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Craft Store in September

Christmas in September

Here it is, September 24. The heat has tapered off, the colors are starting to turn, and pumpkin spice is everywhere. Yet, if you walk in your local craft store, that fact might elude you. I was recently in search of a sketchbook for my son, and as soon as I walked in the door, the sights and sounds of Christmas — with red and green, glitter and bells — overcame me. The aisles were lined with these craft supplies and decorations, and I walked by shopping carts full of greenery and ribbon. I’ve barely breathed since Labor Day, and yet it seems as though Halloween has been completely subsumed by Christmas.

Craft Store in September

Craft Store in September

In fact, if my own social media feeds are any indication, the corporate rush into holidays is one of Americans’ favorite things to collectively complain about. The chorus of “IT ISN’T THANKSGIVING YET! PUT YOUR CHRISTMAS STUFF AWAY!” rings almost as loudly as the passive-aggressive posts counting down the days until Christmas, chiding people to refrain from any songs containing the words “holly” or “jolly” for that number of days.

And it isn’t just Christmas, is it? Easter decor is out by Valentine’s Day, Independence Day by Easter, fall by Independence Day, Christmas by Labor Day… and the cycle continues.

It feels rushed and capitalistic. Like the only thing the stores care about is getting us to buy more, earlier. And… that is true. When you’re out in September and see a Christmas decoration you absolutely love, there’s no way to know if it will still be there in December, so you should buy it NOW, right? Then buy more when the season does roll around! Stores know this, and they are happy to feed that need for more, for better, for newer.

I don’t deny for one minute that that is true; corporations sell what makes money.

But there’s an also true here, another reality that offers a different lens. Without denying capitalistic goals, the also true is that stores are not the only places that blur the lines between seasons and holidays.

This is also true in clergy offices.

Clergy are always one season ahead. At least one season.

Sometimes, that feels a little bizarre.

It’s an odd mark of ministry; cultivating worship experiences and programming to fit the theme of each season requires a lot of advance preparation, so we are never really full present in the season we’re in. We live our lives in this “already but not yet”… one foot planted firmly in the present, leading in worship and programming that meets the needs of our congregations and communities, at that very space and time. And the other foot is always — always — a step ahead.All over the country, on this very day in September, pastors are working on their Advent sermon series, planning seasonal events, and filling newsletters with “Save the Dates” for December. Advent planning has been a regular conversation in my clergy social media groups for weeks, and I‘ve even seen some references to Lent and Easter 2020 popping up. By the time our congregations are actually observing Advent, clergy will be knee-deep planning Lent: preaching on Sunday morning about awaiting the birth of embodied Hope… all the while spending Thursday afternoons planning Lenten Bible Studies that focus on the fallibility of our humanity.

And occupying that space, the ever-present reality of the already but not yet, is holy. It’s like a little sneak peak into what’s ahead, prayerfully seeking where God is leading us and our congregations next. Getting to lead what is with grateful anticipation of what might be.

Embracing that has been helpful for me, laying down my sword in the fight against one-season-at-a-time and living into the messiness of the reality of blurred seasons. So, one recent morning, I breathed deeply, lit an evergreen candle, added peppermint to my coffee, and streamed a Christmas movie in the background while I got to work.

And then, when I walked into this craft store that had exploded in red and green, I let out a sigh of solidarity. It wasn’t just me. I know that we have all of autumn, not to mention four full weeks of Advent, before we get to Christmas. But some days, focusing on that grateful anticipation of what might be is what my soul — and my planner — need.

So the next time you see Christmas decorations out long before Thanksgiving, remember that, as people of faith, Hope is already here. 

 

Poinsettias

Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Holly Jolly Christmas Edition

PoinsettiasDear Askie,

The holiday season is busy for everyone, but I would guess that it’s especially busy for clergy. I can only imagine how busy and stressed my wonderful pastor must be with so many church events and worship services to manage, on top of all of her family obligations! I’d like to do what I can to make the season easier and merrier for her, but I don’t know where to start. Could you advise all of us church folks about what we can do at Christmas time to care for the pastors and their families who give so much to make Christmas so special for our church?

