Looking back on my time at my church, I think that I can designate an easy label for each year that I've been here according to the general events or emotions that characterized it. For instance, the first year was the Year of Disillusionment, as I was disabused of quite a few notions about local church ministry that year. My second year was the Year of Meh, as I can't really recall anything monumental happening. My third year was the Year of Establishment, during which I felt I was finally beginning to feel "settled in." And so it goes.
Yesterday marked six years at my church. Looking back on the past year, I think I'd call it the Year of Grief. I call it that because I did quite a lot of wrestling with a sense of old pieces of my identity passing away. I actually processed quite a bit of it on this blog. There was the sense that a place where I figured out who I was has greatly changed in the past six years. There was wondering how to cope with living in one place for longer than 5 1/2 years. There's been a lot of grief in the midst of this as I've wondered about what defines me at this point in my ministry and life.
The church was decorated on Saturday morning. There were a dozen or so of us there to help out, and it went fairly quickly, for which I was glad. That evening, we decorated our home, and I can't even describe the excitement with which Coffeeson approached the exercise. He wanted to help pull out branches from the tree box, he loved the sight of the lights, he even helped hang a few ornaments, all with this incredible energy and wonder. Over and over, he'd point at the lit tree and simply exclaim, "Tree!" Just the sight of it made him so incredibly happy.
When I walked into the sanctuary on Sunday morning to organize my stuff for worship, I felt a similar joy. It wasn't nearly as intense as what Coffeeson expressed the previous evening, but the sight of the decorations triggered something within me. The songs, the lighting of the first candle...it all had such a renewing effect for me. Here I was the first day of my seventh year, the first Sunday of Advent, and the newness of both my year and the church year had reignited my spirit, to the point where all those questions that I'd been asking didn't seem to matter nearly as much. In fact, I didn't even feel like asking them.
I've spent quite a lot of time this year thinking about colleagues who have been at their churches for 10-15 years. The way I framed my wondering about how they'd been able to endure for so long was to ask myself the following question: "What's it like to get up and preach on Christmas Eve for the 10th time in the same place?" How do you find something new to say to these people? Does it still seem like a special thing, or by that point does it feel like you've done it all before? I ask this as I will soon preach on Christmas Eve for the 7th time in the same place. I can't say that it feels like I've done it before, although in other areas of my ministry here, it does seem that way. But if yesterday was any indication, I don't think it'll be an issue.
~As it was the first Sunday, I didn't feel the need to include more than one carol: "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence." The other two were Advent hymns: "Arise the Kingdom is at Hand" and "Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus." Since the question seems to come from somebody every year about why we sing "these weird songs," I went ahead and addressed it in the sermon. I said that the reason why we don't just go ahead and pass out candles & sing "Silent Night" next Sunday is because part of what makes that song special is our waiting to sing it. People seemed to understand.
~The sermon was based on Romans 13:11-14, where Paul encourages people to live honorably as the best way to prepare for the day of salvation. I used this to compare our culture's way of preparing for Christmas (i.e., starting to advertise as early as September and revving up from there, emphasizing Speed! and Efficiency!) with our being encouraged to linger in the present during the Advent season, and not rushing ahead to the big celebration lest we miss the present moment.
~I always think it's funny when a decent chunk of the congregation coincidentally dresses in similar colors. I don't know if there's any real psychological basis for that, but there was a lot of purple worn yesterday morning, myself included. Since the color of Advent is purple, I wonder if there was a subliminal thing happening there.