There’s a beautiful place in town that’s been a refuge for me, especially since the death of my beloved husband. The Dallas Arboretum is an urban oasis of both natural and man-made beauty on the banks of a lake in the middle of the city. Before Leighton died we enjoyed going there together; after he died it became my grieving place, somewhere I could sit “beside still waters” in every season of the year to think, journal, and remember.
And so last year on a crisp afternoon in December three days before Christmas, I went to the Arboretum to reflect on the season in a peaceful moment of “all is calm, all is bright.” When I left my bench I was refreshed by the exquisite beauty of the clear, cool day and the feeling of being far removed from the bustle of the season.
As I walked toward the exit, my eyes fell on a display outside the strategically located gift shop. Doesn’t just every place have one? In what to me seemed like a last ditch effort to move the remains of the Christmas merchandise, I saw a stand of – for want of a better description - decorated metal sticks. I think they were meant for use as lawn ornaments to brighten up a garden or yard.
They were pretty well picked over – the ones that were left looked rather pitiful. An imperfect Santa leaned against a sign that proclaimed “blessings”, and several sad soldiers were mixed in with a few lopsided angels. The best ones had been long since taken - these were the decorations no one wanted. They were the unloved orphans of yet another season of intense commercialism. I didn’t buy one, yet their abandonment drew me in.
On the way home I stopped by Albertson’s for a container to hold a last batch of cookies. The store was already winding down the Christmas “stuff” (would Valentines be on the shelves by December 26?). But on the aisle with the last of the stocking candy and desperation gifts – you know, the ones for last-minute shoppers - I saw more orphans. The plastic knick-knacks in colors that were slightly “off”, the tins with a small dent, and the last, last, last of the tired, tacky gift wrap.
Since then I’ve thought a lot about orphans and the loneliness of grief. There’s surely nothing more heartbreaking than a child of any age without the love, affection, and protection of a caring adult, whether a natural parent, an adoptive parent, a foster parent, or someone who needs the two-way blessing that only a child can offer. “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy” (Psalm 82:3-4 NRSV). However lonely and abandoned we may feel in our grief for the one we’ve lost, we are not orphaned, we are not alone, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (Romans 8:14 NRSV).
There are many who grieve, especially at Christmas, who feel forgotten, abandoned, and painfully lonely. Perhaps there’s been a rupture in the family that - at least for the time being - seems irreparable. Or maybe there’s no connection to a place of community. At church last year on Christmas Eve I sat next to a tearful woman who, with very little prompting, poured out her family’s story of estrangement.
As I listened I realized that she was an orphan, physically and emotionally isolated from those she loved. She was grieving, she was in pain. She needed to feel less alone, at one with others. She was desperately seeking God’s grace, the miracle of Christmas to heal her heart. She longed to be able to reach out in forgiveness and love to reconcile her family and restore that which was lost.
Christmas renews within us the certainty of God’s love for humankind. God is with us through the loneliness of our grief, especially when we feel orphaned, separated by death from the one we love. Christmas happens when the miracle of God’s love makes us whole again - our heart is at peace, our soul rejoices in the wonder of God’s infinite grace.
I will never leave you or forsake you.
Hebrews 13:5 NRSV
Keep me this day, O God, in the shelter of your spirit. Amen.