Traditional rules for polite society dictate that we don’t discuss religion, but we have to know when to break the rules, yes? Consider this your fair warning if you’re a sensitive soul who prefers to avoid potentially divisive topics.
In the interest of authenticity, open vulnerability, and honesty, I’m going there today.
My Uncommitted Relationship with Church—And a Lack of Personal Definition
I’ve had a lukewarm and touchy relationship with the church experience throughout my life, as many people do. Without going into tons of backstory, as an adolescent and teenager I reluctantly went to church each Sunday with my mom, but I never enjoyed it; it was a chore, and the messages didn’t resonate in my scientific and analytical brain. I went with friends to another church’s youth group for a while, but I was a pretender who was there more for the cute, very alive boy(s) than for Jesus.
From my college days onward, I became a Christmas-only churchgoer whose attendance was based more on supporting my mom as she played the piano during the service.
My personal categorization of myself and my beliefs has evolved over the years—as I believe it should—but today I mostly think of myself as Curious. I’m Christian by heritage and tradition, but depending on your definition of Christian, I don’t fit that description. I’m somewhere on the spectrum between Agnostic and Believer, and I have my own thought-experiments and hypothetical questions that keep me in the middle as a swinging pendulum.
The Day My Icy Church Opinions Began to Thaw
On the Sunday before Thanksgiving in 2016, my relationship with the experience of church began to change.
My parents divorced that year after 33 years of marriage, and I was struggling as we approached The First Holiday Season After It. All the traditions I’d known and loved for my entire life were shaken up and relegated to Stored Memory status. While my brother had the luxury of living 1,200 miles away and experiencing the separation from the seclusion of the Colorado Rockies, I was in the middle of it—I geographically lived between the two parental units—and I felt I was carrying a significant burden of uncertainty and turmoil.
On that holiday-kickoff Sunday, I went to The Well.Community’s church service primarily so I’d be on hand to volunteer and help pack gift boxes for children in need around the world (see Operation Christmas Child). I had six grocery bags full of Beanie Babies—my extensive childhood collection unearthed from my parents’ vacated basement—to donate.
I was also curious about this particular church because I knew and respected two of the people who led it. I had a sense that if they were involved—two open-minded, welcoming, and progressive people—it was a place I might actually like.
When I walked in the door, I was greeted by people as though I was a long-lost member of the family. The service was casual, friendly, and open to all. And the sermon was historically grounded, provided critical context for understanding, and had a relatable, modern takeaway.
At a time when my own family had been disrupted, the warmth and energy of this group of people enveloped and comforted me.
Since then, I’ve only missed Sundays for out-of-town travel. I never thought I’d say it, but I actually look forward to getting out and going on Sunday mornings to go to church.
An Exciting But Intimidating Honor and Invitation
A year later, I feel at home and connected with this group of people. I feel at ease asking questions and don’t feel pressured to be more than I am. This undefinable Curious individual found somewhere she could be outwardly undefinable and Curious.
So, when the lead minister, Ryan, asked another woman and me to play a role in this season’s Christmas Eve service by doing “some readings and comments”, I said yes without knowing any details. Ironically, as much as I have to sometimes talk myself into going to large social gatherings, public speaking doesn’t bother me. I get nervous like anyone does, but between spending years performing on a clogging team and more years making presentations to clients of all industries, I’m pretty comfortable in that situation.
After committing, I learned that my role had a lot of editorial room: Sharon and I would be lighting the four main candles of the Advent Wreath, each talking about the meaning of two candles. We were given the basic symbolism and the verse that would go along with it, but we had three or four minutes to add our own personal spin.
It wasn’t really until I sat down to write my two segments that I thought critically about how I was going to approach this: it needed to be churchy (it was a Christmas Eve service, after all) and religious, but I wanted to express myself authentically and not attempt to posit a position that I wasn’t fully committed to myself.
It was a bit of a pickle.
I spent several hours writing, editing, fretting, deleting, and writing some more until I got to two segments I was comfortable with. I wanted badly to be a good representative and to make Ryan glad he’d asked and trusted me to play a role. I wanted to satisfy people who were there for a seriously religious experience. And I wanted to share thoughts I felt were authentic to my own perspective.
