Another strange Christmas filled with uncertainty – and in our local community, deep anguish. But what does the hope of the season offer us and how do we receive it?
Chris Cook works on staff at Kensington, and uses his artistic talents as a writer, photographer, and advocate. Check out his website, where this blog and these images originally posted, at jchriscook.com
It’s Christmas Eve for the Cook family; and we have braved the preparations and an eight-hour drive to land in the “happy place” of my sister’s home just inside the Beltway of Washington D.C.
I’m sitting in her comfortable kitchen as the household wakes up, still recovering a bit from the previous day’s drive and thankful for a good night’s sleep and a strong cup of coffee.
My daughter Julia just sidled up to me and caught me in an early morning yawn.
“Are you tired?”
In her attempts to connect with people despite her speech delay, Julia has taken to the same question whenever she sees someone yawn. In fact, I can’t yawn – not even once – without her asking nowadays.
“Are you tired?”
Kid – you have no idea.
For the last three months – longer even – I’ve been clinging to a promise of one of the old Christmas carols:
O holy night, the stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Saviour’s birth;
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
‘Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn;
Our family is still in a fragile season after the passing of my father-in-law. The pandemic had limited our in-person contact with Jim in the last eighteen months; but it was clear in our phone conversations that he was declining. By our visit in mid-October, he made it clear that all lines of medical intervention had been exhausted – and he was too.
What followed were several treks from Detroit along US-68 through the farm communities of central Ohio to Jim’s home in Springfield. My wife, Jocelyn, and her siblings arranged a Zoom meetup so Jim could connect with his siblings. Hospice was called in; but Jim had other ideas.
Within hours of receiving certified revisions to his estate from his attorney, and with all conversations and reconciliations complete, Jim asked for help to bed for a nap and breathed his last, with his daughter Jennifer by his side. Having served thirty years in the U.S. Navy and Reserves, it was fitting that it was Veteran’s Day.
Jocelyn said her final farewells to her father the following weekend, and with family and community, lovingly placed him in the good ground of Ferncliff Cemetery with military honors and a nice view of the meandering waters of Buck Creek. With the pragmatics of burial and estate disposition behind us, the real work of grieving Jim’s loss could begin.
But the dust hadn’t even settled when I got a strange text message from a friend a week later. It came out of nowhere saying, “My family is safe.” That obviously made me pick up the phone and call her, asking what she meant.
“Turn on the news,” she said. “My daughter is safe, but there was a mass shooting at her high school.”
The unthinkable – the thing we read about happening “somewhere else” – happened here. Oxford High School. Four dead, seven injured, and a community lain bare with anguish.
Whatever grief we carried previously had to be momentarily laid aside so we could be available for the victims. Spaces were opened to pray with and for the grieving. I consulted local and national trauma experts and marshalled resources to equip dazed parents trying to help their children. Funerals were planned for children ripe with promise and potential.
That horrible day is almost a month behind us. But in similar fashion as my father-in-law, we have buried our dead, but the season of grieving has just started.
All of these experiences are overlaid by a pandemic that is diabolically persistent and innovative. With the rise of the Omicron variant, many of us are feeling a familiar sense of dread as we look at yet another difficult winter. But we also feel a sense of injustice that the holiday season we were supposed to be free from the virus has been stolen from us all.
And all of those pains and frustrations are compounded into our lives and can leave us flat and even hopeless. And, scarily, questioning how long our stamina will hold out.
I recently heard from a dear friend who summed it up well. “Things just feel different now,” she said. “I feel a heaviness that wasn’t there before Covid. I’m not sure if it’s the cumulative toll of the past two years or thinking we could put Covid behind us and return to ‘normal’. But I’ve realized that so much has changed and ‘what was’ isn’t what is now.
Just about every conversation I’ve had lately – family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, the lady who attends the self-checkout at my local grocery store – has included some element of this… haunting… a collective trauma… a growing realization of the gaping tear in creation. We’re all grieving the death of what our world was supposed to be.
We each express it differently; sometimes anger, for others, depression. For me, it can manifest as a drive to organize and purge the household, nervously tamping down the perceived chaos in my little corner of the world.
