The little church I serve in the mountains of North Carolina is feeling, as they say in these parts, “rode hard and put up wet.” That phrase, of course, refers to a horse after a stressful run, then brought to the stall and not rubbed down.
We are feeling a need for a rubdown by the loving hands of our Lord, and we’ve come to the right place.
Advent this year comes at the tail end of a long, tedious electoral process in our country, cradled in a sagging economy. Our lectionary this autumn has reflected our collective experience and journey — forty years in the wilderness with the trials and tribulations of the desert lasting far too long. That number “40” seems to always show up when the circumstances seem to last forever — forty days of rain for Noah, forty years of Israelites wandering in the desert, Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. My congregation has decided they feel like they’ve experienced their own “forty.” Lay-offs. Loss of health care. Retirement security shrinking. People are wondering, Will this time of “forty” ever end?”
When folks come to church on Sunday morning, I can see the strain in their eyes. They’re tired, afraid, looking for that Christmas carol’s promise of “comfort and joy.” I see them huddle in small groups before worship, hungry for Christian fellowship and the stability of what a church family can offer in hard times.
So thank God for these days of promise sure. Thank God for a tradition that says it’s okay to long for something that doesn’t take up space in our house or economy, but fills up the empty, hungry spaces in our souls with pure Light.
It’s a season when our small church congregation beats its own drum roll to a crescendo — but it wasn’t always thus.
When I first came to Burnsville First Church nine years ago, this little congregation had experienced its own “forty” struggle of doubt and decline. Its numbers had dwindled to precious few, but the church’s leadership had never given up hope. They were determined that they would not be another dying Presbyterian church.
That first month here, several weeks before Advent season, I announced a planning meeting for Advent to be on a weekday afternoon, and, no kidding, everyone in the church showed up! They were longing to plan. They were ready for expectancy.
We began brainstorming and taking notes. They talked first about an Advent wreath (which was, in itself, fairly unusual in these parts of the mountains). Then they wanted to have poinsettias and a Christmas tree (which they hadn’t had in several years), but beyond that, they decided to not bring in decor all at once, but to build the anticipation of Advent. The first Sunday, they would start with just big green wreaths for the front of the sanctuary, made by a member from the thick, fragrant Frazier fir trees that grow down the road on our mountainsides.
The second Sunday, they would add swags along the sides of the sanctuary, also woven from native greenery and adorned with purple ribbon.
On the third Sunday of Advent, they elected to add poinsettias – and, on the fourth Sunday, a Christmas tree cut from the woods of a neighbor to be decorated with Chrismons neatly packed away downstairs.
Then a woman screwed up her courage and asked meekly “Can we sing Christmas carols before Christmas?”
Their last pastor had firmly said “No” with apparently little explanation. That was an answer they didn’t understand, as many people do not when they’re learning to celebrate Advent.
We decided to come to a compromise. We would sing Advent songs during worship, but before the worship hour, if people wanted to come early and have an informal carol sing-along, we would offer that. Such a plan seemed to ease their need, and we planned education in learning to wait for the baby to be delivered at the end of Advent.
Then we came to Christmas Eve. I asked about their past traditions. There was a silence and a sheepish expression on every face. Someone got brave and said “Well, we haven’t had a Christmas Eve service for a number of years because nobody ever came, and it was embarrassing to have just a few people in an almost empty sanctuary.”
“Hmmm,” I said, trying to think fast. “How would you like to have a SMALL Christmas Eve service around the fireplace in the fellowship hall? If we have three or four worshipers, we would just pull the folding chairs closer together around a roaring fire. If we had more, we’d expand our circle to accommodate all who came.”
That idea drove away the intimidating possibility of failure, so we began to make plans.
Advent came and together we explored the beauty of anticipation,
adding one element of decoration at a time. By the Sunday before Christmas, the sanctuary had become its most complete and beautiful as in adoration of the Christ Child. And they’d come to enjoy the colors and music of Advent.
But we did not go to the sanctuary for Christmas Eve. The lingering fear of having only a few attend strengthened our resolve to, instead, gather down the hall around the winter fire in the fellowship hall.
On the evening of December 24, the little congregation began to gather in as we lost the evening light, and then a snowfall (forecasted to fall after midnight), surprised us with an early arrival. What should we do? Mountain roads can be treacherous when the snow falls, especially after dark.
Several older members apologized but their driveways were long and steep. But Dan and Billie, two of my senior citizen members, refused to go home and stood by the door to greet worshipers. They were not going to miss their first Christmas Eve service in a long time. And in spite of the snow, new faces began to appear.
What happened that night was a Christmas miracle. Out of the dark and snow came five children from two different families who were not a part of our older congregation. They were the first children in the church in many years, and that alone made our service all we had hoped for. Twenty-four worshipers gathered around the crackling fire that night to read the Story and sing of its glory.
Nine years later, we continue the theme of anticipation with candles, native fir, and waiting hearts, but now we celebrate Christmas Eve in the sanctuary with a church full of expectant worshipers.
This year, as we come seeking comfort in our little church’s traditions that point to the joyful birth of a God who chose to live among us, we won’t just enjoy Advent. This year, we NEED it like never before.
Maggie Lauterer is pastor of the First Burnsville Church in Burnsville, N.C.