Browsed by
Author: Amelia Richardson Dress

Spirituality and food across religious traditions

Spirituality and food across religious traditions

One of the shifts I’ve been making recently is to take seriously the role that food plays in my spiritual life. In the past, I’ve thought of the connection between meals and spiritual development primarily as one of convenience. Food brings people together. Community is important for spiritual development. Rituals concerning food and eating can be a powerful way to deepen spirituality. This is why one of the family rituals I’m a stickler about is prayer before eating. I see it as an opportunity to practice gratitude as a family.

When I started researching the connection between food and spirituality, that’s primarily what I thought I’d find: meals provide a means of practicing spirituality, not because eating is innately a spiritual act but because it brings people together. However, I soon realized that many traditions see a deep connection between food and the spirit. (I mentioned last week that Christianity is an outlier in not having “rules” about what people eat. This appears to crop up in a number of ways, including that outside of communion, we just don’t have a lot of teaching on the interplay between food and the spiritual life. I’m not sure yet if this is more because of our historical teachings or if it’s a function of modern culture, where many of us are pretty separated from our food sources. Thoughts?)

In Hinduism, for example, food is understand to affect the body, mind and soul. There are 3 categories of food with corresponding affects on the spirit/mind.

  • Tamasic food: overripe, spoiled, stale or processed, which leads to dullness, heaviness, sluggishness and lethargy.
  • Rajasic food: spicy, pungent, hot or stimulating, and is related to overactivity, agitation and overstimulation.
  • Sattvic foods:  pure, fresh and light, and leave us feeling refreshed, clear and alert.

Now, at a cursory glance, this list seems like pretty standard health advice. We all know that processed food isn’t good for us–eating “whole foods,” “slow foods” or “being a locavore” has become mainstream advice for just this reason. Similarly, I know first hand that I feel better if I have a veggie-laden meal. However, there’s nuance in these levels that illustrates a deeper sense of connection between mind and body. Remember, these food types are understood to affect our spirit as well as just our body.

Nutritionist Yaakov Shmuel Levinson explores a similar idea drawing from Kabbalistic interpretation. He notes:

The body is nourished by the physical aspects, or nutrients, contained in the foods we eat; the soul is nourished by the spiritual power, or sparks of holiness, which enliven the physical substance of all matter, including food. Therefore, body and soul are united in the act of eating.

In Christianity, there are some similarities here to communion (or eucharist), which many traditions understand as food that feeds both the body and the soul. While teachings around this vary based on denominations, many Christians hold the view that the bread and wine of communion literally feeds the spirit.

Food, then, becomes a very real way on nourishing the soul, not just the body. From this standpoint, we’d be wise to pay attention to both what and how we eat. What reverence might we bring to our meals if we believed we were nourishing our deepest inner selves? How would we better appreciate our food if we believed it was imbued by a divine spark?

Even those who find themselves challenged to accept this viewpoint might find some wisdom here. Eating lunch while hunched over our desk and answering emails or slamming coffee to get through a busy morning doesn’t suddenly seems wasteful. These common practices (I’m guilty of both, regularly) don’t allow us to fully nourish either the body or the soul. We miss out on the sights, smells and sounds of eating–all of which are bodily sensations that can increase our enjoyment. We miss, too, any opportunity to ponder the enormity of life and sacrifice that’s present in all of our food choices, whether animal or plant based. On the other hand, mindful eating provides multiple opportunities each day to experience wonder, gratitude and connection to the earth and life.

The good news is it doesn’t take much to develop a practice that regains these spiritual virtues. Food based meditations are plentiful. Like this video from the University of New Hampshire or this one, which promises to help ease cravings. Personally, though, I like Christopher Willard’s advice on 6 Ways to Practice Mindful Eating: Informal mindfulness practices for those of us who don’t have five minutes to contemplate a raisin. (How can you go wrong with a title like that?) And true enough, we can enrich our spirituality simply by adopting practices like “considering the life cycle of food” or “when eating, just eat.”

I’m reminded, too, that when we’re looking to deepen our spiritual life, we’re always wise to start where we are. Personally, a resolution to eat every meal with mindfulness is a non-starter. Sometimes I’m just lucky to eat. A better goal for me is probably to eat mindfully 50% of the time, or to avoid snacking (because it lends itself to mindlessness), or to eat whole foods, which make it easier for me to appreciate the sun, rain and labor that went into my food.   

