Glass shot across the floor—second ornament down. We needed a new game plan. It was December 1st and the first year that my four year old was decorating the tree with us—and she wanted every ornament she hung to be placed front and center. I was handing her ornaments one would ordinarily like to have placed front and center–until I realized that I was dooming some of the prettiest glass balls to destruction the moment that they left my hand for hers. I reached for another box and sorted through ornaments to find ones she could safely hang. Winnie the Pooh from 1993. Garfield from 1994. Barbie from 1992. A Popsicle-stick picture frame with my three-year-old mug shot from 1989. A reindeer made out of a clothespin. A crayon-marked manger cut out of paper and strung with a pipe cleaner—the ornament she made at church last year. Plastic cheerleaders, ballerinas, cellos—all the ornaments commemorating my husband’s and my childhoods—these were the ones once restricted to the back of the tree. This year they would hang front and center. I would not break her heart; I could not restrict her to hang ornaments where they would only face a wall. So we decorated our tree as a family, and my one-year-old rearranged as she saw fit. I don’t think we really ended up with any ornaments in the back, because my daughter wouldn’t have it—they all had to be included, had to be visible.
I laughed as I handed my daughter another ornament with my own picture in it as a preschooler—truly a face only a mother could love, and I think even my husband agrees. But on the tree it went, because she wanted more ornaments to hang, and it couldn’t be broken in a fall. And I realized as I watched her hang it that this is my favorite tree ever, because it’s full of stories, not glass balls. I can tell you the story about most of the ornaments on that tree—for each one I remember who gave it to me or where I was when I bought it. I remember the reason I selected it or the aspect of my life that it represents. I remember the glue on my fingers as I crafted it in Sunday School, and I remember wanting it in a highly visible position on the tree, just as my daughter does. This tree proudly holds and tells my stories.
I’m staying with my sister and brother-in-law right now a few hours from home. I had to take a certification type of exam for work on the 5th, and I chose to take it in her city so I could stay the weekend and celebrate our birthday together—something we always did growing up but haven’t been able to do since I started my job a few years ago. We’re also taking the time away from my kids to build a dollhouse for my daughter and start (and hopefully finish) the Christmas shopping that we weren’t able to do online. My sister is my best friend after my husband, and she has so patiently taken the back-seat for several years now because of my job. I owe her this, and I love being here. Her house is perfect. She’s in a different place in life than I am. She shops at high-end furniture stores; I shop on Main Streets of small towns and at garage sales. And her tree—oh, it’s beautiful. Every ornament is part of a theme, perfectly placed in what almost looks like a formation with the other ornaments. Every ornament is one of a set of six. Every ornament coordinates with her living room decor. Every ornament is worthy of a front and center position—but not one of them tells a story. My ornaments wouldn’t fit in here. It makes me a little homesick.
It’s funny how my grown-up Christmas tree looks more like my childhood one than ever. It’s funny how the tree itself tells my story. “What’s your tree’s theme?” My friends ask. “Stories,” I say. Almost every ornament has one. My tree doesn’t revolve around a real theme, and it doesn’t have to.
My life doesn’t revolve around a theme, and it doesn’t have to.
Themed trees remind me a little of my former dogmatic attitude. Every idea that came into my head was filtered through my beliefs and tossed out if it didn’t fit in with what was already there—like a pink ballerina ornament attempting to hang among my sister’s green glass balls. Every story, every testimony of another person that didn’t point to the God I believed in was pushed to the back like an ornament I would rather others not see. You’re wearing jeans to church? Hopefully you’ll sit in the balcony. You’re pregnant at 16? Surely you’re not going on the youth ministry hurricane relief trip. You speak in tongues? It’s probably best not to do that here. You don’t believe in a literal hell? We can’t let you teach Sunday School.
That’s the church and the family I grew up in, and I am also guilty of thinking some of the things I wrote. Sadly, I’ve noticed some of the same things in my current church. Someone doesn’t believe that Jesus is the Son of God? They’re not worth talking to. You’re having doubts about your belief in God? Stop messing with eternity—I’m afraid that if you died today, you would go to hell. The first was said in front of me by someone who didn’t know I was doubting. The second was said directly to me by someone who knows where I stand. I don’t belong here. I’m out of place. I’m a back-ornament at least—and maybe off the tree altogether. So then there’s the question I often hear—Without Christ, what will you build your life around?
What will I build my life around? What will be my theme? How did I lose my theme to begin with?—it was so well-constructed, so fitting with my environment, so complete. I lost it as I replaced one piece at a time. I listened to others’ stories, and I eventually placed them in an area of high-visibility in my heart. I listened to my husband’s doubt about the reliability of scripture. I listened to my Hindu friend tell me about her own idea of God and of its influence on her life. I listened to lifelong atheists tell me what brings purpose and meaning to their lives. I cherish these people, and I value their stories. They helped me to overcome an over-dependence on a theme I was emotionally bound to, and I discovered my own doubts and false beliefs with time. My whole life was decorated with fragile glass.
For many of you, the faith I left is your theme. For some of you, it’s stronger than glass and won’t fall or shatter no matter how hard you are shaken. Honestly, I thought my faith was that strong. If that is true of your faith, I am happy for you and value your story too. I will, however, urge you to let your understanding be questioned. Let your beliefs be shaken. Anything that falls so easily was likely not worth holding onto anyway. Let whatever remains become your theme—a loose theme that allows for new additions and subtractions when necessary and won’t shatter under light pressure.
My life doesn’t have a unifying theme right now, and I’m okay with that. If you make me pick one, I’ll tell you my Christmas tree theme—stories. I love to hear them, and I love their tellers. I crave the personality and the diversity they bring to my life—my world is so much bigger and more colorful now. I try my best to hear and learn from them all—not just the ones that fit with what I know or what I’ve always believed. And I value them by giving them a prominent place in my heart—not in the back where they are concealed in shadows. In doing so, I’m loving others more than I’ve ever loved—more than I ever did when I had that theme. Like my grown-up Christmas tree, my grown-up life looks more like something out of my childhood than ever. I’m inquisitive about others, I’m more pliable, and I love fearlessly.
We cleaned up the mess from shattered glass balls, but we’ll probably still step on jagged pieces of them from time to time. Sometimes it’ll hurt, and sometimes we’ll bleed. But I’m glad those ornaments are gone—they’re too fragile if not placed just right, and they sometimes hurt when they break. Most importantly, they are produced for the masses and fail to tell my story. Stories are the closest thing I have to a theme for my tree and my life, and your stories are welcome here too—whether your story is of a life without the faith I rejected or a story that has derived its meaning from that same faith. You all have a place in the front—let the glass ornaments fall.
(Image is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and is linked to the source.)