A Reflection offered at Philip Funeral Home’s Service of Remembrance, December 7th, 2014.
Rev. Eric Kirkegaard
pastor of Peace United Church of Christ
John 1:1-5 (NRSV) 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
This text has been running through my head for the last couple of weeks. We’ve been approaching the holidays, the days have been getting shorter and darker, the news has been darker still… and so I have found myself speaking those words from the beginning of John’s gospel over and over again: “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Every year those words are read during our Christmas eve services, and every year they have a little different meaning depending on where in my life or our world I long for that light, that promise.
We gather today to remember our loved ones: all that they were… and all that they weren’t – those crazy mixed up emotions that are challenged in special measure when our routines are so profoundly changed. Around the holidays that absence of a loved one who has always been a part of the traditions can be so hard.
I remember some years ago reading about someone who was asked “what do you think is the worst kind of grief?”… after several guesses, their friend offered the simple answer: “Your own grief.”
Every one of us grieves differently – I certainly see it among those with whom I’m blessed to journey. One of the realities that I often see that surprises people is what a chaplain mentor of mine expressed to me in the simple phrase: “grief touches grief”. Over the years I’ve been so surprised at the times when an unrelated and often seemingly insignificant experience of grief pulls a person right back to those places of deepest loss in their life – it’s startling, and sometimes feels ridiculous… and it’s profoundly real.
The other day I was eating mashed potatoes and I was touched by a memory of my grandfather. Now it makes me laugh, but there was a day that simple mashed potatoes could tug at my heart and my tears. You see, 30 years ago I took a semester away from college and moved in with my grandparents in Colorado. I apprenticed in cabinetmaking with my grandfather – but he didn’t just want to teach me about working in wood – he wanted to share all kinds of wisdom. At the breakfast table it was how fresh ground pepper really complemented cottage cheese… and then one night at dinner, after several months of living and working with him, he turned to me and in his wonderful quiet Danish accent said to me: “you know the right way to eat mashed potatoes…” It had been a long day of instructions and I just looked at him and told him “Granddad, I’ve eaten mashed potatoes for 20 years, I think that I can figure it out!” And he quietly nodded and let it drop. I didn’t know that semester that this grandfather who had become a mentor and one of my dearest friends would be dead from pancreatic cancer 6 months later. For a long time mashed potatoes would have me missing my granddad and wondering what wisdom he would have shared. After his funeral I went out to his woodshop to finish-up the last project that he was working on… I went to set up a jig and couldn’t remember how he did it… the tears flowed and I spoke out loud to that empty shop my frustration: “why aren’t you here to show me one more time…!” And then in my heart his voice boomed “Eric” (it always came out with that wonderful Danish accent and sounded like “ear-ache”) …“Eric, I didn’t teach you simply to do what I did, I taught you to think.”
Mashed potatoes, memories, those moments that remind me of the power of love and connection and how our spiritual and emotional lives defy a certain level of reason. And the ways that our lives are not to be lived in the past but rather as witness to who we’ve been, woven into who we are becoming.
As a preacher I come into the Christmas season and I’m not focused on all of the commercialism or even the traditions as the core of this season. Instead I journey with a story about a messiah that arrived in the world in the most unexpected ways in the most unexpected place – a baby born to an unwed mother who made his first bed out of a manger… We celebrate a love of God that came into a world that knew all of its traditions, all of the ways that it had always been, and that love of God chose to come fragile and surprising, crafting a new story and echoing the hopes of the prophets of old that he might be that “light that shines in the darkness, that the darkness has not overcome.” That’s the proclamation of every candle, of every Christmas light, of every present and carol… and of every tear shed. It is the persistent proclamation in which God offers to each of us a light that would be born into the darkness of the world and our lives, not just in a Christmas story but here and now.
Holidays can be so hard… but that light shines in the darkness. Let it surprise you. Let it wrap around you as God wraps you in prayer.
Keep sharing the stories of the past, but maybe also start a new tradition that honors where you are now.
Let God’s peace surround you and prayer uphold you as we invite God’s light into our lives and celebrate God’s love in those words from Romans 8 for: We are sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
May God bless you in this season, and may peace of God, celebrated in the birth of the Prince of Peace, wrap you in prayer this day and forevermore. Amen.