Our Gift – a story of hope

It has been a season of loss for many, including myself. When I got the following article from Desiring God Ministries, it hit a chord in my heart that has resonated ever since. I pray it will do the same for you, but you must read it to the end. Otherwise, the article will leave you in a place of sadness, and I never want to do this for someone who is grieving.

Merry Christmas to all of you! May this serve as a gift from our table to yours. 🎄


Christmas With An Empty Chair

By Greg Morse

My grandfather is no longer here for Christmas.

I scarcely remember one without him, and yet now his absence is becoming the new normal. We no longer gather in his living room to read Luke’s account of Jesus’s birth, sing “Joy to the World,” open presents together, or eat the Christmas dinner he prepared. His chair, once so full of fondness, infectious laughter, and gentlemanly repose, now sits silent, full of memories. 

A new sensation now dines with me during my favorite time of year. As the dining table crowds with new faces, new grins, and new babies, nostalgias of past Christmases unfold in the background. Here, more than at any other place or time, days past and days present meet. Here I behold fresh holiday scenes with old eyes. So much is the same, and so much is different.

Loss has made me older.

I look around the table at the bright eyes of the children, and see a joy unburdened. The Christmas they have known is the same today. They can’t see what their parents see. They cannot detect the soft-glowing faces or hear the unspeaking voices. To them, chairs aren’t empty, they’re yet to be filled. They don’t know the ache in our celebration, the wounds that never fully heal

I now know Christmas as my grandfather had for years — as a mixture of gladness and grief, gratitude and regret, Christmas now and Christmas then. I could not discern the others who dined with us around the table from another life ago — parents, friends, his beloved wife. I never realized his Christmases filled with more than just that single Christmas. I now see the unspoken dimension. I better understand that weathered smile, brimming fuller, yet sadder than once before. 

Suffice it to say, Christmases these days aren’t quite the same. 

Out with the Old?

With this new experience of Christmas with an empty chair, comes certain threats and temptations. 

Jesus once warned about sewing a piece of new cloth onto an old garment; or putting new wine into old wineskins. The wineskins might burst, he taught; the cloth might tear. But here we are. In the mind of the man or woman who has lost, the new is patched with the old; new wine pours into old family wineskins. 

Perhaps you can relate. The pressure of sitting and eating and singing where he or she once sat and ate and sang can tear at the heart. You may have lost more than a grandfather. The strain of grief you feel around the holidays nearly concusses. The spouse whose name inscribed upon the ornament is no longer here. One stocking is missing. The beloved child you watched run down the stairs Christmas morning has not made it down for some years now. Christmas, this side of heaven, will never be the same.

I do not pretend to know such depths of despair. But I do know twin temptations that greet those of us who have lost someone. I hope that naming them might help you this Christmas. 

Past Swallows Present

The first temptation is to the variety of grief that kidnaps us from life today. This bottomless ache comes when we begin to stare and stare at the empty chair. The grief overwhelms all gladness; the past swallows the present. The good that arrives is not the good that once was, so all current cause for happiness becomes spoiled or forgotten. 

This is to step beyond the healthy grief and remembrance of our losses. It poisons the heart by entertaining the question the wise man bids us not to: “Say not,” he warns, “‘Why were the former days better than these?” For, he continues, “it is not from wisdom that you ask this” (Ecclesiastes 7:10). This grief poisons the what is with the what used to be. It hinders the ability to go on. 

Grief threatens to lock us in dark cellars of the past, keeping us from enjoying the child playing on the floor or the new faces around the table. 

Over-the-Shoulder Guilt

Second is the temptation to bow to the over-the-shoulder guilt bearing down on us. Lewis captures this in A Grief Observed:

There’s no denying that in some sense I “feel better,” and with that comes at once a sort of shame, and a feeling that one is under a sort of obligation to cherish and foment and prolong one’s unhappiness. (53)

“The empty chair can threaten to overwhelm all joy in this Christmas or shame us for feeling any joy this Christmas.”

This temptation sees the empty chair frowning at us. “Why aren’t you sadder? How can Christmas still be merry? Didn’t you love him?” The memory, not remaining in its proper place, looms over our shoulder, patrolling our happiness in the present. This shame is a sickness that tempts us to hate wellness.

