'Tis the season for all things wonderful and bright. This time of year conjures up feelings of warmth, love, laughter and perhaps a favorite hallmark movie or two. For many families, this is when we make the yearly trek across the country to be with loved ones. This is when we celebrate traditions long held dear, such as the yearly trip to the Christmas Tree farm, or making great grandma’s fudge in the kitchen for all to enjoy. The anticipation and joy for many during this time of year is an exclamation point felt through the celebration of Christ’s birth and the joy on children’s faces when the predawn light of Christmas morning filters through the branches of the well lit tree.
'Tis the season for all things dark and mysterious. This time of year boasts the highest suicide rate, as well as the greatest spike in depression and feelings of loss that have been noted in many articles over the past few years. For many people it is a time of isolation, frustration and pain. This is when we long to celebrate better days and better years. It is a time when failures and trauma experienced throughout the year hit home in ways we never expected or experienced before. We look all around us and that pain is heightened by the bright cheery lights hung on houses; the poinsettias and decorations found in church, or the gaggle of families flying into see the neighbors in the house next door. We look around and feel hollow and void. As the pain, rage and sorrow course through our bodies, the gentle hymns of Silent Night hang hauntingly in the air and in our core we scream ever so silently “Why God”?
'Tis the season for all things rhythm, all things reason. This time of year is an opportunity. It is an opportunity to remember. An opportunity to view the experiences of life and of the past year(s) through a different lens. Growing up as a typical evangelical kid in the 80’s and 90’s, the daily practice of liturgy and poetry seemed dull, ritualistic and a bit confusing, if not totally dishonest. If there wasn’t “encounter” or “presence” then it wasn’t seen as a way to connect with God. The old, ancient practices of “stuffy” religion were not seen as a viable way to navigate life. This it seems was a lie of epic proportions. There is in fact great value in focusing in on the many truths every viable and legitimate Christian denomination offers. For instance, the care of the poor provided by the Salvation Army, the hourly prayers practiced by the Orthodox and Trappist Monks. The fire and power of the Holy Spirit highlighted by the Assemblies of God, the warmth and love highlighted by the United Methodist, or the altar call and devotion to scripture highlighted by Baptist denominations. Of course I could go on, but the task of further inquiry, I leave to you. I bring up these truths to guide us down a road often overlooked within each denomination. The use of devotional poetry.
Poetry speaks to us on an intellectual and emotional level that no other genre offers. Devotional poetry need not be overly religious, although it can be. For this time of year, and for this purpose, I believe a piece that guided Nelson Mandela through the horrors of his captivity before he became the 1st President of South Africa, to be quite appropriate. Although there is much debate about this piece of poetry from a theological perspective, if looked at correctly it can be a piece of tremendous inspiration and hope. “Invictus” by William Earnest Henley was the piece President Mandela memorized and often recited in his darkest nights. It gave him hope and strength, and as you will see, for good reason.
For the purpose of devotional poetry, it is good to get alone, to a quiet place. Invite the Holy Spirit to speak to you and to open your eyes to the truths He wants to convey to you as you read and meditate on this piece of poetry. Read slowly and without distractions. Savor like a fine wine or fudge.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
The first time I read this, it was 2am. My ex-wife had abandoned and betrayed me. I’d been home for less than a week from a combat deployment to Afghanistan. For hitting a door in my home, I went to jail and endured an 8-month criminal trial, for which I was exonerated. In today’s world, accusation is all that matters, and the damage had been done. My mom, who was ordained in the Assemblies of God passed away in the middle of this, and I found myself without a family and alone. I went on to minister and serve the unit that went through the 2014 shooting at Fort Hood and deployed once more to Afghanistan in the service of my country. My children are not in my life as a result of a court system that makes it near impossible for many Fathers like myself to be in their kid’s lives. Legally, I have rights to them, but the continuing costs of navigating the court system are unmanageable. For the Fathers out there who yearn to be with their children, who are overlooked and marginalized, this article is dedicated to you. I tell you my story dear reader so you may know that I speak not from the high and lofty pedestal of academia alone, but from the mud sodden trenches filled with the muck and mire of living in a broken and fallen world.
'Tis the season for all things Holy and True. God, the trinity, is Holy. God, the trinity is True.
God, in his faithfulness to me, regardless of my own brokenness and failures has in many ways restored my life. I have a beautiful wife and three wonderful dogs. I laugh, I hope, I cry. I yearn and I wait. Oh beloved, if we would grasp that beautiful eternal truth, that invitation INTO the waiting.
None of us deserve life. It is a sacred and holy gift. Part of the gift of life is realizing that none of it is deserved. As such we are then free to enjoy the gifts in our life for whatever time they may remain. Family, spouse, children, and pets: None of these is held onto so tightly that there isn’t room for loss and the unexpected. Life is: Joy, Hope, Victory. Life is: Loss, Pain, and Disappointment. It is all these things anchored in the veil of the eternal. There is an ebb and flow that we must tune into to see the beautiful mystery of our existence intertwined with the eternal. Devotional Poetry, and Liturgy help us to bridge that gap.
I believe in the faithfulness of Christ, and the blood he shed on Calvary. I say this with a full heart, because I believe at the core of my being that one-day, my children and I will be reunited. To say the waiting is excruciating is beyond words, but I believe God is faithful to his promises regarding the hearts of the children to their Fathers (and Mothers). I believe he is faithful to his promises for you as well.
'Tis the season for all things wrong, all things right. No matter where you find yourself this Christmas season, I pray you find yourself anchored into the vine of Christ. That perhaps you might try a new form of devotional worship in poetry, or liturgy. That you richly enjoy his comfort and everlasting peace. Whether it is in the familiar and routine of Christmas tradition, or in the abyss of solemn stillness, mired in suffocating pain and loss. I pray you give yourself grace and the gift of time. That you might allow yourself to walk in one another’s shoes because no matter where you find yourself, in joy or pain, a change of season surely is nearby. Seasons always change when you least expect it.
…Tis The Season.
Rev. Aron Stephens is a medically retired Army Chaplain who served 7 years on Active Duty in the United States Army. He deployed twice in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Inherent Resolve. Aron is an Ordained Minister, a Board Certified Chaplain, (BCC) with 2000+ hours of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), a Board Certified Pastoral Counselor (BCPC) and a 3rd year Doctoral student with a dissertation focus on Combat Related PTSD. When he’s not counseling one-on-one with individuals, he enjoys classic works of theology, the nearest Crossfit gym and the serenity of nature. You might find him in the great outdoors, spending time with his wife Ashley and their three dogs, deep in the heart of Texas.