No Room in the Inn
Sermon by Vicki Lumpkin
December 5, 2012 (Blue Christmas)
There are times in life when “Joy to the World” is simply not where your heart is, but “Bah humbug!” doesn’t express where you are, either. You may “gird up your loins”– there’s a good old biblical phrase! – to “troll the ancient yuletide carol,” but somehow in spite of your best effort, you end up half a step off, and half a beat late, somehow totally out of sync with the season. It’s not that your are inherently averse to twinkling lights and Christmas carols, to shiny ornaments and festive gatherings, it’s just that sometimes these things do more to disquiet a soul than soothe it. The lens of grief brings a fun-house mirror’s distortion to the holiday season, twisting and turning it all askew. Except somehow the fun has left the house, replaced by a sense of fatigue. It’s not that we want the world to stop, but sometimes the idea of “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” sounds really good.
When you’ve suffered a significant loss, angels and shepherds and sages from afar may be all too much, but “no room in the inn” just about says it all. In the midst of holiday bustle, there is little room for grief’s hesitations and altered perspectives.
They say that time heals all wounds, but we recognize this for the falsehood it is. What is true, however, is that time wounds all heels. A blue Christmas, if not in our past or present, is surely in our future. We live, we love, we suffer loss, and we join the human community of grievers.
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Part of my work at hospice is to serve as bereavement coordinator. I and my chaplain colleagues follow up with our families for a year after the loss of their loved ones. They grant us the privilege of allowing us into their lives at this tender time. We can’t heal a broken heart, but we can lend a loving ear. In return, they teach us what the journey is like. I honor them by giving them voice tonight, by passing on some of what these most excellent and gracious teachers have passed on to me.
One of the things I have learned is that we don’t just suffer the loss of someone or something important. In a very real sense, we lose a part of ourselves. One person said, “I feel as though I lost part of myself, and I think it was the best part.” Another explained further, “I don’t know who I am anymore. For so long it was us, and now there isn’t any us. I’m trying to find out who I am now without him.” Loss of a job, loss of a spouse, loss of a dream, even moving from the place we’ve lived so long can put us right back into that awkward phase of adolescence where we find ourselves asking again, “Who am I?” Like adolescence, grief is a messy process. Like adolescence, even innocent bystanders are not immune from its effects. I remember one person who confessed with embarrassment that after the death of his loved one, “I went to Walmart and the clerk was incompetent and I just lost it!”
Grief changes things: our sense of self, our relationship with who or what has been lost, even our relationship with God. Grief may lead us to take a look at the God we thought we knew, the God who doesn’t always answer prayers in the way we hoped, even when they are for good things. Up for reassessment is everything we were ever taught in Sunday School, every sermon we’ve ever heard and every piece of explicit and implicit theology we’ve ever absorbed.
Grief is a catapult, launching us into places we would never willingly go. We are like St. Peter, bound and led off through no volition of our own. That most human question of all, “why?” lurks in our consciousness, even when we know the technicalities of why, even when we understand the diagnosis or the financial and corporate realities. We understand fully what Jesus meant when he hung from the cross and cried out, “My God, my God, WHY…?” Part of us has died, crucified, and we feel as though we ourselves are entombed.
In anthropological terms, grief is a liminal state, a transition place where the old has passed away, and the new has not yet come. Like any liminal place, grief is dangerous terrain. There are terrifying– terror inducing – choices to be made. Terrifying because grief can lead to the death of a God image that is too small, too borrowed, and too inadequate to do justice to the God we are meeting again as if for the very first time. The danger is that we will not face our questions and struggle with our concerns. That we will bury our anguish and sing the Glorias and Alleluias even though our hearts are not in it. That we will swallow our pain to blend in with the crowd, never recognizing that in the process we have become actors, divorced from ourselves and estranged from our God.
The only solution is a frightening one: to stand in fear and trembling before the Almighty and to risk vulnerability. Unless we can be real before the real God we will never know wholeness. If we can venture honesty and openness, if we can bring our grief and brokenness into God’s presence, we will learn something deeper about grace, and we will gain a fuller understanding of the height and width and depth of God’s love.
Only in retrospect do we realize that we are not so much entombed as enwombed. Grief, like gestation has its own timing and wisdom. We know the old is gone, but whatever is coming is not here yet. We understand the writer of Psalm 40 completely: “I waited and waited and waited….”
I love C. S. Lewis’ Chonicles of Narnia. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Aslan, the Christ figure, sings creation into being with a lovely and haunting melody. Perhaps the first creation was just so. But the second creation, the new creation coming to life within us, is a different thing altogether. The reality is that the womb of grace is an incubator that feels like a dark and formless void, and the birthing process is a messy and painful one!
We look at this nativity story through the lens of grief and if we are wise, if we have risked this painful journey, we realize – albeit only in hindsight – that we are Mary unaware, ignorant of the fact that what is conceived in us is indeed a “holy thing.”
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I love a story that is told of the Buddah. One day a woman came to him bereft. She had lost her only child, a baby boy. She was inconsolable. And she came to the enlightened one – that’s all the word “Buddah” means – and asked him for a miracle, for the restoration of her child. He told her to go into the village and go door to door, and to bring back a grain of rice from each home that had never known the loss of a loved one. She went into the village and began to knock hopefully on every door. She continued knocking, door after door, and could not find a single home that had not experienced a loss. She returned to the wise man understanding that sooner or later, grief afflicts us all.
So perhaps instead of simply standing outside Bethlehem’s guest house and peering in through the window, we might turn and look around us. When we do, we will see a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us, every one of them members of the community of grievers. Like the Buddha’s woman, like the saints of Christ through the ages, we will realize that grief’s wounds have not made us less human, but more.
Grief is a great leveler, and in losing what we cherished we have gained the privilege of standing on common ground with every householder in our village. And if we pause a moment, we will realize that we are in good company indeed. The baby we hold in our arms is the Christ child himself, who is also an outsider. In this holy communion, in this blessed moment of incarnation, of “God with us,” we understand, perhaps for the very first time, the peace the angels heralded.
William Loader is a commentator on the Revised Common Lectionary, he writes on the texts that are used by many congregations in their weekly preaching and worship. Although his words are not necessarily intended for those who grieves, they are still appropriate. He writes:
“In moments of our own deeper truth we can also find ourselves facing our raw humanity, facing our own poverty, stripped of our shining garments and clad in just the basics. Then the angels are there for us. They are always there for us. And we know ourselves in solidarity with the saviour of the world as our saviour. And we know ourselves in solidarity with all who have no peace in the world’s order of peace. And we know that in this new peace there is a place for all.”
For all of this, we sing that new God-song with the psalmist, hoping and praying that by God’s grace, we and all the other grievers who surround us will enter the Mystery, and that we might all abandon ourselves to the God of life and love.
Loader, William, “First Thoughts on Year B Gospel Passages from the Lectionary: Christmas Day 1, accessed December 2, 2012, online