Stoking the flames of Advent [excerpt]

We’d rather talk about the easier and safer things. What do we do when we come face to face with the raw pain present in many lives? Such pain and grief may be all around us — behind us in the checkout line, in front of us at a stoplight, beside us in church.

In my living room, we also have a fireplace that we like to use in the winter. Just several feet from the artificial lights on our tree that eventually burn out is a place for God’s natural gift of light and heat that will burn for as long as it has wood and oxygen. Fire is a much more apt image and one that is used in scripture for God. Throughout centuries of Christian tradition, a simple flame on a candle has symbolized the presence of Christ. If God is indeed “a consuming fire,” it is God who provides the light; we simply allow our lives to be consumed.

I have to wonder if we sometimes have expectations of ourselves and others that are too much like the artificial lights. We’re expected to shine bright, so long as we’re plugged in. We are expected to produce our own light, and if not, we could get discarded and replaced.


Hope is for the Hopeless

Years ago, I was asked to provide a special song for a "memory tree" service, a gathering time done every December at a local hospice for the families of patients who had passed away within the last year. I was told to choose something that I thought would speak to that kind of an audience.

I had a problem. I couldn't find anything. I couldn't find a song that I thought truly expressed the depth of their grief while still offering a word of hope. I still remember being in the room for the memory tree service. It was oppressively solemn. The small room was full; roughly 75 people. No matter who you looked at, you saw the same expression: a grief-sick, staring-into-nothing kind of look that's hard to describe. Every person in that room had lost a loved one, a piece of their heart, within the last year, and the dread in the room was palpable: the dread of facing the holiday season in the midst of their loss.

There are plenty of Christmas songs that try to cheer the listener up or have all the touchy-feely sentiment. I actually like such songs. I've always loved Christmas time, but I've also never lost someone I was truly close to or someone I couldn't imagine my life without. In my work as a pastor, I've seen the grief people go through. Although I use my training to minister to them and help them through it, it is more often a learning opportunity for me; a chance to let them try to teach me what it's like to be in that place.

I think "awful" may start to get at it. The thing is, grief on its own terms is hard enough, but the pain feels ignored and unacknowledged by the rest of the world seeming to rush by with their own busy lives, or friends and family who mean well but say things that make a grieving person feel guilty for grieving. "You have to be strong." "At least you have this or that." "You've got to move on."

So, it is particularly sobering to think about what the Christmas season must be like for someone who is going to have to go through it, for the first time, without a loved one who recently passed.

I have not been able to find a song that expresses this kind of grief with brutal honesty, yet at the same time offers some word of hope to go forward. The closest I know of is the hymn "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," which is a very good and under-appreciated hymn, but still didn't quite seem to capture it.

So, I guess someone had to write one. A song dedicated to those who grieve at Christmastime. The grief expressed in the song is a best attempt at giving voice to what people experience.

But as I thought about what the word of hope might be, I thought about the Advent candles that are lit in Christian churches everywhere this season. In most settings, the four candles we light during Advent (before the white Christ candle) represent 1) hope, 2) peace, 3) joy, and 4) love. As I thought about those candles and what they mean, it struck me that the Advent wreath should stand in opposition to the songs, festivities, and decorations that can seem like they are geared towards people who are already there/have already arrived.

When we light the Advent candle of hope, do we light it because we all live with a sense of hope and are simply celebrating that, or do we light it especially for those who feel hopeless? When we light the candle of peace, do we light it because we celebrate our peaceful world, or do we light it precisely because we are still desperate for peace? When we light the candle of joy, do we do so because we're all bubbling over, or is it lit especially for those who can't seem to find any? And don't we light the candle of love as a reminder that even when we feel loved and understood by no one else, the love of God "never fails" (1 Cor 13:8)?

Hope is for the hopeless. Peace is for the heart that is war-torn. Love has never left us. And joy, one day, will return.

If you are one of the grieving ones this Christmas, I pray it will speak to you in some way. For the rest of us, I pray that it will awaken our spirits to the pain that may be right behind us in the checkout line, right in front of us in the car, or right beside us in the church pew.