Down at St. Bob the Informal’s Presbymethertarian Church, Rhumba and I are not in the with “in” crowd. This is through no fault of the “in” crowd; they’d love to have us. There’s a choir to staff and fundraisers to run, endless church council meetings to sit through, work days to organize, and on and on.
The “in” crowd means well, but we stay on the sidelines. We lost our taste for church politics at our last church. You can pick up scars at a church as easily as on a battlefield; just not the kind that show. Or always heal.
So when St. Bob’s scheduled a Christmas service for people with scars, Rhumba and I found ourselves volunteering. Even though the scars were of a different sort than ours. Ever hear of Blue Christmas? Elvis is not involved, I guarantee.
Blue Christmas is a service for people who feel pain during the Christmas season: from personal or financial problems, from painful memories linked the holidays, or from endless other sources of distress. Christians are supposed to be joyous at Christmas. The traditional celebrations give no acknowledgement to those who can’t be. That’s what Blue Christmas is for: to make a space for expressing the pain.
The service took place at 3 PM a Sunday or two back; the congregation had already come and gone from the morning services. But this particular service was for Santa Cruz at large, and had been publicized as such.
We arrived early to set up and get briefed on our tasks. I ushered, Rhumba wrangled the Powerpoint hymn slides and media projector, and Pastor Biff was a calm and friendly presence in a black-and-gray ecclesiastical sport shirt and modest stole.
Mainly the “in” crowd wasn’t there. The driving force behind Blue Christmas was a woman parishioner who sometimes led a hymn or two at services and had sung in the praise band when we still had one. But she spoke movingly of loss and pain at the beginning of the service – from experience. The she introduced a friend who also spoke of grief and loss, and sang a solo.
Fifteen or twenty people attended the service. Some alone, some in couples. You would see a man or woman slump over in their seat from time to time, and then the spouse – if there was one – would slip an arm around their shoulders.
A few of the worshipers were from St. Bob’s: a woman whose parents had died recently, and badly, after years of acute health problems, financial ruin, and despair. And another man whose story I don’t know, but who never seems at ease anywhere or at any time.
Pastor Biff invited the congregation to bring lighted candles to the altar and place them there in honor of their loss. I must admit that I hadn’t been clear on what precisely brought the people to Blue Christmas; throughout the service there’d been talk of pain and loss in general terms only. But many of the people also brought photographs with them to place on the altar with the candles, and I finally understood: they had lost loved ones, and felt the loss cruelly at Christmas time for whatever reason.
As the service drew to a close we sang a song while Pastor Biff laid healing hands on those who wanted them. Then there was a prayer, and then the worshipers repaired to the narthex where an absolutely stupendous spread of baked goods awaited. It was the gift of a cheerful, middle-aged man who’s widely acknowledged as the best baker at St. Bob’s. I don’t know his story; but I’m pretty sure that he raised a daughter to adulthood by himself. Presbymethertarians don’t ask.
And he was there, serving his own goods. He recommended to me his home-made apricot-jalapeno butter with cream cheese on a slice of fruit bread. It set fire to the back of my mouth. But in a good way.
I’m no psychiatrist, but it seemed to me that Blue Christmas had done its job. The worshipers chatted with Pastor Biff and the other service participants, and with each other. Smiles were evident; the mood, relaxed and friendly. For the time being, at least, they seemed at peace. And just happy to be there, talking.
Six of them were of children. Sometimes I wonder how people can bear the grief they hold.
But I guess that’s why there’s church — as well as spiritual teachers, social workers, and psychologists. In the end what really matters is that someone makes a safe space where you can acknowledge your pain. With a slice of fruit bread, offered in all compassion.
Merry Christmas to all! But if you don’t feel merry – remember that you’re not alone.