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Like a thread beneath a closed doorway, faith pulled me along a path of unanswered questions throughout my childhood.
My family's assorted Christmas decorations sparked the first big inquiry. The scent of Douglas fir filled the air while we unpacked ornaments in the living room by the tree. My brother retrieved his favorite decoration from a cardboard box. Perched atop a world globe sat a silver biplane flown by none other than Santa. But it was me who always set out our tiny nativity.
It looked like a three-sided horse stall made of brown plastic dusted in gold glitter. The people and animals stood no bigger than the size of my pinky. Each December when I unwrapped the nativity, a feeling of peace and hope swept over me.
My first attempt to push open that doorway to faith came when I asked my mom, "What does the little stall with the people have to do with Christmas?"
"It's just a thing we do," she said. Her nervous response clued me in she did not want to talk about it, or maybe she didn't know either.
The second question arose during summer vacation from school.
"What religion are you?" My nine-year-old friend, Becky, asked me as she glanced over the rim of her glass of Hawaiian punch. Janice crunched into a Snickerdoodle and stared. I looked at the tiled kitchen floor and shuffled my feet not sure what to say.
An uncomfortable silence hung between us while my neighborhood playmates waited. Then I smiled, stood up straight, pulled back my shoulders and pronounced, "I'm Irish."
Janice gave Becky a weird look and stared back at me.
"No," Becky said. "I mean are you Baptist, or Lutheran, or Catholic?"
All words I had never heard in my nine years of living. "I don't know anything about those," I said. "All I know is Mom's Irish and Daddy's French." They gave each other a puzzled look, shrugged, and we ran back outside to play.
What Does it All Mean?
The question gnawed at me all afternoon. What did Becky mean by religion? When I returned home later that day, I asked Mom what my friends meant.
"How rude. Don't those girls have better manners?" she said. "If they ask you again, you tell them you're Episcopalian."
I stumbled over the foreign word trying to repeat it. "What's that?" I asked.
"That's what your dad's family is so you tell them you're Episcopalian," she snapped.
Startled by her response, I grew quiet and thought it best to never bring the subject up again. "Okay," I said, unsure of what I was agreeing to. And the door slammed shut on any further discussion.
My friends didn't ask me any more about religion. And with nowhere to find answers, the questions piled up in my heart.
Fall came and I went back to school, my mind occupied with fractions, world geography, and U.S. history. That is until Halloween arrived.
Dressed like a scarecrow I raced across my friend Lenora's yard and up onto her front porch. The house stood dark. To the left of the door a bowl of apples sat on a table with a note that read: Gone to church. Please help yourself.
I paused for a moment in the glow of a single porch light. Why didn't Lenora and her brothers dress up and trick-or-treat like the rest of the neighborhood kids? Instead, they went to church? I didn't get it. Wasn't church just for weddings and funerals?
Each question that lingered was like another swipe at a cobweb that veiled me from the truth.
The one constant was Christmas, that magical season of flying reindeer, Santa and his elves. Each year, like welcoming an old friend, I reached into the boxes of decorations to reclaim a wad of aged tissue sparkled with gold and unwrapped the nativity. My brother set out his flying Santa. Elves dressed in red and green felt took their usual place as sentries on the console stereo. And alone in the background sat my beloved decoration. However, it just didn't seem to fit with the rest of my family's Christmas theme.
Year after year my heart stirred with more questions about the brown plastic stall that I felt so drawn to and loved so much.
Maybe it was the couple looking at the baby, or maybe it was the animals gathered around them. I didn't know or understand the significance of the manger or the Savior it represented. I only knew how the scene made me feel and because of that I treasured it. The plastic people and animals told a story, one I wanted to know.
The mystery lived tucked away in my heart until a boyfriend invited me to church when I was in high school. I wasn't sure about all the God talk, but my curiosity piqued, I kept going.
When Christmas came, we attended the children's program. I watched while the elementary kids took their places on the stage. The lights dimmed and a spotlight shone on a young couple. As the play continued the children formed the same scene in my nativity. In awe, I leaned forward on my chair and listened to every child's line. It was as if the door flung open and I finally understood.
My stall was a stable, the couple was Mary and Joseph, the shepherds had received a special invitation from heaven's angels to come and worship the new baby. And the baby had a name. JESUS! The Prince of Peace, Emmanuel, God with us.
Now I knew the reason for the peace and hope that washed over my soul each year. God wanted a relationship with me, to be an active part of my life, and He was extending to me a special invitation to be His child forever.
That Christmas I accepted God's invitation. I not only discovered my faith, but years of questions were wiped away, and I finally knew the story behind my treasured Christmas decoration.
A Heart Full of Questions first printed in Chicken Soup for the Soul Finding My Faith 10/2012
© 2011 Kathleen Kohler