Special Christmas services recognize grief, loss during holidays

David Burke


Service of Comfort and Hope

A growing number of churches, both in the Great Plains and across the country, are helping those whose Christmas season isn’t merriment and carols.

Some call it “Blue Christmas” and others name it “A Service of Comfort and Hope” or “Darkest Night.” It’s a service designed for those who have suffered a loss in the previous year, whether it’s the death or estrangement of a loved one, or families with issues such as mental health or unemployment.

The Rev. Sandy Vogel comforts a parishioner during the Service of Comfort and Hope at Topeka First UMC. Photos by David Burke
“You might feel like you’re living in a dark place,” Michael Turner, pastor of Auburn (Kansas) UMC, said during his sermon at Topeka First UMC’s Service of Comfort and Hope, “even though the world is awash with Christmas lights.”

This is the third year for the service, presented by the Stephen Ministry program, at Topeka First. Those who have suffered a loss through the year are sent special invitations, and the rest of the church is informed through the church bulletin and Facebook page.

“We hope it provides them some comfort and strength to get through the holidays,” Beth Evans, part of the Stephen Ministry, said. “This season can be difficult for families and individuals.”

At the service, the Advent candles are lit with a litany that remembers the loved ones, the pain of loss, those who grieve and the gifts of faith and hope. At the Topeka service, a communion followed an anointing by oils of the three-dozen people at the service, with Turner and the Rev. Sandy Vogel, retired Topeka First pastor, listening to each person tell of their loss and give them words of hope.

“God is still with them, that God is always with them,” Turner said following the service.

Turner said the service helps those who sink further into depression during the holidays.

“I really hope this is a time and a space when you can name the struggles people have this Advent season,” he said. “There’s so much pressure to put life on hold and be happy and joyful because it’s Christmas, and life goes on.”
Michael Turner gives the sermon at the Service of Comfort and Hope on Dec. 11.
At St. Mark’s UMC in Lincoln, its Blue Christmas Service is at 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 16.

Congregational care pastor Kara Hillhouse said St. Mark’s has had Blue Christmas the past five or six years.

“For many people, it’s cathartic for them to grieve and to celebrate Christmas at the same time,” Hillhouse said. “Often, they feel like there isn’t room for that in a traditional service, where you’re supposed to be happy and ‘it’s the most wonderful time of the year.’ It’s not the most wonderful time of the year for them, but they still want to be faithful to the events around this holiday and this sacred day.”

Blue Christmas is more liturgical than a typical service at St. Mark’s, she said, with a call to worship, lighting of the Advent wreath and singing “Silent Night.”
“(It’s a) safe space where they can cry and remember they’re not alone on this journey,” Hillhouse said.

Rev. Nancy Kollhoff has conducted Blue Christmas services since 2004, at her previous appointment in Rossville and her current appointment in Atchison UMC, both in Kansas. Last year the Atchison service was changed to Service of Comfort and Hope.

“It’s a reminder that, yes, bad things can happen to us and right now you might not be feeling really ho-ho-ho-ish,” Kollhoff said. “It’s not a jolly holiday right now, but you’re not alone in a physical sense. There are people who understand where you are.”

The service – this year at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 20 -- includes liturgy, prayers and lighting of candles.

“Even through those valley days, Christ walks with us,” Kollhoff said. “Yes, Christmas is about that babe in the manger, but it is also about that time when God will put the world right.”

The services never draw a large crowd, she said, but they do make an impact.

“Sometimes I think, ‘Is it worth it for just six people here?’” Kollhoff said. “But the depth and the profoundness of the ways that people who are there are touched by it? Yeah, it’s totally worth it.”
From Cokesbury, ideas for starting your own Blue Christmas service.
More ideas from the UMC Discipleship website.

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