In this episode, Belinda Pollard, Donita Bundy and Alison Joy interview Kathy Escobar, pastor and author of the Advent resource A Weary World. Kathy has for many years helped provide a Blue Christmas event for those struggling at this time of year, but its meaning became intensely personal after her teenage son’s death by suicide. (Content warning: suicide)
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In conversation in this episode:
- Belinda Pollard, author of mainstream crime novels, writing coach, accredited editor with qualifications in theology, writing and publishing blogger at smallbluedog.com, and Gracewriters founder
- Donita Bundy, writing teacher, preacher and author of the Armour of Light urban fantasy series.
- Alison Joy, romance author, former early childhood teacher and mother of 4 adult children
- Kathy Escobar, pastor and author.
Topics covered in this episode:
- Caring for those who find the festive season difficult.
- Kathy’s experience of writing through grief amid the disruption of the pandemic.
- The value of honesty in writing hard things.
- When writing can be healing.
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Belinda Pollard: Welcome to the Gracewriters Podcast – Christian Writers Changing Popular Culture. Hit subscribe on your favourite podcast player so you never miss an episode and find show notes, useful links and a full transcript at gracewriters.com.
Today on the podcast, pastor, speaker, advocate and author, Kathy Escobar.
I’m Belinda Pollard. I’m an author, editor and writing coach with a theology degree and 20 years in the publishing industry. I blog for writers at smallbluedog.com and you can find links to all my blogs, books and online courses at belindapollard.com.
Alison Joy: Hi, I’m Alison Young. I’m a former early childhood teacher living in south-east Queensland. I have four adult children and I’m a mad-keen photographer. I write romance under the pen name Alison Joy and you can find out more about my books at alisonjoywriter.com.
Donita Bundy: Hello, I’m Donita Bundy. For the past 20 years, I’ve been using my theology degree to underpin my preaching and more recently, to inspire my urban-fantasy series, Armour of Light. You can find out more about that, me and all my other projects at donitabundy.com.
Alison Joy: Kathy pastors The Refuge, a Christian community and mission in North Denver, Colorado. She has authored a number of books and has contributed to many others, but today, we wanted to talk, particularly, about her advent resource, A Weary World: Reflections for a Blue Christmas.
Welcome to the podcast, Kathy.
Kathy Escobar: It’s wonderful to be with you all. It’s a joy.
Alison Joy: So, this year for our Gracewriters Christmas episode, we decided to take a slightly different approach and I found Kathy’s book while doing an online search through my local Christian bookstore. The title and description instantly resonated with my own family circumstances. But to be honest, I’d never heard of a Blue Christmas apart from the Elvis song, so, could you tell us, briefly, what exactly is a Blue Christmas and why did The Refuge decide to include it as part of their Christmas calendar?
Kathy Escobar: Yes. So, Blue Christmas has been part of The Refuge community really, at least, for 12 years or so. Even longer than that, probably. I could look back at the very first one and know but it’s been many, many, many years.
The reason why we started doing it at The Refuge is because The Refuge is a place where people are very, very honest about their story. And so, we have a recovery healing 12-step ethos in our community; we always have.
So, people don’t pretend very well in our community. People are pretty honest about what they’re struggling with, what they’re wrestling with and so we always created contemplative spaces for that. But I have a dear friend, she was the arts pastor, contemplative arts pastor, at The Refuge and a hard part of this story, honestly is that she died this year in 2022 and that was a huge loss to our community and then to me personally.
We worked together. She was an inspiration of anything beauty and art and contemplative at The Refuge and she was the catalyser of Blue Christmas at The Refuge. She died suddenly after complications after surgery so it was totally unexpected and we’re still reeling from that. A piece, though, of the gift that she gave us was creating spaces where people could enter in, in any way that they needed. So, there were stations.
So, it wasn’t like a service where everyone had to be in the same place at the same time or participate in the same way. We gathered together but then there were multiple stations where people could go and they could really engage with what the holidays really felt like for them.
I remember the very first one and then every year we just did it again. It really caught. The parts that caught were that you could be wherever you were at. Blue Christmas was not only for people that have experienced deep pain or were really struggling for the holidays, it also was a contemplative space just to breathe, in the busyness of the holidays. But there was a focus on honesty and vulnerability and we always had things related to pain, loss, grief, hope, honesty, forgiveness and one of the classic stations at Blue Christmas is the anger station.
We smash ornaments every year and everyone talks about it and everyone gears up for how good it feels to actually have a place to feel some anger about whatever that is and to write on ornaments and then just let them rip!
That has been, since the very first one, we have had a mix of stations and the catalyser really is, is that the holidays are hard and we need a place to be honest and that doesn’t take away from some of the good and some of the positive and some of the ways that some people love that season. But it does make room for the people who don’t and so it’s been very embedded in our community since then and it’s grown and expanded and, it’s not that it’s big in numbers – it’s really deep in meaning.
