One of my earliest memories of church as a child was of Advent candles. I don’t really have an image in my head, but rather the calm cadence of my mother’s voice, and the smell of sulfur after a match struck. It’s a very sense-based memory, but it is a memory of watching a candle being lit, and the ritual and purpose for that candle.
Over the past few years, I have had a lot of opportunities to research and explore children’s spirituality. I’ve taught Godly Play, researched theology of childhood, and started down the long path of developing a young ministry for a congregation. Often, this means creating a space for and attitude of worship for young people.
One thing sticks out as a common denominator: Fire.
In the Godly Play classroom, the child who tried his very best to disrupt everyone with fart noises and burps became suddenly deeply and silently invested, possessing a completely worshipful stature, when lighting the candles used for the baptismal story.
The congregation I now work for has a tradition of inviting families to ritually light the Advent candles at the beginning of the service. Kids who are usually totally uninvested in church become thoroughly dedicated to the purposeful and serious activity of lighting the candles.
When modeled well by adults, fire seems to draw young people in and create an attitude of worship like nothing else.
There are a few reasons why I think this is so:
1. Fire is no joke.
Handling candles requires adult-like responsibility, and children take this very seriously. They understand that to handle fire is to be trusted, and they step up accordingly. For teenagers, this is also important: fire is never kitschy or corny or dumb. Fire is powerful.
2. Candle lighting levels the playing field.
Adults and children alike can participate in the ritual of lighting a candle. It doesn’t require any extra intelligence, age, or training. An adult who does it with reverence automatically teaches a child how to do the same.
3. Fire is a wordless window onto the divine.
Fire doesn’t have words. Fire isn’t a boring sermon, nor is it a confusing wordy prayer. Fire just is, and it is beautifully and intensely connected to the human’s experience of God. Kids know this, and they have an innate respect and connection to it. Kids can experience the power and wonder and awe of God without having to understand it with language. This is hugely important for children, especially, who have an inherent spirituality but are still learning how to manipulate religious language in order to express it. When worship and religion are only “explained” to them with words, they start to believe that religion is only for adults who can talk articulately. But, when religion and spirituality are expressed through rituals–especially wordless ones like the lighting of a candle–then they can relate.
I wonder if, like me, one of your earliest memories of religion happens to be of fire. I wonder how that memory facilitated your growth–or lack there of–in your religious community. I wonder if you now allow children to light candles in your church, or if there are moments for candle lighting at all.