November 18, 2018
How did that happen? It’s Thanksgiving break! Despondent U’s already on vacation this week, so I’m writing today from my study at Revelation Memorial Chapel and I’m looking out into Viking Square onto an empty campus. The only one I can see from my window is the life-size bronze statue of our mascot, The Mighty Sasquatch who, as legend has it, is said to be a sophomore who went into the woods after forgetting to prepare for a philosophy final in existentialism, and he never came out! Some say he’s still out there, out there… wandering the forest, searching… searching for the meaning of life!
It’s quiet on campus. The repose is lovely. There is really nothing like being a pastor of a people who are gone! It’s really everything you thought it could be! I started my day by walking to campus in the early hour before the sun rose. I like walking in the early winter. It helps me ready myself – to prepare for the coming cold and prolonged stretches of lost light in winter. The key to winter is to have the right gear, however. I am a believer that there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear. So I say “gear up!” I see students walking around my campus with no jacket, no socks, in shorts, and I think to myself, “Where are their mothers!”
The key to gear is to make it Koselig. This is the Norwegian term for cozy – but to be cozy and warm you need cozy things! For example, what you need to begin is a soft scarf around the neck, that not only helps you stay warm, it feels good to the skin. You need quality gloves with flexible fingers! I like the gloves with the magnetic material that lets you use your smartphone when you wear them! I can’t abide when my fingers get cold! You need a good winter jacket. I’ve got this nice blue Patagonia that is light, but keeps out the cold! You need some warm boots, a good hat, and above all, socks – good socks – like a thin Smartwool that goes up right under the knee! #bestsocksever!
Over my ears, I’ve been wearing Bose noise-canceling headphones. I tell you what, this noise-canceling technology is a game changer! They are great for my morning walks to campus because they are both ear warmers and control of my sonic atmosphere all at the same time. I bought some earlier this fall as a kind of retail therapy after a hard day and they have been awesome! My counselor says that music helps my anxiety, and as the holiday season is around the corner, I need help with that: all I can get! I’ve got a playlist curated on Apple music. As I walk to work, I feel like I’m a character in my own private movie with the perfect soundtrack playing in the background for emotional effect. With the essential Mazzy Star, or Lykke Lee, or Sigur Rós playing in the background, I have a sonic scape that allows me to walk with a little swagger – with a little bump – with a little soul.
The walk is a good half-mile from my house to the campus. As a spiritual discipline, I am trying to slow down, be attentive, and pay attention to the gifts that this walk allows me. Flannery O’Connor once said that you can see the whole world from your front porch if you pay attention. I want to walk in such a way that I see my world as if for the first time. Like eating each bite slowly in a meal, it’s amazing what you notice if you simply pay attention. This morning I noticed the frost on the ground – white dew concentrated on each blade of grass. I noticed the soil is hard – and with each step I can feel the crunch of frozen leaves on the sidewalk! I pass piles and piles of raked leaves from homeowners who have swept them along the edge of the sidewalks, ready for the street sweepers to carry them away. I look up and stars are still visible even as the rays of light shoot up from the east, the sun stretching out like vast wings, and the clouds catch the alpenglow blaze and glow like embers in a fire. As I walk, I can feel a longing, a kind of ache to put that fire in my own soul. It feels like the world is in preparation for something or maybe someone. Maybe it is! Advent is coming!
I wish my soul felt that blaze. But, if I’m honest, it doesn’t. Can I make a confession to you Trygve? November is a hard month for me. Inside, I feel like a tree in November: tired, worn, stripped bare! My prayer life feels fatigued like a runner’s legs in the last 100 yards of a mile race. I am panting for the finished line that is in sight but it is still just out of reach!
The energy to be “up” for all the upcoming gatherings, all the shopping, all the house chores that need to get done for the holiday season arrives alludes me!
Maybe I feel this way because Thanksgiving snuck up on me this year. I’m still eating last month’s trick-or-treat candy and I’m not ready for the leftover turkey in Tupperware and the Cornucopia centerpiece displays! I’m not ready for black Friday, nor am I ready for the ubiquitous holiday music pumped through the speakers of every store in town. I’m not ready for the ugly sweater Christmas party, nor making a list, and checking it twice, of all the gifts needed to buy for my family and friends who have been naughty and who have been nice! I’m not ready for the Christmas cards and the extra calorie cookies infused with red and green sugar sprinkles on top that come on paper plates! I’m just not ready.
Maybe my November struggle is compounded by the reality that I am single and the holidays seem to magnify the sense of being alone? I don’t live near family and, if I’m honest, this can be hard during the holiday season. Sometimes I feel pressure to be more “on” than I am – to be “up” when in reality I just feel a little down.
So what is one to do? What do you do if you’re not ready for the holiday, and you’re tired and feeling a little more fatigued and displaced from family?
One of the things that I do is I remember my baptism! Meaning, that in Christ I have a family all around me! So I spend time with friends who, in Christ, are my people! Church is not a social club – it’s a new family. For Thanksgiving this year I am going to have dinner at a friend’s house. I don’t live near my family so I have to create family around me that God provides! In baptism we are immersed into God’s family and that family is a blessing. This is one of the great gifts of baptism.