Belinda Pollard: I think there’s actually a lot of fakeness about Christmas because people feel that they should be happy and so they do their best to look happy and just get through the other end.
So, some people are having a fabulous time but a lot of people are just trying to look like they are. That’s exhausting.
Kathy Escobar: It really taps in. It’s a vulnerable time because people recognise loss. They recognise, sometimes, difficult things in families and in significant health issues. Everything is magnified. There’s something about it. It’s a very raw season for people.
Alison Joy: Donita, your church has been doing a little bit in that area, haven’t they?
Donita Bundy: Yes. It’s a similar idea, Kathy. We started, years ago when my mum, who lived in a country town, was head of the community centre. We were just so aware of many, many people who were alone, who were grieving and also people from split marriages. A lot of them were fathers who had their kids for Christmas and had no idea what to do or how to be with them.
So, we started up with a lunch and everyone was invited. Wherever my mum goes, she starts these Blue Christmases! It’s all around food and celebrations.
Kathy Escobar: Yeah.
Donita Bundy: Sharing and acknowledging that Christmas can be pretty painful and horrible for a lot of people and just trying to give that message that you’re not alone and you’re not the only one that feels like that.
Kathy Escobar: I love hearing that and what I love about it is she took what was there and noticed what was there because every community is different and their needs are different and people find their different ways to do it. She knew, and then I love that it grew because people resonated with it.
Alison Joy: So, it’s one thing to want to help others struggling through the “most wonderful time of the year” but it adds a whole other dimension when you are, and I’ll use your quote, “Crawling through Christmas with your own bleeding heart and broken soul.”
How do you relate to the Blue Christmas events at your church after enduring your own loss?
Kathy Escobar: That’s an interesting part of the story because I always worked at Blue Christmas and we do some other things too that help everyone make it. Basically, here, American Thanksgiving to New Years is like the hardest run.
We start to feel it around Halloween but then it really picks up some speed in November. So, my role as pastor, community cultivator was always to just do whatever we could to have it be honest but have supports and to have options for people, all those things. And so, I didn’t struggle with the holidays, I’ll be honest. I just didn’t.
And I come from a broken family – divorce, adult child of alcoholics, lots of things. So when I got married to my husband, Jose, I was like, “Okay, so we’re going to make our thing,” and he’s an only child. So, it was kind of easy. We’re like, “This is what we’re going to do,” and so, we actually made a really special holiday season for our family, always.
So, I could just hold both. I could have the joy of my kids and the holidays and then I could also have empathy and love and support for my friends but October 28th of 2019, our youngest son, we have five children, four living now, our youngest died by suicide in his college dorm room, his sophomore year of college.
So, that’s just been the worst possible thing for a parent and it was two weeks before his 20th birthday and he’s a twin. It was a story of no signs, no nothing. We’re not going to get into that but I will just say that’s a piece of it.
It wasn’t at all… in fact, the day that Jared died, I can say it was probably as a writer, as a mom and as a women and these are all the things, that morning was probably the best I ever felt in my entire life and I noticed it. I actually noticed it. I noticed the feeling. I had space. I was an empty nester. I was getting ready to make a plan for Practicing which is the book that came out the same year as The Weary World earlier in February of 2020 and I was so excited about it and more ready. I had space. All the things. So that morning contrasted with receiving the worst news that you can possibly have.
Just the trauma of it all was crippling, for sure. One of the things, though, I do like to remind myself and then people that we talk to is that one of the things – our four children are young adults and so Jared was almost 20, his twin was almost 20 and everyone was kind of up from that. We asked them, “What are you most scared about? What are you most worried about?” and they said, “We are most worried about losing you two, not to death, but emotionally. That we’re going to lose you guys in this process and we don’t want to lose you. We don’t want to lose you and we don’t want to lose our family. We don’t want to lose these things.” And that just really stuck with me in a significant way because I know that that can happen because grief is the worst.
Loss of a child is the worst for parents and so it’s very dividing. It’s a lot to hold for a family and so there was something for me that did help me go, “We are going to do what we can on grief by not hiding it and not pretending and just telling the truth.” And that was hard, I mean some people wished we hadn’t. “Can’t you just, do you have to say that?” We’re like, “No! It’s not going to be over here. We’re not going to mince words. For us, we’re not going to say passed away and have people wonder how he died. We’re just going to be honest.”
And then we’re going to do our best to feel all the feelings. So, as you can imagine, on timing, the end of October then their birthdays, then Thanksgiving, then Christmas; it’s a bad run. It’s a terrible run.
So, I had never experienced what it was like to dread the season and to just go, “I don’t know if we can do this.” You just want to throw the whole thing away. You notice, you mentioned it, Belinda, everything is positive. All these things all around you and then you’re like, “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe.” So, that piece of the story was where I finally got it, honestly, for me.
