I got to four church services for Christmas Eve. You might think that's a bit too much church. It keeps me out of the malls, where I don't want to be anyway. The two that anchor such an adventure are "my" church (MHUCC) and "Kelli's" church (CCCPB, where we met some 22 years ago but that I departed six years ago). That's the basic balance for us: we at least get to our own churches, different though they may be. Because my church has a 10 pm service, and it happens to be where Kelli interned years ago, it's in the clear for us to both go and be together, a bit like old times, but without some of the weighty complications I feel. And then, there are some other services that turn up and seem interesting enough to take in if we can.
I'm going to tell these stories out of order. For those keeping score, I went to the following services in this order:
- MHUCC, 2 pm
- CCCPB, 6 pm
- MCC, 7 pm, followed by dinner with friends from there
- MHUCC, 10 pm
As some distance from the strains of CCCPB has mellowed me over time, I've gone a couple times to the Christmas service there too. CCCPB is much as I knew it from earlier times, even during my unchurched times. A small congregation meets in a building that is sparse in architectural ornamentation though is rather radical in its roof line and its 2/3 round floor plan. It has a basic holiday decoration scheme, but without it, the place is rather austere looking for the most part. Many faces remain, though there are giant holes in the population due to attrition and families breaking up and children leaving for school and careers. I still like the messages from the pulpit as much as when I spent four years there recording them all, but with such a history as I have there, it's hard to be really present there. I fidget. Kelli does the reading from Luke every year and is poised closer to the pulpit. I sit apart from her because I feel that it's so easy to be in an old role that just doesn't suit me now, and frankly, being seated next to my own wife triggers that. (Read on for how things go at MHUCC.) There's a tinge of guilt for coming and not being fully present. I don't like it. But I also don't go to church and let myself be inauthentic if I can help it. And CCCPB was a place where I eventually left in part because I knew it was going to be what it was going to be and I was changing. Since then I've been regaled with tales from a variety of sources, so while I am not a member there and rarely attend, I do have a small bit of information about what goes on there, and some things just baffle me. Other bits frustrate me. So it's hard for me to be there. But Christmas begs a different response, and for a successful home life, the concession must be made, especially when carpooling. That said, there are a couple people who I still like a great deal and am happy to connect with, even so briefly as my very occasional appearance there. I guess I need CCCPB to remind me that even a diminishing congregation meets faithfully. I just know it's not my community anymore.
MHUCC is notably larger but still feels like a family. The congregation is eclectic and growing. The programs are varied and meet people at various places in life. Liturgically, there is more to take in since our pastor came from a tradition that placed an emphasis on liturgical year cycles and other things that I would learn about when entering that congregation. It was all new to me, coming from a very lean and sparse life at CCCPB. So, MHUCC has the liturgical colors that change with the church year's progression, choir processing in their robes, and other such touches. The choir is about 24 folks and has a professional director and section leaders. The organ is a delight, and the harp adds a welcome texture. The room feels very large. It's not high church by any stretch but after my church formation at CCCPB, it seems that way. For the late Christmas service, this time the service was a Lessons and Carols service.
Two other services this Christmas Eve were in the mix for other reasons. One more, an earlier afternoon service at MHUCC, was small, intimate, and contemplative, and offered communion. It was held in a smaller chapel room suitable for a special service like that. Having been at a physical distance up in Escondido for half a year now, making a day of being in San Diego was like breathing fresh air and getting a warm hug, even on the rather cool and cloudy day. I've been too distant from church of late, so reconnecting was called for. This small service was contemplative and instead of a sermon, the nativity scene was used as a chance to get us to imagine which of those characters we identified with. Who were they? What would they be thinking as they were in that moment? What would we be thinking as we're in that moment?
