"Finding Hope in Advent"
As we move through this season of Advent, I have decided to try something a little different. I am going to write a story, putting just one paragraph on the website each day. I have no pre-conceived idea of where the story is going, and it will likely be something that I would return to and edit heavily if I ever shared it as a whole piece. But I do intend for it to be a journey of sorts, recognizing that whether we are pleased or disappointed in how yesterday went, we cannot go back in time and change anything, we can only move forward, learning and rejoicing along the way.
So, here is Henry, and a part of his life:
As Henry walked into the church for the first time, he was struck by the cold air that seemed to emanate from the stones of the church. He zipped up his jacket and wondered how people could worship in such a space. But then, the initial shock having worn off, he noticed the stained glass windows, some of them easily viewed as he walked forward, some of them set higher into the walls and requiring more focus to see them clearly. Further ahead there was a small gathering of people, and he moved to within hearing distance of them. “And so we begin our Advent journey,” the pastor was saying, “understanding that just as the journey to Bethlehem was a challenge for Mary and Joseph, so we can undertake it as such, seeking to receive new insight along the way.” And a teenage girl asked, “Does it even make any difference?”
After most of the people had either gone home, or scattered throughout the rest of the church, the pastor sat down with the teenage girl and said, “Alice, I know that the death of your mother this year has made it an especially sad and challenging few months. I also know that the holidays bring out that pain even more. But what did your mother like about Christmas?” “I don’t know,” Alice said, “I guess she liked the Christmas carols, but I don’t really know because we were always fighting, and I really didn’t like being with her, and now I can’t be with her even if I want to.”
Henry had sat down to pray and reflect, and while he hadn’t intended to eavesdrop, he had heard the exchange between the pastor and Alice. It made him sad for her, even more sad than he felt himself. Tears came to his eyes as he thought of his father, who had also died this year. Not that they had been estranged. In fact, quite the opposite. They had spent a lot of time together, sharing interests and activities. Then his father died suddenly, and now he felt lost. Unlike Alice, Henry knew exactly what his father liked about Christmas, and now his father wasn’t here to share in any of the joy. Would there even be the same kind of joy, he wondered.
When Henry stirred himself out of his own reflections, he realized that Alice was gone. Although he hadn’t wanted to intrude, he had really wanted to talk with her. But what would he say? Their situations were similar, but their pain was seemingly quite different. And with his two children long grown and having moved away from home, he wasn’t even sure what to say to a teenage girl. Those had been difficult years for he and his children, and without the love and care that his wife gave to all of them, Henry had no idea how they would have made it through those years. But she had died three years ago too, and so he couldn’t even ask her for advice. Henry decided that if he saw Alice again, he would try to find the words to offer to her.
Henry’s church was having an Advent decorating party, and although he didn’t really want to participate, his pastor had specifically asked him to come, so, he left the cold, yet strangely spirit-filled space of St. James, to head to his modest church that always exuded a certain warmth of welcome. First Church had been his home church since his wife had died, since his father had suggested that he come there and find both comfort and hope. Henry had indeed found both there, but he wasn’t sure how much of that was actually the church and its people, and how much was being there with his father. He imagined that most of the care that he had felt had been because he had spent time with his father, for now he simply felt lost when he walked into this church with welcoming and gracious people. It was an odd confluence of feelings, and predictably, as Henry entered the church now, he felt lost and out-of-place.
“Hello Henry,” Pastor Jim called from across the room. “I’m glad you came. How do you think things are shaping up?” “It’s looking good Jim.” “So, what would you like to help with? How about decorating the Advent wreath?” Henry, whose heart wasn’t in it, said, “Sure, that would be fine,” and he proceeded to open the boxes and look for what he thought would look nice. He first placed the four purple candles, and then the center white candle, in the wooden wreath. A few pieces of garland, several small ornaments, and some silk poinsettia flowers added to the beauty of it, and Henry decided it did indeed look fine. And then he looked over at the Christmas tree that others were decorating, and he thought of his father, who had been given the honor of placing the star at the top for many years now, and his sadness came flooding back.
