While some may speak of purchases, and the TV news is filled with frenzied shopping scenes, trips and gifts, others will have no gifts and will spend the holiday in poorly heated homes, or shelters. To such individuals, life can appear especially unjust during this time of year. This is also a very difficult time for families who have fathers/mothers/children serving in the armed forces, especially those in war-torn areas.

What an amazing awareness of others! What a global perspective. If an educator in a public school setting can demonstrate this level of sensitivity to the dissonant experiences of life during this season against the backdrop of the cultural holiday script, how much more should we as followers of Jesus embrace this posture? What if we as followers of Jesus, would tell our stories of blessing with this same kind of sensitivity to others? How would it impact the way we talk about God’s blessing in our lives?

Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head, and he fell to the ground and worshiped. He said,
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
And naked I shall return there
The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away.
Blessed be the name of the LORD.”

Job 1:20-21

What would it be like to read a Christmas form letter that represents this kind of honest disclosure and sensitivity to others? What if a form letter included the following excerpts along with the typical points of celebration?

January: Struggled with the winter blahs. It has been difficult to see where God is in the midst of my depression.

March: We have been going through a tough stretch in our marriage lately. It seems like the stress of work compounded by the grief of losing both of my parents in a tragic accident has complicated life. We find ourselves on an emotional roller coaster. We seem to fight over the smallest things.

September: Johnny has been struggling a bit this year in school. He is not keeping up with his class in reading. When we met with his teacher, she also talked about some behavior issues. We are concerned about some of the friends our oldest daughter is hanging out with. Whenever we bring this touchy subject up, there is an explosion. Parenting is such a challenge. We sometimes wonder how other families seem to have their act together—no problems. Things seem to be so easy for them.

And then I wonder if we can somehow place our stories within a broader world that is broken and hurting. Interpreting our stories through God’s story requires us to see the full scope of God’s redemptive purposes in the world. The blessing of God, the faithfulness of God is not centered in our little stories.

We are grateful for the job promotion, the new house, the achievements of our children, but we are also aware of the brokenness of the world. The world where not every stocking is filled, where quaint ornaments are not hung on a picture-perfect tree. The fatherless, the motherless, those in prison, those who are hungry, those who live with fear of violence, those who have been abandoned by caregivers, those who have been betrayed and used, those who are exploited…those who have been dealt a very different hand than our own. How do we tell our stories of God’s blessing and provision with these neighbors in view? 

We look for, name and celebrate God’s blessing and faithfulness in our stories, but we also yearn for the healing of our world. Somehow I think that the sensitivity and awareness in my principal’s email should also be expressed as Christians share their stories. We share our stories as a part of the broader human story. When one part of the human family suffers, we all are affected.

So we attempt to tell our stories with an awareness of God’s love for the whole human family. We tell our stories of God’s blessing aware that to whom much is given, much will be required. May the words of St. Isaac the Syrian be instructive to us as we seek to tell our stories in ways that have integrity with the way of Jesus.

The man who follows Christ in solitary mourning is greater than he who praises Christ amid the congregation of men.

St. Isaac the Syrian

P.S.  If you read this post and were planning to send me a form-letter, go ahead and send it.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. beinganddoing permalink
    December 4, 2007 12:14 pm

    Amen and amen!

    Plus I hate writing these letters! Now I will need to negotiate with my wife and not write this year’s letter. That in itself might lend to some honest sharing about December.

    “Had a huge fight with the wife about writing this crazy old letter anyway.”

    Anyway I think you have captured a very important thought about how we share our lives together. It does go along with the way we sanitize the Christmas story.

    Think about it. At the very time we celebrate the reality that “God sent forth his son, born of a woman.” we act as if the stinky old barn was a Holiday Inn express. We see the holy family snug ans cozy in a barn (most likely a cave), and then we throw the magi and shepherds into the scene at the same time. Everyone is smiling and happy. And “…the little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.”

    Well stated Brian. Your thought resonate with me.



  2. December 4, 2007 4:59 pm

    You have a funny way about you — and a lot of nerve!

    But I’m laughing and agreeing :-)

  3. just an apprentice permalink
    December 4, 2007 9:41 pm

    OH are my friends going to hate me now!!

    Brian’s wife, Heather

  4. December 4, 2007 11:03 pm

    Was that actually HEATHER who wrote that comment??!!?? Oh please, Heather, tell us what you REALLY think! Don’t be bashful :-) You really should add your two cents more often!

    Actually, I stopped back to this post because I was thinking about it some more and thought it would be beneficial to play the devil’s advocate a bit.

    I want to say that doing Christmas letters and pictures and the whole bit is really a cultural thing. Maybe a middle class cultural thing, but people assimilate to their culture often through peer pressure. Isn’t peer pressure partly what encourages the practice. In addition to peer pressure, I really do enjoy all the updated pictures of friends to post on my door each year. And the form letters – yes, it is nice to recap the events of the year albeit mostly the good – once in a while mentioning the bad.

