We are not alone in our grief: third week of Advent reflections


The past several days have been painful as we grieve yet another mass shooting, this time at an elementary school involving young children and brave teachers and administrators.

This has been a painful year with a bruising, nasty political season; tragic natural disasters; deaths of friends and loved ones; losses within our own families.

There are other stories of deep pain that don’t usually get shared in public, for instance: some of us struggle with wounds from childhood; some of us struggle with relationships within our families; some of us struggle with despair and depression, particularly during the winter; some of us struggle with great disappointments–in our careers, in our parents, in our children, in our spouses, in ourselves. Then there are the other stories, the secrets, that are so shameful we can barely whisper them to those closest to us, for instance: shared secrets within households that we’ve tacitly agreed to live with but will never breathe outside the walls of our homes; or, even secrets about ourselves that we work hard to keep hidden even from ourselves and from God.

All of these stories we carry with us day in and day out and these stories become heavy burdens that we bring with us to worship on a Sunday morning. Then we hear these Scripture texts on the third Sunday of Advent that seem contradictory.  We read Philippians 4:4-7: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”  We hear these words as we carry our heavy burdens, our stories of pain and suffering weighing us down, we hear these words and maybe we smirk to ourselves and think, “Yeah, right.” Or, we hear these words and we think, “I am in so much pain there is no possible way I can rejoice,” and we feel worse.

Then in Luke 3: 7-18 we hear John the Baptist say: “You brood of vipers! Who told you to flee from judgment and wrath?! Bear fruits worthy of repentance … every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” We hear these words and think, “I can’t hear this. Life is overwhelming enough as it is. These bible verses are too painful, too uncomfortable to hear.” So we check-out of the worship service and think about what we’re going to do in the afternoon or what Christmas shopping still needs to be done.

God is with us in our disasters, whatever they may be, and God tells us, “I am here, with you, you don’t have to bear this alone.”

But let me stop here and say, “Wait, stay with me.  There is good news here–hang on.” In Isaiah 12:2-6, we read together: “Let us turn to God who is our salvation. We will trust in you, God.  We will not be afraid. We will find our strength and our song in you.  In you, we will find salvation.”  Let’s stop for a moment and hold that in our hearts–we will trust in you, God … we will not be afraid … in you, we will find salvation.”

At the end of the Luke text, in verse 18, we read, “So, with many other exhortations, John the Baptist, proclaimed good news to the people.” What is this good news? That God became human and did it out of love. Good news is that even in the midst of our pain, of our grief, of our suffering, the God of the universe, is with us. Emmanuel, God with us. Can you see this as good news?  Can you hear this as good news?  It is good news. God is with us.

The Zephaniah 3:14-20 text reminds us of this: “The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, God has turned away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more … do not fear; do not let your hands grow weak. The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory … I, your God, will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it.  I will deal with all of your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.” Do you hear this as good news?  I do.

Emmanuel, God with us. God is with us when we have to face people who are mean to us, who harm us, and even those who abuse us. God is with us when we face our enemies.

God is with us when we are scared, filled with dread, afraid, and maybe even a wee bit paranoid. God is with us, whispering to us, “Do not fear.”

God is with us in our weakness, whether it is physical weakness or emotional weakness, God is with us.

God is with us in our disasters, whatever they may be, and God tells us, “I am here, with you, you don’t have to bear this alone.”

God is with us when we are vulnerable, frail, when we feel completely alone and outside the inner social circle. God is with us.

God is with us when we feel shame, that shame that rises from deep inside us and floods us with self-loathing and we think, “I am unworthy. No one could truly love me.”  God is with us, changing our shame into praise, into rejoicing, into joy.

Emmanuel, God with us.

God is with us, changing our shame into praise, into rejoicing, into joy.

Yes, God is with us, but we have a choice–do we embrace God or do we keep God at an arm’s distance? God promises to change our pain into joy, but we need to decide if we allow God to do this–do we hold on to our shame and pain or do we allow God to heal our woundedness in order for us to rejoice? Which life do we choose? Which road do we want to be on?  Which road are we on?  Yes, God is with us, but we have a choice–do we embrace God or do we keep God at arm’s distance?

Emmanuel! God is with us! Rejoice! Rejoice! Lastly, Madeline L’Engle wrote this poem: “The First Coming”

“God did not wait till the world was ready,
till … nations were at peace.
God came when the heavens were unsteady.
And prisoners cried out for release.
God did not wait for the perfect time
God came when the need was deep and great.
God dines with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine. God did not wait
till hearts were pure. In joy God came
to a tarnished world sin and doubt.
To a world like ours of anguished shame
God came, and God’s light would not go out.
God came to a world that did not mesh
to heal its tangles. Shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made flesh
the makers of the stars was born.
We cannot wait till the world is same
to raise our songs with joyful voice,

for to share our grief, to touch our pain.

God came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!”

“What are you doing for Lent?”


“Return to me with your whole heart,” Joel 2:12

“What are your disciplines for Lent?” my spiritual director asked me.

“Oh, I think I’m gonna give up watching ‘Star Trek’,” I told her.  “I watch it every Monday evening with my roommates. It’s kinda a ritual for us but I think it will be good for me to give it up.”

She studied me for a several seconds then sharply responded: “If you do that you will miss the whole purpose of Lent.  You will end up with more pride–you will be proud of yourself rather than seeking transformation.”

I was shocked at her response.  I was shocked by her rebuke as she was a gentle, humorous woman.  I also was shocked by her statement about Lent–I thought the whole purpose of Lent was to give something up.  I’d always heard about people giving up chocolate for Lent or red meat or television watching, so I figured I was on the right track with the whole Lent thing. Lent was a new concept for me.  In the church tradition I grew up in we never talked about Lent. We talked about Good Friday and of course, we celebrated Easter, but never Ash Wednesday or Lent, or even a period of preparation for Easter, the grandest day of the year.

The word “Lent” comes from Old English, meaning “spring” or “lengthen” as in the lengthening of the days.  This is not the image of a spring of pleasant warmth but an image of change–of transformation, of conversion.  In the lengthening brightness from Ash Wednesday to Holy Thursday–our Lenten spring–we are called to offer our brokenness to God. In offering our own brokenness we can then offer the world’s brokenness to God.

Lent spring is 40 days (plus Sundays), echoing the 40 days of temptation Jesus experienced.  Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and concludes on Maundy Thursday of Holy Week.  During these weeks before Easter, the church enters into a time of reflection, repentance, prayer and fasting, and renewal. Early in the history of the Christian church, new converts were baptized on the Saturday just before Easter Sunday.  Prior to baptism, these new converts participated in an intensive spiritual formation which included instruction, mentoring, practice in spiritual disciplines, and the development of the disciplines or habits of service, justice, charity and witness.  Also at this time, previously baptized persons reflected deeply on their own conversion and ongoing transformation.  At the Saturday Easter vigil people renewed their baptismal commitments along with the new converts who were baptized for the first time.  Everyone together participated in a festive communion celebration to welcome the arrival of Easter.

As Lent begins again, I ask myself these same questions: what in me needs transforming?  What transforming does God wish to do in me?  This year, I am praying for an open heart.  It is essential for me to open my heart to ask deeper questions of God and of the world around me and to keep my heart open to hear God’s answer.

What drew me to the image above is the young woman clutching this bust of Jesus to her heart, holding him close and dear. Additionally, Jesus is pointing to his heart, as an invitation to come closer to him. This is my Lenten discipline this year: to open my heart to Jesus’s invitation to embrace his heart.