Why Do I Like Handel’s “Messiah” More than Lessons in Carols?

Cindy and I had a wonderful 40th anniversary celebration this past weekend and regaled in hearing Handel’s “Messiah” on Friday night. This got me to thinking. Why do I love it every time I hear it and never tire of the “Hallelujah Chorus?” On the other hand, and I hate to admit it, Moravian Love Feasts and Lessons in Carols absolutely dull my senses though I am sure that others find them poignant. It’s probably my problem, but do any of these “We’ve never done it any other way” Christmas traditions ever bore you silly? Why do we seldom tire of some and hardly abide others?

Trust me, I don’t get bored at St. John’s. The music, for instance, is fantastic! I heard that I missed a wonderful Children’s and Youth Christmas Musical while we were away. I especially heard about 12 year-old Anna O’Flaherty’s expertise on our huge organ while playing “Away in a Manger.” I am so thankful for Catherine Nance and Christopher Nash and their skills. The same can be said of Jane Timmerman and the 9:02 Band. Our whole Worship Team is extraordinary.

Vibrant worship at this church is a cure for worship boredom and Sunday morning naps! This week’s cantata will yield worshipful chills, I’m sure. But maybe what I just wrote is a part of my dull worship dilemma; i.e., I’m EXPECTING chills this Sunday so the anticipation is building. Perhaps the simplest but most profound cure for underwhelming worship is better individual participation through expectant anticipation.

But, another reason for my worship apathy is self-centeredness. There’s something that I need to get off my chest to prove the point. This year at St. John’s we have said for quite some time that we will have 5, 7, and 9 p.m. Christmas Eve services. There won’t be the usual 11 pm one, and some have thought that it was my idea. Nope. I honestly don’t remember a specific reason, and, maybe, that’s my own apathy at work. My self-centeredness is that I was willing to yield on not having 11 o’clock because I was getting what I wanted at 9 – Holy Communion! I cannot tell you how important that this is to me, but in getting what I wanted some of you didn’t get what you wanted. Maybe that’s the crux of the problem – what WE want.

Sure, I can pull rank since worship is under my purview, but clergy shepherds who disregard the sheep’s needs are in for a rude awakening. I could pick 10 am on Tuesday’s for our primary worship time, but I’m not an idiot. People’s opinions count, but not near as much as God’s. Why did I agree to the switch to 9 instead of 11? I got communion at 9 out of my own self-centeredness.

Christmas Eve Communion at Trinity Episcopal Church in Edgefield shaped and solidified my call to ministry. The understated elegance was magnificent as we sang simple carols and celebrated the Eucharist by candlelight. For me, Christmas Eve without communion is like being United Methodist and saying you don’t believe in church dinners!

God was present in every atom infusing that sacred space with glorious whispers that filled my entire being with purpose, call, and sublime joy. So, yes, I want communion at Christmas Eve. To have candles without communion is a trade-off that comes up short in content and meaning. It gains time at the expense of something way better! My decision, therefore, is that I’ll be at St. John’s at 11 pm on Christmas Eve ready to worship, no choir, and no musical instruments. We’ll sing acapella. I’ll bring the bread and juice; chalice and paten. We won’t need to conjure God’s presence, but we will need expectation to notice it was already here.

In this tell-all, I think the problem for me and some of my worship experiences has become clear. At times my expectation level affects my participation. Other times it’s all about me, me, me, and what I want. So many worship wars are about what we want and me, me, me, and this is an anathema to true worship. We promote that worship is about God when the reality is that it’s often a consumer exercise: “Do I like the minister, the music, and the people?” Worship, however, isn’t about what we like, but what God likes. God is the audience, not us. We’re actors bringing homage in the best ways we know how to God. It’s God’s opinion that counts, not yours or mine!

So, if I can get rid of me-ism in worship and add an expectancy that God is going to show up, then I won’t get bored. I will be a participant that worships the Majestic Almighty Holy Other Creator Incarnate God-in-the-Flesh Jesus Christ and the Blessed Trinity. I will be able to hear echoes of the seraphim, cherubim and the whole heavenly host bringing glory to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Worship!

