PASTOR'S PEN: Not everyone is full of joy during holidays

Is anyone else still recovering from “falling back” an hour in early November? I was not ready.

How about the snow and cold these last couple of weeks? I wasn’t ready.

I have lived in Michigan most of my life, but was living the illusion that sunny fall days might continue much longer. It is already mid-November — Thanksgiving plans and Christmas decorations are being put into place.

I’m not sure I am ready.

Recently, I experienced the loss of my father, and I wasn’t ready for that, either. As a pastor I often walk alongside families through the difficult days that occur surrounding the loss of a loved one. We are never fully ready to say goodbye to someone we love, whether it is a human or a four-legged friend. As the holiday season amps up, I am aware of the number of people in our community who may not be full of joy this year, those who encounter the Thanksgiving table with a bit of grief and sadness.

As Christians, we claim victory over death, trusting that as our lives here on Earth end, we begin a new eternal life. Funeral and memorial services are designed to be celebrations of life rather than markers of finality. While we can always celebrate the redemptive power of Christ and the promise of resurrection, for those who remain, waves of grief can show up unannounced.

In the eleventh chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus encounters Mary and Martha, two sisters who have just buried their brother Lazarus. Their brother had been sick, but they were not ready to lose him. They loved Jesus and trusted in his power and knew that had he arrived sooner he could have healed him. While the story ends in Lazarus’ resurrection, there is a moment where Jesus weeps. He weeps because he has lost his friend and because he recognizes the depth of the sisters’ pain. Jesus enters into this space with them before doing anything else.

As I was listening to "The Moth" podcast recently, I encountered a story called “The House of Mourning,” told by Kate Braestrup, a chaplain who often works with grieving families. In the midst of her story, a phrase stuck out to me. She said, “Walk fearlessly into the house of mourning, for grief is just love squaring up to its oldest enemy. And after all these mortal human years, love is up to the challenge.”

As I pondered these words, I reflected on the many times I felt I had to have the “perfect” words, the right thing to say to make someone feel better. Words to offer hope when the situation feels hopeless can often be hard to come by. I have had many parishioners come and ask what they can do, or say to help someone through grief. I have had grieving people come longing to know when the depth and pain of loss would subside. Perfect words that encourage are not necessary — the greatest gift we can offer is to show up, listen and acknowledge the battle between love and loss.

So as we gather with loved ones, with friends new and old for Thanksgiving, let’s not forget to make space for those who need a fearless community to walk beside them this holiday season.

As we ponder what it means to live a life of gratitude may we give thanks that our Savior, the Christ, is one who enters into even the most difficult spaces with us, weeps with us, and then calls us forth into new life. Love is up to the challenge. Are we?