CHRISTMAS VACATION

During the Advent season, the two Bible studies I lead chose to spend some time looking at Christmas, technically from the Biblical perspective but practically from any perspective we wanted. In the course of the discussion with one group, I mentioned the movie Christmas Vacation as the example of how people have unrealistic expectations of the Christmas season. Most of us had actually seen the movie—and the one who hadn’t seen it was quite happy to watch it when I loaned him my copy.

I realized a while ago that although my expectations for Christmas aren’t the same as the “hero” of the movie, I was also in possession of some seriously unrealistic Christmas expectations. I wanted the Advent process to be a deeply spiritual journey for the churches and me. Together, we would explore the wonder of the Incarnation through worship, study and conversation. We would also develop and implement ways of using the Advent/Christmas season as a means of sharing our faith with our communities.

At the same time, I would thoughtfully and carefully choose perfect presents for all the significant people I buy presents for. I would participate in both secular and church Christmas events, parties and processes to the full. That tended to involve a great deal more activity when our children were home but even after they left home, there were a considerable number of events to take part in both inside and outside the church.

And then, because all this wasn’t enough, I wanted Christmas to be a time for me to both grow spiritually and get some much needed rest and relaxation so that I would be able to enter the winter church season ready to lead the church well as they continued to follow God and seek to do his will.

Obviously, there are some significant and irreconcilable conflicts build into those expectations. It is pretty much impossible to experience cultural and spiritual Advent/Christmas to the full and end the season rested and revitalized. While juggling a full church schedule and full cultural schedule is required at this time of the year, it precludes the kind and amount of time necessary for personal spiritual growth. The need to develop and write compelling and inspiring sermons, Advent Candle programs and Bible studies for the church pretty much eliminates the ability to inspire myself.

And so I tended to end the Advent/Christmas season worn out and somewhat depressed. My expectations were high and unattainable—I was almost guaranteed to fail. I would be able to accomplish some things but overall, the results were much less than I anticipated or wanted, which when combined with the physical fatigue meant I began the new year down, depressed and lacking motivation.

It took a while before I realized that the problem was my expectations. I had to admit that I couldn’t do everything the way I thought it should be done. And so I began to focus and select. There are some things that just have to be done—the churches pay me to preach, for example, and so I do need to give attention to my preaching. That might mean that I have less time and mental space to work on perfect presents—but the truth is that there are no perfect presents and the search for them could actually be cut back.

It was important for me and the church that I come out of the Advent/Christmas season ready to move into the new year of church activity somewhat rested and at least partially prepared—and that would mean that there had to be some careful selection in what I did and didn’t do over the Advent/Christmas season. It also meant recognizing that just as most people in the church pretty much stopped for a few days after Christmas, I could do the same. The sermon had to be written but nobody really needed or wanted a visit from the pastor, unless they were facing a crisis.

These days, I have fewer expectations for the Christmas season. I don’t do as much—but what I do, I have the opportunity and time and energy to do well. And I also have the space needed to rest and relax a bit before things get going after Christmas.

May the peace of God be with you.

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NATIVITY SCENES

We tried something new this year as part of our Advent process. One of the church members really likes Nativity scenes and has a considerable collection. She was also aware that others also have such scenes so she suggested that we have a display of them before and after worship. We announced it for a couple of weeks to get people ready. A couple of people had of the display ready when I arrived and added my two Kenyan versions to the mix.

It was really interesting to see all the variations on the theme. There were a variety of materials, a variety of styles, a variety of approaches. Some were elaborate and some were simple. Some would be classed as folk art and some were pretty close to professional artistic standards. I kind of thought one of my contributions would be the most unique one there—it was hand carved in Kenya from a single short branch and opened to reveal mother, child and Joseph along with a star. I was somewhat surprised to discover an almost identical one already on the table—someone had a friend who had been in Kenya who gave them the scene as a gift.

I am rather ambivalent about Nativity scenes. I appreciate the devotional thought that is behind them—the various characters and animals arrayed around the new born Christ, worshipping him who is destined to bring salvation to the world. But at the same time, I know that the traditional scene never happened. There was never a point when the holy family, the shepherds and three wise men were all together in the stable with a star beaming overhead.

