What pops into your mind when you think of Christmas?
Colored lights, tinsel, festive decorations? Familiar music, parties, family gatherings? Joy, the promise of a Savior, God with us?
How about death, loss, and grief? That’s probably not what you expected.
Christmas is a time for glad tidings of great joy, but we also must be sensitive to those for whom the holiday invokes painful memories and highlights difficult circumstances. This isn’t the cheeriest of holiday greetings. I hope you’ll forgive me for reminding us that we’re likely to encounter folks that can’t quite share our holly-jolly spirit.
When I began teaching I was struck by a predictable rise in discipline problems between Thanksgiving and Christmas break. It took a while to understand that, for some kids, that two-week break was anything but the most wonderful time of the year. Family expectations, increased alcohol use, and financial stress lead to increased conflict. Those kids dreaded being isolated in often violent and abusive situations.
* My best friend passed away last December 23rd. I’m sure his wife and son will experience periods of profound sadness amidst piles of wrapping paper.
* I know folks who will be alone for the first time this Christmas. Divorce, death, kids moved away, husband’s deployed in Afghanistan—lots of reasons to find some loneliness and despair beneath the tree.
* For many years December was a really tough month for me. My injury happened on December 5th, and you can imagine that memories of Christmas in the ICU with screws in my head didn’t exactly make succeeding holidays an occasion for excited anticipation.
However, I’m also living evidence that God redeems and heals painful circumstances. As I began writing this, I realized that December 5th had passed un-noticed. And my story about my hospital Christmas is that the nurses decorated me—they hung Christmas ornaments from the screws. Hospital humor, I guess.
God is gracious and patient and relentless—hey, that would make a good book title: Relentless Grace! He didn’t give up on me, and he’ll work for good in troubled situations this year as well.
But even knowing that doesn’t make the darkness disappear for folks who are in the middle of the storm. We don’t have to hide our own celebration, but I hope we make time to listen to those who look at the baby in the manger and wonder where He went.
My one suggestion—don’t try to make it all okay, because right now it’s just not all okay. Don’t offer platitudes and catchy scripture passages that are somehow supposed to turn that frown upside-down. People who are hurting don’t need cheering up as much as they need someone to listen without judgment or expectation.
I’ve said before that some of the most bizarre statements I’ve ever heard came from well-meaning Christians who wanted to provide a tidy explanation for a horrible, senseless accident. If someone’s hurting, you won’t help by assuring them that it’s all part of God’s plan. That’s not what they need.
What do they need? You.
We all know one person who needs someone to have lunch or a cup of coffee or a beer with them over the next two weeks. Call that person. Listen and laugh and cry and let them share the pain and the memories. It might be uncomfortable, but it’ll be okay.
I’m thinking it might have been a little uncomfortable for God’s Son to leave Heaven for a smelly stable. But that’s what He did, because He knew some hurting people who needed Him.
This shouldn’t be a depressing reminder. Following Jesus in real life means encountering some mud and potholes and hurting people along the road. I don’t want to be a Pollyanna Christian who crosses to the other side and misses the joy of servicing and listening.
It’ll be hard sometimes, but it’ll be okay.
Who do you need to call?