Earlier in December my mother-in-law suddenly passed away. It was totally unexpected. You might say she was the picture of health and energy for a woman in her mid sixties. It took us all by surprise and initiated a season of grieving in the life of our large family. Since my mother-in-law died, many people have reached out to us. They’ve reached out to show their support, to offer their condolences and to help us feel that we were not alone in what we are experiencing.
Many friends told us their own stories of losing a loved one just before Christmas, and how hard that can be. How it changed the experience and meaning of Christmas for them forever. Now I understand why, in the beginning of December, so many pastors choose to preach on grief.
I had always wondered why so many pastors choose early December to preach on grief and loss. Now I know. It is more common than I ever thought to lose a loved one before Christmas. It’s almost like a hush hush club of Christmas grievers. You don’t know they’re all around you until you become one of them. In my experience, people haven’t really come out to say that this season is hard for them. But when you suddenly rank among them by losing a loved one before Christmas, they come out of the woodwork to offer empathy and all of a sudden you bypass the secret handshake. It is not a club that I would have ever have chosen to join. Yet, there is a comfort in knowing we are not alone.
For us this year, the Christmas season was characterized by a dichotomy of different bittersweet feelings; both those heavy feelings of grief; of wanting to curl up in a ball and hibernate. And also those of wanting to push through and keep Christmas light and happy for the children. Thus, we determined to put one foot in front of the other and keep moving forward. Thank goodness for children, and their ability to remain present and joyful amidst hardship. Thank goodness for the Christ story that puts a face on God and gives us hope in the form of a person to focus on during this time of wanting tangible support.
For our family grieving this Christmas, no one had to tell us that Christmas was more than a Hallmark holiday, and more than an annual exchange of gifts. We were already there. Our hearts were primed to connect to the Christ story in meaningful ways. We were hungry for the presence of God, and to be reminded that His presence had come to us in the form of a babe. And he came again in the form of blazing tongues of fire by His Spirit, the Comforter. And he continues to come to us in the countless blessings of our daily lives, like the kindness of a friend or in the only-God-could-have-done-this timing of peace-giving events.
Because of the Christ story we were attuned to the hopeful anticipation of love come down, and of it bringing healing and joy with it.
Because of the Christmas story of Emmanuel, we can say through our dark hours, “God is with us”!
Because of the Christ story we are reminded by Jesus to face living and dying well because we have hope that we are seen in our grief today, and brighter hope for healing and meaning-making tomorrow.
Because the Christ story has made God a person-like form with whom we can relate, relationship with the Spirit of God is easier to understand as a two-way street. I look for, and receive, personal gifts of hope and healing from God, especially amidst tragedies like unexpected loss. For example, a letter came in the mail for me from my mother-in-law five days after she died and its contents were healing. Another friend received a message in a dream for me from my mother-in-law, providing further comfort, healing and closure in specific ways. These are tender mercies from an ever-loving, personal God who shows that he is with us and caring for us.Because of Jesus, we have hope that, just as we all came from God, so too, we will return to God. Such is the cycle of life that none can escape. Jesus says, “He who believes in me with never die”. Not a promise to escape the death of this material world, but a hospitable welcome to the mystery of God’s presence in the next place. And such is the cycle of afterlife, that we will see God and our loved ones again. Thus, we mourn, we grieve, but not without hope in something very good.
In the mean time, during our tenure here on earth, sudden death reminds us that OUR days, too, are numbered. OUR DAYS ARE NUMBERED! This thought is a disruptor to the habitual ritual and calm of our daily lives. We are invited to live more meaningful lives in light of this reality. We have an important mission here on earth, if we choose to accept it. We can choose to join God in the rebinding of earthly realities until the love, life and peace of God are expressed on earth as it is in heaven.
We ARE God’s plan to help restore the world. We each have the potential to echo the redemption of humanity that he initiated on earth. In all of the infinite ways we express this through our individual callings, this is our over-arching mission; to echo God’s restoration. To reflect and co-labor with God in His restoration or relationships in the world.
“Healthy religion, as the very word re-ligio “rebinding” indicates, is the task of putting our divided realities back together: human and divine, male and female, heaven and earth, sin and salvation, mistake and glory” – Richard Rohr
These past weeks when our friends have poured out their sympathy, empathy and compassion, we have been reminded of how connected we all are. How united we are in our mission to make the world a better, more healed place. We were reminded that in our grief and pain, we were not alone. Through life’s ups and downs, we each get chances to be the hands, feet and heart of Jesus to one another, so binding ourselves together all the more.
So, too, we echo Jesus by weeping with those who weep, and rejoicing with those who rejoice, extending forgiveness and kindness in people’s times of need. And by doing do, we help to knit the world back together.
“If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26).
To summarize, here is a simple poem I wrote.
The Courage to Grieve
We join with so many holiday grievers, this time when people try to be strong,
We stand hopeful, with so many believers, looking forward to singing a more joyful Song.
Amidst holiday grieving we seek the courage to say,
Our hearts have been broken since we lost her that day.
Yet we hear a voice, “Oh child don’t you know?”
Even though you lost your heart, mine won’t let you go.
So we take time in our lives, in these dark winter days,
To mourn yet remember the best of her ways.
Until all shall be well, moving forward we’ll go,
We’ll remember her always, even as we let go.
Until all shall be well, moving forward we’ll go.
Upheld by our hope in the God who we know.