There definitely was a stable or barn; there was definitely a new family; shepherds did show up; there was a star and there were even wise men. But the actual story took a lot longer. Mary and Joseph weren’t in the stable all that long, perhaps a few days. They would have been visited by the shepherds—but shepherds working the night shift were not high on the social scale in those days and most likely, their story about the night would have been written off as coming from the empty wine skins.

Eventually, the crowd of people in Bethlehem moves along and places open up. They move to a house, which is where they are visited by the wise men. We actually don’t know how many there were—the number three probably developed because that was the number of gifts. But as anyone who has ever attended a baby shower knows, there is a lot of duplication of gifts and so a simple recounting of how many types of gifts can’t really be used to tell how many people attended.

We aren’t even sure how long after the birth this visit actually was. Herod, in his attempt to discourage a potential rival, kills all the male babies under two years old, which suggests a long stay in the town after the birth. Travelling was difficult in those days and I expect that Joseph found work rather than try travelling with a new born.

None of that takes away from the story but it does make the traditional Nativity scene inaccurate. The traditional gathering of all the characters is a powerful symbol of the events that are so important but it is only a symbol, making use of compression and artistic licence to capture a significant event in an inaccurate but effective way.

I like the idea of everyone being there at the same time even while I know it didn’t happen that way. Symbolically, the traditional scene expressed the universality of Christ. He brings together the socially outcaste shepherds, the cultural outsider astrologers, the new parents and their child. And that bringing together of the diverse and the outcasts is a powerful part of the Christian message—there is room for everyone. We all have a place.

I suspect that we could create a manger scene with another character or two—unknown visitors who represent each of us. We weren’t actually there but since the birth affects us and we are involved in the ongoing worship of the risen Christ, we have as much right there as the wise men.

May the peace of God be with you.

KEEP MOVING

I was talking with a friend on ministry the other day about our mutual occupation. We were both in the midst of the fall rush. Basically, from mid-September to mid-December, pastors and church workers don’t have much time for anything beyond work. And as the fall transitions to Advent, things get even worse. The time period is filled with special events, new programs, pastoral emergencies, church and denominational meetings—the list goes on and on. I find myself taking a deep breath in the middle of September and basically beginning to run the marathon.

Except that this marathon has a nasty surprise near the end. Fall church programming leads into Advent and Christmas programming. To use the marathon analogy, this marathon ends with a steep uphill climb. I don’t actually run marathons but have children and friends who do—and from their stories of marathons, I am pretty sure that a marathon with a steep hill at the end would be the very last thing they would want to do.

So, with Advent beginning soon, I find myself in the middle of the hill. Because of my preparation process, I hit the hill a bit before some of my colleagues in ministry. I try to stay a week ahead in all my preparation which does give me some psychological and practical wiggle room but also means I hit the crunch earlier. So, this next two weeks are probably the busiest I am going to have. Two sermons, the Bible study for the area churches that seemed like such a great idea last April, the church fund raiser that helps ensure I get paid, the Advent programs that need to be prepared, the Christmas newsletter, the meeting to prepare our next year’s worship schedule, along with all the other stuff that must be done means that I need to take another deep breath to make sure I keep going—I am definitely feeling the steepness of the hill right now.

Based on previous years of ministry (and I have a lot of those), I will get everything done and I will survive the climb. Eventually, the middle of December will come and things will slow down a bit and then, well, there is always the post-Christmas slump which also brings with it the possibility of a Sunday snow storm with produces a cancellation.

The issue for me is always doing the best I can. I used to be concerned with doing my best, which sounds noble and heroic and faithful but which in practise leads to stress, fatigue, anxiety and burnout. I know that I am capable of doing some pretty good stuff—but the unfortunate reality is that I can’t always work to my limits. Or maybe it is better to say that my limits are moved by my circumstances. The fantastic sermon I could produce with unlimited time becomes a somewhat less fantastic sermon because I also have to write the ecumenical study, the Advent candle program and our regular Bible study.

