for the grieving at Christmas

I still remember the empty ache the first Christmas we spent without my grandpa, “Papa,” we called him. His recliner stood in the corner like a memorial. Laughter felt forced. I kept waiting for him to appear in all of his jovial grandfatherly-Father-Christmas fun. He loved to wear his new clothes with the tags still on them, as a way of being silly and funny. He would read the story of Christ’s birth from Luke’s account in his booming, Southern Baptist voice. He had a larger-than-life personality, yet a down-to-earth way about him. I learned only after his death how well known of a politician he had been. For me, he was always a grandfather who paid attention; who loved me; who was the life and heart of every gathering. And his absence was glaring that first Christmas after his death.

It’s been over 25 years, and I can still grow sentimental and sad to think of Christmas “before” and Christmas “after.”

I think about others I’ve lost since then, and there is always that grief that gives Christmas a blue tinge, as Elvis crooned so well. Like Beverlee, who hosted grand holiday parties with her beloved Collier for church members and neighbors in their suburban Philadelphia home. And childhood friend and next-door neighbor, Kristen, who died long before we had the chance to have joy-filled Christmas holiday reunions like we’d always thought we would. I remember close friends and family members who are grieving afresh this Christmas – a sister who died, a father who passed away, a mom whose death came too soon, miscarriages and lost hopes and loves.

And in the grief – both mine and the grief I feel with friends – I can find myself fearful of who may not be around the table next year. That grief steals the joy of the present. Yet Christmas and grief can co-exist, can’t they?

For you, and for me, who are the grieving at Christmas … I write to say you aren’t alone. I write to remind myself that I’m not alone either. Sadness is part of living. But I write to say that I don’t want it to take the joy of Life away this Christmas. I write to say that grief can be deeply comforted by the Truth of Christmas: Emmanuel, God with us. I don’t mean this to be trite … it is a truth I am fighting for every day in my own heart. Take comfort in the words of this melancholy, yet hopeful hymn:

{photo credit: little things studio}

the Christmas of unexpected Joy

For a long time, 2015 will be remembered as the Christmas when we were barely hanging on, and the Advent of finding joy in unexpected places. I told my physician-brother a few months ago that if there were a clinical diagnosis for “too busy,” Seth and I would have met the criteria for it several months ago. It is just too easy for two over-achievers to keep doing and forget to rest, relax, and take a break. To focus on who really matters: God, each other, our daughters, and the family and friends we love dearly. And I guess I should speak for myself – Seth does a way better job of this taking a break than I do. My counseling heart and artistic impulse are gifts … but they have the dark side of my tendency to say “yes” to more people and projects than I can adequately follow through.

This fall has been the process of me taking a giant step back – a step out of leading our small group, teaching women’s Bible study, over-scheduling with extra-familial commitments and appointments, and a step back that culminated in a decision to take a sabbatical from my counseling practice starting January 1, 2016. There are many reasons for this particular timing – two of them being:

(1) My pastor-husband will be graciously receiving the gift of a sabbatical from our church from February through April (an every 7-years-rhythm they’ve established for the pastors) – and I want to join him for that.

(2) My first book is being released in June, and I needed/wanted space to devote to this venture.

In the stepping back, there is much that I already miss – chiefly among them, the courageous women and men I’ve had the privilege of sitting with and walking together through stories of love, loss, and hope despite the darkest of backgrounds. (I do find myself already counting down the months until I will reengage with this calling again!)

Yet this is the beauty of God’s gifts of realizing our limitations: the limitations form the boundaries of our truest calling.

Until I said no to over-scheduling, I couldn’t have known the joy of just being … of writing … of enjoying the gift of a quiet home the mornings our daughters are at preschool … of being present for their many unscheduled moments (highs & lows) that happen when I’m here to notice them. I couldn’t have known the frustrations that push me deeper into faith in a God who sees – the frustrations that come when I see how poorly I love my family for whom I profess undying love (and when I experience their imperfect love towards me, too).