The fourth service, a bonus for the day, was at the Metropolitan Community Church where a friend and colleague of Kelli's is on staff. MCC, largely populated by the LGBT community, is a refuge for folks who have perhaps not been welcome at so many other churches, and even among their own families. Because LGBT folk are exiled from all kinds of home lives in all kinds of traditional settings and from all kinds of geographic areas, it's really an eclectic mix of things that might pass for traditional, but instead of messages of making the world a narrower place, a smaller place, a more limited place, the message inherent in the MCC's very existence is one of celebration of the opposite of all that. It's kind of interesting because in some ways, it's like many other churches but without the implicit or explicit homophobia. Just because folks are gay doesn't mean they want to forsake the good things from the traditions they were to inherit, but from where their options for real inclusion were limited or shut off entirely. MCC is their new family where it's safe to be oneself. MCC is the home that has been created to bring the LGBT world back to the Christian fold. There are probably many who, were it not for MCC, would never set foot into another church. I've been there a few times and at least tonight, I found it to be the most surprising of the services. After this service, we went off with Ali and her partner and her daughter to a fun dinner at the greasy spoon diner we've gone to for a few Christmas Eves now, Rudford's. It was delightfully irreverent.
Back at my church, what's true at MCC regarding the LGBT community is largely true there as well, but having been there now for about five years, it's become familiar. MHUCC was a pretty traditional place tending toward liberal, but about a decade ago in particular, the church's embrace of the LGBT world was stepped up. And interestingly, the place has grown a lot because of it. Dropping in on the MCC reminded me of a dynamic I saw a few years back when I slowly and tentatively moved into the life at MHUCC—at the very same time as yet one more mom family meltdown was under way, and by then, a year and more had passed since the utterly miserable exchange with my old man (and a silence that stretches now to an unheard of six years). Add to that a feeling that my home church of CCCPB was not the place to stretch into the new person that needed to emerge from all that, and I realized there was something I had in common with the LGBT folk at MHUCC, broadly speaking. How many tales of exile from families-of-origin are there, with relations strained to the point of breaking only because some people have to answer the call to be themselves? How many exiles from the church communities that are found to be the old wineskins? Hard to say, but when my original tribes were found to be lacking and I needed something new, that's where I felt I came home to.
For some years now, since Kelli has been either in school or interning or since I dabbled in another transitional church for a bit in 2007-2008 (UCCLM), then joined MHUCC, Christmases have been diversified. A couple years in a row I did these Christmas Eve runs on my bike for the added sport of getting warmed up and feeling all invigorated upon walking in, sometimes to some really unfamiliar settings (the Greek church was the most unusual). Not too many folks know this but if you were to take my particular ethnic strands and send me to church along traditional faith trajectories, I might be equally at home in Protestant, Catholic, and even Orthodox settings, though of course, I have always identified closer to Protestant. But the tug for me, while never really having the success I could wish for with the family life, is to share in the lives of a few different families at Christmas, in part because those historical families of Christianity are within me at some level, but also that the world today requires a less insular Christianity.
At any rate, the matter of getting to many churches, or sampling the services even at my new home church, keeps things from becoming predictable. Too much church life is led by rote and inertia. If anything, church should be the irritant, not the pabulum. As it is, at MHUCC, I have a practice of trying to never sit in the same seat. Sometimes that applies not just to weekly services but to parts of a given service. There are times when I sit in three different places, moving during logical breaks in the liturgy: sit one place to start and then at the passing of the peace when everyone gets up and greets one another, land in another place, and then maybe before the sermon shift again to a third place. I just mix it up so I don't go and "do" church with my brain off. So it is, stepping it up on Christmas Eve, getting to a few locations and experiencing Christ's family in a way that a place like San Diego affords, with so many traditions found in one place.
Going to unfamiliar churches figures into making the Christmas story a bit more real and experiential. The Greek church in particular made me the stranger in the strange land, even a little bit like the holy family seeking a place at the inn. It's a good thing for this white male to remember that there is a lot of rejection that people face while trying to be in communion around Christ's table. Not being eligible for the eucharist in the Greek church was one reminder about rejection that I don't get in my usual life. (Had I been a baptized member of the Orthodox church, I could have taken the cup and bread, but a quick question about that after having walked into the church, knowing nothing about the liturgy, suggested I'd be okay. I guess my host thought I was already baptized. It seemed very insular and monocultural in there. So, as a result, I was in line and was questioned by the priest if I was baptized as Orthodox. No? Sorry, members only.) While the Greek church was unparalleled in its lush appearance and the layer upon layer of its ancient tradition, coming from my low church protestant background, particularly from a congregation that has a very progressive stance on inclusion, that was kind of a rejection that I am not used to. At MHUCC, it's taken for granted that if you came to that building and want to take communion, you're in, and who are we to put up a barrier? That to me mirrors the pronouncements and practices of Jesus, known for being exceedingly welcoming. Churches that don't roll that way just baffle and disappoint me.