This year, I’ll be spending Thanksgiving dinner with Allie who lost her husband Jon suddenly this fall, and with her two girls. It will be their first Thanksgiving without him. They need some new normal – so along with other friends, we are going to join her to help make a turkey, some mashed potatoes, proper gravy, sweet potatoes, stuffing, cranberries – the works! A tribe of us will surround Allie and her girls and we will feast – and we will remember Jon – and I imagine we will cry – and it will be good.
I’ll probably take the girls to see some movies with me. This is also what I try to do during the holidays! I know it’s not very “spiritual”, but I love going to the movies during the holidays! When I was a kid, my Dad would take me and my brother to the all the new releases over Thanksgiving break. It’s one of the traditions I’ve tried to keep up. So on Friday and Saturday – instead of shopping – I’m going to the theater to see the new releases. This year I am particularly excited to see Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, Robin Hood, Ralph Breaks The Internet, and Creed II. I have a soft spot for the underdog.
I like movies because they tell stories that get me out of myself. I love that feeling of being lost in a story and then walking outside of the theater – it feels like I’m still in the storyline. It’s cathartic. I suppose that is why our ancestors used to tell stories around the campfire!
One of my favorite things I like to do at Thanksgiving that helps with my spiritual malaise in November is to walk around and say thank you to people! In Philippians 4:6, the Apostle Paul writes, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, with prayer and supplication, and with thanksgiving, make your requests be made known to God!…” With thanksgiving! I think there is a direct correlation between our prayer life and our gratitude!
So one of my antidotes to this tired November feeling is to go out and tell people what I am thankful for about them as a kind of spiritual discipline. I go for a walk-about – around campus, around town – with my Koselig gear and I knock on doors or ring the bell, and when the door is answered, I say “Hello! Liz – I am thankful for you! I love the way you love your family! It inspires me! I just wanted to say thank you for being a great mom.”
I roll up to Alan who works the grounds on campus, and I say “Al… the campus looks amazing! Thank you. Thank you for the way you curate every detail of our campus so it’s beautiful to come to work everyday!”
I drop by Jeff, a young faculty member, working both ends at home and at work, and I say, “Thank you for being a great professor! I hear stories from students of how much you pour into your lectures and walk the extra mile for them. Thank you for making our campus special for each of your students!”
I see Ryan, a junior, who always shows up to help out whenever asked and never calls attention to himself. He’s just there ready to serve. And I say, “Ryan, I am proud of you! I am so thankful for you and who you are and the way you are a servant leader. And I see that you’re going to do amazing things in life.”
I stop in at Life’s Hard Café where the motto is “Life’s Hard… have a cup of coffee.” As I order a vanilla latte (my November comfort drink), Jill, the owner and barista, makes me a perfect tree in the steamed milk foam. She’s a caffeine artist. As she hands me my mug, I say, “Jill… thank you for curating pictures in my coffee! Thank you for making my world a little more beautiful with something as simple as a drink.”
When I am intentional about saying thank you to those around me – like a good story – I get outside of myself, outside of my fatigue, outside of my feelings – and as a result, I feel better. And they feel better. Maybe being preoccupied with yourself is not the best way to live? And I think to myself maybe Paul is right. Pray “with thanksgiving!”
My thanksgiving walk-abouts are a kind of a communal version of going around the Thanksgiving table and saying what you are most grateful for. The key, I think, is to make your thanksgiving specific and personal. I just believe we don’t tell each other – in our out-loud voices – what we feel in our hearts about what we are truly appreciative about each other! I wonder how Despondent University would be different: what wounds would heal, what new possibilities might grow if we used our words to bless instead of curse, if we used our voices to encourage rather than to express fault. I wonder if we spoke pure and generous words of gratitude, whether we might feel less like a worn tree in November and more like a dressed up evergreen at Christmas with blingy lights and tinsel and a star on top! I think if everyone did a thanksgiving walk-about once a month, we would truly experience more life together, feel a little more love on campus, and a lot more hope. Giving thanks is like wearing noise-canceling headphones that eliminates all the loud cacophony of despair circling in the soul!
When I walk about Thanksgiving, I feel more connected to others, to my place, to myself. It forces me to look for the good – for the beautiful – in others. And you know what? When I look for it, I see it! The opposite is also true, of course. If you look for fault, the more often you will find it in others and in yourself. But if you look for what is good, if you take a moment to share it with them – though they may feel a little uncomfortable – it is a kind of free gift that allows us to know that we are loved and that we belong to each other. So try it today, Trygve. Go out for a walk-about. Try it and see if you don’t just experience a little more joy.
So though I am tired, I’m walking with music of gratitude in my soul that is freely shared! This world we walk has many gifts, so slow down and see it all, and share what you are thankful for! I hope you experience all the best gratitude has to offer this holiday season. I hope your table is filled with friends and food – that your November fatigue is replaced with the festival of grace!
So happy Thanksgiving, my friend! Give my love to Hope College. Give my love to Kristen and to Trygve and to Ella! I hope to see you soon! Until then, keep loving your place, and your people, and keep close the Word that lights up the world!