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Spencer Rendhal: Attending Church At Christmas

Suzanne Spencer Rendahl
The author's daughter did a reading during her church's annual Christmas Pageant in 2015.

A few years ago, I arrived at church on a December Sunday morning to find a substitute pastor who nervously smiled and introduced herself. She invited the kids to the front before sending them to church school, and as the regular copastors normally would, asked them a few seemingly softball questions. “What is Christmas?” she asked.

A third-grader said into the microphone that it’s the birthday of Jesus. The substitute pastor nodded her head.

Then, “Why do we celebrate Christmas?” she asked.

My six-year-old son’s hand shot up.

He said into the microphone: “Because we don’t know if God is a real person, but we know that Jesus was a real person.”

The pastor smiled again but didn’t reply. I sat back in the pew and beamed with joy.

As most people in my small town know, religion is something I avoid. But in the past decade, as my kids have expressed an interest in religion, I’ve had to straddle the world of my own beliefs while respecting theirs.

My kids love seeing their friends in church and have a bond with their pastors. They like making cards during Sunday school for a neighbor undergoing chemotherapy and volunteering in the local soup kitchen. I can’t argue that this is bad, so when my husband can’t take them to church, I do.

But I teach them that one of the most courageous acts of humility is to say “We don’t know.”

We can’t empirically know if a concept of God is real, any more than we can know if the gods the ancient Greeks worshiped were real. But we can use history and archeology to guide discussions and ground aspects of religion in fact.

Just as I try to teach my kids to understand the importance of peer-reviewed science in debates about evolution and climate change, I teach them that they can look for outside sources to understand bible passages and ground them in history.

We can share many of the same goals and values and still disagree on spiritual beliefs. And together we can celebrate the story of a family being offered shelter in a foreign land.

Suzanne Spencer Rendahl is a former journalist whose work has appeared in publications including the Boston Globe. She lives with her husband and two children in Plainfield, NH.
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