Reflection for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2015

Luke 2:1-21

Let me tell the story of a young pastor named Jason. Jason grew up in a large city on the east coast, and was a gifted thinker and writer. His passion was urban ministry. When Jason graduated from seminary, in its infinite wisdom, the church assigned him to a small rural congregation nestled in the valley two counties west of where I was serving. Despite the obvious adjustments, Jason was doing well in his congregation. His wife found a teaching job only twenty miles away, and so in many ways the assignment was a good one.
One of the saving graces of Jason’s life was that his small community of less than 2,000 people actually had a coffee shop! Well it was sort of a combination country diner and urban coffee boutique. A double decaf caramel late was out of the question, but still the good coffee served with a slight sense of urbanity worked for Jason.
His weekly ritual involved going to the coffee shop each Tuesday and Wednesday mornings to write his sermon on yellow legal pads. He would sit at the same table with his Bible, gradually creating a small pile of crumpled yellow paper on the floor as various drafts of the sermon came together. With its hint of urban sophistication, the coffee shop was a relief from the drabness of rural life. It was for him the creative place. He was doing his best work on those mornings.
The other regulars, and then of course everyone in town, at first thought it strange to find a pastor writing in the coffee shop every Tuesday and Wednesday. But after a couple of years, everyone understood that Jason really needed the coffee shop in order to write well. And if they wanted to know what was on those yellow sheets of paper, they could always show up at the Lutheran church down the street on Sunday mornings.
One autumn day, a Lutheran farmer in Jason’s congregation died. He was a good man, and was well respected in the community. Their farm was up in the hills above the valley. The man’s wife and son were left now with the farm. The wife’s name was Amanda. Amanda was a strong woman who knew how to make it through the tough times that mark rural life. She brought her Bible to church almost every Sunday, even though her husband and son seldom came. The son was named Mike. He was a loner: a little strange, perhaps. At least the people in town thought so, and that was the talk in the congregation.
The funeral went as funerals go. But Jason noticed that neither Amada nor Mike cried or wept. Their faces were set like flint, facing this ordeal together with inner strength and resolve. Jason admired that, and yet wondered about it, too.
There was a funeral luncheon up at the farm following the service at church. It was a beautiful late September day. During the wake, Jason stepped outside the house. The view from the hillside was stunning. Jason walked up the hill just a bit to an abandoned chicken coop: a twelve by twelve building, with windows and a door in reasonably good repair. A decent floor. It had not been used for years. From the front door of the chicken coop the view of the valley and the town was spectacular with the trees in early autumn color. As he took in the view, Jason noticed Mike watching him for a moment from the front porch of the house.
That November, as the weather shifted, the owner of the coffee shop announced that she had to close the business. There was simply not enough interest in urban coffee to keep the place going. She had to close her doors. Everyone understood, of course. Such closings are a natural part of country living. But when the shop closed Jason was devastated. His creativity died. And without a Tuesday and Wednesday morning ritual and a place to write where he felt comfortable; his sermons began to decline, becoming a jumble of rambling theological truisms about being thankful and the importance of lighting blue candles and the like. He was writing now in the pastor’s office, a small addition to the back of the white church which for Jason was the least creative place imaginable. Without his creative space, Jason was at a loss. He knew it more than anyone else. But the congregation sensed that the closing of the coffee shop was hard on their pastor from the city. Of course no one talked about it. However, a couple people prayed.
The third week in December came, and Jason was struggling with the yellow legal pads in the addition behind the church, when Mike, of all people, stopped by in his pick-up. Jason was surprised to see him. Mike said he came to church to “see the pastor.” He was serious. He wanted Jason to follow him to the farm. Jason thought something was wrong with Amanda. But Amanda was fine, Mike said. He just wanted Jason to follow the truck to the farm. So Jason got into his car and followed him up into the hills.
