Mom's painting of Mary
Something strains to be born
to shake itself free:
something brand new trembles
at the far edge of our minds:
the shape of a world to come
conceived in our present labor and pain.
~ Poems of the Hidden Way, Catherne deVinck
Today is a day celebrated around the world. It matters that we remember that carols are being sung and bells rung in San Juan and Houston, on the hillside of California and the streets of New York, in Seoul and Gaza and where you are this day. This is a day when we are all, each one reminded that God’s promise is living in us – Emmanuel, God with us.
In and through our grieving there are times of silence. Silence that stays with us sometimes moments, sometimes stretching into days. There are times when words won’t come. There are times when words fall so short of what matters, what speaks for us. And this silence is a part of the journey. This silence is a holding place for our spirits to catch up.
In and through our grieving there are times of singing. Throughout our lives we are given songs with words that express our feelings when we feel lost from our words. From “Jesus loves me this I know,” to “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” there are songs to share this time of grief and healing.
Christmas morning is the living out of faith, hope and love. Especially on this day there are stories and melodies of all three wrapped into one. It is our faith that has brought us this far – through the snowy, blustery days and the quiet, star-filled nights we have come. It is our hope that has brought us to this day – with an encouraging word from a friend, or a candle lit to keep us going. It is our love that has brought us here – love living on and within us from the ones we are missing this season, love that graces us from God’s incarnational presence to guide us on.
This day our hearts have come to Bethlehem. We have journeyed step by step to this day and to this place. It is here that our stories are held in God’s greater story. It is here that angels sent words of comfort and great joy, “Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord." In the silence and the singing – today and each day we listen for the hope that comes with a baby’s first cry.
On the Eve of Christmas Hatred will vanish
On the Eve of Christmas the Earth will flourish
On the Eve of Christmas War will be gone
One the Eve of Christmas Love will be born
When we offer a glass of water to a thirsty person
it is Christmas
When we clothe a naked person with a gown of love
it is Christmas
When we wipe the tears from weeping eyes
it is Christmas
When the spirit of revenge dies in us
it is Christmas
When in my heart I no longer want to stay apart
it is Christmas
When I am buried in the being of God
it is Christmas
[Sabeel Liberation theology Centre (Jerusalem), Shine on, Star of Bethlehem]
Christmas Eve is the night of “not yet.” We are almost there and at the same time we are here. Not yet. Christmas Eve is the night of so many stories. For our whole lives many of us have heard that the inn had no room. We have heard that the shepherds and the angels gathered, whispered to themselves and to those close by about what was happening. We've been told that there was singing in anticipation. All those sounds and expressions of the night with weary journeyers, a lonely and deserted stable, and in the end an empty manger. Not yet.
So much of grief is held in anticipation- seeing beyond what is here and what is now. So much of grief is ‘not yet.' Not yet feeling re-connected. Not yet feeling recovered. Not yet to a place to rejoice.
O come, thou Wisdom from on high,
who orderest all things mightily;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go.
Rejoice, rejoice Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, o Israel.
All this season we’ve been seeking wisdom, following the path before us, waiting and watching for lessons along the way. Tonight, here as we enter Bethlehem we are hoping for what we know is surely coming. We are hoping for promises answered. We are hoping for angels to tell us to fear no more, for a star to guide us these last steps. We are hoping. And we are waiting.
Tonight is the night of song and story coming together. Leading us. Holding us. Calming us. Reminding us of the coming at last of God’s promise. Even in the midst of our grief, Emmanuel companions us. Especially here on this Eve of Christmas we are receiving God’s everlasting promise. Be not afraid. We are not alone, God is with us.
(thanks to friend, Mary Jean for this beautiful picture)
This picture was taken in our driveway. I took it a couple years ago when I was a hospice chaplain. It was the end of a long day and I had parked the car and was gathering up my things to go into the house when I heard the swooping of wings. I looked up and not ten feet from my open window there on the fence post was a hawk. I fumbled and bumbled to take this picture. And she seemed to just be staring at me. Amazing. Powerful. Beautiful. My second address to her was a question and third a greeting (my first exclamation is not really for young ears): “Where have you been?" and "Thank you for coming.”