The wisdom of Fred Craddock strikes a chord as I write:

“Boredom is a preview of death, if not itself a form of death, and when trapped in prolonged boredom, even the most saintly of us will hope for, pray for, or even engineer relief, however demonic. Sincere Sunday worshipers will confess to welcoming in muffled celebration any interruption of the funereal droning. Be honest: Have you ever quietly cheered when a child fell off a pew, a bird flew in a window, the lights went out, the organ wheezed, the sound system picked up police calls, or a dog came down the aisle and curled up to sleep below the pulpit? Passengers on cruise ships, after nine beautiful sunsets and eighty-six invigorating games of shuffleboard, begin to ask the crew hopefully, ‘Do you think we’ll have a storm?’ … For the communicating of the Christian faith, formally or informally, to be boring is not simply ‘too bad,’ to be glossed over with the usual, ‘But he is really a genuine fellow,’ or ‘But she is very sincere.’ Boredom works against the faith by provoking contrary thoughts or lulling us to sleep or draping the whole occasion with a pall of indifference and unimportance.”

Ah, “indifference and unimportance,” which are the essence of my duly noted apathy and self-centeredness. To be clear, worship at St. John’s is wonderful, at least that’s how I perceive the way God feels about it. The rest of our opinions don’t really matter that much anyway. Sure, I want us to have a warm-hearted experience every time we’re here. That’s who we are as United Methodists! Our acts of worship carry our theology and what/Who we value, always has. So, see you somewhere, sometime on Christmas Eve, and may our hearts affirm that God is truly pleased!

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Come Thou, UNexpected Jesus

This year we have the semi-unusual event of Christmas falling on a Sunday. What’s a church to do – expand Christmas Eve services and have low key casual Christmas Day services? Bring a favorite gift or toy or wear pajamas? I’ve even heard of some churches that are dropping the service altogether because it’s so “anti-family.” How appalling! There’s no better time to celebrate family than the day that God chooses to become a part of the human family. The Incarnation of Christ demands that we celebrate this mysterium tremendum. God wants to be fully engaged with us, in us! So gather together we must!

Ralph F. Wilson, in “Burlap, Boys, and Christmas,” gets at the heart of the Incarnation’s tremendous mystery while musing over Christmas pageants: “Angels are clean. Angels are beautiful. They seem almost otherworldly, since girl angels always seem to know their parts better than do boy shepherds. The angelic satin stuff goes pretty well in most Christmas pageants. The problems come with the burlap part. Do you know what real-life shepherds were like? Townspeople looked down on them. ‘Herdsmen!’ they’d huff derisively. Shepherds would work with sheep all day, sleep outside with the animals at night and then come into town dirty, sweaty and smelly. Like boys. Tradesmen in the marketplace would be polite enough. Shopkeepers would wait on them, but everybody was happy when they moved along. Burlap fits the part. It really does. Angels get clouds and the Hallelujah Chorus for props. Shepherds get a stable. Maybe cattle lowing has a bit of romance. But conjure up the smells and the filth. No stainless steel dairy palace this, but a crude barn, with good reason for straw on the floor. Not exactly the setting you’d choose for a birth if you had the luxury of planning ahead. Angels seem appropriate to the birth of God’s son. But straw and sweat and burlap do not. Why, I ask, would the Son of God Most High enter life amidst the rubble of human existence, at the lowest rung of society, in obscurity and at the stable-edge of rejection even before he is born? And as hard as I think about it, I come back to one truth. God wanted to make it explicitly clear that He came to save each of us. He comes to the slimy, dark corners of our existence, the desperateness, the loneliness, the rejection, the pain. He comes to unswept barns and cold nights of despair. He comes because he understands them. He knows them intimately and came for the very purpose of delivering us from those raw stables to real Life.”

Wow! It is a miracle that God desires to enter this world. Therefore, the reason we worship God together on this special day is to celebrate this marvelous gift through Christ. The old Appalachian folk hymn aptly describes the worshipful attitude that this mystery should illicit, “I wonder as I wander out under the sky, How Jesus the Saviour did come for to die, For poor on’ry people like you and like I.” The glorious meaning of Christmas is God’s unconditional grace spread across creation. It is perennially profound just as Frederick Buechner put it, “Year after year, the ancient tale of what happened is told raw, preposterous, holy and year after year the world in some measure stoops to listen.” Let’s listen all the more carefully this year because it happens on Sunday – the Lord’s Day! Christmas is absurdly Divine! I’ll be at Christmas Eve service and Christmas Day. There’s no way in the world that I would be absent. The greatest Gift of all is among us! Check out the following rendition of God’s sneaking up on us, the profound subtlety of the Incarnation. Merry Christmas!