When I was a child, my family sporadically attended a fundamentalist church, that didn’t celebrate Christmas. Correction: they celebrated Christmas, but NOT as the birth of Christ. Since they read Scripture literally, and the Bible doesn’t identify Jesus’ exact birth date, setting aside a particular day on the calendar to celebrate Christ’s birth wasn’t allowed.
For some reason, they assumed celebrating Jesus’ birth on the wrong day might offend God. I don’t get that. You can celebrate my birth any day you want to, as often as you want to! Want to buy me a Birthday cake today? Great! A Birthday gift tomorrow? Fabulous! A Birthday party for me, next Friday? Fine! No problem! We can do it all again next week!
Better to NEVER celebrate Christ’s birth, than to be wrong about the day? Like I said, I don’t get that.
They did, however, celebrate a secular Christmas – parties, trees, Santa, snowmen, presents, etc. But, no Jesus. Strange, I know. In fact, I still recall attending a children’s Christmas party, at the church. We were singing Christmas songs, and the leader was taking requests/suggestions. I don’t recall what song I suggested. But, I do remember being scolded/told we couldn’t sing songs about Jesus’ birth, at church! Even as a child I wondered, “We can’t sing songs about Jesus, at church??? I’m being scolded for asking to sing about Jesus, at church???”
How can it ever be wrong to sing songs about Jesus – ESPECIALLY AT CHURCH!?!
I never liked going to that church, and I was thankful when we stopped. Unfortunately, lots of people leave church, because of silly stuff like that, but never come back.
I attended my very first Christmas Eve service, in the early 1980s, at the First United Methodist Church of Orlando, at the invitation of our family friends, the Palmers. We sat in the balcony, overlooking an enormous, gorgeous sanctuary, beautifully decorated for Christmas, and filled with people from the front to the back. I’d never seen a church decorated for Christmas. I’d never sung Christmas carols, ABOUT JESUS, in church. I’d never been to a candle-light service before, or been given my own lit-candle to hold, as the congregation sang “Silent Night.”
It made an impression. Beyond those few details, I don’t recall much else. I can’t tell you anything the preacher said. I don’t know what the choir sang. I didn’t surrender my life to Jesus, at the altar, that night. But, the experience of my first Christmas Eve service made an impression – a deep, lasting impression.
Years later, as my wife and I graduated from college, we were discussing marriage. We decided we needed a church. Mostly, we just needed a pretty place to get married. But, we were also open to making Church part of our marriage.
We church shopped, as many do. But, nothing fit. Then, I remembered that Christmas Eve service at the First United Methodist Church of Orlando. We visited the following Sunday, and immediately felt like we were home.
We soon became members of First Church, and became swept up in the church’s activities and community. To my great surprise, I quickly sensed a call to ministry, and became the Youth Director a few months later. The following summer, we were married in the same sanctuary where I attended my first Christmas Eve service.
There’s MUCH more to this story, which I’ll share in future blogs. Since that first Christmas Eve service, over thirty-five years ago, I’ve experienced MANY Christmas Eve services, in many different churches – both as a pastor, and as a congregant. Each one has been special, and meaningful to me. And, every Christmas Eve, I’m reminded of my first.
If you don’t know already, you may be wondering where I’ll be tonight, for Christmas Eve services. I’ll be home. I’ll be back where it all began.
In July, 2019, I returned to the First United Methodist Church of Orlando, to be the Lead Pastor. And, tonight, I’ll be co-leading the Christmas Eve services, where I experienced my first Christmas Eve. But, tonight, I’ll be in the pulpit, not the balcony. Tonight I’ll be wearing a pastor’s robe, not a Christmas sweater. This Christmas Eve, the same Palmer family, who invited us thirty-five-plus years ago, will be in attendance, but I won’t be sitting with them. This Christmas Eve, I’m the Lead Pastor, not the guest.
This Christmas Eve, I’m home.
I’ve often wondered about the significance of that first Christmas Eve service, and the impression it made on me. If not for that service, when we were looking for a church, would I have considered the First United Methodist Church of Orlando? I doubt it. Why would I? If we’d joined another church, would we have gotten as involved? Would I have heard God’s call to ministry? I wonder. Where would I be now? What would I be doing? How would my life be different? Who knows?
But, here I am. And, beyond any shadow of a doubt, I’m absolutely confident I am where I am, because of that first Christmas Eve, so long ago.
Most of life’s journeys don’t lead back to their origins. I know that. Mine has certainly taken me far and wide, to places I never dreamed of going. I never really expected my journey to lead me home, though I’ve always hoped it would. But, here I am, and I’m grateful; so grateful.
I’m especially grateful to be “home” for Christmas. Christmas is always a special season and day. Christmas Eve services are always beautiful. Through the years, I’ve loved every one I’ve attended or led. But, this Christmas Eve is uniquely special to me.
At some point, tonight, I may need a few minutes alone in the balcony, to remember where my journey first began. Maybe I’ll take a candle, and hum “Silent Night.” Maybe I’ll say a little prayer of thanks to the Christ Child, who gave me a spiritual home, sent me on this wild journey of ministry, and has brought me back to where it all began.
If you happen to attend a Christmas Eve service tonight – whether it be your first, or one of many – I hope it makes an impression on you! I hope you’re moved by the beauty of what you see and hear. I hope you’re touched by the pastor’s message. I hope you feel the presence of the Christ Child, amongst the worshippers. I hope you hear the Truth in the Scriptures, Creeds, and Carols. I hope the candlelight illuminates something beautiful inside of you. And, though you may not realize it tonight, I hope it changes you… forever!
Of course, if you happen to be near Downtown Orlando, I know a great place to go for Christmas Eve services! I recommend sitting in the balcony.