by C.J. Couvillion
(Baton Rouge, LA)
Maybe I expected something different to happen today. After all, regardless of the fact that our Son is dead, this being the 8-month anniversary of his death, it is still Christmas Day. Christmas Day is supposed to be filled with giving and sharing and magic and nostalgic feelings about childhood or perhaps good memories of past Christmases. This day was none of that. We awoke at 8 a.m. to the sound of my Mom Lucy getting ready for the day and wanting to go home already. She only got here on Thursday afternoon, 2 days ago, and now she wants to go home. The weather is threatening, wet and cold and rainy. She is away from her home in Cottonport, Louisiana, on Christmas Day for the first time that I can remember in over 50 years, and she is out of her comfort zone. She wanted to go home, so we took her there. She is back now in her home in the small central Louisiana town founded and named in the 1880s for its industry, in her comfort zone, but nonetheless, alone.
As I sit here and think of it, Christmas Day for most people is all about the "comfort zone." Tradition and Christmas rituals and festive foods and family members and 'being home for Christmas' are major factors and compelling indeed, driving many people to brave long road trips or airline travel through ice and snow to get home for Christmas. Stephen's last Christmas on earth, Christmas 2009, was exactly that, as he left Philadelphia just ahead of a major winter blizzard and made it to Baton Rouge a day or two before Christmas, driven to be here and experience his childhood memories and Kathy's holiday cooking and Christmas Eve at his Sister Sarah's house with Matthew our grandson acting as "Santa," who handed presents to each one of us, one at the time, until the area under the tree was empty but the trash bags were overflowing and the unwrapped gifts were in neat piles, each person having his own, as if we were chipmunks piling up nuts for the long winter. We were all in our comfort zones, all of us, I in mine because Kathy and the kids and the grandchild were right in front of me opening gifts and appearing to be happy and having fun, Kathy because her son Stephen was home from Philly and because we were at Sarah's house and Matthew was there with us to hand out gifts, each with the recipient's picture on the package, Kathy's idea of course, to facilitate the process of letting a 4 year old be "Santa." Stephen and Sarah were in their comfort zones because the other was there, as each had always been for some 29 past Christmases, with each other, many years sleeping in the same room on Christmas Eve, waiting for daylight on Christmas Day, when Stephen would run into our room and jump on the bed and yell out, "It's Christmas!"
That was Christmas past, 29 of them, in fact. This Christmas was nothing like that. No matter how hard we appeared to be trying, the "elephant in the room" was the fact that Stephen is not here and that single, solitary fact puts all of us way outside of our comfort zones. But it goes further than that, not only is Stephen not here, but neither are his many friends who used to come here on either the Eve or the Day itself to see him and see us and explore our food offerings and our gifts and maybe stay for a while to watch a portion of a Christmas movie, maybe "Christmas Vacation" or "A Christmas Story." This Christmas, we did not see our son Stephen, and also did not see Mike Nettles, Dani DeMars, Paul Goings, Reed Robelot, or Matt Cosper, all whom we have been seeing each Christmas for at least a decade or more, all of whom loved Stephen very much, all of whom miss him very much, all of whom I guess did not come to our home because it was just too painful to look into our eyes and see the sorrow and feel the loss. Being here with us and without Stephen would have put them all way out of their comfort zones. I don't criticize them for staying away. I just mourn Stephen's absence from us this Christmas and their absence, as well.
