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  • Every year on the last Sunday night before Christmas, my parents, my sister, and I go to the little country church just down the road from the farm for an evening Christmas service. The church was built in the mid-1800’s, and it only opens once a year for Christmas, and I wrote all about it last year, but I have to write about it again. I just have to.

    The church caretakers serve hot chocolate and chalky Christmas cookies, and they make you sign a guest book before you enter, which always creates confusion for those waiting out in the snow (or in this year’s case, the rain), wondering what the hold up into a little country church cold possibly be. When you finally make your way through the line and realize there’s only one guest book and one pen and the tiniest and sweetest old lady who insists with an iron fist that each and every one of you sign it individually, it all makes sense.

    I came on my own, as my parents and my sister live in town, and after scribbling down my name, I found my dad near the front. I pretended to take a real long time getting my coat off because I like watching everyone coming in, especially the type of people you only see once a year at this one service. The fifth-generation farmers and old-fashioned handymen come out of South Lyon’s rural woodwork, showing up with neatly trimmed beards and thick flannel shirts securely tucked behind a pair of suspenders. The warm, shadowy glow of the tiny candlelit church complements years of hard work—most of it clearly done outside—etched across their faces by way of weathered wrinkles and furrowed brows. Their bright shining eyes tell of the great tales akin to all those years of work, and maybe a little anxiously, they survey the quaint church looking for an empty spot in a pew, preferably near the back, where a conversation is less likely to be struck and it isn’t too far away from their old farm trucks, where their dogs and the road back to solitude faithfully await. They’d probably be less indignant in church if their dogs were allowed inside. I think that’s a fair request. After all, Jesus was born in a barn, so I can’t imagine He’d have a problem with a few dogs in His congregation.

    Of course, there are other people who come to church, too. Young families, aging bachelors, and old widowed sisters, some of whom are still young enough to also bring with them their fragile widowed mothers. But everyone always looks like they fit in these old-fashioned parts.

    And as I look over everyone, I watch just how they settle in—some people wrap themselves in a timeless rhythm that matches the coaxing of the wood stove and the twinkling of the Christmas tree lights, while others search wildly in their pews for the location of a sound system and a wifi signal. It’s in those moments that I wonder if maybe no one ever really dies. If the same people just come back over and over and over again—perhaps the Lord’s gift at a second and third and one thousandth chance for us, hoping that perhaps we’ve learned something from last time. That we might be compelled to undo all the wrongs we left behind and finally get the saving the world part right this time. And I wonder if, maybe, without knowing it, we’re always finding the good people from before—our good people—and that explains why we can only just meet someone for the first time, but feel as though we’ve only known them since forever. Maybe, even longer.

    Because we have.

    And maybe that’s why some people spend their whole lives looking for a certain type of love, and though they find restless aspects of it in different people along the way, they aren’t lucky enough to find THE one they found in every life before. And they just know they aren’t out there, like they were so easily found lifetime and lifetime before. People say you always know when you’ve found THE one. You just know. But watching and knowing other people, I think it’s also true that people know when they haven’t found the one—not in this lifetime, anyway—and probably never will.

    It’s not hard to tell the ones who possess that empty heart and profound sadness, even looking out over a church crowd settling into a Christmas service and simpler times, if only for this one night. That lost love is especially apparent at Christmastime, when anyone is capable of missing the loved ones we haven’t even met, let alone lost—in this lifetime, anyway—but you can see the restlessness in their eyes, in particular, and the sorrow in their hearts, always looking for someone or something they won’t ever find.

    But then, that’s what keeps them going until next Christmas.


    It always feels wrong to see that melancholy in someone you don’t know, so I looked away to the happier faces with happier lives, and as I stood in front of the pew taking my coat off in slow motion, I wondered for how many people this was their first Christmas in this old church and for how many people this was their two-hundred and tenth. My dad, a glutton for routine and tradition, was upset that we were not able to sit in the same pew we’ve always sat in for the last three years—as it was already taken by a very rambunctious family—and we were “forced” (his words, not mine) to sit in the same row, though somehow a less superior pew as it was on the other side of the church, which is truly less than a five yard difference from the right side of the church, as the church is not that big.