It doesn’t mean that I was totally disconnected from it before because I’ve had pain in my life and honest about things but I did not understand what the holidays did until that first season. And I remember going to Blue Christmas that year and I didn’t lead, at all. I just went.
They held the space and I remember going, “Oh my gosh, this is why we need this space.” I’d always knew it resonated and all those things but it wasn’t until 2019 that I really felt it. So, that’s really where it entered in after all those years of planning them.
Now, it is true, we’re going into our third this year and I feel not as much dread but I will tell you, I’m looking forward to Blue Christmas when we have it. It’s on the books. I know it will be a place that I can process and share and reflect and be open and get some strength to make it all the way through the rest of the holidays.
Alison Joy: So, was there always a book on the horizon or was it just because of your personal experience that’s led to writing the advent resource?
Kathy Escobar: Blue Christmas, we’ve always thought about packaging up some of the materials that we did, some of the stations that we did, to make them accessible and that is a really important thing to me to pass on. We have years and years of experience of ten stations times that many years and people contribute to them.
It wasn’t always… like we, a couple of us didn’t do it. We do an open invite and so you really do get some amazing things collaboratively. We had always talked about pulling something together and we just never really did. We have a Blue Christmas online website that we put up. Just something to get something out there. The way that this project did come about is that my publisher of Practicing, which is changing yourself to change the world, that came out in February of 2020. It was right before the pandemic, literally. It’s like the worst time for a book to come out.
Mind you, October 28th, remember how good I felt! That day, I felt so excited for the book and then Jared died and then, honestly, they held production of the book. It was in final. They held it so that I could write – this part’s going to make me cry – so that I could write and tell the story in some way and include it.
One of the practices is mourning. So, I did and it was the hardest. It took me 800 words and you all are writers so you know. You can, kind of, bang out 800 if you’re not too focused on making it good! Those 800 words took so much out of me. It was so hard and we had to decide. My editor said where some places might be that would be appropriate for it and could you just see what came. They were like, “We can also just send it off,” and I was like, “No.” I knew that I needed the truth to be in it. And I’m so glad I wrote those 800 words. But it was so fresh. We’re talking about two weeks after he died, max.
So, I’m writing 800 words about my son dying. It’s surreal really now thinking that but I’m glad that it was in and we made it through 2019. 2020 where I said I’m just going to do my best on getting Practicing out to the world as best I can and I can’t do much. I just honestly couldn’t do much.
And then a global pandemic happened! Three weeks later. Three weeks after Practicing got released! I did a few things on Zoom. And then, there’s nothing really I can do. I had to lead my community as best I could just after grief.
I will tell you that January of 2021, I took a three month sabbatical and I needed it so bad and I’m really grateful. And actually, working did save me in those early months, I will say that. I love my community. My job’s not a job. It helped me be able – we’re really team lead so everything doesn’t go on me and so I was able to be there. But the way A Weary World came about is they did ask me if I was interested in writing an advent resource and I said, “Let me think about it.” And, of course, it was way too soon if you kind of do logic. And I felt it. I’ll tell you that’s where I think God comes in. It just felt clear and I talked to my agent and editor and just said, “I have one idea. I have one idea. If there was anything I could do right now, this year, it’s the only thing I could do.”
And they were like, “You don’t even have to do it this year. You could do it next year.” I said, “You know, I kind of think I need to. I kind of think it’s right there. It might help me.” I had a lot of material. I had a lot already. I had been writing and we have a lot of Blue Christmas stuff. I said, “Here’s an idea and this is what I’ve got,” and they were like, “That sounds great!”
I didn’t have to do anything. It was awesome. I didn’t have to do any proposals or anything. I just said, “Here’s the idea,” and they said, “Go for it.” I will tell you, writing A Weary World helped me so much in my grief because it wasn’t all about Jared but it was about pain and that’s a piece of the material. It’s for anybody. It’s not just somebody who lost a kid but I could feel that place. I could say some things that I really need to say in that season and so I wrote it in the Summer of 2020 during COVID. We have a place in the mountains, we live in Colorado and I went up there and I just wrote it and I felt it.
All the material I’ve written, I’ve always really connected to but there was something about this that the timing was so right.
Belinda Pollard: I’m interested in the writing process and how it came about and the title, A Weary World, I’m guessing comes from the carol, O Holy Night, which is one of my favourites. It’s interesting, it’s the one that I shared the two verses of it on Instagram at the end of last year because I’d had a pretty tough year and I said, “Maybe some of you guys are feeling this too but look at these words.” I’ll just read them, this first two bits.
Oh, Holy Night
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of our dear Saviour’s birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining ’til He appeared…
And this bit’s beautiful.
…and the soul felt its worth
A thrill of hope
The weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
That’s making me get weepy!
