My home church goes Christmas caroling on the third Sunday in Advent each year. The participating carolers gather at the church, divide up into smaller groups that fit into 2 or 3 vehicles and they head out to sing joy into the darkness of December. They visit the oldest members of the congregation, those who are grieving from recent losses in the past year and others who are struggling with illness. Each group visits with the members on their lists, sings some carols, brings a small gift and hopefully provides some cheer.
One year, my group had Lila and Robert as the last home on our list. We gathered on the front step, rang the doorbell and waited anxiously in the cold. No answer. Teeth chattering, young singers moving to stay warm. We knocked again louder. More stomping of the feet to get the blood flow to the toes. Finally, Lila came to the door and beckoned us inside. Although we usually sang from the front porch, but, the group entered, glad to be in the warmth. We thought that we were headed to the front room. But Lila urged us beyond to a room off to the side. She positioned the entire group around her husband’s bed,with Robert sound asleep in the middle.
Astounded, the group was not sure what to do. Lila pleaded that we begin singing. And so we did. Angels we have heard on High. Lila beamed. Robert slept. She asked for more, nudging Robert’s shoulder. Somewhere between Silent Night and The First Noel, Robert awoke to see our less-than-angel chorus around his bed. Lila rushed to get his hearing aids in place. And together they requested several more of their favorites before we offered a prayer, presented the gift and headed back to the church.
In the midst of that gathering with children and adults with Lila and Robert, in the time between Robert’s napping and waking, we had created a sacred space. The husband and wife, married for over 70 years, very rarely left their home. Robert had been in and out of the hospital and Lila had been his primary caretaker. A few songs, a gentle prayer. Greetings of love extended in our bedside passing of the peace. In many ways, we had worshipped together.
Lila is not alone. Yes, she wanted Robert to hear the carolers, but she so appreciated being able to invite the group into their home. She beamed at the carols even as Robert lay sleeping. As his primary caregiver, she needed the experience of Advent Joy as much as her dear husband who was battling significant physical challenges.
The reality is that there are 40 million unpaid caregivers in the U.S. today, according to a recent report from the Bipartisan Policy Center . Fifty percent of the current paid workforce will need to provide caregiving for a loved one in the next five years. Think about your congregation and consider the implications for those families. Consider the implications for your congregation. Those who are providing care, whether in their own homes or are supporting a family member nearby or even across the country are suddenly having to navigate a complicated system that involves health care, financial planning, their own paid leave time from their jobs and the emotional impact of seeing a loved one who is perhaps looking at chronic and/or terminal illnesses. Their needs for self-care and spiritual renewal are at a critical high, and yet their energy and time to participate in the usual activities, including worship, may be something which has to be let go.
The term “house church” is both ancient and modern. From the early Christians meeting in homes around the table, breaking bread together, sharing the good news, centering their time around scripture and singing the songs of faith in support of their everyday lives, to the contemporary model of house churches today to reach those for whom the traditional idea of church no longer fits, this term continues to provide imaginative opportunity for sharing the good news.
At this time of year when many local church pastors are struggling to get all of their home communions finished before Christmas, what if the responsibility of visiting and breaking bread didn’t lay solely with the pastor. What if a congregation had a ministry of providing house church? What if, intergenerational participants met monthly in the homes of those elders who find it difficult to venture into the world? Such occasions for worship for about 10 people could include the caregivers, in addition to the one who is facing health challenges. It would take a little coordination, but the building of connections could be tremendous.
I think about Lila and Bob and wonder what kind of difference we could have made by bringing a small group, including children and youth, to create more opportunities through the year to sing some songs, share a prayer, center our thoughts through the reading of scripture, pass the peace of Christ and break bread? Could a traditional congregation organize the opportunity to provide “house churches” for those members who are more confined to their homes? Both the caregivers and the ones who are in the midst of sometimes long journeys of healing could certainly benefit from the opportunity to worship. And the ones who come to participate in that worship would surely be strengthened as well.
As funny as it was to find ourselves around the bed of Robert on that cold December night, it was one of the more memorable and profound experiences that I’ve had with the opportunity to worship with a small group in the house of a congregant. Perhaps this Advent tradition could be the seed for a ministry through the year, meeting in the homes of those who are giving care and who need the support of their faith community more than ever.
Rev. Beth Long-Higgins serves as Executive Director, Ruth Parker Center for Abundant Aging at United Church Homes in Marion, Ohio, a member organization of the United Church of Christ Council for Health and Human Services Ministries.