The approach of Christmas has been quick and quiet this year.
I have heard, from the many mourning souls who have walked the path of grief before me, that it’s quite normal for holidays to become difficult after a profound loss. And while I do immensely look forward to being at home with my family as I have been for twenty-four Christmases past, I know that when I arrive, one seat will be empty. One familiar and beloved voice will be silent.
Maybe it’s even more profound because I last saw my Grandma B on Christmas Eve a year ago; I hugged her goodbye for what I didn’t know would be the final time after we had all enjoyed our traditional family dinner and Christmas cookies and conversation. She passed away very suddenly and unexpectedly shortly after the New Year.
I know myself: I like to be prepared. I seek out others’ testimonials and experiences of grieving so that I’ll have a better chance of knowing what to expect. I even try to worry about every single possible outcome so that I won’t be caught off guard if the worst happens. In fact, one thing I’m wrestling with the most as Christmas approaches is the fear of being traumatized so very unexpectedly again, since everything about this time of year now brings the memory of that trauma to the forefront of my mind.
But I think - slowly - I’m beginning to learn that for some things, there is no adequate preparation. No one can tell me exactly how it will be. No one can predict exactly what will happen. There are no preventive exercises that can steel me against the pain of loss.
We don’t get to practice this ahead of time. There’s no test drive for our lives. There is only living.
There’s only the choice to keep walking, even when the path winds deep into the valley of the shadow and our surroundings become unrecognizable. There’s no recharting our course and there’s no turning back.
But there is a Guide, a Good Shepherd, who will gladly walk it with us.
One of my favorite passages to meditate on and still my soul when my life roils with uncertainty is Psalm 23:
The LORD is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside quiet waters.
He restores my soul;
He guides me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You have anointed my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Yahweh tends me - I have no need for anything more. He gives me such abundance and such peace that I can truly be at rest. He refreshes my being. He walks faithfully with me on the road that will bring Him glory.
Even when I find myself in danger and darkness, I need not fear harm, for He is with me. His correction, direction, and protection are my comfort. He gives me the courage to face my foes; He acknowledges and gently heals my pain; He blesses me with more than I can hold.
I know that His goodness and His covenant love will never let me go - and when this earthly journey ends, I shall dwell in the safety of His presence forever.
Consider this: shepherds were nothing special in the time of the Bible. They were poor and nomadic and spent their days and nights with animals known chiefly for their helplessness and frailty. Yet that’s what Jesus came to be for His people: A shepherd. The Good Shepherd, the One who lays down His life for the sheep.
He’s not put off by our fearfulness, our flightiness, our helplessness - He knows that these are all inherent traits of sheep. He doesn’t treat us harshly when we become afraid in the valley or punish us for hesitating to face our enemies. He knows us, all the way down to our deepest fears and greatest weaknesses. So He just gently speaks, and keeps leading us toward life.
“I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me. . . . My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of my hand.”
John 10:14, 27-28
I don’t know the way forward, but He does, and though I’m only a helpless sheep walking a treacherous path, I know that He goes before me as a warrior, a rescuer, and a comforter. . . and I know we’re on the road to glory.