December 25, 2023

Nancy Flanagan: A Crowded Table

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Nancy Flanagan reflects on many seasons of light, and how to approach the current one. For those who celebrate, Merry Christmas. Reposted with permission.

I have been celebrating the coming of the light in eight different decades now—in ways considered sacred, secular, and even pagan—and don’t remember any end-of-year condition worse than the place where we find ourselves on this Winter Solstice, 2023.

We have the endless grinding, bloody conflict in Ukraine, and the ghastly war in Gaza which has divided our country as well. Politically, the nation is flirting with the destruction of democracy—with frail old Uncle Joe leading the good guys. And then there’s the rapidly warming planet

Where, oh where, is the thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices”because boy howdy, we need it about now.

I live in a small, but exquisitely beautiful, rural county surrounded by water, a place not especially marked by diversity of thought, or faces. In fact, we struggle here with feeding and housing our poor, educating our kids, getting along peacefully. When it comes to problem-solving, we rely on local government, non-profit organizations and a handful of (Christian) churches.

Recently, Atlantic writer Tim Alberta shared his—very painful, very personal—story about being the son of a conservative, Trump-supporting minister, senior pastor in a church of over 2000 families, in southeastern Michigan. It’s a thoughtful but disturbing story, one very familiar to me, as my own family lived just down the road from this church, before we moved north. Many of my students were in the youth group there, absorbing conservative ideas about abortion, capital punishment and how the lazy don’t deserve handouts.

For the religiously skeptical, it’s churches like Cornerstone that illustrate how Christianity has crossed a line between serving our neighbors with compassion, because Jesus asked us to–and accruing power and riches because being a “Christian” means we’re entitled to them. For all my friends who are non-believers, or adherents to different traditions, or fed up with Christians whose lives are on centered on dominion rather than devotion —yup, I see you.

But I want to share one tiny spark of warmth—of hope, joy, peace and love—that still flickers here in the Little Finger of Michigan’s mitten. For five years, beginning in 2017 (and pausing for COVID in ’20 and’21), my church, Trinity UCC of Northport celebrates an Advent Afternoon, on a Sunday in December.

We invite the whole community to share their music, a kind of local holiday talent show. There’s a pick-up choir, comprised of singers from local churches and community choral groups. There are vocal solos and instrumental ensembles. Ministers from local churches do invocations and benedictions. All followed by cookies and wassail punch and talking over the local news, at crowded tables.

This year, last Sunday, our theme came from the Highwaywomen’s Crowded Table:

I want a house with a crowded table
And a place by the fire for everyone
Let us take on the world while we’re young and able
And bring us back together when the day is done.

If we want a garden
We’re gonna have to sow the seed.

Plant a little happiness, let the roots run deep
If it’s love that we give, then it’s love that we reap.

There were handbells, a clarinet playing Faure’, an old-time gospel quartet, a recorder ensemble and heartfelt solos. A trombonist accompanied himself in a pre-recorded trombone quartet, and a fiddle, bass, drum and superb accompanist played along with the singing, in this creaky, 150-year old sanctuary, as the day faded into twilight. There was jazz (Chick Corea) and 92-year-old Hugh Willey played a rip-snorting version of Jingle Bells.

The choir sang Gesu Bambino and Bethlehem Hallelu and Advent AlleluiaWe dedicated our version of Eliza Gilkyson’s Requiem to the troubles—have mercy on us all—in the world.

In the end, there is still hope. There is still joy. On the darkest day of the year, there is still light.

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