Message 151, “A Charlie Brown Holiday: Battling the Blues”, 12-15-13

(c) Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reservedcharlie brown depression2

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Many of you have enjoyed hearing one of our past guest speakers – Bart Campolo – who is a local Pastor.  He is well known for his speaking abilities but he is perhaps most known for being the son of the internationally famous minister Tony Campolo.  Tony has written several best selling books, has spoken at hundreds of large events and he served as the spiritual advisor to President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Tony has long been admired by many evangelical Christians – and he considers himself an evangelical.  What I like about Tony is that he is a progressive evangelical – one who has supported equality for African-Americans, understanding for gays and lesbians, and service to the poor.  One of his primary ethics is that people of faith should express their spirituality more through acts of service to the poor and outcasts than through piety, Bible study or prayer.

He has also made many controversial statements and one of them is that depression should not be seen by Christians as a spiritual flaw – one due to a lack of faith or trust in God.  Tony was an early Christian advocate of the notion that depression is often a medical condition and needs to be treated as one.

For himself, Tony writes in his book “Let Me Tell You a Story: Life Lessons from Unexpected Places and Unlikely People” that he personally tries to be outwardly joyful even if he doesn’t feel it.  For him, joy and happiness are contagious.  One is able not only to pass it along to others but to begin to actually feel real joy if one simply undertakes to speak and act joyfully.  Such an attitude, along with his many controversial statements, led his young son Bart to once tell him, as Tony relates in his book, “Dad, you know, you are dangerous!”

Tony says that he is most dangerous – from a sharing joy perspective – when he is out in public.  He often rides in elevators in New York or Philadelphia skyscrapers and, when entering a crowded one full of serious business people, he will often say to everyone, “Well, we are going to be stuck together for the next several minutes.  Let’s make the best of it.  Let’s sing!”  And then he leads them in some upbeat song.

He also writes that, since he frequently crosses a toll bridge outside of Philadelphia, he will pull up to the toll booth, pay his toll and then also pay for the car behind him – telling the toll collector that this is payment for his friend in the car behind.  He then enjoys watching in his rear view mirror as the befuddled toll worker tries to explain to an equally confused driver what just happened.

I’ve heard similar stories of folks who find joy in paying for their order in drive thru lanes at fast food restaurants while also paying for the food order of the car behind.

Tony tells an instructive story about a member of a church he used to attend.  The Pastor at that church was a very serious and proper preacher.   The church congregation was equally dour and humorless – afflicted by being terminally white, uptight and Protestant.  A few African-Americans joined this church and one of them, a man named Frank, would loudly and joyfully shout out a ‘Hallelujah’, ‘Praise the Lord!’ or ‘Amen’ every time the Pastor made a meaningful point.

But such spontaneous shout-outs annoyed the prim and proper Pastor as well as members of the congregation.  This Pastor approached Frank one day and begged him to be quiet for an entire sermon – in return for which the Pastor would buy him a new pair of winter boots that Frank wanted.

During the next Sunday sermon Frank visibly squirmed as he tried to suppress his joyful outbursts.  But, as the Pastor made his summation point at the end of the sermon, Frank could contain himself no longer.  He loudly and happily exclaimed, at the Pastor’s final point, “Boots or no boots, I don’t care.  Praise the Lord!”

Tony says he discovered his secret to finding real joy after one boyhood Christmas.  All year he had wanted and begged for a new Lionel model train set.  He even told Santa at Gimbel’s department store that this is what he most wanted.

On Christmas morning, when he opened the large box with his name on it, he shouted out when he discovered it was his long desired train set.  For the next few hours he gleefully worked to assemble the trains and their tracks.  After doing so, he turned it on and then watched as the train made endless circles, round and round, until it hit him – his joy had evaporated.  His excitement was over.  The train was actually boring to him.  This thing, this object on to which he had placed all of his Christmas hope – was not so great – not so joyful.  He quickly understood that the things of Christmas to which we attach happiness are mostly empty – they have no real meaning.  Joy, for him, had to come from something more sustainable – someplace not connected to gifts, events or situations.  Implicitly, Tony supports what I often advocate.  We are usually able to choose the emotions we feel by how we cognitively think.  By actively choosing to speak and act joyfully, Tony feels joyful and imparts that emotion to others around him.