“Would you like some hot chocolate, Henry,” Sarah asked. Sarah and Henry had been friends for several years now, and somehow Sarah seemed able to sense when Henry was happy, and when he was troubled or sad. “Uh, sure,” Henry replied. “It’s tough, isn’t it, this first Christmas without your dad here?” “Yes,” Henry said, “and I didn’t realize how much so until I realized he wouldn’t be putting the star on the tree.” “Maybe you should do it for him.” “No, thank you,” Henry said, “I would rather remember him doing it, and allow someone else to start a new tradition.” From across the room, Pastor Jim called, “Hey Henry. How about placing the star on the tree for us?” Henry looked at Sarah, who mouthed, “I’m sorry.”
Henry wanted to just leave, but he didn’t want to make a scene, or hurt others’ feelings, so he slowly moved toward Pastor Jim, who held the star in his outstretched hand. Henry took the star from him, held it gently in his hand, and then climbed the footstool to place the star at the top of the tree. As he did so, he prayed a silent prayer of thanks for his father, and felt tears come to his eyes. Stepping down, he wiped his eyes, said, “Thank you,” and hurried to the restroom. As he emerged, Sarah was waiting for him. “How could you set that up without asking me,” Henry demanded. “But Henry, wait, I didn’t have anything to do with that. It was just a coincidence that I suggested it and then Pastor Jim said what he did.” “I’m sorry,” Henry said, “but I have to go.”
Henry couldn’t bring himself to go to First Church the next day for the worship time. Whether or not he had falsely assumed that Sarah and Jim had conspired to have him place the star on the tree, he still didn’t feel like facing any of those people on this morning. But he didn’t want to stay home either. He went for a walk, grabbed a cup of coffee, and just wandered around without much of a focus on where he was going. He did notice that despite the chill in the air, the sun was shining brightly, and the warmth of standing in its glow was comforting. He thought about stopping by St. James, but he didn’t know when they held services, and he didn’t want to walk into the middle of something. Instead, he walked into a bookstore, one of the few remaining small stores of its kind in the city. And there on display was a book titled, Dealing with Grief During the Holidays. Although Henry wasn’t sure he wanted to be reading about such things, it did seem as though God had perhaps directed his steps to this store and this display. Even though he had chosen to skip the sermon for the day, maybe God had another message for him instead. So, he picked up a copy and began to scan its pages.
“That’s an excellent read,” someone said. As Henry looked up, he could tell that the woman was probably an employee, or perhaps the owner of the store. “Have you read it?” Henry asked. “Yes. It was written by a dear friend of mine, after her husband died. And even though my parents died quite a few years ago, I still found the insights to be helpful as I went through the holidays last year. And that’s why I put it on display again this year.” “So, is this your store?” “Yes, it is. My name is Brenda. And yours?” “I’m Henry. I just sort of wandered in this morning, but you have a wonderful store.” “And the book, are you looking at it to give as a gift, or does that theme apply to you too?” Henry wasn’t sure that he wanted to reveal much about himself, but Brenda seemed to genuinely be interested, and so he went ahead and told her that his father had died this year and he thought that something in the book might be helpful. “Oh, I am sorry Henry. It is truly difficult. Even these years later, I still experience moments of deep sadness as I go through the holidays. So, if you don’t mind, have a seat and tell me a little about your father.”
Henry started to say that he really needed to go, but there was something about Brenda, and her warm smile, that caught him, and so he sat down in the easy chair next to hers. “Well, my dad was just a great guy. In many ways, especially since my wife died three years ago, he was my best friend. We could, and did, talk about anything. It didn’t have to be earth-shaking, or it could be. Either way, he always listened, and seemed to know what to say in response. I guess I would say that he was truly wise.” “He does sound like an amazing person,” Brenda said. “I can see why you miss him, even in what you have said.” “I do miss him,” Henry said, “and decorating for Christmas, thinking about celebrating, just feels empty.” “Sort of like being lost?” asked Brenda. “Yes,” Henry said, “exactly like being lost. How did you know?” “Well, Henry, I felt lost when my parents died, and it really hit me on holidays, and, I guess, especially on Christmas.” “Yes, that’s it, especially now. Thanksgiving was difficult, but this is just…this is just…” and Henry’s voice faltered as tears formed in his eyes.
