“Oh Holy Night, the weary soul rejoices…”

I’ve spent the morning curled up on the Yarrow House sofa here in Denver. Six different versions of “Oh Holy Night” have looped on my Spotify as I’ve sat, staring vacantly at our Christmas tree and the Bible in my lap. No matter how long I look at either, I’m unable to reconcile myself to the joy that either thing should bring me in this season of Advent.

It was on this day two years ago that one of my Street School students was killed in gang warfare. And even though it seems like two years have passed, it was just last night that we received what I still can’t bring myself to believe is the final word that four of my loved ones in Alaska likely won’t return home after their plane went missing on a flight from our village to Anchorage Wednesday.

On December 10th, a day that has already been agonizing these last two years, I admittedly have been struggling with feeling more helpless and hopeless than ever. I long to be able to fix something. Anything. I long to be 3,500 miles away from this sofa, embracing my dear friends in Port Alsworth whose lives have been forever changed by a routine commute that turned into all of our worst nightmare.

My heart breaks more and more for those I love with every text, phone call, and update I receive because I know there is not a single one of us from that beautiful little bush village unscathed by this tragedy. Within that heartbreak I have heard the screams and cries of my friends who have lost members of their family and there simply aren’t words for, or to say in response to, that kind of suffering or pain.

Even though I am in the city where Johnny died, physically close to those affected by that tragedy two years ago, I am incapable of doing anything to change the situation here either. We will never be able to bring him back, answer the still-outstanding questions, or heal the residual pain his family, my students, and our Street School staff still feel.

As my mind has swung between these tragedies, desperately trying to make sense of something, the only conclusion I’ve reached is this: Never in my life have I felt such a deep ache for Someone to save me or the people I love from the pain and brokenness of this world. Never in my life have I longed so deeply for a Savior. 

While my heart can’t seem to consider celebrating anything right about now, I know the truth: we will soon celebrate the fact that our Savior has already come.

The Bible in my lap, my brothers and sisters (near and far) who have prayed and cried with me this week, the song that keeps repeating itself over my computer speakers, and even the silly cultural tradition of sticking a dying tree in our living room and wrapping it in lights point me back to that truth–

Our Savior has come. Christ came, incarnate as a helpless baby, and died as the Most Powerful King to save us from both our sin and our sorrow. Past, present, and future.

Two thousand years ago He became Emmanuel and Emmanuel He is still.
God with us.
God with all who mourn.
God with all who weep.
God wrapping His arms around every person who knows and loves Port Alsworth, the Longerbeams, the Bloms, and Johnny’s family.
God indwelling in those of us who call Him Abba, Father.
God who came to rescue.
God who will make all things new.

And thus I proclaim over my own trembling heart and that of those around me, that even as the news we receive today and this week will likely worsen by earthly standards, the good news that Christ has come for us and can wrap us in His arms now and for eternity is. indeed. Good. News.

Even if everything else falls apart, His sovereign plan, loving promise, Good News, and ultimate sacrifice remains the same– it is the only Good News we could ever truly need.

“Oh holy night
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth
A thrill of hope the weary soul rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn

Fall on your knees, Oh heart the angel voices
Oh night divine, Oh night when Christ was born
Oh night divine, Oh night, Oh night divine

Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name!

Christ is the Lord, Oh praise His name forever!
His power and glory evermore proclaim

Fall on your knees, hear the angel voices,
Oh night, Oh night, Oh night divine.”

