Today is the first day of Advent…the Christian period of waiting and anticipating the celebration of the birth of Christ. As a person who grew up Catholic and later Protestant, it was always pretty central to my celebrations of Christmas in the past. As a person who is moving away from the much of the Christian tradition and has not attended church much at all over the past several years, I wasn’t sure how I wanted to mark the season, both as a family and an individual. There was a part of me that wanted to attend church this month between Thanksgiving and Christmas…and a bigger part of me that did not. I spent my advent morning not in a church pew singing carols but on an exhilarating 6 mile run with the likes of Tupac, Beastie Boys and Midnight Oil as my “worship” leaders. Still…there is a part of me, the part that longs for mystery and magic, for beauty that goes beyond gift giving and Christmas lights. Throughout this season of faith shifting (thank you Kathy Escobar!) there has also been a part of me worried about how my changing faith is affecting my children. It is why I sometimes want to go to church–and also why I often do NOT want to go to church. While I don’t want them to inherit my spiritual hangups, I also don’t want them exposed to the very things I no longer believe in. At the same time I do want them to see Christmas as more than just gifts for them and fun times at home and at school.
I was reading Rachel Held Evans’ blog post about Advent ideas this morning and had an epiphany–and I think it just may work for any family who wants to bring more into the Christmas season than just gifts, even if they are not religious at all. I think you could tailor the activities described below however you wanted to. Here’s a description of my not-churchy-advent-observation that I plan on trying out this season. I’ll let you know how it goes…and I hope maybe it will inspire others of you too, particularly other faith shifters like me.
First: I’m going to run to the store this afternoon and pick up 5 candles. I think I’ll use all white, but you can certainly choose whatever you’d like. I looked on Pinterest for some ideas for advent wreaths. I’m going to get some sort of greenery or something to place around them (I’ll post a photo after I’ve created it) and cluster them in a large dish. I may make the 5th candle smaller or a different color, I’ll see what inspires me at the store.
One day each week and then on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning (I’m going to try for Sunday evenings, but also allow for real life, to be flexible) we’ll sit down as a family, we’ll start with one candle the first week, 2 the second, etc. Each candle will represent something that we will talk about, listen to some music about, and then try to come up with a concrete idea for how to implement that in the week ahead. The concepts are:
Week 1: HOPE
Things to discuss:
- What does hope mean? (actual definition)
- What’s the difference between hope and hopelessness? Why might someone feel hopeless?
- Who in our lives or in the world might need hope? (I still believe in prayer, so we will probably pick some people to pray for in this area)
- How can we share hope in our family, in the world around us?
We will light the candle (giving each kid a turn) and then listen to a song that is about hope. My pick: “Hope Now” by Addison Road. Yes, they are a “Christian” band, but this song isn’t overtly religious and it’s one of the only “Christian” songs I can listen to any more without grinding my teeth. I’m sure you can come up with ideas of your own or Google some.
Week 2: PEACE
Things to discuss:
- What is peace?
- How can we be peaceful in our home?
- How can we encourage peace in school/work?
- Where in the world needs peace? (pray here, if you’d like) Use globe or map to talk about places in the world that are experiencing a lack of peace (Ukraine, Middle East, etc.)
- How can we be peacemakers?
Song ideas I have for this are “Imagine” by John Lennon and “Let There Be Peace on Earth” (you know, and let it begin with me…)
Week 3: JOY
Things to discuss:
- What does joy mean? Are joy and happiness the same thing?
- What makes you feel joyful?
- Who are some people who might need joy in their lives? (pray?)
- How can we bring joy to each other? To others we encounter?
Song ideas: Joy to the World (christmas carol!) and Joy to the World (3 Dog Night!)
Week 4: LOVE
Things to discuss:
- What do you think love means? Is it a feeling? An action? Both?
- How does life look with/without love?
- How can we show love to our family/to others?
- Who might need some love? (pray)
Song ideas: What The World Needs Now, Get Together (Youngbloods)
Christmas Eve/Christmas Morning
Again, if Jesus is not a part of your tradition, you could skip this entirely or do something else. How would you culminate your weeks of Advent? Would love to hear your ideas!
Light 5th candle for Jesus. Read Christmas story. Talk about how Jesus came to bring hope, peace, joy, love…NOT fear, conflict, sadness, hate (opposites!). Talk about how this often gets distorted and not done well. How we can change that in our lives, one day at a time, one person, one action at a time. Maybe read a Bible verse that talks about hope, peace, etc. (One with Jesus’ words??)
