What are you looking for in a Christmas Eve service? Do you hope to hear the old, old story? Are you going to sing the songs of faith? Are you seeking an encounter with Emmanuel, God with us? Is it the fellowship of family and friends that draws you to church? For each of us it is different. I pray you will find it as you head to worship on Christmas eve this year.
Of course there is a critic in every crowd. As I was surfing the internet I came across this review of a service from 2001. I am sure glad he didn't visit First Baptist. I am not sure if it is real or not but it sure is funny at times. So read it and enjoy it and then let's all pray he doesn't show up to review our services. He's obviously looking for something he will never find in a local church. He's looking for a show. We offer a worship experience that honors God through our human frailty. We come, warts and all.
The experience got off on the wrong foot; we were 30 minutes late arriving at my son's house because my wife piddled around while shoveling our driveway, and it ended up taking her far longer than it should have. I tried to compensate for her sheer laziness by moderately exceeding the speed limit during our 120-mile drive to their home, but in the end we were tardy. As a result, we didn't get to Saint Luke's until five minutes before the service started; naturally, this rendered us unable to sit anywhere other than the Scriptural equivalent of the "Eucker seats" in the church. We didn't have a good view of the pulpit, and we had to uncomfortably crane our necks in order to look at the choir loft. Suffice it to say that the evening was off to an unpleasant start.
Let me say that Saint Luke's has some logistical problems. The service bulletin looked as if it was prepared on a Commodore 64. The ushers were haphazardly-dressed and sported obnoxious ties and inordinately loud shirts. One of them was wearing blue jeans, for crying out loud. The church lobby was decorated with art so trashy that one would expect to find Sally Struthers selling it on a late-night television infomercial. In my mind, what I was seeing was not at all what I had been lead to expect by my son and his wife. It was about to get much worse.
The musical introduction to the service took the form of a performance of the classic Christmas carol "Angels We Have Heard On High." Saint Luke's had apparently retained the services of a part-time piano player from some honky-tonk joint on the outskirts of Tulsa. I could tell that he had some piano-playing experience; the notes were all there and they were all correct, but the song was wrong. There was no warmth. There was no feeling. It was like listening to a robot recite the Gettysburg Address. The piano playing was serviceable, but it was by no means good.
This passable piano playing was unfortunately accompanied by the horrendous flute playing of one Katie Michaels, age 12, of Emerson Junior High. Not only did Ms. Michaels miss nearly half of the notes, her flute was flatter than a pancake. Haven't these people ever heard of the concept of tuning an instrument? Goodness, the performance was so excruciating that I had an urge to run out of the church and go out in the parking lot and chew an entire roll of aluminum foil in order to relieve my senses. If Katie's parents have any sensibility at all, and if they possess the slightest modicum of musical ability, they will take her flute out into the backyard, chop it up into a million pieces, and never allow her within 50 yards of a musical instrument for the rest of her natural life, and thereafter.
Dreadful. Mind-numbingly dreadful.
I had hopes that Pastor Thomas would do something original for his sermon, that he would captivate the congregation with an interesting yet wholesome oratory masterpiece. This, unfortunately, was nowhere to be found. Instead, the pastor used the hackneyed, cliched, and time-worn technique of telling a "nostalgic" Christmas story from his childhood and then using some mental gymnastics at the end in order to tie the story in with the whole Christmas message. Been there, done that.
The details of this sermon involved a snowman that the pastor and his brothers made when they were small children; how they put lots of work into it, and how they were devastated when spring came and the snowman melted ("went back to the Father", as the pastor put it.) He then attempted to equate the "life" and "death" of his snowman with the life of Jesus Christ. Booooring. And silly. The pastor spent way too much time talking about the construction of the snowman. He prattled on for ten minutes about that thing, and all the while the congregation was yawning, looking at their watches, and wondering if that "Ralphie movie" would be on TNT when they got home.
This was the "Pearl Harbor" of sermons. It was a silly three-minute story squeezed into fifteen minutes. It had a slow and laborious setup that promised to segue into action-packed fireworks, but said fireworks were disappointing and failed to fully materialize. It was pompous and overlong.
