Competing Seasonal Stories

By Dr. Jackie L. Halstead

I like to think of the seasons in terms of the story they represent. Each season is a chapter in the story of the year. Winter is one of my favorite seasons. There is something peaceful about this chapter. It’s about living with established routines and settling into life. It’s a season of work, but even more, it’s a season of rest. Life is comfortable and predictable. We’re past the energy of the fall and have developed patterns. If we open the eyes of our heart to God while in this chapter, we follow the pattern of the season into a time of rest and listening. Almost a holding of one’s breath. Nature shows us how to rest as plants become dormant. Animals hibernate. Birds fly south. It says, “Rest from your frantic pace. Slow down. Wait.”

Unfortunately, this is not often the story we heed. Another more enticing story competes for our attention. What can I get? Our culture has become so materialistic. We know what we want and we want it now. In a year, we’ll move on to the next model. The reining emphasis of the season is consumerism. It begins months in advance of the holiday season and builds to a climax as Christmas approaches. It is with effort that we keep our eyes on the story of God–concentrated effort to participate in a story that emphasizes the characteristics of God and gives glory to him.

My husband and I made an attempt to embrace the story of God in this season when our daughters were young. We were tired of the greedy emphasis of the season and wanted to give the girls something different. We wanted the emphasis to be on giving rather than accumulation. So we decided to make homemade gifts for each other. We hoped this would foster a less egocentric focus as we put effort into the making of the gifts. Our efforts were rewarded as our family shifted to the thrill of the offering. The range of gifts made and expertise used was broad. We laid these alongside the gifts that were bought and there was a distinct difference. Of course we enjoyed all the gifts, but there was something special about the homemade gifts. I noticed that we held our breaths when the recipient was opening the gift we had made for them. We had spent time and energy thinking of the gifts. We had used our creativity and skill as we bought the materials and assembled the gift. Part of us was in that gift and we hoped that the recipient would like it. Most of the time we genuinely liked the gift and at other times we gave each other a lot of grace. One humorous experiment I attempted one year was to decorate a sweatshirt for my husband. I wasn’t confident about the outcome, but I thought I’d give it a shot. He was kind when he opened it and thanked me. Yet I noticed a few days later that he was wearing it inside out. I laughed when I saw this. It really was awful. I decided that my skill was not in the sweatshirt-decorating arena.

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At some point we dropped the tradition of homemade gifts. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it was the life stage of the girls or because we were traveling. Occasionally I find one of the Popsicle stick presents I received and it brings back sweet memories. Those were special times. We decided a couple of years ago to reinstate the tradition. It was wonderful. Our daughters are now college graduates in their twenties and it had been about ten years since we last made gifts. Some aspects of the tradition were the same and some were different. The similarity was in the spirit that surrounded both the making of the gifts and the giving. What fun it was to think, gather materials, and create. I loved both giving and receiving these gifts! We still held our breath as we watched each other open the gifts we had made. A difference I noted is that there was much more skill involved in the making of the gifts. We now had Pinterest to offer assistance. The tradition again was a delight for all of us!

The season also encourages the competing story that our family defines our value.  There is a great deal of family interaction that occurs around the holidays. Even the best families have conflict and there is nothing like family gatherings to light these fires. Families can love us best and can also cause us the most pain. We never outgrow the desire to be surrounded by a loving family during the holidays. We have an idyllic Norman Rockwell image of the serene family holiday. As a counselor of twenty-seven years, I have seen a lot of pain surrounding this season. I have walked alongside many who do not have a family that loves them. Holiday after holiday is filled with conflict and disappointment. There is a deep hope that maybe this year will be different, but the years pass with no change. Rather than being a joy-filled season, it becomes something that is dreaded and endured.

I recently had a client who was abandoned by her father when she was a baby. The holidays were particularly painful for her. This woman longed for a loving family. To anesthetize the pain, she made many poor life decisions. She wanted to forget, but she could not. When she came to me for counseling, she was ready to work through the pain and let it go. She was tired of allowing her absent father to define her. Much of her healing began when she realized that she could not eliminate this part of her story. For good or bad, this was part of who she was and in order to loosen its hold on her, she had to embrace it and walk through it. She began to see that the pain had shaped her in both bad and good ways. I knew her true healing had come when she one day realized that she could let go of this story of reconciling with this imperfect father and enter into the story of being loved by her heavenly parent. She wrote a letter to the dad who had abandoned her and we cried together as she let him go and leaned into God’s embrace.

This is what God wants for us this season. God invites us into a story of love. No one else, not even our loving families, can replace the unending love God has for us. God gave us God’s son as a gift. God was part of that gift and I know as a parent, God held God’s breath as we opened it. Would we cherish this gift? Would we like him? In reality, God knew how this gift would be received. God knew of the suffering and the pain that Jesus would receive at the hands of the world. God also knew that this was necessary to truly be available to us. God, the son, could only understand the pain and tragedy of this hurting world, if he joined us in its experience. He experienced the brokenness of the world with all its twisted values. He experienced the misunderstanding, maligning, betrayal and abuse at the hands of his own family and people. He understands.

And that is not the end of the story. Not only does Jesus understand our pain, but he showed us how to triumph over the pain and tragedy in this world. He is the victor! That is the story for us. We are invited into a story that was written before the world began. A kingdom story that is different from what is offered by the world. It is about peace, fulfillment, and joy that are beyond comprehension. It’s the gift that my client received as she entered into a new story. It is a gift from God. We do not give it to ourselves; we can only receive it. And God waits with baited breath. Will we cherish the gift God is giving?

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Jackie L. Halstead is the Director of Education, Programming and Connections at Scarritt Bennett Center. She holds certificates from two programs with the Shalem Institute–Spiritual Guidance and Leading Contemplative Prayer Groups and Retreats and is a member of the Lay Cistercians of Gethsemani Abbey. Jackie has a Ph.D. in Marriage and Family Therapy and specializes in working with clergy and their families. She is a professional speaker at the national and international level on topics of spiritual formation and mental health.