Any unexpected December illness in our household growing up was referred to as reindeer flu… and I’ve got it. Complete physical meltdown over the past 72 hours. Fever, chills, explosive expulsions out every orifice, aches, pains, moaning, cough, congestion… you name it, I got it. Now I am sitting in my office sweating like a proverbial pig, feeling nauseous and queasy, wondering how in the world I ever convinced myself that I am well enough to go back to work, but also cognizant of the fact that I have a ton of work piling up if I stay home. There is no good time for reindeer flu.
I remember the year I got it on December 23. I was pastoring the Wantage United Methodist Church in New Jersey. We held two Christmas Eve services — one at 7:30 and one at 11:00. At 5:00, I was running a 104° temperature and could hardly stand up. I bundled myself up and trudged off to the church. Of course, no one had shown up that day to heat up the furnace or clear the walkways, so I did. At about 6:00 I got a call that the couple coming to light the luminaries were delayed, so I headed back out into the blowing sleet to light a hundred candles sitting in sand in little white bags. For everyone I lit successfully, two went out and another caught the bag on fire. Somehow we got through the service — which was mostly our children’s Sunday school classes singing and reading scripture.
I honestly don’t remember anything from this point. My fever took over and I moved through Christmas Eve in a haze. I don’t know what I did between services, though some of the members told me I was lighting luminaries again when they showed up at 10:30. A few people told me that I rambled on and on at the beginning of the service about how glad I was they were all there, and the choir began taking bets on which direction I was going to fall over when I passed out. Two people told me that I preached the best sermon of my entire ministry, but I think they were just messing with my head. I don’t know how I got home that night, and I barely remember that Christmas Day — other than we went to my in-laws and I spent the next three days in bed. Ho, ho, ho.
Looking back on that time, it was tupid of me to endanger both my own health and the health of others because of a misplaced sense of my own importance. For some reason, I thought Christmas Eve services depended on me. But surely people would have had a meaningful time without my homily. The music, the candles, the gospel story read directly from scripture — these have the power to transport people into the glorious story of the Nativity. I was extraneous (as well as contagious). I didn’t want to let anyone down, true, but in my feverish condition I was more of a distraction than an inspiration.
There’s never a convenient time to get sick, but for pastors Advent and Christmas week are deadly. It doesn’t feel like you have the option to BE sick. There’s just too much to do. Holy Week, the same thing. Adrenalin is a great thing — it can carry you through for a while, but then the body simply shuts down when its had enough. I’m saying a special prayer for all my clergy colleagues as you head into the home stretch. Don’t get what I’ve got. It sucks. And I don’t wish the way I feel on anyone, anywhere. Be well, but if you do get sick, remember that Christmas doesn’t depend on you. Take care of yourself, and let others take care of you, too.