As we draw close to Christmas, I invite you to think about all the customs and traditions that are part of your Advent and Christmas celebrations. At our house, besides the outside lights, Christmas tree, and stockings hung by the chimney with care – we also have the tradition of a Christmas jigsaw puzzle. This year’s, the one in the photo, has 2,000 pieces! We usually finish it on New Year’s day, though I always threaten to play Grinch and hide the last piece.
Our churches often take holiday customs and traditions to the max. For example, there’s the tradition of singing particular hymns on certain Advent Sundays, always ending with Silent Night as the last hymn on Christmas Eve with the sanctuary lights out and each member holding a candle. (There was disappointment in one church I served when the fire marshal asked us to switch to battery-operated from the real thing.)
All the churches I’ve served have had some kind of children’s pageant during Advent, even if some of the roles had to be taken by adults, and many of them have a Sunday in Advent where the choir offers special music in lieu of a sermon. (As a pastor I always looked forward to those Sundays!). In one church it is a tradition that the holy family visit during Christmas Eve with the youngest baby born that year getting to be baby Jesus. (Sometimes the baby was actually a toddler or even a kindergartner.)
I’ve served churches that have mitten trees in the back of the sanctuary. The tree is decorated with mittens, scarves, and hats – Christmas presents for those who need them. At one of these churches, they have the custom of taking all the mitten tree donations up into the balcony where the church youth have gathered. Then an usher gives the signal, and the kids start hurling them down at the ushers below who hang them on the tree. For a little while, mittens are flying around the church like fastballs! If you’re looking for a way to have youth really get involved in worship, ask them to throw things at the ushers.
We need to change things up on occasion – both tenors and our one real soprano are sick; the baby Jesus just won’t fit into the crib – but the idea of tradition, of knowing what comes next and having things to look forward to, is important for us. This is true for us not only as church folk, but also as human beings who need a certain amount of predictability and structure in our lives.
For people living with mental illness, structure can be lost and life can become chaotic. Often they go from the very structured life of being on a mental health unit in a hospital – meds at 8:00, breakfast at 9:00, group at 10:00, etc., etc. – to almost no structure after discharge. This can be devastating, as a person is left with time on their hands and with no way to fill it. It’s hard to feel good about yourself, to feel you are valuable as a human being, when you don’t have anything to do. It’s hard even to get out of bed in the morning when you have nothing to look forward to that day or any day.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Churches that have a special heart for people living with mental illness, churches like our WISE congregations, can do much to give structure to folks who really need it. NAMI has programs that give people living with mental illness rewarding things to do and things to look forward to.
I’m active at Vail Place Uptown, a clubhouse in Minneapolis for people living with mental illness, one of 320 or so such clubhouses worldwide, which offers a daily structure of activities. This is our “work-ordered day” that provides activities, both work and play, to give its members a reason to get out of bed and come to the clubhouse. Some of these activities are one-offs, but many, like traditions at church, are repeated over and over, structuring life at the clubhouse
I encourage us all this season to think about all the ways customs and traditions shape and enrich, not only our holiday celebrations, but also our daily lives. Then say a prayer, make a promise and then do what we can to insure that those who have lost what once gave their lives structure and shape can find ways to meet these essential human needs.
Ordained in 1973, Bob Griggs has served UCC churches in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Minnesota. He is an Advisory Council member at Vail Place, a club house for people living with mental illness. He is also the author of A Pelican of the Wilderness: Depression, Psalms, Ministry, and Movies and Recovering from Depression: Forty-Nine Helps.