by Kathy McGowan, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Staff
My Christmas tree is up and decorated. The trimming of the tree has always been a part of my culture. I grew up in the Midwest in a house with high ceilings and expansive rooms, so we always had a very big tree. Another tradition started with my relationship with my husband: putting the tree up on Thanksgiving weekend. He traveled a great deal in December for work and we also traveled back to the Midwest to visit both of our families, so if we wanted to be able to enjoy the tree, we needed to put it up early. We would put it up on Friday, let the branches fall out, then, on Saturday, put the lights on in anticipation of a few guests joining us that evening for the “trimming.”
Revisiting this tradition every year reminds me how much of the tradition stays the same, and how much I have changed. Our ceilings are lower, our rooms are smaller, and the kids are no longer here to add their touch, but we still get the largest one we can, and it still goes up on the holiday weekend.
The beauty of the ornaments and the overall effect of the tree used to be so important to me. Now, what resonates is the story that my tree tells. The new ornaments I added this year are from the new places I have visited this fall: The Blue Ridge Parkway and the Biltmore Estate in Asheville. In addition to these two, the ornaments that took the front spot this year are the ones that represent the people of my life. They were given to us or placed on the tree at one of our tree trimming parties. I relive memories from the past with every one I hang.
I think it appropriate that these are at the center of the tree, as relationships are at the center of this faith that I love so dearly. While it is true that this time of year evokes a flood of memories of the past, it is only the present that is truly before us. For now is the time that needs our attention.
It is easy to say that relationships are important to us, but they need tending. I need to pay attention and give care to my current relationships in order for them to thrive. This is often not easy to do, as they take time, and I must often put my own desires aside in order to be truly present to others. One of the biggest gifts we can give to one another is listening. We so often listen with only half our attention as we are thinking about what our response will be…so, therefore, we are only partially listening.
Lynne Baab, author of “The Power of Listening” says that “healthy congregations are comprised of people who listen well.” I could not agree more. This care toward listening shows up in all sorts of places from one-with-one conversations and committee meetings to larger conversations. A congregation that understands the value of listening will invest dearly in “the process.” A good process for discernment and exploration is critical to navigating change.
I believe that if we can listen deeply with open hearts and minds, we have a good chance of making the world a better place. In order to do that, we have to be willing to have our hearts and minds changed. Some of us took so long to figure out what we believe that it is a scary prospect to be willing to give up some of those beliefs. But how else can we be in deep relationship with those who are different than us?
Our world is quickly becoming smaller and more diverse. In the Information Age, we can be in relationships all around the globe. We need to adapt to this constantly changing world. I cannot write here without acknowledging the pain of our sisters, brothers, and cousins across this nation in the wake of the turmoil in Ferguson, Missouri. What will it take for us as a nation to truly listen to one another? How can we let our assumptions be questioned without becoming defensive? Can we risk being wrong? Can we let ourselves be vulnerable in order to learn how to appreciate each other? Can we let go of what makes us comfortable in order for us all to benefit? Are we willing to sacrifice something of ourselves so that others may live a life in more humane conditions? Can we ask our best selves to come forward to live into this faith where we put relationships at the center, even if there are no guarantees what the future will look like?
We humans long for deep connection. We must tend to these connections. The tree in my living room is smaller than the trees of the past but it represents my journey from my past to my present. I do not know what the future will bring, but I will hold onto my my values, my relationships, my truth, if you will. I will hold on loosely, for I will have to let go of some things, and make room for others. That is the complexity of this wondrous life.
I wish you all blessings during this time of memories and hope.