An open letter about Christmas, Church, and following Christ.

An open letter to my fellow United Methodists.  Feel free to copy, share, or ignore at your discretion. 

We enter into a confusing time of mixed signals and messages.  We hear on our radios and televisions, on Facebook and Google, that the Christmas season approaches.  This is a time when we are expected to be generous, to crowd the stores and malls hunting for that perfect embodiment of the care and love we have for one another.

While we can be quick to demonize, retailers are not so callous as to entice us to simply spend money for spending’s sake.  Instead, they appeal to our nature and desire to be generous with one another.  They have keyed in on one of the most base of human instincts:  the drive to bless those for whom we care.

We are creatures of blessing.  Mothers caring for children, communities organizing to help the sick and injured, a country that rushes to the aid of those ravaged by natural disaster.  We bless even when it seems to defy logic, reason, or natural instinct.  And for us, this is the season when it is most on display.

As a community, my church, like many others, struggles with what form this blessing should take.  It is easy to bemoan the consumerism of the season and rail against the gluttony on display.  It is also just as easy to interject the idea that, while we go on our credit card fueled binge, we must also remember the church. As we fret over how we will pay for all that is expected of us, a $10 bill in the plate on Sunday keeps our conscious at bay.  A holy offering to assuage our guilt.

My church is, like many, a smaller congregation in a larger, ageing, building.    We have more gray hair than not and all the problems that come with having decades of ministry behind us.  Our education wing was built for a time when the Boomer generation was entering grade school, not retirement. Our furnace is built like a Sherman tank, and is about as efficient, and about as old.  Our sanctuary is inaccessible to anyone who cannot navigate the six steps required at every entrance.  And, until this time last year, our roof seemed ready for immediate retirement, which, given its 50+ year age, it was entitled to.  Yet, in series of events that can be ascribed to nothing short of providence, we saw a new barrier erected to the elements consisting of a staggering number of asphalt shingles.

However, even this blessing has become something else.  The contractor, a safe pick with many years of work in the community, disintegrated shortly after finishing our job, leaving behind many unpaid suppliers.  Now we face the prospect of paying for our roof all over again or risk months in court with no certainty of success.

With all of this, it is tempting to co-opt this season of blessing.  We are, after all, in need of being blessed.  It would be easy to put out our hand and say give one less present so you can give a little more to the church.  However, that is not where we have decided to go.  We feel God calling us somewhere else this go round.

A few blocks north of our church is a high school where we know students go hungry.  Across the street from us is a grade school that has been our neighbor for 95 years.  There, we know children struggle to read at the level they should, and many of the books available to them in the library come from a time when the Cold War was still being fought.  How do we know this?  We asked.  Over coffee with the principle and others.

This season, we will collect high need items for the High School food bank.  Not the leftovers nearing expiration in our pantry, but the things that they truly need the most.  We are taking time to volunteer to read with kids, one on one, to offer them encouragement and love.  And, on Christmas Eve, we will pass the plate, not for ourselves and our needs, but to buy books for that library across the street.  Ones that connect with a world after the invention of cell phones and the Internet.

That is not all.  During the run up to Christmas Day, we will pass the one year anniversary of the Free Store, which we host in some reclaimed space in that education wing.  This cooperative mission of the area United Methodist Churches has offered clothing and kitchenware to hundreds of families representing thousands of people over the last 12 month, and we are on course to do even more next year.

I share all this not as self-congratulation. No, in fact, I expect some will even see our actions as foolhardy.  (And they are likely correct.)  I share it instead in the hope of sharing the joy we have in doing it.  Despite all the challenges, we remain a people of joy, an optimism reveling in an insane belief that God is still using us to do amazing things.

We find ourselves part of a denomination that is struggling to find its identity in a very different world than it grew up in.  That struggle is seen not only in the places of the institution – the General Boards and Bishops’ gatherings – but, also, in the pews and fellowship halls of nearly every church that looks like mine.   Good, everyday United Methodists struggling to find their relevancy in the strange new age we now inhabit.

While those around us struggle for answers, and while many offer up ready-made solutions, we have chosen to take our direction from all the way back where the story began.  Like Abraham, we will attempt to be a blessing to all nations, and, like Jesus suggested, we will start with our neighbors.

I have no clear vision of how the struggles of our small congregation, sitting in the middle of a state often overlooked, will be met.  Our finance meetings are not a place where we deal with an overabundance, but instead a place where, mercifully, we deal with just enough.  No, I have no clear vision except this:  that the path forward must follow in the footprints of Christ.

The opportunity in all the uncertainly that surrounds us is simple.  We are given the chance to look deep into who we truly are, and the ability to reclaim what we have always been, a people of blessing.  At one point offering Sunday school at every grade level, bell choirs, and potlucks were the blessings our neighborhood was asking for.  Now, though, it needs something different.

On our corner, in our town, we will make our stand.  Not for tradition’s sake, and not because it is simplest, but because of the belief that God is not done working through us here.  Noah had a flood, Christ a cross, and we have our own burdens to bear.  Yet God does not wait for those to be resolved before asking us to take action.  Instead God blesses in spite of, and often through, the very things that weigh us down.

I know and trust we are not alone.  That many faithfully live out their callings in their communities.  So this season, during this time of blessings, let us not simply count our own, but instead count those we have to offer others.  Let’s do what some urge us to:  Reclaim Christmas, Make Christmas Not our Birthday, and all of that.  Let’s be the people God has always asked us to be, a people of blessing.  Let us not forget our struggles, but let us not be defined solely by them either.

Hark, the Herald Angel sings, glory to the newborn King!

Jeremy W Scott
Pastor, Evangelical United Methodist Church
Billings, Montana

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