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Learning to Celebrate Without

Several years ago I read a great book that encouraged "learning to live without" certain things in order to make more room for God in one's life.  It was a fresh and accessible look at ancient spiritual disciplines like solitude and sabbath, reframing something like silence as learning to live without lying.  I engaged in every exercise and many became a lasting part of my daily life.  But, to be honest, at times of celebration a lot of these practices went right out the window.
 
Celebrating almost always included some kind of excess: expensive gifts, late nights, fancy dress, unhealthy foods, lavish parties, tons of guests, the list could go on and on.  For my youngest daughter's eighth birthday, I made a life-size fender guitar cake and hired a three-piece rock band to play a concert in our living room.  It was memorable, but how can you top that?  She jokes to this day that she peaked at eight years old!  There are also less glamorous examples of excess.  There was, for instance, the Thanksgiving that one brother tried to keep pace with another until they had consumed so much rum that he spent the night embracing the toilet bowl.

Excessive celebrating always has some kind of hangover: the mess to tidy, the dishes to wash, the bills to pay or the headache to nurse.  That glorious eighth birthday celebration is equally memorable because of deep wounds among extended family that took almost a decade to heal.  That 'one' Thanksgiving was not so unique in being unforgettable for all the wrong reasons.  Broken budgets, promises, and guidelines steal more joy from our celebrations than they give.  The hangovers of life are attempting to signal that it is all too much.

If you are like me, you try to heed the warnings, plan ahead for things to be different, and yet are still susceptible to being swept up by family expectations, shopping bargains, or just following the sparkle of the season unchecked.  Some of the difficulty is that our circumstances are always changing.  Kids grow up, jobs change, family moves away, or we are emotionally changed by grief or fear or awareness.  Some years I can barely bring myself to decorate and others I can't wait.  There are times our table feels full with just three or four of us and sometimes it seems hollow because of one empty chair.  The desire to fill the gaps with excess creeps in undetected until it is too late.

Enter 2020 and all the ways we are challenged to celebrate without: less travel, less toilet paper, smaller budgets, smaller family gatherings, etc. as the cases and regulations of COVID-19 grow.  I imagine the negotiations in our family are similar to yours, calculating the risks of travel, of including aging parents, and of curtailing traditions with dear friends.  In addition, my husband is celebrating this season sober for the first time in (at least) a decade as he adds up his days of sobriety now over 100.  As anyone familiar with recovery will tell you, the real difficulty in celebrating without is confronting the reality of being present.

Being present in this moment means facing the consequences of living through a pandemic, in a country fraught by political and civil unrest, where security seems somewhat illusive and we are becoming so tired of it all.  It means not using pie or whisky or sparkle or travel or gift-giving or movies or even loved ones to soothe the ache.  Being present means allowing ourselves to feel: to be sad or angry about the state of our world, disappointed or melancholy about our circumstances, bummed out (or secretly pleased--or both) not to gather with extended family.  

The silver lining is that when we are present to these difficult feelings, we open ourselves to also be present to joy, delight, gratitude, relief, peace, and other positive emotions.  Being present means we can enjoy simple pleasures like the warmth of sunlight, a belly laugh at our own silliness, or savoring that first sip of coffee.  For those of faith, it also means acknowledging God as our protector, provider, security, and ruler.  We can relax into his peace, find purpose in his commands, and remain hopeful in his promises in the midst of changing circumstances.  

In this advent season, being present also means pressing beyond "Santa Baby" and toward the Christ child, beyond excess toward humility.  What if living without all the trimmings made room for living with more of Jesus?  It seems to be the point of that book I read all those years ago, but sinking in more deeply this season.  Without the drama of big parties, but present to the drama of angels and shepherds and magi witnessing the birth of our savior.  Without the foods and beverages and gifts glamorized in commercials, but present to the glamor of a young family fully devoted to God.  Without dulling my senses, but present to the sense of his very presence in my heart and home.  That is learning to celebrate without.

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