The message this month on the sign board outside of Judson Baptist Church reads, “WHAT YOU REALLY NEED FOR CHRISTMAS.”

The context for the message is, of course, the current and worsening economic downturn, now officially called a recession. Three pastors on or near Austin Boulevard and the program director of a faith-based organization recently responded to the question, “Is it possible to really celebrate the holidays when you either have little money or are anxious about not having enough?”

The clergy who responded did not attempt to brush the pain of this recession away with simplistic platitudes about having no worries if you’ve been born again. Fr. Dan Whiteside, the pastor of St. Catherine-St. Lucy Catholic Church, said the giving and receiving of gifts on Christmas morning is an essential part of the joy of the holidays. To suddenly find you can no longer do it or have the experience diminished is a real loss.

Brian Covell, the pastor of Third Unitarian Church a few blocks east of Austin, talked about the humility he, as a relatively affluent person, feels during the holidays because “you have to know that there are people suffering grievously because of the economic status of the United States and the world. The reason I lift up the aspect of humility is because if you live in Oak Park or River Forest, you live among the most expensive non-commercial real estate in the U.S. People are showered with material blessings. I know people are worried about what is happening to their 401Ks, but they still have tremendous wealth.

“It’s the whole problem of rich in things and poor in soul that is the challenge.”

In a sermon on Nov. 30, Judson Pastor Rodney Lara waxed eloquent about how as a boy he believed he would find true happiness if he opened the gift-wrapped box under the tree with his name on it and found a black G.I. Joe action figure with a kung fu grip. When he asked the people sitting in the pews what gift would make them happy, one answered “a car,” while another said “having my student loans forgiven.” When one member responded with “the Cubs winning the World Series,” the congregation broke into laughter.

Lara said what his congregants knew he was going to say: “Toys break a month or two after Christmas, and the Cubs … well, if you place your hopes and dreams on the Cubs, you’re in for a lot of disappointment.

“What do you place your future hopes and dreams on? Who is going to bail us out?” Lara asked rhetorically, then answered his own question. “What we really need for Christmas is the Wonderful Counselor who can 1) show us a better way, 2) do the impossible, 3) affirm that we are loved, 4) expose the dark places in our lives without shaming us and 5) accept us where we are.”

Whiteside said the economic downturn can, in fact, be a gift if it forces us to discern what really is most important in our lives. “What is most important,” he said, “is God, God’s gift of his son, Jesus Christ.”

Connie Rakitan, the program director for Faith and Fellowship, a Chicago Archdiocesan ministry which creates small communities of faith with and for adults with severe and persistent mental illness, remembered a scene from Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor in which a sharecropping family in the deep South during the Great Depression manages to celebrate Christmas with great joy by focusing on family togetherness. “The don’t, they can’t, get caught up in the hype,” Rakitan said, “so they look at their strengths and celebrate them.”

Covell said Unitarians don’t think in exclusively Christian terms but from the perspective of all faiths. “I think of themes larger than that-like reverence for new life in extraordinarily challenging circumstances,” he said. “The issue is finding spiritual depth and meaning in the midst of material depth. There will be more soul-searching for meaning as the economy tumbles. Our challenge as spiritual leaders is to assist in finding ways to model spiritual depth to people who don’t know how to do it.”

As you might expect, all four religious leaders agreed that it is not things but relationships with people and with the divine that are the dependable source of joy during the holidays. They offered concrete suggestions on how to shift the focus-in the imagery Fr. Whiteside used-from the bright, impressive lights of the city to raising our hearts above the city lights and following the star.

Covell reported that one of the members at Third Unitarian goes to a quiet place in one of the forest preserves-when it’s warm enough!-and repeats a simple mantra from a poem or an epigram. “When she’s anxious, it makes her feel more grateful,” said Covell, “and when she’s grateful, it makes her feel humble.”

Ratikan said looking for small glimmers of hope can be more helpful than hoping that night will suddenly change into day. “I think when we are walking in our own darknesses,” she said, “we need to pause and just look for one little star or one little flame in a dark room. It seems that by finding these beautiful glimpses, we can then look ahead and face the future.”

Whiteside picked up on both stars and mantras. His parish is focusing on the theme of “Following The Star” throughout the month of December, and he compared the practice of having a theme you return to daily to having a little song in your heart that keeps rising to your consciousness.

The pastor of St. Catherine-St. Lucy acknowledged that religious leaders can get caught in the very traps they warn their people not to fall into. Years ago, he realized he had to take care of himself if he wanted to care for others, so he began the daily discipline of rising at 6:00 each morning to pray psalms and do some spiritual reading. Often, he said, his goal is not to pray for anyone or anything in particular but to just experience union with God. “I may be reading a psalm,” he said, “and it will bring my heart to a place where I just need to stop and stay with that image. I’ll close the book at that point and turn to contemplation.”

Covell talked about remembering as an entre to peace and joy. He suggested taking out a picture album, looking at pictures of, say, a family vacation and remembering how that shared experience became significant in your family’s history. Whiteside said if a family decides they can’t spend as much as in years past, they can do the old grab bag routine in which everyone draws the name of one family member instead of buying presents for everyone. An added element, he said, which makes it a lot of fun is that after drawing a name, each family member draws a letter from the alphabet with the understanding that they have to buy a present which begins with the letter they drew.

Lara recommends a simpler approach: “We have forgotten what we really need. What we really need is Jesus.”

As he was responding to the question of whether or not it is possible to celebrate the holidays in the midst of a recession, Covell recalled a story about William Sloan Coffin which illustrated how hard times can be the most fertile soil for growing flowers of hope, joy and peace. When Coffin was interviewing for the prestigious position of pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, one of the upstanding members of the board of vestry challenged him with the question, “How can you presume to minister to other people when you yourself have been divorced three times?”

Coffin is said to have replied, “I have learned more about how to cope with life and suffering in my three bad marriages than you have learned in your one good marriage.”

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Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...