Falling in love on Christmas Eve

Cynthia Riggin, MDiv 2006

I’d fallen in love. It was our first Christmas Eve together, 2007, pastor and congregation, and I was head-over-heels in love. When colleagues used such language to describe their relationship with congregations, I used to be rather cynical—until I encountered the Northshore United Church of Christ community. “Oh, yes, this is what they mean,” I thought. I’m the first to admit I struggle with such touchy-feely, clichéd, potentially naïve and unrealistic, romantic language of being in love, especially with a community of gathered people. My definition is the life-giving, authentic love God commands of us—for God, ourselves, and our neighbor. But I’m getting ahead of my story.

During that early Christmas Eve service, the energy in the sanctuary was warm, inviting, playful, and nurturing. Midway through the choir anthem I became aware of a warm, fizzy, melting sensation in my heart. It was startling and terrifying—what was happening? I felt as if the candy Pop Rocks was pouring into my heart, fizzing intensely. Something hardened and broken and locked away within me was suddenly but gently releasing and healing. It was as if warm, soft honey was slowly moving from a deep chamber of my heart, outward into the rest of my body. A profound sense of God’s love and peace enveloped me. Tears welled up, I closed my eyes, and I was both in the sanctuary and yet not there—transported, surrounded by intense love and light. As suddenly as this transformational experience began, I was jolted back to reality, realizing that the choir had stopped singing and it was time for me to lead the congregation in prayer.

The next morning—Christmas morning—I re-lived this life-altering moment. But now, years later, even though I still don’t know what hardened place was healed, I do know it was the first time in my life that I physically felt love for a community grow deep and wide within me. And it was the first time I experienced such a spiritual transformation while in Christian community. In the past such moments occurred in solitude.

If I were preaching this, I would now pause and say, “Stay with me, please.”  I realize you may be thinking, “Of course you are in love with the congregation, Cynthia! You are in the ‘honeymoon’ stage of your relationship. Wait a few more years.” Let me assure you that I’ve come down from this amazing mountain-top moment and have experienced my ministry in the lowlands, the daily ins-and-outs of the role called pastor, filled with its unimaginable and often unrealistic expectations and myriad hats to be worn.

In fact, I am writing this in my gutted office on a plastic-topped folding table used as a desk while sitting on a hard, cold concrete floor. Two pipes froze and burst in our narthex, soaking and ruining carpets and linoleum. My desk, art work, cherished books, and resources are packed in boxes, off in the youth room. My most recent Advent and Christmas season was spent speaking firmly to insurance agents with the expectation of receiving enough money to put us back together. I often wondered, “Isn’t there anyone else who can do this? I have sermons to write, pastoral visits to make.” Having served as an associate pastor on a multi-person staff at the Congregational Church of San Mateo, I know there would have been someone else to do this task. Yet here at Northshore UCC, I am the only full-time paid staff person, so dealing with insurance is just part of my collection of responsibilities.

I also must admit I have my days of feeling overwhelmed at the daunting responsibilities and expectations of me as pastor. It is on those days that I intentionally pause, close my eyes, take a deep breath, and ask God to pour out unconditional grace and love upon me. And then I revisit that Christmas Eve transformational encounter. It reminds me of the necessity of holding and creating safe, sacred space together, and of being present to the joy and the pain of living into the amazing people God calls us to be. And, most of all, to remain open to the mysterious and unexpected ways love breaks into our lives.