I am not a religious person. I do have a spiritual side, and sometimes even envy for the faithful who are in good with JC, but church has never been my thing. Once upon a time my mother signed us up at the local Unitarian church, just to give us a spiritual home, and all I remember is that in Sunday school we talked about politics and watched a (traumatizing) video of a woman giving birth. That was my relationship with religion until mother met the man who is now my stepfather, and I was baptized a Methodist at 17—not because I drank the Kool Aid, but because my stepfather was a Methodist minister and it just seemed appropriate. I wasn’t forced, but I blithely acquiesced. If you were to ask me now, I couldn’t tell you what distinguishes the Methodist doctrine from that of any other Protestant theology.
But the one time of year that I still go to church, and not begrudgingly, is Christmas. I don’t know if it’s a Methodist thing, but the church we now visit, helmed by a reverend our family has known for years, does Christmas right. The service is short, full of uplifting music and carols that are actually kind of fun to sing, the sermon is always poignant, and it ends with the choir members holding candles and surrounding the parishners as the lights dim and everyone sings a very soulful Silent Night. This moment makes my chin quiver every time, in the way that the plastic bag makes the weird kid cry in American Beauty—like my heart is so full it almost doesn’t know what to do. This is when I feel the holiday in the way that it’s meant to be felt, and this is the only time I ever experience something close to divinity.
The Christmas Eve service this year was no different, except that, while I began to zone out on the sign language interpreter’s cool hands and think about how much I want to learn ASL, I heard a few words that snapped my attention back to the sermon. The minister was preaching about failure. As he spoke, he asked us to reflect on our past failures and the ways others have failed us, and he uttered some phrases that tickled my ears, so I grabbed a pen and jotted a few of them down.
This is how I summed up his message: The point of failure is to fill you with grace toward others. If you are able to let it do that, no pain in your life will be wasted.
We’ve all been told to “learn from our mistakes,” and no one really wants to hear that—what we want it is for someone to hand us a giant remote so we can rewind time and just not make them. But I liked this spin on that old, tired adage: to remember our own shortcomings and weak moments when we interact with those around us, so that we can remain graceful toward them as they falter in their own choices. As a judgmental person who places high expectations on herself and thus even higher ones on others, it was a tiny moment of catharsis. (Which, of course, was reinforced by its lovely soundtrack and beautiful translation into sign language.)
According to my minister stepfather, and Oprah, the whole point of being alive is to evolve into the complete person you were intended to be. I may not subscribe to the New Testament, but I do subscribe to that. And I do put a fair amount of elbow grease into my own evolution.
So, Dear Reader, to come to the point of this yuletide post, I present you with my first resolution of the New Year: in 2012, I will do my best to suspend judgment in my relationships, even those with strangers who commit small, passing infractions, out of respect for the ghosts of my own bad decisions.
If I can do that, maybe I can slowly replace what was once judgment with grace. But I’ll save that step for 2013.