BY EVAN WELCHER
“Are the holidays hard for you?”
I suspect this perennial Advent question shall hunt and haunt me all the days I continue to sojourn under this sun. I’m not sure if it is her absence or the constant question reminding me of the void she left behind that grind the gears of my heart so. They mean well, of course. The acknowledgement of suffering is worth something.
Are the holidays harder for the Fellowship Of The Suffering? A Senior Saint at Church and I were talking about this one time. She lost a child during the holidays, long ago. She had the presents under the tree and had to take them back. It still haunts her.
As for me, all the days are hard. All 598 days, as of this writing.
All the days.
I think, as the theologians think, that the shadow of the Cross loomed over the Prince of Peace as He lay in that manger long ago. As Mary treasured up all these things in her heart the sorrow and joy of it all mingled and swirled in the cup of suffering and victory. That cup is always overflowing for the Christian.
My Resplendent Bride made The Hermitage come to life with the joy of Christmas. The high day is one mingled with joy and sadness. She loved Christmas time because she had childlike faith. She was innocent. It was her childlike faith that taught me more theology than all the books on my shelves. It was her innocence that caused her suffering to break my heart so.
One day the disciples wanted to know who is greatest in the Kingdom, and the Lord Jesus showed them a child and said, "Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18.3 ESV)
There are a couple of profound things to realize about this verse, 1. It’s true, 2. And nobody really believes it.
Yet it is because of her childlike faith in the Christ of Christmas that I can still see the beauty of it all through my tears.
All the days are hard. The nights are hard too.
Atomic winter set in deep down in my bones the day I read the old horror everybody knew that was all new to me. The Manhattan Project had used my Resplendent Bride’s old stomping grounds as a radioactive dump, long before the burbs of North County St. Louis exploded with population. Rusting barrels of radioactive waste were stored by the airport for decades. There it all was, blowing in the wind, settling in the soil, leaking into the water.
I stared at the map as my blood boiled and my gut rotted. Her whole life was spent around a radioactive dump. The Army Corp Of Engineers report had cute acronyms for the various radioactive dump sites: St. Louis Airport Site (SLAPS)/ Hazelwood Interim Storage Site (HISS)/ the Latty Avenue Vicinity Properties (VPs).
But I can still see her, her freckled skin shining in the sun, she’s got those yellow framed sunglasses on, and the windows rolled down. She’s driving that old white Chevy from St. John to her Daddy’s Church over in Bridgeton, to Florissant where she went to, and later taught, school.
The skeptics debate the long-range health effects on people who lived in North County. Those with just enough history under their belt to sound merciless say the collateral environmental health damage endured in the Manhattan Project’s pursuit of an atomic weapon is well worth the lives that would have been lost in a WWII land invasion of the Empire Of Japan. I toast them all. May I commit a faux pas and toast with water? Let’s fill our glasses in Cold Water Creek.
She lived and loved deeply and the next thing she knew she woke up at twenty-eight and had three kinds of blood cancer.
She’s the love of my life and the next thing I know she’s been dead for a year and a half and isn’t making any cameos in anybody’s Christmas-year-in-review-letters.
The days grow short and the nights grow long. Holiday evenings were made for festive décor and snuggling. These nights were made for lovers. I find myself lying on my once crowded marital bed, wrestling with this radioactive root of bitterness. I think of the lyrics of Pearl Jam’s Pendulum:
“I’m in the fire but I’m still cold. Nothing works, works for me anymore.”
I think of Edgar Allan Poe’s words in Berenice,
“Either the memory of pass bliss is the anguish of to-day, or the agonies which are have their origin in the ecstasies which might have been.”
Or as I have put it, “It matters not whether you grieve the great was, or the great never was.”
I think of King David weeping on his bed in Psalm 6,
Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing; heal me, O LORD, for my bones are troubled. My soul also is greatly troubled. But you, O LORD--how long? Turn, O LORD, deliver my life; save me for the sake of your steadfast love. For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise? I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. My eye wastes away because of grief; it grows weak because of all my foes. (ESV)
I have spent sleepless holiday nights with my arm outstretched toward heaven repeating “I need you” until my arm went numb and my words failed me.
There is great suffering in this time between the Advents, but take heart: the Advents are always moving closer together. All the days are leading to the Crucified Carpenter King restoring all that has been loss.
All the days hurt.
Yet there is coming a Day of justice and healing. If I close my eyes in the graveyard I can almost see it out of the corner of my eye. The Lord Jesus coming swiftly on the clouds with His angels to collect the elect from the four corners of the world. He’s making all things new. He’s wiping away every tear. He’s mocking death.
Matthew 24.30-31 (ESV)
Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
Until that day I’ll go on loving her, and Him.
But as for me, I will look to the LORD; I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me. -Micah 7.7 (ESV)
Evan Welcher is senior pastor of First Christian Church in Glenwood, Iowa. He graduated with a B.S. in Biblical studies from Emmaus Bible College in 2005. Evan’s goal in ministry is to stir up love for Jesus Christ by the giving of great care and fidelity to the teaching of the scriptures.