Every member of Joy Church likes Christmas a lot
But the Pastor who serves Joy Church does not.
How the pastor hates Christmas! The whole Christmas season.
Now, please don’t ask why. No one quite knows the reason.
It could be, perhaps, that she dislikes putting up the tree,
It could be the parties at which she’s expected to be.
But we think the most likely reason of all
May be that she can’t stand the mall!
Last Friday we ran into a member from our church at a concert. He asked how we were holding up during December and said, “My father was a church organist. He was so busy in December that he didn’t have much time for us children. I get it.” We thanked him for understanding.
I am a pastor who finds it difficult to navigate the Christmas season without imploding. Our home decorations are minimal, and we don’t have a wreath on the front door. I confess that last Christmas I didn’t even put up a tree. It was the first time ever, and it felt okay because none of the children and grandchildren were home. I’m out of touch with the Christmas scene, so when conversation at a church meeting last week turned to Christmas Villages, I innocently asked, “What’s a Christmas Village?”
Please don’t misunderstand. I relish the season of Advent, that time of waiting, watching, repentance and keeping alert for signs of Christ’s coming. I read our church’s Advent devotionals every morning and am inspired by stories of grace, courage and hope. I can’t wait to sing Christmas carols. My faith is strengthened as I prepare for and experience worship. Proclaiming the Christmas story in new and creative ways is critical in a culture where Christianity is just one among many religious traditions. Yet at the very time our society ramps up, I yearn to slow down. Every year the assumptions that our secular culture has for Christmas threaten to steal my joy and take captive my priorities.
New pastors learn quickly that every church has its own Advent and Christmas traditions. The cookie walks, potluck suppers, pageants, Sunday school programs and lessons and carols concerts are all wonderful! Yet the pastor is usually expected to be at every event.
The outreach projects in which most churches engage make a huge difference in our local communities and are a sign of hope for the world. But they can also serve to assuage our collective guilt at the massive amounts of money we spend on gifts for family and friends. How is a pastor to teach and model faithful discipleship and stewardship in a consumer society?
On Christmas Eve many people make their semiannual pilgrimage to church. Rather than bemoan their absence at other times of the year, I rejoice in their presence and the opportunity to connect with their spiritual needs. But it’s challenging for a preacher to share the good news of Jesus’ birth in ways that are relevant, compelling and joyful, yet mindful of those are grieving, sad, fearful, lonely or simply overwhelmed.
It took years to acknowledge the low-grade depression I experience every December and my secret desire to retreat to the wilderness. Especially when our children were home, I struggled to find time to decorate, attend school programs and purchase presents in the midst of the many demands of the church during Advent.
I resented having to find a babysitter on Christmas Eve because Gary and I both had 11:00 p.m. services. I couldn’t handle coming home late on Christmas Eve for thirty-plus years, only to face presents still to be wrapped. One Christmas Eve not too long ago, I broke down in tears and said to Gary, “I am so sorry. I haven’t even had a moment to purchase any gifts for you. Please forgive me.” He understood. All clergy do.
I lamented never being able to be with extended family until after Christmas because we couldn’t travel until Christmas Day. When we did travel, we had to get the kids up early, quickly open the presents, clean the house, take the tree down and put it out on the sidewalk by noon so we could get to the airport on time. It was sobering to hear our young adult children say to us last year, “We may not come home for Christmas this year because you don’t have time for us, anyway.”
At the same time, I have been blessed many times over by the kindness, generosity and understanding of every one of our congregations during the Christmas season. Time and again Gary and I remark to each other, “How do people survive who don’t have a church home?”
I have been blessed to serve communion on Christmas Eve to countless women, men, teenagers and children. It takes my breath away to have the holy privilege of looking into their longing eyes and saying, “This bread and cup is a sign of God’s never-failing love for you.”
I have been blessed by singing Christmas carols, which help me understand in a deeper way the mystery of Emmanuel, “God with us.” From the tears that flow when we sing “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” (“And ye, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low… O rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing”) to the challenge of “O Holy Night” (“Truly He taught us to love one another, His law is love and His gospel is peace”), I have been blessed.
I was blessed when our first grandchild, whom we don’t see very often, took his first steps at our house of Christmas Eve. And I am blessed every year with love, laughter and story after story of holiday travel adventures when our family finally springs free on Christmas Day.
For all of my clergy colleagues and others who have a love/hate relationship with Christmas, I say, “Take heart. Be true to who you are. If you love to decorate, go for it! If you love to entertain in the parsonage, enjoy every minute! But there’s nothing wrong or sinful about keeping it uncomplicated. Don’t let the expectations of others determine how you observe this holy season of Advent.
“If your Spirit is fed by taking a walk in the woods rather than shopping, just do it. If you are better able to contemplate the mystery of the Incarnation by sitting in a quiet sanctuary rather than attending a party, follow God’s leading. Find your own ways of sharing Christmas joy with a hurting world. Take time for yourself, and don’t forget to look for the star.”
Yes, I’ve been called a Grinch. So I’ve decided to claim my call as a Grinch pastor and observe Advent in simple ways that don’t stop Christmas from coming, honor the Christ child and celebrate our chance to make a difference in the world.
She HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming! IT CAME!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!
And the pastor, with her grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow,
Stood puzzling and puzzling: “How could it be so?”
“Christmas came with without ribbons? It came without tags?”
“It came without Amazon packages, boxes or bags?”
“Maybe Christmas,” she thought, “doesn’t come just for people who shop online.”
“Maybe Christmas…perhaps…can be more fine!”
And what happened then? Well… at Joy Church they say,
That the pastor’s heart changed that day!
And the minute her heart was released to be herself,
She ran through the city divesting her wealth,
And she who with Advent and Christmas was miffed
The pastor herself, helped others become the gift.