Christmas Confessions

There was a time I thought Christmas Eve services were only a creation of Hollywood. I did not know people actually went to church to sing the songs I heard on the radio. As a college student I attended my first Christmas Eve service with the guy I was dating because his dad was a pastor. I thought it the oddest thing in the world, but I wanted to impress him so I went along. The only memory I have of that evening is of standing in the sanctuary, with the whole congregation circled around the room, holding candles singing Silent Night.

I grew up in a working poor family that chose to work as many holidays as they could. The ability to get holiday pay outweighed the need to get together on a specific date, and if they were able to work it out to get overtime pay and holiday pay, so much the better. As a child I accepted this as our normal, as an adult I recognize the financial wisdom my adults demonstrated. Since this was our normal, celebrating a holiday on a specific day was not something that was vital to me, not so much for my spouse, the son of a pastor. Sure, his dad works each Christmas, but that work involved observing the sacredness of the holiday, a completely unusual concept for me.

Fast forward twenty-some years and I am now the pastor responsible for organizing and leading the annual Christmas Eve service. I work on the holiday, but not for overtime or holiday pay. I work to help others encounter the sacredness of this holiday. I spend weeks (sometimes months) creating the services to help others find a space of welcome and to be reassured of God’s love.

I confess this has not always been easy. Yes, I have grown more tenderhearted and gentle surrounding this holiday as I have gotten older. However, my original mindset was it made no sense to have a service on this holiday if people were not going to come because it was a waste of money. This is clearly a product of my childhood thinking. My thinking changed from that to a frustration as I realized the cliché that some people only attend services on their faith traditions high holy days was not hyperbole. As I grew older, my thinking evolved to resignation that I would always be exhausted by Christmas Day, and that no matter what I did someone was going to be unhappy with my energy level, and I would have to endure hearing about how I had ruined yet another Christmas. Add in to those experiences the number of times I have officiated a funeral service, or attended one for a family member during the month of December, and it is no wonder Christmas is a season of mixed feelings.

I confess, it would have been really easy to stay in my discontent and disillusionment of this holiday. But I did not want to do that, I wanted more than anything to experience this holiday as one of hope, joy, peace, and love. I wanted to be able to recognize everybody approaches the holiday season differently and my responsibility is to observe it as I am able, without judging others and without allowing the judgment of others to cloud my view. I wanted to capture the magic of Christmas so many people talk about, but that usually escapes me no matter how hard I try to create meaningful services or loving family traditions.

To confess as a Christian pastor that Christmas is not your favorite time of year is not easy to do. Usually this results in some pushback about my level of faithfulness or succumbing to the pressure of secular society. I am not sure what an equivalent might be, but maybe it would be similar to a professional athlete sharing that they really do not enjoy the sport they play. Even though it is difficult to confess this apathy, reluctance, or even dislike of Christmas, I found healing in finally claiming those very feelings. In all my years of trying to find the magic of Christmas, it was only when I was honest about my negative feelings around the holiday that I began to find that magic.

First, it came from a more experienced pastor who assured me I could struggle with Christmas all I needed, because that was the point of the story. God brought all these people into the Nativity story (Luke 1-2, Matthew 1-2) to remind us that not everyone was an eager or willing participant, but they were invited all the same. Second, it came when the COVID19 pandemic forced our congregation to worship differently. There I was Christmas Eve 2020, standing in my dining room in front of a Zoom screen, while people I loved lit candles and held them up, while singing Silent Night. There was the reminder of the power of community, there was the Christmas magic. Third, it came this Christmas Eve. I stood in the sanctuary on a night of subzero temperatures, ferocious wind, and messy roads, and saw the faces of people I have been given to care for and love, and I knew of all the places I was going to find Christmas magic, this was the place.

I confess, I did find that magic. At the end of the service I stood in front of the gathered community as we lifted our lit candles and sang Silent Night and my heart cracked wide open. In that moment, it made sense why we gather for this service, why for some people all they need is that night to renew their faith so they can do the work God gave them the rest of the year, why we pastors pour so much energy into creating special services, and why even when we feel disillusioned we are still invited into the Christmas Story.

I confess, even though my heart is becoming more tender and I am becoming more gentle, I still did not think I would experience the magic of Christmas. I had in mind that I had missed my chance to find that magic. But God never ceases to amaze me, because just when I thought I had wandered too far from the magic, God dropped it right down on me. And in case I missed all the evidence of that gift, God tried one more time, and with the voice of one of the youngest members of our community said to me, “This is the best Christmas ever.”

Wherever you find yourself in the pursuit of holiday magic, I hope you will know what it has taken me so long to comprehend, that no matter who you are or where you are in life, you are not alone, you are welcomed and loved just as you are, by the One who created all the cosmos. Come reluctantly or eagerly, it does not matter, because there is always room and magic for you.

The Fourth Week of Advent 2022

This week’s theme is love. I have been watching this Advent a stray kitten be welcomed into our home by our 11 year old dog and 2 year old cat. Both our pets were happy enough together, and we had no plan to welcome a new pet. But the kitten’s litter arrived on a friend’s porch a couple of weeks before the freezing weather arrived. After much work, all but one kitten was claimed and freezing temperatures were predicted that week. Advent brought us a kitten who needed a home.

I knew there would be a bit of tension as the pets adjusted to sharing space, but to my delight they were smitten within two days. Now as Advent turns into Christmas the three of them are a wonderful example of love. Both the dog and cat have taken to training the kitten, who is a fast learner. Both the dog and the cat have given up some of their comfort and ease to welcome an energetic kitten who naps often, but not nearly as long as they would prefer. All three of them are a reminder each day of the importance of having loved ones to share your days.

