Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Grace, Revisited

Why do we light two candles?
The first candle reminds us of the light of hope that the prophets had in their
expectation of a Messiah. The second candle reminds us of the dark night. when Joseph and Mary found light and warmth in the stable. 

From our church's advent candle reading, week 2
And this is why I tend to prefer Thanksgiving over Christmas.

There we were, 10 minutes before leaving the house on Sunday morning, and I was screaming. You could say I was screaming because Anna had goofed off in the shower for 10 extra minutes, ignoring my plea to get out, or Ethan didn't have his shoes on, or because there were too many baskets of laundry sitting waiting to be put away, but really I was screaming because I didn't want to mess up the advent candle reading.

So here's the scoop: Every year on each Sunday of Advent our church invites a family to walk down the aisle at the beginning of service, light the appropriate candle, say a few words about why we light the candles this time of year, read a scripture, and invite everyone to sing a Christmas carol. We did it once when Anna was about 4 and Ethan was a baby. We hadn't done it since because:

- As Ethan grew older and got his diagnosis, I grew increasingly nervous about how he'd act up there doing something so completely out of the norm.
- One of my friends had a bad experience that involved her kids running around, despite her best efforts, and I just had a sinking feeling that would be us.

For two years I convinced Dan we should politely decline, but this time around he really wanted us to light the candle (he's much more of a lover of tradition than I am). And deep down, I knew Ethan could probably handle it. I guess the question I should have asked was, would I?

I figured we needed to have a game plan: namely, having the kids (Ethan in particular) watch the family lighting the week 1 advent candle the Sunday before so they'd know what was coming the next Sunday. That would have worked great, except both kids came down with strep throat that weekend and we all missed church. Drat. I went searching for YouTube videos and only found grainy images of families doing things that sounded nothing like our advent reading, in churches that looked nothing like our church. Ethan was not impressed and kept asking me to get rid of that and find him his favorite songs.

Then we realized that due to our schedule and Dan needing to work we were actually going to attend our church's 2nd service but do the advent reading for 3rd service. That meant we just had to get there on time (no easy task, it seems sometimes) and we'd be able to watch the 2nd service family do their advent reading, and Ethan would understand what the heck we were talking about, and wouldn't freak out, and I wouldn't do something embarrassing and air-headed.

Hence, the rush to get out of the house Sunday morning. Of course, this day of all days Anna would wake up late and eat breakfast late, and stay in the shower daydreaming. Of course Ethan would not be able to figure out how to button his shirt he never wears. Of course I would lament my lack of cute Christmas-y maternity clothing, bringing on a minor depressive episode, and Anna would announce she had no good tights.

And so there I stood, screaming. Because we all needed to get out of the house to the darned church and do the darned candle reading and sing about peace and love and all of that. Darn it. I literally drove 85 mph down the highway to get there. Yes, officer, I imagined myself saying. I put us at risk so we could watch a family light the advent candle at our church. Don't ask. We hopped out of the car, burst into the foyer, and I heaved a huge sigh of relief to see the 2nd service family just embarking on their walk down the aisle. "See Ethan? Watch. This is what we're going to do next service." I whispered as we stood in the back and watched. Eureka - he got it! We were ready. We could do this. We walked all the way in, everyone started singing "O Little Town of Bethlehem"...

..and then the gnawing feeling began. It chewed at my insides; it whispered all around; it seeped in and snickered that you are a fraud

I knew it, I knew it all even as the morning was unfolding. I knew the irony of freaking out about going to church, about losing it and yelling because we were going to light a candle and talk a little more about the greatest miracle the world has ever seen.

I knew the joke -- that here we were in the season of peace on earth and I couldn't even find peace at breakfast. I knew the joke was on me. I knew, once again, I'd lost any sense of self-control even as I was trying so desperately to teach it to my own kids.

What good is it? I could almost hear the book of James saying. What good is your faith?

My mouth had to choke out the words to sing, because all I could think is that this is what I was demonstrating: that Christmas was about putting on a show, performing tradition without meaning, about stressing to the point of breaking, about doing instead of being.

What good is your faith?

We'd left the Christmas carols behind and started singing a song we've song many times before.

Your love never fails, never gives up, never runs out on me.
Your love never fails, never gives up, never runs out on me.

The words ran over me like water on parched ground that for awhile has nowhere to go. It takes awhile to sink in.

Your love never fails, never gives up, never runs out on me.

And then I saw the man in front of me. He was there with his family, and I'd never seen any of them before. His hair was waves of white and gray, but his face was younger.

We sang, and I watched him wipe his eye with a weathered hand. There were tears there. He leaned forward; shoulders slumped, and his wife took her hand and began rubbing his back in a comforting way, in small circles. 

His moment of weakness, his opening his heart a crack, helped me open mine. The tears he was wiping from his eyes helped my own eyes to open to the truth that we are all failures in our own efforts. Christians are not people who have the answers. We point people to THE answer. It is SO not about us. It is so not about being a good person or steeping ourselves in tradition or following a set of rules...or doing a flawless reading in front of the church...for what? To what end? We are nothing. As the verse says, and the song we used to sing long ago: Lord if you mark our transgressions, who would stand? 

I stood there in all my imperfection, in another failed morning in a string of failed moments and listened as the song ended and someone spoke of letting the love of God flow over us like a river. What good is my faith? I remembered that it's all about God's love. And before we extend it, we have to receive it.

Sometimes that means forgiving yourself. So I looked again at those hands of the stranger in front of me, brushing away tears, and I did.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Amen. AMEN!
So much truth. Thank you for this, Deb.
We sing the song "Your love never fails" in our church too, and I can never hear it/know it enough.