(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.