29 December 2018

Gifting Burdens

As regular readers know, I'm not a regular church go-er even though I have significant connections to it.

Mom used to tell me that I was the reason she got back into the church (a path that lead to national leadership and eventual ordination). I was closing in on my second birthday and she felt the need to get me baptized (or 'done' as her priest-friend said). 

Through her I was active in church through my teens. I attended church every Sunday, was the first girl to be an acolyte in my church. I was active in our youth group, went to diocesan convention as a youth delegate (and had one of my resolutions adopted), was a counselor at church camp and then took all of those good habits and off with me to college. I found a church and went regularly (though no longer every week as transportation was an issue). My husband was baptized and confirmed at that church and we married there.

Then we moved to Texas and had a very mixed bag experience at the church we attended there. We met some great people who were friendly and welcoming but it was also the church where the priest stood up and gave a sermonabout AIDS being god's punishment to gay people. I met with him that week to tell him I how incredibly hurtful his sermon was. 

Looking back on it that was the beginning of the end of my having a regular church home. It was another 10-15 years before I came to terms with the fact that weekly church attendance and all the attendant relationships just weren't for me.  I would come away from every service feeling like a burden to 'do more' and 'be more' was being piled on me.

I have had similar feelings since my mom died. I have been surprisingly okay since her death. She and I had a good relationship, I was able to help and support her (and dad) in the way that she needed and in a way that gave her comfort, which in turn gave me comfort. I do miss her and have the occasional sneaker-wave of grief when I see something that reminds me of her, but I have successfully reframed those times as it being a good thing that I miss her and still wish I could share my life with her—because those feelings are a manifestation of my love for her.  As I've written elsewhere, she told me directly that she didn't want me to be spending my life pining for her, she wanted me to be fully present for the people who are currently in my life.

However, some folks project their own loss and grief onto me. They say things like: you must really miss your mom, or you must be devastated, or I miss her so much I can't imagine how you are coping.

Part of me understands that they are trying to be supportive and empathetic, but another part of me bristles at being told what I 'must be' feeling. Much like my experience being a weekly church go-er I am being burdened by the expectations of others. Or in this case, by their projection of their own feelings on to me.

Something to think about as we move into the new year (both church and secular) is what burdens we place on others because we aren't really taking care of our own needs.

Jesus says: "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest."

It can be easy to place burdens on those around us without realizing it. From telling people what they should feel, to how they should act, or what the 'right way' is-- it is frequently easier to project our feelings and needs onto another person than it is to confront our own feelings and needs and deal with them constructively.

While Jesus was not always an easy person to live with, he was consistent in three ways: he didn't ask more of his disciples that he, himself was willing to give, he understood that not everyone could follow in his exact path, and he welcomed the outcast and downtrodden to just be. He gave them much-needed permission to lay down their burdens—especially those imposed on them by the greater society. 

I personally don't believe there is only One Right Way of doing things, but I do believe that the story of Jesus shows us A Right Way and that way has love at its heart, not expectation and not projection, just Love.

Maybe as the New Year begins and the sun returns, we can learn to recognize when the gifts we try to give are really burdens in disguise and learn to let go of them loving ourselves and others in all our brokenness.


© 2018 Kristin Fontaine

15 December 2018


We are coming to the end of Week 2 of Advent and as I write this, I'm reflecting on spending this season without my mom.

My experience with Christmas has varied a great deal through my life. There were the early, childhood years where my focus was mostly on the gifts I would receive. However, Christmas also meant snow, the annual children's Christmas pageant, and refurbishing the giant papier-mâché nativity that belonged to the church. 

The nativity was about 1/3rdlife-size and included a camel. Each piece was made with shaped chicken-wire coated with papier-mâché and then painted. Every year all of the pieces would be moved from storage to the parish hall where they would be inspected for damage (there were always new holes to patch), repaired and then placed. I don't remember now if they were used in the sanctuary or set up in the parish hall, but they came out every year for several years in a row at least. I also don't remember how long this particular tradition went on. 

Looking back on it, the refurbishing of the communal nativity was both an early crafting experience and a way I connected with the story of the nativity. Part of cleaning and repairing the figures included talking about them and their part in the story to come. I still remember the smell of the aging paper, glue, and the paint used to cover new repairs.

Christmas was never the most joyful of holidays in my family.  As I grew up, met my husband, and formed my own family I created my own Advent and Christmas rituals. One thing that was constant through all of the change was contact with my mom. We would talk about setting up our nativity sets, her latest sermon, my plans for my daughters December birthday, what gifts to get the next generation as they came along, and anything else that caught our attention during the season. 

This year I am facing a change in that fundamental part of my life. Mom died back in April and even then, I wondered what the holiday season would be like without her. 

I don't have a full answer to that question as yet but so far, I'm at peace with my life. I spent a week with my Dad helping him get his house ready for my east-coast brother and family who will be spending Christmas with Dad. We got a tree and put lights on it and got the box of ornaments out so my nieces can decorate the tree when they arrive.  We put the lights out around the door and Dad made a lovely swag out of cedar branch's, holly, and a red bow he saves to re-use from year-to-year. 

Going through this process of re-examining and re-inventing a major family event reminded me of Mom's work around the Blue Christmas movement. Blue Christmas services are way to acknowledge the fact that Christmas can be a tough time for people, especially people who have lost or are losing loved ones, or who are facing other major stresses in their lives that make living into a "Merry Christmas" difficult-to-impossible.

Back in 2007 Mom wrote an essayabout Blue Christmas and how it can be used to help people find a way to be present during the Advent and Christmas seasons without feeling like they must be 'merry and bright' to fit in. The last thing people who are feeling sad, anxious, and overwhelmed at any time of the year need, is to feel isolated and like they are the only ones who are struggling. 

So, in memory of her, I encourage everyone to live into your messy, complicated lives. Don't worry about being perfect or trying to create a perfect experience. The cat will break the glass ornaments, no matter what you do and Christmas will still come into that brokenness.

You don't have to be merry for God's grace to surround and uplift you.

You don't have to be whole for Christ to come.