For all of us, there is a pall that has moved from an individual, personal grief to something more connected and communal, enveloping us all.
But here’s a question I keep pondering: Is this feeling the discovery of a new thing or is it also the realization of a brokenness that was always there? Has our broken world burrowed through our layers of self-protection to make us see it anew? To borrow the sentiment of that familiar Christmas carol, “Long lay the world in sin and error pining…”
Pining. Suffering a mental and physical decline, especially because of a broken heart.
Yep. That sums it up. We’re brokenhearted, we know it; and it cuts across not only family and community, but time itself.
But what is the response that best fits this place we find ourselves in?
To take on so vast a problem in so short a space would be no doubt formidable; but I think some of the answer lies in this direction:
Journalist and thinker G. K. Chesterton spoke to the same kind of cultural hopelessness at the turn of the 20th century when he wrote in Orthodoxy, one of his seminal works…
I know this feeling fills our epoch, and I think it freezes our epoch. For our Titanic purposes of faith and revolution, what we need is not the cold acceptance of the world as a compromise, but some way in which we can heartily hate and heartily love it. We do not want joy and anger to neutralize each other and produce a surly contentment; we want a fiercer delight and a fiercer discontent. We have to feel the universe at once as an ogre’s castle, to be stormed, and yet as our own cottage, to which we can return at evening.
I read this years ago and it’s captured my imagination ever since. It has set me free in many ways as I’ve processed my personal pain and walked alongside others in theirs.
We are bound neither by a cold pessimism that sees the world as irredeemable, nor a false optimism that all is well. And perhaps more critical, we mustn’t let the two extremes meld together into a dissatisfied lukewarm of hopeless resignation.
If we are to navigate the suffering of the present world well, we must enter into rhythms of lament and celebration; and fueled by both and the greater love that infills us, become agents of love and redemption to the very world that wounds us.
So lament the unfair, the tragic, the abominations. We each need to admit to ourselves, to God and (preferably) another safe human being the length, depth, and breadth of our pain – indeed, the anguish of the world entire. Put words around the hurricane of chaos and hurt that we carry wordlessly in our minds; and in the naming of it, begin to strip it of its power over us.
Hold space for it all. But don’t stop there. We also need to take the critical and often neglected next step to recognize and celebrate the beauty that finds its roots in seemingly hopeless circumstances. Poet Jane Hirshfield recently reflected, “…there is no inch of Earth which is not soaked in suffering. But there is also no inch of Earth which is not soaked in joy and in beauty and in radiance.”
The Christmas season – from the anticipation of Advent to its fulfillment in these marvelous hours – is a reminder of the resolute truth that, despite the mess in which we find ourselves, Love came near and can transform us.
There was absolutely no earthly reason to believe that any good would come from a baby born to a teenage girl under culturally sketchy circumstances in a far off and neglected land two millennia prior. But good, indeed radiant good, came.
Chesterton also wrote in Orthodoxy, “Love is not blind; that is the last thing it is. Love is bound; and the more it is bound, the less it is blind.” The Love that came on that “day of angels’ awe” saw us in all of our confusion, frustration and despair – utterly hopeless – and came anyway. Not out of our transactional understanding of any “right thing” we could do or be, but a steely, wintry love that sees all the faults, the error, the embarrassing… and loves anyway.
And in our remembering of Christ’s appearing in our mess, (again, borrowing from the familiar carol) may we be reminded of our great intrinsic worth, experience again the thrill of hope; and in our weariness, rejoice.
Merry Christmas, friends.
If you feel like the time has come to “get honest” about what hurts in your life and start a journey toward healing and equipping for the adventure God is calling you into, Kensington has a ton of resources to help. Whether you are struggling from the loss of a loved one, a broken relationship, or just need a kind and listening ear to process, you can find it all at kensingtonchurch.org/care.
For the communities, families and individuals still working through the wake of the tragedy at Oxford High School on November 30, we want you to feel supported and seen in the weeks and months to come. If you need prayer, counsel, or want to learn more about how we’re coming alongside our neighbors, visit kensingtonchurch.org/oxford