None of them will be my best work—none of them will be as good as what I could produce if I had only that one thing to do. So, each one of them gets the best that I can do given the time and opportunity I have. I can’t do my best work—but I can and will do the best I can in the circumstances.

And I will do what I always do—I will give God and the church my best and then depend on God to take care of the rest. Ultimately, I do what I do because God has called me to be his agent to carry out his will. All that I do passes through him and any effects and results are due more to his divine work than my efforts.

For me, this isn’t a cop out or an excuse of sub-standard work or an extra nap. For me, this is a basic reality that enables me to cope with the impossible task that I have been called to. Even if I could produce me best all the time, it still isn’t good enough. But if I consciously work at giving God and the church the very best I can in any circumstance, then I can take comfort in the reality that God is going to use what I do to accomplish his will.

May the peace of God be with you.

CHRISTMAS RUSH

The other day, I was in a shopping mall for something. Near the front of the store, there were the expected Halloween things–it was, after all, early October. But I was somewhat surprised to discover a whole aisle of Christmas stuff beyond the Halloween stuff. In another example of seasonal creep, the stores were rushing the seasons by having two of them going on at the same time.

However, before I began ranting and fuming about commercialism and putting Christ back in Christmas and all that, I thought about some of the stuff that I had been doing around the same time. I had been talking to one of the musicians in the church about a song she had found that would be perfect for our Advent Candle program this year. I figured that I should talk to her early so that we could make sure we actually could find the song and get it copied in time for the beginning of Advent.

That conversation drew my attention to the blank spaces on my sermon plan for the Advent Sunday sermons, a block that needed to be filled in since I will need to start working on that sermon series fairly soon. That reminded me that I also need to write the Advent Candle program to go along with the great song, although–maybe this year, we could just sing the candle stuff?

Then, I went to a meeting of our local ecumenical council and one of the items on the agenda was our ecumenical Advent Bible study. We finalized the details like dates, place, refreshments and leader. As a result of that meeting, I now have to find people in our church who will donate muffins for the first week’s study and prepare the three studies for the series. All this before Halloween, which is pretty much a non-event for me because I don’t preach about Halloween and our obscure side street never gets trick-or-treaters.

So, am I guilty of rushing the season as well? Of course not. I am just being prudent and organized, making sure that I am ready for what is one of the biggest and most important parts of the church year. If I don’t do advanced planning, things really never come together. I will end up caught in a bind, wondering if it is rude to write my Advent Candle program while I am leading the ecumenical Bible Study—maybe there will be enough time during the discussion to type a few words.

Christmas is a part of both the church and business year. We certainly have different purposes and we are focused on different things and have different goals in mind. But in the end, it is a bit hypocritical on my part to condemn the commercial planning for the season while I am also deeply involved in getting ready for it at about the same time they are.

I don’t actually like the commercialism of Christmas. In fact, I have long suggested that we in the church should abandon Christmas, or at least the commercial season and let the culture have it. We can’t get it back—the Christmas shopping bash is too much a part of our cultural and economy. So, while they are justifiably getting ready for their biggest event of the year, we in the church can focus our attention on getting ourselves ready for one of our biggest events of the year.

Since all we have in common is the name of the season (which is slowly changing in many segments of our culture) and a rush of activity, we can and probably should pretty much move along on parallel tracks. The cultural events are not going to destroy the faith events and the faith demands are not going to change the culture. So for me, part of my advanced planning for Christmas is to plan to basically ignore the whole take back Christmas movement and focus on celebrating the birth of Christ. When convenient and enjoyable, I will join the culture in their celebrations and I will definitely invite the culture to share in our celebration but I am not going to fight for something that isn’t going to happen.

So, in the midst of the regular stuff, I have to write the Advent stuff for the church and ecumenical study, while making sure that the pre-Advent stuff is taken care of as well. I better get back at my planning.

May the peace of God be with you.

FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT–AGAIN

Because I have two separate pastorates, I have two worship services.  I have already described the morning worship on the first Sunday of Advent.  After some lunch, a brief nap and a chance to read over the afternoon service, I left for the second service.  This was not our normal afternoon service.

To start with, we had scheduled a potluck supper after the worship, something we do several times a year.  That meant the service would start later so that the supper would happen closer to actual supper time.  It also meant some extra people who come because of the meal and the chance to visit with people over the supper.  It also means that things are more hectic before worship begins as we juggle final arrangements for the supper with getting ready for worship. We also had to get the Advent Candle stuff set up, which meant scouring the building for a suitable table.

It was also a cloudy, dreary day which made the burned out bulbs in over half the light fixtures in the sanctuary very obvious.  Since the fixtures are high and hard to get to, we tend not to pay much attention to them, until we all of a sudden realize half the sanctuary is in darkness and we need to do something–except the pre-worship discussion revealed that none of us had any good idea of how we were going to replace the bulbs,

With all that going on, I was kept fairly busy before worship began and didn’t realize until just before we began that in my worship preparation the week before, I had neglected to make sure my tablet and the bulletin were in sync.  I forgot to add in the hymns to the order of service on the tablet and also forgot to add in the second special music slot.  Fortunately, those were easy to remedy.

But things kept slipping.  I announced the Advent Candle reading and sat down while the reader did that part of worship.  And then, instead of standing to announce the offering, I forgot the offering, thinking the choir would sing, which they did–fortunately, other people seem to be able to pick up after me.  I eventually got the offering in and worship continued.  But when the choir did their next selection, I stood up, not realizing they were doing two pieces.  The congregation had a bit of a laugh as the choir told me to sit down.

I was not at my best during that service.  The activity and confusion before the service combined with a busy week leading to the worship meant that I was not as prepared as I should have been going into the worship and not as focused during the worship as I should have been.  I did manage to include all the required bits and pieces, even if the order of service I was following didn’t always connect with the order of service printed in the bulletin.

Eventually, we reached the end of the service and most of us went to the church hall for our supper.  But for me, the important thing was that in spite of all the confusion and my mistakes, we worshipped.  It might not have been exactly as planned.  I might have made more mistakes than normal.  People might have been a bit distracted by the enticing smells coming from the hall.  The dreary cloudy weather might have affected some of us, especially since the lack of adequate lighting made it hard to see the hymn books.

But in  spite of all that, we worshipped God.  We prayed, we sang, we presented our offerings and we heard and responded to God’s word to us for that day.  We greeted each other, welcomed each other and enabled each other to be reminded of the reality of God in our lives so that we could together give him the worship he deserves.

I very much doubt that we will ever have a perfect setting for our worship.  I would hope that we don’t always have as many issues as we had this afternoon but there will always be something.  Our worship depends on our ability to remember the reality of God in the midst of the confusion of life.  We worship not when things are perfect but because God is present and loving and graceful in the midst of the confusion and reality of life.

May the peace of God be with you.

FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT

It was the first Sunday of Advent and I was ready.  The write up for the Advent Candle was done.  The sermon was ready and was what I thought was an interesting approach to the Advent season–at least it was interesting to me and that helps it be interesting to those listening, I hope.  I was ready for this.

Except, well, the reality was that I didn’t expect there to be too many people there.  We are a small group and with some of our group doing their seasonal migration to warmer climates, another being involved with a family event and others having other stuff going on, I didn’t expect too many there for worship.

I gave some thought to that during the week.  With the absolute best attendance I could expect being 4, I gave myself some options:

  • Four in the congregation would mean a regular service–after all, we have done that before and it works.
  • Two in the congregation would mean a smaller service with no sermon. We would do the Advent Candle, prayers and Communion.
  • Three in worship–well, that would be a bit harder to figure out and so I would ask them what they wanted to do.

I arrived early, as always. Someone was there setting up the Communion service.  She had also come the day before and decorated the building for Christmas.  It looked great.  We talked about a variety of things as we waited for others.  She let me know that one I had on my possible list wasn’t coming so that made three a real possibility.