Merry Christmas,
Puzzled Parishioner

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Healing Sanctuary

Dec 2014 Blue CandleIn the church parking lot, I was breathing deeply.  I knew that going inside was something I needed to do, but I also knew that it would be hard. I had no idea just how comforting attending my first Blue Christmas service would be.

I was nervous about going.  I mean, who really wants to have to deal with grief in front of them like that?  So much of our culture tells us to stop crying, to be happy, that we should be over it by now,  and not to show too much emotion.  What if I broke down?  What if I sobbed in front of others?  What if my grief was so deep it was unnameable?

My father passed away in 2004, the day after Thanksgiving.  Two weeks later my grandmother passed away, and a month later I married my husband and moved to the Middle East.  It was a time of great turmoil in my life.  I was afraid that the holidays would be hard forever because of the deaths.

But the year that I went to the Blue Christmas service, in December of 2006, I found peace and hope in the holidays once again.

After enough deep breaths, I went inside and entered a sanctuary that was beautifully decorated.  The lights had all been covered with blue tissue paper, and silver stars hung from the rafters.  This gave the whole place an otherworldly glow that pulled me in and made me feel protected.  The ethereal decorations made me feel connected to God and made the room feel safe from the rest of the world. I was calm and allowed myself to stop forcing deep breaths. This would be a safe place to miss my Dad and to acknowledge that sometimes life is hard.

We do not grieve well as a society.  We tell people to be happy, to stop crying.  We tell people to stuff their feelings and not to let them show. People thought I should be happy because my Dad was living with God.  I always wanted to scream back, “But I want him here with me!” Luckily, because of my training as a counselor and a seminary student in CPE, I knew that I needed to let myself grieve.

And this service, this magical, beautiful Blue Christmas Service…it allowed me to do that in a way I had not been able to do before.  I was with others who were also grieving.  I knew that I wasn’t the only one who was sad that I had to face Thanksgiving and Christmas without my Dad once again.

I do not clearly remember all the details of the service.  But here is what I do remember:  There was a time when I got to share a story about my Dad.  There was a time during the service when I felt connected to my Dad.  My Dad is the one who taught me about church, and we worshiped together nearly every Sunday when I was at home.  There was a time during the service for being still and quiet, for crying, for acknowledging the hurt and anger.  And it was safe to feel all those things — even around others — because we were wrapped in the blue light.

This light helped me feel secure, wrapped in a cocoon of God’s love. Inside this safe space, I could feel what I needed to feel without being judged.  I could set aside the hard memories of my grief: crying in the supermarket in front of the Christmas cards from daughters to dads, being told that letting my grief show was unprofessional, and being told that because of heaven, I should just be happy.

And that made all the difference.  It made the difference that inside this cocoon of blue light, I could feel how I needed to feel.  I could receive the message from the church that my grief was ok.  Even if my Dad is living with God, the church said it was still ok to miss him living on earth with me.  Hearing this message, I felt God was with me in my pain and cradled me as I experienced it.  .

I left that service feeling tired, but also relaxed.  I was exhausted, but had a deeper sense of peace.  It was like emerging from the sanctuary to a new world where I knew that God was with me in my pain, not to shut it up or out, but to hold me in it until things got better.  This was an important part of my grief and healing process.

This other world of the Blue Christmas service helped me connect all my feelings about the holidays, God, my grandmother, and my Dad in a whole and comforting way.  Even all these years later, the memories of this this service still help me make those connections.

As I think about that service now, I feel calm.  I feel the love of my Dad as if he is with me and as though he’ll be with me this Christmas and Thanksgiving.  I somehow am reminded by the memory that God is part of all of this, too.  There is a place I go to in my memory, when I think about that service, where I find acknowledgement.  And that gives me what I need to let go of the pain (at least most of it) and to keep the joy, hope, and comfort.

