Does it seem like Christmas is starting earlier and earlier each year? It feels like the day after Halloween the Christmas commercials begin. I try to hold Christmas at bay in my mind until after Thanksgiving. But last week I had a meeting with the creative team at our church to start talking about Easter. Sometimes it feels like the weeks and the seasons all start to blur together. If there hadn't already been four inches of snow in Detroit, I wouldn't even know it's winter.
The challenge of Christmas
There's a challenge that comes with gearing up for Advent or Holy Week, depending on the season. The more of them I do, the more difficult it can be for me to fully engage. I feel like the little boy who told his mother he didn't want to go to church for Easter, because he "hates wearing a tie and the story always ends the same way."
In a world drowning in trinkets and knickknacks, reruns and plastic, people are hungry for the real thing.
I sometimes straddle two equally unattractive options as the clock counts down to Christmas. First is the temptation of boredom in having to do the same thing again … and again (think Bill Murray in Groundhog Day or Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow). The second is the pressure to manufacture some groundbreaking insight on the incarnation narrative that truly requires no upgrades. (Shouldn't the Christ child arriving as light in the darkness stand on it's own?) So on my bad days I can ping between joy-sucking cynicism and anxiety-generating insecurity.
I was giving my fifth grade daughter a ride to her church production today and asked her what she thought about a family visit to see Santa this year. She said she'd be up for it if her younger siblings want to go, but fears she's finally too old for "the sitting on the lap thing." It's the end of an era for her, a natural and inevitable part of growing up. But it's also a little sad to see her become "too cool" for Christmas. Then I'm reminded I'm guilty of the same approach in my own way. So here's my prayer for pastors, clergy, and church workers of all stripes this Christmas: "Lord, help us reclaim our sense of wonder."
Reclaiming our sense of wonder
It doesn't seem like it was a full ten years ago when that same daughter was just a few months old. After Christmas day 2004, my wife Kelly and I traveled with her to visit family in Florida. Since we were already in the Orlando area, we took her on her first trip to Disney World. She tagged along with infant curiosity through the various zones of the Magic Kingdom, puzzled at the oversized Winnie the Pooh character costumes. I don't recall all of her responses that trip, but I can't forget one.
We basked in the shadow of Cinderella's iconic castle until after dark, and long after her regularly scheduled bedtime. And then the fireworks began. It's always a gamble to bring a child that young to an experience bordering on total sensory overload; she couldn't anticipate what was coming. But she gazed as the brilliant spark showered down in the midnight sky with perfect awe. At one point, I stopped watching the show altogether. I simply focused on her face instead; watching the fireworks mirrored in her tiny eyes. It's a snapshot of wonder, of mystical childlike innocence, frozen in time for me.
Let me go another decade back in time. It's the fall of 1994, my senior year at Taylor University. A new chaplain was just named: Dr. Richard Allen Farmer. I can recall his majestic tone, his brilliant musicianship, and an incredible message on Nehemiah. Another memory though, is germane to our current discussion of wonder. At one particular chapel service, Dr. Farmer was preparing us to receive communion together. And then he confessed it was difficult for him to take communion without crying; he was so overcome with the tangible experience of grace. I remember raising my eyebrows. At 20, I'd been taking communion for years and never once recalled being that overwhelmed.
Now that I'm twice as old as I was then, I think I'm finally starting to get it. In John 8 Jesus confronts an adulterous woman's accusers with this challenge: "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." Verse 9 says, "At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first …" Why did the older ones drift away first? Could it be that the older we get, the further along we move on our spiritual journey, the more aware we are of our own brokenness? In college, having come from a stable and spiritually grounded home, I don't think I was keenly aware of my need for grace. But later, after all sorts of missteps in life, self-serving power plays in my marriage and ministry, undeniable failures as a dad to my four kids, I know better.
The heart of Christmas
When I forget how badly my life required (and requires) redeeming, I can miss the heart of Christmas. On the other hand, it's only when I acknowledge that I have been, and in some ways am now, a person living in darkness, that I can appreciate the light.
And it could be that wonder isn't just a gift we ask for. It's a practice we cultivate. For me, the quest begins with silence and solitude. It's just too easy to let the family dynamics, the gift planning/purchasing/wrapping endeavors, travel plans and ministry demands consume my mental energy. Beginning my day in the quiet, while the house is still, gives me the best chance to distill all the noise in my head to what's essential. I read non-sermon related Scripture, journal my reflections, name my worries, and record my prayer requests. I often struggle to navigate the chaos of life throughout the day, but when I start it with a sense of clarity and anticipation, I get more glimpses of wonder.
But herein lies the rub: you can't microwave wonder. It's a slow cooker type of dish, reaching its best flavor only after simmering for hours at low heat. Maybe you don't stumble over wonder on the way to the mall, you fight for it in times of silence. When our oldest daughter was four and her sister was two, we were walking the halls of church before one of many Christmas week services. There in the children's wing was full child-sized nativity, complete with an electric glowing Holy Family and accompanying Magi. The two year old walked resolutely down the hall cast a glance over her left shoulder and yelled "Hi God!" as she continued on her path. Her older sister, the contemplative one, got down on both knees before the manger and waited there, silently.
It's a snapshot that haunts me still. I've always been sure to acknowledge God as I charge into my holiday duties, but it's more like a tip of Bob Cratchit's top hat than the shepherd's rapt adoration. Sometimes a taste of wonder leads to worship, but in other moments it's the steady diet of reflection, repentance, and worship that result in wonder.
Here's the one constant memory I had of Christmas Eve worship as a child. After the carols and brief homily, Cindy Winkler would ascend the steps to the stage and sing "O Holy Night … Oh night, oh night divine." And it always felt like it was. Then we'd dim the sanctuary lights and begin the congregational candle lighting, wrapping a majestic evening with an acapella rendition of Silent Night. Recalling it now induces waves of nostalgic reverence.
I don't believe there's a formula that helps overwhelmed, sometimes jaded, struggling-for-a-new-Noel-angle pastors reclaim our lost wonder. I just know that when I don't have it, I can't fake it. And in a world drowning in trinkets and knickknacks, reruns and plastic, people are hungry for the real thing. So I'll keep fighting for wonder, and if you battle with me, we'll have something great to bring to Christmas.
Steve Norman is the senior pastor of Kensington Church in Troy, Michigan.