Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Spirituality of How We Come to Church on Easter & Christmas Eve

Lines forming for Easter services at Myers Park last year.

Christmas Eve & Easter Crowds
     A few days after Christmas Eve, someone from out of town visiting family who’d come to one of our services sent me a frustrated note that said “Your sanctuary isn’t big enough to hold all the people who come.”  Believe me, we know.  It's maybe worse at Easter.
     My first thought is to say Thank God so many people come.  What if we only had one service that was half-full?  People might get diverted and forget about God in June or September.  But on Christmas and Easter, even the thinly churched know it matters to be there.
     And there aren’t as many C&E (Christmas and Easter only!) people as you’d imagine.  Extended families swarm in together – so you get twelve Smiths instead of the usual four.  I love seeing families I know with grandparents, grown siblings and their children, an aunt or cousin on Christmas Eve.
     You can’t believe how diligently our staff and dedicated volunteers work to make things go as smoothly and comfortably as possible.  Many of us work from 11am past midnight on Christmas Eve, a day the rest of you guys get to be home or travelling – and we love it.  We have unpaid volunteers who are with us much or all of that time!  We have chairs arranged and the video feed live; we provide extra bulletins, cider, lots of ushers and other friendly faces to welcome and guide, hand out and collect thousands of candles, sing in amazing choirs.  Instead of one or two services, we start at 1pm and go continuously through midnight. 
     But there isn’t enough room in the inn – and so people show up 15 or even 30 minutes early only to hear the disappointing words We’re full, There’s seating in Jubilee Hall, etc.  Feelings vary.  Some totally understand and even cheerfully stroll over to join the others.  Some are sad, a few express their annoyance.  Easter is even harder.  Twelve hours worth of services wouldn’t make sense. 
     Our options?  We could expand the building – which would cost tens of millions of dollars, and I predict we’d still be more than full.  We can continue to perfect the kinds of things we’re doing.  Any folks who want to help us are welcome!  Extra hands and friendly faces: we never have too many.

A Spirituality of How We Come to Church
      I think there is a spirituality of how we come to church on Christmas Eve and Easter that is worth pondering.  Sometimes it’s a little jarring to sing “Silent Night… All is Calm,” right after there has been stress at the entrance, tension trying to park, resentment over saved seats, and coping with a stranger who seems flat out inconsiderate.  How can we maintain a peaceful, loving, holy equilibrium in the press of the crowd?  Maybe you pray before you come, maybe you breathe deeply while you’re in the thick of things.
     Gratitude is always lovely.  Thank the person collecting your candle.  Thank the choir member filing past you.  Thank the policeman waving you across the dark street.  Thank the maintenance staff cleaning up behind you.
     Our church claims Radical Hospitality as one of our highest values.  What would it mean to exercise Radical Hospitality on Christmas Eve and Easter morning?  At our 3:00 service, the overflow in Jubilee Hall was higher by far than we’d ever had – so all the chairs got full.  A couple of us clergy noticed chairs on the stage, set up for the next service, and started schlepping them down so people could sit.  I got several admiring notes for this: Oh, Dr. Howell even schlepped chairs!  

     I think I want to give every able-bodied person permission to schlep chairs – and perhaps even to yield the chairs they are already sitting in.  I was raised to believe men especially were supposed to be gallant and gentlemanly – so you do things like hold the door, schlep a chair for someone, or even yield your seat.  Many times I have seen an elderly person hobbling, or someone with a walker hunting a seat, and able bodied people just sit.  This makes me sad – for the elderly but also for the able bodied.  There is a joy in yielding, in caring for a stranger, in embracing discomfort so someone else can be comfortable.  After all, that’s the Christmas and Easter message, isn’t it? – that God Almighty left the comforts of heaven to endure discomfort in a manger and then on a cross, all out of love for us strangers.
     When I read about a crowd trampling somebody at a European soccer match, I think of our services and wonder if somebody will be injured.  Can those who are about to enter leave enough space for those trying to exit?  You can’t get in anyhow until the others get out.  Our choir has great difficulty getting to the choir room for a break before the next service.  Can we kindly step aside instead of pressing forward?
     Much frustration arises over the saving of seats.  It’s understandable.  But those of us who’ve thought a lot about it think it’s unfair for one family member to come an hour early and stake out an entire pew for the other 7 who come 3 minutes before the service starts, while people who come 30 minutes ahead of time can’t get a seat at all.  To me, it seems reasonable for a group to come in and save one seat for the driver who dropped them off.  We would prefer that you really need to come and sit in your seat, all of you, not just one – out of consideration for others.


Easter is Coming
     My hope and prayer for the souls of our people would be that Christmas Eve and Easter morning might be times we exercise the virtue of holy hospitality.  It’s not me, me, me, us, us, us, my family, my family, I want the best seat, I want a seat, me, me, me – but we find ways to show kindness to others, to strangers.
     Are you one God might be calling to be swift to give up a seat for someone else?  Are you one who might be a hospitality helper with our current volunteers and staff?  Are you one who goes directly to Jubilee Hall?  Can we live into and exhibit a disposition of love, compassion and peace?  We love it that so many care enough to worship.  Thanks for understanding, for wrestling together with how to make it work – and we all pray for a calm, respectful, joyful celebration come Easter morning, and next Christmas Eve.

3 comments:

  1. Absolutely great theology!! Thank you James!!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I remembered a favorite Christmas song tonight ."Star of Bethleham " Wise men seek him , wise men follow . If one is saved by singing Silent Night on Christmas Eve . Its so great you do Services from 1 to 11 .

    ReplyDelete