My colleague at San Diego Hospice, Lori Leopold, is a Methodist minister and has been a hospice chaplain for a little over 8 years. For the 2nd year in a row she has presided over a liturgy called “Blue Christmas” at La Jolla United Methodist Church. Their description of the liturgy is this:
The Blue Christmas Service is designed and offered especially for those who struggle during the holiday season. For anyone who has suffered a loss – the loss of health, the loss of a loved one or a pet, the loss of a job or a relationship – the holidays can be an especially difficult time of year. Just when our culture tells us we are supposed to be “merry and bright,” we can find ourselves feeling most lost and alone. It is an important time to draw close to God and allow God to draw close to us in a quiet, reflective service that acknowledges the reality of our wounds and the graciousness of God who comes to meet us there.
This year Nancy and I attended and I’m grateful we did. I expected this to be akin to “I know it’s a hard time of year but it’s going to be OK.” Lori’s preaching turned it into something much more. She spoke about how during times of despair, loneliness, and separation the Incarnation (birth of the Savior) is all the more poignant. Christ came for all of us, but most importantly for those in most need. The pastor of the church read from 1 Kings 19:1-16. Here is the text of Lori’s homily:
I love this passage from 1 Kings. It has intrigued me for as long as I’ve been familiar with it. It feels deep and rich, whispering of something profound and holy. And while this section is a small piece of a much larger story, I want to focus just on this small piece tonight. The prophet Elijah, fleeing for his life, becomes overcome by despair. He finds himself deep in the wilderness, sitting beneath a solitary broom tree and is so overwhelmed that he asks God to take his life. An angel encourages and enables him to continue on his journey and he winds up at Mt. Horeb where he is told to go out and stand on the mountain because the Lord is about to pass by.
The scripture says that as Elijah stood there, a great wind came up, so strong that it broke rocks into pieces, but that God was not in the wind. And the wind was followed by an earthquake, but again, God was not in the earthquake. And the earthquake was followed by a fire, but God was not in the fire. But after the fire, came the sound of sheer silence – and God was in the silence. And it was out of that silence that God spoke to Elijah about where he should go from there.
Can you imagine? There was Elijah, waiting, probably breathlessly, for the Lord to come, for the Lord to pass by. And all of these dramatic things began to happen – wind and earthquake and fire. But each time we hear that God was not in the dramatic event. That God was not contained in the wind, the earthquake or the fire. Now that’s certainly not to say that those dramatic events were coincidental, because it was the coming of God that set all of those things into motion. They wouldn’t have happened if God weren’t passing by. But they did not contain the holy – they were not the way that God chose to reveal Godself. God revealed Godself not in the flash of those happenings, but rather in the pure silence. In fact, the scripture goes on to show that God revealed Godself to Elijah in a way that was gentle, in a way that was understandable, in a way that was personal and in a way that was purposeful.
And I think that this scripture passage holds a lot of meaning for us as we contemplate the Christmas season, maybe especially if we, like Elijah, find ourselves in a time searching, struggling, despairing. It’s easy to identify the flash, the flurry, the whirlwind, the dramatic and out of the ordinary things that happen around Christmas. The decorations and lights and card writing and baking and singing and shopping and holiday parties. All of those cultural Christmas traditions are something akin to the wind and the earthquake and the fire. They are the things that happen around Christmas. And as it was with the wind and the earthquake and the fire, our Christmas flurry is, in some way, set in motion by God’s coming. Because, chances are, we wouldn’t be doing all of this if the Christ child hadn’t come in the first place. It is to God’s coming, to the incarnation, that we have attached 2000 years worth of tradition, layers of stuff that, in some way, shape or form, point back to the heart of Christmas.
So when we peel away the layers of activity, when we peel away all of the stuff that’s accumulated around Christmas, we return, really, to the heart of things. We come down to the stillness, the silence of one holy night. A night when God came, so like God, not in the furiousness of a wind storm, not in the dramatic shaking of an earthquake, not in the searing heat of a fire, but when God came into the world in a way that was gentle, in a way that was understandable, in a way that was personal and in a way that was purposeful.
When I think about it, I always imagine that the vast darkness of that night swallowed up the sight and the sound of that small family in that small place. Or maybe I should say that I imagine that the night seemed to swallow up the sight and sound of them. Because we know that ultimately it did not. It could not. We know that the birth of that child – so small, so subtle, birthed into the holy stillness of that night was a flicker of light that would burn bright and eternal, changing the world and changing us forever.
There have been times in my life when despair has darkened the doorstep of my spirit. Despair over personal circumstances, despair over the violence that wreaks havoc in our world. I can’t imagine that there is one among us that wasn’t shaken to the core, shattered in some way, by the shootings in Connecticut last week. There have been times in my life when I have found myself beneath the proverbial broom tree. Perhaps you have been there too. Times when I wanted and prayed for a sign – a big, bold catastrophic sign, to assure me of God’s presence. I never got one. But what I’ve come to believe is that God is not forceful or showy, especially with those who feel particularly tender or wounded. Rather God reveals Godself lovingly and sometimes surprisingly in those precious moments of stillness and silence. God provides an unexpected angel or some small sustenance, strength for the journey, even when we may have many miles of wilderness left to go.
It is a great irony to me that those who are grieving oftentimes find themselves feeling utterly disconnected from Christmas. I was talking with a friend the other day and she said, “I hate Christmas.” She’s dreading it, can’t wait until it’s over. And it’s true that against the backdrop of all of the more superficial merriment, our grief can make us feel alien, alone, out of step with everything and everyone around us. But in reality, when we go back to the heart of things, peel away all those layers of fluff around Christmas, it is that aspect of all of us, the part of us that is wounded, that is broken hearted that God most wants to reach with the miracle of Christmas. How much we might miss if we tuck those aspects of ourselves away as if they’re somehow inappropriate in light of the holiday season. I believe, with all my heart, that what God wants from us this Christmas is to make those parts of ourselves available – to God, maybe to one another – that, resting in silence, we might receive the blessing of the One who came to love us, to encourage us, to heal us, to set us free.
Thank you Lori: it was an evening well spent. I have ahead of me many hours of thinking and praying on this.