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Oh, Jesus. Make our hearts believe. Make our hearts believe while we are here on our knees…

~~~

If you, like me, wish you could do something but don’t know what to do, you can donate to any of the Go Fund Me accounts below. The first two are to help cover memorial service/funeral costs for the Blom and Longerbeam families. The last is to help some of the Bloms’ dear friends make it to Alaska for Scott, Zach, and Kaitlyn’s celebration of life.

Blom family memorial service / out of state family travel expenses

Kyle’s memorial service / family travel expenses

Help send the Brent/ Boe families to Alaska

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How do you decorate gang warfare for Christmas?

Last Christmas was a mess— a really dark, emotional mess.

On the morning of December 10th I made great plans to sweep the brokenness and messiness of holiday life under a rug, slap a tree on top of it all, and have a Merry-freaking-Christmas. My students and I were going to be happy and we were going to enjoy Christmas, dang it! (Can you see the crazy, plastered smile on my face? No? Just ask one of my DSS girls… I’m sure they can imitate it pretty well given how many times they’ve seen my crazy-teacher-eyes around the holidays over the years.)

The very same day that I made this proclamation of well intentioned, forced joy, my Christmas dreams were crushed by the murder of one of my students.

Losing Johnny broke me, and I subsequently kinda gave up on Christmas for a while last year. I battled between depression, and the urge to fight my feelings and simply “fix” said depression. I so badly wanted Christmas cookies and cheerful music to fix everything like it always seemed to in those stupid ABC Family Christmas movies. So, I tried to force a few cheerful traditions as an attempt to pull myself out of the darkness and pain. But the truth was, while they distracted me temporarily, none of those things could fix my aching heart or the hearts of the students around me. If anything, my inability to fix the situation just shoved me further into an emotional meltdown.

I'm not even kidding you; Christmas was so broken last year that even my Christmas cookies came out in pieces.
I’m not even kidding you; Christmas was so broken last year that even my Christmas cookies came out looking like a mess.

A year later, life looks drastically different in the weeks leading up to Christmas. (Can I get a hallelujah?!)

But even now, twelve months and twenty-five hundred miles removed from the events of last Christmas season, my heart still hurts. It hurts because I still don’t know how to appropriately grieve the death of an eighteen year old who was trying to turn his life around. (And I feel stupid– like after a year of wrestling with the consequences and darkness of gang warfare, I should have this figured out…)

My heart hurts because even in the middle of nowhere, I’ve got a lot of really real crap going on in my heart, and I know you probably do too.

It’s the holidays, and therefore I’m dealing with my annual child-of-divorce, “I’m-going-to-have-to-pick-which-side-of-the-family-to-disappoint-on-Christmas” struggle. I’m wrestling with a deep, selfish desire to avoid the conflict and pain I know I’ll be confronted with upon my return to Denver. I’m struggling to reconcile the fact that when I leave this village and return to the safe arms of my loved ones in three weeks, I’ll be sending my TLC students back to unsafe spaces to fend off the darkness on their own for a month.

I know I’m not alone in the mess. There are real things that we’re all struggling with, and newsflash: the struggles (at least my struggles) don’t ever seem to care whether it’s Christmas time or the middle of July.

Within these weird struggles of life I’m left with a lot of questions. Questions like:

If the pain of losing Johnny isn’t going to go away, even a year later, how do I decorate gang warfare for Christmas? How do I hide the pain that it has brought to my Street School family, or the unrelated pain that I’m feeling in my heart because of family struggles and relational breakdown? Should I even try to hide it at all?

Should I try to smother my heartbreak by wrapping it in Christmas lights and pretending that it doesn’t exist? That seems to be close to how the world tells me I should handle this internal battle, yet that “solution” doesn’t sit right in my soul…

But I think this is what we, as Christians, feel like we have to do.

Within the church we feel this need to be perfect, especially around the holidays. But I, for one, can’t be perfect; I’m completely incapable of it. And I’m sick of feeling like there’s something wrong with me for wanting to be real.

Yet even within my craving for authenticity, I still hesitate to bring up the places I’m struggling. After all, I don’t want to be the one to ruin someone else’s perceived holiday perfection with my mess. None of us want to be the broken, hurting ones in the midst of a season that seems to be the antithesis of such behavior.

There isn’t space for real life or real pain in the way our culture does Christmas. I think that’s such a shame because I’m pretty sure God doesn’t have His calendar divided into “times that are appropriate to discuss hard things” and “times that are to be devoted only to the drinking of hot chocolate, wearing trendy/ugly sweaters, and listening to Michael Buble’s Christmas album in the car”.

No. In His calendar, there is a time of longing for, and a time of receiving Jesus through His birth.

And friends, this season—advent—is that season of longing.

We all have really deep longings that match our questions and pain, and advent should be a season, just like any other, where we can express those within the safety of the church without someone trying to sweep us under the rug and shove a shiny Christmas tree on top of us and our problems.

Advent is a season devoted to waiting and wrestling, longing and hoping. It was not created to be a season devoted to aesthetic perfection.

This world isn’t perfect; I don’t think you need a church calendar to tell you that. But I think that it’s okay to let advent be a season of recognizing just how broken this world is. It’s okay to talk about the imperfections in our lives, because through acknowledging them, we can more deeply acknowledge our need for Christ and His coming–for the renewal that only He could bring to our brokenness, both through His birth in that manger two thousand years ago and in His someday second coming.

This advent and Christmas season, I pray that the church will be a people who make space for the brokenness (and broken people) in our lives, knowing that Christ has done the same for humanity. May we be a people who speak truth and light into the dark, complicated places of our lives, together. And as we wrestle with our brokenness and as creation groans, may we see Hope within poor circumstance, rather than try to forget that brokenness exists.

May we look to the soon-coming Christ, the reason for our confidence and Hope for redemption, deeply knowing that because of what He has done for us in His birth, death, and resurrection, that our sufferings will be lifted one day, for He is making all things new.

May we be a people that sees the Light in the darkness, acknowledging both, but embracing the truth that Jesus came to be the light that could never be extinguished.