    I shifted uncomfortably as I finally sat down, trying to hold on to the fact that being surrounded by these timeless walls is almost as magical as being in Notre Dame. But my dad’s contagious anxiety escalated as the teenage girls whipped out their iPhones sending him into a downward spiral of pessimistic sentiments on ruined traditions, which threatened to take all the magic of this place and this Christmassy eve from my grasp.

    The preacher’s son sat down in front of us, and I cringed as my mother joined our group and began to loudly recount the details of last year’s service. I prayed she had nothing but kind words for the preacher, as my contorted looks of warning and accompanying sign language in reference to the preacher’s son’s close proximity clearly meant nothing to her— though she did ask me if there was a bee in my jacket. Cody, my sister, forever beautiful and looking particularly festive in bright red lipstick and a scarf as ever-red to match, looked at me, pleadingly, and asking in perfect silence if I could possibly scoot over any more than I already was. Though with her look also came a warning to be careful in doing so, as we both know there’s a delicate threshold between over-crowding our dad—potentially shattering the rosiness of his already rickety Christmas service experience—and sitting there squished for 45 minutes with a cramp in three out of four limbs.

    ***If anyone is interested in experiencing the height and weight differences of people now and yester-year, try to fit your family of four into a 1864 church pew made for a family of six and see how long you can sit there without wiggling.

    I’m not a huge fan of people or being among them, specifically during the holidays, but it is amazing how warm and powerful and magical a room becomes when people are quiet and calm and well-meaning (which is a rare crowd to come by, these days)—their undivided attention focused on the true meaning of Christmas as recounted by the world’s most incredible Appalachian circuit-riding preacher, who I think might actually be a ghost of Christmas past.

    He always looks like he walked out of a civil war history book, with sturdy clothing and a taunt face and a very decisive mustache that reminds me of my oldest uncle. He must be about sixty-five years old, though he seems far wiser, his eyes shine far younger, and he moves very slowly and calmly, as if he isn’t up in front of a whole bunch of people at all. He’s not a showman or a Bible-thumper or a pastor or a performer. He really isn’t even a preacher because I don’t think he preaches for a living. He sort of just…lives, for a living. He does what he loves, which is God. And so it’s just by default that people call him a preacher.

    And that’s also how I know centuries of horses are part of his livelihood, and that real Appalachian music, mountains, and way of life are in his blood, just like he says they have been for generations. Because he doesn’t come alive in front of people. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. He just lives his God-given life whether or not there’s anyone around, and he always seems genuinely surprised that everyone in the room is watching him so fervently, even though we’re all in a church at Christmastime, and he IS the designated preacher. But that’s exactly what draws everybody in.

    He gave a brief introduction and welcomed everyone to the service. He talked about how he felt as though he was coming home, as this church was the best part of his Holiday last Christmas, and then he asked if he could take off his clerical collar and loosen the top button of his shirt.

    Of course it was alright.

    Especially because everyone was very fascinated with what a clerical collar looks like all on its own, and as everybody more-than-slightly shifted forward to get a better look, the preacher held it high and said, “it looks just like a tongue depressor,” before neatly folding it into his jacket pocket. It was also the perfect thing to do to set everyone at ease, specifically the fifth generation farmers and old fashioned handymen in the back, the teenage girls still on their iPhones, and my dad, who is still on the fence about God because he knows too many people who call themselves “good Christians” (always said in a whining goody-goody tone), but who aren’t actually good Christians at all. The truth is, I know a lot of people like that, too, which is one of the reasons I have a hard time sitting in church. The traditional, congregationalized kind, I mean. “Good” Christians rarely miss a Sunday, the reason being is that most of them think that’s the only thing they need to do to be considered good. Which is fine for them, but not for you if you’re stuck sitting next to them, and you almost always are, as they never miss a Sunday.

    ***For the record, I’m a Christian, but also a heathen, and I fully admit to both (especially when I take more than one cookie at fellowship), so I’m not pretending to be better than anyone else or even good, for that matter, it’d just be easier if we all admitted what we are and didn’t de-face the Christian name in the process.

