For many years our family found intimate community inside the walls of a church of thousands on Christmas Eve. This year, in our small seaside town, we’re wondering where we will worship, if anyone will notice our absence.
In the early days of ministry, our backyard met the asphalt of the mega church parking lot in Phoenix, where my husband served as one of fifteen pastors. On Christmas Eve, we padded our shiny shoes through a backyard battlefield of pecans; hair haloed by orange trees, their bounty brushing our velvet and lace. We pushed the wooden gate open like the closet door of Narnia, into the sun setting golden over the desert, bouncing her light shadows off rows of windshields and arms swinging gift bags.
And seventy-five people followed us back home.
It started with a few pastors and their wives following us home for dinner, to pass the time before doing the service all over again for the midnight crowd.
Our casual invitation grew into a tradition. Soon we began pushing furniture against the walls to make room for the swelling staff and friends to sit down cross-legged on the floor with lap’s plated chili con queso and tamales. All that ended ten years ago.
We left that church, accepting an invitation to pastor another on the East Coast. Then we moved five years later, to fill a ministry position outside the local church.
A few months ago, we left the only church we’ve attended since that last move, four years ago.
They voted. Like family separating over who likes chicken more than roast beef for dinner. We’re still standing outside holding our empty plates waiting for crumbs with our mouths drawn open. Our fingers numb from the cold breeze blowing the silence.
I won’t hear my pastor belt out O Come, O Come Emmanuel in the bold southern twang that brought me to my knees ten years ago, or dip my candle in the flame of friendship standing nearby. I won’t rearrange my living room furniture, smile over the stacks of dishes lining my kitchen counter, or watch my husband walk through the yard in his vestments before the dawn of Christmastide.
I will sit among familiar faces of the church homeless singing Oh Come All Ye Faithful. And realize that my faith is just as much about belief as it is about belonging. I’m holding on to both like a life raft while the ship sets sail for unchartered territory, His breath blowing our sails.
Jesus was born so he could die for you and me. Our life is costly, and our death is cheap. And when we surrender, we belong to Him whether the living room is full or empty; whether we worship under a steeple or the arm of a tree.
We nearly lost my daughter in a collision with a semi-truck the week before Thanksgiving. Sometimes it takes a brush within an inch of tragedy to realize what you’ve taken for granted. Like standing next to a friend tipping the wick of her candle into yours, the one who knows you like to eat Mexican food on Christmas Eve.
And instead of longing for what was, stomping my feet over what is, I’m nodding my head for the first time when I read Paul’s words. The veil hangs thin between heaven and earth.
I’ve learned by now to be quite content whatever my circumstances. I’m just as happy with little as with much, with much as with little. I’ve found the recipe for being happy whether full or hungry, hands full or hands empty. Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am. ~Philippians 4:11-13, MSG