At the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch we’ve been working hard for the past month to get our float ready for the Christmas parade. To be honest, float-building isn’t something I look forward to but it has been a joy for me to labor through it with the group of boys I work with and to see them in turn take joy from the showing of their hard work. After spending so much time on something that I barely wanted to be involved in to begin with, it feels great to finally be finished. But as always, the something I didn’t really want turned into something I really needed.
The night of the Christmas parade I sat in the cab of the truck, the float lit up behind me, idling forward inch by inch as my community, thousands of faces, gathered in the dark to see the procession of light. I heard “Merry Christmas” called out from a hundred voices devoid of self-consciousness, voices of simple joy. I watched children’s faces lift up as parade lights splendored in their eyes and they cried out for treats. I sat in the midst of it and was moved to see this swell of joy in the world and what’s more–what’s most–was that it was Christ that called the hour. Whether they believed or not, whether they meant it or not didn’t matter, they were here and the world was put on hold for an hour in the name of the One.
As I towed the float down the road with misty eyes, happy to be a part of the rising, I began to notice a strange thing. People saw our float and recognized our name and they leaped to their feet and cheered. They clapped and smiled and waved at us. As we’d approach I could hear whispers running in the crowd, “It’s the Ranch,” “Here comes the Boys’ Ranch!”, and they’d yell to me “We love you! Keep up the great work!”, “Thanks for all you do!”, or “You guys are doing great things!” I’d smile and wave and be gracious, and I meant it every time. But the thing that left me uneasy was that I don’t once recall being at a parade and seeing any sort of similar reaction to a church float as it passed. There might be an eruption of cheering when the Baptist float passed a large gathering of its members but then those same members would be silent as they watched the Methodist float roll by. No whispers ran of the coming of Christians. No praise for their work well done.
That bothered me then, and it bothers me still while I write this. Isn’t the church doing great things in the community? Shouldn’t people stand up and cheer to know that the followers of Christ are on the move?
The only conclusion I’ve been able to come to is that when people think of an organization like the Boys Ranch they instantly connect us with service to children and communities but when people think of a church they think of service, not to the community as a whole, but to the church itself. I don’t think this perception is entirely wrong. The church as a whole (I know I’m talking in generalities here) is concerned with bettering itself and its members, not bettering the community it’s a part of. I know that isn’t our intent as Christians but I wonder if that isn’t what is happening. How good would it be if people associated the Church (instantly) with community service, with family services, with helping make the world brighter. Are we doing these things? Yes, I think we are, but I’m not sure it’s high enough on the priority list. I feel at times like the Church is a last resort for people. That’s backwards. We ought to be at the top of the list.
I don’t know what the answer is and whatever is at the root of the problem, I’m sure I’m just as much at fault as anyone else. But I do know that a long time ago whispers ran through crowds and cheers filled the air when Jesus came to town. People gathered out of the darkness to see the true Light parade down the street on a donkey. I suspect that in part this was because people, believers and non-believers alike, heard that he cared more about them than he did about himself. They knew that it wasn’t about what he could get, but about what he could give. These days it seems the parades are not so brightly lit, and I’m afraid it’s us blocking out the light.
Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.