When You Feel Alone in Your Grief at Christmas

Remember that time where you got separated from your mom?

I think I was in a store (probably Jo-Ann Fabrics, because it seemed like every trip to town required a stop at that awful store – at least to a young boy). And my brother and I were probably running around, hiding in the racks when it dawned on me that I didn’t know where my mom was anymore.

As a kid, that moment – whether it was in a store, or the amusement park, or at a fair – is one that most of us can remember with all the clarity of what we ate for lunch today. We remember the panic, the fear, the sense of lostness and aloneness.

The longer I pastor, the more I’m aware that despite fashionable clothes, hip hairstyles, laughter and mirth there are many among us who are struggling with lostness and aloneness. I’m aware that even though many of the people you encounter in your workplace or in your house of worship or in your social circle may be laughing and may appear to have it all together, inside they feel just as lost and alone as we felt the day we lost our mom in the store.

Several years ago, my spiky-haired, Chuck-Taylor-wearing, Mennonite-pastor friend introduced me to the idea of The Longest Night liturgy. This will be our 4th year of observing The Longest Night at Imago Dei and to my reckoning, it’s become one of the most important things we do in our church every year.

If you’re not familiar with it, The Longest Night is a liturgy written for the shortest day of the year – the day with the least amount of sunlight (aka: Winter Solstice, aka: Blue Christmas). The point of it is to hold sacred a space during the festivities of the holidays, between the laughing, eating, drinking, gift giving, singing, all of the merriment – to hold a sacred space for those wrestling with grief, lostness and aloneness.

It’s a space held for those who have lost marriages, loved ones, and jobs, who have faced the rejection of friends and the despair of deteriorating health. It is for those who feel alone and doubly so set against the relief of parties, lights, and holiday specials, where every television commercial seems to say “everyone else has it all together.” It’s a space held for all who suffer and grieve in a thousand ways, and to remind them, “we have not forgotten you this season.”

In our church, we hold this space sacred by entering into a darkened sanctuary, reading Scripture about how light enters the world through Jesus, and lighting candles as little symbols of hope for resurrection in the darkness. We sit with our brothers and sisters, we touch them, we let them know that we are with them as Christ is with us. We don’t offer platitudes or easy answers, we just offer our presence. It’s a space where we literally “weep with those who weep.”

It’s not hyperbole when I say to our church, “I think this is one of the most important things we do as a body all year, to let each other know that we’re in it with you.”

So, consider this your invitation to our Longest Night Service this Sunday. I don’t care what church you go to, and I’m not asking you to switch churches and come to ours. This isn’t about that. But, this Sunday night is about creating a sacred space and you are more than welcome to join us at 7pm on the shortest day of the year.

Generally Heading in the Right Direction

I’ve been reading Bob Goff’s Love Does, which I have very mixed feelings about. (I’ll write a short review on Goodreads for those of you that are interested in that sort of thing when I finish it tonight or tomorrow.)

Anyway, he was telling a story about navigating a sailboat from California to Hawaii using a plastic sextant, and how using a plastic sextant is an inexact science (to within 60 miles or so). He applied that story to faith in this way:

I used to think following God required complicated formulas. I thought I needed a big stack of books, so I could figure out exactly where I was all the time. I thought if I constantly measured the distance between me and God, I’d get closer to Him. Early on, the religious people I knew explained to me all kinds of nuances for doing this sort of spiritual math. They suggested that I say certain things in my prayers, have quiet times, go to Bible studies, and memorize Bible verses. They said I needed to know how to explain to someone that God could be a person and a spirit at the same time. They urged me to know how God was going to come back someday but that some people would be here and other people would go missing because it would be a time of great tribulation. They said that for me to know God, there was a whole pile of things I’d needed to know first…What I realized, though, is that all I really needed to know when it came down to it was the direction I was pointing and that I was somewhere inside the large circle of God’s love and forgiveness.