    Anyway, the preacher started off by saying that men aren’t incredibly emotional or attuned to anything that’s not blatantly obvious, and so that’s probably why the Angel of the Lord went straight to Mary and Elizabeth, a young girl and a very old women, to announce the coming of Jesus, as opposed to Joseph or Zacharias, who never would have been able to receive such obscure news in its early stages. I wasn’t sure if this was true, but my dad nodded in agreement—a church first for him—so I guess what the preacher said about men must be true. He also said men aren’t very receptive, him included, and not much has changed since Biblical times. The preacher said his wife was with her sister in Alabama for a few days, and he knows they talk about him, and he knows he should probably already know what they say, but he doesn’t because he’s an unreceptive man.

    He kept the Christmas message short and sang “Mary Did You Know?” instead (of course, she KNEW, but the song was written by a man, so…that’s why it’s posed as a rhetorical question, I’d guess), while he played the guitar, of which no version on iTunes or Youtube will ever rival, I don’t think. People whispered that it must be the acoustics of the guitar in the church, but he sang acapella Appalachian music as part of the sermon last year, and maybe it is the acoustics of the church, but they have nothing to do with his guitar.

    A volunteer Methodist choir got up to sing after that, and compared to his voice, they weren’t any good, but I saw him close his eyes and I watched as his fingers stretched out from where they were resting, curled over his knees, and it looked just as though he was reaching out to feel the music. After the congregation joined the choir in a few Christmas carols, the preacher said he had trouble singing along with us because he could hear God talking in those songs and he wanted to listen. He said we’d be surprised, but preachers are often the most unreceptive to God’s messages, and if we didn’t believe him, we should be reminded that Zacharias was a preacher and the angel bypassed him completely, as there was no time to waste back then.

    He used the analogy of a martian tv show. He said it was his favorite. He sang the theme song, and based on my dad’s and all the other dads’ reactions, it brought everyone over 50 years old way back (and when I mean “way” back, I mean WAYYYY back). I think he said the show was called “My Favorite Martian”…or maybe he was just saying the character was HIS favorite martian. I can’t remember what he called it. But he said the martian had these tiny antennae-like receptors coming out of his head, so I immediately pictured a green guy with tiny receptors that kind of looks like Yoda from Star Wars (because that’s the only Star Wars character I know and ET hadn’t been invented yet). And the preacher says we should always have these receptors of ours up, because we never know when God is trying to talk to us. And if you don’t believe in God, that’s okay, because people and animals and music and books and the moon and the snow and even rocks all have something to say that’s worth listening to, so you should just be sure that you’re ready to listen when it’s you they’re talking to.

    The preacher said you find angels and messages from God, and God, Himself, wherever it is the angels and the messages from God, and God, Himself, find you.

    Just like they found Mary and Joseph and Elizabeth and the Wise Men, and they all listened.

    What a very different story it would have been had they not.

    The preacher wrapped things up after that, and while he did, I kept watching his son watching his dad and the two were not alike. One was an old soul, the other brand new, though at least 22 years old, which is only 5 years younger than me, which feels pretty old, but he didn’t look it, and that was strange to me. But his dad sure was proud of him. My dad was proud of him, too, until he found out that the son was an aspiring actor and not an aspiring circuit riding preacher/musician/renaissance man like his father. I reminded my dad that I, too, was an aspiring actor, and he didn’t say it until a few days later, but he did allude to the fact that he wishes he had a son that could’ve followed in his footsteps as a brilliant businessman/engineer/provider/protector like himself.

    He didn’t call himself a brilliant businessman/engineer/provider/protector, I did, because that’s what you’d have to be to follow in my dad’s footsteps.

    Santa prematurely dropped his sleigh bells in the back while everyone’s attention was still directed to the front where the preacher still stood, so it kind of blew the surprise for the kids. Santa always comes out after the preacher wishes everyone a Merry Christmas, and he hands out candy canes and asks the kids if they’ve been good this year. Everyone gets very caught up with Santa, including myself, and the preacher just disappears, seemingly into thin air, and I don’t think anyone knows where he goes until he comes back for Christmas service the following year. Not that I’ve ever asked anyone about it.

    This is purely speculation.

    But I think the moral of this particular Christmas message was that the Christmas story is old and we’ve all heard it a thousand times, specifically the part about the angel delivering an important message. And while it WAS a pretty important message, we hear about it over and over and over, year after year after year, and it gets kind of stale.

