Friday, December 21, 2018

Weekend column: Hope shines in a dark season

"Faith could be called a kind of whistling in the dark."  
~Frederick Buechner

Cindy La Ferle

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The Christmas season is an emotionally challenging time for people who are grieving the loss of loved ones. Last week, I received a Christmas card with a beautiful thank-you letter from Lynette Ruhlman, a woman in my community. The letter was written near the anniversary of the death of her son, Scott. Lynette reminded me of the Daily Tribune column I wrote a few days before Christmas, 17 years ago, and I was moved to pull it from my files to share with you. The piece is included in my book, Writing Home, and reprinted here in Scott Ruhlman's memory. . .  

Hope Shines in a Dark Season
 December 23, 2001

Three years ago, I decorated my kitchen window with a set of miniature white lights. I don’t recall where I got the idea, but I wound those tiny lights around a yard of silk grapevine leaves and the effect was magical. It cheered me up on the gloomiest winter evenings. I enjoyed the lights so much, in fact, that I never took them down. As far as I know, there's no interior design rule banning twinkle lights after the holiday season.

As it is, I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with Christmas. I love its essence, the message at its core, but I don’t like the way we’ve commercialized it. And this year, especially, Christmas seems more like a bizarre intrusion than a holiday. Still reeling from September 11, the whole country is in a recovery mode. 

Locally, it’s harder to feel festive because of a young man named Scott, an athletic high school student who died December 9 after a long, unfathomable illness. 

I didn’t know Scott personally. But I know Scott’s mother, Lynette, because our children have attended Shrine Catholic Schools since kindergarten. Everyone in this community admired Lynette’s grace and strength while Scott lingered in a coma at the hospital. We all kept track of his progress, and we all prayed night and day that he’d recover and return to baseball games and high school dances. 

His death at seventeen, so unfair and inexplicable, and so close to Christmas, left a hole the size of Colorado in our hearts. But Scott’s passing also served as a lesson in need of review: Our stay on Earth is unpredictable and we must savor the gift of every hour we’re given.  

So, ready or not, Christmas comes on Tuesday. It’s hanging like a star above our heads or a burden on our backs, depending on how we choose to see it. Or, as Anne Lamott wrote, “We must remind ourselves that you can only see the stars when it is dark, and the darker it is, the brighter the light breaking through.” 

I remembered this while sitting in an Advent meditation service a few evenings ago. I hadn’t been to church in a while; my recent hip replacement surgery had worked as an excuse to avoid getting up early on Sunday mornings. 

But after I settled into place in the sanctuary, decorated with greens for the season and softly lit with candles, it occurred to me that lately I’d been preoccupied with fear and suffering – my own and everyone else’s. Ever since September 11, I felt as if I’d been wandering around the living room with the lights turned off, wondering why I kept tripping on all the furniture. So I asked God to help me rekindle a small light, just a glimmer of Christmas spirit, in my closed heart. Then I went home. 

Later, I plugged in the white twinkle lights around my kitchen window. I began a mental list of the miracles that have glimmered through recent crises, local and national. 

I recalled the loving support of my family and friends, the skill of my orthopedic surgeon, the generosity of neighbors and parishioners who bake casseroles for grieving families like Scott’s, the selfless efforts of the rescue teams at Ground Zero, and the valor of mothers who lose children but never lose faith. The list went on.  

Then I understood. For all we’ve endured, we have every reason to sustain hope. We need the hopeful message of Christmas all year long, and maybe a small string of white lights to remember it. ~Cindy La Ferle
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This column was originally published on December 23, 2001, in The Daily Tribune of Royal Oak. It is also reprinted in my book, Writing Home.

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