And herein lies the beauty of this Christmas-Advent season: in slowing down (being forced to, might I add, due to a litany of never-ending illnesses), Joy still came. Despite what felt like barely hanging on in terms of health and the fullness of our days and the way we typically celebrate Christmas (lots of parties both hosted and attended, etc.) – Joy came in being still and quiet enough to notice The Greatest Gift, Jesus. Jesus ushered in the best gifts of this season:

  • grace given and received in the midst of fraying emotions and harried tasks
  • a beautiful painting by a dear friend
  • a necklace for this season, reminding me to “be still and know”
  • a bracelet from my beloved, and all the love that is patient that it represents
  • words to speak to you and to God – expressing my heart and inviting us deeper still into the mystery that is Jesus
  • many hot cups of tea sipped while editing the manuscript of a book I need more than anyone else possibly could
  • gifts from neighbors for us and our girls – and the gift of having great neighbors!
  • family and friends who continue to love us through our imperfect moments and to lavish us with their time, attention, and generosity

For all of these gifts … for the Greatest Gift to match my deepest need … all I can say is what’s been sung for generations (reminding you and me that “faithful” is not what we are in our own efforts, but what Jesus calls us who cling to him by faith):

o come all ye faithful

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WANTED: a Christmas miracle

Our world is weary, sorrow-laden, desperately longing for hope. And so are we. Last year I felt the weight of a friend grieving the loss of her mother (while she was pregnant with twins), a friend waiting for a friend-gone-missing to be found – in all of it, it’s the waiting that is so weighty.

This year is no different, although the burdens I feel are. They’re taking the shape of a friend who’s been recently diagnosed with breast cancer and awaits her prognosis/treatment plan; another friend who just made it through her mom’s year of cancer treatment only to find out her dad’s been diagnosed, too; a beloved leader who’s sitting in the question of what the spots on his mom’s lungs could be; and those are just the start, aren’t they?

Moving the circle a bit closer to home, I could tell you the story of a pastor-counselor couple who are on the verge of burn-out and desperately limping toward the gift of a sabbatical in February. It’s a story of seeking to find one another again after nine years of marriage and ministry, including five years of parenting twins. It’s a story that includes the expected dips and peaks of disappointment and joy that come with life. It’s a story with unexpected hope that shines light into the darkest moments.

And it’s a story that leaves me longing this Advent – this Christmastide – for the best and surest and most wild Christmas miracle that I could ask for: darkness-defying songs in our hearts and on our lips.

I can report this to you: the Christmas miracle we need is coming to us. Because it already came — wrapped up in a baby, in the most unassuming of places (a stable in Bethlehem) and to the most scandalous of families (a pregnant unwed mother whose fiance hurriedly married her as soon as he could to prevent scandal and out of radical obedience to God). Because God took on human flesh, I can shed the shame that cloaks me (when I think about my failure to celebrate this season as I should/could/desire to) and the depression that wants to own me. I can take on a new identity: life, joy, peace – that are real. And I can follow our five-year-old daughters as they lead the way in worship of our newborn King. As they gleefully proclaim, “Glory to God in the highest!” even when out of context (in response to news that they were going to get to watch TV while my husband and I chatted with dinner guests). As they spontaneously break out into choruses of “Silent Night,” “Joy to the World,” and “Away in a Manger,” while we’re driving through the December schedule of gift-buying, Christmas programs, and generally-trying-to-fit-too-much-into-Advent.

Jesus came as a baby, and his life was prophesied by Isaiah this way: “A little child will lead them.” (11:6)  And in following Jesus, we will be led by the children in our midst in surprising ways at times. Our daughters are leading us into the Christmas miracle our weary hearts need – which is a miracle of joy.

 

the glittering mess of Advent

Every December, it surprises me. Meaning, the juxtaposition of “the most wonderful time of the year” with the reality of how far I am from being able to fully embrace the joy proclaimed to me in every Christmas song and story and glittering decoration. I know I’m not alone in this. For I  hear your stories – maybe not yours specifically, but in sitting with multiple stories of suffering and disappointment and hope deferred throughout almost a decade of counseling and a few decades more of friendship and family relationships, I have a fairly good sense of the ways life breaks us.

