COLUMN: A promise of the presence of God in our deepest pain


Pastor Bob ChellColumnist

I love the scene in Talladega Nights when Ricky Bobby directs his table prayer to Christmas Jesus, his favorite “version’. An argument ensues about just who Jesus is, or rather, who we choose Jesus to be. There is a jarring dissonance between the sweet infant we welcome at Christmas and the man who hangs on a cross come April.

There is a dissonance, too, between the lessons and hymns of worship this Advent season and the carols played at Walmart. For liturgical churches following the rhythm of the church year set down over the centuries Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas, are a time of preparation and anticipation. Until this last century Advent was a penitential season, a time to reflect on our failure to live as God’s people. The lessons read in mainline churches reflect this history with a focus on sin, end times and God’s judgment. If you worshiped last Sunday you heard Jesus’ cryptic comments about end times and this week you’ll hear John warn folks to flee “the wrath that is to come.’ The hymns of Advent too, often in a minor key, bestow an undertone of melancholy.

There is an undertone of dissonance on campus too. Advent themes of preparation and anticipation can mean preparing for finals week as well as Christmas and wrapping up the last test in addition to the camo Snuggie for Uncle Bill.

With the exception of Charlie Brown, animated Christmas specials proclaim “love’ as the real meaning of Christmas while curmudgeonly Christians point to “social justice Jesus,’ or “water walking Jesus’ or their favorite “version’ as the real meaning to the season.

Torn between custom and culture, finals and family, we know the dissonance of the season only too well. It could be worse. There are those for whom the season is not dissonant but unrelentingly sad. Those attending the death of a loved one. Those gathering without their loved one present this Christmas. Those who are hungry. Those facing foreclosure. Those whose romance recently ended. This is not an exhaustive list! Anyone whose deep and unrelenting pain is their unwelcome Christmas guest qualifies. The joy of the season only deepens their sense of loneliness, despair and alienation.

Is this you? If so, listen to the hymns and lessons of Advent. They have an undertone of melancholy, to be sure, yet there is a grace note of hope if one listens closely. A promise of the presence of God in our deepest pain. A promise of hope.

Is this not you? Listen to the lessons of Advent; Look! Listen! Look in the last row, to the person alone who slips out as the service ends. Listen to the silence of the one who does not speak as others share Christmas plans.

Jesus told those who sought him he could be found in four places: in the promise of baptism, in the celebration of the Lord’s supper, wherever three or more gather in his name and in the least, the lost and the lonely.

Look beyond your favorite version of Jesus this year. Embrace the real Jesus in our midst.

Pastor Bob Chell’s door is always open at the University Lutheran Center South of Brown Hall. His email is [email protected]