So, the empty chair can threaten to overwhelm all joy in this Christmas or shame us for feeling any joy this Christmas — both must be resisted. 

Melt the Clouds of Sadness

So what do we do? There the empty chair sits. 

Fighting both temptations, I need to remind myself: Christmas is not about family around a dinner table, but about Jesus. And Jesus has promised that for his people — for my grandfather — to be absent from the Christmas table is to be present with him. 

I ask myself, Should I wish my grandfather back?Would I, if it stood within my power, recall him from that feast, reunite his soul with his ailing body — reclaim him to sickness, loneliness, sin — summon him from the heaven of Christ himself to a shadowy celebration of Christ on earth? 

Somedays I half-consider it.

But I know that if I could speak to him now, he wishes me there. The empty chair heaven longs to see filled is not around our Christmas dinner, but the empty chairs still surrounding Christ. Our places are set already. Better life, real life, true life, lasting life lies in that world. That empty chair of our loved ones departed is not merely a reminder of loss, but a pointer to coming gain. 

“That empty chair of our loved ones departed is not merely a reminder of loss, but a pointer to coming gain.”

This place of shadows and darkness, sin and Satan, grief and death, is no place yet for that Happy Reunion. The dull Christmas stab reminds me that life is not what it should be, but it can also remind me life is not what it will soon be for all who believe.

Jesus will come in a Second Advent. He will make all things new. Christmases with empty chairs are numbered; these too shall soon pass. And the greatest chair that shall be occupied, the one that shall restore all things, and bring real joy to the world, is Jesus Christ, the baby once born in Bethlehem, now King that rules the universe. He shall sit and eat with us at his eternal supper of the Lamb. 

And until then, while we travel through Christmases present and future, I pray for myself and for you, 

Melt the clouds of sin and sadness;
Drive the dark of doubt away;
Giver of immortal gladness,
Fill us with the light of day! 

Greg Morse is a staff writer for desiringGod.org and graduate of Bethlehem College & Seminary. He and his wife, Abigail, live in St. Paul with their son and daughter.

Waves, Coasters and Journeys

My last question was asked by Jeanine Byers of the Hallmark Christmas Life blog; “How do you – meaning you, personally – navigate ongoing grief and loss?”

Such a good question that has needed time to meld in my mind before responding. And I have prayed about the best way to do so.

Grief has been compared to waves that come and go, a roller coaster with highs and scary lows, or a journey that takes you places you never wanted to go. All are excellent comparisons. The thing is I have personally felt every one.

The waves of the sea are said to come in sets of 7. And the stages of grief are also said to be 7. Just as the waves vary depending on the wind above the waters surface, so too does my grief vary based on the winds of my emotions. Some days all is calm, other days the wind is violent and difficult to navigate through.

Jeanine watched a movie where the end hit her hard. I call those “rogue waves” that hit out of no where. She didn’t see it coming so the affects it had on her were greater.

Movies and music provide touchstones (parts that connect to you on an emotional level or shared experience). I’ve found when this happens the best thing to do is like a big wave—roll with it. It won’t last and it may be that my tears have been building and need release.

However, I have to guard my mind when it happens. Or I get on the emotional roller coaster that leads no where.

The grief I have experienced recently has left me sad. My brother died of Covid, but God determined the day he would take his last breath. This gives me peace because God is in control, I can trust Him.

Life is a journey and God has chosen an exit for each of us. He would that all of us believe in Jesus Christ for this is the door to eternal joy.

I have hope as a Christian knowing I will see my brother and my parents again one day in Heaven. My parents were both older (Mom 90 and Dad 81). My brother was only 66. He had so much ahead of him he hadn’t experienced yet. And that would be sad if this life was all there is. My belief in Heaven has made all the difference. He is experiencing a level of life now that I can only dream of.

I highly recommend Randy Alcorn’s book, Heaven. He has spent his life studying and forming a theology of Heaven that is compelling.

This is how I process ongoing grief, but everyone is different.

The best thing to do is to listen to those who are grieving. I’ve heard cliches are not helpful and I’ve found this to be so true for me. Just be present and let your grieving friend share. We don’t ever move on from the loss we’ve experienced, but we do move forward, some faster than others.