As Brenda put her hand on top of his, she paused before speaking. Henry didn’t look at her, but he also didn’t move his hand. “Henry, it’s okay to cry; because it hurts. The tears are a way of letting out some of the sadness. And, what I have learned is that the more the sadness, and the more the tears…well…it just says to me that the love between you was great. If an acquaintance died, you might shed a couple tears, but without that bond of deep love like you had with your dad, you would grieve and then move on. So, in a sense, the deep sadness, and the urge to cry, are signs of a great love, and are even something, in a strange way, to celebrate. For it isn’t the sadness that we celebrate, but the love. And that’s big.” “Wow,” Henry said, “that sounds like something my dad might have said. He too always found a way to turn things around, to see good in the difficult and painful things of life.” “Of course, Henry, that doesn’t make everything better, but it means that we can hold up the beauty next to the pain, and that helps us to keep walking.”
“Well, Brenda, all I can say is that I am glad my walking brought me here this morning. You are a literal gift from God. And this was what I needed this morning.” “Henry, you are a gift as well. It isn’t easy to share things like this, and your decision to tell me, to trust me with your thoughts and emotions, is a gift, a gift of trust. Thank you.” “I guess I just felt comfortable with you. Although you were a stranger…well, maybe it is easier to tell such things to a stranger, without thinking about how they will be received…but now, I feel like you are a friend.” “Thank you, Henry. I would be happy if you counted me among your friends. I of course know lots of folks, and see the regulars who come in at least once a week, but friends whom I can talk with, and just enjoy being with, are small in number.” “You know, I don’t want to seem out of line, but maybe we could have dinner sometime and talk about more things than just grief.” “I would enjoy that, Henry. Are you busy Thursday evening? That’s our slow day around here, and I could leave a little early for dinner.” “Uh, sure. That sounds great. Shall I meet you here?” “Yes, I can close up at six.” “I’ll see you then Brenda, and thanks for everything.”
As Henry left the store, he decided that he wanted to at least walk by St. James on his way home. He didn’t expect to go in, but he wanted to at least feel some sense of the spirit of the place, what he had felt when he had first visited. As Henry rounded the corner, he saw that the large wooden doors were open, as though to welcome passersby. He peered inside the church, and while it was lighted, and candles were burning, no one seemed to be there. He moved inside, once again noting the beautiful stained-glass windows. He walked halfway down the center aisle, and then sat down in a pew. It felt like a prayerful space, so he closed his eyes and began to talk to God. “I wish I knew what to say to you, but mainly I just feel sort of lost right now. I thank you for my meeting Brenda, and I wish I could see Alice and somehow say something that would help, and…and I just don’t have more words right now.” And then Henry was rocketed out of his prayer as the church organ came to life. He was shaken in fact, but also amazed at the reverberation of sound in this cavernous church. Then it struck him, the song, the carol – “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” – it had been his father’s favorite, and its plaintive tones again brought tears to his eyes.
“Excuse me, sir, are you okay?” The words brought him back to the present. “Uh, yes, I guess I am. The music just brought back a memory.” “A sad memory?” “Well, yes and no. It was a good memory because it was my father’s favorite carol for Advent, and yet sad because he died this year and I can’t sing it with him.” “I know. I mean, I understand. My mom died this year and I can’t do things with her ever again too.” As Henry wiped the tears away, he recognized the girl who stood in the aisle. “Alice,” he said, “I was hoping I would see you again.” She stepped back quickly. “How do you know my name,” she demanded. “I…I…I was here the other day and heard the pastor call you by name. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it to sound like I knew you. I just overheard you and the pastor talking, and I have been thinking about you since, especially because with my father dying this year it seemed like we were hurting in similar ways.” “Well, you don’t know me, so don’t pretend you do.” And Alice turned and almost ran out of the church.
