Tag Archives: Love

Blue Christmas: Lament and Hope

We held a Blue Christmas service at my church last night. This is a tradition I have found helpful over the last few years, attending a couple of similar services, although this was the first time I have been involved in leading one. Blue Christmas is about naming the fact that for many people, the joy, celebration, and expectation of this time of year is often tinged with sadness. It is an opportunity to take time to sit in the darkness, to bring before God our sadnesses and sorrows, to recognise that there are often no easy answers or quick fixes, but to seek hope in the midst of wherever we find ourselves.

I’ve learned from the psalmists that we need time and space to be honest and vulnerable before God and his people. The lament psalms give us permission to be brutally honest; to name our sadness, doubt, confusion, or even anger in prayer.

We met last night, on what for most of the world is the longest night of the year, the night of greatest darkness, which comes just a few days before we remember the dawning of hope in the birth of Jesus. Of course, living in the southern hemisphere, it is not physically for us the longest night but one of the shortest, but that doesn’t mean many of us don’t feel like we are experiencing dark or long nights, and so we joined with sisters and brothers throughout history and around the world seeking the Light of the world in the middle of the darkness.

For many centuries, Christians have been lighting candles to represent giving their prayers and themselves to God. This isn’t necessarily part of my own church tradition, but we built our time together around the lighting of candles: the central (white) Christ candle, representing Jesus, the Light of the world, surrounded by four blue candles representing the different circumstances some of us find ourselves in.

There are many different ways of doing this, but we linked the four candles to the Advent themes of hope, peace, joy, and love.

The first candle represented those experiencing grief, who have lost someone they loved. We took time to remember them, expressing our aching hearts to God, and the way death makes us feel angry and cheated. We looked to Him to sit with us in our grief and make known His love. We then heard the words of Isaiah 40 speaking comfort.

The second candle represented those experiencing sickness, sadness, loneliness, anxiety, despair. We took time to acknowledge the burdens we carry, expressing our sadness and confusion to God, and the way suffering can make us feel alone and misunderstood. We looked to Him to sit with us in our pain and make known His joy. We then heard the words of Jeremiah 31 speaking restoration.

The third candle represented those experiencing broken relationships, conflict, tension, separation in their families. We took time to acknowledge the messiness we live in, expressing our longing for reconciliation, resolution, and forgiveness to God, and the way brokenness can make us feel incomplete. We looked to Him to sit with us in our discord and make known His peace. We then heard the words of Psalm 23 speaking tenderness.

The fourth candle represented those experiencing unmet expectations, shattered dreams, dashed hopes. We took time to acknowledge the deep longings and unanswered prayers, expressing our emptiness to God, and the way our lacks can make us feel troubled  and bitter. We looked to Him to sit with us in our yearning and make known His hope. We then heard the words of Lamentations 3 speaking solace.

We finished with perhaps my favourite Christmas carol, crying out for Jesus to come to us right where we are, in the middle of whatever darkness we are facing, just as He came and met the hopes and longings of His people on that first Christmas night:

Come Thou long expected Jesus

Born to set Thy people free

From our fears and sins release us

Let us find our rest in Thee

Israel’s strength and consolation

Hope of all the earth Thou art

Dear desire of every nation

Joy of every longing heart

Then each person lit a small individual candle to represent seeking the Light of Jesus in their own circumstances, and took home a blue Christmas decoration as a small reminder of what we had shared with God and His people that night. We gave people the opportunity to pray for and with one another, or just to sit in the silence and stillness for as long as they needed. I think we all found it helpful to have the space to do that, especially at this time of year.

I think that nearly all of us are carrying stories of brokenness, grief, doubt, sadness, and darkness. This is difficult at any time of year, but particularly so if we are surrounded by celebrations, busyness, and expectations, as we often are at Christmas. Maybe you can find a Blue Christmas service near you this year to share in a time of lament and hope with God’s people. Maybe you can create one for others. Or maybe you can just create your own space to name the sadnesses and darknesses you are carrying and allow yourself the freedom to sit in them for a time, expressing them to God and looking for Him to meet you in the middle of them.

 

Advertisements

What does hospitality look like in speech and in action?

A few years ago I had a disagreement with a politician about words. He was using a phrase that had been understood in the popular media at the time as a kind of ‘slogan’ with a particular emphasis. I assumed that was what he meant by using this phrase; he assured me that he had a more nuanced perspective to communicate. The key to our disagreement was that he then said it was my responsibility to listen and understand what he intended to communicate, and my problem if I didn’t get what he meant. Conversely, I suggested that it was his responsibility to understand how I would hear what he was saying and to use words to ensure that I would receive his intention. In the end we had to agree to disagree, but it is a conversation I have often thought about since.

Does the onus lie on the speaker or the hearer to make sure communication is clearly understood?

And what does that have to do with hospitality?

Missiology 101 tells me that as someone who has a good message to proclaim, the onus is on me to make sure that my words are being heard and understood by those I am seeking to communicate with, rather than expecting or assuming that they will know what I intend. We call it “contextualisation,” that is, making sure our message is communicated in a way that makes sense to those who are receiving it. To me, this is a form of hospitality. I invite someone into the conversation in a way that is welcoming when I focus not so much on what I want to say, but on what they will hear and receive.