As  Mary DeTurris Poust says in Cravings: A Catholic Wrestles with Food, Self-Image, and God:

Even if you can’t be totally mindful at every meal, if you can say a blessing, silently if necessary, or offer up a prayer for someone, something beyond yourself and your food, the prayer helps to transform eating into something that affects not only our hunger at that moment but the greater world.

Food and Our Spirit: 3 Reasons to Eat Mindfully

Food and Our Spirit: 3 Reasons to Eat Mindfully

When I first started thinking about spirituality and food, I was originally thinking about why so many of our rituals involve eating, and I was pretty sure it was mainly because it was convenient. After all, we eat regularly so why not use it as a time of prayer? As I pondered religious traditions like Christian communion (a ritual of eating bread and wine), Muslim iftar (the daily breaking of the fast during Ramadan), Sikh langar (the tradition of community meals, which are often an act of service as well), Jewish Shabbat meals or everyday family traditions of saying grace at meal times, I realized that it’s not just that meals are a convenient reminder to pray, eating serve as an important spiritual practice in and of itself. Over the years, as I’ve embraced a deeper spirituality of food (I would even call it a Rule of Life for eating) I’ve found this to be true. Shifting my idea of meals from a necessary evil–cooking, shopping, meal planning, budgeting, ugh–to a way that I could explore and deepen my relationship to the world and to the earth.

There’s a strong connection between food and spirituality, which is why many traditions include precepts on what and how to eat in daily life. In the Jewish faith, there are commands to keep kosher, for Muslims, it’s halal. Buddhist and Hindu traditions require that adherents “do no harm,” which leads many practitioners to become vegetarian. Christianity is actually an outlier in that it holds no guidelines for what it’s followers should eat, but this practice in and of itself was originally intended to be a spiritual practice; it made it easier for people of Jewish and Gentile backgrounds to share a meal together, something that was a common practice in the early development of Christianity.

For modern Americans, who have been steeped in a culture that embraces personal choice over all other values, rules about what we eat seem legalistic and overly prescriptive. However, many people actually experience faith-based food decisions to be deeply rewarding. As Miri Rotkovitz over at The Spruce says,   

…keeping kosher is a detail-oriented endeavor and one that requires discipline. But the structure can promote mindfulness and heightened awareness about what, how, and where one eats. And for many, that mindfulness can promote appreciation, joy, and deeper spiritual insight.

Spiritually centered eating is important in a few ways:

  1. It shifts an ordinary, biological necessity of life to a spiritual practice. It’s integrated spirituality. So often, we only see ourselves as “spiritual” when we’re at church, or meditating, or hiking in nature. We hope that these small bursts of spirituality will be enough to carry us through the rest of life, which of course they’re not. Our ultimate journey is to be able to live spiritually day to day, not just in small bursts. Anytime we can make strides toward that, as when we embrace the spiritual aspects of seemingly non-spiritual parts of life, we’re better for it.
  2. It blends the physical with the spiritual, another important corrective. This might be particularly important for western Christianity, which has a history of disembodied spirituality. This is seen when we try to elevate the spiritual reality over the physical. It comes up in a number of ways but two prominent ones are when we expect people to “be spiritual enough” to rise above their physical circumstances including pain, illness or poverty or when we ignore the human need to experience Beauty. To be fair, this has thinking emerges from various traditions at various points in history. In the U.S., however, we’re still feeling the effects of the Puritan tradition which saw the body as a barrier to spirituality, not a means of deepening it.
  3. Spiritually based food choices also remind us of the interconnectedness of life. Many of the central principles of religious food rules are based on compassion. When we refrain from eating meat, or ensure our vegetables are fair-labor, or only eat humanely raised meat, we embrace our truest humanity. We choose to limit the power we have due to being at the top of the food chain in order to allow other creatures to have a good life.

Next week I’ll take a deeper look at a Hindu viewpoint for understanding the relationship between food and spirituality, which I recently discovered and found helpful for solidifying my thinking on this topic, then as we start Lent in the Christian tradition, I’ll do some thinking about rhythms of fasting and feasting in religious life. In the meantime, though, I’d love to hear what food-related spiritual practices you have (or don’t have!).

