Broken or Whole – Now What?

a holiday sermon by the Reverend Paul Oakley
11:00 AM, Sunday December 23, 2018



Six years ago in Springfield, Illinois, I led the Abraham Lincoln Unitarian Universalist Congregation in a “Blue Christmas” service. We were trying it on to see how it worked in that setting. I don’t know who first started doing special services for people living with sadness and depression and loss specifically at this time of year. Google and Wikipedia are not helpful in establishing the timeline of when this became an identified practice, sometimes also labeled a “Longest Night” service. But in 1996 the United Church of Canada published a clergy supplement to their Whole People of God Sunday School curriculum that included a script for such a service. I know of a Presbyterian church in Louisville, Kentucky, that has been offering such a service since 1997. And it seemed that there was an increased offering of such services in a variety of Christian denominations and Unitarian Universalist congregations after the tenth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. When we offered the service in Springfield, it was understood by the city’s newspaper editors to be new enough or unusual enough practice that a reporter came to interview me, and the newspaper of record in the state capital published it as a front-page feature article about the service we had planned. Only one other local church offered a similar service that year in that city of 120,000.


Why did it take Christian and Unitarian Universalist congregations so long to acknowledge seasonal sadness, that special subset of human brokenness through local liturgies of the holiday season? A season that celebrates hearth and family and connectedness in sometimes extravagant and excessive ways.


In 1986, the year I came out as gay, my grandmother consulted with the elders of her church and decided that she should refuse to allow me or my older brother, who had come out the year before, to attend family holidays at her home. Christmas was already in the time of year when I had to deal with Seasonal Affective Disorder, a form of depression that relates directly to the decrease of natural light. After eight years of marriage, that relationship that had defined my life and self-worth was over. And over the next few years, the estrangements between me and other family members, including my daughters, grew. Walter and I responded to the holiday exclusion and the pain of broken family relationships by traveling at the holidays. The pain of disconnection took on special forms in foreign lands. I wrote a poem titled “Ghosts”[1] in reflection on one such Christmas in Córdoba, Spain:


We wandered through deserted streets,
jewelers and grocers all closed,
galvanized against rust and corruption
garage doors rolled shut across shop
fronts, padlocked to granite kerbstones.

Through the juderia, deserted as after
the Reconquista, Columbus on his way
to ignominy and a New World, Spain
for Christ spreading plague in one hemisphere,
forcing conversion, else dispossessing
Hispania’s oldest ethnic group, in the other.

A shudder runs down my spine. I tell myself
it’s chilly out. It’s Christmas Eve!
Why am I making excuses for someone else’s
ethnic cleansing? The chill of knowledge of
evil settled in my bones. My finger tips went
numb. Street after empty street, we looked
for someplace to step in to escape the chill.

At last, the only place open in the city
that holy eve, we step into a tiny bar, ask
for food, and all they have is bread, cheese,
sardines, and olives. The Romany barkeep’s
hands, stained by a lifetime of cigarette smoke
cut and slice and draw sherry
from the barrel. Our feast for this blessed
day. Outsiders in a bastion of history both
glorious and ignominious. A manger feast.

Later we join the queue at the locked portal
of the Grand Mezquita, one of the glories of
a tolerant Muslim world where Andalusia was
important as Baghdad. Elegant horseshoe arches
in a forest of columns made a mosque to rival
any other, expropriated from expelled rulers,
the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción,
vertical gothic towering over the lateral
mosque, plopped inelegantly at its center.

A little mist begins to spit through the chill,
the crowd waiting patiently in the night,
warmed by festive family dinners just left,
standing as if ignorant that their veins flow
with the blood of Moors, Romanies, Celts,
Visigoths, Jews, Carthaginians, Romans, every
side of every bloodbath, settled into the
denial couched as an affirmation, a creed,
a faith. Through this door, artifacts of
ancestor supplanting ancestor, as if…

As if identity, faith, were just one thing.


