Can we just take a minute to extend praise and thanks to Jean Gauthier? For her beautiful version of Joni Mitchell’s Blue?
And thank you to Joni Mitchell–one of the greatest musicians of our time. A true prophet–carrying messages from beyond. Right?
I was introduced to her album Blue in high school. And I wore that cassette tape out. Remember cassette tapes? Forwarding and rewinding–wasn’t it the best when you stopped precisely between songs? A small victory, right? I digress.
There wasn’t much need to forward through songs on this album. Every song is masterful. And the entirety of the album taken in sequence is like riding a blessed wave. If you could paint it, it would, most certainly, resemble one of those rainbow glass marbles I talked about earlier–the landscape of human emotion, life in its fullness, all represented and intermingling in bright and subdued color. Homesickness, grief, jubilation, nostalgia, raucous joy, painful despair, hopefulness, hopelessness. It’s all there. It’s sublime. Take the 36 minutes and listen to it sometime. You won’t regret it.
And the song Jean sung for us today, Blue, Mitchell’s great lamentation song, is found at the midway point in the album. She was interviewed in 1971, when the album was released and spoke about writing the song Blue. She said “At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like…I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music, she said, was that there were no defenses there either.”
Blue, here is a song for you. Joni sings. Blue, I love you.
Some of you know that I worked as a church administrator for five years. I call it my first ministry, for it was. It was at a presbyterian church. And it was there that I learned about Blue Christmas. Every year an evening service would take place sometime in December that allowed for folks who were struggling amid the joyfulness of the season to have a place, a worship service, to let it all hang out. And Blue Christmas services are traditionally held at night. They don’t get a prime Sunday morning slot. And it makes sense to look to the blanket of night sky and the stillness of the evening hours as a good place to hold our sorrows and struggles. To let our defenses down. The aesthetics of dimmed light does indeed match the dark night of the soul. But those days as an administrator at Old South Presbyterian Church, folding those orders of service in preparation for the evening’s service, made me think about how compelling and right it would be to place that service on a Sunday morning. And even better, put it on the third Sunday of Advent, which is known to be the Sunday of JOY in the Christian liturgical calendar. And this third advent, Its symbolism, reminds Christians of the joy that the world experienced through the birth of Jesus, that we are at the midpoint of Advent and the big day is almost here! Rejoice, rejoice Christians sing on Sunday mornings.
But the thing about Jesus, and this is why putting the Blue Christmas Service on a Sunday morning–in the bright light of day-is compelling and right as far as I’m concerned–the thing about Jesus is that he contained multitudes. He symbolizes the balance between shadow and light; despair and hope; joy and sorrow. He is the album Blue embodied. In its entirety. And this is what his ministry and prophetic message was all about. How we too, you and I, contain multitudes. We have just forgotten; become bi-furcated and split. Stuck in binaries, right? High octane joy or pummeling sorrow, which is it? Hopeful or hopeless? Choose. Celebrate, sing-out, be merry and give freely of yourself, because it’s Christmas or what? Be a Grinch or a Scrooge. Bah humbug.
We don’t do grey very well do we? Jesus serves as one of the many prophets throughout the ages who helps us with this. Reminds us of the both-ness that we contain. The multitudes.
I wonder how in the world we went from this understanding of Jesus and the season, to where we are now. So many of us find this time of year downright oppressive, because it seems to demand that JOY be at the controls 24/7. And that we should feel badly if we can’t get there. And yet, so many of us are struggling with addiction, with depression or other serious mental health issues. Many of us are feeling helpless as we watch our loved ones struggle with these things. Some of us are disconnected from our families and feel so very alone. Christmas only makes this worse. Some of us have lost people we love and this time of year seems to shine a spotlight on this in ways unbearable. Many of us right now, in 2021, are seeing that our kids are not the same as they used to be this time of year. And we are scared. Many can barely make ends meet and the financial strain of the season is indescribably stressful. Some of us, many of us, are just exhausted. And trying to pull off Christmas in the way it is prescribed to us this year is just daunting.
Can you hear me when I tell you that all of this belongs here? In this month of rejoice? That the true nature of this season is the celebration of multitudes? The whole blessed human experience? The whole album folks.
And please hear this. Joy is a wonderful, beautiful thing to strive for. And it exists in all of us right now too. Of course it does. I want you, and I am preaching to myself here too so trust me, we are in this together, I want us all to resist the urge to supplant one with the other. Let us hold both. Like our beautiful tray of light here. You know being at Johanna Erickson’s house over these past days–which has been the greatest of honors–my God does it exemplify what this looks and feels like. For the pain and tears and rawness of her loss, the loss of Roger Erickson, it is palpable. And. And. For those of us who have been holding her hands and sitting with her–we have felt and she has felt great JOY. In the telling of stories, and in the togetherness. In the prayers offered. It’s all at the surface. The defenses are down. The multitudes of the human experience made manifest. It’s heart-breaking and beautiful. How is this so? How is this so?
Lebanese-American writer Kahlil Gibran dedicates a whole chapter to the mysteries of Joy and Sorrow in his masterpiece, “The Prophet.” His words have been on my mind all week and I want to share some of his wisdom with you this morning. He writes:
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain…When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”
But I say unto you, they are inseparable…
THEY ARE INSEPERABLE.
You see why I love that we are putting Blue Christmas on a Sunday morning. Let us bring this into the light of morning! Let us as our poet Mary Oliver writes–thank you for that stunning reading Ben–let us come closer to grief. So I went practicing she says.
And so, let us practice. I have in this basket a bunch of blue ribbons which we are going to bless together in a moment. I hope you will take one with you today if you are here in person and imbue it with your broken-heartedness. Hold it in your hands and let this ribbon take it in. And then I would ask that you tie it to the tree in front of church, you will see that I have already tied some to it (DESCRIBE TREE). I am going to put these ribbons in a sealed plastic container at the base of the tree. For those of you at home, I hope you will come by church and tie a ribbon to the tree. For those of you who can’t get here, I encourage you to ask someone to tie one on your behalf. For that is what we do here. We got you. You can email me if you would like–I would be honored to do this for you.
And for those of you who find this time of year to be the greatest of joys and who just aren’t feeling any of this–first of all, YES to that. And secondly, you might want to imbue one of these ribbons with another’s lamentation, or a place in the world that knows only sorrow right now.
Let’s begin. Let us join our hearts together in the spirit of blessing. I place my hand on these ribbons knowing, and we raise our hands in blessing knowing they are conduits. May the power of this place and these people live in these blue ribbons. And may every hand who touches them feel a little less alone in the sorrows they carry with them. And let them find their way outside. Into the open air, and the light of day for all to behold, onto the sacred branches of THE TREE. Let them be a blessing to all who notice them. Let them convey that in this place, in this church, at this time of year, your multitudes, and the multitudes of all people who pass them, have a home here in this church. In this place of refuge and peace. And I say to you Amen.
I will place this basket on the Joys and Sorrows table today.
And Let us now deepen this blessing. Michael Collins is going to sing O Come O Come Emmanuel for us now. This is a Christmas hymn that reminds us to Rejoice in the whole. Rejoice in the whole. May it be our Blue Christmas closing prayer.