Blessed Are the Emotional Wrecks
The most devastating Advent service I have led began on a cold and snowy Minnesota morning. I was late getting out the door and this was before we had a garage. I only had a few blocks to drive, so I did a very quick job scraping the ice and snow off my windshield. As I was pulling into the parking lot of the church, I saw the lights of the police car flashing in my mirror—barely visible through the rear window that wasn’t cleared off at all.
I sat there in shame, getting the same lecture my dad had given me as a teenager, while the members of my church all drove past me slowly, gawking and chuckling no doubt. Inside one of those cars was—you guessed it—my dad and mom giving me a finger-wagging look. But this was not even the hard part of this particular Sunday. Not even close.
Two days earlier, on Friday, December 14, 2012, as I was preparing my sermon, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting occurred in Newtown, Connecticut. The 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed 26 people, including 20 children between six and seven years old, and six adult staff members. Tears are flowing afresh as I write this and remember the images of those young children walking single file out of the school, their childhood and innocence stolen in a moment.
I don’t remember exactly what I preached that Sunday, but I do remember standing in front, holding back tears and weighed down by grief. My message invited us to de-sanitize the Christmas story, strip away all the sentimentality and remember that Advent is the good news that Jesus stepped down into our darkness in order to take the suffering and grief of countless heartbroken parents onto Himself, and to bring comfort to those who mourn. (Now that I think of it, I think I preached on the version of Christmas found in Revelation, where Baby Jesus is being chased by a Red Dragon trying to destroy the children of God.)
Some years later, I would flip the script again on unsuspecting families coming to Christmas Eve service with big smiles and warm handshakes—ready for a warm and happy G-rated sermon. I preached on Herod’s slaughtering of the innocent children of Bethlehem. Yes, right in the middle of the Christmas story in Matthew—understandably skipped over in millions of pageants over the centuries, we read: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more” (Matt 2:18).
Again, I emphasized that the message of Christmas needs to speak to those who are barely holding on, to those whose table has an empty chair this year, to the family coming to church on Christmas Eve looking good on the outside, but whose marriage is crumbling behind closed doors. To this day, I don’t know if that was my most profound Christmas Eve sermon ever; or my very worst—ruining the joy of Christmas for many visitors never to return to MainStreet. As I stood at the door shaking hands as people muttered niceties on their way out, I felt a bit like the Grinch who stole Christmas worship.
Why do I do this? Why do I throw a wet blanket on this most happy and holy of nights? Why do I rub people’s cherry noses in the Darkness that the Light of the Stable came to snuff out and overcome? The answer is found in the second Beatitude of Bethlehem: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matt 5:4).
I think it’s helpful to state the opposite of this beatitude as a gateway into its profound meaning. We might put it this way: “Miserable are those who hide their sorrow and pain, and refuse to bring it into the light and deal with it. Such folks will not find the comfort and healing God longs to give them.” Pastor David Johnson puts it this way:
“Some of the most unhealthy, unhappy, hard-to-be-around people are not necessarily bad people. But for whatever reason—perhaps a family or church context—they never gave themselves permission to get outside what was going on inside…With this emotional pressure valve frozen, they become poisoned. All the bitterness backs up like a clogged drain. Their emotional system is headed for an explosive breakdown because of this inability to truly mourn. And here’s the irony: The saddest folks in the world are those who have never mourned” (Joy Comes in the Mourning, 41).
We live in a society that runs from pain and gives us countless ways to escape and avoid reality. Many, many of us are walking around, in deep denial regarding inner wounds that God is waiting patiently for a chance to bind up and heal. Our culture is quicker to bless those who look good on the outside, keeping a stiff upper lip while stuffing their grief down. And I fully understand some of the reasons why.
How many of us in the past have dared to open up that dark chamber of the heart, and exposing a wound to another soul, only to feel rejected, misunderstood, or hurt by them? We learn in those painful moments that is just isn’t safe to bring our brokenness into the light. We didn’t feel “blessed” at all by that failed attempt to mourn! So, we go back into hiding and suppressing, avoiding and denying.
Now imagine a new realm, another reality where grace was the oxygen we breathed. Imagine a safe haven where those who have been carrying around a deep sadness and unresolved grief for years could finally lay their burden down and be met with compassion, understanding, forgiveness, and healing love. This is the nature of the Kingdom of God born in that manger long ago. This is the promise of the Beatitudes of Bethlehem.
Blessed are those who unflinchingly face the reality of sin in their life.
Blessed are those who don’t pretend life is all unicorns and rainbows, when it’s often monsters and thunderstorms.
Blessed are the emotional basket cases who come over and weep on your couch and eat ice cream until it hurts a bit less.
Blessed are those who feel the injustice of the world deep in their gut—so deeply that they sometimes feel like throwing up.
Blessed are those who cry over late night commercials for adopting animals.
Blessed are those who are sickened by the fact that, “I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Rom 7:19).
Blessed are those who mourn churches that pretend its all good, when it’s not.
Blessed are those who mourn churches that unintentionally form cultures where it’s unsafe to bring our pain and brokenness into the light.
Blessed are those churches where it is safe to be broken, and where courageous confession and outward mourning is met with comfort and compassion.
And God doesn’t just dispense comfort from some heavenly storehouse in rare isolated moments when we do our part—e.g., confessing our sin or going to see a therapist. No, the Comforter Himself takes up residence inside us to give us a newfound security in the midst of our fragility. As Myron Augsburger puts it:
“There is a direct relationship between the word for “comfort” and the word describing the Holy Spirit as the Comforter for the believer (John 14:16). As we live with a repentant spirit we open ourselves to the presence of God. The psalmist wrote, “A broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (Ps. 51:17).
Or, as The Message puts it: “Heart-shattered lives ready for love don’t for a moment escape God’s notice” (Ps. 51:17 MSG). King Jesus would not intimidate and dominate in bringing forth justice. Rather, “He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle until he has led justice to victory” (Matt 12:20).
The blessings of Bethlehem don’t fly up to the mighty on the mountaintops, but flow downward into the valleys flooded with the tears of the mourners—from Bethlehem to Sandy Hook Elementary to your greatest loss. His invitation still stands today: “Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28). But you have to come, bring your burdens into the light and place them into his hands if you want to receive that rest.
Thank God the upside down Kingdom of Jesus is strong enough to overcome our greatest obstacles to wholeness, tender enough to mend our deepest wounds with care, and outrageous enough to set up a spiritual comfort-spa in our inner being. Let that reality put a big red bow on top of your Christmas this year!
This article originally appeared here.