As we turn our attention today to the theme this month of a ‘Charlie Brown Holiday’, the subject of Christmas depression is one that is dealt with openly and honestly in the Charles Schultz television special.  First airing in 1965, the show, which is a holiday classic, confronts Charlie Brown’s persistent holiday blues.  As Charlie says in the show, I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but Im not happy. I dont feel the way Im supposed to feel. I just dont understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards, and decorating trees and all that, but Im still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.

Interestingly, CBS television executives who saw the show before it aired were upset at this depiction of seasonal blues. Such subjects were simply not discussed in that day and age.  People were programmed to suck it up and hide any discontent they might feel.  For Charles Schultz to use it as his central theme was revolutionary – but one which the viewing public approved and liked.  Holiday depression is a common phenomenon and Schultz used humor as a way to address it and offer a solution.

Much like Tony Campolo challenged fellow Christians to re-examine their attitudes about depression, the honesty of Charlie Brown’s blues are culturally significant.  A majority of the Peanuts comic strips deal with issues of Charlie’s self-esteem, disappointments, and failures.  We all know about the endless times he tries to kick a football that Lucy holds for him.  We remember the many times Charlie’s baseball team loses – and during its nearly fifty years, only wins nine times – and those came when Charlie did not play!  Charlie does not get any Valentine’s cards, he can’t fly a kite, he constantly seeks psychological advice, he seems perpetually alienated from the rest of the world.

In so many ways, Charlie’s difficulties mirror those of a shy and awkward young Charles Schultz who was deemed a failure before he reached twenty.  But for us, Charlie is an Everyperson – someone who struggles to understand himself, the world and his place in it.  Life is cruel and harsh, it’s overly competitive, it rewards the beautiful and strong, and it is often profoundly disappointing.  By middle age years many people suddenly ask themselves, “Is this all there is to life?”

Christmas and the holidays bring such feelings to the fore.  We remember past Christmases that were bright and happy as we compare those to more modest present ones.  Or, we recall past ones that deeply hurt us and leave us emotionally scarred.  We remember and mourn loved ones who have passed and are not there for us this holiday.  We experience profound loneliness whether or not we are in a relationship.  We see all around us images and expectations of happiness and, yet, for us, those emotions seem forced.  Our finances may be tight and, yet, we are told to spend and be extravagant.  For gays and lesbians, the holidays are often difficult as they often must face families who disapprove of them.  Added to such holiday blues are medically verified season issues.  Christmas falls near the winter solstice, the shortest daytime of the year.  Many people, including myself, suffer from seasonal affected disorder when a shortage of sunlight profoundly affects mood.

Whether our depression is holiday related or not – it has distinct symptoms.  Clinical depression is marked by persistent feelings of sadness, anxiety or emptiness.  Eating habits significantly change – either one eats too much or loses all appetite.  Sleep is affected as depressed persons either sleep too much or too little.  Depression is also identified with irritability, an inability to concentrate, a lack of energy and a focus on death or suicide.  Overall, depressed persons feel an overwhelming sense of hopelessness.  And that is exactly what Charlie expresses in the holiday TV show.

For any of us who experience such symptoms, without let up, for more than a few days, experts advise getting professional help.  Sucking it up and trying to fake oneself through depression is not good.  Therapy and medications do help.  Clinical depression is not a defect in character.

And Charlie Brown follows such advice.  He seeks the assistance of the dubiously qualified Lucy and her lemonade stand form of roadside therapy.  As with many amateurs who try and offer advice, hers is more focused on her own issues than on empathy for Charlie’s.  But, she offers a nugget of wisdom by encouraging Charlie to catch the holiday spirit by agreeing to direct the school Christmas pageant.

For many of us who experience bouts of holiday depression in mild form, there are ways to cope.  Some experts suggest remembering a holiday coping acronym of  R  –  E  –  S  –  T  (rest).  First and most importantly, we must Recognize our feelings and thus understand that our expectations for the holiday need to be limited.  Other people, including our families, will disappoint us.  We can learn to accept that and offer others the grace to be flawed – much as we are also flawed.  We can also learn to accept that creating a perfect celebration experience of beautiful decorations, meaningful gifts and memorable events is not possible.  If we Recognize that culture has set the holiday bar too high for anyone to possibly reach, we will be content in a more relaxed, quiet and less than perfect holiday.