Whatever your losses in life, whatever feelings the holidays bring up in you, I would encourage you to seek out a Blue Christmas service, at least once.  Maybe it will help you, too, remember that God promises to eventually return us to new life . . . and that in the meantime, in the present pain and grief, God is with us.  Even if you are not able to find a service, I encourage you to make your own space to securely acknowledge your grief during this time.  And as you seek out your own healing this season, I offer you this Christmas blessing:

May God be big enough for all your losses,

May Jesus hold your hand when you need to cry, and

May the Holy Spirit lead you to places of deep hope and joy from on high.  Amen.

 

Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Holiday Drama Edition

Dear Askie,

9698410745_3d45d2389f_zMy daughter is a Pastor and I am so upset that she won’t come home for Christmas. We had wonderful family Christmases but now she’s always missing. She takes off at other times so why can’t she take off for one Christmas! She cares more about her congregation than her family! She knows we can’t afford to fly there so why can’t she come home? I’m so upset that we have to spend another Christmas without her. Daughter, I need you to come home! How can we convince her that we love her and we want to spend Christmas Day with her home?

Sad unhappy Christmas mother

 

Dear Sad Mom,

Oh, I get it. I really do. You didn’t sign up for this strange and wonderful life your daughter has chosen. You have not made any vows to the church. We young clergy women know that it isn’t always fair how our pastoral vocations impact our loved ones, from missing holidays with our extended families to spending too many evenings away from our kids to seldom being able to go away for the weekend with our spouses. Sharing your daughter with her congregation is really hard… and sometimes it doesn’t even feel like sharing. It feels like her congregation gets first dibs on her time and attention, and you get the meager leftovers. Big hugs for you.

If it’s any consolation, you are not the only sad mom out there… and your daughter is probably kind of bummed, as well. Clergy of all ages, genders, and religions sometimes lament the ways our callings change our holiday rituals. It is an indescribable blessing to lead a congregation through a Christmas Eve service, to tell the story of Jesus’ birth, to break bread and light candles, to proclaim that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Yet many of us feel some loss, too. We regret that we can’t make it home to far-away family, that our children are hanging up stockings without us, that helping others celebrate this holy night often means rushing around attending to logistics when we’d rather be drinking in the stories and songs we love most.

Getting down to brass tacks, though, sad mom, the answer is: no, your daughter can’t come home for Christmas. It’s just the nature of our work… Broadway stars have to work Friday and Saturday nights, tax preparers have to work long hours in March and April, pyrotechnicians have to work on Independence Day, and pastors have to work on Christmas and Easter. If you’re a church-goer yourself, try thinking about it from that perspective – what would it be like for you if your pastor was away for some of the most important services of the year? There are some pastors who might be able to get home for Christmas (maybe by leaving right after their last service and traveling through the night… not exactly a recipe for a holly-jolly day!), but it sounds like your daughter isn’t so fortunate as to be able to make it work.

So what’s a sad Christmas mom to do?

I’ve got good news for you, Christmas mom: you get to create some new traditions. Talk with your daughter (and maybe other family members) and come up with a plan that will help you all celebrate the holidays together in a way that makes sense for your particular lives. Maybe you can choose another day to be your family’s holiday celebration… Christmastide has twelve days, you know! Maybe your daughter could visit for New Year’s, or maybe you’d like to hold an annual family “Christmas in July.” Maybe you could start a tradition of Skyping together on Christmas morning. Maybe you could – at least once – visit your daughter for Christmas. Attending her church for Christmas services might be moving for all of you. (Please don’t expect her to prepare an elaborate meal on top of everything else, though. Order in, or follow Askie’s lead and make some Christmas fajitas! The red and green peppers are very festive.)

It’s sad to say goodbye to our old Christmas traditions, but this is a great opportunity for you to re-think your routines. How do you want to spend Christmas? Visiting with other family members or friends? Seeing a movie? Volunteering at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter? There are lots of options, so find a way of celebrating that works well for your family.

Will your daughter ever be home for Christmas again? She might be! Not this year, but there might be a Christmas when she is on sabbatical or maternity leave. There might be a Christmas when she is between calls. She might transition to a different kind of ministry that isn’t so demanding around the holidays. She might be called to a church that’s closer to home. Or maybe not.

