By Deb Sewell
[Editor's Note: This article summarizes this year's Hope for the Holidays service, which was held on Thursday, November 21 in the Sanctuary. Hope for the Holidays offers comfort, hope, and inspiration for those who navigate the holidays while grieving.]
Candles were lit and violins played as Arborlawn welcomed attendees for this year’s Hope for the Holidays worship service on Thursday, November 21. Some came in quietly and sat in the balcony; others made their way to the front kneeling rails, lighting a candle before worship started. Several drove many miles from various congregations and denominations around the Metroplex. But, they came with one purpose: in search of peace, hope, and inspiration to help them face a season of memories; in search of strength and faith renewed. Some attended whose loss was just within days; while the losses of others might be counted in months or years. But for all the message was the same: we are dearly loved by a God who has never left our side; a God who is standing with us in our hours of loneliness, in our questions, and in our pain.
Deb Sewell welcomed those attending and applauded their courage for attending. She then explained the role of music in the journey of grief as a gift from God to help, not hinder our healing. She talked about “…the love-hate relationship we have with music when we are emotionally vulnerable.” She encouraged the congregation to take a step courageously by attempting to sing or hum a Christmas carol. Through tears, many joined her in singing their first Christmas carol of the season. Under the direction of Lisa Garrett and Tom Stoker, The Arborlawn Singers combined their voices with the music of Versa Strings. The musicians were accompanied by a ballet beautifully choreographed by Carrie Cheng to the medley “Silent Night/Peace Peace.”
The lay speaker this year was Lee Jennings, a member of Arborlawn for many years. Lee spoke about God’s presence beside him throughout the early years of childhood abuse, and neglect. The instruction he received from "angels" who crossed his path helped him survive the childhood trauma as well as the years he spent caring for his wife, Diane through early onset Alzheimer’s disease. But, the theme flowing throughout his story were the “angels” (friends, family, even strangers) who offered direction, companionship, and support just when he needed it. Lee is convinced it was the hand of God, reassuring him that he was not alone, continuing with what he learned from the struggles through childhood and the difficult journey with Diana: the power of prayer, the closeness of God never leaving his side. He learned to dwell as much as possible not on what he had lost, but the blessings along the way and the ones still remaining. There were many smiles and some laughter when Lee shared about his lovely wife being late to everything; that even her pallbearers were instructed to bring her casket in 10 minutes into her funeral service so he could say that she was indeed “late to her own funeral.” He asked the congregation to trust God in their darkest hours to show them the way, looking forward to better days ahead as healing comes. “I learned that love endures and death do us NOT part. I learned that God loves me and he loves all of us.” He then closed with John 14:27: “I am leaving you with a gift — peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid.”
Ben Disney’s devotional told about all of us only having one thing when we leave this world: our story. But right along with that story is the gift of knowing that Jesus came to suffer for each of us in order to suffer WITH us; because at some point and time in all of our lives, suffering and heartache will find its way to us. When that happens our lives become about knowing where to look for answers. Pastor Disney’s repeating scripture throughout his brief talk was: The eternal God is your refuge and underneath are the everlasting arms - that will always catch us when we fall.
The congregation was then invited to lay a token of their loss on the communion rail as they knelt and prayed. The items offered represented the broken hearts of many but also a desire to surrender their pain and grief as they were able and willing.
This year Rev. Laraine Waughtal, Disaster Response Coordinator for the Central Texas Conference of the UMC, prayed a special prayer over the communities of West, Texas and Hood County as they continue to recover from their disasters this past year. They were represented by some First Responders from the West disaster as well as EMTs, a Fire Department Chaplain, the Hood County Fire Marshal, and the Director of EMS for Hood County. The token they placed to represent their loss was the helmet of one of the nine First Responders killed in West. The closing reading was provided by the Brake family and Rev. Sandra Lydick of Fort Worth’s Crime Victim’s Council.
The evening concluded with the congregation raising their voices together singing “Lord of all Hopefulness.” Deb Sewell gave closing words of encouragement, asking those grieving to turn toward one another and then turn toward the One who promised to never leave or forsake them. Those who wished to were invited to take communion in the Elizabeth Cramer Chapel. Grief literature was available to all, and beautiful hand sewn Prayer Pockets were provided by members of Arborlawn's Blessings in Stitches Ministry.
Since their placement on the altar on November 21, the Hope for the Holidays memorial tokens, as well a the individuals and families they represent, have been tenderly prayed over by the Hope for the Holidays ministry team and several church prayer teams, including the pastoral staff. The boxed tokens will be placed in Arborlawn's Prayer Room where they will stay until spring. At that time, they will be taken and gently placed in the Arborlawn Prayer Garden.
A special thanksgiving is offered for those who worked so diligently. God’s face appeared in your loving actions to those whose hearts are broken. Through you, God offered His hope and His light in their darkness. You were like the angels mentioned in our lay speaker’s talk who made such a difference in his life. For more details about Hope for the Holidays and links to various articles and resources from this year and previous years, please visit ArborlawnUMC.org/Hope.
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