It all started with a visit to Ginghamsburg Church in Dayton, OH, one of the largest United Methodist Churches in the country.
(Then) Pastor Mike Slaughter was explaining what they do as a congregation for their Christmas Eve service: they take an offering in all their Christmas Eve services and 100% of all monies received goes to local non-profits they have relationships with.
It was a nice way to remind his church: Christmas is not your birthday.
He mentioned the tension that exists. Christmas Eve is one of the largest attended services of the year.
People are in a giving mood because it is Christmas after all.
Many churches would prefer to use that moment — those services — to support and fund their own budget. But he and Ginghamsburg were committed to spread the Christmas cheer (and generosity) to those in their city.
That tradition was picked up by John Shaver and Valenica United Methodist.
The first year, we gave the Miracle Offering (what Ginghamsburg called it, as well) to a local nonprofit.
The following year, we gave 50% to a local nonprofit and 50% to an international partner (I think, this past Christmas, they took the Miracle Offering for 5 different organizations).
When I was appointed to St. Mark UMC in Santa Barbara, you bet your butts I continued this tradition.
The “miracle” in the Miracle Offering always worked two-fold: the first miracle was that we were always taken back by the generosity of the people who gathered on that Christmas Eve service. The offering always exceeded everyone’s expectations.
The second is that the total of the Miracle Offering inspired and encouraged the church members to continue to think outward and to continue to be generous in our calling.
From 2016-2019, unfortunately, I could not get my new church on board to do such a thing.
Looking back, one’s response to my request to consider taking a Miracle Offering was the start of what would ultimately lead me to where I am today. I’ll go into details of that journey in an upcoming episode(s) of my podcast, Exvangelical Episcopalian (the episode date 2/14. How do you like that for an absolute shameless plug… Oh. the most recent episode is a conversation with a young woman who is on a journey of deconstruction).
In 2020, I didn’t have a church I was leading quite yet.
So that brings us to 2021.
Let me tell you.
I had so much hope and anticipation for this Christmas Eve.
For churches, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel: many people still go to church on Christmas Eve. Sure, some are dragged by their loved ones, but hey butts in pews, right?
Mosaic is nowhere I’d like it to be (nor where I thought we’d be).
But. We. Are. Here.
I’ve been telling people, what this journey feels like, in this season, is launching our space ship and putting pieces together while we’re hurling towards space.
But. We’re. Still. Flying.
And you bet your butts we were going to the Miracle Offering this year. One of church folks connected me with this organization called Promise Rose. This Miracle Offering would be a great way to start up a working relationship and we have plans to celebrate Valentine’s Day together.
I was going to remind people that Christmas wasn’t their birthdays (unless, of course they were born on December 25…. but we don’t come to church to celebrate their birthdays).
It was going to be a decently packed house.
Did I have a certain number in mind? Not really.
But I did have a certain picture in mind when we sang Silent Night with candles in our hands.
Brené Brown writes in Atlas of the Heart:
Disappointment is unmet expectations. The more significant the expectations, the more significant the disappointment… When we develop expectations, we paint a picture in our head of how things are going to be and how they’re going to look. Sometimes we go so far as to imagine how they’re going to feel, taste, and smell. That picture we paint in our minds holds great value for us…
When the picture or movie fails to play out in real life, we feel disappointed. And sometimes that disappointment is severe and brings shame and hurt and anger with it.
I guess you can tell what happened on Christmas Eve.
For most of the evening, after church, I kept repeating in my head: wow. No one came.
It’s never about the numbers.
But yet, it’s always about the numbers.
Because numbers are the only real tangible measures of “success” for a church.
You don’t wanna play the numbers game.
But we all play the numbers game.
We even have what we call ”pastor’s count” where we count unborn babies and the yet-conceived babies as well. Anything to help our numbers look formidable.
You know it’s not about the numbers but yet, after every Sunday, I have to fill out a book that asks how many attended liturgy on that Sunday.
On our best days, we fully are cognizant that the health of a church involves a lot of the unmeasurable and the un-countable.
The rest of the time, the measurable and countable mess with our emotions and our vision and our calling.
The theme that kept rearing its unpleasant face in my inner monologues was: if I can’t even get people to show up on Christmas Eve… how the hell will this work out?
But before I finally went to bed, I chastised myself for thinking that “no one came.”
Because that was not accurate.
Nor was it fair or honoring to those who did join us for our worship.
I was grateful for the families who were present. Gave thanks for them. Gave thanks for this opportunity to serve in this capacity. And finally went to bed.
But the disappointment lingered around like the smell of dried urine at the urinals in the mall during Christmas season.
I could not believe that stench would be with me as I closed out the year.
But I told myself, starting Jan 1, we ain’t thinking about it anymore.
There’s too much to do, too much year ahead to feel sorry about myself any second longer.
In all this wading through the disappointment that was Christmas Eve of 2021, I had completely forgotten about the Miracle Offering.
I think part of it was, I didn’t want to think about it because I didn’t want to be disappointed twice.
I had gone in to the week of Christmas, thinking that if we were to give The Promise Rose $1000 through the Miracle Offering.. that would truly be a miracle. That 1000 amount was something I kept locked in my heart. I wasn’t going to tell a soul. Like maybe because I didn’t want to jinx it. Or maybe because I didn’t want someone else to share in the disappointment if were nowhere near that goal… I also started a GoFundMe Page to encourage my TikTok followers to get in on the action (and to help pad the total number, if I’m being honest).
