Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Christmas Eve Preparations

I'm making final decisions on our big Christmas Eve production. It's really fun, and it's really stressful. You want to make the night magical and beautiful and really, that's going to happen courtesy of our beautiful New England meetinghouse and lit candles and "Silent Night," and anything I do or don't do probably won't count for much.

Still, you want to touch hearts. You want to squeeze the guts just a little bit. This year, we're focusing a lot on "Hey, we're here ALL YEAR! Come back NEXT Sunday, too!"

I remember the years before I was at all interested in, or knowledgeable of, the Bible. I would go to church services now and then and it was all absolutely meaningless to me. No one ever suggested to me that if I wanted to get anything out of this, I would actually have to put some intellectual effort into it. Church was like a magical social club -- if you were a member, you'd just "get it," and your heart would be opened by some great priestly abracadabra, and you could sit there with dewy eyes and feel moved by all this archaic language about begating and prophecying and parable-ing and healing lepers or whatever other crazy biz was going down in that day's reading.

I sat there stone cold thinking unkind thoughts about the other worshipers because I assumed that they got as little out of the Bible as I did, little snot that I was, and I figured they were just putting in pew time so they could stay in the club.
I actually believed that the emotions that came from the experience were due to a sense of belonging to the church, not from hearing the readings or sharing the liturgy. I thought they were emotionally involved by virtue of being members of a social club together, not by virtue of belonging to God together and having an opportunity to celebrate and explore and question and struggle with that reality together.

So I look out over those dozens upon dozens of unfamiliar faces on Christmas Eve and I just want to say, "Listen, this Luke and Isaiah and carol stuff is going to mean just NOTHING to you if you don't immerse yourself more often than once a year in this tradition. Not only will the Bible readings for tonight remain pretty meaningless, you will have no community of support for even questioning whether or not you want it to mean anything to you. You will have no community of support and weekly practice to remind you how much you wanted to have a spiritual component to your life, how much you want to stop being angry or feeling helpless or have some balm for whatever other soul sickness you're suffering from. You cannot get a deep religious life with a drive-by once a year service. Please don't lay that pressure on us, and don't set yourself up that way."

Because of course like most preachers, I do feel the pressure of having such a powerful message on Christmas Eve that they will all come back and become beloved and loving members of our church.

I am doing an Angels theme this year. The secret is, I had a huge CONCEPT about it this summer but I failed to write anything down, so now all I have is this vague memory that there was something quite wonderful and creative I wanted to do with the angels in the birth narratives, and it has all slipped through my Swiss cheese brain.


Anonymous Philocrites said...

Ooh, the angels! How about: Fear and wonder. Each time they show up, the person who sees them isn't too happy. ("Sore afraid" - what a great phrase.) And then the message - Don't be afraid - must seem kind of untrustworth. I mean, look who's talking: a supernatural being! But Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds are then able to see absolutely normal things - the birth of the baby - as imbued with extraordinary significance.

Maybe that's partly the mission of the church: helping people walk through fear so they can see the wonder of it all?

Blogger Quotidian Grace said...

You are so correct in observing that church (and religion and faith) won't mean anything to the casual Christmas/Easter Christian. Like everything else worthwhile in life, it takes persistence, education, effort and involvment in the community.

May your words resonate with some of these folks this year. Merry Christmas, Peace Bang!

Blogger Ellis said...

Honestly, I have trouble with church services.

Our pastor is phenomenal. Her sermons are inspired, impassioned, polished and direct. She is consistently saying things I both want and need to hear, and her delivery is excellent. The readings are well-chosen, the music is good, the silence is contemplative and the rituals are both familiar and fresh.

But man, do I have trouble with church services. My attention span for auditory input is practically nil: no matter how hard I try, I tune out early and often. I skip in and out of the words, catching a few here and there and being distracted by all my own thoughts. It's not just church, of course; school was downright awful and I take many many notes at work.

But church is more than a social club for me anyway. After the service, I read it online and get so much more. I appreciate the silence and the ritual. We also have contemporary worship, which is easier for me to focus on. And at church, I've met so many people that I can talk--really talk--with about spirituality and life. We are constantly articulating our theology, through classes, conversation and worship. So church is hugely important to my faith life, even if the services pour right through my head on Sunday mornings.

I can't imagine just going to church at Christmas and Easter, though. I would miss out on all the stuff that does work for me. That would be a great loss.

Anonymous Lynne said...

I used to think either you had faith or you didn't - either you believed or you didn't - and that maybe one day I'd be hit with it (and I kinda wished I would be too... 'cause so many people I knew who did have it seemed to get streaght from it) but in the meantime what could I do?

Then I happened to start visiting this church (UU btw) anyway, liking what was said. Dunno if I was looking for faith per say... what I said to myself is 'I'm looking for hope'(to me a much more...tangible thing to look for, plenty examples of it's power floating around, no?).