Why Spirituality Matters and What You Can Do About It

Why Spirituality Matters and What You Can Do About It

Back when I worked for the Department of Human Services, I was part of an early intervention team focusing on mental health and young children. We helped families sort through resources and develop plans for issues ranging from the stress that comes when a sibling is born to situations of trauma. The beauty of the approach was that it was interdisciplinary. We had therapists, counselors, doctors, social workers and physical therapists on the team. Thanks to this network, we were able to tap into a wealth of experience and resources for families. It was fullfilling work and a pioneering approach and yet, I often felt like we were missing something.  While we were addressing physical, mental and emotional needs, we weren’t addressing the spirit.

Generally speaking, spirituality is perceived as “less real” than other human needs. Freud, for example, said that God was an illusion and that as people became more “psychologically mature” they would set aside their infantile faith in favor of reason and science. Whatever we might now think of Freudian psychology, he eloquently summed up a cultural view that pits science and spirituality against each other. While people aren’t always this extreme in their view of spirituality as a “real” thing, they’re often not much more complimentary, either. At best, spirituality is often viewed as a neutral element in a person’s life. It’s nice if it’s your thing, but not necessarily a benefit to overall health and wellness.

In more recent years, this mindset has began to shift. Researchers in the fields of psychology, education and health are investigating and taking seriously the benefits of spirituality. In America, this originally got a lot of momentum with the mindfulness movement but it’s exploded over the past few years as people have documented that various benefits of the spiritual life. Take these statistics from Dr. Lisa Miller, a psychologist and researcher whose book Spirituality and the Child curates her research as well as that of other medical professors and makes a compelling case for the importance of developing a spiritual life:

Drawing on a wealth of studies over the past 20 years, Dr. Lisa Miller says that spirituality “has a clear impact on our mental health and thriving…[it’s] associate with signifigantly lower rates of depression, substance use and abuse and risk taking…No other preventative factor known to science and medicine has such a broad reaching and powerful influence on the daily decisions that make or break health and wellness.” (I’ve cited Dr. Miller’s work before because her book is groundbreaking. She’s the only one doing research on spirituality and well-being but she does the best job of compiling and interpreting research data for those of us who love hard research and don’t have all day to sort through it.)

Although Miller’s work stresses the importance of spirituality for children and teens, it seems pretty clear that people’s spiritual lives change over time. James Fowler documented this well in his book Stages of Faith, which has long been the go-to book on the subject. However, in my work I’m particularly interested in how people of different ages support and aid one another’s spiritual journeys. For example, many teachers find great spiritual meaning in their work and report learning a great deal from children. (One reason I’m convinced that adults need to spend as much time as possible with the children, in relationships were the wisdom flows both ways.) Parenting, too, is often an amazing spiritual journey–which is why Christian tradition uses parent language so often as a descriptor for God.

At home, then, it’s particularly important that we find the spiritual practices that work for us and our families, whatever shape they take. The good news is that nearly anything can be adapted into a spiritual practice if we make the time and intention to do so.

So if you’re playing along at home, I’d invite you to think about what already has meaning in your life. What is it that you do that you find refreshing at the soul level? How can that be tweaked to be spiritually meaningful?

Here’s an example:

In my family, one tradition we developed is “family reading time,” which means that about an forty-five minutes before bedtime, my husband, daughter and the cats all pile onto a bed to read and unwind. This started several years ago, in the middle of winter when the days were short and we parents were exhausted from work and parenting and being cooped up. Inevitably, we’d look at the clock at 7:00 p.m. and wonder how on earth we were ever going to make it through the next hour before we could put the kiddo to bed and finally relax a bit. Luckily, our daughter loves to read so we the solution was obvious–we’d all just take our books for some quiet reading and cuddle time. It’s been a few years since we first started this practice and the purpose for it has changed. We no longer get to the end of the day and wonder how we’re going to make it through the next hour. Instead, we often get to the end of the day and realize we have way too much to do and we barely saw each other all day. Now, family reading time serves the purpose of bringing us together and provides the space we need to talk and share.

