Turn to someone and say, “‘Tis the season…” and that person will smile back at you and probably say, “To be jolly.” Then the two of you might laugh and sing “Fa la la la la la la la la.” The season of Advent revolves around the themes of peace, hope, joy and love reflected in the song “Deck The Halls”. On successive Sundays congregations light three purple or blue and one pink candles in their Advent wreaths and recite a prayer anticipating the hope, peace, joy and love that the coming of the Christ child will bring. The assumption is this is the most wonderful time of the year. But what if your time isn’t wonderful, putting you at odds with the majority of the people around you?
Loss at any time is painful, but experiencing loss when everyone else is smiling, laughing and giving good cheer can be doubly painful. A sense of isolation — or worse a sense of having no right to your feelings — can set in. The pressure to stiff-upper-lip-it is great. Sometimes greater than people can bear. This is why as minister for pastoral care, I developed a “Blue Christmas” service for First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, NY (FPCJ) as a way to affirm loss and offer comfort to those for whom crying makes more sense than caroling.
Often held on the longest day of the year, Blue Christmas services let people who are mourning know that they are not alone, that they are not forgotten, that they have a right to what they’re feeling. Hymns and songs are usually sung in a minor key. Prayers shared acknowledge the sorrow and pain of loss with dignity. Works from authors like Ann Weems, who write meditations based in their own experience of suffering, are read. Old Testament scriptures point to people journeying from darkness to light. Psalms chosen are often ones of lament like Psalm 22 or ones looking for help like Psalm 121. New Testament readings focus on a hope that is always there, even when you can’t feel it. Candle lighting is coupled with litanies that banish as much as possible feelings of shame or blame. In the service I designed for FPCJ, attendees were invited to come forward and light candles as an act of agency showing that even when we feel most helpless we always have power. As a reverse offering, attendees were invited to take a scripture stone (glass stones with scriptures on them) from the offering plates to take home as reminders that help from the word of God is always within reach.
Here are two sample services so you can see what I mean: https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/blue-christmas-a-service-of-reflection-for-the-longest-night, https://youngclergywomen.org/blue-christmas-service-when-christmas-hurts/.
If you’ve never attended one, find a community near you that’s offering one then consider going. FPCJ’s Blue Christmas services were some of the most life affirming events I had the honor to participate in.
If this season is a dark night of the soul for you or someone you know, I hope this blogpost can serve as a reminder that there is comfort and strength for you in this time of loss, that there are people who care and that — as the old Negro spiritual proclaims — “trouble don’t last always.”
One Breath Away
Sentenced to hang for a crime she didn’t commit, former slave Mary Hamilton was exonerated at literally the last gasp. She returns to Safe Haven, broken and resigned to live alone. She’s never been courted, cuddled or spooned, and now no man could want her, not when sexual satisfaction comes only with the thought of asphyxiation. But then the handsome stranger who saved her shows up, stealing her breath from across the room and promising so much more.
Wealthy, freeborn-Black, Eban Thurman followed Mary to Safe Haven, believing the mysteriously exotic woman is his mate foretold by the stars. He must marry her to reclaim his family farm. But first he must help her heal, and to do that means revealing his own predilection for edgier sex.
Hope ignites along with lust until the past threatens to keep them one breath away from love…
His smile turned up the heat in his gaze. Mary frowned, painfully aware the smell of her passion lingered in the air, despite the woolen barrier of her skirt.
He stepped forward so his hand-stitched boots stood toe-to-toe with Mary’s second-hand shoes. “Eban Thurman, at your service, Miss Hamilton. May I get you something to drink?”
At her service? The air congealed. Mary gasped, trying to suck in air too solid to inflate her lungs.
“No—no, thank you. I’m not thirsty.” Her stutter mimicked the tremor between her thighs. She clasped her hands and planted them hard against her lap.
“It’s a really hot night.” He turned his hand palm up in a silent plea. “Perhaps you’d find a waltz more cooling.” He eased his fingers into her clenched hands.
“May I beg the honor of this dance?”
“Yes, Miss Hamilton.” He tilted his head, slanting his smile to the right. “Beg.”
“You don’t strike me as the begging type, Mr. Thurman.”
“To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.” He tongue-swiped his full lips as if he’d just tasted something he wanted to taste again. “I know when it’s time to beg.”
She pursed her lips into a frown, fought back the urge to grovel and won. Barely.
The fingers around hers, clean and huge and strangely slender, hadn’t moved, hadn’t trembled. Their stillness aroused her. His stillness aroused her. Her lips quivered. She inhaled deeply against the surrender summoned by that tiny tremor.
Resist the devil and he will flee.
Silently she called upon the truth in this scripture for rescue. The devil waited. She stared at the hand on hers, helpless against the appeal, the allure of temptation.
She swallowed hard, opened her mouth to say no, but her tongue refused to cooperate. She huffed out a breath and shook her head. “I—I can’t. I don’t know how to waltz.”
“Well, you’re in luck.” His lips bowed in a smile, full, broad, and hypnotizing. “I’m an excellent teacher and I bet you’re a fast learner.” He gave her fingers a squeeze. “Shall we?”
