Today is a day full of memories. It is my mother’s birthday. It is my aunt’s birthday. It seems my father married a woman with the same birthday as his sister. It is also the day my brother died, one year ago. It has been strange to grieve his passing and my mother’s death three months prior, during a pandemic. All the grief gets tangled up. Some days I trip over the sorrow, and trip over it repeatedly. But that is how sorrow works, isn’t it. It takes you by surprise. It rears its head when you think everything is fine. And part of the trick of it is to learn to live with it, to make some kind of peace with it, almost make friends with it in order to hold on to memories, even as you let go of the people who made them.
My friends from school were mostly Jewish. And they comforted me so much on Facebook with a phrase that is common in the Jewish community when someone dies, “May your memories be for a blessing.” The iconic use of the pronouns in that phrase reminded me of the ancient wisdom of the Bible, with its time-honored understanding of grief.
It’s the memories you want to keep but you have to pull them loose and it is painstaking and painful. Only time and immersion in the process helps you to grieve. Some days I feel grateful to have this pandemic because we are drenched in sorrow on so many levels. And sorrow takes time to accomplish. It is labor-intensive. So I have plenty of uninterrupted time to pick up my memories, turn them over, hold them to the light, let the shadows drain so only the light shines through them. When you say it this way, it seems easy, but it never really is all that easy. We come to this work kicking and screaming, but it is the only way I know to honor what still lives in those we’ve lost.
I read today in the Cape Cod Chronicle about a woman in Chatham who lost her daughter, Sophie, four years ago. She said that when she goes to Starbucks she orders her coffee using her daughter’s name. Somehow she started to do that because she so appreciated hearing someone call out her daughter’s name. May her memories be for a blessing.
Throughout my time as your pastor I have been humbled by the special privilege of hearing about the people you have lost, the loved ones who shaped you, around whom you molded your affections, the ones whose imprint you carry. Mostly, I have been impressed by the gentle strength of the way you wear your sorrow. I have been struck by your courage and resilience. Last night I had a dream that made me wonder if we don’t bring our loved ones with us in our cars. They sit in the back seat wherever we go, and we catch glimpses of them in the rear view window now and then. In my dream they were smiling. When I stopped at a diner, they all hugged me. I woke up and enjoyed that idea.
As we all prepare for these unusual holidays I hope we find the peace that comes with faith, and the comfort of God’s presence - steady but also new. Really, that’s what Christmas is, a glimpse of God that arrives like the face of a baby and puts a spring in our step.