In Praise of Grouches and Grinches: A BidNite Sermon

Sermon by Rev. Diane Rollert, 7 December 2014

Part I

A number of years ago we began a tradition of raffling off a sermon topic for BidNite, our annual service auction.  Everyone pays $5 for a ticket that gets thrown into a hat.  Then the lucky person with the winning ticket gets to tell me what to say in a sermon.  Well… maybe I’m not exactly that co-operative… but the winner does get to challenge me, stump me, or simply have the joy of hearing me speak about something that really matters to them.  In past years I’ve reflected on Spinoza and poetry, wrestled with the question, “Should UUs Save Jesus?” and responded to a London bus advertisement, "There is almost certainly no God, now stop worrying and enjoy your life: Why atheism makes sense." Does this tell you anything about our community?

This year’s winner, Elizabeth Forbath, has challenged me to do something completely different.   “Drum-roll, please,” she said.  “I’d like you to speak in praise of grouches.”  Of course, this being the season, I had to add in the grinches.  Elizabeth was pretty adamant.  She said there’s a difference between grouches and grinches.  Grouches are short-tempered and irritable but inside they have big hearts.  You might say that grinches, like Dr. Seuss’s famous Grinch who stole Christmas, and Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” are cheapskates whose hearts are too small.

But I beg to differ.  In fact, I had to do important research.  I carefully analyzed and dissected the text from “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”  I went back and reflected on those critical hours in the life of Ebenezer Scrooge as he met the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas-Yet-to-Come.

You know the story of “A Christmas Carol.”  The old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, is visited by the ghost of his former partner, Jacob Marley, and then by three other ghosts.  The first reminds him of his past -- a time when Scrooge had known love in his life:  He loved his sister, he had a sweetheart, but then he let money overtake his heart.  The next ghost shows him the present, letting him observe the hardships of his nephew’s family and the resilience of their love.  Finally, the third ghost shows him the bleak future he has in store.  He will die unloved, unwanted, alone, with no one bothering to attend his funeral.  Scrooge, facing the darkness of this future, repents and rediscovers the kindness in his heart. His Christmas with his nephew’s family becomes a happy reunion.

Then there’s the Grinch.  This guy’s not a cheapskate.  He’s just cranky.  Who knows why, ponders Dr. Seuss.  Maybe his shoes are too small?  Maybe his head isn’t screwed on just right?  Or, most likely, his heart is simply two sizes too small.

I’d say the Grinch is the prototypical grouch and this is the prototypical Grinch story.  He can’t tolerate the preparations, the noise or the feasting of the holiday.  I figure it could have been any holiday that would have gotten on his nerves.  As the poem goes…

For Tomorrow, he knew, all the Who girls and boys,
Would wake bright and early. They'd rush for their toys!
And then! Oh, the noise! Oh, the Noise!
Noise! Noise! Noise!
That's one thing he hated! The NOISE!
Then the Whos, young and old, would sit down to a feast.
And they'd feast! And they'd feast! And they'd FEAST!
They would feast on Who-pudding, and rare Who-roast beast.
Which was something the Grinch couldn't stand in the least!
And THEN they'd do something he liked least of all!
Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small,
Would stand close together, with Christmas bells ringing.
They'd stand hand-in-hand. And the Whos would start singing!
They'd sing! And they'd sing! And they'd SING!
And the more the Grinch thought of this Who ChristmasSing,
The more the Grinch thought, "I must stop this whole thing!"

“Bah! Humbug!” Ebenezer Scrooge would have said.

The Grinch hatches his evil plan, tying reindeer antlers to his poor dog and impersonating Santa Claus, sneaking down all the chimneys in Whoville and taking away all the Christmas presents, the food and the feasts, the Christmas trees and even the logs from the fires so that there’s nothing left to celebrate in the morning. The Grinch has stolen Christmas, and he gleefully waits to hear the sad sound of the Whos weeping.  
And the Grinch put his hand to his ear.
And he did hear a sound rising over the snow.
It started in low. Then it started to grow.
But the sound wasn't sad! Why, this sound sounded merry!
It couldn't be so! But it WAS merry! VERY!
He stared down at Whoville! The Grinch popped his eyes!
Then he shook! What he saw was a shocking surprise!
Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small,
Was singing! Without any presents at all!

It takes the Grinch hours to ponder his failure, until he realizes that the holiday is more than what’s bought in a store.  The realization hits him like a thunderbolt and his heart grows three sizes that day.  Like Scrooge, he ends up celebrating with the community, becoming the most generous, welcome and perfect guest.
The moral of both stories?  Well, it’s obvious:  There’s more to life than the material.  But it’s more than that.  The self-centredness that revolves around money and gifts is just one example of what might motivate the crankiness in our lives.   The real story is that even the biggest grouch, the grouch that lives inside of us, or inside of someone we know, is capable of connecting with the people they thought they could never love.

As comedian George Carlin once said, “Inside every cynical person is a disappointed idealist.”

Musical Response:  You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch (sung by Tara Bissett)

Part II

Here’s my grouch story.  Last week I spent a few days in the U.S. celebrating American Thanksgiving with my sister-in-law’s family.  It was a joyous time as we stuffed ourselves with way too much food.  There was this classic moment at the end of the trip, as we shared a last meal together as an extended family before David and I flew home.  My teenage niece had had her fill of family interaction.  When her mother encouraged her to sit at the table with us, she bristled.  “No,” she was going off to eat a bowl of cereal in front of the TV, thank you.  