One thing is clear: the congregation at Saint Luke's ought to cleanse themselves of this clown. He needs to be fired, or disbarred, or whatever it is that you do to get rid of defective ministers. If Jesus Himself heard this guy preach, he wouldn't be able to turn the other cheek, because His first cheek would be firmly planted on the table in front of Him as He snoozed peacefully. The Reverand Thomas ought to bring a six-shooter to church with him and then fire it up in the air upon the completion of his sermon to signal to the congregation that "nap time" is over.
As is customary for churches in this area, there was an offering following the sermon, wherein collection plates are passed and the congregation is given a chance to fulfill their tithe obligations. During the offering, the congregation was subjected to the punishing performance of the church choir, which had decided to do one of those "new-Age" medleys that consist of several Christmas carols all rolled into one song. Here's a helpful hint to the staff at Saint Luke's: Next Christmas, you might want to take steps to ensure that half of the choir isn't obviously drunk. If I want to hear a bunch of inebriated zealots screech about the "Chrishmish shpirit", I'll head down to O'Malley's Tavern. This choir is an utter embarassment.
The service, to this point, had been so completely horrid that when the collection plate reached Mrs. Donnelly and I, I took twenty dollars out of it. I figure that $20/hour is a more than reasonable rate to charge these buffoons for subjecting me to such an awful failure. Saint Luke's got a real bargain, if you ask me. Sure, I found myself on the receiving end of a fair number of quizzical glances, but as far as I was concerned, these people owed me.
The Children's Choir
After the offering was completed, the director of the children's choir herded the collective offspring of the congregation up in front of everybody; like a pack of frightened kangaroos, they bounced and bounded down the aisle, took their places in front of the pulpit, and stood uncomfortably, shifting their diminutive weight from one Keds-clad foot to the other. Now, after listening to the prelude and the offertory, I thought that I had heard the worst music that was tonally and physiologically possible. The children's choir proved me wrong.
These little kids literally tortured the congregation. Most of them didn't even attempt to get the notes right; they just shouted the words out. "Away in a Manger" is under normal circumstances a lovely song; the Children's Choir at Saint Luke turned it into a work of horror that would have frightened H. P. Lovecraft himself.
Some would argue that it is unfair to expect a group of four-year-olds to be a pack of little Beethovens. Strictly speaking, this may be true. But you can't tell me that the children of America aren't capable of anything better than this. The director of this "choir" ought to be fired, but before that, she ought to be locked in a closet and forced to listen to recordings of her children's performances. It would be a fitting and poetic touch, at least in the opinion of this reviewer.
Finally, it was time for the part of the service that I most enjoy (that is, the part that involves alcohol.) My wife and I filled out our Communion cards and got in line to receive the blessing. Unfortunately, the staff at Saint Luke's had decided to punctuate the communion distribution with such dreadful hymns as "Your Little Ones, Dear Lord" and "Go Tell It on the Mountain." If you want to go tell something on the mountain, I've got a scoop for you: Saint Luke's needs a new music director .. the sooner, the better.
When I placed the wafer on my tongue, it stuck to the roof of my mouth like Krazy Glue. I thought that perhaps I could get it unstuck by drinking the communal wine that was being handed out by the person at the next station, a skinny ear ringed kid who looked like he would be more at home at a Rob Zombie concert. Unfortunately, the wine that Saint Luke's was serving had the consistency and flavor of toilet water; it took every ounce of willpower in my body to avoid gagging. Eyes watering and mouth stinging, I staggered back to our pew and finally managed to get the wafer down after about five minutes of vigorous tongue gymnastics.
I have very little to add to this review. I will say that this service was an enormous disappointment, and it failed to live up to the hype that our son and his wife had been gratuitously slathering on us over the past week or so. I'll admit that the candlelit portion of the service was quite nice, although it was nearly ruined by an obnoxious man behind us who attempted to sing harmony on "Silent Night" and failed miserably; I had an urge to turn around and tell him that this most treasured of Christmas Carols was not written by Tiny Tim.