    I struggle with church for the very same reason, because after reading some stale old King James passage that requires either SparkNotes or King James for Dummies or both to truly gasp it, the pastor will say “and that’s the living word of God.”

    And I wonder if I’m the only one staring back with dead eyes from that eternity of listening, and thinking, “it sure doesn’t sound alive to me.”

    It was only a few weeks ago that I accidentally stumbled upon a private meeting in the fellowship hall while I was trying to drop off a box of canned food donations. Everyone looked terribly grave huddled around a long table, and there was lots of paperwork scattered across it. I instantly assumed this was a funeral planning class or maybe an AA meeting, and then I was like, “duh, it’s probably Bible Study.”

    Because people typically look pretty grave during Bible study and understandably so.

    But as it turns out, it was actually a meeting on cheesemaking (by the way, if your cheese mixture is curdling, either your milk is too warm or you’re using the wrong spatula), so apparently, that’s a pretty serious affair, too.

    And I’m not saying the Bible isn’t important, but I think we can all agree that it’s a little dry sometimes (as is the art of cheesemaking), and it’s also old. It’s like reading the old transcripts sent to someone else’s receptors thousands of years ago. It’s a good history lesson, but it doesn’t always mean to us what we want it to.

    Of course, it still has a purpose, as the preacher demonstrated by using the Christmas story to let people know the universe still talks to us, just as it did on that one night in Bethlehem. People get that mixed up. They pour over all the old stories searching for life’s answers, and I don’t think that’s where most of them are found. The answers are delivered now just as they were then, by angels or God, directly, or by stars or fortune cookie fortunes (which some people think is hocus pocus, but hello, God made the Red Sea part once, so I can’t imagine He’s beyond a forture cookie) and you can hear His message through other people (or if you’re like me, it’s through animals, because you hardly see/talk to people). The messages are everywhere, and you just have to listen and decide for yourself what they mean.

    It’s also why the preacher is so good at what he does—everything he says has a meaning. Even if it’s just him leading his own meaningful life, and people happen to be watching him do it.

    It’s why moms always prefer homemade to Hallmark cards. Why grandparents just want to hear your voice—and why they hate getting your voice-mail. It’s why postcards never have enough room for writing (at least, they never do for me) and why pictures always require a caption, even if what the photograph shows is exponentially more expressive. We need words. We need messages, and we need them to mean something. To me, the worst words in the world, no matter how sweet and how new they are to me, are the ones someone has already said to someone else. Words can be stale and barbed if they’ve already been used on a mold in which the original cast wasn’t quite right, and maybe we think we’ve got people fooled when we use them again, but they can always tell. When words have real meaning, you don’t just hear them. You feel them. They stick. It’s why hateful words sting and true words send you soaring.

    It’s why any Holiday worth celebrating shouldn’t actually require a holiday. If it truly means something, you celebrate it all the time. I mean, just admit it, we all listen to Christmas music in June and play it again a few days before Thanksgiving because we just can’t wait for the season to officially begin. No one can remember when Sweetest Day is, but Christmas is meaningful to us.

    Of course, not everything has to be new. “I love you” never gets old if the people who say it to you really mean it, and the same is true when those words come with meaning from you onto them. People love Christmas carols, but the carols at the top of the iTunes charts are the ones that have been re-done by a new artist who breathes new life into them. They’re the old carols, but completely new songs.

    I knew a cowboy in Colorado once who hardly spoke to me or anyone else. But I would never describe him as quiet, I would just say he made his words count. And I remember almost everything he ever said. Mostly because, he couldn’t have said more than 10 whole sentences to me, but they all meant something, and that’s exactly why I remember them.

    I mean, can you imagine that type of power? Having something important to say and speaking in such a way that no one would ever forget what you’ve said? Because it really means something?

    We all have that power. Though some have it more than others, and when I say that, I mean I’d probably have at least a little if I learned how to edit, but that’s another story (literally).

    But truly, all you have to do is say what you feel and be what you mean. And then listen, so others can do the same. Nothing more and nothing less.

    And if you do it every day, it’s like Christmas—the original one—24/7.
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