Christmas in the Emergency Department

Not your usual Christmas feast!

I have to be honest. This pastor’s Christmas joy was a little flat this year. But inspire of how I felt, there was a lot of joy in the middle of the mess.

This Advent opened in a true Spirit of anticipation. I was aware of my own sense of waiting and longing. It collapsed around me when, during the week immediately preceding Christmas, I found out that I was not selected for a new ministry opportunity. It stung like hell. It was (and is) heartbreaking, but it is also for the best. Recovering slowly from my disappointment, I discovered I was not really up for the last minute Christmas shopping and planning.

On top of that, our church is facing a challenging financial twist which not only affects our church as a whole, but eliminates the salary for my (very) part-time job. I am serving, for now, in a volunteer capacity.

The usual hilarious disorganization of a Christmas Eve service was compounded by the Choir Director leading despite a bad case of laryngitis, and choir members inexplicably deciding to make other plans and miss the candlelight Christmas Eve service. By the time the service started, I was finally in sync, enjoying the people in our congregation, and our celebration of Love arriving on the Earth in human form.

Just to keep things interesting… In the early hours of Christmas morning, a GI virus and its complications meant that I spent Christmas Day in the ED with one of our beloved daughters. The rest of the family put the turkey dinner and gift-giving on hold.

As I sat with our daughter, watching over her, I had a new appreciation for the staff who work on holidays. I have worked many of them in years past as a chaplain. It is hard to keep your spirits up when you know you are missing your own family’s celebrations. The ED staff, was, to a person, kind, caring and helpful.

But I also thought about the families who had a disappointing Christmas that day. My hospice families who tried to celebrate in the middle of loss. I remembered the families and spouses of those in the military, and first responders. Their Christmas celebrations were impacted, too, and in far greater ways.

Today our daughter is on the mend. We cooked the turkey and all of the accompaniments. The cranberries and stuffing, potatoes and carrots graced the table too. (We won’t talk about my gravy… it was, as per usual, disappointing.) The cookie dough will get baked… eventually. Flights to holiday celebrations are being re-booked for a healthier day.  And all is well.

In the middle of the mess that is life in the ED, I was reminded that the message of the Christ Child is the center of my Faith. In impossible situations, with unlikely companions, despite all odds, God breaks through with another “I love you” and a “Hallelujah!”

I don’t want to make it an annual event, but I am grateful for God’s speaking through the clanging of culture, sickness and politics to declare: 

“Don’t be afraid!
Look! I bring good news to you
wonderful, joyous news for all people.”

Luke 2:10

 

Let ev’ry heart prepare…

What do pastors do to prepare for Christmas, you ask?

We vacuum. We untangle Christmas lights. We find missing hymnals and restock the pews. We set up an ironing board so that the choir can “freshen” up their robes.

We resuscitate poinsettias that someone forgot to water. (And compost the ones that don’t make it.)

We refresh the greens in the sanctuary and figure out where the tapers are for the candlelight service.

And we pray for our congregants and our visitors, that the Light of the world will shine through in new ways.

And then, we go home and put our feet up for just a minute… before finishing that next round of baking, wrapping, and cleaning. ‘Cause Christmas is coming!!

Merry Christmas!!

The Longest Night: Intentional Movement towards The Light of the World

The cloud cover is denser. The trees are grey. The garden is silent and sleeping. I’m not a fan of winter.

The shorter days get to me. When I’m visiting my hospice patients and it’s getting dark before 5 p.m., I find myself drooping. I get home to a list of chores: dinner, dishes, laundry, and some days even finishing my charting. I’m not happy. I am one who flourishes in the light.

For the last couple of years I’ve tried to keep a sense of where I am emotionally as the days get shorter and shorter. I find that I am short-tempered, and as much as I am an extrovert, I don’t want to deal with people. So as we moved from the Fall Equinox towards the Winter Solstice this year, I made some intentional shifts in my thinking and my practice.

1. I use my “Light Clock” in the mornings as I’m getting ready for work. I need sunlight, even at 6 a.m. There’s one downstairs in the main living area… and one in our bedroom. It helps!

2. I counteract my growing grumpiness by engaging in “A Month of Thanksgivings” in November. Now I get that some people HATE it when people take a whole month on Facebook with posts on what they are thankful for. I get it. I spent last November (2013) hoping for a job — that I didn’t get and it depressed me. But I tried to be intentional in my thankfulness, because I do have much to be thankful for in my life. This year was easier than last year, but I still had to work at it.

3. I am pro-active in helping to plan and lead a “Longest Night” service at our church. The time of Winter Solstice is difficult for many people. Sitting at the bedside of a patient last week, as I sang an Advent hymn to him (“O Come, O Come Emmanuel”), he opened his eyes and said, “I am ready. God can come now.” His family would have preferred he make it to Christmas. His heart and his cancer didn’t oblige. I know they will walk through these last days before Christmas and beyond with heavy hearts. And I know there are many who are struggling to be joyful in a time when everything is wrong.

The Longest Night or “Blue Christmas” services you hear about vary from church to church, as we each find our way through the scriptures and the words of Hope that come with Advent, and the longing and waiting for Christmas. Our church tends to be on the contemplative side, with space for writing, thinking, creating and worshipping.

The service is also one of intentionality: we do not want to stay in the Dark. With quiet, with prayer, and with others, we take one step and another towards the promised Hope found in Christ. We don’t tell each other to “cheer up”… we walk together in our shared struggles and dashed dreams.

This year, with the help of my family, we created a 3-circuit labyrinth in the church’s Chapel. (I’ll share more about how they did it in another post.) The room was dark, lit only by the lights at our feet and some Christmas lights and candles on the perimeter of the room. There was soft music playing and the room had a other-worldly feeling about it, one where the distance between heaven and earth was a very “thin place.”

