This Christmas was different for everyone in the world, and our family was not excluded from that circumstance. In the weeks before Christmas Day, I heard the people I love voice their awareness of the coming differences with anxiety and nervousness about parting from the expected familiar - my son, my brother, my mother, my daughter, my niece, my friend - and even the voice of my own inner self, echoing around in my head. Each of us struggled with concern for different reasons, but our struggle was universal in that we all had suffered painful life changes that set us on new paths over the course of the year since last Christmas.
Rev. David Crosby wrote, “You do not get to choose the events that come your way nor the sorrows that interrupt your life. They will likely be a surprise to you, catching you off quard and unprepared. You may hold your head in your hands and lament your weak condition and wonder what you ought to do. To suffer, that is common to all...Pain will change you more profoundly than success or good fortune. Suffering shapes your perception of life, your values and priorities, and your goals and dreams. Your pain is changing you.”
The change that sorrow and suffering brings is painful. It breaks off pieces of ourselves that were attached to things we thought we needed, things we thought we depended on, things that we thought defined us... until life happened and forced us to see that the parts that have broken away are not meant to be with us on the road ahead. We feel raw and wounded in those broken places, sometimes in an almost unbearable sense. But time moves us forward down our new path, and we realize that our journey continues despite our pain, and despite our inclination to stay in the place where life was interrupted, hoping that somehow that moment will rewind itself and disappear.
Some of the most hopeful verses in the Bible, to me, come in the middle of a book of laments. A lament is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “a passionate expression of grief or sorrow.” Yet, in the middle of this book of laments, this hope appears:
“Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, ‘The LORD is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.’” Lamentations 3:21-24 NIV
Throughout my life, whenever I have been faced with a situation which has caused me great grief and sorrow, these verses have reminded me that the middle of my circumstances is not where life ends. The middle of my pain is not where joy ends. The middle of my struggle is not where hope ends. Even when a job is lost, an ability is lost, a relationship is lost, or a life is lost... there is more to the story than the sorrowful middle. That doesn’t mean that I should not express my grief, that I cannot lament over what has changed by my loss - but what it does mean is that I can hold on to the promise that this middle of sorrow is not a bitter end.
In the church I’ve been attending this year, each week the pastor heralds the congregation with a blessing before we leave the shelter of the church and return to the lives we live outside the walls of that building. The blessing comes from Numbers 6:24-26 in the Bible:
“The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.”
I am deeply comforted each week as I listen to the words of this blessing spoken over me. I know that the original blessing was spoken by the priests over the Israelites when they were in the middle of a journey through the wilderness. These people were living a life of change and hardship that often brought about grief and sorrow and uncertainty. But in the middle of that wilderness, there was hope. In the middle of that wilderness was the promise that these difficult circumstances were only the middle of the journey, and that a wondrous destination still lay ahead. In the middle of that wilderness, the words of this blessing were spoken over them to remind them that God was with them always.
When the very first Christmas was coming, Joseph was uncertain and anxious. He was nervous because the life he had planned had been interrupted and he did not know what to expect on the new path his life journey suddenly had taken. The book of Matthew records that an angel came to him in a dream in the middle of the time he was lamenting his unanticipated circumstances, and the angel said:
"’Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel—which means, God with us.'" -Matthew 1:22-23, NIV
Immanuel, the name of Jesus, literally means “God with us”. As we celebrate Christmas differently this year, how thrilling and how comforting it is to know that in the middle of my lamenting, in the middle of my struggle, in the middle of my unexpected journey - Jesus is here with me, and He promises not to leave me hopeless, but to faithfully bring me through to the completion where love wins out and mourning ends.
“And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished...” -Philippians 1:6