So. Those are my very basic thoughts ideas…anyone else have anything?? Song ideas? Concrete activities to make these words come to life? (I’m thinking sending cards to sick kids in hospitals, buying mittens/socks/hats for the library mitten tree, donating toys to Toys for Tots, notes to servicemen overseas…there’s unlimited possibilities!)
Hopefully you’ll find something here worthwhile…may your Advent be full of light!!
I’ll keep ya posted on how it goes 🙂
You’ll be happy to know that this post isn’t going to be the entirely bitter post it started off as in my head this morning. It has a sort of, almost happy ending. The story is still being written but lets just say that as the course of the morning went on, what I was writing in my head took a different turn.
If you know me at all and have paid even the slightest bit of attention to anything I have said over the past couple of years, you have probably noticed that I have been going through a major crisis of faith. “Doubt” doesn’t really even begin to describe it…I was re-reading some Madeleine L’Engle a month or so ago and she used the term “attack of atheism” and I was like “Aha! Yes! That’s it exactly.” It was comforting to know that someone I respect as much as Madeleine L’Engle, someone who’s work has influenced my faith so much, regularly experienced dark times in her life such as the one I am currently embroiled in.
At church this morning we sang a hymn that reminded me of my old church, Emmaus Road, in Laramie. I’d first heard it there, and it was one of my favorites that Tony, our old worship leader, would sing regularly. It got me thinking about Emmaus, and the family and community I had there, and how instrumental the implosion of that community has been on the beating my faith has taken over the last 4 years.
We started going to Emmaus a couple months after we moved to Laramie. I will start out with the caveat that it was not, by any stretch, a perfect church. Bill and I weren’t “in love” with it…there were plenty of things that weren’t our preference, that we may have wished were different, that we would have changed. But in spite of those imperfections (which, is a perfect reflection of reality, isn’t it?) Emmaus was our church home. We kept going back, week after week. There was something about Raul’s very real, very honest preaching, and Tony’s inspired worship, that made us look beyond the quirky things about it and make it “ours”.
Beyond that–it was where we found a group of people who became our Wyoming family…our “Journey Group”, as we called it. Emmaus was real big on community…its certainly a buzzword in churches these days. But really, that’s so much what it was. We pretty quickly settled in to a group of about 8 of us adults who joined our lives together in a very real, very close way. They were the first people to find out I was pregnant with Xavier, Sandra was the first person I talked to after finding out I had kidney disease, Matt and Shelly came straight to our house to tell us they were pregnant with Eli (“You need to talk to so-and-so” became the code word for “they’re pregnant”:)). Shelly and Sandra and Whitney and Vanessa were there, right there in the room, watching me push Xavier out of my body, being there with our family. And as some folks moved on and Tod and Tammy and their family joined us, it was like we were all in this together. Laughing, crying, worrying, being afraid…it was all right there. We did Bible studies or we didn’t, it didn’t really matter. We were all in it together.
And then some things happened…they happen in every church, I suppose, changes, people leaving, moving on. I don’t know if our church’s changes were worse, because they involved the very real and painful challenges that our pastor, Raul was going through, that saw him withdrawing from ministry. But we lost him, the visionary for where Emmaus had set out to go at its start, and then slowly things and people started sloughing off as a result, with the new church being a very different one than the one we’d started out a part of. Yeah, it lost some of those “quirks” that we hadn’t necessarily appreciated. It wasn’t til they were gone that I realized that perhaps those quirks were what made it special in the first place.
And then came the morning that we found out that 2 of our small group members, Matt and Jon, were being let go from their positions with the church. It’s a long story, and everyone had their own interpretations of what really happened. But the bottom line is it was ugly. And it was painful. And the 4 families in our Journey Group found ourselves leaving Emmaus. For??? Not sure what. But we felt like we were in it together, there was solidarity and we believed we were doing the right thing.
You know, many people probably don’t see the value in being a part of a church. There are LOTS of reasons for this. Lots of good, valid reasons. Lots of selfish ones too. I didn’t think it would be a big deal. There was talk that maybe we could start our own home church, or a new church plant. We all tried various churches in town together which is always a ridiculous, awful experience. I never felt at home in any of them. Not even a tiny bit. Where I felt at home was when we were all together, sitting in someone’s living room, or at the park or in Vegas together or wherever, just talking, just sharing life and laughter and some alcohol:) and all that goes along with the mess in between.