I had spent over an hour the night before trying to figure out how to do this by myself and ended up being frustrated. A little simple math and geometry, and they  had the whole labyrinth done in less than 2 hours!

Longest Night labyrinth at Church in Bethesda, Maryland. Dec 21, 2014
Longest Night labyrinth at Church in Bethesda, Maryland. Dec 21, 2014

As I pondered this, I thought about what God had shown me in this liminal space:

– Even though I am frustrated and sad, I need others. I need to know there is another day coming, where the Light will return. I take this as validation that my November postings of Thankfulness are a good spiritual discipline, not only for myself, but for others.

– There’s options I have not always considered…. and there’s strength in numbers. I especially need others to help me get past my frustrations and see that there other ways to do things.

– Rarely does one make the journey from darkness to Light alone. It is almost always overcome-able if you have friends for the journey.

– The practice of gratefulness, for me, is essential. That means doing a little year-end Facebook meme (and knowing that while the year wasn’t perfect, it was full of God’s goodness. I just have to look for it.) That also means I don’t get sidetracked or feel guilty if I engage being thankful. (You’d be surprised — or maybe not — at how people can get snarky about “brag-booking” when in truth I am trying to stay positive.)

– I found ways to enjoy Christmas music all-month long. I am an educated Church musician, and I’ll break all those “Advent rules” and sing Silent Night in Advent. I’ll sing it to my patients who may or may not make it to Christmas. And I’ll sing with heart full of gratitude for the coming Light. Jesus.

The First Sunday After Christmas: Colossians 3:12-17

IMG_0104African American, author, preacher and theologian Howard Thurman once offered these wise words:

“When the song of the angels is stilled,
And the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are gone,
And the shepherd back with his flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among the people,
To make music in the heart.”

It might be almost January, but the Lectionary stays with the Christmas story and the focus of Christmas for another week. Just because the presents are unwrapped does not mean that we stop pondering how we are changed because of the birth of the Christ Child.

Christmas should have changed us as Thurman’s message of peace, challenge and camaraderie suggests. For the Church, these words could not come at a better time. Brother Thurman and Paul (in the verses below from Colossians) both bring the focus away from what we think as individuals, and refocus our hearts, minds and thus our actions on the greater Calling of the Church. If we as Christ’s ambassadors are not to become irrelevant to the needs and worries of our world, we need to look at what we are saying, why we say it, and where we choose to broadcast our message.

Almost every day I seem to run into a scathing review of a book or blog post or sermon. Someone, somewhere, seems to have an awful lot of time to devote to tearing others down. The world looks on at our religious sniping and it is no wonder they are disillusioned.

As a nation we have moved through a contentious election cycle. We have watched horrors unfold in our cities and towns that are unimaginable. We have become weary in extending compassion and help to others. And yet, the job we are tasked with as the Church, as a nation, has not changed.

For 2013, I am looking towards serving with ALL of Christ’s wisdom, compassion and joy. So that “whatever I do” becomes a sweet example of God at work — in me.

Happy New Year, everyone!

From Colossians 3:

12 God loves you and has chosen you as his own special people. So be gentle, kind, humble, meek, and patient. 13 Put up with each other, and forgive anyone who does you wrong, just as Christ has forgiven you. 14 Love is more important than anything else. It is what ties everything completely together.

15 Each one of you is part of the body of Christ, and you were chosen to live together in peace. So let the peace that comes from Christ control your thoughts. And be grateful. 16 Let the message about Christ completely fill your lives, while you use all your wisdom to teach and instruct each other. With thankful hearts, sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17 Whatever you say or do should be done in the name of the Lord Jesus, as you give thanks to God the Father because of him.

Living in the aftermath of Christmas

I’ve had a lazy morning. I’ve almost made it to noon and haven’t changed out of my PJs. Everyone here at the hacienda has had a lazy morning… even the cats. I know we needed it! It was time for a break from the crazy! We all have benefited from a “do-list-less” morning.

The past week has been overly busy between the prep I had to do as the covering pastor for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services, The Johnnie’s wisdom teeth extraction, pit rehearsals beginning for Reedy Girl, and Bearded Brewer working long hours on a project that is closing in on a deadline. Everything has gone fairly well. The Johnnie is healing nicely and is almost ready to chew (she is coveting some crackers or chewy bread!) Reedy Girl has been getting more sleep than she’s had in weeks. Bearded Brewer has ignored work emails as today the office is closed. And all told, I’ve managed to feel unstressed about the list of things undone.

Everything worked well at church BECAUSE of my family, and of the other folks who willingly stepped up to read, play, pray and participate. The reception after Christmas Eve’s service, and the potluck after Christmas Day service had many helping hands. Bearded Brewer and Reedy Girl set up and prepped the food because I was focused elsewhere. Luminaries placed by Reedy Girl and The Johnnie shined a gentle path to the church doors. And candles were lit, flowers re-arranged, and the Ageless Story of the Christ Child was celebrated with joyful song. A friend played the pipe organ for the first time in years at a service; it seemed wholly appropriate for Christmas carols. We’ll be back to the band and our regular music genre this week. And all will be well.

My living room is still in the aftermath of Christmas. And when I stopped to look at it, I decided that it’s kind of like life — REAL life! There’s joy and there’s mess. There’s progress and there’s unfinished tasks. There’s memories and there’s a future to build together. And in all of it… God is there.

20111226-114837.jpg

So whether or not your “do list” gets done today, I pray that you rest and enjoy the Love and the Peace that is Christmas!