Tag Archives: Suffering

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.


Some questions about violence, suffering, and the reason for Christmas

It has been a bad week. The Sydney hostage crisis, the Peshawar school massacre, the murder of eight children in one family in Cairns. These tragedies have been publicly watched, mourned and analysed. And some common sentiments I’ve seen expressed on social media are things along the lines of “It’s all too much.” “Why do so many terrible things happen at once?” I can’t take any more tragedy or bad news this week.” “Not this week – it’s Christmas!”

Without in any way wanting to downplay these tragedies – which I too have struggled to comprehend – I’m left asking a number of questions.

Has this week been a worse week than usual?

Is the world getting more violent?

Or are we just more aware of and more connected to terrible things happening than ever before?

Is terrorism somehow worse when it happens to people like me?

And why do we kind of seem to think tragedies are greater when they happen close to Christmas?

For people directly affected by these terrible events, I’m not sure whether either the time of year or the size of the social media response makes much difference to their grief and loss. I certainly don’t think it matters where in the world they are or what colour their skin is. The pain for those who have lost loved ones in senseless violence must be overwhelming.

For the rest of us, however, I’m intrigued by what we might learn about ourselves in weeks like this. For starters, if I’m honest, I have to wonder how much my reactions (and those of people I know and follow) are often really about the “it could have been me” factor.

But I also wonder what it shows up about our assumptions about pain and violence and suffering. It seems that we have certain expectations about where terror and violence “shouldn’t” happen … does that mean that subconsciously we think there are therefore places where it “should”?

Are those who feel these things shouldn’t happen this week because “it’s Christmas” unknowingly implying that any other time of the year is … well, if not ok, at least a bit better?

I don’t quite know where to go with these questions of mine. I realise they might sound impertinent, insensitive, or even offensive.

But what I do know is this. That deep down I am not surprised by violence and terror and suffering in this world. Because the biblical story tells me that this world is a broken, hurting, messed up place. We are broken, hurting, messed up people.

And maybe as a Christian, I should actually be less surprised about these things at this time of year. Perhaps part of celebrating Christmas is remembering why we need Christmas in the first place.

I want to push back against a culture which is telling me that Christmas is all about happiness and family and harmony and feeling good and buying stuff. But you might then think I am going to get all cliched and talk about how “Jesus is the reason for the season.” I’m not. Because I don’t think He is. (I hope that’s not considered blasphemy!) Yes, Jesus is the One whose birth we celebrate this time of year.

But the reason He was born?

Can I suggest to you that it is the precisely the fact that this world is so messed up, so broken, so desperately in need of salvation, that the God of the universe stepped in and became one of us?

That the reason we need Christmas is because the world has long been a place of violence and terror and pain and grief. Maybe we see it on our screens with more immediacy than ever before, or maybe we’ve just been the privileged few who have been protected from the harsh realities for too long. But throughout history and around the world, people have been and are hurting and abusing and terrorising and warring against and inflicting suffering upon one another every single day. We desperately need a Saviour. I don’t know about you, but watching the news this week has again reminded me of that simple fact.

So this week, as we celebrate Christmas, we can try to see it as a time where we forget about all the terrible, messed up, broken and imperfect things going on in the world, or perhaps in our own lives, and on Thursday we can work really hard to have that one perfect day which is nothing but peace and harmony and happiness.

Or, we can choose to acknowledge that it is into the midst of the suffering and brokenness and violence of our world that Jesus comes, and that we need Him to come. We can set aside time this Christmas to include space for mourning and longing and crying out that the world is not all as it should be.

We can enter into the ancient cry of God’s people, desperately seeking the one thing that I believe can truly make a difference in this broken, hurting, messed up world:

O come, O come, Emmanuel. God with us. We need you.

Some thoughts on air travel and human behaviour …

Despite my best intentions, I’ve ended up having a break from blogging while I was away. I wasn’t even able to do my usual Monday travel post this week as I didn’t have a Monday – it was lost somewhere between LA, Sydney and the International Date Line. But spending plenty of time in airports and planes this past week has got me thinking a little bit …

I often think that flying can bring out some of the less attractive sides of human behaviour (mine included). Put a large group of people into the confined space of a plane for more than a few hours and many of us seem to become a bit passive-aggressive, self-focused and/or self-righteous. From people not getting things right in the security queue to the race for overhead compartment space, the challenges of silently negotiating elbow room and knee space, and the scramble to stand up and get off asap … everyone is in a hurry and everything everyone else does is a potential inconvenience. It can feel like flying is a competitive sport, and not necessarily a friendly or non-contact sport at that!

And yet here is what I find really interesting. While all the insignificant inconveniences of air travel are often responded to as if they were major problems, when something actually does go wrong, the whole mood changes. When my flight was delayed for hours due to the snow, strangers in the waiting area starting talking to one another, sharing the latest up to date information, asking one another about connecting flights and onward journeys, even sharing food. When Dallas/Fort-Worth airport was shut down overnight and 4000 people stranded, the airport brought in cots, food and even clowns and face painters. While it may not have all been fun, we can imagine the sense of “we’re all in this together.” Thankfully I’ve never been in a plane that has had to do an emergency landing, or worse a crash, but the stories told from those kind of circumstances are usually ones of people working together, helping one another, supporting, encouraging and caring.

So here is my question. Is one of the key differences between a classic “first world problem” and a true experience of distress that the former tends to isolate us from one another and make us judgmental of those around us; whereas the latter somehow brings people together? I haven’t thought this through so I may well be wrong. But the idea that suffering somehow paradoxically can create community is certainly one that is biblical. Whereas what we in the modern world can sometimes perceive as “suffering” (but is really just inconvenience) can often have the opposite effect. And what does this say about us and our contemporary culture?

These are just the musings of a tired and jet-lagged brain, so I’m very open to hearing how this theory may actually not hold up, but it has certainly got me thinking. What do you think?

Finally, if you haven’t seen this yet, here is the feel good flying story of the year … WestJet’s “Christmas Miracle” happened the same day I was flying home. I guess I picked the wrong airline!!