From first grade through fourth grade I went to a little private Catholic school, although my parents are not Catholic. For most of my life I was raised in the Episcopal church – baptized Episcopalian, confirmed Episcopalian – whatever all that really means. In college I started going to Baptist churches because that was what my boyfriend, his family and his friends did and eventually we were married. Five years later we were divorced. I never went back to the Baptist church. While I was single again, I went back to the Episcopal church. However, once DW and I got married we joined a Lutheran church and my children went to Lutheran private school – for a while. As of late, I have been mostly to Presbyterian churches because they keep asking me to come play my oboe for service.
During the holiday season it seems important to go to church for some reason. Even though, over the last two years we have hardly been to church and most of our family here rarely goes to church. Yet, on Christmas Eve we pack up the kids and fill a pew.
It’s clear from my religious road map that I am not committed to any particular denomination. In fact, there are days that I’m not even sure which religion I am committed to. I’ve also come to the conclusion that all denominations have rituals – not wearing robes is just as much a ritual as wearing robes. Singing praise music is no more or less spiritual than singing hymns. I’m quite sure that every composer felt divinely inspired. And I don’t know why it matters what building people worship or even what name they call their creator. All I do know is that my heart tells me there is something or someone bigger than me. I believe in Heaven and in Hell, but conflictingly I also carry a notion of Universal Salvation because it is beyond my understanding how an unconditional love could have even the slightest condition of needing someone “to believe”. After all, I love my children whether they love me back or not – it just makes it easier to like them knowing they love me too. I have no desire to raise children who love “the church” but rather raise adults that love and respect others unconditionally and have a heart to serve. All for no other reason than it is the right thing to do.
For years I have attended non-traditional family services on Christmas Eve afternoons, services filled with pageants, story-telling and praise music. Services chosen by DW’s family, some more inspirational than others. Yet, even though I have no particular loyalty, those services have never felt like “church” to me, and I always made late night treks to the other side of town to attend the candle-light service at my parent’s traditional Episcopal church.
Two years ago my parents moved from Texas to Virginia and I didn’t go to the candle-light service. It was an unfinished feeling when I went to bed. Last year, DW and I tried a little country church down the road. It was a sweet service, voices floating above flickering light as we sang Silent Night. But it still felt uncomfortable, almost like I was imposing on these people’s Christmas Eve service.
This year, I decided to make the trek to the other side of town, back to my parent’s church. DW came with me again. I was excited to hear the 30 minute prelude at 10:30 and then settle-in to the 11 o’clock service that I had grown up with for years. But when we got there at 10:10 it was clear that for the first time in years the service had started earlier. The prelude had been at 9:30. Church started at 10:00.
“You still want to go in?” asked DW tiredly.
I mulled it over as he looked for a parking slot, “Yeah, we might as well since we are here.”
The hard, chocolate-brown stained wood pews felt comfortable, familiar, as we slipped into the back of the church. Solid stone tiles carried the pastor’s voice high into the vaulted ceilings as shadows danced across faces, mimicking the shivering flames from candles decorating the ends of each pew. Stained glass windows flanked both sides of the church, darkened by the cold winter night. My body relaxed as we sang old Christmas hymns in the semi-darkness.
It felt like Christmas Eve. It felt like my childhood and it felt peaceful. I don’t know if what I was experiencing was the presence of God, or just amazingly strong nostalgia. Or perhaps these traditions have been so ingrained in me that nothing else connects in quite the same way. Regardless, I couldn’t help but choke back a few tears as I approached the communion altar. With hands cupped in front of me, body kneeling, my inner voice just kept saying “thank you”.