Thanksgiving officially inaugurates the holiday season. Towns and villages all over America are bedecked with lighted wreaths and an array of other beautiful holiday ornaments. Many communities engage in formal holiday tree lighting ceremonies, the lighting of the menorah and the setting up of the traditional crche. There is a spirit of celebration and good cheer in the air.
The holiday season seems to bring out the best in people everywhere. During this time of year, we hear countless heartwarming stories of people's extraordinary generosity. We also know this time of year can be very painful for countless people who are struggling with depression and a wide range of physical and emotional illnesses. It is also the time of year when people who have lost a loved one due to death, battle trying to find an inner peace.
It is also a time of year when many of us are pulled in a million directions. Sometimes, the running and racing causes us to forget the real meaning of the season. The media would like to convince us to spend money we don't have on things we don't need for people we can't stand - and we call it giving.
This time of year challenges us to slow down and really think about that which is most important in our lives. The holiday season provides us with an opportunity to take a personal inventory on what is important. If we don't get buried racing here and there, we really need to carve out some time for introspection and reflection. It can provide us with a rich opportunity to transform this time of year into a time of blessing for ourselves and others.
Unfortunately, we get so sidetracked that we run the risk of missing the really important opportunities before us. This time of year should not be about getting lost in all the materialism and narcissism around us. It should be a time for building and healing relationships.
Take a moment and think of all the relationships in your life. Over the last year, think of those important relationships that have been broken, fragmented and/or wounded because of misunderstanding, selfishness or indifference. This time of year is a wonderful time for reconciliation and transformation.
However, facing the broken and wounded relationships in our lives takes a lot of courage, energy and openness. Sometimes it's easier to sidestep those relationships or maybe even pretend they don't exist. It's easy to make five million excuses for why we don't have the time to deal with these complex human dynamics.
So many families who are blessed materially, struggle with the things that are so much more important than money, power and prestige. Some families live together in the same house and rarely speak to each other. They're like a group of anonymous strangers that quietly pass in the night.
This time of year is an opportunity to break the silence, swallow one's pride and mend the fences in one's life. It's a time for building bridges and not walls. It's a time for reaching out and not shutting down. It's a time for risk-taking, even if it's uncomfortable.
Instead of buying gifts for everyone in your circle of life, take some time to think about how they have enriched your life. Instead of wrapping your affection in a box or enfleshing it in a gift card, take your priceless gift of time and write a holiday card that is filled with your heartfelt sentiments for the person you care about. That is probably among the greatest gifts you could give a loved one during this time of year.
Maybe use this time of year to make a phone call to someone you haven't spoken to in a long time, wish them the peace and joy of the season and expect nothing in return. Even though we are all very busy, consider volunteering for Charlie Russo's Christmas Magic or the human outreach program of your local church or synagogue. Maybe volunteer to cook a meal at a shelter or community residence program.
Most of our churches have giving trees and outreach programs to feed and support those in need during this time of year. Consider volunteering and using your gifts and talents to assist in those efforts.
Do not let the chaos of this time of year blind you to what is most important. Sometimes the simplest things - a simple handshake, a held door, a smile or a kind word, make all the difference. These simple gestures can touch people in unimaginable ways.
A couple of Christmases ago, I was talking to an elderly man who was weather beaten by the elements. Jack had lived for years in the woods along the tracks between Port Jefferson and Stony Brook. In the winter months, to keep warm, he made a makeshift house out of old cardboard boxes.
On a cold afternoon, right before Christmas, a local teenage boy was taking a shortcut through the woods and discovered Jack's makeshift home. Jack was standing over an old bucket that was filled with kindling wood. The kindling wood was lit. Jack was warming his hands. The teenager stopped and asked if there was anything he could get him.
Jack was taken back by his kindness and said, "Yes, I would love a blanket if you had one to spare." The teenager said he would be back. The old man shook his head, not believing the young man would return.
A few hours later to Jack's surprise, the teenager returned with a few blankets, a pillow and some snacks for the man to munch on. That afternoon, on that cold wintry day before Christmas, a friendship was born. The two of them began to connect on a regular basis.
After the teenager felt secure with his elderly friend, he asked Jack why he was living in the woods and where his family was. Jack responded by saying he had a family. He was living in the woods because he lost his home. He could not afford to rent a room anywhere. He also admitted that he was too proud to ask for help.
After hearing that, the teenager told his new friend about a place that could help him get back on his feet without compromising his dignity. The boy offered to take Jack and show him the place that might be of some help.
On the night before Christmas Eve, a young teenager helped an elderly man who had nothing more than a few bags, pack his things up and fold his box house. He walked Jack out of the woods to a place that would ultimately lead him to a home where he could spend the last chapter of his life with dignity and inner peace. I met Jack that Christmas Eve at our annual candlelight Christmas Eve service at Pax Christi. After the service was completed, he asked if he could speak with me. We went into a small conference room and Jack shared his story. He wanted me to know how grateful he was for the gift he was given this Christmas of being allowed to stay as our guest at our hospitality center. He told me the staff assured him that after the first of the year, he would have a place to live.
His eyes started to fill with tears. He said it was the first time in twenty years that he would be spending Christmas in a place where he felt loved and respected. However, the most important part of his story was about the teenager who made him feel like a somebody. He felt badly that he never got to know the teenage boy's name, but he said he would never forget the warmth of his eyes and the power of his smile. He said that teenager's kindness and compassion was the greatest gift he had ever received. I thanked Jack for sharing his story, especially for sharing about the young man who had made such a difference in his life.
In the beginning of January that year, Jack left our hospitality center and moved into his own place. He was so grateful for the opportunity and assured us that he would never forget our kindness or that of the teenage boy who reached out to him on a cold winter day as he was cutting through the woods to go home.
I saw Jack a few more times before he died that spring. Each time I saw him, he overflowed with happiness. He would always ask me if I ever saw that teenage boy who made such a difference in his life. I told him no, but I assured him that I did pray for him because of his kindness.
Jack was buried with great dignity that spring, all because of the simple kindness of a teenage boy. I never met the young man who walked Jack to Pax Christi that winter day. I do think of them often. The young man's simple gesture of kindness and compassion transformed an old man's life and made him feel like he was worth something. It seems to me, that is what the holiday season is supposed to be about - random acts of kindness given freely from the heart that can transform a world that desperately needs love.