As I light the advent candles in my home, know that I will always light them for you too, Johnny, just like we did in La Alma Park last December at your candlelight vigil. You are not forgotten. You never could be; you simply shined too brightly with that goofy smile of yours. Thank you for teaching so many of us what Light can look like in abject darkness.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great Light; those who dwelt in the land of deep darkness, on them has Light shone.”

(Isaiah 9:2)

Anticipating in our own Nazareth

The last three weeks have been an absolute explosion of emotion.

There’s been intense grief and sadness revolving around the murder of one of our Denver Street School students.

There’s been the guilt that comes with the what-if’s– What if Johnny had just been in school that morning? What if we had loved him more practically? What if we had shared the Gospel more explicitly with him? What if…

There’s been an overflowing of love in my own heart for the community that God has put me in for such a time as this– An inexpressible gratitude for the marvelous people in my life who have checked in on me, texted me, prayed with me, cried with me, and kidnapped me on the weekends simply to bring life back into my withered soul.

There’s been laughter at the thought of memories, rejoicing over small moments of justice, and the heartbreaking sound of screaming and tears as teenagers have sobbed in my lap simply asking, “Why, Miss? Why?”.

It’s been an emotional heyday, but I can honestly say that the one emotion I haven’t seen much of is anticipation– which is a gut wrenching shame given the fact that all throughout this time of mourning, we have been in the season of Advent preparing for Christmas.

Advent… the season entirely devoted to anticipating the coming of sweet Baby Jesus in that manger so long ago and the second coming of our Glorious King in the days to come.

Advent… the season in which my high schoolers should be asking questions about Jesus while baking Christmas cookies in my kitchen after school. They should be studying for finals and wrapping presents, not raising money for their friend’s funeral…

You see, I think I’m stuck on this anticipation bit because before all the emotional ish hit the fan, I had some big dreams.

I had resolved that this year, things were going to be different. For the first time in my life I was going to look forward to Christmas with my own wild family and by-George, I was going to inspire my students to see the good in their own less-than-awesome situations. We were going to anticipate and adore and sing praises to the King while we baked and giggled and looked at the forecasted snow.

So that Wednesday morning, before the emotional fiasco began, I gathered my girls around the dining room table in my classroom and we read through Isaiah 9, appropriately titled “For to us a Child is born”.

We sat around that table and were brutally honest with each other; we admitted that Christmas was hard for all of us and because of that, no one was really excited for the holidays. But together we made a pact to think on the good things this year; we would think about Jesus as our Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. We would think about how that little Baby born in a manger changed everything for us.

A mere six hours later, everything HAD changed, but in a way no one was anticipating.

At 6 pm, I sat sobbing on the front steps of a coffee shop, making the calls that no one ever wants to make– the phone call letting the rest of our staff know that they would be seeing a familiar face on the 10 o’clock news that night, one of our own– the victim of a triple-homicide that had shocked a quiet neighborhood in north Denver.

That night and for several days after, I simply existed. I did not adore. I did not sing. I did not bake, nor giggle, nor wrap gifts. And I certainly could not figure out how to anticipate Christmas or Jesus’ arrival.

Everything just felt broken and foggy and wrong.

As my students sat in my classroom the next day and begged to know why and how this was happening, I hugged them and sobbed, wondering similar things: I know in my mind that God is Sovereign. I know that He works all things for His ultimate Good and Glory. I know all of these things, but how? How on earth could anything good or glorious ever come out of this? This brokenness, this darkness, this despair of Your people. YOUR PEOPLE who should be celebrating YOU right now! How the heck is goodness supposed to come out of this?

That Sunday, much to my slight annoyance and mixed relief, one of our pastors at Park Church stood up and began to preach out of Isaiah 9. As Gary spoke, I doodled, “mmm”-ed, and choked back tears when he read verse 6– that same verse that I had read with my girls not even a week before. But when he looped back to the historical aspect of verse 1, he got me:

Historically, the tribe of Zebulun that is mentioned in verse 1 of Isaiah 9 had been looked on with contempt by the other nations. They had been the first to compromise their beliefs. They had been seen as the most deluded in terms of their worship of God, and because they were from the North, they were often seen as the place where destruction came from. Yet this promise in Isaiah 9 says from that same place, Light will come. From a place of darkness, Hope will come.

There’s a little town in Zebulun named Nazareth– you might have heard of it. Something amazing happened in Nazareth. Someone amazing came from Nazareth. You would have heard the people in Jesus’ own day say, “Can anything good really come from Nazareth? From that much darkness?”

Yeah. Yeah, it can. A man, our Jesus, came from Nazareth. Hope came through that darkness and Hope is coming still.

It’s been three weeks today since Johnny was taken from us, and part of me wants to think it’s a shame that a reminder of this tragedy is falling on Christmas Eve.

But this morning I was reminded: I may not be able to see it yet, heck I may not see it for a long time, but Jesus came out of the darkness of Nazareth when people questioned whether anything good could come from such a janky little town, and goodness will eventually come from this.

Someday. Someday Good will come from this mess and I can rest in that Truth because my God keeps His promises. So that is what I’m anticipating now this year– seeing His Goodness and Glory in the midst of brokenness (once again).

~

Merry Christmas to all. Yes, to the cheery stocking stuffers and the mourning, drippy mascara wearers alike. Jesus Immanuel has come to be with us in it all. For He is our Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace and He will reign forever… Advent2014AnticipateFor to Us a Child Is Born”

But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

2 The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
    on them has light shone.
You have multiplied the nation;
    you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
    as with joy at the harvest,
    as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
For the yoke of his burden,
    and the staff for his shoulder,
    the rod of his oppressor,
    you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
    and every garment rolled in blood
    will be burned as fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
    and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
    there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
    to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.”

(Isaiah 9:1-7)