Then one day, I noticed the moment of silent thanks my wife and I observed before dinner together really was making me more appreciative in life - and the occasional prayer sent up when stressed (couldn't hurt right?) seemed to calm me - and the services attended semi regularly were getting me thinking more about who I wanted to be in the world (plus providing, of course, more community in my life).

And it dawned, ahhh, I thought, it's like, well... practising..oh!...maybe that's why they call it a spiritual practise... talk about someone being a practising Catholic... maybe belief don't drop like a bomb, maybe to get good at it... one needs to practise...?

I'm guessing there are folks who are naturals at believing, and it does practically drop, but it ain't one of my talents... and can't say I'm very good at it yet - can't say 'I do believe', or 'I have faith'-- but... can say my life is the better for practicing* at it...

Dunno if helpful in thinking how to express to folks it might add more to thier life then they think -- the regular church thing, but there it is.

*not that I practise all that much - probably should, but that would be another topic altogether... the shoulds...!

Blogger Giselle said...

Slips through your "swiss cheese brain", eh? Do I detect another Quantum Leap fan?

Blogger Caroline Divine said...

Dear PeaceBang and friends,

Thought you would enjoy the post on Susan Russell's blog (progressive Episcopal priest from the [in]famous All Saints' Church in Pasadena) with a beautiful graphic and poem by Howard Thurman. She says she goes back to it when things get crazy pre-Christmas. I think it will appeal to the Christian UU (or just U, bitb) folk.

Blessings. Breathe.

Caro. Div. (who is only helping out with a few liturgical things for Christmas, nothing to write or organize, but who has to preach the Sunday AFTER Christmas, which will be New Year's Eve Day this year and on which exactly three people will show up...okay, maybe four...)

Blogger PeaceBang said...

I think of Linus telling Charlie Brown that the shepherds were "sore afraid" in his little Peanuts voice.

Blogger Caroline Divine said...

P.S. The poem was for you who are preaching, not particularly for the congregation. Just so we all breathe and don't panic, 'cause you know, we work and work, as well we should, but the Holy Spirit will do Her thing too. It's not all on us.

I love Philocrites's reflection. Right on.

Blogger Ian said...

Merry Christmas friends!

Here is my Christmas Eve reflection designed to "touch hearts and squeeze the guts just a little bit."

O holy night.
Was that it so very long ago?
Is tonight the night?
Will the holy night ever come?

We know so little about that silent night,
was it even silent? Surely baby Jesus cried.
Why wouldn’t he cry, born in such a miserable state?
And as he grew he must have worried and feared,
seethed and anguished,
longed and hoped.

But how can we know? How can we feel the impact of one holy night?
We need a week, no a month, maybe a year of holy nights
before we can begin to make sense of it all.
We need to struggle with the craziness of the traveling mother-soon-to-be,
the insanity of angels singing and shepherds listening,
the psychotic megalomania of a king who could kill baby boys!
Give us more holy nights. Give us time to make some meaning.

O holy night.
Was that it so very long ago?
Is tonight the night?
Will the holy night ever come?

On this night, what do we know of holiness?
What angels are visiting?
Where are our shepherds?
Could it be that the pregnant woman living with AIDS who knows that her baby does not have the virus is the one who sings the Magnificat to us?
Can we hear our sister’s soul giving glory to God that the mighty have been brought low and the thoughts of the proud scattered?

But what if we are the mighty and the proud? What angels will come to us?
Could it be that the lives taken by plague and warfare not stilled by our mighty and proud hands may be speaking to us tonight lest we miss the miracle of the birth?
Could it be that the glory of God shining on us tonight is not the klieg light of celebrity but the searing light of truth that reveals our nakedness and shame?
O holy night, we came seeking the cooing of a baby, silence the screams of the one dying for our sins.

“We humans prefer satisfying un-truth
To the Truth that is usually unsatisfying.
Truth is always too big for us,
And we are so small and afraid.”

O holy night.
Was that it so very long ago?
Is tonight the night?
Will the holy night ever come?

And how can that holy night of peace with justice ever come when we, your people are not righteous?
Loving our little truths, we kill the prophets you send us.
Yes, even gentle Mary’s newborn; we would be Herod’s conscripts, sword in hand.

We want it all in one night: clear answers, absolute truth.
But the holy night calls us to faith,
to mystery,
to hope.

We are not a patient people, we don’t have the skill to gaze steadily.
We cannot stare down injustice,

We want peace in our hearts, but will not pay the price of justice in our guts.

O come, o come Emmanuel and ransom your captive people;
for we are captive to our little truths in our false certainty.
Embrace us with mystery on this silent night.
Break our hard hearts and stir the butterflies of hope in our guts.

Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!
O night divine, the night when Christ was born;
the night when Christ is born;
the night when Christ will be born;
O night divine! O night, O night divine!


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