My Unitarian Universalist congregation rang in seven new members at an exuberant ritual following our annual Joy Service last weekend. This gives us one more reason to celebrate in a season already packed with celebration. It also gives me a chance reflect on our congregation’s many members and friends, and the variety of ways we experience our faith journeys this time of year.
The days grow shorter still. All around, twinkling lights frame homes and shops, even our own glittering sanctuary. Yes, December radiates holiday cheer, but not all of us feel warmed by the light. Some of us may instead feel the chill of absent loved ones, uncertain finances, national political turmoil and minute-by-minute news of mounting global crises. The festive glow surrounding us can make things even gloomier as it illuminates the distance between ourselves and the holiday spirit. And because our hearts already feel two sizes too small, we may just keep these troubles to ourselves.
One response to despair is to put together a plan of action. Like many UU churches, ours is a fertile place for such an approach. Our congregation moves forward some of the most critical work in our community and world. Indeed, on December 14th, the National Interfaith Clergy Witness takes place at the National Rifle Association headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia. This event emerged from our congregation’s dedicated presence at the NRA since the Sandy Hook shooting five years ago. Many of us will stand together mourning and in hope with national faith leaders as we call for moral clarity on gun policy.
Yes, the threats to our precious world press in from all sides. So much more complicated than any single issue, they loom, eclipsing what little light we find in taking positive steps. It’s at these moments we must remember the elements shared by every successful social movement, from India’s independence to Abolitionism to same-sex marriage. Yes, dynamic leaders map out plans for political and social change. They energize many thousands of people to carry out those plans. Yet all direct action also relies on a constellation of connections thrumming behind the scenes. Movements sustain themselves on the involvement of faith communities. On people building relationships both around the world and around the neighborhood. In the face of setbacks, violence, and the everyday obligations of life, movements sustain their slow and steady progress by both drawing on and nourishing these dense webs of relationships. By sharing songs. Making art. Inviting stories and sermons and places to gather together.
So many of us want to heal the world, yet we flourish neither individually nor collectively when we charge past the tender places and straight to action. Every aspiration must involve nourishing the spirit. Every movement needs people connecting with each other.
Our UU campus is one place where I see a kindling of these vital connections. At the Thanksgiving potluck held in our commons last month, I spoke with a guest who had never before set foot on our campus. Anticipating a lonely holiday, she poked around online for something to do until she found our website. As people approached to learn more about her and to answer her questions about the congregation, she thrummed with energy and her smile shone. It replenished my hope to see fellow congregants turning our place into hers, into a place that could welcome anyone who comes through the doors.
Some of us may not feel we have much left to give this time of year. But when we’re in a dark room, all that’s needed to fill it is one wick and one match. When we show up for at a service or online or other small group ministries, we are taking action. When we offer a hug or accept one, we are doing important work. This is true when we listen with a generous ear, when we sing or pray, when we simply carry ourselves into proximity with others.
Of course, we all know that holiday cheer doesn’t really live in votives, bells, and dreidels. Instead, we grow it in the welcome we offer our neighbors when they come seeking a place of hope and warmth. We channel the spirit of the season – the spirit of life – when we open up space in our own small circle of light and invite others into its warmth.
Image: Android Jones, Winter Solstice Sunrise