The Day After Christmas

A blizzard sweeps across the fields

I won’t go to the church today.

My 200-foot commute is unnecessary

As no one will be coming by my office.

If I am needed, they will call me.

Today, I stay at home and pray –

exercise, watch a movie, read, and write.

It’s a mandatory day of peace and quiet –

And I rejoice in this snow paralysis.

It’s the day after Christmas

And a nap is whispering my name.

Soon enough the wind will die down

The drifting will cease

And I’ll make my way back toward the stained glass structure of my life…

But not today

this day after Christmas.

A Pastor’s Christmas Eve Prayer

I’m listening.

Still my spirit.

Still the voices in my head.

Let me hear You.

Directing my deeds.

Directing my words.

Directing my days.

This Christmas Eve.

Every day.

Every year.

The chatter is loud inside my head –

Presents to wrap!

Sermon to practice!

Chores to do!

Christmas chatter.

So I pray for ease –

To give gentleness and joy and a spirit of peace to all who come to worship today.

Let the anxiety be.

No need for it.

People bring enough of their own anxieties – there is plenty to go around without my contribution.

God is near.

God is here.

Emmanuel.

Blue Christmas

(written for December 21, 2012)

Shortly after my mom died, some friends bought a nice wooden and iron bench for our yard in memory of her. It sits under the mulberry tree behind our house and I like to go sit out there in the evening sometimes.  It is quiet place and a place I’ve set apart for remembering and for prayer.  Lots of prayer.

I think of this Blue Christmas or Longest Night service in that way.  It is a time and place set apart for prayer and for remembering and for anyone who is having a hard time finding joy during the Christmas season.  This time of year brings many emotions stirring to the surface and the things that set apart this time of year are not only the joyful things but the poignant things…deep memories, hopes, and longings.  Many are the concerns and cares for our present situations and the world in which we live.

So it is good to have this time together and this place to just be.  We sing some songs, we are sung to, we reflect, we pray, and ask for God’s healing balm on the hurting places.  For us.  For all.

Last Sunday we had our Sunday School Christmas pageant at Our Savior’s.  It’s such a truly good time of the year.  There’s nothing quite like hearing that old, old story of our Savior’s birth being told by the youngest voices of the church.

We had our rehearsals and got the costumes ready to go.  The littlest children who had all been sheep and cows and chickens in the play in years past now wanted to have lines – so we had five angels and seven shepherds and a few extra wise men – but that’s okay.  We had a new baby born in our congregation this year so we were excited we even had someone to play the role of the baby Jesus.

It was a perfect evening with lovely weather, the excited children all showed up on time.  As we stood out on the steps before we processed in I thought about how it was one of those moments I wouldn’t forget as I ran my gaze over the children in their costumes laughing and talking in the twilight and then glanced at the parents inside, poised with their cameras, ready to take pictures with their hearts swelling with pride at their little shepherd, their little wise man, their little angel.  The kids did their parts wonderfully, they sang “Away in A Manger” so sweetly, the play went smoothly.  We really couldn’t have asked for a better evening.

But that evening at the very same time our church was full of all that sweetness and goodness, if you had looked over near the altar, burning silently the whole time was a long line of candles lighted since earlier that morning in memory of other beautiful children, twenty of them, and their teachers who died last week in violence.

Such horrible things, such blessed things, the sum of our days are knit together with both.

Every week at the end of the children’s sermon I say a prayer for the children – that God would guide them and guard them and this last Sunday as I said those same words I always say, the words felt so heavy and strange.  I’m certain Pastors and parents had prayed for those dear children in Connecticut, too, and yet they spend this Christmas grieving unspeakable loss, not getting to watch their child act in the pageant or sing “Away in a Manger.”

It’s times like this when we are forced to remember, in case we ever forgot, that faith in God is not a magic charm that keeps away bad things.  Trust and belief in Christ is not some sort of guarantee that harm will not come.

The steering wheel can still slip, the playground equipment can yet malfunction, the storm clouds could gather, the medicine can stop keeping the illness at bay at any time.  We cannot manage the future or predict what will meet us as we step into each minute.

So what do we do?

