Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas Eve: On a cold winter's night that was so deep..


It’s finally time to get our Christmas tree. Dan and I walk down the street, stop at Barney Greengrass to pick up two cups of coffee. We cross the street and I pass the second cup on to Francois. Dan and I check out the trees and finally select a Douglass fir, just the right size. Francois trims and bags the tree and says, “Merry Christmas”. I ask him how much I owe for the tree and he says “Merry Christmas,” and smiles. So I say “thanks” and Dan and I head back up Amsterdam.

I hear a voice cry out, “Pastor Bob” and I turn around and see a man in a parka. He’s rushing my way. And then I can see, it’s Brian Taylor. He’s one of those wonderful bicoastal guys who always spent his New York City time with us. He’s an actor/singer who does a lot of industrials. At West-Park, I’ve seen him appear as Winky the Clown,Spiderman and on at least one Christmas, Santa Claus. He’s got a heart warm as LA and an easy going California evangelical spirit. It’s been a long time, he wants to know what’s going on. I give him the short version. He wants the longer. He’s come by, always seen us closed. He wants to know how he can help. So we decide to meet after Christmas. “God works in strange ways,” he says, “I know God wanted me to see you today.” He gives me a big hug. And as I go, I say, “Merry Christmas to you, Brian.”

Dan says, “Why didn’t you invite him?” And I say, “I told him we were having a service.”
And Dan says, “Not the same thing.” He’s right. Still have a ways to go.

Dan and I start north again and slow down as we reach the protestors at Saigon Grill, their voices sounding more aggressive as they chant “boycott Saigon Grill” and with the sun and the warmer day and Brian and everything on the street, I’m loving being alive in New York City.

                                                                             * * * *

Later in the afternoon as I’m coming back down the street to get ready for the Christmas Eve service, I’m once again reflecting on the fact that sooner or later you just have to accept that Christmas has come. That there’s no more planning possible, what hasn’t been done will remain undone and that all you can do is accept that it’s coming as it is. Let go, give in, accept Christmas. It’s that time again. As I’m thinking this thought, an older African-American woman in a Santa Claus outfit goes rushing by me.

I think a signal was missed and I’ll be doing my set up alone. I throw open the doors, sweep the steps. Outside, I find a crumpled card. The front says, “Thank you Jesus for your greatest gift---you!” and inside is written, “Gabriela, hope all is well. You vanished. Call me. Kevin.” So did Kevin think better of it and throw the card away? Did Gabriela open it and throw it away in disgust, anger or indifference? And I think of that aspect of Christmas and relationships, of brokenness and longing, the romantic desire for reconciliation, for Christmas miracles, for what more often than not doesn’t happen .

I go upstairs and find votive candles left over from Amanda’s candlelit stage that I’ll use to light the steps. I warily turn on the Hammond and am amazed that after three years, even with some stiff keys, the old organ works! We’ll have accompaniment for Christmas Eve. I go find the hymnal that Micah will need for the music. I wash out the urn that held the mulled wine and go buy apple cider for hot cider. I set up a stand and get the cider started. It is dark as I lock up and head for home.
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Later, walking back down the street to the service, I’m lost in my own thoughts. A feeling of doubt sweeping over me again. That perhaps this new hope is just a cruel tease, that change is too hard, the end inevitable. Why not just be prepared for it? I hear my name and look up and it’s my cousin Nancy and her husband, David. They’d been to the church and found the door locked. “I’m on my way,” I say. Their arms are filled with packages. They’re going to stop to warm up a bit before coming back.

I open the doors. Bring the votive candles out and put them on the steps. Would have liked to have done candelaria, farolitos, but didn’t have time to look for the bags. (Actually did that one year, too. Wanted to start a tradition...maybe next year...) Get my wicker basket of small candles and bulletins out by the door. Get the offering plates out. And bring the hot cider out to the street.

I enjoy dipping cups of hot cider for those who pass by. I hope that we can gather on the steps and begin there, but my first guest arrives at 6:45 , takes the cider and goes in and sits down. Another friendly woman initially passes on the cider, but also takes one and heads for her seat. (My cousin Nancy will later say, "at my cousin Bob"s church, you need a hot drink in your hand whether you drink it or not... .")My family arrives. And my cousin and her husband. Then Andre. And another woman. And then Deacon James.

I begin. Somewhat awkward, somewhat stiff. We sing carols. Micah plays. I share what I have learned, that this is the 100th Christmas for the West-Park congregation that was born in 1911. Those here tonight  have added to that life. Whether there is a next year or not will be determined by us and our neighbors. I read Luke’s version of the story, remember my grade school Christmas pageants, our principal William Burson annually reading this text. His bulldog like mien absorbed in assertive reverence. But more so I talk about light. About how its always been there inside us from when the day was separated from night. Through the prophets. To Jesus down to today. Sometimes hidden, sometimes dim, but always there. And that is what we look for in others, to tend or to help rekindle. And that is what we take back out into the world.

We sing “Silent Night,” light our candles. Sing “Go Tell it On the Mountain.” The official service is over. But still people come in to have a cup of hot cider, to look around, to pray. There’s a Russian family, surprised the cider is free. The Asian woman explains that she works for the Japanese embassy, always celebrated Christmas in Japan, wanted to do so here. Three young men from Germany, Cologne, looking for a good restaurant, skyscrapers and a place for Christmas day worship. A couple sits quietly praying.

As we clean up, Nate tells me that I should more fully embrace things as they are. That I shouldn’t be so disappointed at a low turn out and celebrate more each person who has come. Make them feel special. And of course, he s right.

We walk cross the street with candles and hot cider for Francois. And tonight, Pascal,who works the night shift. Already they have begun to take down their shelter. Only hours to go before they head home. Pascal likes the hot cider. And I recall the delicious cider of Quebec.

What happens to the leftover trees, we wonder? They’re gathered. Chipped. Turned in to mulch. On a contract to the city.

We go back in. Rinse the urn. Send the last guests home. Lock up. Andre goes with us. Final “Merry Christmases” to Francois and Pascal. Up Amsterdam, the demonstrators are out at Saigon Grill again. We look in the warm windows to see customers inside. Nate has wondered how anyone could do that faced with a picket line. We stop to talk. Micah is especially interested. But when the woman organizer wants a detailed update on the current state of the Labor movement in Germany, I feel we need to head home. I notice that tonight, all the demonstrators are wearing Santa Claus hats.

....on a cold winter’s night that was so deep. Noel, noel, noel, noel...born is the king of Israel...

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