In a totally serious vein, my pigeons, I write to open a conversation about the particular spiritual struggles of this season. I have been feeling a tremendous amount of existential sadness in that quiet time before falling to sleep, as the depravity of evil human behavior floods me. Images of shootings, torture, rape, child abuse, slavery come to mind from the news and from local community life, and my mind flits from one scene to the other, from one situation to the other, like a bird crashing into walls.
Our church is involved in a lot of outreach ministry this time of years, as I’m sure yours is.
Yesterday at our church staff meeting we talked briefly about wrapping gifts for local kids — something that we are doing at our church and that one of our staff members is doing through her own congregation. We talked about how we wished we could be there when the kids open their gifts – how we wished there was a way to say, “This gift? This toy or this pair of pants or whatever it is? I really want you to know that it comes with my love, with my care for you as an individual human being, even though there’s no real way to say that here in this package.” The sadness of thinking about children and youth opening these gifts in an institution fell upon us all and we were struck silent for a few long moments before we continued with our agenda.
‘Tis the season when church workers become especially aware of how much need there is for basic things like food and shelter, and how much spiritual need for a bit of sweetness and comfort for the holiday — especially for children. You all know. The phone calls, the drop-ins, the annual projects, the Mitten Tree, the frozen turkeys lined up on the parish hall linoleum.
In the midst of this, we pastors are also preparing the most high expectation services of the year (except for Easter, but I would argue that Christmas is far more fraught with emotional vulnerability). The “show biz” elements of the winter holidays involve endless attention to detail: placement of pointsettias, folding of many extra programs, oh my god we forgot to order Advent candles, or someone accidentally forgot to mention that we can’t have ANY NUTS in the cookies for the reception! Because allergies!
Who’s wearing the lavalier mic at the midnight service? Remember that we forgot to think about that in advance last year? And the minister pronounced the Benediction from outside and no one could hear him? And no one knew the service was over and we all just stood there with our little “Silent Night” candles burning in our hands? We can’t have that again!
And then there is the Annual Barrage Of Deadlines. The church office needs to be closed, and everyone wants and needs and ought to take some time off, so the minister and worship team and staff have to choose readings, sermon topics, hymns and music for December 22, Christmas Eve, December 29 and maybe January 5th at the same time. All of which means that you and I, my dear colleagues, are living in two to three weeks in one moment. Of course we are always looking at least a month ahead (if we know what’s good for us!), but this season, doesn’t it feel particularly difficult given how deeply we desire to respond to Advent’s invitation to silence, prayer and waiting?
As a creative extrovert, I thrive on collaboration, planning for and envisioning the future. But as an overly-empathic contemplative, the demands of the season bombard me at the soul level. On the surface I’m having a great time. It’s all interesting, fulfilling, deep and wonderful. Beneath that, however, there is a spiritual strain that I am finally learning to identify, respect and articulate. It has been whispering to me for many years, a loyal Advent guest, and I have — up to now– left it shivering at my door while I bustled around spicing nuts, making cookies, obsessing about Christmas carols and candle lighters and composing prayers in my head and meeting deadlines.
I know that this guest of spiritual pain comes with gifts, but right now I don’t want to talk about that. I just want to say, “Oh, theres’s someone at the door. I better let them in.”
Believe it or not, just as I wrote that phrase, my dog started barking downstairs. And guess extra what?
There’s no one at the door.