Sunday, December 23, 2007

A Christmas Story

The story that follows is true. Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

The year 2001 started out well enough, but with September began a bit of a slump, for reasons that should be obvious. Christmas left me with little to celebrate that year, newly unemployed and wondering what I'd be doing next. So, when we all decided to go to the midnight Christmas Eve service, that gave me something to look forward to. I had never been to a midnight service before. It promised to be something new, something wonderful, and something inspirational.

It lived up to the new part. I'm still not sure about the rest.

We had been attending the little Presbyterian church for about three months, maybe four. We had all enjoyed the experience so far. The interim minister had just preached his last service, and we were sorry to see him go. The new minister hadn't started yet. As I understand it, there's a list of pastors without regular commitments who will preach on an as-needed basis, and we had rounded up one of these. He came with good recommendations, and had done well with the earlier service. So, we settled in for a comforting, enlightening message about the Advent of our Savior.

Right away, it became apparent that something was simply not right.

You have to understand something about Presbyterians. They live and die by the Book of Order. There is a very specific sequence in which things are to happen within a service. You can almost set your watch by the order of worship. In, say, a Baptist service, the minister might well deviate from the plan if he thinks of something better; in a Presbyterian service you bloody well stick with it to the bitter end. It is simply the way it is done.

So, when the minister began skipping around within the order of worship, we suspected something might be up.

He called for the offering mighty early. He skipped around with the hymns, which flustered the choir director mightily. He even skipped a few hymns, I think. Parts of that evening are still a blur. But the staff rolled with the punches fairly well, and the thing hung together, up to the time he began his message. We settled back into our pews, expecting a sweet message on the miracle of Christmas, the birth of the Christ child.

Oh, no. It wasn't going down that way, not at all. Those poor, unsuspecting Presbyterians looked on in mute horror as the Right Reverend Punchy MacAngry regaled them with a fiery sermon on the Gospel of the Two-Fisted Fightin' Jesus.

"I hear all this talk about love, but no one ever wants to talk about SIN," he thundered from the pulpit. I thought this to be a decidedly odd way to begin a Christmas sermon. It went downhill from there. He went on to rant about his sister, who had apparently told him once that being a military chaplain wasn't a man's job. His response: "It takes more of a man to preach the Word of God than to be out WHORING AROUND!" I had never actually heard anyone curse from the pulpit before. Oh sure, I have heard ministers talk about Hell and damnation. But outright cursing is something I hadn't heard in that venue before that night. And the fist-shaking rage, the purple-faced profanity-laced tirades, which would not be at all out of place for a Marine Corps drill instructor, but not quite what you expect from a mild-mannered Presbyterian minister.

Me, I was bewildered and somewhat confused by all this. But I had been raised by a retired Senior Master Sergeant, cussed at by an experienced professional, and didn't take any of it personally. The other poor people in that room, who had not been so inoculated, stood transfixed like deer in headlamps. The white-hot profanity seared their ears like branding irons. When the tirade finally wound down to a conclusion, you could hear a pin drop.

The choir director somehow had the presence of mind to direct the conclusion of the service, Christmas hymns sung by candlelight.

It was more or less at this point that my sister-in-law's hair caught fire.

Part of our goal in going to the late service was to tire out the children so that they would sleep in the next morning. (A dismal failure, by the way. They woke up as early as they always do.) Problem was, they were so tired, they couldn't hold the candles without setting fire to themselves. She leaned down to help one of her kids hold it steady, and one of the locks of her hair dipped into the candle's flame. The fire wasn't big, thank God, but she had to beat it out or it would have spread.

After the last hymn, the crowd filed out in silence. Not the respectful silence following a solemn service like, say, Good Friday, but the stunned silence of the witnesses of a massacre. Not a word was spoken, until we were in the car, on the way home. Then, I think I turned to my wife and asked, "Did I imagine that, or did he really go there?"

And so it has come to pass that re-telling this story is now part of my family's Christmas tradition. A very surreal ending to what had been a pretty dismal autumn. Sometimes the things that happen make no sense, no sense at all, but you just have to get through them anyway.

Life does, after all, go on.

More Christmas cheer can be found in a piece by David Sedaris. Part One can be found here, Part Two here, and Part Three here. Or, if you would prefer not to patronize YouTube, the transcript is here.

Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!

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