A good friend is there for the ride—whether it’s rolling waves, scary coasters or long road trips—whatever is needed.

“A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.”
‭‭Proverbs‬ ‭17:17‬ ‭ESV‬

This is my 27th post in The Ultimate Blog Challenge to post everyday in November.

Kindness Is Appreciated

It was an awkward moment in July when I called to see if a friend was still on for providing dinner for our family. By his answer I knew he had forgotten. We had to kick into gear since there were nearly 30 already gathered at the home of my niece to eat.

We stopped at Publix and bought all the chicken tenders and macaroni and cheese from the hot deli, as well as Cole slaw, potato salad, Hawaiian rolls and baked beans. I felt bad for the customers waiting with the next number to be served at the deli. Their stares revealed their anger that we were taking all the available hot food. I avoided eye-contact because we had no other choice.
I managed to hold back my tears. We pushed our heavy cart with our heavy hearts to the cashier, which is when it happened…

Friendly Cashier, “Hello, You must be having some party!”
Me: “Actually no. My brother just died on Monday from Covid and the person who offered to bring us a meal tonight forgot.”

The poor cashier. I don’t remember what he said, but all the blood drained from his face.
Why did I do that? He didn’t deserve my blunt response, but I couldn’t help it. My emotions had been building all day and he happened to be there at the wrong time to be the recipient of my outburst.

Of course, I apologized, through tears. I tried to explain that I’m not normally like this, but I think the damage was done. He was embarrassed.

Harsh words are like that. Once spoken they can’t be taken back. Oh, we can do all we can to apologize and make it right, but if it’s not in the heart of that person to forgive, the relationship may never be restored.

We live in a harsh world right now. So many fling words on social media without thought. It’s hard to think the best when we’re hearing the worst.
But we are better than this. We don’t know what someone is going through unless they explode the reason in your face. I hope my obvious heartache and loss helped this poor guy give me sympathy instead of anger. But it’s his choice.

We all face heartache from time to time. It’s in these moments when kindness is appreciated.

This is my 11th post in The Ultimate Blog Challenge to post everyday in November. It was originally published in our neighborhood newsletter, which I began in 1999.

Stumble

Our prompt was to share a time when we stumbled in our lives.

Goodness, this is a hard one to share, but I’ve learned the purpose of stumbling is to help us grow. When shared, it helps others learn from our mistakes. So here goes…

I was 19 and newly married. I had moved from the only home I had ever known to a town I had only visited a few times during my short, five month engagement to Tom Walter.

My grandmother had lived with us for a while before Tom and I got married. She had prayed for my future husband for years. When she met Tom, she loved him and expressed it with food. She made him her chili when she learned how much he loved spicy food.

On one of my trips to Bradenton, I carried a mason jar full of Big Mama’s chili. It was love for him in a jar and it worked. Tom loved her as much as he loved her chili. This recipe still holds a special place in our story. (You can find her recipe under the From My Kitchen tab above).

Just a few months after our wedding, we visited my family only to discover my grandmother was sick. At 90 years old, she was unable to get out of bed. We were home for the weekend but I never went in to see her. I couldn’t bear seeing her frail, so I avoided her. I had no idea this would be my last chance to see her alive.

Just a couple of months later, she died.

I can’t express the regret I felt. I remembered many times as a teen trying to comfort her in her old age. She loved me, her youngest granddaughter, of this I am certain. But I stumbled with the emotion of letting her go. I thought if I ignored it I would get another chance, but I was wrong. So very wrong!

This regret is what fueled my passion to discover and write her story. I have found stumbling happens for a reason; it’s the platform that launches us to a place we would never get to had we not stumbled in the first place.

It’s easy to stand here today in my 60’s and judge my 19 year old response to death and dying, but that’s not fair. I did as much as I was emotionally able to do at the time, and it was for a purpose.

God takes our broken pieces and makes them into something special to be treasured—like a stained glass window. Today I’m holding up my broken pieces for you to see. God made something beautiful in spite of my mistakes.

How have you seen your mistakes made into something beautiful?

This is Day 6 of The Ultimate Blog Challenge to post everyday in November.