The comfort zone is where we take ourselves, when perhaps God through our circumstances would take us some other place entirely. The comfort zone is where our lives are sometimes put on hold or put on the back burner or where the status quo is our natural inclination, rather than putting ourselves in harm's way or stretching ourselves into a new, completely different shape. The comfort zone puts stretch marks on our bellies, when perhaps another way would put stretch marks on our souls. The comfort zone is the way of the world, the antithesis of God's way. Who wants to be challenged and stretched, I ask you, when we can instead be comfortably left alone? Who wants the hard way when, I ask you, we can just make it easy for ourselves? Who wants to change when, I ask you, we can just stay the same? Sometimes the comfort zone, thought having the look of all there is to acquire in the good life can instead mean death to the soul, death to life in the Spirit, death to a life filled with God. However, it has been made plain in the scriptures, especially in the life of Jesus, that God's way is not the way of the comfort zone; it is the hard way. And, the scriptures below promise that in the hard way, we find our way; the cross saves our lives, while dodging the cross, seeking our comfort zone, eventually costs us our lives.
I don't deny the incredibly strong motivation which moving to or keeping within our comfort zone has on the individual's thinking patterns, decision-making, and plan of action, nor to I criticize anyone for wanting to feel comfortable or wanting to be comfortable. I love being comfortable myself, both physically and emotionally; what human being doesn't? But it occurs to me as I write these words, that the whole meaning of Christmas is about The One leaving His comfort zone for a very hostile place, filled with angry and hostile people. That One, of course, is the Son of God, Jesus Himself, who left the comfort of the Father Whom He had been with from Eternity to become one of us, to become human flesh, to become part of the creation, in order to feel our pain and take our place and experience the feeling of loss. The mystery of the Incarnation is all about God leaving the Comfort Zone of Heaven for the hell of earth voluntarily and with each of us particularly in mind.
The incredibly and profoundly unique and utterly daring fundamental premise of Christianity is that our God in the heavens, the same heavens which were thought to be unattainable without manipulative worship of the many Roman and Greek gods, the same heavens which were thought to be unattainable without perfect adherence to the Law of Moses, left that heaven for earth to be with us and go through our pain and give His Life as a ransom for us all. No other religion known to man, from the beginning of his quest for his God and a return to Him after the Fall has ever made that claim, a claim so preposterous and utterly mind-boggling that all but those who are invaded by His Spirit consider it utter nonsense and foolishness and rubbish and a child's fairy tale or a hideous blasphemy. God becoming man to dwell among us is the ultimate denial of the comfort zone.
It hurts and is very uncomfortable and way out of our comfort zone knowing that Stephen is dead and not here this Christmas, nor will he be here next Christmas, and neither will he be here the Christmas after that. The incident and circumstances which have caused his death 8 months ago in the City of Brotherly Love have begun to blend together in my mind with past events and circumstances. Perhaps this is a mercy from God Who knows that we simply cannot endure constant memories of pain and suffering without sustaining permanent damage to our minds and souls. Thus do some or maybe even most recover from a loss as that of an Only Son. To the contrary, some never recover from the stress fracture in their minds caused by such severe agony, as they constantly relive the moments of horror over and over again, as if their minds were in a fast loop. At some point, I suppose, should I live that long, the pain of this first Christmas without Stephen will become just a distant memory, so distant that I will have to restrain myself from entering the new comfort zone of his constant absence, possibly only staying out of that new zone by sharing this experience with those whose memories of their dead sons and daughters are still horribly fresh and real in their minds and still surface as nightmares while they sleep.
Christmas of 2010 is over, and though we have dreaded its coming, we have survived it nonetheless and we relish its going. We are glad it is behind us. The New Year of 2011 lies ahead in just a few short days, looming with infinite possibilities and myriads of options. This year, 2010, will forever be the year in which our son died in his Philadelphia apartment on the Temple University campus from cardiac arrest caused by accidental drug intoxication. The New Year has no such label yet. It is still an unopened book, still enclosed in shrink wrap, still on the shelf of the bookstore waiting to be purchased and taken home to be opened, the words on its pages still waiting to be tasted by our hungry eyes. Kathy and I look to the promises of the New Year, and as we await its beginning we remember the events of 2010 and plan to celebrate its merciful passing in the hopes that the tragedy which struck our comfortable lives and the writer's efforts to chronicle the events will remind others to embrace change as God's agent and welcome Him into their lives.