The Christmas Burden, The Christmas Gift
Last night though, finally in the midst of that special night that causes an aching and yearning for peace and quiet both outside and inside, I was feeling a great need to soak it all up. The weight was upon me, feeling down from a half year in a new town, leaving JEM, struggling still with family matters and joblessness (except some pick up work) and tensions that those things inevitably bring to home life. Being a pretty committed non-commercial Christmas practitioner makes me kind of the odd man in the room in most rooms I might enter. People get the idea and maybe even savor it, but don't usually seem to expect someone to succeed at it. The personal layers of hungering for the Christmas message are overlaid with the dire situations the news brings us (or sometimes doesn't, but should). With an utterly senseless massacre—an act of domestic terrorism if ever there was one—too fresh in the mind, and with increasingly dire predictions regarding our environmental crisis being met with too weak a response by nearly everyone, my heart is heavy. With so much balkanization of American society into more and more insular and self-reinforcing tribes that are loathe to interact for the common good, my heart is heavy. For watching as Thanksgiving and other spiritually and even nationally vital holidays are so brazenly co-opted and turned into the playthings of industry and commercialism, my heart is heavy. It's a heavy time.
A heavy time indeed, and the whole world needs Christmas even more than many pious folk realize. Jesus didn't arrive on the scene for the benefit of Christians, right? Sure, he emerged from among Jews and operated in that world. But even he, in his words and especially in his deeds, served humanity and portrayed another way of being human. Best of all, it doesn't require membership or much other than to live from the place of compassion that all of us have but sometimes forget about. He didn't ask for people worship him as some deity. He wanted people to follow his way, not himself. To the extent that one follows him is to realize how he embodied the Way. And that his way was available to everyone, even to this day. No faith system really has the patent on humility, compassion, forgiveness and all that great stuff. They aren't qualities that expire. He just embodied those in such a way that it was hard to imagine he was made of the same stuff we were. So we grapple at best, and ignore him at worst. At our own peril, even.
Maybe Christmas causes eyes to glaze over and people to hear "yadda, yadda, yadda." That's a shame. That's not the Christmas I know, now having some great experiences taking in just what I have in my infinitesimally small sampling of Christian practices over only a decade. When I overcome even my own programming—that is, to venture farther afield in my church hopping, maybe to more ethnic churches, or economically disadvantaged communities, or other places where Christmas burns bright for "the least of these"—I have much more insight and awe coming. While I have my struggles with depression and all the ways I feel I don't fit the mold that produced so many around me, Christmas is one time when, theologically, I fit in just fine. Somewhere between the shepherds and the wise men, there I stand. For me, Christmas is indeed the promise that God bothered to look our way, even my way. God's very curiosity about how our lives go led to Christmas. What's it like to be one of them? I got this idea...
If I could give a Christmas present to the world, it would be that folks would awaken to what a radical thing Christmas really is. Forget the dumb pageants and the statues that freeze a moment in time that never happened unless you read the Bible poorly. Forget trying to medically figure out virgin birth. Forget arguments meant to save Jesus from pagan seasonal festivals. Or arguments that Christmas was just a Christian hijacking of those festivals. It goes without saying to forget the commercial extravaganza. It's so much more than all that. Those are the distractions, the frozen symbols, the weeds that choke the crops. The time is always when we need to be rocked by the idea that divinity has taken up residence in us, among us, and for us. And maybe in spite of us. It's really quite the proclamation, isn't it?
Getting to church a few times on one particular day of the year is a small thing to help reinforce that awareness, and to try to drink it down as if I were at an oasis.