Sunday, December 17, 2017

Seasonal Joy/Seasonal Stress

Why is it invariably true that the more we give of ourselves to the world, the more the world gives back to us? 

Each Christmas I'm reminded of this, as I take on various holiday tasks for my church and my family, stressed by each one and silently vowing, "Never again!" Then each task turns out to be so rewarding that I remember, "Oh. That's why I do this." And so I sign up to do these things again the following year, and the exact same scenario (anxiety, despair, relief, gratitude) plays itself out in the exact same way.

The task that stresses me most is organizing Christmas caroling for our small congregation, where we try to visit all of our members who are no longer able to come to us for Sunday worship but value being remembered at this special time of year. It's a daunting jigsaw puzzle of geographical logistics, with various retirement communities and care centers spread out over several nearby towns, and temporal logistics, with the need to accommodate residents' mealtimes, nap times, and other constraints imposed by each facility. Worst: I never know who from our congregation is going to be able to show up to sing with me. It's a busy time of year for everyone, with competing commitments for all. What if I promise to come a-caroling, and I'm the the sole caroler, stumbling through each tune by my pitiful lonesome with my thin, quavery soprano? 

At church this year, one friend, impatient with my all-too-familiar morning-of-caroling desperation, snapped at me, "Claudia, you worry about this every single year! And it always turns out just fine!" Okay, but what if THIS is the year that it doesn't? 

But this year was perhaps the loveliest yet. The first person we visited had lost her beloved husband three Christmases ago and was so touched to have us come to her. Our second stop was to our church's honorary Jewish member, next-door-neighbor to the parsonage, who has befriended so many of our pastors over the years, and who happens to love Christmas music (and knows more of the words to the songs than we do). We sang to her outside on her deck, in the balmy December sunshine, as passers-by turned to smile at us. 

Our third stop was an actual "performance" at the nearby Meridian retirement community, where my son Christopher played the piano for a full half hour of a rousing sing-along of every beloved carol. Here we were joined by a few adorable members of a local Girl Scout troop. Our final stop might have been the sweetest of all. The resident we were visiting had made a flyer inviting others to come join us, so Christopher played for a good-sized group here as well. One attendee replied to every single song with a heartfelt sigh of appreciation: "Oh, that was beautiful!" "Oh, that one was REALLY good!" "Oh, that one was the BEST!"

I have to find some way to have faith that each year the Christmas obligations WILL work out, some way to skip the needless stress and just go directly to the joy that always follows. But maybe the stress has its own role to play. This year it was because I was so stressed that I made special efforts to recruit singers and took pains to schedule a very-welcome five-minute grace period between each visit so I wouldn't have the terror of running late. Maybe holiday stress can be a salutary kind of stage fright that is energizing rather than depleting.

Or maybe I just need to trust the Holy Spirit a little more. My favorite verse of all Christmas carols is the third stanza of "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear": 

O ye, beneath life's crushing load, whose forms are bending low
Who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow
Look now for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing
O rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing.

The glad and golden hours come each Christmas. And each Christmas, despite all those painful steps along the weary road, I hear the angels sing.

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