Is my niece a grouch?  Right now in her life, nine days out of ten, I’d say definitely yes.  Of course, as Tara just sang, girls and women often get called “bitches” rather than “grouches.”  In fact, Elizabeth told me she more often thinks of grouches as being men.  Either way, my niece summed it up beautifully, for all the grouches in the world, as she stood in firm defiance of her mother that afternoon.  

She said in a biting, ironic tone, “If nice people knew how hard it was for mean people to be nice, they would appreciate them more.” (She said this with a slight smile on her lips – but God forbid we should have noticed it.)  She then stormed off in search of her solitude.

I am very familiar with grouches.  In fact, when I was younger I was a grouch.  I couldn’t stand early mornings, and I couldn’t stand people who were cheery in the morning.  Living with my overly early-morning-chipper mother, and now being married for 34 years to someone who joyfully rises with the sun, is still something I can sometimes (sometimes!) find incredibly annoying.  Why don’t certain people realize that silence should be observed until at least 10 a.m.?  

I can identify with my niece, as much as her behaviour can really irk me now.  “Takes one to know one,” as they say.  I was a teen when David and I first met and he was a talented cartoonist.  My most favourite cartoon he ever drew of me is a picture of me early in the morning.  I have a furrowed brow, I’m gritting my teeth and I’m surrounded by crumbled pieces of paper.  “Our true love at work,” says the caption.  I am here to testify that I have come a long, long way since then.  Now I can even rise in the morning, singing.

Even if you have never lived through an extended period of grouchiness, surely you’ve had your grouchy moments.  Consider Oscar the Grouch’s advice about how to be a grouch.  “Make sure you don’t get a lot sleep.  Get annoyed at sappy things like cuddly puppies and cute kittens.”  No LOL cats for me, thank you.  Please send them to someone else.  You can get really good at nurturing your cynical side.  Children know what it is to be uncontrollably cranky.  Hunger, lack of sleep, things taking too long, too much noise, too much traffic, these are the kinds of things that can bring out the monster in any one of us.  Characters like Oscar the Grouch, the Grinch and Scrooge have staying power because these are archetypal stories in our lives.  They speak to us at the deepest, darkest, and most humorous levels –  reminding us to laugh at the monsters within us.

The ultimate grouch in my life is my own father.  Maybe this is true for some of you.  Elizabeth reminds me that grouches can be generous but they can also be stubborn.  Maybe that ‘s because so many of them are survivors and it’s their stubbornness that gets them through.

In April, I visited my father with my daughter.  Somehow, miraculously, she got him to smile while I took a photo of the two of them.  I think it’s the only photo I have of my father where he doesn’t look dead serious.  The picture was so incredible that I posted it on Facebook – something I rarely do.  It got more “likes” than anything I have ever shared.  How could you not like it?  My father and daughter look so happy together. She actually got him to laugh that afternoon.  Getting a little playful, he faked his smile for the photo – but I captured it, thereby blowing his image as a lifelong curmudgeon.  

You have to understand that when asked directly about anything that is sweet or sentimental, my father groans.  His grandchildren have perfected their imitations of this particular groan.  “Arrrggg…”  The fact that he now wears an eye-patch on one eye definitely adds to his grouchy ‘pirate’ persona.  Growing up, I rarely saw my father’s kind side.  He was harsh, judgmental, often crabby.  He was the son of immigrants and had lived through a lot of hardship.  There was no time for warmth or affection while he was growing up. He left home at18 to serve in the Second World War.  He survived but went on to live through a lot of disappointments in life.  

My mother’s story is that she fell in love with my father when they went to a movie together.  It was a sad movie, she said, and they both cried.  She told me that she loved the fact that he could be so emotionally sensitive.  “Who are you talking about?” I asked her when I was a teen.  I recently asked my father if he remembered crying during that movie or what the movie was about.  He just groaned his usual groan, waved my question away with one hand and muttered in his standard grouch voice, “Something about a dog…”

My father is nearing the age of 89.  He’s not in very good physical shape.  In recent years, I’ve begun to see the emotional person my mother knew.  Dad tears up when he tells you stories that move him.  He can be talking about a piece of music he loves or an artist he admires and suddenly he gets choked up.  But if you point this out to him, he will flatly deny it.  I think he’s lived a life of telling himself a particular story.  He’s supposed to be the person with the rough exterior, the tough guy.  But, underneath all his grouchiness, he’s just a big softy.  He is definitely a cynic who is recovering from his idealism.  Or, better said, he’s an idealist masquerading as a cynic.

My now adult and very together daughter (the one in that beautiful picture with my father) and I were talking recently about our own shifts away from our younger, crabby personas.  

“How is it that we changed?” I asked her.  

“You start to tell a different narrative,” she said.  “You change your story.  Your life is like an hourglass. When you’re in that angry, critical, cynical place, you’re stuck in the small, pinched middle of the hourglass.  Then you start to grow and your reality expands.  You move through to something more expansive.  You let go of the belief that you are the centre of the universe and it feels better to be part of the larger world.”

I think there’s a grouch inside of everyone of us, and I love the grouches -- male, female or whatever -- among us.  Life would be so dull without the critics in our midst.  There’d be no comedy, no searing commentary that gets to the heart of things, no satire.  Maybe that’s the trick.  We have to be careful not to take ourselves too seriously.  There has to be room for lightness in the stories we tell ourselves, a playful “Arrrggg” now and then.

And when you wake up in the morning with a song in your heart, please keep it to yourself.  At least until 10 o’clock.     

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