I think I was four because I remember being at the Library Story Hour and we had a gift exchange. One by one we went up to choose a gift. And I deliberately picked the smallest package. I was so sure of whoever this Worst-Advice-Giver had said. (Did you know gullible isn’t in the dictionary?)
It was a box of crayons. A 24 pack, with all the normal colors. It wasn’t even neon or pastels or anything.
So much for good things.
Twenty-five years or so later, on our first Christmas after Annie died, we were so sad. Peter and I were reminiscing about it the other day– and actually, we have very few tangible memories. What we do have, however, is the memory of heaviness. It had been just three months, long enough for people to think that we’d soon be getting back to normal, and long enough that I was pretty sure that I’d never be happy again. It had never occurred to me that Christmas could be sad. We all felt this deep hopelessness that seemed to be magnified by all the sparkle and happiness that surrounded us.
Looking back, I realize we just wanted to ease the pain somehow. We bought gifts like crazy– we wanted to do something to make us forget how horrific the past months had been and so driving two hours to buy a moped for Peter and completely surprising him seemed like a small break from the bleakness. And yet, under it all, that moped didn’t bring him more joy and didn’t erase our sadness.
Sometimes good things just seem so illusive, just out of our reach. They promise so much, yet when we finally achieve them, it seems so empty.
Donald Miller just wrote a blog post called “Why We Distract Ourselves with Things of Pleasure”, because yes we do. I see that tendency in myself and around me. This time of year, especially, isn’t our sorrow magnified? Things we’ve kept neatly tucked away, or at least under control, seem to be harder to manage. We’re forced to reconcile where we thought we’d be, how we thought life would look and the weight of where life has taken us is sometimes too much for us to bear.
He says, “Everybody around us, especially during the holidays, is seeking to receive and give pleasure, but pleasure rarely satisfies.”
It’s true. I hated that first Christmas. Everything about it was wrong. I knew there was nothing I could do about my fragmented family, but there was something I could do about how we lived our life. And I think that’s when things really turned around for us. We searched for meaning and we started to redeem our pain by allowing God to use us.
But, ugh, I don’t want to make it seem like we have the magic formula …. because on a normal day I feel like I fall so short of where I should be. Somewhere, though, in the mess of life, in small slivers of time, I can see how God is taking the notion of pleasure out of me and He is giving me something much bigger, much longer lasting.
Joshua 2 tells the story of Rahab, a prostitute in Jericho. Everything in her life was sad and wrong. And yet, for some strange reason, when the two Israelite spies sought refuge in her house, she hid them and didn’t tell the guards they were on the roof. She bargained with the spies, and perhaps she was aware that God was giving her a way out of her life gone wrong, a chance for redemption. The spies promised her that if she hung a scarlet rope out of her window, when they came to destroy her city, they would spare whoever was in her home with her. And they did. The Hebrew word for the lifeline that hung from her window was tikvah. It’s also the word for hope. When we have hope, we know and understand that God is changing us and taking the broken places in our life and giving them meaning.
This year, the moments of sadness are still there, but they are fewer. Maybe because it’s been six years since that first one. Or maybe because God has slowly shown us something much greater than pleasure in this season. He redeems our pain, hands us the cords of hope and gives meaning to our shattered grief.
I know so many who are sad this Christmas. So many who feel like they’ve been handed a box of crayons, a crushing reminder of empty promises and heartbreak. And I just want to give you a hug and look you in the eye and tell you– A fancy drink at Starbucks will not satisfy you. Neither will more gifts under the tree or a vacation away from “real life”. Do not buy into the lie that pleasure will bring you joy. You may feel better in the moment, but the pain will be real and raw until you open your heart to God’s hope.
May you, like Joseph, fight for redemption of your pain so that you can say, “God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.” (Genesis 41:52)
And by all means, don’t choose the small packages at your next gift exchange.