Pastoral care for the holiday blues, 2016

December 14th, 2016

Seasoned pastors know to be prepared this time of year to minister to the so-called “Holiday Blues” or “December Depression” — that ennui that occurs in many people who feel let down during Christmas. While others are celebrating the nativity full of joy to the world, Holiday Blues sufferers feel the pain of some recent loss or experience conflict in their families and find that the realities of the holiday don’t meet their expectations.

This year’s Christmas depression is aggravated by the current political climate. The birth of the Prince of Peace, the feast of the nativity and our yearly celebration of the incarnation signal that we are less than four weeks away from the inauguration of Donald Trump. The possibility that this Yuletide might not live up to my warm memories of Christmas produces less anxiety in me this year than my angst of having to endure Christmas dinner with a cousin who — in spite of the Donald’s misogyny, racism, xenophobia and crackpot tweets — voted for Trump and is glad to loudly tell you why.

Pastors, clear your calendars after the Christmas Eve lessons and carols; Epiphany will be a rough ride. Your people need you in their time of trial.

Inherent in the peculiar nature of Christian ministry is the paradox that the worst of times for God’s people can be the best of times for our pastoral care of God’s people. Could the onslaught of Trumpism be an opportunity for a redemption and reclamation of the church’s mission? A time for teaching and testimony?

I thought it ludicrous when someone responded to my recent Ministry Matters post (in which I may have criticized the president-elect for his philandering and lying) by reminding me that the Lord had worked through flawed and imperfect human beings before and might well be doing so again through the Donald. Talk about messed up biblical interpretation!

Then I remembered Isaiah 10. The guy’s inane comment made more sense. Yes! Just as God sent the Assyrians to punish and chastise Israel, so God is exercising wrath against America through Trump. It’s been ever so long since I had pondered Isaiah 10. Behold! The Donald has improved my Bible study.

In a time when the ascendency of Herod, I mean Donald, casts down the spirits of many, let’s offer pastoral care to our people by reminding them that Jesus Christ is Lord and all other presumed lordlets are not. God’s answer to what’s wrong with America is not government of the right or the left led by Donald or Hillary but Christ’s body in motion, demonstrating to the world the power of a people congregated not by their fears and hates but by the convening and commissioning of Christ.

I met a woman who hands a printed card to anyone she meets who might be an undocumented person. The card has her name, address and phone number on it. She says to them, “If anyone, anywhere, anytime, threatens you or someone you love with deportation or incarceration, you call me immediately. I’m not sure yet what I’m going to do, but Jesus has sent me to stand with you and to speak up for you. Don’t be afraid!”

Fear not! I bring you tidings of great joy. I predict that thousands of our churches and millions of United Methodists will rediscover the boldness and joy of discipleship in an otherwise fearful and depressing time. I know a church that baptized an immigrant family from Afghanistan. Just before the water was poured over their heads, the pastor said, “Church, if we baptize ’em then we’ve got to protect ’em. God calls us to offer more than initial hospitality; we’ve got to promise God long-term generosity and relationship with these who God has sent to us.” Some of the pastor’s people said for the first time they understood what baptism is all about.

If millions lose their health care, we must be there to take up the slack. If Trump’s picks for the EPA and the HHS do what they say they will do in attacking the creation and cutting social services, we have got to speak out and act up. If Trump’s militarized cabinet gets belligerent with American power, God has handed us a fresh mission, a time to bear witness.

A special object for our care will be those who will inevitably become disillusioned with Trump. Many voted for Trump thinking that he was an answer to their problems, a savior who could fix their uncertain future and secure them from their fears. He has promised to scrap universal health care and replace it with something better, to bring back millions of lost jobs, to rebuild infrastructure without raising taxes and so on. Of course, he will be unable to keep these promises, and his bumbling could damage the lives of millions of our most vulnerable citizens. What will become of the people who wrongly put their trust in Trump once it becomes clear that he can’t keep the promises he made?

Some of Israel’s most vibrant and deeply faithful prophetic testimony was offered precisely during Israel’s darkest days. Many of the prophets asserted God’s faithfulness during times when there was little evidence for hope or trust in the day’s headlines. Let their prophetic witness be our model as we minister to those in fear and pain, offering them faithfully nonanxious leadership in an anxious time. So, in your post-election, pre-inauguration, yuletide blues, lift up your hearts! We lift them up to the Lord. 

Will Willimon’s bold book Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love (Abingdon Press) is being used in hundreds of congregations to think like Christians about issues of xenophobia, hospitality and fear of others.

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