Henry didn’t know what to do. He wanted to go after her, but she plainly didn’t want some stranger, some stranger who knew her name, following her. He sat back down in the pew, placed his head in his hands, and spoke out loud. “Oh God, I messed that up. I wanted a chance to talk with her, and you brought us together, and I messed it up. I never thought I would see her today, and I hadn’t even thought about what I might say to her. And I missed my chance. Just like I so often missed chances with my own son and daughter at that age. Please, please give me another chance. I really want to say something that will help her, not chase her away.” “Excuse me, are you alright?” Henry looked up and recognized the pastor. “Oh, yes, I guess so. I just, well…yes, I’m okay. I just enjoy visiting your church. It is beautiful and I feel God’s spirit here.” “You are welcome any time. Just so you know, we have a service starting in half-an-hour, and you are welcome to stay for it.” “I just might do that,” Henry said. Then, after the pastor walked to the front of the church, Henry got up and left.
As he walked home, Henry felt a little guilty about walking out, but after the disastrous encounter with Alice, he just didn’t feel like opening up to that pastor, nor did he feel like sitting through a church service that might bring him to tears. He walked back past the bookstore, thought of how much he was looking forward to Thursday’s dinner, and then walked on home. As he opened the door, his phone rang. It displayed Sarah’s name, and, although he didn’t really feel like talking, he answered anyway. “Hi Sarah,” he said, with as much normalcy as he could muster. “Oh Henry, I am sorry for the confusion at the decorating party. I really only suggested it to you. I never mentioned it to Pastor Jim. He truly just had the same thought, but I am sorry it seemed like we had gotten together to push you into that.” “I think I realized that, Sarah, and I am sorry for leaving so abruptly, but I just couldn’t face anything more.” “Well, let me get us back on track. How about dinner on Thursday?” “Oh, I’m sorry Sarah, but I already have dinner plans for Thursday.” “Really!? With whom?” “Just a friend I met recently.” “And what’s his name?” “Uh, her name is Brenda.” “Oh, I see. Well, maybe another night then.” “Sure, sometime soon.”
Somehow Henry felt as though he had betrayed Sarah by making plans with Brenda. But he and Sarah were just friends, or so it had always seemed to him. And he had no expectations out of his coming dinner with Brenda, although he was very much looking forward to talking with her more. Henry had not dated since his wife died. At first, he just needed time to grieve, and then later even the thought of dating made him feel uncomfortable. It had been too many years, and he just didn’t know where he would start. And then he met Sarah, and they shared a love for the church, and they could talk easily, and they had become good friends. Sarah had never indicated any romantic interest, and Henry was happy with that, pleased that they could be friends and that he didn’t need to figure out all of the dating stuff. He enjoyed her companionship, and it seemed that they were both comfortable with their relationship being that way. But now that he had arranged to have dinner with Brenda, and had been honest with Sarah when she asked about the dinner, he was confused. Did Sarah perhaps want something more in their relationship? Did Brenda mean for there to be anything more than friendship? This was why he had avoided dating.
When Thursday evening rolled around, Henry showed up at the bookstore at ten minutes to six. He hadn’t been this nervous in a long time. “Hello, Henry,” Brenda called as he walked through the door. “Hi Brenda.” “I am closing up now. Just give me a few minutes and we’ll be on our way.” Henry browsed among the books as he nervously checked the time on his phone. He had made a reservation for 6:15 at the Italian restaurant that was two blocks away. He actually thought to himself that maybe he should have asked if Brenda even liked Italian food, but it had seemed like a good choice when he had settled on it. Brenda broke into his thoughts. “Okay, I’m ready. Where are we going?” As Henry described the restaurant, Brenda broke into a smile. “That’s one of my favorite restaurants around here. The owner is a regular visitor to the bookstore, so he will treat us well.” “Oh, I didn’t know, but that’s great.” “Yes, it will be fun. Let’s get going.” And dinner was delicious, the conversation was easy and light-hearted, and the evening was everything Henry had imagined it might be. It wasn’t until he had walked Brenda home, and she kissed him goodnight on the cheek, that Henry began to wonder if he didn’t indeed want something more.