There can be a strong temptation to go through our grieving days on auto pilot. Some days it feels easier to just zone out and allow the numbness to take over. There are days when it’s just too doggone hard to feel anything. There are days when we are looking for someone or something to show us what to do next.
Messengers come. They come into our lives at some of the most unexpected times, and sometimes at the most helpful of times. These messengers can be people, they can be old friends or family. A messenger can be a stranger on the street or someone sitting next to you on the shuttle bus. Messengers can also come from nature. Often my messengers appear as hawks or geese.
Every now and then messengers bring us words of guidance. More often than not though, they just help us wake up. Seeing them can awaken us. They can surprise us. They can help us shift our thoughts. They can give us pause to stop and to think differently. Grief has no road map, there is no checklist that will bring us healing. So, the gift from a messenger isn’t always easily understood. From them we can receive an invitation to see in a bigger or different way. I’m often reminded of seeing “from a bird’s eye view.” Each messenger is saying to me, “you’re not stuck, there’s something else.” Keep watching. These messengers can help us re-shape, re-visit, re-member. These messengers can remind us that truly, truly we are never alone. There is a greater energy and love that holds us. Keep watching, Emmanuel is coming.
There have been days in my life when I’ve known deep in my bones about the truth of the phrase: the morning after. This morning is one for all of us. Yesterday’s Solstice marked the longest night of the year. It is one 24-hour period of time when nature shows us what grief might physically look like. More dark than light. The longest night comes to us during Advent, during our season of waiting. The longest night comes when we are remembering God’s promise of Emmanuel, of God’s ageless promise to be with us. Always.
I remember the morning after we found out that mom had lung cancer. I remember knowing that the world would never be the same. I remember that the life I knew had shifted. I knew that morning that this was a life-moment for our family. And I remember seeking out the light. Any light. The sun or the moon or a single candle.
And now with the coming of this Friday morning, it is up to us to accept our gift: More Light is Coming.
What does that mean for us? Perhaps it’s as simple as each day growing a little lighter. Perhaps these words can bring comfort to those of us who are grieving in these December days. Perhaps with this invitation we can breathe a little deeper and live into our hope of healing. Perhaps these words can bring an assurance that shifts can and do happen all around us; those shifts of the comfort that comes when pain begins to ease. Perhaps…What will this mean for us as we live in and through this day? Perhaps these words can even bring us home again.
Yesterday's Winter Solstice, the longest night has come and gone. This morning brings a possibility of a new shift for us all.. More light is coming.
In my heart of hearts I believe that with light comes hope. Light brings the possibility that now we may be able to see a little better for a little bit longer. Perhaps what is all around us won’t feel so dark.
This grief we are feeling will be carried for the rest of our lives. Sometimes it will feel lighter, perhaps sometimes heavier. Sometimes it is almost as if our grief becomes our companion, walking beside us and guiding us at times.
Our journey to Bethlehem continues. We are still on the path. We continue watching the stars overhead, listening for encouragement along the way. This is an intentional time and it matters that we take tender care of ourselves and one another. What I’ve learned along the way about grief and about this morning after is that light does return. We can see a little bit further today than we could yesterday. And with grace, our grief gets softer.
The power of Waboose (winter season) is a paradoxical power. It is new life cloaked in death, rapid growth cloaked in rest. It is the power of the ice-goddess with a warm heart beneath a frozen exterior. It is the power of new life beginning to throb through an apparently rotting seed. It is the power of snow bringing water to a dry and thirsty earth. It is the power of ice breaking large rocks into small pebbles….It is the power of animals huddling together for warmth, hunting together for food.
