Monday, December 21, 2009

The Longest Night

(Last night we held a Longest Night service after a snowstorm earlier that morning. Not many folks attended but one couple, who had heard from a friend who had seen the article in the paper, truly needed it. It was a small, intimate gathering with beautiful music and candlelight and hope.)

The Longest Night, Jim Brandenburg

The Uses of Sorrow
(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
--Mary Oliver

“God With Us”
Isaiah 40: 1-9; Psalm 121; Luke 2: 1-20
******** United Church of Christ
December 20, 2009

Friday morning I went to the New Haven Register website to read the article that was written about tonight’s service. Below the article was a comment from an angry individual whose online identity was listed as “Religiousfactsfromfraud”. This person wrote:

“How nice. What a heart-warming story. [It’s] 2009 and people still believe this...fable of Jesus being the son of God—as Pope Leo himself said "This fable of Christ has been quite profitable for us (The Vatican)”. The Virgin birth, the Immaculate Conception, an annunciation from an angel, and the "miracles": CT Valley Hospital is full of Jesus Christs. You want to do something for these folks—the Reverends should be opening their wallets and [giving] them some financial relief. The Catholic Church will pass the basket three times during holiday masses to receive. Get real, people. No matter the denomination, Christians are like cattle: they will follow a stalk of oats over a cliff. Merry Christmas.”

I paused and wondered what wound this person had suffered to provoke such a reaction to this service. It seemed to me that this individual had witnessed firsthand the inevitable pain that comes with being human and how a relationship with God can sometimes feel inadequate to that pain, so much so as to drive this person away from God and from the church. I too have had periods of sadness and loss throughout the years that have caused me to question God’s presence in my life and in the life of this world, thus deepening my sadness and feelings of isolation.

In a way this person has a point. We do celebrate Christ’s birth as though it were a fairytale, conflating and mixing together the different birth stories into a romantic sort of whole, while omitting other, more difficult details so that we do in fact have something resembling a fable. All of the shadows—the danger of King Herod in Matthew, the warning in Luke when Simeon says to Mary that a sword will piece her heart, the implications of a Jewish king being born under the occupation of the Roman empire—are banished from the story until after Christmas Day, and thus, most of the depth and meaning is missing as well.

What does it mean to have God with us? The mystery of God and God’s activity in human lives, or seeming lack of it, has been one of the more enduring questions of faith. In the original edition of the deceptively innocent book Children’s Letters to God, one child writes: “Dear God, Are you real? Some people don’t believe it. If you are, you’d better do something quick. Love, Harriet Anne.”

It’s the oldest, most honest prayer there is: “God, are you real? Why is this happening to me or to the one I love? Please do something.” The only answers I have are the ones I have lived through. No one can really tell us about what it means to have God with us in our own experience. It is something that each of us must come to, each in our own way.

A few years ago, through much tears and pain and prayer and living, I came to my own reconciliation with Christmas and all its hoopla, expectations, materialism and religious romanticism in this way.

A Real Life

There are times I question the whole thing
Is there a God
Was there ever
a real life
in which God was clothed
all earthly, vulnerable
in our human aloneness of being
What if Jesus never was

On the edge of that precipice
I am humbled
by one thought
I would rather be a fool
A companioned
voluntary fool

Thanks be to God
for this life within a life
that Word made flesh
mundane and fragile
for which I am indeed
happily foolish

For me, ‘God with us’ means that within my sorrow, within my despair, within ‘my human aloneness of being’ there is God; that the light of God is not contained solely in the light. The light of God has life everywhere, even within my experience of loss and sadness, even on the longest night of the year. The psalmist tells us “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, thou art with me.” Within my life there is another life—the Word made flesh in my mundane and fragile flesh—living out each day what it means to love and to be human in my tiny, insignificant, precious existence.

Within Christmas lives Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. With this birth there will come an untimely, torturous, innocent death. Within each of us, living and breathing, is our death. But within this Christmas story and within each of us there is also the promise of resurrection, of new life and rebirth—the kind that only comes from the ashes of sorrow and loss. It does not tarnish an otherwise bright holiday but makes it all the more real and true. It is this mystery of our faith that cannot be explained but only lived out in our questions and doubts, in prayer and in the companionship of others as we struggle to love as best as we are able.

Let us pray:

Generous and gracious God,
we look to you for compassion
and thank you for your presence this night.
Overwhelmed by our burdens we easily forget
that you never leave us alone
and that your steadfast love for us never falters.
By gathering together we find assurance and comfort
that we do not suffer this longest night alone.
You have given us strength to live through this night.
Turn us to reach out to those whose night is also long.
Grant that we may be your healing presence in their lives
by bringing them your compassion and comfort
that will assure them that they do not suffer alone. Amen. [1]

1. © 2009 the Rev. Quentin Chin, member of Church on the Hill (UCC)
in Lenox, MA, and Interim Minister of the United Methodist Church of Lenox, MA.

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