Blue Christmas (a sermon for the Longest Night)

Luke 2:1-20

2 Now it came to pass in those days, there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment made when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to enroll themselves, everyone to his own city.

4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David;5 to enroll himself with Mary, who was betrothed to him, being great with child.

6 And it came to pass, while they were there, the days were fulfilled that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son; and she wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were shepherds in the same country abiding in the field, and keeping watch by night over their flock. And an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

10 And the angel said unto them, Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all the people: for there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this is the sign unto you: Ye shall find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

14 Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men in whom he is well pleased. And it came to pass, when the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing that is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.

16 And they came with haste, and found both Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in the manger. And when they saw it, they made known concerning the saying which was spoken to them about this child.

18 And all that heard it wondered at the things which were spoken unto them by the shepherds.

19 But Mary treasured all these sayings, pondering them in her heart.

20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, even as it was spoken unto them.

 

 

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 I just read 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.

(December 2012)

Hurt

Reflections on Shuffle-Play

Depression is no fun. It slinks in on a perfectly lovely day and hovers over everything, putting a slightly minor tune over the notes of each hour.

I’ve learned over the years how to take care of myself in the midst of recurring depression. I know to be gentle with myself, to do my best to eat well and keep on exercising. I speak to myself in a mothering way, gently reminding me that even though I might feel like burying my face in junk food or watching TV all day, I will likely feel better if I get up and move and stay busy.

I read a book many years ago called, “Care of the Soul”, in which the author, Thomas Moore, talked about how these times when we feel unhappy or ‘down’ have real value and rather than trying to usher them away, it is better to see what insight they might offer us. For example, if you are feeling bad and you don’t know why, don’t punish yourself by thinking, “I really ought to feel happier. Why am I being so ridiculous!? Cheer up, self!”  Instead, consider that perhaps you are needing some time alone or some time to be quiet. When we feel down, we naturally tend to be quieter and more lost in thought and perhaps that is what you need. Take time for yourself and remember that just as the earth goes through seasons, so do we.  Not every day is going to be a sunny summer day. There have to be the gray, rainy days, too.

When I keep this perspective that feeling down is a natural part of life rather than the sign that I’m doing something wrong, I’ve found that the dark times don’t get quite so dark.

Sometimes I think being a mother helps, too. I need to stay healthy and take care of myself so that I’m able to remain present and functioning for my children. I can’t afford to be a drama queen like I sometimes was in college or my twenties or even my early thirties. The world won’t wait for me while I sit on the porch and smoke a thousand cigarettes in a cloud of doom. So, instead, I look for ways to draw glimmers of joy back and lift the depression as soon as possible.

I realize as I write this that there are levels of depression – and actual clinical depression can’t just be lifted with some simple steps. It often takes therapy and/or medication. If you are feeling persistent, ongoing depression, please get help from a medical professional.  And, for the rest of this reflection, I will switch to the term, ‘sadness’ to refer to what I am addressing here.

Here are the best ways I have found to combat sadness:

  1. Work on a task: cooking, baking, creating anything. Getting the mind going and focusing on something else is quite helpful.
  2. Watch a movie. I love movies and they can be a blessed reprieve from thoughts that are taking me on a downward spiral.
  3. Spend time with my children. Doing anything with my kids helps me find laughter again.
  4. Go for a walk! Fresh air and a change in scenery is best, but a treadmill will do.
  5. Pet a cat.
  6. Or a dog.
  7. Take care of some small chore or errand you have been putting off: organize your drawers, organize the spices, clean out the refrigerator, take some items to Goodwill – completing something that needs to be done gives a sense of accomplishment and that combats the helplessness that sometimes comes with random sad days.
  8. Usually when I write, I am able to figure out why I am sad and that understanding brings a sense of peace.
  9. I find that often my writing takes on the shape of prayer when I am sad.
  10. Call a friend or go for a walk with a friend. If I am feeling like talking, spending time with a safe, trusted friend is great therapy.
  11. Or isolate myself for a bit if I need to and not feel guilty about that. For an introvert, time alone can be very healing and helpful.
  12. A nap or going to bed early has great curative properties. Most of us walk around tired too much of the time. If you are feeling ‘off’ and you just aren’t sure why, a nap could be a great place to start.

It might be comforting, as well, to remember that most people go through times when they feel sad for reasons they can’t quite explain. It’s part of being human. If today is a sad day for you, I pray you feel better soon. Until then…listen to some Johnny Cash – cuz that can only help.

Hurt

Recorded by NIN and Johnny Cash

I hurt myself today
To see if I still feel
I focus on the pain
The only thing that’s real
The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting
Try to kill it all away
But I remember everything

What have I become
My sweetest friend
Everyone I know goes away
In the end
And you could have it all
My empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt

I wear this crown of thorns
Upon my liar’s chair
Full of broken thoughts
I cannot repair
Beneath the stains of time
The feelings disappear
You are someone else
I am still right here

What have I become
My sweetest friend
Everyone I know goes away
In the end
And you could have it all
My empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt

If I could start again
A million miles away
I would keep myself
I would find a way