We cherish the now.  We do not know what will come, but we give thanks for the blessings there are.  I take a note from Mary, the mother of Jesus here.  One of my favorite verses from the Christmas story is where all these things were happening the night that Jesus was born and Mary was taking it all in.  It reads, “But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.”  The wisest and happiest people are the ones who notice their blessings, take time to treasure the moments while they are happening.

Pause over your coffee, go sit on the step when the breeze is just so, take the long way home, listen to your child’s breath – in and out, in and out – and whisper thanks to God.  These are the holiest moments there are, and when we really notice the loveliness of this world, that is greatest Hallelujah.

What else can we do?

We can trust that God is strong enough to hold the things we place in God’s hands.  It’s something my hometown pastor wrote to me when my mom was very sick and dying that brought me such comfort then and I know it will in my ministry and life for the rest of my days.  He wrote simply, “no matter what happens, Ruth, your mom is held in God’s hands.  And God’s hands are strong.”

Those simple words meant so much to me.  In her last months and days there was nothing we could control – it felt like everything – her life, our time together, our hopes for healing – all of it was just slipping right out of our grasp.  I knew I was losing her.  I knew the sadness of it all was going to be too much for me, I would disappear.  I always used to say that nothing was real until I told Mom about it – so then after she died, obviously, nothing would be real anymore.  The grief was crushing.  It filled me and then emptied me entirely.

But those few words her pastor wrote to me provided the one image of comfort during that time.  In life and in death, she was held safe in God’s hands forever.  She would never slip from his strong embrace.

And the old hymns ran through my brain all the time, their words of comfort and peace and assurance falling fresh on my ears as though I was really hearing them for the first time.        And while I knew that there was nothing I could do to get through that dark time and I knew that the sadness was going to be too much for me, I had a suspicion and a promise that it was not going to be too much for God.  God’s strong hands could hold me as well.

This is the message of hope that can carry us through this longest night and give us strength for seasons to come.  If it seems the illness has lasted too long and the healing will never come, remember you are held in God’s hands and God’s hands are strong.  When the worst thing has happened and so much is broken you are certain you will never be whole again, remember you are held in God’s hands, and God’s hands are strong.  When the diagnosis is grim, when the way is scary, when the promises have not been kept, when it seem darkness is all that will ever be – remember you are held in God’s hands, and God’s hands are strong.

 

 

Did You Find Everything Were Looking For?

The last few weeks I have been in stores more than a few times – and looking for presents as many of you probably have as well.  I was struck by how many employees there were in each store asking me, “Do you need help finding anything?”  “Can I help you find something?”  Then when I would finally make it up to the cashier, usually they would ask, too, “Did you find everything you were looking for?”

It struck me as overkill – but I’m sure it was really just good customer service. 

But I’ve been thinking about how we in the church, in our ongoing spiritual journey, have made this journey through Advent and we have arrived at Christmas Eve – how might we respond today if on the way out the ushers asked us to reflect on this season and answer the question, “Did you find everything you were looking for?”

Heaven knows we all arrive at Christmas with different needs and expectations.  We arrive having experienced all sorts of joys and sorrows and trouble and good in the last year.  We arrive here sometimes just because someone in our family asked us to come or because we aren’t quite sure what Christmas Eve would be like without this candlelight service or Holy Communion.  We may come with the same prayers we have been carrying around for years or perhaps some new ones, too.  We make our way up highway 6 and then up the snowy drive way and in through the glass doors and into this warm and cozy sanctuary and we sit together and sing and listen and when it’s all said and done, “Did you find everything you were looking for?”

A couple years ago on a quiet December evening, my son, Jesse, and I were at the nursing home we went to all the time in our little town in Texas and we were visiting with one of our church members there, Frances, in a waiting room.  Jesse was playing his little handheld video game and I was doing a crossword puzzle with Frances – and finally it came time for us to go and so I went to bring Frances back to her room and Jesse said he would wait for me and keep playing his game in the waiting room.  Well, as I was bringing Frances back to her room, I thought about how I hadn’t seen another one of my parishioners, Olaf, at the Supper table that evening and so I thought I would poke my head in his room to make sure he was doing okay.  His room was just down from Frances’ and it would just take a minute.  Well, it probably took about five minutes because of course Olaf and I started chatting and in the meantime, Jesse had gotten tired of waiting for me, had walked down to Frances’ room and when he didn’t find me there, went outside to see if our car was still there – and of course it was – but I wasn’t with the car, so then he started freaking out and went back to the waiting room, sat down, and started to cry – which was how I found him when I arrived moments later.

