This has been a strange Christmas for me and my family. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know that we moved from California to Texas a few months ago. I left Irvine Presbyterian Church after sixteen and a half years as Senior Pastor to join the staff of Laity Lodge. My family and I, though welcomed warmly to Texas, have been living with a sense of dislocation. No wonder, since we have been literally dislocated by 1300 miles. But, more important than the miles, we have left so much of what was familiar and beloved, most of all, family, friends, and church.
We did celebrate Christmas this year in California. Some friends who were away for the holiday invited us to stay in their home, a home in Irvine, actually. So we spent Christmas morning less than a mile from the home where we spent the last sixteen Christmases and a mile from the church that was our spiritual home for the same period of time.
Yet we were not in our old, familiar home. And we did not worship with our old, familiar church on Christmas Eve. (Well, actually, my son attended the 11:00 p.m. service, which he said was beautiful. My wife and I did not come along because it’s just not yet the right time for us to rejoin that congregation as old friends. Healthy pastoral goodbyes take time.) I must confess to a good bit of sadness because of all of this. I loved the Christmas Eve celebrations at Irvine Presbyterian Church, beginning with the children’s services in the early evening and ending with the 11:00 p.m. communion service. And then I loved celebrating Christmas in the home where my children grew up. Every Christmas morning brought back powerful memories of Christmases past, filling me with both joy and aching nostalgia. (Photo: one of last year’s Christmas Eve services at Irvine Presbyterian Church)
Well, I’ve had plenty of joy and nostalgia this year, though with a bit more sadness than usual. It’s been hard to say goodbye to so much that was so wonderful in my life. I miss my house, my church, my little children, my chance to include them in my sermon on Christmas Eve, the chance to preach on Christmas Eve, the thrilling worship at Irvine Pres, and all the people in that congregation who were our family for so many years. (My son shares my mix of feelings. Check out his poem on his blog.)
We did have a blessed Christmas celebration, however, even given how different it was from past years. On Christmas Eve we joined my wife’s father, sister, and family in North Hollywood. We attended the 5:00 family worship service at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, the church where I grew up, where Linda and I met, and where I served on staff for seven years. We worshiped in the exquisite, inspiring, warm sanctuary there, the place where I first saw the woman who would become my wife, where I was ordained as a pastor, and where we had my father’s memorial service. We saw many dear, old friends at that service, even though we’ve been away from that church for seventeen years. (Photo: the angels appear at the Christmas Eve service at Hollywood Presbyterian Church.)
On Christmas morning, my wife and two children spent time together much as we would have in years past. My kids still made a staged entrance to see what Santa brought. Amazing how Santa found us even in this borrowed house in Irvine! And we still had Christmas breakfast with apple sausage and cinnamon rolls. It felt both normal and odd to be together in such a familiar and different way.
On Christmas afternoon we joined with my extended family and many friends. The highlight of the time was the dedication of my new nephew, Brody, whom my sister and brother-in-law adopted just over a year ago. This was, in fact, the highlight of my Christmas. Brody’s entrance into our family was a miracle, and he has brought tons of joy to all of us. It seemed wonderfully appropriate to welcome this little boy as a new member of our family on Christmas.
This year I’ve been forced to consider what matters most at Christmas. It’s easy for me to identify Christmas mainly with beloved personal and family traditions. There’s nothing wrong with these, of course. In fact, they can contribute to the joy of Christmas celebrations. But where I go to church and where my family gathers and where we live and even whom we’re with aren’t the main point of Christmas. Christmas is, at its center, the celebration of God’s coming to be with us in Jesus. God is not watching us from a distance. In Jesus, the babe in the manger, God entered into our reality as a human being. And God is still with us today through His Spirit.
My experience of Christmas this year reminds me a bit of 1986. My father died in July of that year, and we wanted to do something different for Christmas. It felt too hard to be together in the same way and the same place as we had been for decades, but without my dad. So we spent Christmas at a friend’s home in Palm Desert. It was odd, but oddly sweet as we shared our love and sadness together. I remember at the time being grateful for the fact that God had entered into our experience at Christmas, that He knew what sorrow feels like, and that He was with us even during our Palm Desert Christmas.
This year, I’m glad for a blessed life. I’m glad for so many wonderful years at Irvine Presbyterian Church, for the friends I still treasure there. I’m thankful for sweet times with my young children in our Irvine house. I’m grateful that, even though we live half a country away, we can still enjoy the love of our families. But, most of all, in this strange Christmas, I’m glad that God is with us. I’m thankful that God knows what dislocation feels like. And I’m glad for the chance, once again, to celebrate the coming of God in Jesus, the Word made flesh, Emmanuel, God with us.
Has this been a strange Christmas? Yes, indeed. A sad Christmas? Yes, in many ways. A joyous Christmas? Absolutely! A Christmas to celebrate the coming of Jesus? Yes, as always. Thanks be to God!