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With it being a new year, I’ve been doing a fair amount of reflection recently – looking back at end/beginning-of-year posts, old resolutions, taking stock, that sort of thing. A recurring resolution or goal through the years has been to “write more.” I have done that and aim to continue doing so, which is part of what’s inspiring this – one of my most passionate writing subjects is faith. I’ve written about my faith here countless times – and often woven in stories related to my church. But I have an embarrassing confession to make about another resolution I’ve made several times over the years and yet, have stuck with only to varying degrees: regular church attendance. I haven’t been going to church lately…and I don’t really know why.

It isn’t that my faith has wavered. I remain firm in my belief in and gratitude for Jesus Christ as my Savior. But even as I write this, I’m forced to acknowledge that I’ve been lukewarm — at best. I profess to be a believer but I’m not really walking the walk. And it feels like getting to the why is important. So, please bear with me as I write through this.

I’ve gone to the same church (on and off, obviously) for roughly the past 15 years. Initially in person, first at one campus, then at another, closer to where I live now, then increasingly online because the technology is available and makes it so convenient. And that’s probably a key right there – the true test of it shouldn’t be convenience. Church attendance should be a deliberate action – not just something that fits nicely into one’s schedule.

I will say that there’s an element of comfort at play here – not just the “I can roll out of bed, fix some coffee, and watch in my PJs,” sort, though, truth be told, that’s an appealing aspect of being able to “attend” online services. But there’s also the comfort of not self-consciously walking into services and sitting solo, attempting to make pleasant small talk with other congregants I don’t really know. I’ve attended numerous classes and church events over the years, but I’ve never really become part of the church family. It isn’t that most of those I’ve met aren’t warm or friendly — they have been. But there’s remained an arm’s length between us. On some level, I’ve clearly preferred it that way.

So, I retreated to the online safety zone. Still, most Sunday mornings, at 9:00 am, I’d “tune in,” and the regular online attendance kept me relatively engaged and inspired. Yet, sometime last summer, I stepped away from even that, and I haven’t returned. It’s true that my work schedule has changed and I now am typically “on the clock,” during the Sunday morning service. But that wouldn’t necessarily prevent me from watching/listening to the service – and even if it did, there are several other services. Point being: I could still make it work if I were so inclined.

It’s been tugging at my sleeve for months and I’ve been absent-mindedly shooing it away. I’m busy. I have a lot going on. I’ll get back to it. But I didn’t. For the first time in years, I didn’t even make time for the Christmas Eve service – the one that almost always moves me beyond words.

The tugging became more insistent and still, I nudged it away. Enter Hallmark. Well, actually, Great American Family. But it begins with Hallmark.

Up until a year ago, I was one of those Hallmark-skeptics. I was vaguely aware of the channel and its content but had little appetite for what I perceived as its cheesy, formulaic, saccharine offerings. My channel of choice was ION: Bring on the gritty crime dramas – they formed the background soundtrack to my everyday home life for years.

When my friend and RedState colleague Kira Davis started up a Hallmark-Christmas-movie-centric podcast with another mutual friend, Amelia Hamilton, in late 2020, I listened – not because I was a fan of the network or its notorious Christmas fare, but because they’re my friends and I love listening to Kira expound on just about anything, so why not?

I thoroughly enjoyed their regular reviews and analyses of the seemingly endless supply of Hallmark movies, without having ever watched one myself. And then…it happened. As they chatted up the newest Lacey Chabert offering late last fall, “Christmas at Castle Hart,” I decided to tune in. And, to my surprise, I really enjoyed it. Yes, it was all the things Hallmark naysayers claim. And it was delicious.

So, I watched another, and then another, and before long, I was a full-on Hallmark devotee. I won’t belabor it here because it’s beside the point. But it has become my refuge – a comfy, cozy space to escape some of the world’s nastiness — and I make no apology for it.