By itself, this practice is a lovely family rhythm and its important all on it’s own. However, in the interest of bringing more spiritual intention into our lives, we’ve tweaked this time in several ways. For example, it’s often the time when we practice meditation or centering prayer as a family. We’ve also used it as a time to explore sacred reading, a practice I invented/borrowed/modified from Faith Five. And sometimes we still just read together, which brings valuable connection time and the space to practice being unhurried, one of the hardest spiritual skills.

The point is, start where you are, whether you’re beginning your own spiritual practice, looking to deepen practices you already have or trying to figure out how to raise children to be spiritual. I know from experience that it is unsustainable to try to institute a completely new practice and expect it to be perfect from day one.

Looking forward to hearing more about what rituals and rhythms you’re tweaking in your life–and what meaningful practices you already have!

Is Spirituality for Everyone?

Is Spirituality for Everyone?

As a child, my image of a spiritual person was stereotypical. I imagined a man in a turban sitting cross-legged on a beach, blissful smile on his face. If pushed to think of a woman, I suppose she was also in a turban sitting cross-legged on the beach. If this image tells us anything, it’s that we imagine spirituality to be something removed from our day-to-day experience. We tend to believe that the spiritual life happens in exotic places, to exotic people.

One of the key milestones in spiritual development is when we release this idea and embrace an integrated vision of spirituality–one that doesn’t require special clothes or far-away locations. While we might all benefit from an occasional retreat from the world where we can spend long hours communing with God in nature, the bulk of our spirituality must be lived where we are now.

Spirituality has no place if it is not applicable to our daily lives. Click To Tweet

I define spirituality as both the recognition and cultivation of the connectedness of our lives with each other and with something that transcends us, which I would call God or Spirit but others might call the Divine, the Universe or something else. Spiritual people experience deep connection with others. They recognize that all of our lives are interwoven. They also recognize that this same web of connectedness exists between humanity and the natural world. There is a sense that everything rests in something “bigger than us,” some Mystery that connects everyone and everything.

With a definition like this, the question then becomes, “who can be spiritual?” Is everyone spiritual? Are people born spiritual or do they become spiritual?

Research into spirituality is helping to answer that and the answer is “both.” Spirituality is inborn and nurtured. I find Dr. Lisa Miller’s analogy of spiritual development and physical development helpful here. Just as most people are born with the capacity to learn to walk, most people are born with some capacity for spirituality. However, just as people must develop the ability to walk, and then later to run, our natural, inborn tendency to spirituality must be cultivated.

This is where spiritual practices come in. Spirituality might be part of our wiring but it needs nurturing to develop to its fullest. Spiritual practices are the means by which we deepen our spirituality. Some traditions also call them “spiritual exercises,” vocabulary that reminds us that we get better at pursuing our spiritual lives. Just as a bicyclist may start with short races and advance from there, we do well to start where we are in our spiritual lives. That’s why it’s so important that spiritual practices be part of our day-to-day lives rather than some austere practice for the privileged few.

Often, people of particular religious tendencies want to place some qualifiers around spirituality in order to define which spiritual paths are valid. In contrast, at this point I’m particularly interested in how spirituality is practiced in a variety of settings. While I believe in my particular religious path (obviously, or I wouldn’t be part of it), I’m far less concerned with what someone believes intellectually than if they’re making time for spirituality. The reason for this is precisely because I trust deeply in God and God’s desire to connect with us. I’m a firm believer in “seek and you will find,” meaning that if we are cultivating our spiritual lives, God will walk alongside us. For me, this brings both a sense of grace (God is so big and comes to us in so many ways!) and a sense of urgency (our mission in life is to connect more fully with God and we have a limited amount of time to do it.)

The upshot of this is that it means that nothing is wasted when it comes to our spiritual lives. “It’s all grist for the mill,” as a spiritual mentor once told me. Which in turn means that we can have some fun with it. One of the things that gets in our way as spiritual people is the perception that we have to do it some certain way, or that it’s something we can fail at. If we’re not praying just like this, we’re failing. If we’re not meditating twenty minutes a day, we’re failing. If we’re not making a gratitude list every night, we’re failing. And since no one likes to fail, we just stop trying.