He really wanted to dance with her. She blinked, speechless. A warning voice protested.
Her heart countered.
She firmed her lips, heaved a sigh then accepted his invitation. Felicity’s sputtered shock and Widow Hawthorne’s happy cackle accompanied them to the middle of the dance floor.
He placed his fingertips respectfully but firmly above the rise of her buttocks and held her in place against him. A tickle invaded the wool of her skirt where the tip of his middle finger rested at the head of her crack. Pleasure tripped up her spine and trickled between her thighs. But, from the recesses of remembered experience, a voice of caution persisted.
He wants something, Mary. Beware.
“Why—why do you want to dance with me?”
He smiled with the serpent slyness that probably charmed Eve. “I don’t think you’d believe me if I told you.”
He turned his head slightly. “Really? Your practiced calm says otherwise.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Practiced calm?”
“The face you present to the world until something touches your heart.” He gestured to his right. “Like when that baby there cried. Your expression changed to one of concern, then changed to one of contentment when his mother satisfied his hunger.”
Mary blew a breath through her mouth. This man was studying her. Really studying her. Should she be flattered or worried?
The one-two-three, one-two-three magic of the waltz began. He guided her in its dips and glides, through its rises and falls. The awkwardness attributed to her by past dance partners didn’t raise its ugly head. Her spirit lightened then soared until that still, small voice sounded the alarm.
You were fooled by another man and his fancy manners. Don’t be fooled by this one.
Hints of bay rum mingled with a manly scent against whose lure she struggled then lost. Once again her toilet water failed to hide the salty scent of her arousal.
Eban pinned her with a not-so-casual scrutiny. Could he smell her too? She tried but failed to read him. Dare she hope the ease in his smile meant he found it pleasing?
The other couples held their partners off with discreet and proper holds. Not Eban. Warmth radiated from the hand holding the small of her back hostage. The heat spread across her buttocks then seeped into places more private. He bent his elbow and gentled her forward so only their clasped hands separated them.
“Why, Miss Hamilton, I do believe you’re blushing.” His fingers held hers with a teasing yet possessive grip.
“I am not.” Her words shot out with a force she hadn’t intended. “I mean I don’t blush.”
“No?” A cheeky boyishness winked at her from eyes as dark as chocolate. He leaned down so his breath tickled her earlobe. “Not even if I kissed you behind your ear?”
She shrank back then stared up into the gaze showering her with attention. Her heart beat beneath her breast with a prisoner’s unease. An unease she knew well having once been a prisoner.
His smile widened into a grin. “Only because I don’t want to embarrass you.”
The amusement in his voice coaxed forth a wet response that Mary clenched her vaginal muscles to stem. She swallowed repeatedly until she found her voice.
“You still haven’t answered me, sir. Of all the women here, why did you pick me?”
“Why not you?”
She blinked. Why not her? The answers swirled through her mind as easily as she and Eban swirled in this waltz.
Why not her?
Because she remained planted among the wallflowers by the time the musicians played the last song at every Safe Haven dance.
Because she learned to hang back at the call of “Ladies’ Choice,” forewarned of rejection by the grimaces caused by her approach.
Because unlike desperate-for-a-man Felicity, Mary refused to dance on her back in some dark field just so she wouldn’t be a woman who ain’t been asked.
Ain’t been asked to court. Ain’t been asked to spoon. Ain’t been asked to the altar. And never would be.
That’s why not her.
His calloused fingertips proved he worked manually for the wealth that purchased his custom-made attire. But, he didn’t speak like a field hand or common laborer. His speech testified to a level of education far above that of her Freedman’s Bureau learning.
“Why not you, Mary?”
“Because someone like you only looks at someone like me out of pity.”
Of course. His aunt put him up to this. Anger warmed Mary’s ears.
“Let me go.” She made to pull away. “I want to sit.”
“Please. Not before the music stops.” He timed his plea to the rhythm of the waltz. “I’ve waited all week for this moment.”
Mary gritted her teeth. Heart hurt joined her injured pride. She needed no one’s charity.
“That was cruel of you, sir. No one counts the days until they can ask me for a dance.” Tears pooled behind her closed eyelids. “Anyone in town could tell you that.”
The grip on her hand tightened, forcing her eyes open. The light in his gaze darkened. “Anyone who’d lie to me like that would be taking their life in their hands.” He leaned in so his mouth nuzzled her ear again. “And if you use that I’m-not-worthy tone of voice again, I’ll be forced to prove you wrong with a kiss.”
Alarm shuddered up Mary’s back. “Is—is that a threat?”
“A certainty.” He winked.
A chilly thrill replaced the alarm. She blew out a breath to steady herself. Threat or certainty, both treated her to a delicious revelation—she wanted that kiss.
She eyed his lips, imagined their soft yet demanding press against hers. Once more the voice of caution repeated its warning.
Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.
Oh, to be forced to flee from such a devil as he. She sighed. What a wonderful problem to have.
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