My hope for you, Christmas mom, is that you will find a tradition that brings you closer to your family and to God. My hope is that you find a way to celebrate both the birth of Christ and your daughter’s calling to Christ’s church, with all the joy and difficulty that entails. And most of all, Christmas mom, I hope you have a blessed Advent and a merry Christmas.

Holiday blessings,

Askie

Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Attitude of Gratitude Edition

Dear Askie,

I know that gratitude is a good thing and that there are so many blessings in my life… I have enough to eat, work I feel called to, people who love me and whom I love, and so much more. But honestly, it sometimes feels stilted this time of year. With Advent planning, the stewardship campaign, the budget committee, and the community interfaith Thanksgiving service (which means I can’t leave town until late the night before Thanksgiving), and family dynamics around the holidays (did I mention that my mother asked again whether I could come home for Christmas Eve?), gratitude sometimes feels like one more unrealistic expectation. Do you have any tips for finding my sense of gratitude in the midst of stress, anxiety, and frenzy?

Too Busy to Be GratefulThank You Notes

Dear TBTBG,

I hear you, sister! As clergy, this is a time of year when our jobs include a lot of trying to help other people practice gratitude… often while persevering through some of the toughest parts of the annual cycle of church life. It isn’t easy, and the professional and familial expectations that we make a show of our gratitude at this time of year sometimes make it even harder to experience gratitude authentically.

Fortunately for us, gratitude is like a muscle that gets stronger with exercise (and atrophies with disuse). If you’re not feeling especially grateful, don’t beat yourself up about it! Instead, start by practicing gratitude, and you may find that authentic sense of gratitude starting to grow. Why don’t you try doing something concrete that might help nurture your sense of gratitude?  Here are a few ideas:

  • Participate in TYCWP’s #thanksliving14! Every day this month, young clergy women and others are posting photos and reflections around themes of thanksgiving and gratitude. Maybe hunting for the perfect photo opportunity for “abundance” or “feast” will make you more aware of the moments of grace and blessing throughout your day. If you’d like to join in or learn more, check out this article.
  • If you have children, one YCW suggests incorporating a “thank you prayer” into bedtime. Each member of the family thanks God for one thing about their day – “Thank you, God, for pumpkin day. Amen.” “Thank you, God, for pizza at lunch. Amen.” “Thank you, God, for my son. Amen.” This practice helps parents to model and teach prayers of thanksgiving, while refocusing the whole family on God’s blessing in our lives.
  • Another family practice (for families with or without kids) is a “thanks jar” – sometime in October, take an evening as a family to write down fifty-five things you’re grateful for and put them all in a big jar. Each day from November 1 to December 25, pull one paper from the jar during a family meal, and read it out loud. Big kids can participate in writing down things they’re grateful for; littler kids can help decorate the jar.
  • When your work life is tough, it’s helpful to have a file of “love notes”… mementos that remind you what you love about ministry. Your file might include hand-written notes of thanks, congratulations, or praise; mementos from events that made your heart sing; or photos of beloved congregants that make you smile. If you don’t have a file, start one this week and try to find a few things you can put in it.
  • Speaking of notes, you could write thank you notes to people who are contributing to your ministry. From the person who cleaned out the fridge last week, to the one who sang a solo in worship, to the one who can always be trusted to “pinch hit” if an usher calls in sick, I hope your ministry has plenty of people who are helping out in big and small ways. Making a habit of writing thank you notes each week is a great practice for nourishing congregational vitality – and it’s a great discipline for you, as well!
  • If you don’t have time to go buy some notecards right now, you can start with this baby step: start every email with a word of thanks. Sometimes it’ll be easy to find something to thank people for, and other times you may need to really dig deep (Wrong: “Dear Budget Committee Chair, thanks a bunch for your suggestion of cutting my salary.” Right: “Dear Budget Committee Chair, thank you so much for the dedication and creativity you’re putting into stewarding our church’s resources.”) I think you’ll find that the practice of searching for something for which to be grateful is a very fruitful one indeed.
  • A practice that one YCW encourages is telling the stories of moments of blessing and grace in your daily life. While it’s certainly good to notice those moments, sharing stories about the times we’ve experienced God’s grace helps to reinforce our gratitude and build one another up in faith.

