Monday, December 17, 2012

Rejoice, Rejoice

Since Friday afternoon, I've been feeling a bit numb.

I can't even really say that the day started all that well. I went to the church and sat, pondering the immense amount of packing that I'd need to start before too much longer. I went ahead and packed up some files that I knew I'd want to keep but wouldn't be needed in the next few months. That in itself was a moment that further communicated to me the finitude of this ministerial adventure I've been having for the past eight years.

Sometime that afternoon, I began reading about Newtown, Connecticut. The mentions of it on social media trickled at first, and then there was a deluge of conflicting news reports and raw reactions.

Senseless violence and death at an elementary school, many of the casualties a year or two older than Coffeeson. This was far from the first mass shooting in 2012, but my reaction to this one was quick, surprising, and all-encompassing. You're not supposed to drop off your kindergartner at school, he or she still full of innocent curiosity and playfulness, amazing and hilarious in the ways he or she verbalizes connections between objects and concepts, and worry about them being gunned down without rhyme or reason, that innocence suddenly gone.

As more and more details began to emerge and more reactions began to register, it only took a four-word tweet to send me over the edge completely: "How long, O Lord?"

The benefits of serving a smaller church is that nobody is usually around to hear you openly weeping.

That night, the three of us went out to dinner while our house, already on the market, had a private showing. We decided on a popular pizza place I'd only ever experienced once in all the years we've lived in this area. It was a wonderful respite from the news, and the pizza was as good as it was the only other time I've had it. But the family time was even better.

Unfortunately, the sadness returned on Saturday, which I spent agonizing over whether to change what I was going to preach, and if so, how. Maybe I could just get up and wing it, or maybe I could just tweak what I was going to say with some minor additions and references to the tragic events. Or maybe I could just speak for a few moments and just invite people to share their own stories of joy. I re-wrote portions, re-wrote the whole damn thing, went back to the original and just moved stuff around with little bits added in, and then just closed the laptop and gave up.

None of what I was coming up with was satisfying. Not a whole lot of anything was satisfying. Nothing besides sitting on the couch with the family, sipping coffee and watching whatever bowl game happened to be on TV was satisfying. But seeking words to speak about joy of all things was not getting me anywhere.

I clearly didn't have a say in the matter, because Sunday morning eventually came. I got up early to practice what I had, and got halfway through before hearing Coffeeson stirring. I wasn't even going to be able to practice this poor excuse for a sermon, this wretched limp awful pile of crap that I'd have to end up speaking to a roomful of people because I had to say something (or so I assumed).

So I got up and started talking. I talked about how our culture tries to shove artificial joy down our throats this time of year and those of us who've known tragedy can see right through it. And I talked about Ignatius of Loyola's twin ideas of spiritual desolation and consolation, and how liberating and truly joyful it can be when the former gives way to the latter. And I talked about true joy being anchored in something, having a context and a reason. And I talked about why we even have a season like Advent leading up to Christmas; how we don't just rush into singing "Joy to the World" but instead reflect on our needs, or emptiness, our lack of joy, and how a song like "O Come O Come Emmanuel" is not just a reflective song but can also be a prayer, a crying out to God for liberation from whatever is keeping us captive.

And then I slumped into my chair, and we took the offering.

Did it speak to anyone? I don't know. Nobody really said one way or the other save for the usual "very nice"s that I get. Maybe I got myself way more worked up than others were. Maybe this sermon was more for me to begin with. And that's okay, too, I guess. Sometimes preachers preach to themselves just as much as they preach to others.

That night was our Blue Christmas service, which quickly has become one of my favorite services of the year. I don't really have much to say about it, other than that I noted a higher number of non-members this year. It seems that many are seeking and finding something that this service offers, and I've been glad to introduce it in this setting.

I approached the tables of tea lights arranged along the front, and lit one for what's been on my mind this season: my current church, my future church, the people of Newtown, my family, departed loved ones. This was yet another instance of worship ministering to me even as I led it.

I have plenty of reasons to rejoice, but also plenty that weighs me down. I was thankful for the glimmers of joy and of hope that I found throughout a very long, very tiring day. It was a day capped by wine and cake. And that's about as good an ending as one could hope for. Coffeewife and I enjoyed it together, perhaps engaging in our own quiet rejoicing that the weekend had been managed as well as it could.