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Reflections on Christmas

Don's Journey

Written on December 25, 2018 and then again on January 8, 2019.

I’m the first one up this chilly Christmas morning. I didn’t sleep so well last night, but that is not uncommon the night before Christmas. If you are reading this, you know that this is the first Christmas without Gail. I think I am ready, if not, it’s too late now! Today our home will be filled with fun and laughter and sadness all at the same time.

Getting to this day was difficult. In recent years, Gail did most of the shopping, so I was grossly lacking in that department. But, I was saved by my well-trained daughters. They followed their mother's example and organized all my shopping onto a spreadsheet complete with links to every desired item. It was truly amazing, and actually kind of fun. I honed it down to three clicks per gift! In the world of online shopping, I am now expert, and every UPS and USPS driver in the region knows me by name and could drive to my house in their sleep. I often thought of the hand-written Christmas list that sat on our kitchen counter for a month or so before Christmas. Every few days I would notice a few more items crossed off the list – success! I love the way Gail printed and it’s a real treat when I run across another hand-written note of some sort. It’s funny how many details one remembers about the one with whom you shared life with for so long.

Then there was wrapping all the treasures. When the kids were young, Gail and I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning Christmas Eve wrapping and watching White Christmas, our favorite. But, I’m not sure what happened as the girls grew into adulthood. It seemed like I got tired for a number of years and disengaged from some of the preparation for the big day. Between the added work load and all the decorating and shopping and wrapping and parties, etc., etc., it was overwhelming to me. Gail didn’t like my attitude, and I believe we actually argued about it once in a while. I regret it.

Once again, I was saved, this time in the wrapping department. Two of our close friends, Lori and Lisa dedicated an evening to helping me wrap nearly every gift. I’m sure I would have accomplished the task at some point, but the laughter and tears of that evening lightened the load considerably. The value of friendship is immeasurable and worth every minute it takes to develop close relationships over the years.

We will see how this day plays out without Gail. Time to start cooking breakfast.

January 8, 2019

I’ve not posted lately, even though I’ve written. For some reason the holiday season blurred my vision like a dense fog. It’s not that I did not enjoy the season and the celebration, on the contrary, I enjoyed it thoroughly. Our family savored much time together through the tears and the laughter. Gail would have been pleased. I have truly been blessed with a wonderful family, extended family, and close friends.

Yet, enjoying the season was a real challenge. Everything they say about the holidays being difficult after you’ve suffered loss is true. This is proof that Christmas really isn’t about shopping and gifts and parties. All of this hoopla is fairly meaningless if you are not sharing it with the ones you love. (Sounds like Clark Griswald!) If Christmas was not about relationships, the absence of Gail would be of little consequence. Christmas is all about relationships, as is the celebration of any holiday.

However, the fog I was navigating was really between me and God. Two years of pain and pressure finally crashed in upon me. The huge waves knocked me down, rolled me into the sea floor and pummeled me against the rocks. I was gasping for air and finding only salty water filling my lungs. I was angry and disappointed with the One who had given me the strength to navigate the stormy waters of Gail’s illness for two years.

It seems, at least to me, that no matter how much one understands and relates to God, death still ends in mystery. Death is our nemesis. We can brush it off a bit when a loved one of advancing years passes, but sixty is too young. Death happens in other families. But in the end Gail still died. She would never make another Christmas list or wrap another present. She would never again labor over the contents of each stocking or sit quietly reading her Bible each day. Her warmth would never again cozy my bed and I would never again hear her soothing voice or enjoy the aroma of her hair. Death is indeed real and permanent. But I know this! For Pete’s sake I’ve been a Christian most of my life and a pastor for dozens of years. I’ve helped hundreds of people on the same journey. But what I knew in my head refused to connect to my heart, leaving me groping about trying to find God – if for no other reason so that I could shout at Him. All I found was silence and emptiness.

Well, there you go – confessions of a pastor. When people talk about the holidays being difficult after the loss of a loved one, pay attention and please respond with caring, patient words, and/or kind silence. There is only One who can provide real solace, and at that particular moment He seems to have gone on holiday to the South Pacific. His out-of-office message is on and He gives no return date. He doesn’t answer His phone and His message box is full. Where were You when I needed you most?

Fortunately, my friend C.S. Lewis presented wise and helpful words. It is at the precise moment when we need God most, that we are incapable of receiving His help. Our pain is so great and vision so clouded by it, we cannot see or sense Him. But He is there, watching over us, struggling with us, and waiting until, by His infinite wisdom, He sees the crack in our door and He returns – not that He ever left.

So, I got through the holidays and I’m experiencing a return to normalcy in my schedule at least. I am returning to the comfortable living room chair each morning. I’m forgiving God for letting my wife suffer and die – it’s a process by the way. Misdirected anger is a waste of time and energy, so I’m letting go of that too. It’s still pretty quiet here, but I believe God can be heard best in solitude. He will be found in His Word and deep discussions, and writing, and several cups of coffee. I am thoroughly ready to leave 2018 behind even though I likely learned more about God and people and life than I have ever understood. Perhaps it will all find its way from my head to my heart in 2019.

I sense His hands pulling me out of the depths, putting my arm over His shoulder and helping me back to shore, tattered and coughing. I expect to find a warm fire, a good meal, and a renewed knowledge that I indeed love God and He indeed loves me. Now it’s time to get back to work for His Kingdom. Like my predecessor long ago, I was commissioned to “feed My sheep.” That commission stands, no matter what life has dealt me.

I’ve learned that people die. They die everywhere, every day. They die after long, miserable illnesses and they die suddenly and without warning. They die in poverty and in wealth. Good people die; really good people die. The mortality rate for humans is 100%. Large numbers of prayers, praying at high volume does not hold back it’s onslaught. Reciting every Biblical promise a thousand times doesn’t stop it. Singing Kum-by-yah over and over doesn’t hold it back. People die. Even people we love most.

But it is at precisely that point where Christianity finds its worth. Christianity doesn’t say that we “pass away.” It says that we “pass on.” Of all the greatness Christianity has to offer, resurrection is its gleaming light where human experience meets its darkest hour. If this is not true, as the Apostle Paul wrote, we, of all people are to be pitied most. But the resurrection of Jesus Christ makes new life valid. Christianity rises or falls on that single event. My wife did not pass away, she passed on. And as empty as it leaves my home, I am at peace to know my wife lives. Someday, we will meet again. Until then, I have work to do and she will be ticked off at me if I don’t do it.