A message in this morning’s Inbox caught my eye. (The email is actually dated yesterday, but I hadn’t read it until today.) I didn’t immediately recognize the author’s name, but the title, Stop Sending Cheery Christmas Cards, definitely piqued my interest. I clicked the link.
The post is written by Kay Warren, wife of evangelical pastor Rick Warren, author of (among others) the 2002 book The Purpose-Driven Life. In April 2013, their family was rocked by the suicide of their youngest son Matthew, age 27. The young man struggled with mental illness.
A brief synopsis of Warren’s piece should suffice here; it is worth the read if you care to do so. Warren describes how devastating it was that year (and even this year) to receive effusive Christmas greetings from friends, many of whom knew of their loss but whose seasonal greetings seemed heedless.
During the holidays, stress heightens, often brought on by the absence of family members who’ve died during the past month/year/decade. Front-shelf grief may diminish but it’s usually there in the back of our minds. Memories of Christmases past often bring grief flooding back to the surface. We learn to deal with it, not because we want to but because we must go on living.
The Warren Family’s grief is unimaginable. My four children (now adults) are still living, thankfully. But our family does understand absence, prolonged absence, painful and estranged absence. I’ve posted about this before (here, here and here). Like many parents, my Beloved and I know what it means to long for fellowship with an adult child who has wandered away … staying absent and incommunicado over the last eight years. This isn’t a death, but feels very much like one.
If you’ve read my previous posts about this rift, you may sense my reluctance to venture beyond generalities. Warren explains her grief in a way to which I can connect. Leaving out intimate details may be (as Warren observes) because “Americans are uncomfortable with such raw emotions.” Indeed. However, as I’ve shared before, Mom (me) feels somehow responsible for the rift. (I know, I know, it comes with the Mom territory.)
During the last two years our youngest lived in our home, we noted a growing aloofness. Mentally and emotionally, I tried to chalk it up to his growing maturity and necessary adult differentiation. (He suggested the term individuation with characteristic Psychology Major swagger.) But it wasn’t just that. He was, in a sense, closing up shop, severing his ties with a family history about which he’d become ambivalent. (This from a young man who was once remarkably family-centered.) In the years since he left home, every attempt to reconnect with him, every overture from family members has been rebuffed.
Like many of Kay Warren’s friends, it was my habit (going back some 30 years or more) to mail annual Christmas greetings to family and friends. These missives have become rarer in recent years, with the last one sent in 2010, briefly mentioning all our offspring. I can’t deny, my heart hasn’t been in it; an empty chair at the table only hints at the grief of my soul. We are not whole, there’s an “A” missing from F_MILY!
(Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not asking for sympathy … and if anyone gets the sense I’m complaining, grousing, whining, I deeply regret that because it’s not my intention. Please read on.)
Considering Warren’s candid post sharing her heartbreak and echoing the heartache of so many others, I think her emotions are completely natural. She refers to a path of grief. She also recognizes that even with (and in the midst of) the grief, it’s possible to “experience the joy of the Lord” as well as to reconcile her grief with the boundless joys of this season. I wholeheartedly agree.
There is grief when the family gathers at Christmas, but that grief is viewed through the lens of Hope. Hope is delivered in the Garden of Eden where God foretold (Genesis 3) the Savior’s advent. God reiterated that Hope in Isaiah 9:6 (and other Scripture passages) and God fulfilled that Hope when Jesus was born. We have a consistent Promise of Reconciliation.
CHRISTMAS! It’s the ultimate act of reconciliation, the God-Man coming into Time and Space to reconcile man to Himself! Christmas also invokes images of family and shared memories/experiences. The first Christmas centers around a family, Mary, Joseph and a newborn Baby. In 21st Century America (though not for all of us), our traditional understanding of Christmas has been learned (even ingrained) within the context of family.
Reconciliation is available for all. Reconciliation with God enables us to reconcile more fully with family and friends and acquaintances. Scripture urges all of us: Be reconciled to God. It’s the essential message of Christmas.