Last night was literally the longest night of the year, with the earth at its furthest reach of its orbit around the sun. Our church has a tradition of doing a Longest Night Service to commemorate advent for people that are in the midst of great struggles or losses. The purpose of the service is to say to those grieving or saddened that Christ is still here, His birth is still life changing, even if it is hard to receive because of current life situations. Better writers than myself have written about the difficulties of this season- read my wife Heather’s blog here or Pastor Richard’s latest here.
So last night we gathered in the chapel, with what felt like hundreds others, and celebrated Jesus on the longest night of the year, in a season of life to many that feels like their personal “longest night.” There were children and women and older couples and guys by themselves. Every life a story, every story interwoven with joy and pain, hope and loss. Life can feel like a paradox at times, and these people had come to worship Christ despite the struggles and sorrows and hardships they are facing.
The service was mixed with readings and responses, advent candle lightings and times of silence and some amazing hymns I had never sang before. One hymn, Pass Me Not, broke me. The writer of the hymn is crying out to Lord, “though I am broken Jesus please do not depart from me! Do not pass me by!”
To be able to worship Jesus authentically, with a heavy heart or a joyous heart, is one of the great realities of our worship. The truth is, we can be real with God. We can bring Him our pains and sorrows and even our unbelief at times. This was modeled to us by Jesus. We don’t have to have it all figured out. And in the midst of the great hurricanes or small squalls of life, we can take that pain to our Maker and worship even when our hearts don’t feel great.
At the conclusion of the service people were encouraged during the worship songs to get up and light a candle and reflect on their loss and sorrow. One by one, people streamed to the front and lit their unlit candle on the Christ candle in the middle of the table and then placed their candle in the sand. For me as I worshipped, I was mindful of both my own pain and sorrow which Heather beautifully articulated in her blog (above) but also the sorrow of the community. My friend sitting beside me lost his 3 year old son just two years ago. As we worshipped he flipped through the photo book of his son. Watching my friend grieve, hurt me deep within. “Lord this isn’t fair that this man won’t get to see his son again on earth.” And my heart hurt for the people in the aisle beside me streaming up to the communion table to light their candle. Women and men and children, each with a heavy heart, most moved to tears, lit their candles one by one.
It was a beautiful image of grief and the power of community and sharing our suffering. Each candle represented a broken heart or a great loss. Quite often when we are struggling, we can feel so alone and so isolated and so cut off. And yet at church last night, as people’s individual candles were placed into the sand together, a collective story of both pain and joy, darkness and light was being written. For one candle alone doesn’t serve much of a purpose, but a table full of candles created a powerful light and a warmth that was felt from a distance. Our stories, when shared and told together as community, can become a great light. We don’t walk alone in our Christian faiths, we walk together with a God above us who can hear us and bear our burdens.
Once the others had sat down I walked slowly to the table and grabbed two candles. I lit one for my son Fisher, who I will meet someday in Heaven. Until that day comes, a piece of me will always feel a little hollow. Not all of me, but a small piece. So I lit a candle for Fisher and remembered. And as a pastor and friend to many who are suffering, I lit a second candle. My heart hurts for others and I am praying for them and walking with them. Both candles together were my worship on this longest night. Both statements that God still reigns even in the midst of great rain. God still is in control even when life spirals out of control. God is still powerful even if I don’t understand why he didn’t spare a boy’s life or save the cancer from growing or stop the storm. Thought we don’t understand, we can trust. And we can love. And our lives can be a response to His great love.
Last night I was inspired by people walking to the Light of Christ despite the darkness. My friend, though heartbroken from the loss of his son, continues to walk with Jesus. My wife, despite a heart that still aches, is deeply involved in bringing healing to many. And there are dozens and dozens more. Not broken by the darkness. Not dominated by the heartache. Still walking with Jesus- still trusting Him. I was reminded of that hope last night, as the candles blazed. And this this morning, as I drove in to church, the glory of the sunrise reminded me again. On the morning after the longest night, one of the most beautiful sunrises of the morning. Though darkness exists, there is a great Light that can continue to be a source of hope for you. And this Light is Jesus. May this advent season be a time of peace for you, in small or large ways. And may you feel the arms of the Savior wrapping around you, as you stand with your candle. You story is important to Him. You don’t journey alone.