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REL Listening, caring, working through are also part of holiday

I was shopping for a Christmas present -- some mittens for a child. It was one of those big department stores, and I had gotten myself turned around. So I asked this floor worker, a woman in her early 60s, where the heck I could find these things.

"Oh, they're right over there, dear," she said as she pointed.

It was the way she said "dear." I just had to know.

"Pardon me for asking, but where are you from originally?"

"I'm from England," she said with a smile, and seemed genuinely pleased I had inquired. When I told her I had been in Newcastle-upon-Tyne for seven weeks this past summer, we were off and running. She asked all sorts of questions about my memories of her native land -- which I was naturally delighted to share -- and then she told me her story. As a young woman she had met a U. S. service man, married him, and had been here in the States ever since. She liked America, but missed the Old Country.

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"How often do you get back?" I asked.

"Oh, I've never been back," she said in a curious way.

I told her I thought flights were relatively inexpensive just now, but she quickly informed me it wasn't for lack of money.

"My children want me to go back," she said. "and they've even offered to pay for the trip. I just don't think I want to go. I think .... it would be just too sad. My parents have died. I don't what to be reminded of that. I'm sure many other things have changed. I want to remember it the way it was."

I smiled and nodded, now sensing the conversation was straying into deeper feelings, and here I still had shopping to do. I tried to convey this with body language, but she didn't seem to notice.

"Now, mind you, I'm very interested," she said. "I think about it all the time. I wonder about my friends, about the street where I grew up. But I'm sure so much has changed. I want to remember it the way it was but ... I'd still like to see it now."

Despite my need to get going, I couldn't help myself. "Well, why don't you just go then?"

"But I think it would be too sad!" she said again, with surprising emphasis. It was like I had tapped into a perpetual debate she had been having with herself for years, a tape that's been playing over and over in her head. First the reasons for going, but then the argument against going. She was clearly paralyzed by the possibility that "it would just be too sad!"

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I finally extricated myself, saying I really had to find those mittens. So I left her. From the last expression I saw on her face, I could tell she was still working it through.

I wonder how many of us are just that afraid of being sad, of being reminded of what we've lost, afraid of our grief. Likewise, I wonder how many of us were like yours truly -- so busy with our Christmas agenda we have no time for working with the sadness of others.

We need to remember that sadness and fear were very much a part of the first Christmas. Mary, for one, had been separated from her kinfolk, was starting an awkward marriage and then forced to give birth in a barn. Canadian pastor and writer Robert Wallace has reflected on these facts in the following prayer:

"Our God, may this sacred season bring us close to the realities of the first Christmas. May we feel the bereavements that stir hurting memories for many in our own midst, the emptiness known to travelers who spend the season far from home, the uneasiness that many feel wondering what the season can mean for them. We would not hide from these feelings behind the festivity of our celebrating. While we rejoice in our life together, keep us sensitive to all for whom this is a painful time."

A good prayer, I think. Good for those of us who don't want to face our own sadness, or the sadness of those close to us, or even the sadness of strangers. Listening, caring, working it through ... these are important enough to merit inclusion among the many other important activities of the season.

Like shopping for mittens.

The Rev. John Wagner is a United Methodist minister from Dayton, Ohio.

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