A few years back, I had this wonderful colleague, Bart (truly the best of the best among colleagues, which is saying a lot because I’ve been blessed beyond measure in the ministry-colleague department). Bart was the other full time associate pastor at my church. He and I had this little in-joke. Associate pastors in larger churches are often spending lots of time running programs (me: youth and children; Bart: adult education and spiritual formation and mission). And, not infrequently, they get bogged down in tasks that make them feel like glorified event planners: houirs spent working up driving schedules so that every kid in the youth group can get to an event without missing out on their extracurriculars; a series of increasingly crazy-making phone calls to clear up confusion with the church’s credit card company about the sudden massive use of the card in Guatemala (which to a credit card company screams, “fraud!” but to a church simply means, “mission trip!”). And so, if one of us was hitting the frustration wall with one of these tasks, we might pop into the other’s office and say, with exasperation, the phrase that one of Bart’s friends had taught him: “Jesus Christ came into the world for THIS?!?”
I’ve been thinking about that phrase this week as I take stock of Christmas so far, and hear the stories, joys, and frustrations of others as they come into these last few days of Christmastide. Last night, our good friends came over and we took stock over pizza of what our families have been up to in the last week. I’m getting bits and pieces from friends over socaile media as well. Some of these stories are beautiful and joy-filled. But I’m hearing a significant number of people lamenting the crazy in Christmas.
To be fair, many of my friends are younger women, like me, with little kids. There’s a good argument to be made that this is the demographic that bears the brunt of holiday insanity: women are expected, during the holidays, to maintain a charming home, which they will redecorate; cook and bake extra fancy stuff; coordinate daily activities for the family in the lead up to the big day (Elves, Advent Calendars, and such); search out and buy the perfect gifts for everyone; make sure their children feel apropriately spoiled (on a budget, of course); and plan and supervise long family expeditions to the homes of their families or inlaws.
To be honest, quite a few of those friends, particularly on the internet, are younger women who are also pastors, which means they are dealing with the additional caretaking of Christmas for a worshipping community. If you’re not familiar with what it takes to pull off a Christmas Eve worship service (not to mention everything else a church does in December), just imagine that you have to throw the most artful, beatific, trascendant welcoming party for a baby ever, including at least 45 minutes of a theatrical variety show; and that there are 50 to 5000 people whose taste, preferences, and traditions for how this should be done must be catered to. Also, almost everyone who is helping you is a volunteer. And while most of them are amazing volunteers, this is the busiest time of year for them.
Don’t get me wrong: I love Christmas. I love decorating my house. I love the moment when my kids unwrap the present that is beyond what they could have imagined (a little shout out to my Aunt Mary and Rich who annually spoil my daughter, and to my brother Mark and sister in law Alli, who did the leg work to find the most perfect ever present for a 2 year old boy). I love baking. I actually kind of love travel (even when the 2 year old gets sick on the plane). Above all, after four years of taking a different track in ministry, I love everything that goes into Advent and Christmas worship, and I actually get a little choked up every Christmas Eve because I so miss leading worship on that night of nights.
Yet I listen to friends who, less than a week after Christmas, feel guilty because they couldn’t get it all perfect, and they’re not sure they did enough. Other friends don’t feel guilty but they are so worn.
Meanwhile, this week we hit the New Year, and many of us are contemplating a resolution or two or twelve. (Let’s not even talk about my ridiculous resolution last year to to read a book per day…)
We all say it’s worth it, this crazy-making season, but I can’t help thinking:
“Jesus Christ came into the world for THIS?!?”
Friends, we need to give ourselves a break. Jesus did not come into the world to make us miserable, or exhausted, or worn (not to say that following Jesus is easy…it takes every ounce of who you are, and that will hurt a little).
So how about I give you another smart thing that Bart and I (under the guidance of our really wonderful head of staff pastor, Carl) used to do after Christmas? We sat down and reviewed the season and made notes for next year: what worked, what didn’t, where we needed more help, what we could let go of, and what we might add.
And I’ll take it one step further. See if it lines up with that question, asked with a bit less exasperation: “Jesus Christ came into the world for this?”
There are some things I wouldn’t trade from my Christmas: listening to my Grandpa, age 95, pray with his 10 grown grandchildren smushed onto couches in my Aunt and Uncle’s living room; a Christmas pageant that was wonderfully rag-tag, yet rehearsed at our church; deciding (gasp, for those of you who know what a big advocate of children in worship I am) to leave my kids with my parents, and go to worship on Christmas Eve with just my husband, which meant that I was also able to wander around a chilly downtown Chicago with him, and meet a couple of my siblings and one of my cousins for a beer or two and some good reconnecting.
There are some things that were missing: we never found our stride for Advent devotions with our kids; we never put up the Christmas tree; we didn’t do too much in the whole justice, community, and giving catagory this year (though, maybe we should just be more intentional all year through…).
We need to give ourselves a break. You know there was some good stuff that happened in the last few weeks. But there are things you could let go, and expectations you certainly don’t have to live up to. And that’s OK. You did some good work. You can try again next year, but let’s all remember that we don’t have to try so hard. Everything does not hang solely on what we can accomplish.
After all, Jesus Christ came into the world.