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Christmas lights

This Christmas Eve, members of Westminster Presbyterian Church will gather at the Salvation Army Miracle Kitchen to host a special dinner for more than 100 of our neighbors. Together, we will enjoy a warm meal, share gifts and laughter, make new friendships and sing carols. We will gather in the conviction that we are one community, one family — and that no brother or sister should have to go hungry.

Westminster, like many of the area churches, volunteers regularly at the Salvation Army. I admit, however, that when we first learned that we were scheduled to prepare and serve a meal on Christmas Eve, some of us were skeptical. Christmas Eve? Really? As if we didn’t have enough to do on that day already!

But honestly, where else should we be on Christmas Eve but a soup kitchen?

As a pastor, I of course hope that we will take time to go to church and worship God (Westminster will still have its regular services). But if we go there on Christmas Eve, looking for Christ, we may be in the wrong place. If we want to hear the angels sing — just as they did to the shepherds so many years ago — we’ll need to find the places where people have lost hope and gathered in the dark.

If Christ chose to be born in such a politically conflicted, impoverished and alienated space as the rural hills of ancient Palestine, then he would likely look far beyond the walls of the church for his birthplace today. Oh, Christ would eventually show up to church, just as he was later found there as a boy, talking with the teachers, in what he called his “father’s house.” But maybe we should stop going to church to find God, and start going to church to worship the God whom we have already found in the hurting places of the world.

Janet Wolf, director of the Children’s Defense Fund Haley Farm, said that’s what brought her church to a maximum-security prison for its Christmas Eve service in 1976. She admits she wasn’t very excited about the idea, either.

Suddenly divorced, a single parent, raising two kids and holding down three part-time jobs, she had found that she wasn’t welcome at her former large suburban church. The pastor had told her that she could no longer teach Sunday school or hold a leadership position because she was not “an acceptable role model.” She had been devastated until she found a new church, located in the inner city, where people mostly wore jeans and T-shirts and happily — and lovingly welcomed her and her sons.

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It was this little church that took her to a nearby prison on Christmas Eve. But when they got there, they discovered that it was on lockdown and they would not be able to enter. So there they were, a small group huddling together, standing in the sleet and snow in a prison parking lot, bound to wake up sick the next morning, and all she could think of were her old church’s warm Christmas services with candles, trumpets and carols.

The group tried lighting the Christ candle, but the wind kept blowing it out. Janet then read from Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light ... on them, light has shined.” Suddenly, one of her sons tugged on her coat and said, “Mama, look!” As she turned and looked up, she saw rows and rows of flickering lights in the prison. In window after window, in cell after cell, she saw the glow of matches and lighters, their light spilling through the bars. Together, with the men in the prison, they all began to sing “Silent Night.”

Janet says, “This was where I realized that I had missed what the gospel was about and what it meant to be a church.”

We, too, can trust that on Christmas Eve, Christ will be born once again into the world. But it probably won’t be in a church.

Christ will be born in the prison down the street, in Chapel House among the homeless, in Auburn Community Hospital, and I suspect at the Salvation Army Miracle Kitchen. Christ will be born in the hearts of those who didn’t think they’d be welcome at church. Christ will be born in every poor and unloved part of our lives and world.

I hope we will run there with glee, just as those smelly, rough-mannered, beautiful shepherds did 2,000 years ago.

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The Rev. Patrick David Heery is the pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Auburn, and the former editor of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s denominational magazine, Presbyterians Today. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, Heery lives in Auburn with his wife, Jenna, and their two dogs, spending much of their free time hiking the countryside.

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