For humans, the time of Waboose can be a trying time. For those who live in nature it is a time when the cold forces one to spend more time inside, in closer contact with the people you live with. It is a time of testing of relationships, as the enforced closeness causes people to see things they can either ignore or escape when the weather allows them to be more with the outdoors. It is a time when the forces of nature often cause plans to shift. It is a time, when the North Wind blows her coldest, that you feel the cold in the pit of your stomach and begin to wonder whether you will ever really be warm again. It is a time when nature throws you into yourself so that you have to explore territory that might otherwise be unfamiliar. While it is a time of external rest, the time of Waboose is a time of internal growth.
~ The Medicine Wheel by Sun Bear and Wabun
Tonight marks the longest night of the year. It comes as we share this season of waiting, this time of not yet, but soon. And tonight, we are especially mindful of time spent waiting in the dark. I’ve never sat vigil through a winter solstice. I wonder what it would be like. I imagine that I would be grateful even for one small candle to light the room with the sweeping darkness.
Advent is the season of Emmanuel, God with us. And especially on this day and this night of the Winter Solstice we yearn for God’s presence. It’s easy to get lost in the dark. It’s easy to be afraid. It’s easy to feel as though we are the only one.
The reading (above) from The Medicine Wheel about the time of Waboose (winter), feels so familiar to what is happening internally with grief. The notion of appearing to be dormant and yet, so much happening inside. I’m grateful for this perspective. It feels so true that there is much going on “underneath” as I live in and through these grieving days.
The trees are bare now, the wind seems to move through them faster. The sunsets are different in the winter season, more purples and grays paint the sky. The stillness of walking in fresh snow – making our own path as we go. As today marks a new season may we, too be mindful of changes (great and small) within us. May we give ourselves permission to follow nature’s lead, acknowledging a warm heart inside. May we, like humans have done for generations before us huddle together for warmth.
Restore us, O God, let your face shine that we might be saved:
From the wilderness we spun around us when there was still shelter in sight.
From the strife we sowed between us when we clung to our side of right.
From the tears we drank as medicine for the anxious lies we tell.
From the prayers we said to guard us as our closest neighbors fell.
Restore us, O God, let your face shine as a lantern in our longest night.
(prayer from NDPC worship, December 10, 2017)
In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.
~ Robert Frost
As hard as it is to accept or even understand, Frost’s words are true. Life does go on. The sun rises, and a new day begins. And we are a part of it.
When we are in times of deep grief, it's almost impossible for us to get our heads and our hearts around life's moving on. And yet it happens. The hands on the clock continue to go ‘round, and one hour passes into another and into the next.
Part of the work of grief is to figure out what our place is as we enter what's next. Part of this grief work is to figure out where we are in the here and now. Meals need to be prepared, meetings need to be attended, the work needs to be done. This is here. This is now.
We are given no road map for this journey with grief. No one else’s instructions or directions can lead us from here to there. We are still here on this earth, in this season. Feeling what we are feeling. Holding on and letting go. The truth is: life is going on.
What brings me comfort and strength in this season is that those who I love, and miss are just a story away.
One late spring day years ago, I was sitting on a dock in north Georgia with my friend, GayBaby (her name always seemed to be one word). It was a perfect spring day. Warm with the sun shining down on us and a nice breeze was blowing, and time was our friend. We were sitting beside a lake and we were watching a turtle make her way along the shoreline just a bit away. GayBaby began telling me that turtles can carry time on their backs. [Editor’s note: Many of our conversations were just like this. She would say something that used English words, but sometimes made no real sense to me. Like this time at the lake…] How is, I asked her, that turtles can carry time? “Look at that old turtle’s back. See what’s painted on it? She’s carrying time – lunar months are all held, right there on her back. All of the world is there with her.” And then my friend looked at me and smiled and said, “and now because we see that in the turtle, in some wonderful way we are carrying time with us.”
Just like that old turtle making her way around the lake on that warm spring day, life goes on. My friend Gaybaby has been gone several years now, but she’s never far away. She’s right here in the telling of this story. And you can bet, she would tell it to you much, much better.
