(Note: I plan to write an occasional Pastoral Letter to the members of the church that I serve as pastor. When appropriate, I will post it here; I think this one is appropriate.)
To the saints in Christ who are the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald, Georgia—grace and peace to you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
We have almost completed the journey through the season of Advent. Christmas, that day that along with Good Friday and Easter Sunday make up the trilogy of the greatest days of the year for Christians, is almost upon us.
The feelings that we most associate with Christmas when we think about Christmas are peace and joy; the group that we most associate with Christmas when we think about Christmas is family. I am concerned this year as I am every year about those of us for whom peace and joy might seem to be an unattainable goal and even a false promise because someone who was with our family last Christmas is not with our family this Christmas. I am concerned for those of us who have experienced the death of a loved one since last Christmas.
Let us affirm up front that the first Christmas following the death of a loved one is very difficult. It is difficult, to put it too simply, because that person is not there to celebrate Christmas with us. The absence of that one person changes the dynamics of our holiday celebration; every relationship and every situation is different because that person is absent and so nothing is as it formerly was.
Besides, we simply miss our loved one; we wish that she or he was still here with us. This Christmas it might seem that every tradition, every meal, and every gift exchange reminds us of how those experiences were when our loved one was still with us.
Be assured, my friends, that such a reaction is normal; after all, your loved one was with you just last Christmas and was with you for many Christmases before that and so it is to be expected that, in a very powerful emotional sense, he or she is still with you during this Christmas’s celebrations. While it is tempting to try to suppress your strong sense of your loved one’s continued presence with you, I encourage you not to do so but rather to celebrate the strong love and deep longing that cause you to miss your loved one.
Indeed, be willing to talk freely and openly about your loved one with your family members and friends. Since our words help to shape our thoughts, I would encourage you to frame your speech in certain ways rather than in others. For example, rather than saying things like “I miss him” or “I wish she was still here” say things like “I remember how she loved to do this” or “Do you recall that time when he said this when he opened that present?” Perhaps you detect the difference: one way of talking states the obvious or desires the impossible while the other way of talking celebrates the memories and affirms the legacies.
As memories are celebrated and legacies are affirmed, be willing to laugh—be willing to laugh even when your laughter must at times be mingled with tears. After all, laughter and tears come mingled together in this life and they will come mingled together this Christmas.
Peace and joy can still be yours this Christmas and in all the days to come but it is important to remind ourselves of the nature and of the source of real peace and joy.
The peace and joy that our Lord intends for us to have are not contingent on our circumstances or on events or on our feelings; they rather spring from the relationship that we have with the Lord. In Christ we have peace with God and if we have peace with God we can then grow in peace with ourselves and with others. In Christ we know true joy, a joy that has its source in God and that resides in the deepest places in our souls, places that circumstances and feelings cannot touch. It is a bit of a mystery how this can be, I admit, but I have found it to be so in my own life, although I must also admit that it took much time and much struggle for me to come to a place where I could recognize and rest in the peace and joy that are mine in Christ Jesus our Lord.
You will struggle, too—but I want you to know that God is with you in the struggle and that in Christ you do have peace and joy; it is there and you will find it.
Christmas means many things, but the main thing that Christmas means is that in the baby Jesus, God Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, broke into this world—into its history, into its time, into its problems, into its struggles, into its sin, into its pains, into its anxieties, into its humanity—and thereby began the process of overcoming all those things that threaten to overcome us, including death and grief. We cannot help but grieve when our loved one has died, but we have the blessed opportunity to grieve as those who have hope, which is the assurance that God keeps God’s promises, an assurance that is ours by virtue of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
This Christmas comes as a great challenge to those of us who have lost loved ones since last Christmas but it is a challenge that can be met by the people of God through the grace of God.
Please know that I am praying with you and for you this Christmas. My prayer is that the grace and peace and joy that are yours in the Lord Jesus Christ will be evident and obvious to you as you celebrate the Lord’s birth and as you and your family celebrate each other and celebrate the memory of your loved one who, in God’s grace, gets to celebrate this Christmas in the presence of the Lord whose birth we celebrate.
Michael L. Ruffin