In this passage from Acts, we see the early church flourishing, so much so that men and women had to be appointed to tend to the care of those who were lonely, sick or grieving. It was the start of what many of our churches now know as the office of deacons: those ordained to make calls, write letters, bake cookies and be with those who are hurting.
I find myself thinking a lot about the “ministry of presence” this time of year. The holidays can be hard for many. I know this all too well. It was the day after Christmas, and my parents and I went for a jaunt in the woods. I was a teenager who still liked hanging out with them, so when my friends darted for the shopping mall for the post-holiday sales, I declined their invite and put on my hiking boots instead. We returned home to a ringing phone. My father answered and began speaking in his native Swiss German. I didn’t understand what he was saying, but by the tone of his voice I knew it wasn’t good. Within an hour, my father’s bag was packed. He was heading back to Switzerland. My grandfather had died by suicide in the family farmhouse nestled in the Alps. Elderly and frail, his heart had never healed from my grandmother’s death just months before. He was 84 years old, and they were married for 60-plus years.
I learned later that the minister of the village had visited my grandfather two days before his death. He was not looking forward to a cold, lonely Christmas morning, the pastor had told my father. He was not looking forward to anymore lonely mornings. What was to be a festive holiday week was one filled with gray skies and tears. I was just a teen, but when I looked at the twinkling lights on the Christmas tree, I found myself praying for a greater light to shine on all those who were hurting.
My father flew back from Switzerland on New Year’s Eve. There weren’t any celebrations in our house that night. Rather, we gathered around the Advent wreath and lit only one candle: the white one in the middle, the Christ candle. As we ate our simple — and very Swiss — meal of soup, crusty bread and cheese, I noticed my father staring at the flickering candle. I’ve always wondered what he was thinking. Perhaps he was remembering Christmases past with his father. Or perhaps he was allowing the presence of that light to heal his grieving heart.
“We remember the old people,” Howard Thurman wrote about Christmastime. “Those whose fires have been banked, and who sit in their solitariness … who cannot be comforted by the memories of other times.” May we not just remember those “whose fires have been banked.” May we be the ones to rekindle the flames of hope and love.
God, for all those who are grieving, whose hearts have been shattered by lost dreams or lost loved ones, I pray that they feel your healing presence so strongly that it gives them not only strength and courage to face this day, but also hope to face tomorrow. Help me, as well, to become a light bearer to those still walking in darkness. In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen.
If you or someone you know is depressed or has expressed thoughts of suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention lifeline at 800-273-8255. The lifeline provides 24/7 support that is free and confidential. You can also learn more at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.