By Deb Conklin
Last night I had a experience that gave me a much deeper understanding of why so many of my friends are so adamantly anti-church. I attended the most disturbing Christmas Eve service that I have ever experienced, and it was, sadly, in the church where I am the pastor.
This fall my Liberty Park Church chose to share our building with a new congregation that needed a larger, and better space. We did this in part to help our budget, but we also did it because we thought it would be a joy to have larger congregation with lots of families and music and energy sharing our building. I knew that this is a more conservative fundamentalist congregation, but I failed to appreciate how ungenerous this pastor and/or congregation truly is.
Over the fall, we’ve had a pretty good relationship. We’ve shared the space, with a bit of overlap and a lot of grace. The relationship has been cordial, and I had hoped we had developed mutual respect.
When Christmas Eve services came up we discovered that all of our congregations were accustomed to a 7 p.m. service on Christmas Eve. We talked it over and decided to try a joint Christmas Eve service, rather than getting people to adjust schedules that might have already been planned. My congregations (I have three) have been sharing Christmas Eve service for several years. For us, it is a time to celebrate the nativity. We tell the Luke 2 story, with Scripture and Carols, and close with Silent Night by candlelight. The other pastor said they do some music (he calls it worship), read the Luke 2 story, and have communion. It sounded like we did a pretty similar Christmas Eve.
I don’t usually do Communion on Christmas Eve because it is a service to which people bring families and friends, some of whom may not be totally comfortable with communion. For us, Christmas Eve is a time for including people, not excluding, for sharing our common story, not highlighting our differences. But I was willing to give it a try. I asked the other pastor about communion, explaining that our tradition has an “open table.” He did not understand what that meant, so I explained that we believe that Christ is the one who invites to the table, not us, as a result, we welcome anyone who seeks to know Jesus as Messiah. He explained that he usually reads one of the texts about the last meal in the upper room. He mentioned that he sometimes reads from I Corinthians rather than from one of the Gospels. We had a bit of a discussion about Paul’s comments about eating “ in an unworthy manner” or “without understanding the body” and I thought we had an understanding that he would not go beyond the biblical text. While the text can be challenging, it has several possible understandings with which I am comfortable. The most obvious having to do with the context: Paul is chastising them for not sharing a common meal, and for allowing the communion meal to be a source of division between those who have much and those who have little.
I have had many experiences of sharing worship with congregations that are more conservative, even fundamentalist. And it has been my experience that, when we make even minimal effort, we can find common ground upon which to worship together. I trusted that, particularly on Christmas Eve, the other pastor would want to celebrate those things than we genuinely share as we celebrate the birth of Christ together.
Sadly, this pastor took this as an opportunity to make my congregation uncomfortable. At a Christmas Eve service that was not supposed to include a sermon/message at all, he managed to: bring up both Biblical inerrancy and the rapture; repeatedly mention Jesus as the one and only, exclusive, way to salvation; (mis) interpret Paul’s admonitions in Corinthians; insist more than once that the bread and juice were merely symbols; and insert an altar call into the middle of communion, between serving the bread/crackers and serving the juice. And those were just the most glaring ways in which he made a point of bringing up virtually any areas in which he disagrees with one of the mainline traditions.
My folks, even some of the quieter, more conservative, ones were deeply disturbed. Some were so uncomfortable that they chose not to participate in communion. I learned after the service that one couple had chosen not to come because they were much less trusting that I – and were much more accurate about how it would go.
And so I find myself spending Christmas Eve wondering why. Why would any pastor lead such a service on Christmas Eve at all? Why would you not want to invite anyone who might have seen the lights or heard the carols and wandered in, to experience the mystery, even the magic, of the Christmas story? And why would you intentionally set out to make deeply uncomfortable the congregation that has opened its building and its spirit to you?
I understand why someone would not want to risk having a repeat of this experience, why they would never again darken the doors of a “Christian” church. This is not how I expected to spend my Christmas Eve. I am unable to call up the mystery and the magic that this night brings to me. During the Christmas Season – tomorrow and next Sunday – and as we celebrate Epiphany, my congregations and I will figure out how to reclaim the mystery together. Today we will start our healing. But, for last night, I grieve.
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