I was in the coffee aisle at the grocery store the other night, looking for the best bargain. Christmas carols were playing. Shoppers were stocking up for holiday parties.
While I scanned the price tags to see which brand had the best sale, I noticed a lady pushing her cart down the aisle toward me, dabbing at her eyes. She was crying.
“Hi,” I said. “You OK?”
She nodded while dabbing at her eyes.
“Just this time of year,” she said. And on she went.
I can identify, especially this year. Divorce turns your life upside-down and leaves you feeling like a stranger in a land where it gets awfully dark at times. And I know I have a lot of company.
Some of my friends have lost parents and siblings and are going through the holidays without them for the first time, feeling that vacuum and that sting every time they hear a memory-filled carol.
I know people fighting seasonal mood disorders. Others who are in-between chemo treatments and, truth be told, are so seared by the toxic chemicals in their bodies and their souls that they’re not all that sure whether they want to keep going to another Christmas.
For those who grew up in highly dysfunctional families, just seeing a lighted tree can bring back awful memories of what happened around the tree when they were young. Those in nursing homes no longer have a sense of holidays; every day is just like the last one and the next one in their other-worldly existence.
Then we see images of the thousands of refugee children who have nothing. We hear about the latest shooting somewhere that has left holes in more bodies and more communities.
And it’s no wonder that those powerful and pretty words about seeing a light in the great darkness can feel as contrived and phony as the ending to a Hallmark movie where all the characters get their wish on Christmas Eve at the stroke of midnight.
We feel like saying: That’s not my life! In my life right now, everything seems bleak and hurts too damn much. And by the way, where the hell is God in all of this?
I experienced an answer to that question in a hospital room last October.
A friend needed surgery and didn’t have any family in town to be with her, so I volunteered to become her family. After the operation, they wheeled her into her room and supplied her with a hand-held remote that controlled the flow of painkiller in her IV. Every 15 minutes, a little green light at the top of the remote would come on, meaning the dose of painkiller was finished. If she wanted more, she had to push a button.
This is NOT a good system. Every time she started to fall asleep, the dose would run out, the pain would intensify, and she’d open her eyes to see if the green light was lit. Pain welled in her eyes and oozed from her forehead in beads of sweat.
So awful, right?
I grabbed the available wooden chair – one with no padding for your butt or your lower back — and pulled it alongside the bed. I wrapped my left hand around her left hand, the one clinging so tightly to that pain pump, and told her she could relax and sleep – I’ll watch for the light and push the button. I won’t leave your side. We’ll get through this together, I promise. You’re not alone.
I brushed the fingertips of my other hand across her sweat-covered forehead and matted hair, helping her to relax and sleep. After a short nap, she opened her eyes, saw I was still there and smiled.
She wasn’t alone in her pain – which was literally true, because the gawdful wooden chair was killing my butt and my lower back. But as I sat there holding her hand, I sensed the divine presence. I could feel God’s hands on top of mine and hers, squeezing tightly. There with us, and through us.
And maybe that’s what Christmas is about, Charlie Brown.
God doesn’t take away the pain. Once creation was set in motion and we received free will as the greatest gift – the ingredient that makes love possible – we were all sent on a journey of light and darkness, joy and pain.
And when things get bad, God is sitting right there next to us on a gawdawful chair with a painful butt and lower back. Running those divine fingertips so sweetly through our matted hair. Pushing that button every time the light shines, making sure we get what we need.
And telling us it’s OK to go ahead and close our eyes and take a few deep breaths and rest for a little while. Because God will hold our hand through all of it, and be the first one we see when we open our eyes.
A sight that can make us smile for a moment. Before the pain returns. And God pushes the button again. Through us.