I was standing in the liquor store when my mom told me about several recent departures from the church. I tried to stay steady. I tried not to give into the torrent of defensive rage. But these were close, and they hurt. These were people who had made me feel safe—people whom I had allowed to love me. I barely made it to the car before I started crying and swearing and raging against the crazy, gut-wrenching things that people do.
There are both hard and beautiful parts of being a pastor’s child. The mean-spirited emails and the often hurtful departures are some of the worst. The close-up view of the church as a relational catalyst is probably the best. Like everything else, it’s full of dichotomies and contradictions—anyone who tries to romanticize ministry hasn’t spent enough time actually doing it.
I’m more removed from the ups and downs of church these days, thanks in large part to the fact that I’ve lived away from home for more than a decade. I’m enjoying the gift of anonymity as people in Edinboro forget that my parents have kids. Even still, there are departures that I feel, because I love my parents fiercely, and when people leave the church, they are publicly abandoning my favorite people.
The holidays bring everything up close again, and especially at Christmas I feel the conflict of loving what my parents have built, and also not wanting to get too close. When I step into the sanctuary, I can feel the cacophony of emotions welling inside, and I often struggle to move beyond them into meaningful worship.
I see people who trigger memories of broken relationships, and I feel the weight of eyes on the back of my head. I feel the desperate need to shield my family from those eyes and feel so helpless in the presence of all kinds of disappointment. Mostly I ache because there are people at church who grew up beside me and found the connection that I so wanted. My heart is angry and jealous at the sight of their joy.
And also, I believe in the Jesus story and the broad, mysterious, expanding theology that brings purpose and vibrancy and joy to a life that can so often feel heavy and mundane. I believe that church can bring people together and push away loneliness. I see how healthy, generous churches work to amplify the good work of other organizations and can provide needed resources to their communities.
Certainly in the last few weeks as Buffalo has once again made headlines for tragic reasons, I’m aware of the need for strong communities and an anchoring hope. I’ve watched my adopted hometown navigate crisis after crisis and have seen how exhausted the helpers can become. My work at the local grocery store gives me a front row seat to the life of the city, not unlike sitting in that front row of the sanctuary. Both spaces have shown me the need for traditions that bring us back to joy, especially when the night is dark and the howling, frigid wind finds its way through every single-paned window and every batten board of the barn.
So when I think about Christmas, and all of the reasons I could adopt for shirking the sanctuary, I come back to our need for joy and for the steadiness of Advent in bringing it to us. Christmas doesn’t wait until we’re ready, it comes with reliable consistency and invites us, in spite of ourselves and our circumstances, to raise candles high and sing “Joy the World,” not in ignorance or denial, but in defiant declaration that we will persist in the work of making our world a better place.
There are blizzards that claim lives. Joy to the world anyway.
There is racism that kills our neighbors. Joy to the world anyway.
There are friends who wound us as they go. Joy to the world anyway.
There is jealousy and resentment. Joy to the world anyway.
There is exhaustion in doing good. Joy to the world anyway.
If entering through the door of a new year feels more fraught with anxiety than charged with hope, maybe this is our hymn of acknowledgement and hope. Ours is a lasting joy, and we can call it into being because Christ has made us his agents in a broken world. Joy the world indeed, anyway.
Ansley Kelly (’16) makes her home in Buffalo, NY, where she delights in short, sweet summers spent sailing and long winters spent skiing at her favorite mountain. Between outdoor adventures, you can find her buying books more quickly than she can read them and indulging in mid-morning naps. She works for Wegmans Food Markets where she finds purpose and joy in feeding her community and the wider world.