I worship at Bradenton CRC when wintering in Florida. By my standards, it’s a megachurch. Let me tell you how they do Christmas. The huge stage showcases six tastefully-decorated Christmas trees. A gorgeous tablescape displays a massive Advent candelabra and dozens of white poinsettias. Sumptuous wreaths hang on either side of a screen scrolling through a tapestry of seasonal images — like an animated scene with evening snow falling gently on a rustic stable and palm trees. Perhaps not meteorologically faithful to Bethlehem (or Florida), but lovely.
The visually lush interior invites wonder. Now add in musical gifts of professional depth and skill every week. As twinkling lights dapple her instrument, a violinist plays a heavenly version of “What Child is This?” The choir presents a layered and nuanced hymn, “Christ Has Come.” A soloist sings a simple and unaffected “The Lord’s Prayer.” Best of all, on the organ, the “Hallelujah Chorus” as a postlude. I can’t leave the sanctuary. I sit until the last note dies away, transfixed by the organist’s virtuosity.
The music director introduces various parts of the liturgy in synchronized flow with the pastor. No pauses … the service just rolls. The pastor is preaching through John 17, a series about why Christ came to earth. He’s comfortable, adept at using the remote control to seamlessly add or subtract slides in conjunction with his sermon. I like what I’m learning. He says, for example, that the invitation for the disciples to call God “Father” is a new and radical addition to traditional Jewish prayer; in the Old Testament, God was addressed as Father of the nation, but never as an individual’s personal Father. It’s a detail I’ve not heard before.
He’s already preached the same sermon at the 8:30 AM service. Services are arranged this way to accommodate us — the snowbirds. Bradenton CRC deserves praise for its hospitality. The influx of winter visitors could be viewed as an annoying disruption to normal church routines. Instead, we are warmly welcomed by way of friendly greeters, name tags and volunteers who direct traffic flow. The bulletin is clearly designed to assist newcomers. Brochures introduce ways in which snowbirds can become involved in church activities.
Sacrifice of praise
This past year, though, I was home for Christmas, worshipping in my own church. Although the scale of pageantry is not as grand as that of Bradenton CRC, there was plenty to appreciate. Vibrant and celebratory Advent banners, lovingly stitched by one of our own. A luxe Advent candle set, a gift from church members. Evocative powerpoint images carefully selected by a volunteer. Special music provided by those with musical talent. A candlelight service organized by the youth group. The exuberance of Sunday School kids ringing their jingle bells on Christmas morning.
There’s really nothing like worshipping at home. When you have insider knowledge of all that goes on behind-the-scenes to create meaningful worship, you begin to understand that rather odd phrase, a “sacrifice of praise.” The sound guy has managed to wedge in a Thursday evening rehearsal with the praise team while juggling holiday overtime shifts. I’m still having Sunday morning breakfast when some anonymous farmer in his John Deere tractor is clearing the parking lot of snow. The flautist is already there too, warming up, while the custodian is hurriedly throwing salt on the sidewalks.
In an essay entitled “Ambition: Lilies that Fester” author and pastor Eugene Peterson credits another author, Wendell Berry, for schooling him in the priceless value of the homegrown: “… the more local life is, the more intense, more colourful, more rich because it has limits. These limits, instead of being interpreted as limitations to be broken through, are treasured as boundaries to respect.” However small the farm, insists Berry, or however humble the parish, Peterson concurs, it’s a place of inestimable worth.
As I worship in my familiar pew, closer to the front than the back, on the west side of the sanctuary, I tuck Peterson’s conclusion, inspired by Berry, close to my heart, a ringing endorsement, not only of my Wyoming church and Bradenton CRC, but of every faithful Christian fellowship: “The congregation is topsoil – seething with energy and organisms that have incredible capacities for assimilating death and participating in resurrection. The only biblical stance is awe, fear of the Lord. When I see what is before me, really before me, I take off my shoes before the burning bush of congregationalism.”