A Cruel Christmas Story
Updated: Dec 25, 2021
It is December 25, 2021, and I am writing to you from the parking lot of the Lutheran Church of the Master in Lakewood, Colorado along the route to what was meant to be a mountain retreat with friends. This was NOT where I was supposed to be on Christmas morning. Alas, here I sit – Aster, my dog, beside me – as we wait for Mike from AAA to tow my car to a closed mechanic shop. Don’t worry about us, even in the cold, calm of this Colorado parking lot, we are ok – help and friends are on the way, and I’ve already done one BIG cry, so we are good for the moment. After all, we have extra cuddle time and my favorite woolen, zebra print hiking boots are keeping my feet extra toasty. I figure with these essentials, we could last a week, if needed.
Fortunately, for all of us (cheekiness implied) this delay allows me a moment of reflection in yet another week of ministry and life. LIFE IS HARD, MINISTRY IS WORSE! Just this week, I have witnessed several complicated deaths in my role as Chaplain – mostly due to COVID and the politics swirling around that mess; attempted to address some complex relational dynamics with friends and family; endured hostility (mostly online) concerning my theology and social beliefs in the wake of brief Netflix fame; then, you know, laundry. My car breaking down was just the tip of the spear to an Advent that has felt less than Christmas-y.
I find myself reflecting on the work of Viktor Frankl. For those who are unaware, Frankl was a Holocaust Survivor who later founded a concept of psychotherapy dedicated to the principle that a person’s search for meaning was the ultimate motivation to discovering health and healing. He was a charismatic speaker and author, who lived a full life beyond the science, philosophy, and medicine to which he contributed greatly. The zenith of his popularity paralleled my birth, and his influence is seen in psychology and spiritual practices in many areas of human service. Frankl classically told stories of his work by citing personal case studies of people lost in despair whom he was able to treat by helping them envision the meaning of what they were experiencing, and the meaning of life still left to be lived. I have no doubt that being the survivor and person that he was that this message was paramount because his life’s duty was to keep living in the wake of such horror, while leaning into such promise.
I think that my mind is reflecting on Frankl, because I find myself asking the question, “Is our/my search for meaning in the world what really matters?” Yes, an existential question to be sure, but one that I believe holds importance in this season. It is easy to clarify that meaning is important when considering the Holocaust, for example, because such devastation and unfathomable, corporate grief leaves us no other option, but to believe that something else must be waiting for humanity to claim. We can’t explain it, so we must find a way to survive it. Yet, this same dynamic pales in comparison when we hone it to the experience of the individual, even though what happens to one person – say something tragic, like cancer – is still deeply felt devastation, but it’s meaning not as obvious. And then, of course, there is the search for meaning in the mundane, maybe, felt in my list of Advent grievances. Is meaning the discovery left to be uncovered when combating an internet troll or putting away one’s socks? Since we live in a time and culture that worships individualism, my questions and thinking are complicated, but I am complicated, so I digress.
An incident related to my question about meaning happened just last night, after I shared a Christmas Eve message with those gathered that really resonated with my soul. Enter a bully of mine who knows the precise moment when to try and tear me down. I will leave them nameless in this post, because of the shame of their behavior, but sufficed it to say, they should know better. Yet, the trauma that they have allowed to fester in their soul for so many years blinds them to the “un-Christian-ness” of their choices. This is the nature of both internalized homophobia and religious trauma, an inability to recognize that one’s personal pain is spewing toxically out onto others, followed by the traumatized person’s confusion as to why no healthy person seeks relationship with them. Honestly, I feel so sad for my bully, what must they have endured to make them so callous. How lonely and desperate it must feel to hold pain and hurt that no one else can really see, yet makes one so hateful?
I see no meaning in cruelty, which was this person’s aim – to be heard, while simultaneously trying to destroy others’ happiness. What this person ignored was that this was the best Christmas attendance we had shared in many years with many people able to shine a light and celebrate together with the hope of more Christmas joy on the horizon. But their pain was the only thing that they could see, and joy only reminded them of the pain itself, so all they could do was curse us – how tragically meaningless.
Meaninglessness makes me feel at odds, maybe a better word is lost. My personality is one that is devoted to promoting equilibrium and equity, it may seem ridiculous to some, but I believe everyone should and could rise together toward that for which we all hunger – love. Yet, when I run into bullies or cancer or historical moments of horror, I lose track of love, instead relying on my anger, resilience, or privilege to see me through until I can feel safe to move on. Where is the meaning in that? Moving on?
For that answer, I rely on that old mantra of which I am so fond, “LOST is a place.” In other words, when one feels lost the answer is not to focus on becoming unlost, rather letting the moment teach. This means sitting with the feeling of being lost and slowly uncovering new dimensions of self for one’s learning and character building. For example, patience or strength; bravery or gentleness; anything that allows the soul to deepen and the eyes to grow wiser.
Most people don’t take the time to be lost, instead latching onto the closest answer, even if it violates everything that they claim they believe. It is “an answer”, so it is good enough, just as long as one is not lost anymore. Some think of this as religion itself. I tend to think of it as immaturity, because one’s ability to mature is also linked to trauma – an area of my specialty – so I am willing to admit some bias here. I will say, however, that the number of people with whom I work on a regular basis who claim certainty yet lack maturity would astound you. I like to say, “I know 70+ year old people who are emotionally 17-, and 17-year-old people whose wisdom and maturity far exceed those living among us.”
The sad reality to this dilemma is that the system tends to follow this disparity in its design. Instead of challenging us, our systems of meaning making, such as church, tend to cave to the pressure of the immature, and offer options that don’t require anybody to grow, to try, or to change – all instances that require a period of “lostness” – because being lost and pursuing meaning are hard. Very hard. Which is why life and ministry are hard because they are so uncertain.
I am in the back seat of a car now. Chatting with friends about Christmases past. Opening gifts and decompressing from the stress - we are laughing even as I type. The big take away being, I don’t know what this all means. BUT, that is ok, because I have zebra print hiking boots, a sweet puppy, and, well, love. So even though I am lost, that is enough. I hope that it can be enough for you, too, especially on a day that asks us to pause to be with others or just with ourselves. May it give you peace to know that you are not alone. Until next time, Merry Christmas!
Pastor Ben Mann @queerpastorben (Instagram) is the Senior Pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of the Rockies where "Coming Out Colton" was filmed. THEY are also a Chaplain at UCHealth and the University of Colorado Hospital. Pastor Ben is a Presidential Scholar at Central Seminary where they are presently studying toward a degree in Clinical Counseling with a specialty in Trauma.