Rev. Dr. Paul Suich
Ecclesiastes, Chapter 7
A good name is better than precious ointment,
and the day of death than the day of birth.
It is better to go to the house of mourning
than to go to the house of feasting,
for this is the end of all mankind,
and the living will lay it to heart.
Sorrow is better than laughter,
for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
If you got a nickel for every time that someone asks you, “Are you ready for Christmas?,” how much money would you have by Christmas Day?
This is the season of Advent, the season in which we celebrate both the coming of our Savior to our world in the form of a baby and the return of our Savior as reigning King of Kings. But here is the question that often moves out of the consciousness of many during Advent: How do you celebrate the gift of life when someone you love has just died or a life impacting trauma has occurred? In the commercials on TV during the Christmas season, It would seem that families are happy and that we are ally moving towards a carefree celebration. The reality is that in any given year there are a great many people who have been adversely impacted by suffering.
Our Guiding Values
We are emerging from some 20 months of a raging pandemic in which over 760,000 people have died in the US alone. Those with compromised immune systems have had to sequester themselves from social contact, the poor have suffered disproportionately (because they cannot distance and must go to work in person), and many, many people are suffering from the long-term effects of COVID-19 and its variants. Granted, the people who have lost loved ones to death, whose finances are broken because of restrictions, and those with lingering symptoms are only a minority of our population, not the majority. But what kind of a population disregards the suffering of a minority because it is inconvenient?
The Darker Side of Christmas
In the Christmas story as told by the gospel writer, Luke, the village of Bethlehem had the honor of hosting the birth of Jesus. Mary and Joseph traveled there because it was their ancestral home city, although their home was actually to the north in Galilee. The village of Bethlehem also became the subject of Herod’s fear and wrath. Herod, the king appointed by Rome to rule over Israel, ordered all children under the age of two to be killed to eradicate the life of a contender to the throne of Israel. In the very heart of the Christmas story is this deep element of pain. If we only have room for good feelings, we miss the reality of the complexity of Christmas.
Holding Values in Tension
I have asked several questions in a row. My hope is that we sing songs of remembrance that allow us to show gratitude to God for his unspeakable gift, while maintaining empathy for those who are suffering. My hope is that we will give physical gifts to loved ones, and that we will give the gift of listening to those who grieve. My hope is that we will have parties and invite friends to safe gatherings, but that we will respect the need of many to limit their exposure to the bright lights of celebration in the midst of their pain. My hope is that we will be a respectful community in this Advent season. As adults, we can hold both joy and sorrow, celebration and mourning, singing and listening as valuable. We may not be able to do them at the same time, but we can make space for both.
Blue and Green Christmas Celebration
This Christmas will be a blue Christmas for some, and a red/green Christmas for others. The heart of the wise will respect the reality of this tension. Our congregation hosts a special Blue Christmas worship service each year in early December so that there is a place to acknowledge and gather for those in grief. We will also erect a green tree in our sanctuary and hold a Glory of Christmas concert—we will hold space for both.This year may our eyes and ears be open, and our hearts flexible to respond to the people of our community during Christmas. Make room for both joy and pain. Sing carols as you are able with joy—attend to the lyrics as if you had never sung them before. Spend some time, one-on-one, with someone who is deeply grieving loss or pain, for this is a difficult season for many
A Full Christmas
This year may our eyes and ears be open, and our hearts flexible to respond to the people of our community during Christmas. Make room for both joy and pain. Sing carols as you are able with joy—attend to the lyrics as if you had never sung them before. Spend some time, one-on-one, with someone who is deeply grieving loss or pain, for this is a difficult season for many.
Rev. Dr. Paul Suich
Dr. Suich has served as the head of the St. Andrew Ministry here at FPC Lakeland since June 2001. He came here from Augusta, Georgia, where he led the counseling ministry for ten years at FPC Augusta and had worked in community mental health prior to that. He attended the Psychological Studies Institute and Georgia State, earning a Master’s in Christian Counseling, the University of Georgia where he earned a Doctorate in Counseling Psychology, and Asbury Seminary where he earned his Master of Divinity. He grew up in Aiken, South Carolina, and attended Davidson College, a Presbyterian affiliated school in North Carolina. He and his wife Cynthia (also a professional counselor) have two sons, two daughters-in-law, and one grandchild. His hobbies include photography, genealogy, gardening, and woodworking.