I remember the night it all started for me. It was Christmas Eve and my mom told me to put on nice clothes. We were going to go to church, she said. I was 5 years old and I was pretty outraged. Loving parents, I felt certain, would be tucking their children into bed so Santa Claus could get on with piling up presents! Since it was not Sunday, I reasoned, going to church just was not fair. I made my opinion known, repeatedly. Nobody listened. So, I determined to be as grumpy as humanly possible for someone three feet tall to be. They could make me go to church, but they sure could not make me like it.
I had never arrived at church after dark. The sanctuary looked different with colored light pouring out through stained glass windows that reflected off the snow. Everything sparkled. Then, the sound of the organ playing carols reached me as I approached the door. In spite of myself, my mood began to change.
An usher offered worship bulletins. I had always claimed the right to have my own bulletin, even before I could read. So, I stood with my hand out and waited until the usher complied with my request. There was a second usher just beyond the first, and this one was handing out candles. Ho, ho, ho! Things were really beginning to look up. The possibility of a hand-held flame really “fires” the imagination of most boys. My mother started to protest, but my Dad gave her a nod, so I got my very own candle, too! For some reason, Dad stayed close for the rest of the evening.
The worship service began. The carols were familiar. We sang “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Away in a Manger.” I held my own hymnal and sang along as though I was reading the verses. Even the scripture from the gospel of Luke was familiar: “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. In that region, there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.’”
I sat without fidgeting, eyes glued to the pastor as he spoke about God’s Gift to the world, which brought light into our darkness. Suddenly, the lights were dimmed, and the pastor held up a lighted candle. I remembered my own candle that I was clutching in my left hand. My bulletin was in my right hand. Were we going to use one to light the other? That would certainly bring light into our darkness!
Fortunately, my pyromaniac instincts were anticipated and thwarted. We were instructed to empty our hands of everything but our candles before we stood to sing “Silent Night.” We were told that Jesus, the Light of the world, was born for us, and that now we were to share His light with the world. I got it. I really got it! I understood that the light shining from the pastor’s candle was supposed to represent God’s Gift to the world. I understood that the light that was moving from candle to candle, down one row after another, represented that gift being passed to each of us in turn. I was in awe. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. As the light arrived at our pew, I saw my mom’s eyes send one more plea to my dad, but the candle remained in my possession. I held it carefully as my dad’s candle illuminated mine. I was transfixed. In my 5-year-old mind, I had received God’s gift. I was holding the Light of the world and it was shining for all to see! Solemnly, carefully, I shared it with the person next to me. As “Silent Night” ended, the pastor continued to talk about God’s light. He said, “We need to let our light shine. We need to make sure that our light does not go out. The world needs the light, and we are the light-bearers. Merry Christmas!”
The congregation began singing “Joy to the World,” and we started filing to the exit. The same ushers were at the door. This time, they were tending buckets. People ahead of me were blowing out their candles and dropping them inside. I was completely nonplussed. The pastor had just told us to make sure our light did not go out. Was I the only one who was paying attention? The usher reached for my candle. I just glared at him and walked past, shielding the tiny flame as I stepped out into the darkness. I sheltered that candle all the way to the car. As I started to get in with the “light of the world” still firmly clenched in my little fist, my mom gave me a quick lesson in literal versus metaphorical, and then exerted some decisive parental authority. The flame was extinguished.
From that evening on, I never looked at church, or Christmas, the same way. “Holy” became more than a word to me. “Holy” became an experience that included me, an experience that gave me a sense of meaning and purpose. I may have been only 5 years old, but that was one of the most important, serious and life-giving lessons I have ever learned.
Frisco is a community full of very intentional parents. We are intentional about exposing our children to specific influences to enhance their development. We want them to have good schools and good teachers. We want them to have good athletic opportunities with good coaches. We provide music and dance lessons and club opportunities. We teach children to invest in their community. We give them work to do, like take out the trash, finish homework, clean their room and feed the dog. We are equipping them, we hope, to work for a living someday. Parents bear great responsibility for ensuring that their children have opportunities to develop, and Frisco parents take that responsibility seriously. As we enter the holiday season, let me invite you to add something else to the list of positive “exposures” you are seeking on your children’s behalf: holiness.
Like every other area of development, your efforts to shape your child’s spiritual development will not always be appreciated. The impact will not always be immediate, but it is up to parents to help children experience gratitude, not just gluttony, at Thanksgiving. It is up to parents to help children understand the blessing of giving, not just receiving, at Christmas. It is up to us as parents to highlight the “holy” aspect of the holidays, or our children, like our culture at large, are likely to miss the point.
Most churches have a series of special worship opportunities during the holiday season. Many even have special opportunities to serve the community through caroling, toy drives, food ministries and so on. Many of these services and experiences are geared to include and bless children, but children will only get to experience and be blessed if parents are intentional about that exposure.
If you do not have a church home, we would love for you to come worship with us at First Frisco United Methodist Church or any of the other fine churches in our community, throughout the holidays and beyond. May you and yours experience the love, joy and peace of God’s self-giving through Jesus Christ this Christmas. Joy to the world!