What does it have to do with church? I’m getting there, I promise. Hallmark has always maintained a cordial relationship with faith in general, Christianity in particular. It’s a subtle overlay, but a pleasant one. Candace Cameron Bure has been a Hallmark mainstay for years. Recently, she made some waves with her departure from the network for Great American Family (a/k/a GAC Family), stating her preference for the more traditional values embraced by GAF, and telling the Wall Street Journal:

“My heart wants to tell stories that have more meaning and purpose and depth behind them. I knew that the people behind Great American Family were Christians that love the Lord and wanted to promote faith programming and good family entertainment. I think that Great American Family will keep traditional marriage at the core.”

I enjoy the work of “CCB,” but wasn’t necessarily feeling compelled to follow her over to the new channel. That was…until it got to the point where most of the options on Hallmark (and its sister network, Hallmark Movies and Mysteries) were ones I’d already seen (at least once). I tentatively flipped the channel to GAF a week or so ago and now alternate between the three channels to obtain a satisfactory variety of sickly sweet formulaic fare.

GAF is now featuring Bure’s latest movie: “A Christmas…Present.” It seemed worth a watch, particularly given that Marc Blucas, a favorite since his days as Riley Finn on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” is the male lead. I recorded it sometime last week and finally sat down to watch it Saturday. In it, CCB plays “Maggie,” a busy wife and mother — a Chicago real estate agent married to lawyer Eric (Blucas), with two teenage kids and over-scheduled lives. She has lists of To Dos and a jam-packed, color-coded wall calendar, and mounting frustration over the fact that, despite her well-intentioned efforts to maintain a healthy, happy, perfect home life for her family, they seem to be increasingly disconnected. They’re too busy for this event and that Christmas activity and spending time with family. And they’re too busy for church.

Maggie’s brother Paul is recently widowed and raising a young daughter, Ashley, on his own in Ohio. Maggie and Paul haven’t been particularly close of late either and at first, when Eric suggests she reach out to Paul about Christmas, she resists. Eventually, she has a change of heart and decides her family will travel to Ohio to spend the Christmas holidays with her brother and niece. Maggie sets about over-scheduling and planning a busy Christmas itinerary for the whole family with an aim toward cheering up Paul and Ashley. All the while, Paul reassures her they’re doing okay, as they are strong in their faith and involved in their church and don’t necessarily need to be entertained and distracted but are content to spend time with one another enjoying their treasured traditions. Maggie appreciates the strength of Paul’s faith but acknowledges hers is wavering.

While Maggie scrambles to make sure the family is busy with their Christmas activities, they keep failing to connect in the way she hopes and there’s increasing tension between her and Eric. They love and support one another but emotionally, they’re ships, passing in the night, drifting further and further apart. The family plans to attend Christmas Eve services at the church where Maggie and Paul grew up and where Paul and Ashley are active members. Maggie declines, feigning an upset stomach, but then realizes the family has left behind a pie they intended to take. She rushes to the church, and initially hands off the pie to a woman going in, turning to leave, but then stopping, arms falling open, and looking up at the church, with the warm, inviting light shining through the windows, as a song (presumably penned for this movie/story) softly plays:

Choir sings, “Let every heart prepare him room,” but all I think about is all I have to do.
It’s Christmastime, but in my mind, I feel a million miles away.
All the family’s here and joy and cheer are in the air, but I can’t seem to find the spirit anywhere.
So busy working…trying to make it perfect.
There’s so much that I’m missing…what if I could do it different?
I want to slow down every second, be fully in the moment.
I want to really see this season with my eyes and heart wide open.
For the first time in a long time, it’s the first thing on my list –
I want to be present…I want to be present this Christmas.

And in that moment, I was convicted. I was meant to see and hear that message. I’m not Maggie, but I’m not terribly unlike her, and her story and the song very much described how I felt this Christmas.

I don’t know exactly why I ghosted church — there’s some digging still to do there. But it’s time to stop being too busy for church and too busy for God. It’s time to be present for them, as well as for my family and loved ones.

I did “attend” church today, though I did so online and while I multi-tasked. I know that doesn’t cut it. As I mentioned, there are multiple services. I’ll be there in person next weekend.