The Dallas Arboretum is an urban oasis of both natural and man-made beauty on the banks of a lake not far from downtown. This beautiful place has been a refuge for me, especially since the death of my beloved husband. Before Leighton died we enjoyed going there together; after he died it became my grieving place. I can sit there “beside still waters” in every season of the year to think, journal, and remember.
On a crisp December afternoon one year 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 noise of the city and 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 seemed like a last ditch effort to move the remains of the Christmas merchandise, there was a stand of decorated sticks, for want of a better description. I think they were meant for use as lawn ornaments to brighten up a garden or yard.
By that time in the season they were pretty well picked over—the ones that were left looked sad and pitiful. An imperfect Santa leaned against a sign that proclaimed “blessings”. Several sagging soldiers were mixed in with a few lopsided angels. These were the decorations no one wanted. They were the unloved material “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 a now defunct mega-store for a container to hold one last batch of cookies. The store was already winding down the Christmas “stuff” (would Valentines be on the shelves 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 have loved and now grieve, 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, alone, and abandoned. Perhaps there is a rupture in the family that at least for the time being, seems irreparable. Or maybe there is no connection to a place of community. There are spiritual orphans all around us who need our outstretched hand of love at this season of welcome and inclusion.
Christmas renews within us the certainty of God’s love for humankind. Emmanuel. God present to us through the loneliness of our grief. God is with us 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 and our soul rejoices in the wonder of God’s infinite grace “I will never leave you or forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5 NRSV).