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Who will decorate the church?

Christmas traditions change — the Christmas message does not

By Donna Frischknecht Jackson | Presbyterians Today

I’m too old to write to Santa. If I could, though, I’d ask the jolly elf for Barbie’s Dream Church. What? You’ve never heard of Barbie’s Dream Church? It’s a place where money flows as freely as volunteers, and the coffee actually tastes like coffee — rich and robust.

Barbie’s Dream Church, though, doesn’t exist because Christ’s body is an eclectic bunch of people bringing with them many good intentions. But if there were such a thing as a dream church, then the holiday season would be the perfect time for it to appear.

Being a pastor isn’t easy at times, especially when Thanksgiving approaches. I’ve discovered that’s when the Advent message of those walking in darkness having a light shine upon them loses its powerful punch of hope to a more pressing matter at hand: How will the church get decorated for Christmas?

I sure hope I’m not the only one who has heard this question, which is followed in the same breath with: Who will climb those steep stairs to pull out the boxes of greenery? Who is willing to go down into the belly of the church basement to find the lights? Who will get the 10-foot Christmas tree that has been propped near the baptismal font for the last 20 years? Who is going to make Christmas happen, especially in a church that has fewer hands to help?

I’ve been serving small churches for 12 years, and while there are times I wonder what it would be like to be in a big cathedral with professional choirs and professional Christmas decorators, I wouldn’t trade my sparsely filled pews. Small churches are a gift from God, as they can be examples of how God can do so much with so little — that is, do so much with so little if we just let go of how we think things should be. This includes our ideas of what Christmas in the church looks like.

I once served a church that had its hanging of the greens as part of the worship service. During the opening hymn, a carefully choreographed production would begin. Men lined the balcony, waiting for their cue to lower the artificial greens onto the hooks on the side of the balcony. Other “decorators” were positioned in the pews, waiting for the second verse of the hymn. That was their cue to hop onto the cushions to wrap the columns of the church with greens. By the third verse, children would appear down the aisle, carrying poinsettias for the chancel. In the span of a six-stanza hymn, the sanctuary transformed from Advent bleakness to Christmas wonderland.

As the years went by, though, the hanging of the greens became a reminder of how the congregation was aging. They just couldn’t do the decorating as it had always been done. It was time to scale back. Perhaps candles in the window would be enough? The simplicity worked beautifully with the 18th century New England sanctuary, I thought. But this was a tradition. A beloved one at that.

It’s hard when life gets in the way of our traditions. I used to be a stickler for tradition. Heaven forbid if there was no eggnog to go with the cookies I left for Santa. With age, though, I’ve learned (not easily) to hold onto traditions loosely, to trust God to wipe away the tears of what has passed and to see the beauty in new traditions.

This year, for example, I will not be hanging the stocking of my beloved Bernese mountain dog, Sofie. She won’t be on the couch to nibble on those cookies I’ll put on a plate with some eggnog on the side. I know, too, this Christmas will be hard for several friends who have lost mothers in recent months. This Christmas is going to look and feel different for so many.

Life changes — at home and in the church. So how will we adapt? How will we see beyond from what was to what can and will be? How will the Christmas message of hope being born once again be embraced?

Thanksgiving hadn’t arrived as I wrote this, and yet I’m already hearing the questions about Christmas decorating in my church. And so, I listen to the concerns of whether we will have enough “young” people to help. I’ll offer support and guidance ­— as well as my husband to climb the ladder to reach those high places in need of evergreen. And I will pray for Christmas to happen as it’s supposed to happen in an aging church — or any church. I will pray for God among us to be made fully known in the way we rejoice amid our losses and to be thankful for the hands that are there to help.

God did a good job that very first Christmas, so I think we will be just fine — no matter how the church is decorated. The star will shine. The angels will sing. We will welcome the newborn king.

Donna Frischknecht Jackson is editor of Presbyterians Today.

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