I had a flashback at the Annual Spring Gala Auction last night. I remember one Christmas Eve service at a previous church, about twenty years ago. People then were exhausted, excited and full of pride. It had been the most well attended Christmas Eve service, likely the largest church service that was not a funeral, ever held in that church. Understandably the long-serving leaders of that church were thrilled. The exhaustion arose from the perfection of the music, which came as a result of many practices and not a small sum of anxiety. Further, there were chairs to put out, the church “had” to be as clean as a whistle as visitors were coming. All of these people were also busy preparing for their own family festivities, so they were stretched as far as possible. Yet the fumes of the “success” of the evening drove them onward, we were all moving chairs down the narrow staircase, it had been a Fire Marshall’s nightmare.
Back then I was in my early 30’s and caught up in the same excitement, feeling the same sense that we were on our way to something. Sure other churches were closing, ones a lot like ours, and some were moving from being served by full-time clergy to part-time, some were moving from two or three clergy to one. If we looked up we would have noticed that almost all of the mainline Christian churches and many of the evangelical ones as well, were in decline. But we thought we were different, the last two years had been heady days, everything was on the up and people were in a very good mood.
I think if I had asked people then what all that hard work was for, what it was all about, the answer would likely have been “we are making it, we are doing what needs to be done, and things are really coming together.” I was in the exact same space so I completely get it. I wonder now if the people from that church, reducing the hours for their clergy position, would feel the same way about how they worked through exhaustion to fulfill their duty to be the church.
Last night was a heady time for our church; the place was packed (sold out), the food was incredible, we had a lot of volunteers, the auction items were out of this world, the wine was flowing, the music was a delight, and everything was flowing in a most organized fashion. We made about three thousand more dollars than last year, a metric many will hold to as a sign of “success”. Yet Rick our bartender summed up the elephant in the room best when he said, “it’s a great, great evening…only thing that would make it better would be about a few dozen younger people.” And there it was, the limit on the success that anyone really paying attention must know is a sign that the good times may not last. For in time the 90 year old will not be here, the 80 year olds may not be able to participate, the 70 year olds will not be able to volunteer from 10 am to 10 pm, and the 60 year olds may not be bidding quite so much, and so on.
Does any of that matter? When I was in my mid 30’s I would have said yes. But now I don’t think the elephant in the room is a limiting factor on the success of the evening. The event itself stands alone, it was a great evening. Period. End of story. The amount of money we raised was great, a particular sign that our auction team (an amazing couple) did a spectacular job. But the real success of the night were the smiles on the faces of those who came, the joy the volunteers felt as they worked together (new and familiar faces), the laughter and ease with which our auctioneers brought out the best in people who only yesterday were cranky and tired. It was a great night and whether it portends to something else down the road is immaterial, it was just great.
As I had my flashback I realized I still find that Christmas Eve night magical but for very different reasons. It was a night when our church came together and found our best selves on a sacred night. The experiment did not fail or fritter away, it was all it was supposed to be on that night just as we last night found the sweet spot in our collective effort to bring spirit to community. Thanks be to God for the meaning that comes with sacred evenings and sacred community.