Fall on your knees
Oh, hear the angels’ voices
Oh, night divine
When Christ was born.
Such a beautiful choice that you made. Did the carol inspire you beyond simply the title of your book? Is there more of that that gave you ideas? How did it work?
Kathy Escobar: Well, I struggled with the title and I attribute the title to my dear friend and partner at The Refuge. She’s our co-pastor of spiritual formation and soul care. Her name’s Jo Douglas and she knew about the material and people knew I was writing it. I have a support team that has really just been my safe place related to Jared, friends in person and who live in other places and our dear friends along the way. I messaged them and said, “I have this opportunity and am I so off to do a project right now? Am I so off?” But my soul is saying it’s right but sometimes I can be like that too. I can just do stuff. I really tried to get some wisdom from the people around me and they said, “You know what, if that helps you, just do it. If that helps you.”
So, that’s how I kind of got… and she was part of that so she knew. She just one day said, “I just have this idea.” I was trying to come up with what was the right thing because Blue Christmas is kind of out there and it wasn’t the right title. And she said, “What about A Weary World.”
Now, I knew I was going to use a few lines – it’s my favourite carol. So, I knew I was going to use a few lines in there as one of the pieces on the reflection because it’s four weeks of reflections. I knew it and then it was just like, “Oh, yeah,” and I sent it on as a good possibility and then everyone loved it. That’s how that came. Even when you were just reading it, Belinda, I get chills! There’s so many lines in there in the different choruses.
What I think is really significant about the carol, also though, is that especially in 2020 when this came out, everyone was so tired. The world was tired.
Belinda Pollard: It was an exhausting year.
Kathy Escobar: It was a lot. The United States had a really hard election that year also. It was the middle of COVID. Everyone’s just worn out. I didn’t really know how perfect that title was going to be. Also, sometimes we’re not rejoicing. It’s not the most wonderful time of the year and rejoicing comes at all different times for different people.
I do think rejoicing comes. I think out of ashes comes beauty. We mourn and we rejoice but I think that what I love is that it gives space to just be in the weary world and then the rejoicing can look different for everybody and we don’t measure it by certain words that people say, like trite phrases. It’s a deeper thing what true rejoicing is in the Jesus way, in my opinion.
Belinda Pollard: There’s going to be other Gracewriters out there who are listening to this and maybe they’re also writing something that is incredibly close to their heart for different reasons but it could be quite a painful write in some respects. Do you have any thoughts for them? Any advice to offer for how to go about that?
Kathy Escobar: I think I just would say what I always say to everybody is just tell the truth. Just share the truth as much as you can. I think the world is looking for honesty. It’s got enough trite answers and easy responses and I think the next generation, and I’m 55 and my kids are all in their 20s and my oldest is 30, and they’re just not going to do it. They know. They are like, “No, trite answers are not going to do it.”
But they love honesty. They love truth telling.
Belinda Pollard: And remember that we are rejoicing in the birth of the man of sorrows.
Kathy Escobar: Yes.
Belinda Pollard: It’s complicated; isn’t it?
And it’s okay, if you’re listening out there, it’s okay to be happy but you can also be honest and real with any of us and we will hear you.
Kathy Escobar: I’m just really glad you said that because this comes up sometimes in our community. “I’m feeling good! I’m feeling good. I’m not feeling bad.” Oh my gosh, celebrate that. I’m feeling good. I’m here enjoying being with the three of you talking about my son dying and then feeling some joy and hope. Both of them can be in the same space and that’s paradox and this is in A Weary World. Embracing paradox is a really important thing for us to learn how to do.
There’s a space for all of us and it can hold a lot of contradictions. We don’t have to squeeze them out in the name of Jesus. We can honour and just treasure them in the name of Jesus.
Belinda Pollard: Thank you, Kathy. How about I pray for you, Kathy, before we finish.
Kathy Escobar: That would be lovely.
Belinda Pollard: Heavenly Father, we thank you for Kathy, we thank you that you have brought beauty from brokenness and that you have helped others through her life as well.
We pray for her through this current Christmas season. We pray that you will bless her ministry. That you will comfort and sustain her. That you will give her inspiration and wisdom for the next writing projects that you have for her.
We pray for all the Gracewriters out there who are also writing from something deep, something deep in the heart. Please surround them and comfort them, give them wisdom and peace. Help them to care for themselves and help them to know how to share honestly about the things that are happening. That you have the words that you have in mind for the readers that you are preparing for their particular writing.
And we ask for your blessing on all your people in this Christmas season and every day, in Jesus’ name. Amen
Donita Bundy: Amen.
Alison Joy: Amen.
Kathy Escobar: Amen. Thank you.
Belinda Pollard: Kathy Escobar, thank you so much for joining us. Thank you, Alison Joy and Donita Bundy. I’m Belinda Pollard and we will see you next time on the Gracewriters podcast.
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