Our regular starting time arrived and it was still just the two of us.  We wondered where the other almost definite member was–I tried to remember if he has said he was going to be away or something.  Just as I was thinking of suggesting we close up, we heard his truck in the parking lot.  He commented on the small numbers and took his seat.

I explained my plan, which they agreed to, including the part about no singing–the only real singer in the group really didn’t want to do a solo that day.  We worshipped.  Our worship included the Advent Candle, prayers, Scripture and Communion.  We received the offering, which really meant two of us gave our envelopes to the other person who was looking after the money that day.

The service was short and didn’t include many of the regular things we do.  There was no sermon.  We didn’t have a long discussion about the Scripture readings.  We didn’t sing.  We didn’t do the responsive reading.  But we did worship.  We spent time together, sharing our common faith and encouraging each other as we worshipped God.

Would I have preferred a large congregation, say our regular 8-9?  Definitely.  Did I feel I was wasting my time leading worship for 2 people?  Definitely not.  Fortunately for all of us who pastor small churches, God doesn’t have a quorum for worship.  He doesn’t require that there be a certain number of people present.  He just requires that we come together prepared to meet with each other and him.

I am and have been a pastor of small congregations for most of my ministry.  This was probably my smallest congregation in all those years but it was still a congregation of people seeking to worship God.  It was still my responsibility to lead them in the worship–maybe not the one that I had planned and organized but I was and am still called to lead them in worship.

I suspect that will be our smallest congregation this year–given that we have only a few services left before the winter shut-down and there are no plans for the regulars to miss any more of the services we have planned, except for the snowbirds who won’t be back until spring.

I really don’t know where God is leading us as a church or what will happen as we continue with our ministry.  We may grow.  We may continue our present slow decline.  We might, like many small congregations grow enough to keep going.  But I do know that this particular Sunday, three of us showed up to worship God and together, we did just that.

May the peace of God be with you.

HAVING IT ALL

Unlike many people I know in  the more conservative part of the Christian faith that I affiliate with, I am not at all interested in an annual ritual.  This time of the year, it is not unusual for people to point out some cultural trend and use it as a symbol of the continual secular conspiracy to take Christ out of Christmas.  The obvious antidote it to work hard to put Christ back in Christmas.  There will be sermons, Christmas newsletters, social media rants and on and one telling us that we need to do this.

Early in my ministry, I was one of the people trying to put Christ back in Christmas.  As time passed and I learned more about Christmas traditions, Christian  history and theology and the reality of North American demographics, I became less and less vocal about the need to put Christ back into Christmas.  I began to realize that there are some people for whom the whole Christmas scene is depressing.  There are others who don’t celebrate Christmas for a variety of reasons.  And increasingly, there are many whose cultural background doesn’t have a Christian component.  As I learned things like this and realized some of the implications of these realities, I spoke less and less about putting Christ back into Christmas.

And eventually, I began to think that maybe we as believers just might be better off if we actively worked at taking Christ out of Christmas.  What we call Christmas is really nothing more than a huge cultural event sponsored primarily by commercial enterprises.  The glossy veneer of Christianity that gets plastered over the whole mess is actually demeaning to our faith.  Do we actually want the name of Christ associated with the riots that happen in shopping malls on Black Friday, which somehow marks the official beginning of Christmas shipping?

It is probably time for us to realize that there are two events going one here:  the cultural festival that sort of grew out of a Christian celebration and the Christian remembrance of the birth of Jesus.  The events were once related but in truth, the only real connection these days is the fact that both happen at the same time.  They may have once been closely related but today, the connection is slim and tenuous and is an actual problem for those trying to really focus on the love and grace of God shown in the Incarnation.

Since we can’t put Christ back in Christmas–our culture has gone far beyond that–we might well be better off to take Christ completely out of Christmas.  Let culture have the holiday.  As Christians, we can live with “Season’s Greetings” and “Happy Holidays”.  The faith can survive when schools have “Winter Concerts”.  Holiday shopping can happen without Joy to the World in the background.

