Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Retired Preacher's View from the Pew

Ah, Christmas, so many memories!

My oldest memory of Christmas is when I was probably about five years old and my folks had a paid Santa Claus come to our house on Christmas Eve. When he got there he was pretty schnockered up and he tracked slush all over the living room carpet. My cousin and I were both so scared of him that he left pretty quick. I remember that because the story was repeated almost every Christmas after!

One memory which will probably be there forever was when I was about ten. My part in the Christmas program was to recite from Luke 2: And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

I practiced and practiced memorizing that part. When it came time to say it in front of the congregation I left out “into Judea”. At the time I didn’t realize it and was just relieved to have it over. Later, though, I was reminded by my Sunday School teacher (in front of the other kids) that I had left out a “very important” part of my recitation.

Later, as a teacher in Lutheran schools, the Christmas Eve Children‘s Program was one of the big events of the year. Tradition was that it was on Christmas Eve. The kids from the Lutheran School practiced every day from Thanksgiving on. The kids who didn‘t go to the Lutheran School practiced on Sundays during Sunday School. Then on the Sunday before Christmas there would be an afternoon practice with everyone present.

Finally, the big night. The little kids would get dressed in their costumes. There’d be five or six wise men and half a dozen angels and who knows how many shepherds (easy costumes-a blanket and a stick) but only one Mary and Joseph. The teachers would be making sure all the kids were there, going over last minute reminders and instructions, lining the kids up.
And one thing that was always important- find the child who says, “And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger” and remind them not to pause after “and the babe”. (If you pause there they’d all three be in the manger!)

As the principal I would make sure every teacher had a couple of brown paper bags. There’s nothing that can upset a program more than one of the kids throwing up on the ones around them!

Another tradition was that after the service was over each child would be given a bag with an apple or orange and about 25 lbs. of candy and peanuts. Just what they needed at Christmas!
Over the years we ran into a few glitches. Like the blizzard that kept about half of the kids from making it on Christmas Eve. Lots of gaps in the Christmas story, but most everyone knows it well enough that they understood.

In the first church where I was the principal one of the girls was given a small part because she rarely was in Sunday School. After the service I got a phone call from her Dad. “My daughter got a new red dress for the Christmas program and her Grandma hardly got to see it because she had such a small part.” At that same church we decided to take the offering at the door after the service and not have to deal with sixty restless kids for the five minutes while the offering was taken. I got a phone call about that, too. “The biggest church service of the year and we don‘t take an offering.” “We took one at the door.” “But people can get by without putting anything in.”

There was the father who had begun his Christmas celebration too early and was quite disruptive even before things got started. The ushers helped him out of the church. And the uncle who showed up wearing a racing jacket with “Viagra” in big letters over the back. I got quite a few phone calls about that one!

Christmas was always sort of bittersweet when I was a teacher involved with the children’s programs. The same, too, when I was the Pastor of a church. All the preparations and activities packed into one or two services. A packed church on Christmas Eve and Day, but then the weeks after… The same folks who won’t be there again until Easter. The kids you won’t see in Sunday School until it’s time to begin practice next year. The people who come to watch the kids but have no thought of worshipping the Savior.

Jesus can get lost pretty easily at Christmas, can’t He? Sometimes with all the things we have to do in the church and with our families it can be pretty hard to keep things in perspective. Christmas is all about Jesus. Jesus, who came to the manger to go to the cross to suffer and to die to save us from our sins. It’s all about Jesus.

May you be blessed with good memories this Christmas, but most of all the hope that Jesus brings.

(Perhaps my favorite Christmas memory. We’d get our girls into the van to go to church on Christmas Eve. After they were all packed in my wife, Mary, would have to go back into the house because she’d forgotten her purse. Then she’d get out the presents “from Santa” that had been hidden away and put them under the Christmas tree. One year, when the oldest was six or seven, she said to me, very seriously, while we were waiting for Mom, “Dad, we know why Mom really goes back into the house. But don’t tell her we know because we don’t want her to feel bad.”)

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