I think hospitality is often misunderstood. The mental picture many people have is of inviting someone into their home. Which is a lovely, welcoming thing to do. However, there is an important caveat. In many ways, our home is our “turf.” It is the place where we feel most comfortable, and where we do things our way. If we invite someone in to that, but expect and assume that they will “fit in” with us, are we truly being welcoming? Or is hospitality about making the other person feel comfortable, choosing to accommodate ourselves to their way of doing things, making sure they feel at home?

True hospitality is the attitude of making someone else feel at home rather than simply being in our home.

What would it look like to live that kind of hospitality in speech and in action?

My church has recently started partnering with a Christian community who speak a different language to us, many of whom are refugees and have left everything they have known behind. I see their joy in their eyes as they come into a place where they can speak their own language, and eat food that is familiar to them, and feel comfortable knowing that they understand what is expected of them. I imagine that in nearly every other aspect of their lives this is not the case. Everywhere they go they are expected to fit in with us, speak like us, do things our way. And yes, that is part of the process of learning to live in a new culture. But what if instead of the church being just one more place where they are the outsiders who are expected to find ways to fit in, what if we as followers of Jesus chose to be the ones who learned their language, ate their food, did things their way? What if we went out of our way to be the ones who were uncomfortable so that they might feel at home?

That’s a challenge. That will be more difficult. That’s the kind of hospitality that is costly as we sacrifice our own comfort and ease for the sake of the other. That’s the kind of hospitality of a church whose early leaders chose to become like outsiders in order to share their hope with those on the outside. That’s the kind of hospitality of a church whose head is a God who condescended to become a human being in order to demonstrate his great love for humanity.

How do we decide what to care about?

This world we are living can be a heart-breaking place. As I write this, thousands are dead after an earthquake in Nepal and many, many more face health and housing crises in the aftermath. Just last week, 28 Ethiopian Christians were cruelly murdered for no reason other than their faith. According to the UN, there are now 4 million registered Syrian refugees who have fled from the persecution and destruction wreaked by ISIS.

Like many other Australians, I was horrified this morning to hear of the brutal executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. There are people I know personally who knew them personally and my heart is heavy for them – I can’t even begin to imagine what their families are feeling.

But I was also horrified that I only learned the plight of Mary Jane Veloso the day before she was to be executed. Why have I not been hearing her story for months?

Similarly, while I rejoiced this morning with the news that 293 women and girls have been rescued by the Nigerian military from their appalling captivity to Boko Haram, the fact that none of these are the girls kidnapped from Chibok over a year ago reminds me that there are many more stories of suffering happening in that place than the one I have heard about.

Which leads me to these questions: How do we decide what to care about? In a world with so much suffering and injustice, how and why do some situations become known and provoke massive outpourings of response, while others go unheeded? Who decides, and is it okay to let someone else decide for us?

I’m not sure I have answers to these questions, but that’s okay. My goal here is simply to do some thinking out loud.

Certainly the media can be an easy target, as “they” appear to choose which stories we hear and which we don’t and we can’t always be sure what their motives are. I do wonder, however, if a big part of their agenda is presenting us with the stories they think we want to hear. Which puts the question back on us and our self-interest .

Social media can be seen as playing a helpful role in allowing people to have more of a voice and to probe beyond what those with seemingly big corporate agendas are telling us. Certainly the fact that I have a handful of friends on facebook who live in Nepal has helped me feel like I have slightly more insight into the realities of what is happening on the ground there.

And yet it is often difficult to understand why some stories go viral and so many others don’t. Why do we collectively choose to care about some things more than others?

Social media also seems to feed into a kind of “Compassion Fatigue” – where we are so overwhelmed by the sheer amount of suffering in the world that we just want to crawl under the covers and watch videos of cats. It also seems to lead us towards setting up Compassion as a Zero Sum Game – where we assume that by caring about one thing someone is by default not caring about something else, and we then attack them for that perceived lack of compassion.

Two passages from the Bible are challenging me about these questions today.

The first is in Deuteronomy 15, where Moses is explaining to the people of Israel how they are to put into practice the call to respond to the poor and needy. One of the things I love about biblical Hebrew is how abstract concepts are often spoken about by grounding them in physical, concrete, realities. So when he speaks about being compassionate and generous, he literally talks about what you “see with your eyes” and what you can “reach with your hand.” To me, this suggests that the call to respond to the poor and needy is in some way contingent upon us and our situation. If we see injustice, if we can reach out to suffering, then we are called to do so. Once we have become aware, and we know that it is in our ability to act, to turn away is in and of itself an act of injustice.

The challenge we face in our global, interconnected world is that we have the ability to see injustice and need in so many places, and we have the ability in our hands to make a difference in so many ways. We have readily accepted the privilege of knowledge and information and connection that technology has brought us, but I’m not sure we have so readily accepted the challenge.

The second passage is the very well known story Jesus tells in Luke 10. The parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus tells the story in response to a man asking a question not that dissimilar from the ones I am asking today. “Who is my neighbour?” “Who am I to care about?” And Jesus’ answer is quite confronting. Your neighbour might just be the last person you expect, the person so unlike you, the person who hates you, the person who has no connection to you at all and no ability to repay you for your kindness.

As I continue to scroll through my facebook or twitter feed, as I click on the links people send me, as I engage with the stories of what is happening in our world, what does it look like for me to respond to these my neighbours, whether their story is viral or hardly known? What can I do today with the images I have seen with my own eyes and the resources I have in my own hand to show compassion and justice?