How a couple who lost 9 family members will celebrate Christmas

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Joe and Claryce Holcombe are preparing for Christmas in Sutherland Springs, Texas. However, there will be nine people missing from their home.

The Holcombes, age eighty-six and eight-five, lost family members spanning three generations when a gunman opened fire at First Baptist Church on November 5. Their son, Bryan, was killed. So was their daughter-in-law, Karla; their grandson, Danny; their granddaughter-in-law, Crystal, and her unborn child; and four great-grandchildren: Noah, Greg, Emily, and Megan.

How are they coping?

Joe Holcombe, who goes by “Papa Joe,” told a Time reporter: “Everybody always wants us to be whimpering and crying because we lost some of our family. That’s not the way we are. It happened and it hurt. But we don’t look at death as separation. We look at it as just another event in our life.”

How can “Papa Joe” face tragedy with such hope? Because he believes in heaven: “It won’t be long until we’ll be there with the rest of the family. I miss my family. We don’t see them coming down the sidewalk at the front door anymore. But I won’t miss them long.”

“Blue Christmas” services

My father died ten days before Christmas in 1979. I miss him all year, but especially at this time of year.

Many churches are holding “Blue Christmas” services for people like me. Such services provide those in grief at Christmas an opportunity to pray, worship, and seek comfort in Christ. “The most wonderful time of the year” is less wonderful for those who mourn loved ones or suffer in other ways. Watching others celebrate the holiday season makes people in pain feel even more alone.

According to Psychology Today, a high incidence of depression is associated with the Christmas season. Suicide rates go up. One survey reported that 45 percent of respondents dread the holidays.

Loneliness among older adults is such an epidemic that there is even a campaign to end it. But new research indicates that millennials are twice as likely as the elderly to have no one with whom to spend Christmas.

We may feel lonely during the holidays, but we’re never alone.

Valley Forge and Christmas

Yesterday marked an auspicious anniversary in American history. Two hundred and forty years ago, 12,000 retreating American soldiers set up camp at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Over 2,500 of them would freeze to death or die from starvation or various diseases. Governor Morris of New York later described them as a “skeleton of an army . . . in a naked, starving condition, out of health, out of spirits.”

An eyewitness named Isaac Potts reportedly saw General Washington praying on his knees in the snow, a now-iconic image. Few then would have believed that this rag-tag army would go on to defeat the world’s greatest superpower.

But what we cannot see is more powerful than what we can see.

Start with simple physics: the matter you can see with your eyes is composed of molecules you cannot see. Move to the relational: you cannot see love or friendship, but can their value be overstated? Then consider the eternal: “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).

Alfred Lord Tennyson was right: “Nothing worth proving can be proven, Nor yet disproven.”

God’s Son was born in Bethlehem, just five miles from the homes of the Jewish high priest and other Sanhedrin members in Jerusalem. Jesus attended Passover in the Jerusalem temple every year from the age of twelve until he began his public ministry at the age of thirty. But the religious authorities missed what they couldn’t see.

Let’s not repeat their mistake this Christmas.

Conclusion

In one of his sermons, Frederick Buechner observes: “Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again. Once they have seen him in a stable, they can never be sure where he will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of humankind.

“If holiness and the awful power and majesty of God were present in this least auspicious of all events, this birth of a peasant’s child, then there is no place or time so lowly and earthbound but that holiness can be present there too.”

Christmas reminds us that we serve an incarnational God. When we trust our pain to his unseen presence, our materialistic culture sees our faith and courage. Like Joe Holcombe, we are given opportunity to bear witness to our sustaining Lord.

And Jesus becomes as real to us as if we were part of the first Christmas, because his stable is now our heart.

Where do you need the joy of his presence today?