IVP - Strangely Dim - I Can See My Breath

December 18, 2007

I Can See My Breath

You'll forgive me, I hope, for not resting merry this Christmas. Frankly, this year's Christmas season has been the most stressful one I can remember. Granted, I have a bad memory, but I also have a shockingly great number of Christmases under my burgeoning belt.

This Christmas I don't have a Christmas tree, either inside or outside the house. Last year we had both: shortly after Thanksgiving we hacked down a tree to stick in our living room, and my neighbors got the cockamamie idea that everyone should prop up and decorate a tree in their front yard. My outdoor tree fell over three or four times a day, so this year I opted out of the opt-in neighborhood tradition. The spartan decor inside our house, on the other hand, was not entirely up to us. We're in the middle of a garage rebuilding gone horribly wrong, and our contractor's offer to put the contents of our garage--complete with every weapon in our Christmas decorating arsenal--in storage seemingly morphed into a hostage crisis with no ransom demands. We had no idea where, when, in what condition or even if we'll ever see our garagestuff again. And so, in the short term, no Christmas decorations for us.

Even if we had gotten a tree, we wouldn't have had any place to put it. As a result of a wood floor installation gone horribly wrong, we've been twice displaced from our living room, along with all our living room furniture. The tree would have simply gotten in the way. We caved and bought one of those tabletop neon Lite-Brite tree things that look like (but, despite the best efforts of our cats, don't taste like) real trees suffering a radioactive blast. But apart from that synthetic surrogate, no Christmas tree for us.

In short, this year all my traditions surrounding Christmas have been turned on their head. I'm off my game, I freely confess. My back hurts from moving all my furniture not once, not twice but three times. My voice hurts from the repeated phone calls to not one but two contractors. My wallet hand hurts from all the debit card swipes and home improvement invoices. My head hurts from keeping all these projects moving forward without failing my responsibilities or alienating my relationships along the way. My heart hurts from all the resultant stress and from the aching suspicion that Christmas is a burden not worth bearing. Tis certainly not, to my mind, the season to be jolly.

I'm not a terribly sentimental person. I prefer to think of myself as revolutionary: I'm generally more inclined to complain about traditions as barriers to progress than to celebrate them as something significant. And yet this year I find that I'm missing the traditions that I've had to forgo--even those traditions that I've grumbled about in the past.

In the midst of all this tradition angst I came across a passage from Thomas Merton in his New Seeds of Contemplation. Merton has been an essential guide as I've worked on my forthcoming book Deliver Us from Me-Ville. And in this instance he's once again cut through the morass of my morosity and floated an idea I find positively illuminating:

There is only one living doctrine in Christianity. The whole truth of Christianity has been fully revealed: it has not yet been fully understood or fully lived. . . . The constant human tendency away from God and away from this living tradition can only be counteracted by a return to tradition, a renewal and a deepening of the one unchanging life that was infused into the Church at the beginning.

And yet this tradition must always be a revolution because by its very nature it denies the values and standards to which human passion is so powerfully attached. . . .This is the most complete revolution that has ever been preached; in fact, it is the only true revolution, because all the others demand the extermination of somebody else, but this one means the death of the man who, for all practical purposes, you have come to think of as your own self.

In the Christian faith, for Merton, revolution is to tradition what exhaling is to inhaling--a dynamic that is as essential to our lives as it is transforming. We are what we breathe in, but what we breathe in must also be breathed out or we will die. Tradition toxifies when it is infected with traditionalism: a sentimental fondness for sameness perhaps best characterized by the mass-market Christmas decorations available at a store near you. Merton compares it to barnacles on the hull of a ship: they're inevitable to any ship worth sailing, but you'd better have a plan for scraping them off.

Scraping off those barnacles, however, is its own burden. My tradition angst this season is perhaps better characterized as revolution fatigue--sour grapes at the effortless decorating of my friends and neighbors that's translated into a general cynicism about the holiday. Thinking of Christmas as solely an occasion for people to stores to move product and people to hoard more and more junk has left me in a perpetual state of grinchiness. Having no markers of my own to remind me of the sacredness of the holiday is wearing me down.

I'm tired of not thinking about the tradition of Christmas--not the decorations per se but their significance. Through the tradition of Christmas the Christian church remembers that God so loved the world that the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us.

What I'm discovering in this week before the holiday is that I need to catch my breath. I'm all exhaled out. Fortunately, through the witness of people like Merton, my family, my coworkers, my friends--and ultimately by the grace of God--I can see my breath this Christmas, and I'm reminded once again that I was made to breathe in and breathe out.

Merry Christmas from Strangely Dim. May you have a breathless--and breathful--holiday season.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at December 18, 2007 11:27 AM Bookmark and Share


Oh lighten up Dave! Remember one thing that is a trait of Christians is Joy! Jesus told parables, Angels brought tidings of great joy! Merton's cool and contemplation is important, but if you run out of joy you need to recharge your battery! Get your butt over to TCDC and enjoy some cartoons celebrating the Season!

Comment by: Rich Diesslin at December 19, 2007 5:07 PM

Point taken, Rich. Upon rereading this passage, I can't figure out exactly what I was trying to say. I guess I needed to vent. Having thus vented, let me simply wish everybody a merry Christmas!

Comment by: Dave at December 20, 2007 12:10 PM

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Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a reader and writer who likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky. She takes in all kinds of good ideas as a proofreader for InterVarsity Press.

Rebecca Larson is a writer/designer/creative type who has infiltrated IVP's web department, where she writes and edits online content. She enjoys a good pun and loves the smell of freshly printed books.

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs at The Rough Cut.

Likewise Books from InterVarsity Press explore a thoughtful, active faith lived out in real time in the midst of an emerging culture.

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