I had just gone to bed. It had been an incredibly busy Christmas – a stack of carol services and countless visits - but we had finally made it. We had packed our young boys into the car and travelled the hundred miles or so to stay with my wife's parents.
It was Boxing Day at last and we could finally relax and start to enjoy our first Christmas together since I had become a Baptist minister. But just as I was about to drift off to sleep the phone rang. I was needed back in Pembroke. There had been a fire and tragically my organist had died. I still remember that awful journey back home. The details are seared in my mind for ever, especially the image of a young man slowly making his way home in the middle of the night as we approached Carmarthen. It was a sobering reminder that death doesn't take holidays. Death is the 'Great Intruder' and it can wreck lives at the most unwelcome moments – even Christmas.
Another of my church members discovered this sad truth a few years later. She was Christmas shopping with her family in Swansea when for some inexplicable reason she turned the wrong way at the traffic lights and their lives changed for ever. For her it was all over in a moment, but for the family it was the beginning of a nightmare they had to live with for the rest of their lives. No one wants to plan a funeral over the festive season, especially when it is for a much-loved wife and mother.
I never expected to become a pastor, and I would never have chosen it either. Who would ever want to take a funeral, especially funerals at Christmas? But God clearly called me, and I felt I had no option but to say 'Yes'. Now over the years I have discovered that pastoral ministry can prove exhilarating and incredibly fulfilling. It certainly has moments of great joy. But unfortunately, it has its moments of deep anguish and pain too, not least when it comes to caring for the bereaved and conducting funerals.
This is especially true during this festive season when the emphasis on family and fun simply intensifies the sense of loss. I couldn't help thinking like this again when I found myself conducting yet another funeral just before Christmas, and even more sadly this year within Covid guidelines. No hugs, no cup of tea afterwards, just a few moments standing together in the crematorium grounds before returning to distant parts of the country. One young girl had travelled alone for five hours just to be with members of her family for a little more than one!
Losing a loved one at Christmas is always heart-breaking of course but I am also conscious that I have taken services over the past few months for people who will find this holiday challenging because it will be their 'first Christmas without their loved one'. And they will not be alone in feeling like this because Christmas can be a powerful 'trigger' for many others too, even those who lost loved ones a long time ago.
Mrs Smith (not her real name) taught me this lesson. Her husband had died in a tragic accident a few years before I became her pastor, and it was obvious that she was desperately lonely. Given this, we tried to persuade her to join us as a family for Christmas lunch but she politely refused, assuring me that she preferred to spend the day at home with her memories. But I did get a promise that she would call if she needed me. And she did – just as we were sitting down to eat! And so, as the family tucked into their delicious sprouts I ended up on the phone wishing she had said yes! Such is the challenge - and the privilege - of caring for others in the name of the One who cared enough to give up everything for us.
'Emmanuel' is a much-used word at this time of the year and it's what keeps me going. If I was dependent on my own resources I would have so much less to offer, but I have witnessed the Lord do some amazing things for those who have been bereaved. There was Sarah for example (again not her real name). Her beloved husband died whilst working on the chapel building and she felt bereft. But as she poured her heart out to the Lord, she felt Him 'giving her a huge hug' and the experience transformed her life. "From that moment on I never felt alone again," she told me.
Then there was the lady who was suffering from excruciating guilt because her husband had died while he was caring for her. She convinced herself that he would not have died if she had not fallen ill. As I reflected on her pain, I encouraged her to spend some time meditating on Psalm 139, especially verse 16 which says, "All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be." That verse proved far more effective than any antidepressant.
And so I could continue, but perhaps I should finish by reminding you that the Christmas season is a very opportune moment to show some care to the bereaved people you know. It is a time to listen and to react sensitively as the Holy Spirit guides us because we can be the means through which Emmanuel becomes real to those who need to know His presence. "Blessed are those who mourn," said Jesus, "for they will be comforted." He can and does do that, but it's worth remembering that He wants to do it through you and me.
Rob James is a Baptist minister, writer and church and media consultant to the Evangelical Alliance Wales. He is the author of Little Thoughts About a Big God.