by Eddie Pipkin
Last Sunday, a week before Christmas, I had the privilege to worship in a little 150-year-old church and hear the cantata performed by a 10-voice choir that brought a warm glow of blessing to my cynical old heart – not because they were a perfect, show-stopping harmony of holiness (they would be the first to tell you they were not), but because they captured with sincerity, goodwill, and can-do spirit all that is best about ministry the way it is faithfully done in thousands of small churches across America (and around the great big world) year after year.
All of you good folk, wherever you are, toiling away week after week, doing the best you can with what you’ve got and living out the biblical imperative to do it all with joy and hope, you are on my ‘nice’ list, and if I could stuff your stockings, each and every one, just like I wrote about last week, I’d do it. You deserve it. But words are what I’ve got, and words will have to suffice.
God bless you, and God bless your work and your ministries. Lay your head down on Christmas Eve with a kind thought for yourself and an image of a band of angels finding you in the far-flung fields of your labors and spreading the “good tidings of great joy” that all the work you’ve done these past months and years has touched hearts and healed lives and given hope to those who so desperately needed it. You’ve helped make things beautiful (just like Charlie Brown and his Christmas tree, underappreciated until showered with love and brought to its full potential). You’ve helped people escape the “Island of Misfit Toys” like Rudolph and his pals: you’ve helped lonely and displaced people find communities where they are welcomed and encouraged to flourish. Maybe in your Christmas dreams, you’ll receive a visit from an angel like Clarence from “It’s a Wonderful LIfe,” and he can show you some scenes of how the world is made better just because you are in it, doing the things large and small that God has called you to do.
I particularly want to celebrate those small things, which brings me back to the joys of worship at that little country church. I would, of course, offer a shout-out of appreciation to those of you who serve at the big churches. We do so enjoy those lavish Christmas musicals with lights and special effects, superstar singers, live orchestras, and the occasional live camel or sheep. We know that those big church ministries touch thousands of lives for good.
But for every large congregation, brimming with professional talent and big budgets, there are a hundred small community churches with dedicated pastors and committed disciples who continually punch above their weight class, delivering good news impact to the world, doing meaningful missions, faithfully attending worship and studying together, creating safe spaces for people who need love, and sustaining a reputation for rising up to provide care and sustenance for local people.
I love those small church choirs filled with small church people. I’ve been part of enough Christmas cantatas and seasonal performances to know how many hours of work are involved, showing up at Wednesday night practices for months before the big event, singing along to practice tapes in the car, plunking out notes on an aunt’s heirloom piano til you get that one part you’ve been missing right. Serious musicians and singers produce stellar performances, but amateurs with heart produce tributes of song and spoken word that bring to life the article of faith that anybody can give their best effort so that others might be blessed. Such offerings will inevitably be less than perfect – we will not get everything right, as hard as we have tried; there will be flaws – but those imperfections themselves are somehow evidence of the sacredness of the cause. People are offering up the most hopeful, aspirational versions of themselves, and they are making this heartfelt offering in the spirit of selflessness and devotion which Jesus, himself, demonstrated. This spirit of generosity and sacrifice permeates the story of the Nativity. It is evident in Mary’s willingness to serve, Joseph’s commitment to his family, and the wise men’s tributes. The season of gifts is blessed by such selflessness and love.
And a spirit of wonder. Let’s not forget wonder.
When working with professional musicians, performers, and speakers, though the rehearsals may be characterized by apparent chaos, there is always an objective sense of how things will come together successfully once the curtain is raised. That’s not always the case when you’re working with a can ragtag group of volunteers who are giving it their best, heartfelt shot as they try to pull off a big event. Disaster is always a real possibility! For them there is an added element of joy reflected in their self-apparent amazement of how it has all miraculously, improbably comes together beautifully after all. It’s a little Christmas miracle. It’s like the lowly shepherds, improbably alerted by spectacular angels and descending from the hills to uncover the unlikeliest of miracles, the babe-king born in a manger.
I’ll take a little of that wonder. I’ll take that moment of simple celebration in which all the hard work in our little, local churches culminates in candlelight and blessings. That’s what we’re here for, after all. That connection. That glimpse into the holy.
Thanks for making those moments happen, all you who eagerly await the fruition of the hard work of Christmas Eve, all you who are still struggling to say just the right words to those who will join you in worship, and all you who are reading this in the well-deserved rest in the aftermath of work well done.
You have offered yourself in so many ways, you who are reading these words.
You are seen. Your efforts and devotion are appreciated and admired.
Though that work and dedication may not always be obviously acknowledged; though you sometimes struggle to see the ways in which those efforts are doing lasting good; though you may sometimes wonder if the calling you feel so strongly and strive to serve so passionately is true and if you have been faithful in responding to it, know that the work you does has made a difference, that all the small acts of faithfulness add up, that lives are better and blessed because of your faithfulness.
God bless you and the people who serve with you.
I was delighted to hear that Phil is helping out at his local church with a Christmas day brunch worship gathering. They’ll be grilling up pancakes, bacon, and eggs, serving breakfast casserole, and welcoming all the people in the community who have no plans for the morning or family gathering to attend of their own. Those folks will join the regular families of their church in a spirit of fellowship and celebration. I love that! I wish I could come to all your worship services and celebrations this weekend to see the thousand and one variations on a theme of togetherness and blessed wonder in which you will share. What a thrill that would be, what a gift to sample the many creative and thoughtful ways that you are making yourselves available for the people you have the opportunity to serve.
Bravo! Keep it up! You put the Christ in Christmas!
It’s a joy to anticipate what you will do in 2023!