When he ran into Sarah at worship on Sunday, she asked how the dinner had gone. Henry was a little reluctant to say much, but he also didn’t want to be evasive and have Sarah read something into it. “It was fine. We went to an Italian restaurant, where the owner came and sat down with us for a few minutes, and then I walked her home afterwards.” “Well, I’m glad you had a good time.” “Uh, Sarah, am I missing something here. I so enjoy our friendship, but I can be pretty dense sometimes. Have I misread things about us?” “I don’t know. I enjoy our friendship too, but…well…I guess I don’t know. It isn’t like we have ever gone on a date, but I have shared more with you about my life than almost anybody. And I guess I sort of thought that if you were going to go on a date, you might ask me.” “Oh Sarah. I am so sorry. It isn’t that I wouldn’t enjoy going out like that, I guess I just never caught on that you would enjoy that, and, well…how about tomorrow night?” “I’m sorry Henry, but it just doesn’t feel good right now. But ask me again, and we’ll see.”
As Henry walked home after worship, he kept thinking about the morning’s message. The theme had been, “The Hope that comes to us in Advent.” But right about now, he wasn’t feeling very hopeful. Sarah had been understandably reluctant to go out at this point. He didn’t really know what to make of the relationship with Brenda. He was still upset at how he had responded when he saw Alice. And Advent was just missing something without having his father around. Into all of that, he was supposed to still have hope, was what he had heard. For hope was not just wishful thinking, but was grounded in his relationship with God, was based upon a sustaining love from God that was his, no matter the immediate circumstances in his life. So, as he understood the message, hope was there, even though he felt hopeless. Henry wasn’t too sure that he bought that message. He might have nodded his head in past years, when such words didn’t seem to apply so directly to him. But now, as things stood, could he even believe this message? Yet, the thought that God was with him, that there was hope even in darkness and confusion, was comforting, if he could truly believe it. And he did believe that God was with him. Henry had never doubted that. So, maybe, hope was a gift for him too.
Two days later, Henry was headed back to the church. He had always looked forward to the Christmas eve worship service, but knew already how different this year would be. Last year he had sat with his father and Sarah for the service. Now there would be emptiness to one side and uncertainty on the other, if Sarah was even okay with them sitting together. But Sarah smiled when she saw him, and suggested that they keep their Christmas Eve tradition of sitting together. Henry was both relieved and pleased, and readily followed her into a pew. As the service began, Henry thought again of his father, and imagined that his father was singing with an angelic choir tonight, singing all of the carols he had loved so dearly. Sarah glanced at Henry and gave him a questioning look, then intuited, “Thinking about your dad?” “Yes, but in a hopeful, joyful way.” “Good, I’m glad.” The music seemed quite beautiful to Henry, and the message struck him as being beautiful too, with the view it provided of Mary and Joseph, and the newborn baby. It was an idealized view of the birth to be sure, more resembling the sentiment on a Christmas card than the likely difficult circumstances there in the stable centuries ago. And yet, tonight, the idealized view suited Henry just fine. It was indeed a hopeful sight in what had been a very challenging season.
As the closing carol ended, and people began to hug one another, and offer wishes for a Merry Christmas, Henry asked Sarah if he could talk with her for a moment. After greeting others, they stepped back into the empty sanctuary and Henry said, “Sarah, do you have plans for tomorrow?” “Not much. I always make phone calls to my family, since they are spread all around the country. And then I just enjoy Christmas music and maybe a movie or two.” “Well, I was wondering if you might like to go out for Christmas dinner? There is a wonderful diner I go to that serves a great dinner, and they will certainly have Christmas music playing.” “Well, Henry, thank you for the invitation. And yes, I would enjoy that.” “Great. What time should I come by to pick you up?” “I should imagine anytime after noon.” “Okay, why don’t I come at one o-clock, and we’ll go for a brief drive, and then on to dinner.” “That sounds very nice.” “Okay, see you then. And thanks.” As Henry walked out of the church, he felt like both laughing and crying. He had felt so awful being somehow estranged from Sarah, and now he felt filled with hope. But there was still something he needed to do tonight. St. James was holding their candlelight service at eleven. He needed to go.