“I thought you were gone!” he cried.  “I thought you had forgotten me!” he wailed.  And I reassured him again and again that I would never leave him.  I had been right there all along – just down the hall…but I promised him that in the future if I decided to stop at someone else’s room I would let him know so he could find me.

I felt bad I had caused him to be so upset – but I remember feeling surprised, too, because how could he possibly ever think I could leave him behind?  I would sooner lop off my right arm than ever abandon my children – I couldn’t possibly do it. But I remembered once feeling that same fear as a child once when I was out grocery shopping at our tiny grocery store in Henning with my mom and she told me to go to the cereal aisle to pick out a brand and I loved to do that – I would go and pick the one that looked like it had the coolest prizes, so the task of picking out cereal took me a while – and looking back, I think that was probably nice for my mom because she got to be alone for a few minutes.  Well, I found the cereal and went to find her and I couldn’t see her anywhere.  I went out to the car, she wasn’t there.  I remember feeling tears welling up in my eyes and then finally I spotted her.  She had just gone to the bathroom quickly and now there she was in her dear old black coat and her kerchief on her head – and all was well.

Sometimes we think we are more lost than we are.  Sometimes we are certain we have been abandoned, that all is lost, when the truth is that all is well.

This is the heart of Christmas – this beautiful, joyful Christmas.  On this day, the church resounds not with the question, “Did you find what you were looking for?” –  Rather – with a blessed statement of unchanging truth, “Christ has found you.” Christ has come to you.  Christ is with you.  Always.

In your joy and your sorrow – Christ is with you.

In your victories and your defeats – Christ is with you.

In your hopes and your longings – Christ is with you.

In your strength and in your weakness – Christ is with you.

In your beginnings and your endings – Christ is with you.

On Christmas and every day – Christ is with us.

Thanks be to our newborn king.  In his name we pray.  Amen.

 

Don’t Leave Me Breathing

(I wrote this on September 26, 2012 – about ten months after my mom’s death. Everything I wrote then felt too personal to share, but now after time has gone by it feels good to look back at the healing that has happened and also to remember how raw the grief was for so long.)

I am so afraid of the grief leaving me.

The weather is starting to cool off a little bit here in Texas. Funny that it being in the eighties is cooling off, but that’s how it is here. September is nearing an end. Last year at this time mom and I were dancing together from the nursing home to the cardiologist to different hospital stays. It was like a terrible jig in which the steps got harder and the music got terribly unpleasant and we tried to stay together until ultimately, we collapsed in a heap of silence and stillness.

I miss her so deeply and fully. It’s the biggest feeling I can feel anymore – this grief and this emptiness. I can feel other things, surely – pride in my children and joy in the things they do. I feel love for them and Chad. I feel peace in my work and my church and I can feel annoyed when people disagree with me or if things don’t move at a pace I enjoy. But the only feeling that has really defined me for the last year is this grief.

But sometimes now, and this is the scary thing: I feel like I might actually survive it. And if I survive it, then I will come out on the other side somehow. I feel like the strands of this darkness are getting more slippery and I know it is God healing me – but I am terrified of it.

“Don’t leave me breathing,

no, not alone,

There’s so much more I meant to tell you.

I went by with flowers just to see,

But the granite told me you’re still gone.” 

(from the song, “So It Goes” by Chris Pureka)

As long as I keep carrying this sadness I’ll know it was true that I loved her. The empty place inside me is proof that maybe it is possible I can slowly disappear, too. Sometimes I wish for that. Or I wish I wished for that. It’s just this beautiful life distracts me. It’s hard to wallow too much when there are little boys to love and blessings all around.

The part of me that died when she died is dear to me. I don’t want it to live again. I want that empty space to remain as a monument to her. I don’t want it to be filled. The ache of it reminds me of all I have lost – all that I had when I had a mom so beautiful.

 

Pastrgrrl – September 26, 2012