Pastor’s Perspective – December 2022
There’s something about being there
On Thanksgiving Day, the Bellavia family gathered at Ford Field to watch our beloved Buffalo Bills play the Detroit Lions. For many of the family it was the first time they had ever witnessed an NFL game in person. Such is the life of a Baptist minister and his family. Our commitment to Sunday morning worship precludes us from attending many Sunday events, and since NFL games are predominantly Sunday afternoon activities, our enthusiasm for the Bills could only be expressed through television screens.
Our Thanksgiving began by gathering the family together for the hour plus drive to Detroit. Neatly tucked into two vehicles, the ten of us safely arrived at Ford Field where we dropped off most of the family as close to the park as we could, and then continued to drive toward our pre-paid ($100) parking spaces. Of course, the traffic around the stadium was heavy, so we slowly made our way through crowds of people wandering across the streets and cars seeking to beat us to our already occupied spaces. We slowly, and with great effort, discovered that the entrance to our parking lot had been barricaded from both sides of the street, making it impossible to enter.
Of course, this was a frustrating moment. My family was waiting outside for us to get our tickets to them while we were driving around a city that was jam packed with parade goers and football fans. We eventually found curbside parking about a half a mile away from the stadium and Scott and I made our way to the stadium.
Upon finding our family and waiting in a long line to enter the stadium we finally reached our destination and found our seats. The stadium was glorious. My family was suitably impressed by the ‘large stones’ and the beauty of a domed stadium. Everything was glorious and masterful in its creation and sitting in the stadium itself could take your breath away. And then the game began. It was a close game with both teams trading touchdowns and highlight reel plays. It was a game that made you nervous from beginning to end. It was a hard fought, well played, devastatingly enjoyable game to watch. In the end the Bills won on a last second field goal.
With the game completed, all ten of us walked back to the cars together. This time with my grandchildren, with a son with a bum knee, and a wife who has difficulty oftentimes with vertigo and both knee and foot problems. After several stops and the occasional (thankfully good-natured) harassment by Lions fans, we made it to the cars and drove home. All in all, it was an incredible experience.
As I prepared our Thanksgiving feast on Friday morning, I considered the spectrum of emotions that we experienced attending the game. The stressors and the joys. The pros and the cons of actually attending the game. Why would I leave the comfort of my pajamas and refrigerator to see the game with 67 thousand other people?
As a pondered these questions, I also wondered how it might have been on the Christmas day in which Jesus was born. You see, while the Christmas story is an easy story to tell, it would not have been an easy story to live. It is a story filled with hardships, difficulties, and struggles. The Christmas story involves a long journey. It involves the frustration of not being able to find a place to rest. And it involves the very real danger of losing that which you so deeply cherish. In the ancient world infant mortality robbed a family not only of its children, but also the mothers who sought to bring life into the world. And the harsher the conditions of the birth itself, the more likely it was for the children to be lost. Joseph would have known this as he brought his new family on a journey to his homeland.
Joseph would not have travelled alone. It is likely that his extended family, not just Mary, participated in this journey. Like their later journey to Jerusalem, it was likely a caravan of people moving into the city of Bethlehem. They would experience the difficulty of travel, the frustration of the crowds, the dangers of travel all in a massive crowd of people all trying to get to the same place and occupy the same spaces.
Travelling in a massive crowd is akin to jungle living. You quickly realize that you are living in a world of evolutionary struggle. Survival of the fittest. It is easy to forget why you are travelling and become consumed by the crush of the crowd. At one point in our journey to find a parking space my son told me (over the phone) that he experienced a moment when he simply wanted to drive home. Yet when we persevere in our journey then we find the blessing that emerges at the end of the journey. We witness the game, the birth, the life, the miracle.
Most of us think that the journey is supposed to be easy, most of us think that the game is supposed to be won quickly. Without stress. Most of us have a desire for a postcard ending and a holiday that emerges in perfection. A day in which everything goes right, and nothing goes wrong. We think of this as God’s will and God’s way.
God’s way is far different from our understanding or our expectations. God allows us to go through the difficulty so that we can celebrate the triumphs. God allows us to walk the path and make the effort so that we might learn that at the end of the journey we might experience the blessing of God’s presence.
The Gospel story of the birth of Jesus tells us that for us to experience the blessings of God, we must get up and leave our easy chairs show to follow where God leads us. That the blessing of being there means going through the difficulty of getting there. We must struggle against our 21st century fetish of watching from afar and relearn the joys of being in the present.
God does not want us to be a Church of armchair quarterbacks or long-distance fans. God wants the church of the future to be reborn into a new Christmas understanding that for us to be a part of the story, we must get up and go. This is true whether we’re fans of a team, or following a star, or responding to the directions of an angel. Whether we’ve been commanded by Caesar, or whether we’ve been spoken to in dream.
I understand that it’s much easier to watch from our living room. But it’s so much more spectacular to see it in person. Christians in the 21st century have grown content to watch people worship, but it doesn’t compare with the experience of worshipping in the presence of God and God’s people. While it is true that not everyone has access to live worship, those that can be present should be present.
Church is not about hearing the music, listening to the sermon, or following the rites. All of those are a part of it, but the church, the real church is a gathering of people lifting their hands and voices to celebrate God together. It is the two or more gathered in the name of Jesus. And in that church, a church where holy hands are lifted, voices are raised, and people worship together in unity: that is the church that God attends. That’s where God shows up.
The question is whether we will watch others worship or enter the presence of God. It’s time to get engaged again, and to participate in what has for too many people become just another spectator sport. It’s time to gather as a family, as a people, as a church.
Come and worship with us.