I’m good at setting the bar unreasonably high for myself, aren’t I?
A more evolved mind might be able to confidently put their ideas forward without worrying about what others think. I’m not there yet, but I hope to be before I’m 80 years old or so. I’m satisfied with where I landed, and they didn’t kick me out afterward for being a heretic (another reason why I like this group of people).
I’ll share my two passages and let you interpret them in whatever way is most authentic to you.
-- First candle: “hope” or “the prophets” candle; a reminder Jesus is coming. --
“The Advent season is a beautiful reminder to prepare our hearts as we prepare our homes — to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Each of the candles in the Advent wreath represents an important element of the Christmas tradition. I’ll begin tonight by lighting the first violet candle, which symbolizes hope. It’s known as the Prophets’ candle and serves to remind us of Jesus’ coming. [LIGHT THE CANDLE]
“Isaiah 40:1-5 reads:
“Comfort, comfort my people,”
says your God.
2 “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.
Tell her that her sad days are gone
and her sins are pardoned.
Yes, the Lord has punished her twice over
for all her sins.”
3 Listen! It’s the voice of someone shouting,
“Clear the way through the wilderness
for the Lord!
Make a straight highway through the wasteland
for our God!
4 Fill in the valleys,
and level the mountains and hills.
Straighten the curves,
and smooth out the rough places.
5 Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
The Lord has spoken!”
“Notice how lighting this first candle begins to dispel darkness. In our world today, we can easily take for granted the abundance of light. We flip a switch and a room is brightened. We can drive our cars at any time of night with the help of headlights. We don’t even need to carry a flashlight—or matches—because we have a flashlight built into our phones.
“But it’s only in the last one hundred years or so that we even earned the privilege of taking light for granted. Before then—and still today in more underprivileged regions of the world—people relied upon firelight.
“One small flame served as a beacon in the night that guided wayward travelers home. One small spark can start a fire that warms a home all winter. One candle can provide light enough for a child to read and make it through school. What better symbol of hope can there be?
“We speak often of faith, but hope is the spark of optimism that begins to build a foundation for faith. Hope that tomorrow may be better than today. Hope that a better world is ahead of us. For thousands of years before Jesus’ birth, people hoped for his coming. We’re reminded to have hope when we see the light of this first candle cutting through the darkness around us.
“And it only takes a small flame of hope to fuel our faith.”
-- Third candle: “joy” or “the shepherds” candle; a reminder of the joy the world experienced at the birth of Jesus. --
“The single rose candle in the wreath symbolizes joy. It’s known as the shepherds’ candle, and it serves to remind us of the joy the world experienced at the birth of Jesus. [LIGHT THE CANDLE]
“Luke 2:8-14 says of a moment soon after the birth of Jesus:
8 That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. 9 Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, 10 but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. 11 The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! 12 And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.” 13 Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”
“Think about the first recipients of this joyful news: shepherds. Not royalty. Not political leaders. Not the wealthy or important. But shepherds. A group of everyday, working-class people who played a necessary role for the local population but were uncelebrated.
“Uncelebrated by anyone but God, that is.
“He sent his angel to shepherds to receive and spread the news of Jesus’ birth first. He specifically chose to award this preference to people otherwise deemed as “ordinary”.
“After they recovered from their shock, just imagine the pure joy those shepherds felt upon hearing this news from a flock of angels—and not just any news, but news the world had been anticipating for 4,000 years. Imagine how that joy carried them on their journey to see this remarkable newborn baby—lying in a lowly manger—for themselves. And imagine the joy they must have felt when they recognized that their God had rewarded their faith by bestowing this honor upon them, a group of shepherds.
“The shepherds may have been among the first to receive that joy, but we continue to receive it every day, and we use the occasion of lighting this rose-colored Advent candle to remember that. Let’s continue to celebrate it now.”
- Did something outside my routine: +1
- Left the house: +1
- Did something entirely new: +1