Second, for the E in REST, we should try and Eat well and Exercise.  Eating well does not mean denying ourselves holiday treats but it also means that, as much as possible, we don’t change our eating habits by overindulging or starving.  The same goes for alcohol consumption.  Moderation and balance in all things is best.  Exercise is most important.  If possible, we should get outdoors, take walks and engage in anything that is physically active.  Exercise increases endorphin hormones in our bloodstream which helps boost our mood and helps us feel better.

The S component in REST is to simplify our holidays as much as possible.  Suggestions include the swapping of nice but unused things we currently own – as a way to exchange gifts.  We can hold very simple celebrations with just a few close friends or family members with whom sharing and talking is uplifting and happy.  Overall, as Charlie Brown affirmed, simple is not bad nor is it Scrooge-like.  Without trappings of excess and money, true holiday meanings of peace, hope, love, and humility can prevail.

Finally, the T in REST focuses on our gift of Time.  We should set aside time both for ourselves to relax and, most importantly, for volunteering.  Countless experts advise that the best way to battle the blues is to serve others – visit an elderly or sick person, offer to drive a shut-in to the store,  make an event out of selecting, buying and giving a gift to someone in need, working at a local food bank or homeless shelter, inviting someone who lives alone over to dinner, writing a note or card of appreciation to a friend, co-worker or person you value.  Volunteering our time in ways that help the least of God’s children is not just a moral obligation, it is a conscious way to find purpose and meaning – and thus joy.

To summarize REST for the holidays, Recognize your limits, Eat well and Exercise, Simplify, and volunteer Time to others.

While depression and the holiday blues are real conditions, they are curable. We find that when we are depressed, we mostly focus on our needs and our problems.  While, those concerns are real, they can be put in proper perspective by thinking of others.  A life well led and a life of lasting legacy are ones of grace, generosity, compassion and gentleness toward other people.  I firmly believe that many of the problems in today’s world would be solved if every person worked to diminish their ego while boosting their concern and empathy for the condition and feelings of family, friend and stranger.  Love and charity in the world must begin in each and every human heart and each and every home.

As I said earlier, depression is not a spiritual defect.  Jesus got depressed at the death of his friend and at his own impending execution.  The biblical David experienced lasting depression over his failures as a person and at how his enemies treated him.  Job shouted out in desperation at how God seemed to have abandoned him.  The prophet Jeremiah is known as the weeping prophet for his lament at the evil he saw around him and at the seeming indifference to it from people of faith.  Mohammad experienced several bouts of sadness and frustration.  Great modern figures like Gandhi and Mother Teresa lapsed into a crisis of the soul.  Mother Teresa doubted God’s reality and was in deep distress over her inability to effect lasting change in poverty.  Gandhi was deeply saddened when India divided into sectarian violence pitting Hindu against Muslim.

But for each one of these prophets, depression was not the final condition of their lives.  Each one found ways to rise above it – choosing gratitude, trust, love and hope in life, in faith and in other people.

For me and for many others, mild depression is a state of mind that I can choose to embrace or work to defeat.  Like Tony Campolo, I can choose to speak, act and think joyfully – even when I don’t feel that way – or I can choose to sink into a funk and treat myself and other people in ways that are cruel and mean spirited.  Tony Campolo discovered that joy can be shared with others by his attitude and actions.  Charlie Brown found joy in choosing to love the seemingly unlovable small, pathetic tree.  In it, he saw himself.  He purposefully chose to love and serve something beyond himself.

And that is the enduring appeal of Christmas.   Its message calls us to humbly love others.  In the nativity story, God expresses his love for humanity with the gift of his Son.  In the same way, we can find ways to escape sadness with the gift of ourselves – of our time, our empathy, our generosity, our kindness, our service, our gentleness.  We have these simple gifts inside us and we must share them.  In doing so, we will find the ironic truth that happiness is often a decision and that with the gift of ourselves, the true meaning of the holidays are found.  In this season of hope, let us choose to be a presence of joy to all we encounter.

And to each of you, here and listening online, I wish you much holiday cheer.