And for some reason, I find myself each Advent/Christmas season battling to find the hope that surrounds me like no other time of year. I struggle because at the deepest part of who I am, I know that Jesus’ coming as a baby changed everything for the better (while I also see so much that doesn’t fit with a redeemed world). I find deep comfort that his incarnation – God with us – was a literal game-changer for the human race. That Jesus was “born to set Thy people free/from our sins and fears release us/let us find our rest in Thee.” That I am to “fall on [my] knees/O hear, the angels voices/O night divine/O night when Christ was born.” And I crumble inside with the best of you at the emotion of it all – of God being made like us, like a tiny baby, utterly vulnerable to the ones he created.

But then I begin to get angry and sad. For if Jesus was born to set His people free, why on earth are we so chained up to others’ expectations and our own inward voices of shame? And why do we Christians hurt  each other in the church when we are all simply trying to love one another the best we know how? Why do “Christian” politicians infuriate the culture-at-large with offers to pray in the wake of tragedy and apparently no (or minimal) actions behind these prayers?  Why do news headlines daily proclaim a new form of terror?

And to bring it home and make it more personal: why do I have friends still struggling with infertility?

Friends grieving parents taken too soon?

Friends who have suffered unspeakable tragedies of abuse when they were children who could not protect themselves?

Why are friends stuck in marriages that feel lifeless? (Or why are there friends who are newly divorced despite months/years of trying to reconcile?)

Why does cancer still strike in the most unexpected of ways and times to friends in the prime of their life/ministry?

And if I dare to be courageously honest, I have a few questions of my own. Like how did I get to be so battle-weary and exhausted when I thought I was fighting for the gospel of justice, truth, beauty, and light in the name of Jesus, in the strength of his grace, and for the sake of his glory?

Why does every recent December feel depressing, as a time when I am more likely to feel the weight of the world’s sorrows instead of the hope of the Savior’s joy?

Why does Christmas seem to come up short from how I remember it as a child?

I am beginning to realize anew that the only answer to these weighty, angst-filled questions is in trying to hold in my feeble hands the glittering mess of Advent.

It’s not unlike the abundant blue glitter that one of my 5-year-old daughters sprinkled with abandon around her room earlier this week. There was literally a path of blue sparkle that looked like a rug placed on our white (!) carpet. A glittering path that led to their mini-Christmas tree. As I vacuumed it up, I surprised myself by beginning to laugh instead of growing more angry and frustrated. I laughed because it was beautiful. Any of you who have ever had the *privilege* of vacuuming up large quantities of glitter know exactly what I’m talking about. It glitters and sparkles and changes in the light, and as I vacuumed clean white paths through the blue, the vacuum cleaner began to sparkle, too. (Because it has a see-through compartment.)

And that’s when it came to me.

This is a metaphor for Advent’s tension between the beauty that will be (which began to break through in the incarnational mystery of Jesus) and the mess that we continue to make with this beauty.

These broken places of grief, betrayal, loss, and deferred hope – they are real and they are tragic in an exponentially greater way than a 5-year-old glitter tantrum (oh – did I leave that part out? The reason that she created such a display was out of anger that she was in time out – it was a mess intended to annoy me.).

But this I cling to – in hope against hope – that the mess twinkles, sparkles, glitters in the light of the Christmas tree. The Christmas tree that became our salvation as it became a cross. This tragedy of the tiny babe grown up and offered up willingly as the most tragic of sacrifices for the most unworthy of offenders. You and me.

Ann Voskamp says it well in her Advent devotional:

The Cross stands as the epitome of evil. And God takes the greatest evil ever known to humanity and turns it into the greatest Gift you have ever known. … If God can transfigure the greatest evil into the greatest Gift, then He intends to turn whatever you’re experiencing now into a gift. You cannot be undone. Somewhere, Advent can storm and howl. And the world robed for Christmas can spin on. You, there on the edge, whispering it, defiant through the torn places: “All is grace.”