Probably some of you here this morning also approach the holidays with ambivalence and ambiguously, as complicated connections grab hold of you every thought or beat a slow and steady beat underneath every affect of joy. Or maybe your history is less mixed, bearing much more pain, with less mitigation. Is holiday cheer difficult for you at least part of the time? Is it any wonder, really? Brokenness and disconnection are woven into the fabric of our lives and our human history, and our public narratives of the holidays gloss over that pain. In the lyrics of satiric and social critical songwriter Jonathan Coulton:


Christmas is interesting
Like a knife in your heart
Christmas is interesting
How it tears you apart
Christmas is interesting
Like a stick in your eye
It’s so freaking interesting
That it might make you cry[2]


We do a lot to escape or disguise the negative “feels” that come to us in the dark of the year, whether through diving headfirst into the celebrations we aren’t really feeling or by pulling back into solitude and the relative safety of disengagement. And our theology sometimes aids us in our necessary escapism. Our first principle tells us of our inherent worth and dignity, that one of the promises of this religion called Unitarian Universalism is to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We know we are worthy, that we should be affirmed, that we should support the worthiness of those around us. And sometimes that principle serves as an affirmation to help us through the day or the season or the rest of our lives, because most of us feel our brokenness at least part of the day or part of the year. We celebrate our interdependence together with all existence, as our seventh principle encourages us, but often we do not feel very connected or that we can actually depend on others in our lives.


In the words of our prayer and affirmation this morning, writer Liz James wrote:


Mostly, we make do. That is the real story of Christmas. Making do with a barn and a family with some heavy paternity questions going on. Making do with a festival that gets kind of jerry-rigged to keep it alive and avoid persecution. Making do with refuse from the forest for decorations, and thinking about the sun coming back, and surrounding ourselves with sometimes-loved-ones-but-frankly-not-always.

The meaning of Christmas is not about being perfect. Every piece of the story, when you trace it back, is about the opposite of being perfect. It’s about something more beautiful, more profound, and decidedly less photogenic.[3]


Mostly we make do… Mostly we make do… Awareness of our brokenness can either lead to despair or it can lead to making art of the broken pieces, creating a sustaining practice from the challenges of our lives, declaring our enoughness even as we feel our insufficiency, making the world see our enoughness in affirmation through deepest doubt. Mary Oliver’s words in the poem “Wild Geese” walk us through ways through our pain and grief and practices to avoid:


You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things. [4]


Your place in the family of things. We, as a Unitarian Universalist congregation that is a member of our nation-wide, our world-wide association of congregations, have covenanted together with other congregations to affirm and promote the interdependence of all existence, of which we are a part. Our deep interdependence transcends our individual and collective brokenness. One part of the system of our reality adjusts in compensation for what is lacking or not working in another area. And if that adjustment depends on human choice and commitment, we have the power as individuals to influence the change that will make it happen.


Nineteenth-Century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker spoke eloquently about his belief that, while there was plenty he did not understand about the way the universe worked as a moral system, he had faith that the long arc of the moral universe bended toward justice. Martin Luther King Jr. borrowed Parker’s image and, through its use at the center of a movement aimed at changing our society for the better, creating more justice in our nation and the world, demonstrated what Unitarian Universalist ministers and lay people alike have been preaching ever since: that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice as a function of what we do in this life. We stand at this moment, engaged in a struggle for just policies around immigration and the treatment of the people with the greatest needs in our nation and the world, struggling against a shutdown of essential services, families in dire situations separated at the border, children held in detention camps, families and lone and lonely individuals feeling pain in this season and through the year. And so, we come to the end of this Christmas anthology of memory, theology, and poetry to declare what we might do with our brokenness and our enoughness together. Twentieth-Century author, philosopher, theologian, educator, and civil rights leader and key founder of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, the first racially integrated, intercultural church in the United States, Howard Thurman famously set an agenda for “The Work of Christmas,” the “now what” that brings our brokenness and our wholeness together in a meaningful making-do; his words:


When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.[5]


Amen and Blessed Be.



[1] Poem “Ghosts” © Copyright 2010 by Paul Kent Oakley






© Copyright 2018 by Rev. Paul Oakley