Blessings and best of luck as you navigate this season, TBTBG! As the Apostle Paul says, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:16-18, NRSV). I’m thankful for you, and for all my sisters in ministry.

Gratefully,

Askie

A Potpourri of Holiday Cheer

When it comes to December, what I call Clergy Superbowl, our very lives are acts of creativity: how will we balance activity and reflection? home stuff with church stuff? the “shoulds” with the “want-tos?” tradition with innovation? It is a constant balancing act:

Some of us cook.

Some of us craft.

Some of us order takeout.

And it’s all good.


One YCW writes:
I remembered that Ian, my Presbyterian pastor husband, and I are thinking about having a holiday party for our clergy friends. It will be simple–because in this season clergy especially need simplicity!  The gimmick: it will be a religiously-themed wine party. Bring a bottle with a name you can theologize on, and then do.

–Jennifer M. Creswell ministers, cooks, and drinks in Portland, OR.
(Let us know how the party went, Jennifer!)

__________________

As expected, many of our traditions and practices revolve around food. Rebecca Lesley, pastor of Suffolk Presbyterian Church in Suffolk, VA, wrote, My Swiss-German grandmother always makes a stollen and we must, must, must have honeycakes! Oh, and hot buttered rum on Christmas morning.

And Grace Burson, Curate at Grace Episcopal Church in Manchester, NH, shared her Christmas menu: Schnecken (German cinnamon rolls, homemade with enormous effort) for breakfast, along with fruit salad and scrambled eggs. And my family of origin does a big Christmas evening buffet, with homemade bread and cold cuts and cocktail sausages and crudites and millions of cookies.
Oh, and Turkish phyllo rolls called boereks, stuffed with cheese and dill, which were made as a fundraiser by the nursery school we all attended and have become a tradition.

Grace also continues her family’s tradition of real candles on the Christmas tree… as well as the traditional placement of the fire extinguisher in a handy place nearby. Read more

It’s Not Too Late to Designate

Flip to a scene of Thanksgiving or Christmas festivities with family and friends gathered around, laughing and joking, preparing to finally chow down on turkey and stuffing and pie, until one lone person raises the question: “So, who’s going to say grace?” And the entire room falls silent in an attempt to de-volunteer.  Another holiday role emerges, less public but just as valuable: the designated pray-er.

The designated pray-er (DP), like the designated driver (DD), has become a crucial role for many families. The DD takes on sobriety in order to ensure the safety of all. The DP assumes a mantle of leadership and ritual that allows festivity to be carried out in the name of God. And both positions have the distinction of being cherished most by those who do not occupy them.

It’s easiest to find a DP if you can find someone in your family who actually enjoys praying out loud. Another alternative is to establish a DP based on someone’s position within a family. You might choose the matriarch or patriarch of your clan, or let the honor rest with the person hosting the meal. Others might cast lots for the privilege, or draw numbers from a hat, or come up with another equitable way to share the responsibility. If all else fails, there’s always the time-honored solution of waiting until the silence becomes unbearable for someone, who bursts out with, “Okay, I’ll do it!”

My family has been lucky enough to have a DP for as long as I can remember: my uncle. Sometimes self-elected, sometimes asked by the host or hostess, he is often the de facto choice. He is, after all, a responsible oldest-child type and the crown patriarch after his father passed away twenty-nine years ago. Not only that, he actually enjoys the responsibility. He owns it. He takes it very seriously. He IS
the Prayer Master. He frequently becomes emotional while engaging in prayer. One Thanksgiving, my cousin actually said, “My dad has disappeared into my room with the Bible and a dictionary…I’m not
quite sure what we’re going to get.”

So perhaps you can imagine what happened when I announced I was going to seminary to study to become a pastor. Perhaps you can imagine the way my emerging identity sent the established role of designated pray-er into a bit of a tailspin. Perhaps you can imagine the new confusion over who was going to be saying grace before family meals. After all, pastors become pastors because they love to pray in public, right? (Hint: Not always.) Read more