27 December 2012

postpartum christmas ministry

Of the many things which I have learned from being a pastor, one particular observation which came to me this year is the following: No matter how much I might enjoy the peace-and-goodwill-to-all-people Christmas eve service by candlelight, the run-up of all of the details and preparations is one of the most overwhelming of any service of the year.  Christmas Eve church has always been one of my favorite times to be in service, and this has not changed since I took on pastoral responsibilities.  Perhaps it is all of the other stuff which goes on around Christmas - remember, those who work in ministry also have a litany of family gatherings, school productions, dance recitals, caroling, office get-togethers, etc - but, Christmas Eve, for all of its quiet reflection and celebration, seems to become quite overwhelming.

This year, despite having the service planned out in advance, I found myself incredibly behind schedule just 90 minutes before the doors were to open.  We had forgotten the candles, the communion supplies were still in the office, and we were short two readers for the service itself.  (You see, one of the difficulties with planning Christmas Eve is that you are never quite certain who is going to be able to make it for the actual service ... even if you were told that they would be there.)  Five minutes before we were to start we realized a forgotten piece - luckily I live next door so some sprinting made it all possible.  And, to my knowledge, our service went off as expected without anyone knowing how hard this Christmas Eve duck was paddling under the surface.

None of these challenges interrupted my ability to enjoy the service, and all of those details worked themselves out (as they always do).  But once the last person had left and I walked alone through an empty church, I simultaneously thanked God and took a deep breath.  It was done.  Our church is not going to hold services on December 30, so there is nothing looming on the immediate horizon to take away the sense of relief which came over me.  The challenge now is, and I believe this to be true for many pastors, to keep the ministry focus moving into the new year.

In other words, the church cannot slip into a postpartum depression from Christmas when all of the lights have gone out, the trees put away, and the advent wreath a distant memory.  It is natural for the many activities and extra services to leave us with a need for a bit of relaxation.  Yet, we should not forget that our reflection on the Incarnation is a summons to be God's representatives in the world.

And the world has not stopped moving just because of our holiday.  Although the average person would like to focus on their own families and homes through these holidays, the news is there whether we choose to read it or not.  Congress is still cliff-diving, mourners are still coping in Newtown, and families are still struggling within arms-reach of our churches.  If anything, the darkness pushes harder around the seasons of Christmas and Easter, making a mockery of their very meaning.  So, while it is good for us to sabbath on the experience and celebration of God's lovingkindness, we must not become lost in a state of rest.

Often, the post-Christmas descent back to reality can become an emotional and spiritual challenge to those in the church.  There is a grandeur about Christmas which is exciting, along with all sorts of participation and commitment and visitors.  But, no matter how great December can become, January sets in pretty quickly.  All of the peace and goodwill returns to an uncertainty which pushes against the faith we professed in the manger's baby.  Such was Mary's story, for everyday realities - both good and bad - would eventually replace angel's promises or magi's visits.  This would become a difficult and confusing journey for her, though she continues on with a trust in God.  (We might also think of Peter, who pledged his unending allegiance to Jesus just a few hours before he denied any connection with him.)

If we confess our faith in the child born at Christmas, then we need to safeguard our decision against the harsh realities of life.  Otherwise we did not make a significant commitment at all.  The path of Jesus is one of humility.  It is about a cross, which must be taken up at the moment of Incarnation, not just in the final hours before death and resurrection.  Pastors, let us not allow physical and emotional exhaustion take us off the path of the gospel.  Everyone is bound to be tired and in need of a break after all of the hustle and bustle of the season, but now is a time for faith to be renewed.  Following Christmas let us wait upon the Spirit of the Lord that we might spread out our wings like eagles.

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