I feel like I’m saying the same things these days, in a lot of different ways, but I resonated with this. I used to think that I had to master a whole bunch of thoughts about God, and that if I could somehow answer all the big questions I would be a better Christian, a better pastor, etc. This is what propelled me in my early adulthood: being “right” in my thoughts about God.

But I just don’t feel compelled in the same way anymore. Like navigating the Pacific Ocean, faith is vast and having pat answers seems elusive (and frankly, rather futile). I’m comfortable in the large circle of God’s love and forgiveness.

It seems there are people out there who seem to know the exact line between California and Hawaii. And it seems those same people are awfully sure that they are on that straight line. And those people seem to be fairly comfortable calling out all the people who aren’t on the straight line, calling them names like “heretics” and “false teachers.”

And while I believe there’s a straight line (well, straight(ish) when you think about curvature and stuff like that), I’m skeptical that any human being can claim to be navigating a straight-line course. (And I’m pretty sure on a sailboat, even with GPS, it’s probably impossible, given tides, currents and winds that are constantly working against you.)

And so, these days I don’t stress too much about having the right theology. Of course, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t study, read, engage in religious dialogue. And I still love to read theological books and ruminate on thoughts/questions about God. But rather, I’m just saying that when I look myself in the mirror, when I try to sit with God and meditate on my life, I don’t think the first question God is asking is “are you thinking the right thoughts about me?” but rather, “are you moving in the right direction?”

And these days, moving in the right direction feels free and feels right.

Is Our Faith so Fragile?

Years ago, when I was on staff at my last church, a local Christian leader pulled me aside and warned, “you ought to be careful publicizing the books that you read. I mean, I read all the same books you do, but you shouldn’t be so open about it.” At the time, I was in a heavy rotation of Brian McLaren, Rob Bell and other Christian “heretics” (at least to the evangelical world).

And there was a time, where this “advice” crippled me. It made me afraid to say what I really think. It made me afraid to name the things I believe because somewhere “out there,” someone might be judging me, questioning my love, my dedication to the Bible, or Jesus or something like that. It made me nervous and insecure.

But, at 40, I feel like I’ve grown up a lot. And in the last couple of years, I’ve started to become more comfortable in my own skin. And I’m fortunate to work for a church, where they don’t expect me to hold to the party line, but rather to push us all to think deeper about what we believe and what it means to live as a follower of Jesus in the world. And I’m fortunate to have the kind of friends that when I say, “I’ve been thinking about something and it’s not very ‘orthodox,’ they listen, and ask good questions and we journey together. And while I don’t have many pastor friends, I’m fortunate that I have a couple pastors I meet with (we call ourselves “the heretics”) and we intentionally read at the borders and beyond of the Evangelical world.

What’s sad to me is that I often run into people, and as I get to know them, and they feel safe, I find out they think like me. They question, they wonder, they too read all the “wrong” books, but like me all those years ago, they’re in a place where they ought not to admit what they read, believe, think for fear of the Christian thought police.

I don’t believe faith is supposed to be so fragile. As I’ve taught lament Psalms the last two weeks, it’s been impressed on me that God seems to have a high tolerance for our doubts, questions and accusations. And when I look at the lives of the people God used (particularly in the Hebrew Scriptures) he even seems to have a high tolerance for people with ambiguous morality. On Sunday, I shared with our congregation one of my favorite quotations from one of my long-time favorite books, Philip Yancey’s Reaching for the Invisible God:

“God can handle anger, blame, and even willful disobedience. One thing, however, blocks relationship; indifference. ‘They turned their backs to me and not their faces.’ God told Jeremiah, in a damning indictment of Israel.”

So, read Rob Bell, Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Brian McLaren, Pete Rollins, fill-in-the-blank-with-branded-“heretic.” Read whatever helps you to wrestle with God. Engage in conversations with people in your life that cause you to think not only in terms of ideas about God, but about what it means to live as God’s people here and now in the in-between time.

And in your wrestling, in your anger, blame, questioning, doubting and wondering, may you find God, smiling because he loves that you refuse to give in to indifference.