But yea, I honestly didn’t give much thought to the Miracle Offering and I’m 90% certain that part of it was a defense mechanism. I’m sure subconsciously, I was like — I’ll deal with that when I cross that bridge, in the mean time, let me deal with the event that was Christmas Eve.
I met my brother for lunch on his birthday.
After we said our goodbyes, I got in my car and put in the address of my office (read: Pearland Coffee Roasters) when I got an alert that I received an email. It was from the bookkeeper at St. Andrew’s.
The subject read: RE: MIRACLE OFFERING and the little blurb of the email read: Hey Joseph, I am waiting for the funds to be transferred from PushPay to the bank before I can cut the che…
Ohh yea. You idiot, how could you forget about this… was the first though that ran across my mind.
Then I took a deep breath to prepare myself in opening up that email.
… then I took another one… because I just wasn’t ready to deal with any kind of heaviness or any kind of anything. You know the saying hope for the best, expect the worst? In that moment, it was just BRACE YOURSELF.
I opened the email.
Read it again.
Reread it, once more.
Then read it again.
Looked up to see that my brother was long gone.
Read the email again.
Closed the email app. Reopened it. And read it again. Like… I don’t know what that would’ve accomplished.
For a second, I had the breath knocked out of me.
“Daddy. Why are we not going?”
I had remembered then, that Nathanael had been with me this whole time. And probably thinking why his uncle Daniel left and he was just sitting in the car while his dad was seemingly having some sort of panic attack. I desperately wanted to look at him and say, ”Nate, read this email to me out loud” but we’re not there. Yet.
I read the email again.
This can’t be right…
So I emailed the bookkeeper basically retyping what she wrote me with words ”To clarify…”
I must’ve caught her at work because as I was about to put the car in drive when my phone alerted me that an email had arrived.
I opened the email again (sorry, Nate) to the word, ”Yes.”
I uttered oh shit under my breath, at least I thought I did until I heard from the back:
ooooh. Don’t say that, Daddy.
Oops. That kid hears everything.
So many emotions and thoughts and questions were coursing through me…
I quite literally didn’t know how to react.
I took a deep breath, collected myself and said, ”Sorry, buddy. Let’s go wait for trains” and left the Local Foods parking lot en route to coffee shop next to the train tracks.
I am waiting for funds to be transferred from Pushpay to the bank before I can cut the check to Promise Rose. There is one large donation still outstanding.
This is what has come in (including the large donation I’m waiting to clear) $7480.
Uh… so to clarify: are you saying that nearly 7500 came in???
Yes, that’s the amount! A true miracle donation!
I was at a loss for words, and I’m still at a loss.
On top of that, $180 generously came in through GoFundMe.
I know that this is like a contradicting post.
The first half I talk about the need to not pay too much attention on the quantifiable things.
Then I tell you how floored I am by a quantifiable thing.
But what is a human being, if they are not walking contradictions?
One, I just wanted to share with you the absolute miracle this Miracle Offering was.
Never in my wildest imagination did I think our intimate community would respond like this.
I had shared this past Sunday that no matter how jaded we may feel; no matter how dark our days might feel or how long these nights feel — we cling onto the hope that God can (and will) still surprise us.
That I was surprised by God’s grace (and the people’s response to God’s invitation) in this situation is an understatement.
2, I wrote this to remind myself (and maybe whoever else may need to hear this): ministry is a journey and a sum of experiences. One moment or one incident or one event doesn’t have to define who/what a community is. I’ve been listening to Will Smith’s book and he opened the book with a story about him and his brother building a wall in their dad’s shop. And when he was complaining about how big the wall is and what not, his dad instructed them to not focus on the wall but focus on the brick. You make sure this brick goes on well and right. And when that brick is laid, you focus on the next brick. Brick by brick. Will admits that when he focused on the brick and not the entire wall — the wall did not seem as imposing and impossible as he once thought.
In that line of thinking (somewhat) I made a mistake of letting one thing define the entire 6 months of our existence. In doing so, I discounted the people that were physically there and the people that were digitally there. But most importantly I disregarded what God can do. There’s never ”too little” with God. In fact, ”too little” seems to be God’s MO. After all, our God is a God who surprises.
If anything’s “too little”, it’s my imagination and my willingness to trust.
Finally, the theme for our too little church for 2022 is MAKE.
We have an opportunity to (re)make our community… to make a difference in people’s lives; to make an impact in our community.
The question that’s been stirring up in my heart is: what can God make of this? And what can we, with God, make in 2022?
(And I can’t help but hear the words of the 21st Century Poet and Philosopher Tim Gunn’s voice as we move into this year: Make. It. Work. )
Here’s to 2022.
Let’s make it a year full of hope, joy, grace, and love.
Make. It. Work.
Also — apologies for any grammatical mistakes that you may have run into.
I’ve been more concerned with updating this blog (therefore sort of freewriting) rather than focusing on grammar and spelling and what not. And let’s face it, even when I was focused and self editing — I still didn’t catch glaring mistakes.
Either way, I hope, when you encounter said mistakes, you were able to make out what I meant and not what I typed.
I’m thankful that you still read these posts.