By Melanie Sorenson
Suffering is not a topic most people like to address, especially not as the Christmas lights begin to go up and the entryways to all the stores are filled with the ringing of the Salvation Army bells and the smiling faces of volunteers. We know, thanks to all the TV commercials, that this is supposed to be a magical season filled with feasting and family. Except sometimes it isn’t.
I suspect the Advent and Christmas season of 2001 was one of those years where feasting, gift giving, and church attendance took on a new intensity. America had spent three months grieving the tragedies of September 11. The Bush vs. Gore Presidential election, which threw the state of Florida into chaos with the massive recount due to the “hanging and dimpled chads,” was only a year past. Thanks to a new president and a foreign attack on our own soil, people needed Christmas more that year, and I think they hugged each other a little tighter, and stoked their fires warmer.
I was a senior in high school that year. I remember the tragedy of September and the election the year before, but my memories of both events mostly center around my father. He was an attorney, politician, and the former executive director of the republican party of Florida. He was an expert in election law and, as a result, was catapulted into the national spotlight during the Florida recount, doing interviews with news stations across the country. He worked to help clean up the Florida mess while also running his own law firm and being a dad to his five kids. So when the airplanes crashed into the twin towers in 2001, I rushed home to see my dad. I needed to see his face in order to know how big of a deal this all was. I remember walking through the front door and realizing that all the lights in the house were off except one small ceiling fan light in the living room where he sat staring at the glowing screen. A dark house in a family with five kids is strange enough, but seeing him sit there in the TV’s glow while images of smoke pouring from the towers right before they collapsed replayed over and over, was unnerving. As I walked in my dad’s head sank into his hands and he began to weep.
I remember the start of Advent that year. My pastor’s sermon series for the midweek services was centered around the common Lutheran table prayer, “Come, Lord Jesus, be our Guest, and let Thy gifts to us be blessed. Amen.” Each week Pastor was taking a line of that prayer as the theme for his preaching. During the first week of Advent he talked about the two comings of Christ: His birth, and His second coming, when He will come to claim us as His own. I’m not sure why I remember that so closely, considering how full my life was. I was neck deep in college applications, busy with friends, and, as we approached the second Wednesday in Advent, absorbed in study outlines for my final exams the next week. The sermon that second Wednesday in Advent focused on Christ as He walked with His disciples on the road to Emmaus after His resurrection from the dead. It was during that walk that He opened the eyes of the disciples to the Scriptures and all the prophecies concerning Him. Then, immediately afterwards, He fed them. In the breaking of the bread He made Himself known. Our pastor explained that this is how God is our guest: He comes, and when He does He feeds us with Himself.
After church that night we all went home and I plunged into my homework. But I was buzzing with energy that I couldn’t shake off. I decided to go for a run. It was dark and damp and cold for Florida. The fog was so thick that it hung like a blanket around me and tickled my skin as I ran. I was just beginning to feel warm and into my rhythm when I saw my Dad’s navy Chevy Suburban approaching. He was hours late getting home and had missed church. It was not unlike him to be late but it was very unlike him to miss church. I smiled and began to run towards him. But the car did not slow down. I stopped in the middle of the road and something inside of me did a flip-flop as the car went right past me with a stranger in the driver seat. I remembered then that a neighbor had an identical vehicle, but it didn’t stop the panic in me as I realized Dad was really, really late.
The next twenty-four hours were a sort of nightmarish hell. It turned out that in the minutes while we were sitting in church listening to the sermon, my Dad had been killed in a plane crash while piloting his small Cherokee Piper 6 home from a court case in Ft. Lauderdale. Because he was a minor celebrity we had news stations calling to ask for details or comments and the image of his smashed-up plane made the front page of the news after the wreckage was found the next day. For me, all of time stood still. My dad was my sole guardian. He was my superhero. I couldn’t fill out a deposit slip without him, let alone figure out how to move on with my life and get myself into college.
Fast forward thirteen years, and I am a married woman to my amazing pastor-husband. I have 5 little boys and 6 children in heaven. And every December, as the fog begins to roll in and the lights begin to go up, my stomach begins to hurt and I have to choke back tears. I recently read a line from a much loved Lutheran pastor that said, “Advent is not a baby shower.” I get that. Advent is not about waiting for the sweet baby Jesus and the happy little lullaby-like songs that we sing to Him. Advent is about the sin and suffering in our wait for our King to return. It’s about a hurting and broken world, it’s about death, it’s about tears, and it’s about a seemingly twisted sort of love story where a King, despised and rejected by men, comes to save His bride and ends up nailed to a cross, killed by His own people. Those little twinkling lights bursting through the deep darkness of winter serve a very powerful reminder. For even the ultimate darkness of death and Hell could not hold God in the flesh. After three days where His creation was somehow sustained despite God being utterly dead, He burst forth from the grave. And He promised to come back.
And so we suffer. We suffer and we wander and we hurt. We taste destruction while the devil laughs his loud mocking cry as humanity rejoices in wars and zombies, and world leaders point all manner of weapons at each other. But it’s OK to suffer. It’s OK to cry. It’s OK to look the darkness in the face and call it what it is. You don’t have to smile all the time or feel like baking all the time or even cover your front yard in massive Santa balloons to get into the season. Christ wept over death for a reason: it is worth weeping over! And since death is the last enemy to be destroyed, you can walk Advent in all its solemn purple penitential glory, perhaps with tears rolling down your face, and then you can look at the flickering candle light and tiny twinkling Christmas lights and you can remember: Christ HAS come, Christ HAS risen, Christ WILL come again. Come soon, Lord Jesus.
Melanie Sorenson is the middle child of five and grew up in the beautiful Florida sunshine. Her desire for a Lutheran education (as well as her father's last wish) led her to Concordia River Forest and a degree in Communications and Theology. Melanie met her husband on the day she moved to Chicago, married him two and a half years later, and is now the mother of five boys and six babies in heaven. Her days are full of home schooling and keeping her growing boys fed.