Chapter 1: Snow Angel
Tom strikes a match against bark; it sparks and hisses awake. He lights his old kerosene lantern, closing the glass window after he shakes out the match. The smell; the bitter tang of sulfur and oil, pierces the cold air. Tom refuses to use battery powered gadgets, which means the flashlights and headlamps his children used to bring on these types of adventures are not packed on this trip. Tom likes how the lantern creates a halo of light around him. Walking alone through the dark woods at night is done best with an aura, just enough light for here and now.
A full spirit of wander is upon Tom, as he breathes deeply the frozen Michigan air. He is in his sacred place, out for a hike after setting up his basecamp, with miles of forest to explore and no one else around except the hibernating squirrels. He listens in the dark for voices neither real nor imagined, and hopes he might see an owl.
Back home, Samantha stares past the blinking cursor on her computer screen that appears and disappears next to the name “Joshua.” The oven timer had long since rang and the bitter tang of burning chocolate wafts her awake. She scolds herself for not hearing the timer and runs off to the kitchen, leaving the half-written Franklin Family Christmas Cheer newsletter on her screen, impossible to complete, yet soon to be mailed out to hundreds of family and friends. After a busy day of running errands, shopping for gifts, and wrapping presents with homemade bows, she had poured herself a glass of wine, started some cookies, sat down at the computer to keep busy and there, her grief caught up to her. Samantha pulls the burnt cookies out of the oven, refills her glass with more Malbec and looks at her to-do list instead of returning to her computer.
Snow crunches under Tom’s boots, dense pine trees hug the trail, and here, a deep lament inundates Tom. His heart aches for Joshua because this place reminds him of their trips together. He remembers the time they found the largest hemlock in the forest (the trunk must have been four feet wide) and named it the Joshua Tree. Then there was the year it was too warm for snow, so it thunder-stormed, forcing Hanna, Maggie, Joshua, and Tom to hunker down in their tent, to play euchre and to eat raw marshmallows for days. It was so muddy by their last day the truck was stuck in a shallow swamp. They all had to stand in ankle deep mud trying to push it out with eight year old Joshua, the lightest one, in the drivers seat. He laughed every time he pressed the gas peddle because the tires sprayed Dad, Hanna and Maggie with mud. That laugh echoed in the chambers of Tom’s heart.
Tom remembered last year, the one they all knew would be their last together. They had to practically beg Hanna to come back from San Francisco, Maggie was trying to get pregnant, and Joshua was home for the holidays before shipping out to a confidential place in the Middle East, probably Afghanistan. They named it as their last, not knowing how true their claim would become.
The memories rip open Tom’s wounds and he falls to the ground on his knees, dropping the lantern. His body seizes and convulses with spine-wrenching agony. For no better reason than pure weariness, Tom lets the pain of losing his son consume him. He feels insoluble sadness while he struggles and writhes in the snow. Deep in his subconscious, he understands that his heart can feel more than this; that the human capacity for lament is eternally vast.
Somewhere between the kitchen floor and the forest snow, Samantha and Tom grow apart. Their grief sends them searching in opposite, equally lonely directions. Samantha pours another glass of wine and fights to forget. Tom goes deeper into the pain. He howls and screams at God until his larynx is exhausted. He enters a place of broken logic, where the grief is so consuming it strangulates him, and yet, in this place of sacred wilderness, Tom’s inner space somehow stretches wider without breaking.
Tom wipes the cold snot and tears from his cheeks and takes a few deep breathes. Then, silence. Snow falls softly onto his face. Lying on his back in the snow, Tom begins to laugh. His lantern is beside him, cracked and snuffed out from his fall. The snow holds him in a tight embrace. He laughs again and moves his arms and his legs, like he used to as a child. He stands, carefully relights his lantern despite the cracked glass, and walks deeper into the forest, leaving behind his angel in the snow, as another divine memory to be placed amongst all the significance of this forest.
\ Author's Commentary:
While Samantha drank to forget, Tom entered the sacred paradox of longing marked by grief and hope. Advent is a season of longing, marked in worship by the candles of hope, peace, joy, love and ultimately the light of Christ - a light that shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. Every year, the Advent season is the collective church longing for Christ to return, to once and for all set us free from the shackles of brokenness, sin and death so that we might have abundant life with him.
\\ Questions for reflection:
- What significant thing(s) have you lost this year? List 5-10 actual things.
- How have you practiced the honest work of lament? OR how do you minimize, avoid or self-medicate your losses?
\\\ Advent Activity:
Weep and wail! Commune with your heart at night! Pick one thing you’ve lost and write a personal lament, putting into words your complex feelings of sorrow, regret, disappointment, and longings. A lament can be a letter addressed to God, or a prayer or poem or song (see Psalm 13 or 77 for a biblical example). The purpose of lament is to expose the pain until it loses its power. This is the redemptive activity of shining light in the shadows of your heart, which will create space for the advent of God’s new purposes for you.