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Finding the Way Home

When I decided to leave the congregation that I had served as pastor for ten years, I was excited and grateful—finally I would have large chunks of time for writing. But I also had some concerns.

Wouldn’t I be lonely? I don’t have that many actual friends since the congregation was my social milieu for so long.

Wouldn’t the solitude get to me? I would no longer have an office to go to with parishioners dropping in now and then to say “hi” or share a problem.

Wouldn’t I feel isolated? The protocol in the Lutheran church is that, when a pastor leaves—particularly a long-term pastor—contact is severed so the congregation can best adapt to the new pastor.

Wouldn’t I feel anonymous? This was a special concern since I’ve always heard the term “pastor” as one of endearment and no one would be calling me that anymore. But at the end of May I left Grace Lutheran Church and stepped into a new life instantly: new career focus, new house, new husband. I waited for the emotional shock waves to start rolling in.

They didn’t.

It’s been a remarkably facile transition. I’m actually kind of a hermit so I don’t mind the solitude of being upstairs in my office, the rest of the house empty and quiet. I’m not a real social butterfly, so I don’t have any great desire to become A Lady Who Lunches. And though I do miss my church office, I’ve managed to turn various libraries and Panera’s into impromptu writing spots (though I’m getting mighty sick of Panera’s coffee).

In view of all that, I was not prepared for last Sunday, the First Sunday in Advent, flanked this year by America’s two high holy days—Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Advent is the four-week season before Christmas. Traditionally it has been seen as a time of preparation for the transcendence of divinity into human history. For me it’s always been a time of mystery—the darkness comes early, the snow descends and hushes the world and we can give in to the urge to believe.

Advent was also my favorite time of the church year. I’d pick the haunting minor-key Advent hymns to sing on Sundays. The congregation would have a fancy potluck supper that included a Santa Lucia procession—white robed, red-beribboned girls with crowns of candles on their head holding plates of saffron buns while someone sings “Santa Lucia.” We would hang the greens and trim the two massive pine trees on either side of the chancel.

And I had a private Christmas Eve ritual. I’d leave our house two hours before the service was to begin and drive up and down the Niskayuna streets where neighbors have lined up countless luminaria. I’d turn off my headlights and cruise slowly along this path of flame.

Then I’d have time in the empty church, time to think. Or not think. Time to just be inside this mystery I couldn’t articulate. Soon the congregation would arrive and we would sing and laugh and end the service by singing “Silent Night” in complete darkness, each person holding a lit taper.

Somehow, in leaving Grace, I’d forgotten I was leaving all that. And when the First Sunday in Advent came I felt truly bereft.

I haven’t been attending church. I don’t know where to go. I want to find a place with a politically-engaged, intelligent congregation, a place that has good music and good liturgy. But that place is Grace. And I can’t go there.

So now it’s Advent and for the first time I think I have an inkling of what it means to be blue during the holidays. I won’t see the Santa Lucia procession this year. But my extended family, who still attend Grace, will. I won’t drive up and down looking at luminaria as a prelude to leading Christmas Eve worship. In fact I won’t be leading worship at all. I won’t be with the people with whom I’ve celebrated ten richly meaningful Christmases.

Of course I understand that I chose this. And I’m happy and committed to the discipline of writing, grateful for the hours and the solitude.

But I also know that I am rootless this Advent. It’s a strange feeling.

All our family traditions will remain intact—the cookie-baking frenzy, decorating the tree, dinner at our house with the annual Ramos gin fizz as a prelude. But I have uprooted myself from the rituals and the mysteries of the season.

And yet, ironically, maybe that will bring the season home as never before. Because that first Christmas wasn’t about singing “Joy to the World” and hanging the Christmas greens. It was about a couple, burdened with impending responsibility, wandering the streets of Bethlehem, not knowing where to go.

—Jo Page

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