As Henry turned the corner, he saw not only the large doors open and welcoming, but a glow of light from within that beckoned him to come. This wasn’t his church, yet he always felt welcome here somehow. And there were a great many people who apparently felt the same way, at least on this night. Henry searched with his eyes for a place to sit. “Excuse me,” a voice said, “there’s room here.” It was Alice, and she indicated the open space next to her. “Thank you,” Henry said, and slid past others to reach the spot. He was glad to see Alice, but uncertain as to what to say or do now that he was here. Yet, he had prayed for another opportunity to speak with her. “How are you tonight,” she asked. “I’m okay; doing better actually; thank you. And how are you?” “I don’t know. It all feels so strange, and I…” The sound of the great church organ cut off Alice’s words. As they sang, Henry and Alice shared a hymnal. Henry still wasn’t sure what to say to Alice, but this was a beginning. And later, as the service ended, Henry turned to Alice and said, “I’m sorry I frightened you the other day.” “Well, it was just sort of strange, you knowing my name and all. And I guess it freaked me out. But then I saw the priest talking with you, and that made me think about it more. And really, adults often just ignore teenagers, but you tried to say something. And I thought maybe that said more about you than you knowing my name. Then when you walked in tonight, I figured maybe I should at least offer you a seat. Anyway, if you were somebody weird, you sure wouldn’t try anything in a whole church full of people.” “Well, thank you. I have wanted to talk with you, but I’m not always real good at doing that. But could we sit and talk for a few minutes?” “Sure. And even if you aren’t good at it, at least you want to try. I appreciate that.”
“Alice, I have a son and a daughter. When they were teenagers, it was an incredibly difficult time for all of us. In fact, if my wife hadn’t been there, I don’t know how the three of us would have survived. So, I guess what I am saying, is that being estranged is actually normal, and yet, in the midst of that, people still see and feel the love that is there. I would imagine that your mom, despite anything that caused a rift between you, still desperately loved you, and knew that you loved her. It’s just that in the midst of being estranged, it can be hard to find the words to say that.” “But I treated her awfully. I didn’t think so at the time, I just felt like she didn’t understand, and didn’t care. But now I see things differently, and I can’t tell her that.” “But Alice, you can. You can say all those things to her, and her spirit will draw them in and cherish them. I have done that plenty of times with my wife, and…wow, I haven’t even thought to do that with my dad, and I can. You know what, we don’t need to say things out loud, but let’s take a few minutes to speak to them, you to your mom, me to my dad. Shall we try it.” “It sounds, well, strange; but okay.” And they sat side by side, eyes closed, having those conversations. When Alice opened her eyes, Henry was just sitting there, with a smile on his face. Alice smiled too. She reached over and hugged him, and he returned the hug. “I think this will be a better Christmas now,” Alice said. “For me too,” said Henry. “Thank you for taking the time, Henry.” “Alice, I thank you. You have given me a great gift tonight, and a true sense of peace.”
Henry arrived promptly at 1:00 p.m. the next day. When Sarah opened the door, Henry was struck by how beautiful she was. That had probably always been the case, but today Henry was seeing with new eyes. “Merry Christmas,” she said. “Merry Christmas, Sarah. Ready to go?” “Yes. Let me grab my coat.” Henry opened the car door for Sarah, and she slid in. As he got in, and buckled his seat belt, Sarah said, “It’s a beautiful day.” “Yes, it is, and I am so glad we are doing this.” “Me too. So, how was your morning?” “I’ll tell you, Sarah, in addition to many prayers of thanks, most of my morning has been spent looking forward to this afternoon.” “Well, Henry, me too. I…I know things have always been comfortable for us, as friends. But I guess I have also hoped that once you were in a good spot, that maybe we would try something more. And then when you had dinner with your other friend, I guess it hit me hard.” “I am sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you. And there isn’t actually anything there, but I know it may have appeared differently.” “Well, I don’t know yet if there is anything here, but I am looking forward to finding out.” “Me too,” said Henry, “and this is a good day to start, I think.” “Yes, it is.” Henry took Sarah’s hand as they drove toward the restaurant.
The End (or a new beginning)