    And yes, we should allow our faith to critique our cultural practices, BUT recapping the good is a normal human coping mechanism. Most human personalities are wired to remember the good and forget the bad. It is not to say that we should not be honest, but our human tendency is to keep photo books of the good, the happy and significant events. We don’t usually keep pictures of our grumpy selves in our minds and books (unless it is a funny one of a cute grumpy baby). People who dwell on the bad all the time are not seen as realists but as critical people. I very much appreciate realists, people grounded and well aware of their own human suffering and that of those around them. I appreciate when they can articulate that pain and make room for the pain of others. But not adding it to Christmas letters doesn’t necessarily mean the person doesn’t acknowledge the pain, but rather, can we say, we can attest to that redemptive narrative? The one that means we can have joy and peace in the midst of our pain and suffering.

    So now there’s your argument. And you don’t have to send us a form letter this year. We certainly won’t send you one. I was going to say that if you get a family picture taken, we’ll take one of those — and your clothes don’t have to all match – we don’t mind. But I guess this year we all get family pictures in our directories – so there — you don’t even have to go to all that trouble! :-)

    May you have joy and peace as you live out the call of Christ as a family!

  5. just an apprentice permalink
    December 5, 2007 1:41 pm

    You are probably not the first person to think that I have a funny way about me. :)

    As far as having a lot of nerve, I suppose I do have some nerve to take on this subject in light of the great point you make about the middle class cultural thing. I am deeply embedded in that, and yet I still have the nerve to offer this somewhat critical view. I was critical more about the way we tell our stories of God’s blessing–the assumptions we make when we recount the ways God has blessed our lives in the last year. I was not suggesting that we should refrain from sharing our stories or even celebrating the good things in life for which we are grateful.

    As I was saying, I offer these observations and critical analysis recognizing that I am a part of that middle class narrative that draws me into its values. I lead a suburban lifestyle, I like a neatly decorated house at Christmas time, and I sometimes shop at Banana Republic. So even in some of my own choices, I fall short of the ways God may be calling to challenge the middle class script.

    I don’t mean to be a Scrooge, but I think sometimes we talk about the ways God has “blessed” us, and we don’t realize how much of the things we talk about are a result of God’s blessings, yes, but also our own choices as well as many systemic boons that we (or God) had nothing to do with. Like being white middle class. Being born into a fairly stable home with a mother and a father who modeled many positive values for me.

    I have had the opportunity to travel and see the world. This has afforded me many rich experiences of meeting people and learning to know other cultures. The fact that I have had the opportunity to do this does represent God’s blessings, but it also represents choices I have made. Not everyone has these opportunities. To simply think about opportunities to travel as from God, does not do justice to the other factors that come into play allowing me to travel. Not everyone has these opportunities. Does that mean they are not blessed of God. There are also social and economic (systemic) issues that factor in.

    I could talk about other “blessings” that represent choices we make–choices about lifestyle. God does provide for us, but we also make choices that involve managing our resources. We did a home improvement project this last year. We are pleased with it. I would acknowledge that our ability to do the project comes out of the way God has provided for us. But, we also are aware that the choices we make as to how we spend these resources reflects certain values and has a far-reaching impact in the world. We are blessed to be a blessing. So I want to be careful to talk about home improvement projects or other lifestyle choices as strictly coming from the hand of God. I believe God calls us to be stewards of all he gives us. So we cannot abdicate the responsibility we have to make sure that the decisions we make in this area are consistent with the values of the kingdom of God.

    I write not from a standpoint of looking down on others who are missing the mark. Rather, I am aware of the tension of living embedded in a cultural script as a middle class American that pulls me in ways that are not always consistent with the values of the Kingdom.

    As such, I want to be sensitive to the ways I sometimes live in captivity to the values of materialism, consumption, and entertainment. I am a part of that. I want to be aware of the ways talking about the “blessings” of God alienates others who have not had the same “blessings.”

    I trust that others will also feel this same tension. Perhaps it will even be expressed in the way we tell our stories through Christmas form letters. Perhaps.

  6. just an apprentice permalink
    December 5, 2007 1:45 pm

    P.S. I really do enjoy getting the pictures of friends and family each year. Perhaps it is cause I am a part of the middle class and share many things with them. I think it goes beyond that though. I think it reminds me and makes me appreciate the fact that I am not alone in this world. I am a part of community. And that is something for which I give thanks to God.

  7. Elsie Montgomery permalink
    January 6, 2011 5:00 pm

    I have an odd request. You used a picture of a stained glass nativity scene on your Dec. 3, 2007 blog. I have also used this picture but lost track of the original. Can you remember where you got it? If so, could you let me know?

    thanks, Elsie

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