Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Blue Christmas (12/17/13)

Blue Christmas
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

Tidings of Comfort
Acknowledging the Dark
December 17, 2013

I started this service a few years ago after I was asked.    I had thought of doing something like this earlier in my ministry but didn’t until I was asked specifically.   I borrowed from a service created by someone else and have changed it over the years.     

I think the first was here in 2008.   So this is the sixth one already. 

From my experience as a minister I know that this time of year can be difficult for people for a variety of reasons.      I know that now.  I knew that then.    To a degree, I had compassion with those who struggled at Christmas.  That is, I could share the feeling, to a degree. 

It wasn’t until Christmas 2012 that I felt what I thought I knew.   

The service prior to Christmas 2012 was never for me.  It was something I did for someone else.   In fact, it wasn’t always me.  Pat Willard led it once or maybe twice.  Don Steele put it together the last two years.  At any rate, it was for others.    

This year, I put it together, and I am doing it for me. 

When we began, I wanted to call the service “Blue Christmas.”  But because that reminded us of Elvis, someone suggested “Tidings of Comfort” and we went with that.   I never really embraced the title “Tidings of Comfort,” and especially now.  

First of all, I don’t think the title says expressly what the service is about.  It sounds like a Christmas phrase.   It is from a Christmas carol, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”

Secondly, I am not offering any tidings of comfort.   I am not a comforting person. You just get reality from me.

Finally, I don’t really want to be comforted.   I don’t want pity, or compassion, or healing, or any of that.  I am blue.   I am Mr. Blue Christmas.   I miss my Zach.  I am in the dark and that is where I want to be right now.     

I am guessing that since you showed up tonight, you might resonate with some of that.    The problem with the message of Christmas as it has been presented to those who are in the dark, is that it wants to cheer you up.    Hope, Joy, Love, Peace.   Yeah.

The irony of Christmas is that its earliest story, that is, the earliest legend about the birth of Jesus is a very dark and violent tale.   Of the two legends in the New Testament, one from Matthew and one from Luke, Matthew’s version is likely the oldest.  Matthew’s legend is a rerun of the legend of the birth of Moses, way back in Exodus.   In both stories, Moses in Exodus and Jesus in Matthew, the destined hero narrowly escapes a violent fate thanks to wit, courage and Divine Providence.   

According to Matthew’s story, in the search for Jesus, all children under two are killed by Herod’s soldiers.   In Exodus, all male children are killed by Pharaoh’s minions at birth.   In both stories, Moses and Jesus escape.  I guess that is good news, tidings of comfort.  But what about the other children and their parents?  Not so much.

The author of Matthew’s legend quotes a passage from Jeremiah in the Hebrew scriptures:

In Ramah the sound of mourning
And bitter grieving was heard:
Rachel weeping for her children.
She refused to be consoled
Because they were no more.

The context in Jeremiah is either the exile of Judah or the conquest of Israel by the Assyrians.  Both events happened several centuries before Jesus.     Rachel, the wife of Jacob, is considered the matriarch of the people.    The matriarch metaphorically weeps for her people, like George Washington weeps for us or something.   The point is not the history.  The point is the poetry.

Rachel wants no Tidings of Comfort.  

Yes the Matthew story is legend as I have used that word several times, but never mind that.  You can’t get more real than this:

In Ramah the sound of mourning
And bitter grieving was heard:
Rachel weeping for her children.
She refused to be consoled
Because they were no more.

Matthew uses that poetry to tell the story of Christmas.

Wow.   You won’t find that on a Christmas card.

Not everyone who grieves wishes to be comforted.   Sometimes we just want to be blue.   It is its own comfort I suppose, to be in a place and among those who will allow that and not try to make it better. 

My wife, daughter, and I attend a suicide survivor’s support group.   Now that is a club you want to sign up for, right?   No you don’t.  But you know, there is no need to be something there.   You don’t have to pretend there.  There is no worry about saying the wrong thing or whatever.   It is beyond pity or compassion.  It is not self-pity either.   It is shared tragedy.    Shared tragedy for the purpose of survival. 

We don’t need to feel comfort or to feel better.   Healing is not the right word.   We need to survive.  To do that, we need, I think, to be acknowledged.    We need an awareness, perhaps an assurance that we are not super abnormal.  A little abnormal is OK.  But it is normalizing to know that there are others like us swimming around out there in the dark at Christmas.   Bumming at Christmas doesn’t make us freaks.

We lost our 25 year old son, Zach, to suicide on June 28, 2012.    This congregation has been through this hell with us.   It would be nice to say, “It has been over a year, it is over now, or the worst is behind us,” but I can’t say that. 

I am not the same person, even though I don’t know precisely what is different.  I do not see myself getting better or getting healed.    I am not more compassionate and understanding.   I am not a better minister or a better person for this experience.   In fact, I feel less compassionate really.   I am less patient.    I am particularly less patient with all of the religious doctrines and clich├ęs.  

It is especially challenging during Advent and Christmas when people want and expect something Christmassy and I tell them it is all made up.  Or I say, here is some Christmas for you,

Rachel weeping for her children
She refused to be consoled
Because they were no more.

Sometimes surviving grief and Christmas requires dark humor.   That is not understood by people who aren’t in grief.   It can be discomfiting.   People get upset.  They worry about you.    You can’t really be honest, because people worry.   

Grief requires energy.   It is self-focused.    It makes no sense.  It doesn’t hit when you think it would.  Then it surprises you.    You go along and you can get some things done and people say things like, “Hey, you are doing better.”   As if being better is a permanent state.  No, not really.   It is just today.     I reserve the right to be really pissy tomorrow so should the mood overtake me.   

I really miss Zach at Christmas.   Zach was a funny guy.   Who knows what cocktails of anguish he was made of but he was also fun when he was around family, especially at Christmas.    He permanently wore pajamas.    Except at work.  Although he might have worn pajamas at work, too   I know he wore pajamas when he went to class, on those days that he went to class.    I wear his pajamas now.    I will do so until they wear out. 

That is what I fear most.    I fear his memory will wear out.   I fear I will forget the way he sounded.  Sometimes we remind each other of that, Bev, Katy, and I.   One of us will say something in a certain way and the others will notice, “You sounded like Zach then.”  

This year Christmas will just be Bev and I and Katy and her new bride, Amber.  No family will be coming from the north this year.   It is time for a change.    My wife’s sisters’ families are growing and they are making their traditions.   We will find other times to meet.    I will miss them, though.  

I will miss the Christmas Eve service and having them here.   But it isn’t the same without Zach.   I miss him more than ever.   I miss him everyday.  And I miss him most at Christmas.

And that is reality from the Shuck house.  At least from my point of view.    Welcome to Blue Christmas.

I shouldn’t end things there.   I should end with something nice.  You are nice people and you deserve something nice.    

I like candles.   My wife taught me to like them.  I like the idea of a candle in the dark.   I like the Platonic ideal form of a candle in the dark and I like the material reality of a real candle in the real dark.    I like the flicker, a dancing reminder of life.   Candles are understated.  They don’t insist.  They don’t overwhelm like a fluorescent bulb.   A small candle in the dark is my symbol for Christmas.    I can light a candle.  I can do that much.   

Here is something from Howard Thurman, from his book, The Mood of Christmas.

I Will Light Candles This Christmas
Candles of joy, despite all sadness,
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch.
Candles of courage for fears ever present,
Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens,
Candles of love to inspire all my living,
Candles that will burn all the year long.


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