Last night we put the tree up and decorated the church for Christmas. I've been a pastor for just seven months now, so this was my first Christmas-prep experience with my beloved little Pawlet Community Church.
One of the things I've noticed, being in the ministry, is that there's a bit of an undercurrent of competition in regards to the size of a congregation. That there is a sense that one of the most important things about a church is how many people are sitting in the pews each week. And for sure there's something to be said for that, but I grew up going to gigantic Catholic churches and had no sense of belonging to anything. We went to church on Sunday, went through the motions, and then left.
I'm not so sure it's about the number of folks who show up each week so much as the strength of community, which can happen with five people or five hundred.
Early on in my reign as Supreme Ruler Over The Little Church of the Valley (standing at the pulpit each week has not gone to my head at all, no worries), someone described our church as "a small group, but spiritually strong." Whoever it was nailed it. And, after last night I would add to that: very, very funny and deeply loving.
Enoch and Rosalie (The Ones Who Do Pretty Much Everything) rolled up a few minutes after I got there, towing a trailer carrying a 20-foot tree. Next came Gibby and Doreen (Unofficial Mayor of Pawlet and his Beautiful and Kind Wife) followed by Bev and Turk (Everyone's Grandparents). It was just the seven of us, which turned out to be a perfect number.
I watched, as I always do, a lot of really great, sweet and funny things happen as these six teammates got to work doing what they've been doing for years: hanging roping from the balcony; placing candles and greens on the windowsills; and getting that gigantic tree ready to be hoisted. Allthewhile catching up with one another (hunting season stories) and teasing each other relentlessly. I don't get to see that in church on Sundays, when everyone is mostly Behaving Properly. Last night this small crew of hard workers made me laugh until I thought I would fall down.
I was in absolute awe of the warmth and sense of fun they all had, together. Of the kindness and playful teasing that went on between the husbands and wives, of how much was accomplished by such a small crew. Of their obvious devotion to the church in the center of their town. It was immensely comforting on a night when the news out of California was of yet another mass shooting of innocent humans going about their daily business.
We put some of the doves and red ornaments and lights on the top of the tree while it was laying down, then we all hoisted the now-18-footer. Gib secured it with wire to the walls and then everyone filled the branches with the rest of the decorations and lights. All except for Bev, who sat on The Throne behind the pulpit and gave directions. Enoch told funny stories about his boys, when they were young and in that place between believing and maybe not believing in Santa; Bev told a great story about a surprise visit they received from Santa one year, at their home, rendering her son, now a tall, talented grandpa/resident musician in our church, mostly speechless.
The Spirit of Christmas had descended.
When the decorating was done we turned off all the lights in the church and stood there, in silence, marveling at our tree. It was that moment, when the magic of Christmas and of wintertime takes hold; when the spirit of kindness and friendship, mixed with the intoxicating smell of a pine tree, pushes all of the hard stuff out of the way. When the reality of who we are: people who care about each other, people who care about a little church, people who believe in some pretty great ideas, like faith and hope and love, bound together by a kind of invisible Christmastide glue, takes hold.
For the folks who were there last night, this might have been the twelfth or the twentieth or maybe even the fortieth tree they had raised in the Pawlet Church sanctuary. For me, it was the first. But I hope the first of many. It's OK if our church doesn't become mega anything. What we have, though small in size, is enormous in all of the things that truly count.