Monday, December 12, 2005

Surprised by Santa (Part 3)

As the Christmas Posse (see the last post) and I got on the train, I started doing the first of my "Santa Schtick." Pulling out of the parking lot, I started shouting to those on the sidewalk, "Hey, hey, hey!" like Fat Albert. Then I quickly changed it back to "ho, ho, ho!"

Clever, ay? Too bad I didn't have a drummer who could do a rim shot. People cracked up, anyway, lame as it was.

As we rode in the little train from the Rec Center to the front of the parade line, I reflected on how we had created our own float last Christmas and threw out candy canes with info about our church to the crowd. I also thought about how incredibly ineffective that really was. In hindsight, it may have had something to do with people getting hit in the face with a card about a church when they were expecting something fun and festive. Hmm... I could really run with that right now, applying it to churches in general, but it's kind of a tangent and I'm starting to digress...

Hopping off the train, I found Robert from the rec staff waiting to escort me to the float of honor. It was kind of fun having my own security detail everywhere I went, but he was walking kind of fast. I had to almost run to keep up with him and was a bit paranoid that I was going to be mobbed by the crowd as I went! Isn't that a lovely sentiment? Santa Claus, beloved by all, running for his life to keep from being mauled by all...!

But I wasn't mauled or mobbed, and let me just say that it is really surreal to be a struggling church planting pastor one minute and an "instant celebrity" the next! Cheers, people waving, and excited shouts of "Hey, there he is!" coming from over my shoulder gave me one of the first of many surprises:

It's hard to be depressed when you're playing Santa Claus.

Strange how even "superficial" encouragement is such a powerful thing. To hear nothing but positive things being shouted at and around a person can do a lot for someone who's discouraged. I actually wish every pastor could have the opportunity to receive the encouragement and welcome that I, as Santa, received on that night.

I didn't realize how much I really needed it until I received a huge dose of it. And I found myself soaking it up like a sponge; not in a "seeking praise of man," arrogant kind of way, but in a humble, thirsty kind of way.

Encouragement is one of those nebulous things that everyone acts as though they can make it without, but is actually a vital need that we all have. It's one of those needs that goes deeper than we usually realize and one that we rarely (if ever) admit that we even have.

It's no wonder that God's Word stresses it so emphatically:

"So encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing." - 1 Thessalonians 5:11 [NLT]

My guess is that you are "under encouraged." Most people are. And Pastors most definitely are. So here's a quick note to self and to you: Start encouraging people more. - a lot more. It's incredible the difference it can make.

Robert led me along to my "Parade ride," which turned out to be a horse drawn carriage, and to my "Parade riding partner," who turned out to be the Mayor of the city of Roanoke!

"Would you mind escorting Santa the rest of the way?" Robert asked.
"Well, that depends on who he is!" the Mayor responded in a good natured way.
"Hi, there, how're you doin'?" I said, as if we were old friends.

The mayor greeted me warmly, and we made our way to the carriage. For the next 30 minutes or so, I was the official Santa Claus in the Roanoke Christmas parade. I was "ho, ho, ho-ing" and "Merry Christmas-ing" and "Hello, boys and girls-ing" like a pro, all the while chatting with the Mayor here and there, and generally cracking him up as we went along.

And there was plenty to be cracking up about. Not the least of which was the fact that it was about 80 degrees outside. But never fear, by the time the whole evening wrapped up, it was down to about 40. ...Welcome to Texas.

As the parade progressed, it was amazing to see faces brighten and smiles appear when I simply made eye contact, shouted greetings to people and actually acknowledged them in the process. Everyone really responded to being singled out and greeted by this "character of Christmas joy." Noticing this was when I was hit with surprise number two, and it wasn't that I got to hang out with the Mayor.

I was surprised that all of this reminded me how much I care about people. Why I'm in Roanoke, in the first place. Why I'm planting a church.

It's because God cares about people. And He wants people to also care about Him; to understand that He's the answer to their problems. It's not that God needs us, however. He isn't pitiful. But He cares because that's just who He is. He loves and cares about people. He's holy and righteous, to be sure, but He's also the God who is moved with compassion over people who wander around like sheep without a shepherd.

I found myself joyfully trying to connect with these people and communicate hope through the silly guise of Santa Claus. Of course as "Santa" that fell short, but it was my heart none the less.

Recently, I had prayed that God would make my heart overflow with compassion for the people of this area. He surprised me by doing just that in an unexpected time and in an unexpected way - while I was waving at people as "Santa Claus" in a Christmas Parade. I actually felt my heart softening, my concern deepening and my compassion growing as the parade marched on.

All along the way, the Mayor sitting next to me had no clue who I was. But when the parade wrapped up, he was immediately asking anyone who might know.

"Who is that guy in the Santa suit?"

I was now beginning to wonder that a little, myself as I made my way from the carriage to the Rec Center. My evening of the "St. Nick Schtick" was apparently just getting started. There was a big crowd gathering, and it was "Santa time"...

(to be concluded...)

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