Coming and Going: Ghosts of Advents Past

Coming and Going: Ghosts of Advents Past December 3, 2018

When you’re a pastor, there is never a good time to tell your church folks that you’re leaving. It’s always going to be gut-wrenching, heartbreaking and complicated. There’s no perfect moment for sharing that news.

But there are some times that are worse than others—and the beginning of Advent feels, in many ways, like one of the worst possible times (second only to the week before pledge card Sunday being the most apocalyptic thing imaginable). But that is precisely what I did: last week, just three days before the calendar page turned to December and four days before Advent I, I told my people that I would be leaving at the beginning of January.

I’m always preaching that two things can be true at once, and I’m finding these two things true right now: one true thing is that I’m a wreck about leaving Saint Andrew. Seriously, a hole in my heart. It’s a truly unique and visionary community that has called out the best in me. It’s rare to find a congregation that has been so intentional about its radical welcome and prophetic voice; and that voice is needed right now more than ever.

Also true: Sometimes an opportunity comes along that feels like it’s got your name on it. Possibly in neon. When I heard Week of Compassion—our denomination’s disaster relief and humanitarian aid ministry—was looking for an Associate Director to focus entirely on communications and marketing, it felt like that flashing neon sign. In my line of work (hopefully in any line of work), you don’t ignore those.

What made it even more of a burning bush moment (I know I’m mixing my metaphors today, but roll with me) was the flexibility this position affords. It is a remote gig, which means we can move back to Kentucky to be near family. At some point, it started to feel like a no-brainer.

Except. Except that it meant leaving a community of people who have been a huge part of my life for more than five years. Except that it meant taking my kids away from the church that has raised them since they were toddlers; where my kids LIKE coming to church, and take responsibility for things like cleaning up the water in the sanctuary after it rains, and setting out plates and cups for potlucks, and … other duties as assigned.

It was perfect, except it’s Advent.

It was perfect, except there is never any perfect.

At such a busy and important time of the year, it seemed like exactly, precisely the wrong moment to drop this kind of news in the midst of all the festivity.

So anyway, I was sitting in worship yesterday, thinking about how I’m going to be a weepy hot mess through all of Advent this year … and it occurred to me that, you know what? I’m a weepy, hot mess through Advent MOST years. For one reason or another.

There were the years I’d just had a baby—and the hormones were as present with me as the Holy Spirit. (No male gospel writer will tell you about that part, but I’m sure Mary herself will tell you that struggle is too real).

I cried through Advent my first year at Saint Andrew—six Christmases ago—because I’d just gotten here, and was missing my Arizona church so much. I was happy to be here, but felt like I could never possibly love another church the way I’d loved my first solo pastorate.

I cried through Advent two years ago because one of our youth was very, very sick. Every time that family came through the communion line—and every Sunday that they didn’t—I felt their pain. And wanted to carry it, but couldn’t.

That same year, our board chair and his family were in the process of moving; Christmas Eve was their last time worshipping with us before they hit the road.

Last Christmas, a matriarch of the church—one of our founding members—had recently died. Way too young. It was a loss felt throughout the whole church. And on Christmas Eve, the empty chair in that family’s row was noticeable.

Let it be known that, as a rule, I don’t cry much. I’ve never been an overly emotional person and a thing has to hit me just right before I can shed a tear. But when I visit with (holy) ghosts of Advents past, I have to acknowledge that there is something about the season that almost always feels raw and vulnerable and aching… and also deeply, profoundly beautiful.

We are, all of us, at any given moment, trying to let something die. And waiting for some new thing to be born.

Maybe that’s why I have so little patience for the thin, hollow sounds of holly-jolly-whatever that come through the speakers at the mall this time of year. (And yes, you’d better believe I’m working on my annual blog rant re: terrible Christmas music. Stay tuned for this year’s indictment). But it all just rings so hollow in the grand scheme of things. When you do life in community, someone you love is moving through a hard thing or carrying something heavy, at any given time. So much coming and going. This season seems to draw it all into sharp relief—the promise of new life thrown against the inevitable heartbreak of just being in this one.

Two things can be true at once. This season is almost always filled with joy and sadness in equal measure. It rarely feels like Jingle Bells, but it always brings its own goodness. Any given December, there are empty places in our sanctuary, and at our table. And always, always, there are new babies. And at least one just waiting to be born.

Which is to say, maybe Advent was precisely, exactly the right time to share this news with my people. Because what I know from these Advents past—and what we all know from a lifetime of Decembers—is that this thin holy place of waiting holds its own raw, aching beauty; but damned if Christmas doesn’t just keep coming.

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