For a good number of you, the Christmas break has begun.
Maybe you’ll remember and maybe you won’t, but I once shared with you that December 26 was my island. And by island, I mean it’s a very important down-time locale to which I, like so many others, have been in constant freestyle form (sometimes using the backstroke, too) since sometime around the end of August. Yes, things move non-stop around here. Nevertheless, I always know those few days between Christmas and New Year will eventually arrive, and even now I can see the island on the horizon. It’s there. Just a little bit further.
When it comes to my actual physical respite, perhaps you noticed I didn’t say I was swimming toward anything churchly. You might be thinking that as a pastor, that’s a bit counterintuitive to what I’d normally share with you, as though I’m suggesting that time in worship is burdensome. Trust me, it’s not. In fact, I just wrote a piece on that and posted it on Facebook. You should read it. Here’s the link: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10219976271852911&set=a.4646861645309&type=3
In the meantime, indeed, Advent and Christmas are heftier times of the year for pastors. To tell you these are physically restful times for clergymen would be disingenuous. And so, keeping this in its proper perspective, when I say I’m swimming toward my island, you’ll see I’m talking about a completely different kind of rest than what I’ll be receiving on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Essentially, I’m keeping things in their proper order. I’m seeing December 26th through the lens of December 24th and 25th.
Humanly speaking, there’s a liberty that comes along with the Christmas holiday. Employers grant vacation days. Sports teams put aside competitions and practicing. Stores close. Within the span of those allotments, the Feast of the Holy Nativity—Christmas—is situated. As a result, it isn’t uncommon for folks to see their holiday break—the freedom from obligations—as something that actually includes the holy days themselves. That’s why folks often skip Christmas altogether, opting for a flight to the Bahamas, or something like that. I sometimes wonder if the days of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are just a microcosmic reflection of what happens the rest of the year. If most pastors are being honest, they’ll admit that most congregants go to church on Christmas Eve, but they’re likely to skip worship on Christmas Day. As it relates to the rest of the year, a lot of folks are able to make it to about half of the services throughout the year—every other Sunday at least. Although for far too many folks, it’s a whole lot less.
I sometimes wonder if this is true because, whether it’s Christmas or any regular service, worship itself is seen as one of many optional pieces in a weekend. “The weekend is my time,” we’d say. “My employer has given me permission to do with it as I please.” First of all, that’s a screwed up way at determining who governs your life. Second, if this is truly the way you see things, your need for worship will most certainly be out of focus.
I don’t know if I’m making any sense, but I suppose what I’m trying to say is that for me, personally, I try to keep my time in worship as distinct from my personal options. In a basic sense, I try to look at it in the same way I look at eating a meal, sleeping, taking a shower, or brushing my teeth. I ought not skip these essentials during the week or on the weekend. Not only would I be inviting physical unhealthiness, but such a routine would affect my relationships with the people around me.
It’s hard to be near someone who hasn’t showered or brushed their teeth in a while. Without the strength God provides in worship, it’s nearly impossible for us to rightly navigate our relationships—the need to reconcile, the opportunities to care, the times to celebrate.
My island—my time of physical rest—is just beyond the celebrations in place to give me everything that will make that restful time settled and exceptional. I’ll have met with my Savior. I’ll have received His loving forgiveness. Once again, I’ll have been strengthened to see that the time together with my family doing whatever we feel like doing is a gift from the Lord, a treasured collection of moments born from His benediction—bene dicere—His sending me out by way of His good Word to be His child in a world that would seek to be a burdensome master intent only on burying me in its expectations and seeing to my hopelessness.
Beyond the borders of this microcosmic view stands the day-in-and-day-out reality. We can only make it to the islands of our lives and find real rest having first swum through the pristine shoreline waters of God’s baptismal grace given in worship. As His people, the means of Grace—Word and Sacrament—these are kept at the ready for us and administered each and every time we gather before Him. It just so happens that I’m one of the guys God has put into place to do this, and with that, you need for us not to consider worship as just one other optional things we do on the weekend. Why? Because like you, we need what God has for us in worship far more than we need anything else in our lives. Besides, it’s not like God has made such a wonderful routine all that difficult. He’s set aside one day a week—a Sabbath day—a day for resting in His arms.
He knows we need this. We need this every week. Not just every now and then.
Maybe there’s a New Year’s resolution to be had by you from this little note. Maybe 2020 could be a time of recommitting to a much better routine, a plan for cutting Sunday worship loose from the perspective of a weekend’s “optional” things and hitching it to the steadier wagon of “necessity.”
I guarantee you won’t regret it. I’ve never met anyone who’s ever come out on the other side of their retiring lives saying the one thing they regret is having taken their family to church every Sunday. Never have I heard this. Never. Ever. In fact, it’s always the opposite. The deepest, hardest, gloomiest regrets are the ones describing a life lived with worship kept in the category of “optional.”
Think about. Better yet, pray about it. Pray that the Lord would stir your heart to believe and act on such belief. 2020 is only a few days away. Let it be a tangible time of new beginnings in this regard for both you and your family.