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Anyone Dreading Christmas?

  • Steven Estes Author
  • 2013 1 Dec
Anyone Dreading Christmas?

Anyone dreading this Christmas?

Is anyone convinced you simply can’t endure one more “happy” holiday? Not with this spouse. Not without that child. Not minus any family at all. Or perhaps not with yesteryear’s good memories now just a puddle of melted snow — or with that sadness from childhood hanging on like the flu.

Maybe you should meet Coleen.

Nine days before turning forty-one, Coleen sat visiting with her folks on an early June evening in the brownstone farmhouse of her youth. She liked the smell of her mom’s supper. She liked the champagne sunlight slanting into the garden. She liked the grasses waving outside the window, there under the massive trees where Glenn and she had uttered vows years earlier.

Missile, in-coming!

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That would be young Josh. Glenn and Coleen’s third. The kid Huck Finn would’ve worshiped. The scrappy dirt-magnet for whom Band-Aids had been invented. The original inspiration for medical insurance — always a bruise here, a stitch there. Josh was wanting his piece of chicken.

“We’re leaving in ten minutes, Bear.” Coleen hands him a leg.

“‘Kay, mom.” Out the door. Slam.

She lazes through a magazine, some article about nothing in particular. The chicken quietly sizzles. She glances at her watch.

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“Bye folks.” She gathers her things. Time for baseball practice.

Out to the porch, down the steps. Joshh-uuu-aah! She fishes for her keys, heads across the yard. Jooossshh! Doubtless he’s up some tree or in the barn. His uniform will be a disaster before he ever slides into a base.

She stops.

The magazine drops. Her eyes widen. Josh’s eyes are staring, but not at her. Her feet begin running, but his are uncharacteristically still beneath the English Black Walnut. A tree that has seen a hundred Junes pass now keeps vigil over a boy, just nine, dangling from a rope that holds him awkwardly.

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She screams, people sprint. Someone cuts him down. Lay him here! Through bustle and flurry, someone hits 911 . . . but she knows he’s gone. She knew from the moment she grabbed his legs and lifted. Arching over him there on the grass, she fingers her cell phone and fumbles to hit Glenn’s number.

All this, seventy feet from the spot where they married.

Over the hours they pieced it together. They could picture it clearly now. Josh on the huge branches, jumping limb to limb. He is Batman, holding the end of the rope swing, but needing both hands free. Where to loop the thing? Never thinking to wrap it around his waist, he coiled it elsewhere, just below the chin of his bony young body.

The chopper ride . . . the hospital formalities . . . the eerie drive home with Glenn and their two (yes, she thought, now two) children. Pushing through the front door, she bounded up the stairs and reached for Josh’s blanket, just so I could smell him.

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It has been years now. But what got her through that June? Six months later, what saw her through that first Christmas?

Nor terribly long ago, Glenn, Coleen, my wife and I stood outside the brownstone farmhouse on an October afternoon, champagne sunlight splashing about. We huddled together and prayed around the stump of a once-great English Black Walnut. One of the more moving afternoons of my life.

Glenn and she, who grieve in quite different ways, told me how they survived. Certainly the memorial service helped: the stories people recounted about Josh, making him seem close; the hymns swelling in everyone’s ears and hearts, supplying strong faith to weak knees

Certainly time helped. “The wound scars over,” she says, “although sometimes the scar gets bumped.” To this day in public places she and Glenn are transfixed at the sight of a boy that age, are helpless at the sound of a young boy weeping.

Certainly their friends helped. Camped in Glenn and Coleen’s living room, fellow Christians cooked, cleaned, and tucked in the kids. In those early weeks, Coleen’s thin frame could not rise from the couch. She lay draped there, dry heaving, her soul a beached whale. Only Scripture being read aloud could sit her upright.

Certainly their other two children helped, becoming doubly precious. Their daughter is now married, truly beautiful, a whiz with animals. Their son became a Navy SEAL, one-of-the-few.

But what does she recall as helping her the most? In those early days, as people read Scripture to her and she clutched its truth, Coleen says she felt God himself walking with her through it all. “I’ve never felt so close to God as during those months,” she tells me. “Then, after a time, it was like God set me down from his knees. It was as if I wouldn’t feel him quite that close again . . . but it would be all right.”

What she said next will haunt me till my deathbed. She told me that she prayed, with her other two children in mind, “God, if you would be that close to me again, you can have another one.”

You could misread this if you’ve never spent time with Coleen. She prizes her kids with a fierce mother-love. But she knows who made them, knows who protects them, and knows who is keeping her Josh for her until she dies and joins him. She grasps that God is bigger than her children. Bigger than life, bigger than death. What gave this woman supernatural strength was the presence of God through her friendship with Jesus Christ. This is a closeness God seems to reserve for his people when they suffer greatly. Paul once spoke about it like this: “I want to know Christ, the power of his resurrection, the fellowship of sharing in his suffering” (Philippians 3:10).

Coleen learned that God draws near to those who groan in body or soul but who seek him anyway. That nearness, she found, is worth more than everything in the world.

If God could do that for her at such a season . . .

don’t you think he’s a match
   for whatever longing you face
        this bleak December?

Steven Estes is a pastor who has known “better Decembers with my family than either Currier or Ives,” but also understands a gray Christmas. A Better December draws on Estes’ twenty-three years of counseling church members through the holiday season as well his other writings on the topic of human suffering.

He teaches a preaching class at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) where he completed his M.Div and Th.M. degrees. Estes is a conference speaker and on the board of the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation (CCEF). Estes is the author of Called to Die (the story of slain missionary Chet Bitterman), and co-author (with friend Joni Eareckson Tada) of When God Weeps and A Step Further. He and his wife, Verna, have eight children.

Learn more about Estes and his books at

Publication date: December 9, 2013