This week we approach Christmas to tell again the story of how God, who is love, embodied our human nature to show us how much love matters. I am thinking of how examples of love are all over the place, and if we open ourselves up we will recognize them. For me it was this simple moment in the kitchen when the dog moved so the cats could drink from his bowl, then the older cat showed the kitten which was the water bowl. This is not a monumental moment, but it was a reminder that loves comes in many quiet ways; and love shared will nurture us so that we can thrive in the place we have found ourselves.

Hopefully, as we recall the story of Christmas we will find evidence of the love we have been given, and we will continue to be nurtured by the communities we have been given, and we will thrive as we grow closer to God and closer to each other. . . and maybe we will get a few longer naps along the way.

The Third Week of Advent 2022

Our focus for this week was peace. Somewhere in all of this I realized I had switched the themes of the week from some of the liturgies, but it fit the services we were hosting and I did not mind so much that our themes were a bit out of order. I have found when I put things out of order pay I bit more attention. I spent the week thinking about peace in my life.

There was a time I would have cited peace as that elusive “world peace” concept. But as I have grown in experience and age, I find my definition of peace has expanded. Now peace includes being able to have conversations that do not result in arguments or the silent treatment. Peace includes being able to lay my head down at the end of the day knowing I did my best that day to demonstrate gratitude. Peace includes knowing if this were my last day I have left behind people who know I love them deeply, and my love is a fraction of the love God has for them.

I used to think people who were peacemakers were the kind of people who waded into conflict and made everyone talk it out. For sure, some peacemakers do that work. But most of the peacemakers I know spend their days making others feel valued, included, and loved. These peacemakers do this work in a million ways, by laughing with others, cooking, cleaning, providing safe spaces, by asking after loved ones, by sharing memes or reels, mostly by being present with the people who populate their days in a way that makes it known they are thankful for the opportunity to share that moment.

I am struck again this season that the peace I find in my days is because people take time to see me, and I think when that can be duplicated on a larger scale we create peace in our families, organizations, countries, and hopefully some day the world. I still long for world peace, but I recognize that will not be achieved until all of us are willing to see the value each of us holds. May we be willing to work toward that goal this season and always.

The Second Week of Advent 2022

The second week of Advent my prayers were for all of us to find some joy in our days. This pray was answered in many different ways. As we reach the end of the second week and begin the third week of Advent I am looking back at the evidence of the joy I encountered and decided to share this photo of lemon trees growing. Two of us in my crew have been trying to grow lemon trees from seeds for most of a year. Finally in the second week of Advent we found our seedlings strong enough to transplant.

The First Week of Advent 2022

Last night I had dinner with a friend who has known me since my last year of seminary. We had no idea when we met this friendship would grow or that our professional lives would weave together. As I drove home from dinner, along city streets I rarely drive, surrounded by more vehicles than I see in a normal week in my own town, I was thinking about how valuable these friendships we are given prove to be over time.

The reason this came to mind was the question my friend asked and then her response. She asked me, “How are you doing with your grief?” I replied, “I am sad.” She replied, “Yes.”

For those of you readers not aware we are in a season of funerals. A season of funerals is the name I have given to those times when we have a number of funerals in a shortened time frame. Sometimes we reach double digits in the course of a few months, sometimes we have a handful in the course of a month or two. Always, these seasons seem to catch us by surprise.

My friend’s question and response acknowledge three things: one, that I am grieving the death of people I love; two, that it is okay I am sad; and three, I am known and loved. Often I hear from others that pastors do not really love the people they serve, and that a good pastor will be able to move quickly through the emotions surrounding a death in the community. I have always disagreed with this idea. I think this is a misunderstanding of the reality of sharing life and ministry with others.

The reality is pastors are people who come to love the community God has called them to serve. Pastors grieve along with the community when someone dies, but they also grieve themselves. The longer you live in a community, the more life you share with the community, the more friendships you grow, the more your lives are woven together. The death of someone in that community pulls on a thread, changes the way the tapestry looks, and makes it more noticeable someone else is missing.

My faith assures me I will see those people again, and one day when I can look back on the tapestry of my life I will be able to see how all the people I have encountered, all those threads, have been woven together to create something beautiful and unique. I hold on to that hopeful promise and look forward to that day.

It is that promise that allows me to acknowledge I am sad. To be honest that my tears are on the surface during this season. It seems to me being able to name my sadness and cry my tears allows me to honor the love I have been given by those no longer here with us, while also honoring the love I have with all the other people who have been woven into my life.

Last night my friend stood beside me, literally and figuratively, in my grief. She did not push me to share or even ask me to explain, she let me name my sadness and she held that space for me. That moment walking down a city street, surrounded by buildings, people, vehicles, and noise, felt holy.

This morning reflecting back on that moment I am struck by how the theme of the first week of Advent met me on a city street. The theme from our liturgy last Sunday was hope, and we were encouraged to recognize the moments of hope we encounter in our days. In all the good moments of this first week, it was that holy moment last night that broke open my heart. There was much around us on that sidewalk to fill me with hopelessness, yet on an unfamiliar street the Holy Spirit moved in my heart and filled me with hope.

As this first week of Advent draws to a close, I am mindful of all the threads of friendship woven into my life. I am astonished I have known so many people who continue to demonstrate to me what it means to love, to be a friend, to be human, and to share this life with others. I am thankful for the lessons I continue to learn and a faith that continues to deepen. I am eager for the coming holy moments in which my hope will be renewed and grow. I live in anticipation of the day when all our sadness will be no more, and in its place will be a knowledge of how deeply we are loved and connected.

Onward I go stumbling toward that promised day. May your journey this Advent season break open your heart to an eternal love that is beyond measure, and fill you with hope, even in your sadness. Remember you are a valuable thread in many tapestries.