It’s age. Why not tell it like it is? I wouldn’t be ornery if I were 24 or even 48, and I’m not. I’m 66, and that’s got a lot to do with being cranky about an NPR story featuring the latest tattooed and tousled dominie to do Christianity right for once. She’s got this bruising past that toughened her up enough to go to war with those vile establishment Lutherans Garrison Keillor lampoons; but up there in Seattle, where her congregation sits in cheap plastic chairs, no pews, she and her fellowship finally, after 2000 years, are doing the Christian faith right. That’s the story line.
If I had a dime for all of those stories in the last fifty years, I could cure Haiti’s ills. They’re all alike, every last one of them, sweeping the detritus of rank tradition out of the aisles or doing away with aisles all together, for God’s sake, creating a contemporary worship space for authentic Christianity.
We just want to be authentic, she told NPR. So what am I, phony baloney?
This fellowship happens to be Lutheran, but they come in garden varieties, each of them carrying a petulant sanctimony they’d vehemently deny, a saintliness both repudiated and earned in this preacher’s nifty collection of blue-black Christian tattoos. I mean, I’ve read just about everything from Anne Lamott, but even her shtick gets old.
Here’s a Christmas story. Couldn’t be more tradition-bound, more inauthentic, I suppose.
We go, off and on, to a local Presbyterian church, where, on a good Sunday morning, there’s all of forty people, mostly fewer. The singing is nothing to crow about, the preaching is fair-to-middlin’, and the liturgy is ancient—every week we sing “Glory Be to the Father.” You know. No praise team up front, no power points—which means, of course, we actually hold hymnals. It’s like worshipping in a museum. We like it.
The church is close, just up the road in town, but it’s also close in a way that most churches work blame hard to be: close, as in, when we greet each other as worship begins, we greet everyone. You get out of your pew. Everyone does. Then again there are only 35 souls, sometimes less. It's not an all day process.
There’s a childrens’ sermon, but only three kids, floppy-haired, pudgy brothers who sometimes wear really short ties. They live with their grandparents because their mom—well, she lost ‘em somehow. I don’t how because I don’t know the story, and I’m glad I don’t.
What I do know is that my wife and I have often marveled at the boys’ grandparents, who got drafted to raise an entirely new family after suffering endless hurt with the first one. Honestly, at 65 years old, I don’t know how Grandpa and Grandma do it, but they do, 24/7. Where on earth do they find the wherewithal?
Anyway, when I was a boy, we went to church on Christmas Eve in the kind of darkness where “Silent Night” makes a sanctuary feel like the Judean hills. But even in churchly Sioux County, Iowa, you’ve got to look hard and long for a congregation that gathers on Christmas Eve.
Maybe it was nostalgia, maybe it was because we’re alone, but we decided to go up the block to the little Presbyterian church where everyone gets greeted. They were going to have a choir, for pity sake. We wondered how many ringers they’d have to draft.
It was wonderful. It was great, and those three boys who live with their grandparents sang a special number, decked out in matching white shirts and skimpy ties. Someone in the back turned on a piped-in pop rock tune, and those three boys sort of sang along. Sort of. It was the first time I remember thanking the Lord for piped-in music.
They had some trouble remembering the words. For that matter, they had trouble with the notes. But their mother was there I think, a woman who looked like she’d known some hard times. She had a little camera up, recording everything, a trio of her own boys singing a song about what Christmas isn’t about—and, bless his holy name, what it is.
But that image wasn’t what jerked my heart strings, not the boys’ singing, although what they gave the rest of us was really “special” music because they looked greatly happy to be up there entertaining. And it wasn’t their mom’s close attention with that pocket camera, which was touching too.
The real gift I got on Christmas Eve at the little Presbyterian church up the block is the way that Grandma mouthed the words, every lyric in that rockin’ number, every sentence, every last phrase, every line of chorus, because she knew those words and she wanted her boys to remember them because they had a part of the whole celebration and, good Lord! it was Christmas eve.
She knew the words because this grandma had been been the one, all week long, doing the coaching, doing it all.
Real and righteous pride was lighting her face as if she had hold herself of that big candle right square in the middle of the advent wreath. Love was in her eyes--and thanksgiving, which is, really, what Christmas is about, what the Christian life itself is all about.
Nothing’s hip at the church up the block. They don’t try to compete with what’s being done across town--no live nativity, no stringed orchestra, no theater, not a bit of hoopla, nothing to make the news. They didn’t even advertise. I had to call the preacher.
But Christmas Eve, as sure as I’m sitting here this Christmas morning, with my own eyes and ears I saw and heard a real, live chorus of angels, I’m telling you, this one in short ties.
And in case you’re wondering, we sang “Silent Night” in the candlelit darkness, just the way it should be sung.
What’s more, I came home with a paper bag of peanuts, a half dozen or more chocolate stars, an apple, just as if I were, once more, a kid.
I know. I'm hopeless.
But I hope they were just as authentic in Seattle.