Suffering Through Christmas

Many of you will have heard of Kay Warren’s article by now that was originally posted on her Facebook page and then sent on to Christianity Today. By the way, Kay Warren is the wife of Rick Warren, pastor and author of Purpose Driven Life.  Here is the link.

For those of you who have not heard of the article here is the summary: Kay Warren’s 27-year old son died by suicide over a year ago. She reacted to the “cheery Christmas cards” sent to her and wrote about her strong reactions. Read the article as it not only serves as a needed chastisement but it also gives us important suggestions on how to “do” Christmas greetings for the hurting.

I have not suffered the catastrophic loss of a child so I won’t even attempt to venture into the “understanding how you feel” territory except to say that I have had bereaved parents as clients throughout the years. I have humbly listened to the excruciating rough terrain of grief processing- not just one year out from the loss but many years out from that life defining and altering moment of heartbreak.  I usually don’t have clients seeking me out until they feel their friends are no longer available or capable of understanding that they, ”can’t just move on.”  Kay Warren’s article will help you understand how unbelievably hurtful and even shameful it is to sense from others that you should be further along than they are.

The point of this post is to highlight some of Kay Warren’s suggestions while adding a few of my own; but not before I give reflections on two approaches to the Christmas season.

Children and Christmas

Keep it magical, as far as it is possible within your control to do so.  There are monstrous troubles in this world and frankly the Christmas story was not written for children which is apparent by the events surrounding the birth of Jesus as recorded in Matthew’s gospel. A sanitized version to tell children is quite appropriate.  Safety is a primary need of children and I just don’t mean physical safety which is obvious but there is a profound need for children to feel safe for psychological and neurological health.  Children are not developmentally capable to understand that the world is not always a safe place and really never has been. Safety was not part of the baby Jesus story and certainly was not for all the children under two who were killed by a crazed paranoid despot named Herod the Great.  As my pastor said last Sunday, “there is not a single Christmas carol that makes mention of a baby boy genocide or of the refugee status of the Holy family as they fled to Egypt to escape the murderous Herod.”  But these grim realities are all part of the Christmas story as recorded in the gospel of Matthew.

Children don’t need to know of the awfulness that filled the world then and fills the world now (children massacred in a school in Pakistan, just reported) .   Our job is to protect children as long as we can and do our best to fulfill their magical thinking of gifts, sweets, festive decorations and songs.  “Away in the manger no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lays down his sweet head la, la, la…” And “Jolly ole St. Nicholas, . . . “.   I want to sing these songs to my grandchildren and tell sweet baby Jesus stories and build excitement over the festive culmination of gift giving even if it does not quite jive with the Gospel story of Jesus’ birth in its entirety.  I would hope that all children could be transported into a world of glee and cheer throughout the Christmas season but tragically that will not be for so many.

My hope and prayer is best described in Psalm 10:17-18

O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted;
you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear
to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed,
so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.

Adults and Christmas

The un-sanitized version of Matthew 2:13-23 gives us some clues on how we need to be communicating with other adults during the Christmas season.

So, how should we do this? Carefully! There is suffering in many of our friends and families’ lives during this season. Maybe it’s not the horrific kind of fleeing refugees or that of Kay and Rick Warren but there are heart aches and heart breaks in spades coming from all sort of sources.  Christmas cheer has a way of making suffering folks feel like losers or at least wistful as they wonder why God has not blessed them in the way that so many “seem” to be blessed.  Kay Warren makes the suggestion that before we send out our perfunctory Christmas cards or newsletters of family togetherness and achievement we need to take the time to painstakingly question ourselves about each person ‘s reality who is on our Christmas card/newsletter list. If we know that there has been a great loss or hardship in a particular person’s life then forgo the newsletter and write something emphatically kind on a card that reflects our knowledge of their pain during this time.  If we don’t know what is going on because we are not super close friends with people  on our list anymore well, then err on the side of caution and write something personal asking how things have been going for them.  If we know that our friends’ lives are going well then by all means send the pictures and newsy newsletters.   I am a grateful privileged person who is two months out of excellent cancer treatment and feeling great and have a family that is doing well.  My friends know this so I am thrilled to get their newsletters and lovely cards with their families’ pictures on it.  I love hearing about their lives and seeing what everyone looks like.   But, I also pray that I am forgiven by those with whom i have not been so careful with in the past.  Kay Warren’s article is a good lesson in paying attention to the suffering around us and making sure we are not adding to it.

The Longest Night service

One of the things that I appreciate about my church in Juneau, Alaska is that for years they have recognized that the Christmas holiday season can be a time of sadness for many.  On the longest night of the year, December 21st (which by the way is really, really long at 58 degrees north latitude) there is a service which mostly includes scripture readings and prayers within in a dimly lit chapel culminating with each person lighting a candle representing their private grief laid before God.

The Balanced Christmas

Let’s set Christmas apart for children, making it as wonderful as we can for as many children as we can.   But at the same time let’s be more gospel minded and set Christmas apart for the broken hearted with its reminders of the hope that is found in a baby named, “God is with us.” More of Him with reverence and worship that serves to condition our hearts to be more about others –a paraphrase of the two greatest commandments – Love God and Love others.

One thought on “Suffering Through Christmas

  1. Susan December 22, 2014 / 10:34 am

    Dona, thank you for a refreshing view of the holiday season with regard to children. Sometimes, there seems to be inner condemnation or even outward influences of condemnation regarding the traditional festivities especially with any emphasis on gift giving, the Santa thing, etc. even when it isn’t excessive. I love the balanced Christmas all inspired by Jesus! Merry Christmas!

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