When they got there, they did not go to the house. Amanda was in town clerking now at the small grocery store. There were a few inches of fresh snow on the ground, but Mike had cleared a path to the old chicken coop. They headed up the hill. Jason noticed the coop looked different. It had been cleaned and painted; the roof, windows and doors repaired. Mike had created a small place to sit outside in front of the coop that took in the view of the valley now covered in snow. When they went inside, the old room was completely clean and painted in a subtle gray. In the corner was a wood burning stove. A cord of firewood was outside by the side of the coop. And in the opposite corner was an old and very simple desk and wooden chair, situated between two windows. On the desk were three yellow legal pads and four pencils. Next to the desk on a shelf was a worn Bible.
Mike smiled and simply said, “I know you’ve been needing a place to write. And this Christmas Eve my mother needs a really good sermon. Come here when you need to.”
Jason did not know what to say at first; but then nodded, and said he would. When Mike left, Jason started a fire, and sat down at the desk. The building, the desk, the light, the view wrapped themselves around Jason’s soul. His creative energy started to come back. Mike was, it turned out, a gifted person when it came to creating space. And so almost every day for the next week, Jason would drive out to the farm, wave to Amanda or Mike if they were at the house, and then made his way to the chicken coop. Gradually the sermon for Christmas Eve wound its way through the crumpled pages on the floor, which were now thrown into a box to light the next day’s fire, until on the 22nd of December, Jason knew he was finished. He was ready to preach.
December 24 had good weather. People came into town. The church was full. And Jason once again preached as he should. The old platitudes were gone, as the story came alive again in his words: the story about a family on the road, their hard times, the hope and also fearful pondering that comes with birth, the visitors both ordinary and wise, and the importance of holding onto a song to sing. The phrases were well assembled, the paragraphs moved the thought along, and the sermon engaged a spirit that was moving. This year Jason focused on the wisemen and the shepherds, not as separate groups but as one in the same: how the ordinary and the wise come together in the presence of the divine. And although some people were lost in his mystic twisting of the visitors, most sensed how the divine light is born as we find the wisdom in our ordinary lives. Jason and everyone felt fine about the sermon, and all wondered how Jason had found his creativity again. For the chicken coop was not yet public knowledge.
The service continued with song, the offering, and Holy Communion, until it was time to light the candles and sing Silent Night. As the lights went down, the little white church glowed with candlelight reflecting in the faces of the people. As Silent Night began, everyone held their candles. Most were singing as they renewed the significance of this moment, beyond the usual constraints of everyday preoccupations, recalling Christmas’s past, until they found themselves again in the presence of the baby Jesus.
But two people were not holding candles and were not singing. Amanda and her son Mike were both standing there, embracing each other. Amanda was crying. Her tears from the losses of autumn now ran down her cheeks as she embraced her son. As the two of them held each other, the assembly embraced Michael and Amanda with their light and the song of their hearts. Mother and child in radiant beams, echoing the faint but real glorias of the angels when we have made it through the worst of times and feel the first stirring of hope born again in country churches and in the darker streets of the city where the light still shines.
As the song concluded and the lights were extinguished, Jason saw in the candlelight moistened by the fresh tears of grief: that tonight he had never really preached at all; that the night itself proclaimed the holy birth of hope; that this moment and this room was God’s creative space to write the message of hope in the hearts of all; that the embrace of mother and child, sister and brother, friend and enemy, angel and demon in this human family is what we sing; that even though Jason had never heard of a hard candy Christmas, he fully witnessed the contours of human struggle for which the child was born. This was God’s message requested by Michael and needed by Amanda. For the ordinary wisdom from everyday life is not so much about the everyday, but about the mystery of recovery from ordinary sorrows: a mystic confidence embedded in the renewal of hope on the road of life, traveling with shepherds and wisemen, angels and innkeepers all witnessed by the beasts of the field. For the light reveals the ordinary truth: that we do suffer, and then we cry, and then embraced by family, friend, and God, we do go on. We go on, remembering the birth of a baby. We go on, straight through to the end and beyond, where in light eternal we find ourselves with the ones we have loved.
As people chatted while they were leaving, Jason decided that he needed to go back to the chicken coop to write some more, to use the Christmas gift Michael had given him. For it would soon be January and there was more to write about the love of God in times of sorrow and loss, in places of dull sameness and despair, and in the deepest moments of human encounter, to that particular group whose faces were shining with the light of a night that was holy.