The glow of candlelight, the melody of an ancient hymn, the aroma of freshly cut evergreens being hung in the sanctuary…what calls you to reconnect with your faith? While the business world would like us to believe Black Friday is a holiday, many of us remember far deeper connections to special winter days. Perhaps your family takes prayers of Thanksgiving seriously. Maybe time is set aside to observe Hanukkah with loved ones. Or you look beyond Santa Claus to teach your children what you consider the true meaning of Christmas.
Acclaimed author and Christian speaker Matthew Sleeth writes in his new book 24/6 about a human longing that he suggests can be filled if we take time to observe the sabbath. His words also seem applicable to setting aside time in our busy lives for quiet holidays. Writes Sleeth, “Today’s generation wanders like Hebrews in the desert. We want to go back in time, but we can’t. Most of the fields behind our childhood homes have been planted with roads and strip malls. Because we don’t know how to go forward, we long to go back. We are a hydroponic society, fed by the drop irrigation of electronic social networks. These networks are not all bad. They keep us in touch with family and friends no matter where we are on the globe. But there is nothing like being with the ones you love in physical time and space.” Sleeth’s words remind me of long drives home for Christmas, just in time to attend a candlelight church service with my mother and other relatives. They remind me that when I light a candle in church these days, I remember not only the light of Christ, but all of those saints who’ve passed on.
I asked minister Jake Bohstedt Morrill of Oak Ridge Unitarian Universalist Church why we carry on these traditions as families and faith communities, even though we don’t all observe the sabbath on a regular basis. Morrill explained more about our need to take part, “I believe we are the Storytelling Species, who understand ourselves not only through the stories of our individual journeys, but also through our participation in larger stories–whether of evolution, of American history, of Christian practice, or otherwise. Returning to these stories lets us tell them to the next generation, re-tell them to each other, and meditate on our creatively evolving relationship to them. In a year of abundance, the practice of gathering to give thanks might seem right in line with what we are experiencing; but the next year, if things are not going as well, to sit down and give thanks might give some sense of continuity, reassurance, and meaning. I believe it’s not the rote repetition of tradition, but the mindful engagement with tradition that brings us to life.”
Faith communities offer numerous ways to connect during the winter holidays, from Thanksgiving to New Year’s and beyond. What of the sense of obligation to attend and participate, to appease and meet expectations? Anyone who’s lost a loved one understands that a holiday celebration no longer feels the same; perhaps they need a break from tradition. Families with different faith heritages might search for agreement on how they’ll celebrate with young children. Any of us can feel overscheduled if we try to attend every event.
I asked Rev. Morrill for advice on balancing different expectations and time commitments in the faith community. He responded with words of compassionate pragmatism, “In the midst of an anxious society, when external pressures to consume and keep busy leave us disconnected, ungrounded, and alienated from our intentions, what is most important is that we are fiercely committed to maintaining whatever practice helps us occupy a habit of compassion, curiosity, and playfulness. Families can decide for themselves how to honor their roots and to balance their needs for community and for nesting. But what’s most important is that, whatever they decide, it is done with some spaciousness, ease, and a sense of options. Anyone saying, ‘We HAVE to do this’ or ‘We MUST do that’ is someone who is not experiencing a sense of freedom or agency, and someone who could probably use some time to calm down a little, and re-fuel the tank, before being able to make a wise choice.”
Whether you light candles and sing carols, pray or read or dance or do nothing at all…may you find meaning in your faith connections to nurture your soul.