But life is a mess. And what used to be a regular time of getting together got harder and harder to maintain. Weeks would go by where we wouldn’t meet, or only part of us could get together. Kids, activities, family, vacations, work, sickness…it seems like there was always one reason or another that we would go days, even weeks without seeing one another. The glue that held us together was not. I know I found myself feeling bitter and resentful…towards the people at our old church, and even towards my closest friends. Lack of fellowship makes room for all sorts of ugliness to creep in, jealousy, comparisons, hurt feelings…you name it. It’s kind of scary if you think about it.
And in the midst of all this, I start having all these doubts…about God, about everything I’d always believed in. Everything seemed to be coming crashing down, nothing seemed certain anymore. I looked at the world around me, I looked at the Bible, and nothing seemed to be jiving with my previous way of thinking. I saw the church with new eyes and I was rather disgusted to be considered “one of them”. Which makes finding a church to go to difficult. I’d be sitting there in a service, with all my doubts and questions and feeling utterly isolated and alone. I would listen to whatever pastor, going on with their sense of certainty and “I have all the answers” and it just left me cold. And I felt like I was surrounded by people who had a certainty about God and faith that I lacked, and that, if I’m being honest-I totally judged them for it. Now, the rare times I’d get together with our closest friends we’d talk and I’d realize I wasn’t alone and I’d feel somewhat better, but those times seemed more and more rare and difficult to capture. I found myself getting more out of a long run on a Sunday morning than a church service. I looked to music, books, people’s blogs to find truth and meaning and reassurance.
I certainly found that, to some extent, but there was also something lacking, that community I think we all need and want. And I was still–AM still–bitter and angry at the people who I see as facilitators of my church family falling apart.
And that’s where I found myself this morning as we started singing that song, that song that reminded me of Emmaus. I was feeling mad and sad and still grieving for that loss. I think one of the reasons I was so hell-bent on getting out of Wyoming was because I knew that my “community” there was largely gone and I wanted to be the one to leave, not to be the one left. You know, break up with them before they break up with you. And that is a yucky, bad, bad feeling to have.
And then I started thinking more–would I have had this crisis of faith if things had remained the same at Emmaus? It’s possible, of course, but I think it would’ve been easier if I’d felt like I had more of a cushion of people to fall back on, to help me through my wrestling. I mean, my friends were there but they also weren’t, if that makes any sense. I needed more consistency than I had, I think. And I think feeling adrift in a church community sense made my questions and doubts feel that much more agonizing without a good place to hash them out.
But as I sat there in church this morning, listening to Mike preach, I realized that a few things have happened since we’ve moved to Maryland. First–we’ve gone to church every week. That hasn’t happened in a few years. Second–I haven’t hated it. There are definitely weeks when I’m not entirely there, most of the time I don’t feel like singing, and sometimes those voices pop up with the cynicism, there in the back of my head. But more often than not I find myself feeling like I’m at least standing on the doorstep of a warm, welcoming place, rather than looking at it from a far, dark hill feeling cold, lonely and judgmental.
And why is this?? It’s because of the people. Because at this church there’s Chris and Janell, who have listened to lots of my rants and know pretty much exactly where I stand on things and I think they like me anyway and I think they might even be on the same page a lot of times. Because there’s Mike and Marypat, who we’ve known a long time, and I have never once not felt warmly welcomed by them. Because of Uncle Bob and Aunt Nell who, while I may not ever reveal to them the depths of my depravity, always seem happy to see me and are so kind to my family and children. And because of Mike, the pastor, who I only actually met today, and yet he has been kinder to me than some people I’ve known for a very long time, and I’m sure its not true but it certainly feels like he’s speaking directly to me most weeks, because the vast majority of his words are hitting me right where I am right now. Which may be a coincidence, or…
Do you spy it? Do you see God in there? Lurking around there in the background like when you see something in your peripheral vision but you just can’t quite catch it, no matter how fast you whip your head around.
I’m not 100% certain. About anything. But I do believe God is still there, showing me he is still there. Not in big dramatic ways, but in small ways that I actually have to pay attention to notice. That I have to take the focus off myself for a half second to see.
I’m not there yet. Not by a long shot. But its like I can see the first little green shoots on the dead tree branches. I spy.