I suggest that we as believers accept the inevitable–this season has been effectively severed from  its tenuous Christian roots.  Great–that means we can actually focus on the remembrance of the birth in our terms in our worship and private devotions.  We don’t need to force our culture to celebrate the birth of Christ.  We do need to give witness to the love and grace of God shown in the risen and living Christ, something that gets harder and harder to do when we are fighting our culture for a season that we are never going to get back.

I would suggest that we treat the cultural celebrations as we treat all the rest of our culture.  We can take part as responsible believers who are attempting to live and show the reality of our faith in all situations. As believers, we can and should use our faith as a guide to our celebrations, seeking the Spirit’s leading on things like how much to spend on what for who.  We probably avoid rioting at the shopping mall when  the must-have toy is no longer in stock–and maybe in the spirit of turn the other cheek, we give the one we manage to snag to someone else.

We can’t put Christ back in Christmas, at least not like we thought we could.  But we can put Christianity in the seasonal celebration.  It takes some thought and some work and some changes, all of which the Holy Spirit will help us with but we can have the celebration of Christ and the cultural festival without one having to win over the other.

May the peace of God be with you.

ADVENT

As a pastor of two different sets of congregations, much of the year is consumed with trying to juggle the different needs of the churches I work for.  They are different enough that I have different sermons, different Bible studies, different meetings and so on.  Only rarely do I get to use the same stuff in both places at the same time.  Most often, even when I can use something similar, it needs serious re-working to fit into the context of the other setting.

Except for Advent and Easter-or at least that is the way I am approaching things.  Advent is the part of the church year set aside to help prepare the church for the remembrance of the birth of Jesus.  I am a member of the Baptist tradition and while we don’t have to pay much attention to the church year, I do like to use the Advent season.  So, when advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, I get to do one set of sermons, one set of Advent candle programs, one Candlelight Christmas Eve service.

And this Advent season, for some reason, I am pretty much ready for everything.  I actually have each week’s Advent Candle program written, I have the sermons planned for each week, including the Sunday after Christmas.  I have the Christmas Eve service roughed out and just need to get a few bits of input from other participants to have that ready.  I am ready for Advent.

Except I am not really ready for Advent.  I am ready to help lead other people through the Advent season, which is part of my job.  But personally, I am not all that sure where I stand on the readiness issue.  Part of my problem is figuring out what the whole Christmas/Advent thing actually means to me and my faith.

Christmas as a celebration has been becoming less and less significant for me the last few years–since the kids all moved out and away, there hasn’t been the same level of excitement with gift giving and over eating and all the rest.  On those occasions when some of the family gets home or we are with them, some of the excitement comes back–but that would be there if we were together in July.

The whole gift process is less interesting.  Neither of us has much of a wish list.  We are at the point in our lives where we have lots of stuff and if we want something, we can and do buy it when we want it.  The eating part of the event–well, I am pretty sure that over-eating is an over-rated sport, given the fact that it is so much harder to get enough exercise to compensate for the extra calories.

Theologically, I am happy for the birth of Jesus–but I find that my thinking is more in tune with the early church.  There is pretty good evidence that the birth of Jesus wasn’t much celebrated until after the time of Constantine, about 350 years or so after Jesus.  They focused on the resurrection, which makes sense–life was difficult and Christianity was technically illegal and so they focused in the really important thing, the resurrection.

But for all that, it is Advent.  I do need to prepare for the celebration of the birth of Christ.  And I need to do it not just for the people who have called me to be their pastor but for myself.  The part about leading the church through Advent I have pretty much ready–it is all either written or will soon be written.

The personal part, well, that it a work in progress and has been for the last few years.  I try to focus not just on the birth but all its implications.  For me, that includes the rest of the story.  Seeing the birth in its context is important–we don’t worship the baby because he is a baby, we worship the risen and living Christ whom he grew into.  The baby in the manger isn’t important because of being a baby in a manger–he is important because he rose to life on the third day.

So, I will give and receive gifts; I will light Advent Candles; I will listen to the Messiah.  I will help the churches celebrate Advent and Christmas and I will continue to work on my own celebration of the process.

May the peace of God be with you.