Last week, while I was waiting to getting my hair cut, I glanced at the latest issue of The Oprah Magazine, which is also simply called “O” Magazine. I had never read Oprah Winfrey’s monthly magazine before and was naturally attracted by the words on the cover, “72 Pages of Comfort and Joy.”
In the midst of the “Biggest ‘O’ (Christmas) List Forever,” “Gorgeous Gifts from $13”, and “New Traditions, New Memories,” I was astounded to find a brief article called, “A Light in the Darkness: For the lonely, the grieving, a kinder way to mark the season.”
The article, read by over a million subscribers, was about the increasing popularity of “Blue Christmas” or “Longest Night” services across the country. It stated that the majority of services are held in Christian congregations, mostly United Methodist churches. Did you know that there are Blue Christmas services in several of our churches in the Grand Rapids District? Held at times other than Sunday morning, the services are geared toward those whose experience of grief, loss, sadness or pain makes it difficult to be jolly and of good cheer at this time of year.
Having participated in Blue Christmas services in the past, I have learned much from those who experience the shadow side of Christmas yet still believe in Emmanuel, “God with us.” I have learned to be sensitive to those who know that the light of the world is coming at the same time as they feel wrapped in darkness. I have learned that those who live with despair can still claim hope. Most of all, I have learned that it’s okay to feel blue at Christmas and that by embracing our pain, we can discover comfort and joy.
If the truth be told, countless pastors also struggle with depression, sorrow and burnout during Advent. Like our parishioners, we, too, know what it’s like to be financially strapped, to feel harried as we care for both children and elderly parents, to question our call, to be anxious about health concerns, and to pray for a wayward child. In the midst of our personal heartache, though, we are called to shine a light in the darkness.
I am convinced that if we are going to lead from our heart during Advent, we need to pay attention to the deepest yearnings of our spirit, yet also anticipate the possibility of transformation. The lectionary passages for Advent are all about the change that comes when we open ourselves to the mystery and joy of the incarnation.
Yesterday we listened to Mary’s Magnificat, where she sings about God bringing down the powerful from their thrones, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich empty away. On December 9, we read about the offspring of Jesse, who with righteousness shall judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth. We also heard from John the Baptist, who proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” And on December 2, Isaiah taught us about the day to come, when the Lord “shall judge between the nations and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their plowshares into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Advent is about a God who became one of us through Jesus, whose mission was to initiate the transformation of the world by not only offering his very life but by empowering us to be agents of transformation.
The greatest gift we can offer our congregations this Advent is to remind them that this transformation begins in our own hearts. We are called to repent and get our own house in order so we can be ready for the Messiah. Only then do we turn our eyes outward to the injustice and oppression which fills our world. The pain lurking just beneath the glittering surface of Christmas is not only our personal pain. It’s the agony of war, betrayal, poverty, homelessness, and helplessness to make a difference. Dare we give our congregations time, space and silence to simply sit in God’s house with the pain of the world and not have to be cheery all the time? Once we and our congregations do that kind of heart work, transformation happens dramatically.
- We transform the way we celebrate Christmas. In my extended family, we no longer exchange presents but take turns choosing a charity toward which we all contribute. This year my parents chose The Jimmy Carter Center.
- We transform how church members view gift-giving. Many churches offer alternative giving programs, have a Christmas mission offering, or challenge church members to match what they give to family and friends with what they give to the church.
- We transform our communities by advocating for better public education, health care for all, elimination of homelessness, environmental stewardship, and accountability in government.
- We transform denominational systems by creating new structures that better reflect our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
- We transform our congregations into saving stations in our communities. By empowering those inside the church to be leaders and start new ministries, light and grace are offered outside the church to a world waiting for a sign of hope.
Do you have the courage to preach this kind of transformation? Are you so bold as to challenge your congregation members to be moral change agents in the workplace, family and community? Do you encourage your parishioners to respond to the nudgings of their heart when they come to you saying, “This is not right,” and then support them when there is a price to pay?
So many people in our world experience a Blue Christmas but not because they are overcome with grief, pain and sorrow for themselves and our world. They will have a Blue Christmas because they experience heart failure; because they do not response to God’s whisper in their lives; because they violate their own integrity by failing to act. If there is any event in history that debunks the myth of our own powerlessness, it’s the birth of Jesus.
Are you keeping close to your heart this Christmas?
P.S. The next Leading From the Heart will be sent out on Monday, December 31. Have a wonderful Christmas and don’t forget to take time for yourself and your family.