Mixed Blessings

This Christmas season was unusually difficult for me. I typically become so busy with work and preparations that it can feel as though Christmas and New Years is gone within a ‘blink’! But, this year I found my heart was heavy and my mind distracted. I was still busy, but there was this constant hum in the background which pulled me into moments of sadness and anxiety, and I couldn’t seem to pinpoint an exact cause. Most likely it was a lot of different concerns and fears that somehow became all entwined together and kept weighing me down like pulling an anchor along behind me. Some days I merely found it exhausting while other days I had to simply find a space to cry. It’s not as though I were completely miserable this season. There moments of laughter and fun with friends, but I just couldn’t seem to shake this anxious sadness.

I tried my usual techniques for managing stress and anxiety with meditation and exercise, and of course I already pray– a lot, so bringing my concerns to God was front and center. But that was just it, even though I asked God for help I kept feeling that sadness creep back in. Was I not letting go? Was God not paying attention? Was there some higher purpose for my suffering? When you’re feeling crummy it really doesn’t matter, you just don’t want to feel crummy anymore. I just had to keep telling myself to ‘just keep swimming’. After all, I had a lot of responsibilities over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

The services at my church were magnificent, as always, with soaring music and beautiful rituals. I continued to struggle with some difficult emotional moments, but what was interesting was the homily on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. At that same moment in each service it was as if the preacher were speaking directly to me. I know some of you have had those experiences, when the message just strikes a chord in your heart. It was strong enough that I sat up and took notice. It was as if God, as if a friend, were tugging on my sleeve and saying, “I know you’re hurting, but I’m right here… I’m right with you.” My heaviness seemed a little lighter in that moment. I didn’t feel alone in my pain.

Isn’t that what what the entire biblical narrative is really all about? No matter what is happening, no matter how people are hurting inside or causing each other pain– isn’t God constantly saying and showing us, “Hey! I’m right here… I’m with you. I never leave you.”

I held my sorrow a little differently from that point on. I realized that I could at once feel my pain and believe that God’s love was enfolding me, protecting me, and guiding me onward. My suffering did not exist in the absence of God, nor was it possible because I was not faithful enough. Sometimes we just hurt. It’s real, it matters, and it deserves attention, but it need not overshadow our capacity to walk with God and each other each. That gift was offered to creation from the very beginning.

Divine Love didn’t begin at Christmas. That sweet manger scene in Bethlehem was another ‘beginning’ to a ongoing, unending, display of God’s miraculous mercy and love. There were countless people hurting, one way or another, on the night in which Jesus was born. There were countless people suffering on that bright Easter morning when an empty tomb heralded Christ’s resurrection once more. I believe God’s persistent Emmanuel reminder is not an end to human suffering, but to show us that no matter what we are experiencing we can know that we are not alone– That God is in us, experiencing our sorrow, and working through us in every moment.

The end-of-the-year holidays can be a challenging time for many people and sometimes in the hustle and bustle of carols and cookies, shopping and church, we can become blind to our fellow brothers and sisters who are hurting right in our midst. So keep your eyes open to those around you who are vulnerable this season. Offer them kindness and prayers of peace, and if you are hurting this Christmastide, know that God is with you now and always. That is the true peace that passes all understanding.

Pregnant Pause

Advent has begun and the journey from darkness to light, Nazareth to Bethlehem, empty manger to the birth of Jesus is upon us. These familiar patterns are always full of possibility and challenge, and I have to say I’ve grown quite fond of Advent for that very reason. However, I always have to resist the urge to jump past the journey directly to Christmas! I mean… come on… ‘Christmas’ is all around us even from before Thanksgiving; many churches have even begun singing Christmas carols! But our Church tradition provides a very important period of reflection and preparation before we even reach the manger and the Christ-child. I only wish more of our culture embraced this season of waiting and wanting, and it’s opportunities to slow down, not speed up.

Full disclosure: I always struggle with patience myself, and find it much easier to reflect upon than to actually put it into practice. But for some reason in my prayer life recently, I keep coming back to the imagery of pregnancy. I have never been pregnant, nor am I a woman, but we’re all fairly familiar with the process. (If you haven’t watched the BBC series, “Call the Midwife” – you must!)

There are many, many passages in scripture which reference birth, from the literal act to the metaphorical such as being ‘born again’ in spirit and so on, and I am reminded that an important part of pregnancy is that it shouldn’t be rushed. In its healthiest capacity, it has to unfold naturally allowing time for the mother and the child to prepare for the violent and often dangerous act of the birth itself. Mothers I have spoken to mention all of the changes for which they had to adapt, leading up to birth and the expectation, excitement, and fear as the day drew ever closer. For many, labor is painful and even terrifying, but as John 16 reminds us, “when she gives birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy that a child has been born into the world.”

So, if you’re able, enjoy this ‘pregnant pause’ before the birth of Jesus. This necessary, hopeful, waiting which allows our hearts and minds to prepare for the wonderful and tremendous intrusion of God into our very midst. Open the hymnal and relish over the beautiful Advent hymns that come before the well-beloved Christmas favorites. Let the light of the Advent wreath dance in your heart as the darkness is peeled back layer by layer each week. And, finally, rejoice in the birth of new hope and unending possibility that comes with Emmanuel, God with us!