By Eddie Pipkin
I have written a lot in this space about the gift of presence: the simple power of being physically present for one another. But occasionally – and this may be one of those rare times – there is something beautiful and loving in the gift of absence. This year, 2020, an unprecedented Christmas season, may be the perfect opportunity to show our love and care by not showing up – and to be kind and perhaps even courageous as leaders by doing something that feels utterly antithetical to our calling in ministry: give other people the permission to feel righteous about not showing up.
By now, if you are a pastor or leader of a local church, you have been through hours of discussion about what to do about Christmas worship services – especially if you traditionally have a highly-attended Christmas Eve service (or multiple services). For those who have been meeting for worship in person, safety has been paramount, and part of those safety protocols has been limiting crowd sizes, a strategy that will be pushed to its limit for sought-after services in a time when people are desperately longing – spiritually and nostalgically – for a familiar, comforting Christmas setting. But meanwhile, the virus is surging around the country, and the medical professionals are calling on us to hunker down and stay home.
In a year of tough decision after tough decision, it just gets tougher. And on top of leadership decisions for your worship services, if you’re like my family, you are also debating personal decisions, what the family will do about gathering for Christmas, just as we struggled to solve Thanksgiving. With vaccines at hand, it seems the tragically worst time to get it wrong.
So, let me just say, first of all, as an objective observer, God bless you as you and your ministry team as you wrestle with these decisions and choose a course of action. There is no right answer. People need to say safe, and people need to stay sane. People need to stay protected, and people need to stay connected. Every local context is different, and your decision has been to do the best, safest, most soul-affirming thing you can do in your unique circumstance. And, of course, as in all ministry decisions, people are going to be demonstrably unhappy whatever path you choose.
I had a conversation with a minister friend last week in which he expressed just those frustrations: long conversations and leadership debates; decisions made with imperfect data and uncertainty about future developments; doubt about the ultimate wisdom of those decisions; a paucity of alternate options; worry about the community’s reaction to those decisions; and unhappiness with those decisions being expressed even from within the congregation. I patted him on the shoulder and reassured him that most people will give leaders the benefit of the doubt that they are doing the best they can in an impossible situation.
In their case they will be doing what they have been doing (and doing safely): they will offer an option for in-person worship while continuing to livestream the worship experience. In this format – and we have seen and heard the same report from many churches – people have been very good at self-selecting. People at risk have stayed home. The worship crowds have been well within the number that can safely distance, so people who desperately need to be at worship and can do so safely have been there in person (also providing much-needed live feedback and presence for worship leadership), and those whose health is potentially at a higher level of risk are participating online.
And this provides a balance that can work perfectly for approaching the Christmas conundrum: we give an opportunity for people to join us in person, but we encourage people not to take it. We are here, and you may safely join us by following our extensive protocols for protecting you. But do the world a favor and stay home.
Give people this permission and provide a framework for the hard decisions they are making to keep themselves, their loved ones, and complete strangers safe by sacrificing traditional Christmas gatherings. Do not do this by scaring people. Do this by framing it as an opportunity to live out Jesus’s values. And let’s not judge people for choosing to get together, especially with family (every context being different and unique). Let’s just encourage them to do so as safely and thoughtfully as possible. Let us, however, make a special effort to support those who are choosing to isolate themselves in a season which can, in the best of times, heighten a sense of isolation for those who feel disconnected – a “blue Christmas” this year may be the “bluest” imaginable.
We will be weary – it has been a long haul and the specter of a dark couple of winter months looms ahead – but with the hope of an end to this trial. It is uncannily parallel to the story of the nativity: doubt and uncertainty and people trusting in God’s work in the present and future, leading to a revelation of the embodiment of hope. So, we have the perfect framework for reinforcing a narrative of hope and purpose by identifying with all the characters of the Christmas story. We are also reminded of the very practical responses taken by the characters in the story – there is a lot of physical “going” to places, of doing what needs to be done to bring the hope to fruition – and this, too, functions as an inspiration for us. We are called more than ever to “go” to the people who will need an extra boost of connection to make it through the next few weeks. Be it virtually, safely distanced, by old school technology or new school instantaneous contact, we will redouble our efforts to link to those who have chosen the courageous course to hunker down. Even Mary reached out to Elizabeth when she needed support to do what God had called her to do.
And even as we encourage people to stay strong as they stay away from rogue parties, family gatherings, and even large-scale worship events, we can remind them of this:
Absence – staying away – is sometimes a powerful gift.
Consider the wise men. They had undertaken a long, strenuous, improbable journey to physically visit the holy child. At the right moment, in the right context, they had decided that it was not enough to send messengers or missives or gifts delivered by camel courier. They went in person to deliver their gifts, to be physically present in expressing their adoration. But even though they had been directed by King Herod, whom they had also visited in person on their way to the Christ child, to visit him again and deliver a first-hand report on their way home, they were supernaturally advised not to do so and chose to “go another way.”
Absence, in this case, was the more courageous choice.
There are times in our experience in which it has been better to stay away from something. It’s a sacrifice, but selfless sacrifice (even when it is hard) is at the heart of discipleship. And though we are wired as followers of Jesus to show up whenever and wherever we can, this season is a lesson in the power of stepping up by stepping back.
Perhaps it will be a gift of contemplative consideration, this quiet Christmas. Perhaps it will give us space to remember what we love and value most about this season that will make the Christmas seasons to come more rich and full. Perhaps it will be a time of connecting even more deeply because of a less frenetic schedule and the need to innovate and rethink how we spend time together.
How are you and your congregation navigating this tension between gathering and hunkering down? How is Christmas different this year for your congregation? And what surprising graces are being revealed even now as you find different ways to connect? What has been the hardest and what is bringing you the most joy? Share your own stories in the comments section and give a little hope to us all.