Steve Burt, "the Christmas story pastor," was telling stories long before he had a congregation to listen to them.
His first published story appeared in the high school newspaper - when he was in second grade. In fifth grade, his teacher would keep him after school for talking in class. To fill the time during detention, she had him write stories and poems. "I loved to stay after school," Burt remembers.
"Many of my audiences are full of unchurched people," he told a United Methodist Women group in Hudson Falls, N.Y., recently. "But my stories are full of religious images, and people are absorbing these images, perhaps without being aware of it."
Throughout his 20 years of ministry, Burt told stories in preaching and teaching, and continued to write and publish. His works have appeared in Reader's Digest, the Chicken Soup for the Soul series and Church Worship magazine, among others. He has published books of sermons and communion meditations, and books on effective ministry in the small church, including The Little Church that Could: Raising Small Church Esteem.
In the 1980s, Burt served a United Methodist church in Vermont, then went on to lead a number of United Church of Christ congregations. In the 1990s, he was director of the small church program at Missouri School of Religion and an adjunct faculty member at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis.
Burt's stories - especially his Christmas tales - were well known in the congregations and the towns where he served. Each Christmas season he would write a new story, to be told in place of a sermon at Christmas Eve worship. A Long Island newspaper began publishing his story every year, and people would line up to buy the issue.
Friends and church members encouraged him to collect his stories in a book. When a string of publishers rejected it because of the competitive market for Christmas books, Burt's agent suggested self-publication. Burt founded Burt Creations Publishing, bringing out A Christmas Dozen: Christmas Stories to Warm the Heart in 2000.
In 2001, Burt retired early to give his full time to writing and storytelling. His schedule of reading and broadcasts, he found, was beginning "to crowd out my parish schedule, so I made a decision to retire rather than cheat any church I might be serving." Now his ministry takes him to Girl Scout meetings, church Christmas programs, senior centers and holiday fairs. He tapes his stories for broadcast on radio stations across the country.
With the exception of a battlefield story, the religious images and themes in A Christmas Dozen arise from the details of life in New England and eastern Long Island, in a simpler time. A Madonna and child, the blind seeing, beasts dwelling together - these are the images that reveal the small but profound miracles of Christmas.
"People want to believe in the miracle of Christmas," Burt says. "And they grasp little bits of the significance of it through the many miraculous stories of Christmas. My calling is to touch their hearts and minds, and in the process cause them to ponder how the story relates to the Christ event that is Christmas."
Even listeners who don't profess a belief in Christ, Burt affirms, "want to comprehend in some way the God-is-with-us-ness of it all." And so he creates stories in which God is made flesh in the lives of ordinary people. The miracles in Burt's stories happen in the midst of ordinary living: small miracles, such as a boy ringing the church bell from his sick bed, a frozen turkey turning up in the live Nativity crhche, a dog giving shelter to a pregnant cat, a town's congregations leaving their sanctuaries on Christmas Eve to save the elephants on a stranded circus wagon.
Church audiences sometimes ask, "Why doesn't the story have God and Jesus in it?" He might reply, "Let those who have ears to hear." Instead, he tells such skeptics that "I have to write the stories God gives me, not manipulate the stories to make them preachy."
The stories clearly touch a chord in audiences. A Christmas Dozen sold out its first and second printings - 4,000 books - in 55 days, without reaching bookstore shelves. Listeners line up after a reading to buy A Christmas Dozen and his other books, Unk's Fiddle and Odd Lot. The appearance schedules appearing on his Web sites, www.burtcreations.com and www.achristmasdozen.com, attest to the demand for "Christmas stories that warm the heart."
By Holly Nye