We are on a list you and me. This is a list that began centuries ago and it grows day by day. At kitchen tables and in cathedrals, we have been remembered. We’re not on this list for something we’ve accomplished or for something we’ve done. Our grief is known and felt by the One who created and is still creating. We who mourn are on this list because we are held, each one of us is in God’s heart.
In northern Israel there is a small chapel at the top of a hill where it is believed that Jesus spoke the words, “Blessed are they who mourn...” Overlooking the Sea of Galilee, the breeze still blows, and the clouds pass overhead. When I visited there years ago, I knelt in the pew and remembered my grandparents. I remembered their lives of faith: two Methodists, a Congregationalist and a Catholic. Living out their lives in the Midwest and the Northeast. One grandfather loved the land, the other the law. All four of them walked faithfully from birth to death. And as I knelt remembering them, I felt God's gracious blessing on them and on me. I looked up and saw the words of the beatitudes written in Latin on the ceiling. Surrounded by windows, light pouring in, Jesus’ words of blessing circled above us.
Blessed. We are called blessed. Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted (Mt. 5:4). It was written. It has been whispered. It has been spoken down through the ages. At the bedside and at the graveside. It has been told to believers from the time we were very young until the days that we are very old. This promise is tucked carefully into the fabric of our faith.
Down through time, our sorrow has been held dearly, wrapped in God’s promise of comfort. We are not blessed because we are to be pitied or set off to the side. We are not blessed because we are helpless. This blessing is a living statement, a declaration that those who mourn are members of the household of God. All this time, each of us is held in God’s loving kindness.
When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
Tonight, will be December’s New Moon. The Hebrews observed the new moon as the beginning. This bare-light marked the first day of the month, the first day of travel. For centuries it has been our time to begin again. For centuries it has been our time to step into what is coming next.
New moons are wisps of light. I remember when my dear friend, Susie was taking pictures of each cycle of the moon for our shared book, Relying on the Moon. I (naively) kept asking her to “get a good picture of the new moon.” Well, it turns out that that was a difficult ask. Why? It’s difficult you see (silly Lesley), because there’s hardly any moon there. It’s just started, just born almost and there’s not yet a great deal of there there. Susie, good friend that she is would keep at it and took some pretty great shots...but her realization of such a challenge was an important lesson: Often when life is starting, when practices are new, when shifts happen and we suddenly see something old in a new way – there are the tiniest of visible changes. It’s not a drum roll, the curtains part and - - ta-da - - we are changed. It’s infinitesimal. It’s easily passed over. It’s often not even seen.
Changes come in our season of grieving. So often they are like the sighting of a new moon. You think you know it, feel it, you possibly can even see it, but it’s so hard to capture. It’s so hard to show someone else. But somewhere, deep in our heart of hearts we begin to acknowledge a change. Because it is so small and difficult to demonstrate or capture, we are served well by grace.
Grace and mercy are grief’s most kind companions. Grace allows us to be stuck and lost and not-ourselves. Grace surprises us with joy or beauty or a fresh baked cookie. Grace forgives and restores us time and time and time again. Mercy allows us to not do grief well. Somehow many of us feel that grief can be ordered, and rules are there to be followed, boxes there to be checked. For those of us who have lived our grief, we know better. C.S Lewis spoke it well calling his lovely book A Grief Observed. Not ordered or completed. Mercy offers daily, hourly forgiveness.
So, what is beginning in you on this day of a new moon? What are you seeing that none of us can yet make out? What has shifted in you that might be your first steps on this pilgrimage toward healing?
And we know that answers to any questions don’t tell us nearly all of what a question may hold. They just help us focus a bit and look at what is there.
New moons don’t provide hardly any light at all. Emerson’s quote reminds us of the gift of seeing something new when we are working really hard at seeing something else. Emerson’s quote can remind us that there’s more there there. Always has been, always will be.
