In a church where we served, Ken and I endured a steady stream of criticism from a small group of members, concerning worship music. They believed older hymns and choruses to be far superior to anything written after 1960. We disagreed. So did much of the congregation. Some Sunday mornings, one or both of us might be verbally assaulted/lectured after a service about the spiritual viability of some of our choices. Loudly. In the narthex. With guests and other members nearby.
Planning our first Christmas Eve service in that church caused no small amount of anxiety for the two of us. We pictured a scene erupting after one of the best attended services of the year (so we were told), with a narthex full of out of town guests and visiting community members. We knew we needed to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, but we questioned our ability to hear him. Our music list and worship order went through several overhauls before we felt locked down.
The week of Christmas I felt rounds of nervous nausea. Always, before, I eagerly looked forward to Christmas Eve services as wondrous, candlelit events, gathered with family, worshipping together with joy. This year, joy went missing, and I prepared for a holy war. I couldn’t imagine our critics going quietly, if we “messed up,” Christmas as one of them predicted we would.
The service itself went off flawlessly. Trios, duets, congregational singing and solos all wound their way around the sanctuary, like a large Christmas ribbon, tying us all together into this special moment. Even our antique sound system, for once, didn’t scream feedback at us. From my limited sight line behind the piano, all the faces I could see wore expressions of peace and appreciation. I couldn’t see any of our negative commentators. Were they sitting as they usually did, arms folded across their chest, scowling at everyone on the platform? My stomach clenched at the thought.
After the service, dozens of people spoke to Ken and I, and the other participants, expressing love and appreciation. Maybe the judging team didn’t come? Oh wait. Trapped in a throng of folks all jostling to wish each other “Merry Christmas,” while finding their coats, I spied a man pushing his way through the crowd towards me. A loud, large man. A man who usually only spoke to me or Ken to lodge complaints.
Helpless to move out of his range, I imagined the beautiful atmosphere of love and fellowship torn apart like a toddler with a Christmas package. I braced for impact and asked God to help me respond rightly. He wedged himself in between several people to plant himself right in front of me. Whatever wind blew, by now my mouth felt desert dry and my throat so tight, I felt no confidence in my ability to say anything back. I’m pretty sure my jaw dropped when he looked me in the eye and said, “Nice service,” then just as abruptly, turned his back on me and pushed his way back through the crowd.
I’d love to tell you we developed a marvelous relationship with this man, but we didn’t. He criticized until the day we left, but that’s not the point of this story. Here’s what I think happened that night. I’ve seen this phenomenon occur since then with lost people, skeptics, critics and the like. Sometimes folks come into Christmas with skewed expectations and unbelief, determined to remain aloof or critical of certain environments.
Location doesn’t matter whether it’s your home, church or any other place believers gather to celebrate the birth of Christ. Something supernatural happens when the Christ child is worshipped and people love freely. Even the hardest heart can be softened in that moment as perhaps God reminds them of Christmases long ago before their hearts formed into concrete. Or maybe he shows them a glimpse of what life could be like without all the negative emotions they carry daily. I think that’s the theme of Charles Dicken’s Christmas Carol. Thanks to the three spirits, Scrooge is given the gift of new sight and clearly understands the choice that every human must still make, whether to walk in The Light or live in eternal darkness. Sadly, some will forever choose the shadows. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t pray, expectantly with faith, that your Scrooge will choose to see the radiance of Christ and want to live within his glory and wonder.
As you gather together, Christmas week, you may be expecting critics, skeptics, and such to squirrel up your events also. Some of you might be estranged from family members so they won’t be showing up for Christmas dinner, but instead leave a huge ache in your heart. Some families are divided along the line of those who believe in Christ and those who don’t. All of this can make this time of year tough if you are not armed and ready.
Remember, the whole Christmas story is one miraculous heart-change after another. Sometimes our familiarity with the various details causes us to brush over the deep, inner work God performed in the hearts of key players in this drama using highly abnormal circumstances. Joseph’s logic and human reason must be overridden to believe his little fiancée carried God in her stomach. Mary, a young obscure girl, must accept God’s message that, here now, SHE is the prophesied, chosen one. Shepherds, the outcasts of society, must believe they didn’t hallucinate and then act on what the angels instructed, to go find this baby inside a town that certainly didn’t welcome them.
God is performing heart surgeries every day, and Christmas is still a season of miracles. He chooses to partner with our prayers of faith to move over the most unlikely specimens one can possibly imagine. Ask him relentlessly, to prepare and make room in the hearts of those in your world who are lost or backslidden far from his love. Trust that the same love that compelled Jesus to set aside perfection to enter our dysfunctional, damaged world, is still in play today.