Saturday, December 21, 2019

Will you spend Christmas at the mall, or the manger?

Did you ever yearn to attend an old-fashioned Christmas Eve service in a country church? Many years ago, I drove from my home in Boston, MA, to the trendy village of North Conway, NH. It's tiny compared to Boston, but filled with upscale stores and eateries, not to mention Mt. Washington. After some holiday shopping, I scanned the local paper for Christmas services. Sadly, I was a week early, and the only Christmas service was in an even smaller village a few miles away. Hoping for the best, I drove the rain-soaked farm roads to the village -- really just a crossroad -- where a tired clapboard church sat on one corner. Visitors were not expected, but I dripped through the door anyway. This church was in bad shape. Instead of pews, people sat on tired wooden folding chairs. The wall behind the alter was decorated with contact paper I'd seen at Sears. Instead of chandeliers, naked bulbs hung from the ceiling on cords, and as the service began, they all snapped off with a loud click, plunging the room into darkness. I regretted coming, but then things got worse. A dozen Sunday School kids lined up in front. Each one lit a candle. So far, so good. Then, one-at-a-time, (I'm not making this up) they read verses from Christmas cards! After each kid read his card, he blew out his candle. Parents, many wearing dungarees, were as pleased as punch. I wanted to drop through the floor, until there was just one kid left standing with a lit candle -- the last girl in line. She didn't have a card. She had a Bible, and she read, "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal."

It was only one verse from I Corinthians, but she read it wrong. Instead of "tinkling cymbal" she said "twinkling symbol." Then she blew out her candle, and as we sat in silent darkness I realized something. Until then, my Christmas had been a "tinkling cymbal" -- noisy, selfish gift buying. But Christmas isn't a tinkling cymbal, it's a twinkling symbol -- a star that wise men still follow to find the infinite love of God, manifest as a babe in a manger. I asked myself, "where will I spend this Christmas this year, at the mall or the manger?"

With a loud snap, the bare overhead bulbs came on, and folks began rising from their rickety chairs. As I left, the pastor met me at the door and apologized. He said he only serves here once a month, but has a church in North Conway "where we have a REAL Christmas eve service." I told him his apology was not needed. In that weather-beaten old chapel, an angel (disguised as a little girl) had reminded me what Christmas really means.

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