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.
Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.
~ Christina Rossetti
Singing Christmas carols has always been one of my favorite Christmas traditions. Growing up in rural, Central Illinois town we had the gift of knowing most of our neighbors. And in December there was most always snow. Enough snow to get in your shoes if you didn’t wear boots, and enough ice to fall on your fanny if you weren’t paying attention. My sisters and some friends would get together as it was growing dusk, and started singing and walking. When neighbors came to the door, we would stand outside and sing two or three songs for them. Sometimes we’d be invited in for hot chocolate. We walked and sang up and down the streets. It makes my heart feel so happy that I can still sing the alto line and most of the words to all the carol’s “greatest hits.”
“In the Bleak Mid-winter” has become one of my favorite carols. “Snow had fallen, snow on snow” continues to resonate within me. I know that weather, that cold, those winter-only sounds. My history is held in those long winter nights when all that you could hear was the crunch under your boots, and if there was enough moonlight you could see your breath. I know those words and that feel.
We are not yet in mid-winter, it will come soon enough. We have now moved through mid-Advent, leaning toward Christmas Eve. A week yet for this season, still a week for our hearts to feel what this season brings. There is a tender timelessness about these words. Grief holds well these words, “frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone…” As with many hymns, they were first poems later put to music. Ms. Rossetti’s words companion so well how deep loss feels. There is a cold and a weight that takes up our whole world sometimes; it’s all we see imagine around us.
And as her words continue in her poem, so is she inviting us to continue. Living. Her word-painting encourages us past how things feel now and into a greater picture. She invites us past what is into what can yet be.
The last stanza rings true of the message of this season. We are not stationary objects, always to be in one place and time. We are living cells and spirits called to breathe our next breaths, take our next steps. Her last stanza can provide a map for making our way in and through these coming days.
She asks, “What can I give him?” And perhaps this can be a healing piece of these days. Giving. What can I give? I am still here. I am still contributing. I am still needed and purposeful. These words of healing are also the words of our life’s faith journey. “For it is in giving…” that we find our balance, our healing, our purpose.
Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could…Tomorrow is a new day.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
December can sometimes be a season of feeling blindsided. We go about our days. We go through routines and out of nowhere we hear a carol that brings us to our knees, a commercial that brings an endless flowing of tears. In moments like these it’s hard not to feel that instead celebrating these days, we need to steel ourselves against it. It’s hard not to feel the weight of all of Advent’s waiting.
Some days it can be hard to just feel anything at all.
Often it can feel as though our culture doesn’t allow much space for our grieving. I’ve found that folks around me talk too much or don’t appear to want to engage at all. Initially support surrounds us and then seems to drift away. We are a fast-paced people and loss is an uncomfortable companion.
Often it can feel like we are better off staying in our heads and not in our hearts. In that way, grief can bring many questions: “When” and “where” memories circle back time and time and time again to “how”? And sometimes tenderly we come to the places in our grief of “why”? And this “why” can leave us with a myriad of feelings. Of despair and anger, of regrets and wishes for something different.
And so we go through. We get through. We somehow make our way through. Minutes into hours, hours into days. We make our way through doing the best we can.
It feels important for us to remind one another about the grace of this season. When we recognize the feeling of steeling our way through our days, perhaps it’s time to take a deep breath, roll our shoulders forward and backward and allow ourselves to let go.
Indiana folk singer, Carrie Newcomer sings about this notion: Do your best, then say “Amen.” It’s our best blessing for one another in these tender days. When we finish up and are laying our heads down on our pillows, try acknowledging this blessing for yourself. Do your best, then say `amen.’ We did our best this day and it is plenty to pray over. We did our best, and may there be grace enough to then say, “Amen.”
Working in Family Experience at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, Lesley is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. She and her partner, Linda Ellis are raising their two sons, Brogan (now a freshman at Guilford College) and Sam at sophomore at DHS in Decatur, GA.