When we have a better understanding of spiritual development as a life-long pursuit, we can relax a little. Let’s embrace a playful aspect to spiritual practices. No one is yelling at a one year old that she didn’t take her first step perfectly, or at a fifth grader that they aren’t doing calculus yet. Spiritual growth starts in cutting ourselves some slack, and this is true whether we’re at the beginning or somewhere midway. So here are my rules for spiritual practices:

Start where you are A therapist once told me I had to meditate for 20 minutes a day or it was all just worthless. And since I couldn’t meditate for 20 minutes a day (yet), I just stopped meditating. Because anything less than that was worthless. Worst. Advice. Ever. You know when I started meditating again? When I saw the One Moment Meditation app because this cute little stick figure told me that even 1 minute of meditation was time well-spent. 

Do what works for you Right along with “starting where you are” goes “end what doesn’t work.” For heaven’s sake, don’t torture yourself with a spiritual practice that doesn’t help you connect with God. The reason there are so many different styles of prayer and meditation and rituals and ideas is because people are different. We don’t all have the same style of relationship with our friends, coworkers, spouses or children, why are we expecting to develop the same relationships within ourselves and our souls?

…But don’t give up too soon This is the paradox of any worthwhile venture, isn’t it? You have to know when to keep trying and when to switch. I was trying to think of some guideline for this but the truth is, it varies. It might help to evaluate how you build habits in other circumstances. If you find it pretty easy to start a new thing and stick with it, then you probably need less experimentation time with a new practice before you know it doesn’t work for you. On the other hand, keeping in mind that it takes between 30-60 days to make a change, you might need to stick with something for a few months before you blow it off. And if you’re experimenting with family practices, chances are good that some things will be deeply meaningful for some of the family members and less so for others and that’s ok. You’ll balance that, too.

Having said all of that, and keeping in mind that I’m really on a pilgrimage of my own here, I’m curious about your spiritual practices as they are now. Where do you find Mystery and Meaning in your life? What things do you do to deepen your soul? You can comment here, as always, but feel free to message me directly, too–I love these conversations!

Rhythms, rituals and the thoughtful creation of space

Rhythms, rituals and the thoughtful creation of space

“Architecture is the thoughtful making of space.”

Louis Kahn said that, which is an interesting thing for an architect to say. If I’d been asked, I would have said that architecture was about making buildings. Beautiful buildings, but buildings nonetheless.

Apparently a lot of people think so because if you google Louis Kahn, he’s described as being an architect and a professor “renowned for his weighty buildings and use of heavy materials.”

But here’s a picture:

It seems that if you’re describing the structure of Kahn’s work, what you focus on is the walls. But if you’re experiencing Kahn’s work, what you notice is the space. Kahn might have used bold lines and heavy materials but the bold lines and heavy materials weren’t the point. Space was the point.

Our spiritual lives might benefit from the same wisdom.

So often when we think about crafting meaningful spiritual practices, we think about the walls. We think about praying a certain way or at a certain time. We think about eating certain foods or avoiding certain foods. We think about resting and working and playing at certain times.

Which all sounds like a bunch of rigid rules.

This is a particular critique of religion, isn’t it? I’ve heard it–you have too. The argument goes that all the rules of religion are designed for social control. Truth be told, religion has often been a powerful way to keep people in line. Fundamentalist viewpoints of all kinds masterfully manipulate religion to control people. I can’t deny that and I think it’s a worthwhile cautionary reminder.

But spiritual practices in and of themselves aren’t the problem. The problem is when we start paying more attention to the walls than to the space they create. On paper, spiritual practices might look like a bunch of rules designed to pen us in. In practice, they create room in which we can connect to our truest selves.

I’ve been working on a project exploring spirituality in the modern world and I’m discovering that this is the difference between people who have spiritual practices and people who don’t: people and families who make time for ritual do it because they focus on the life-giving aspect of it. They have fun with it. They joke and laugh when something goes wrong. In contrast, the ones who struggle, whether it’s with trying to start a family prayer time, or committing to a faith community, or starting a meditation practice, seem to be focused on the walls. They’re worried about finding the time, or doing it right, or whether it’s the “right” practice/church/tradition for them.

I can’t discount those concerns. It’s not easy to make time or build new habits–if it was, the diet and exercise industry in America wouldn’t be the huge machine it is. So I don’t want to be flippant or cliche here but the more I talk to folks, the more I realize that the problem isn’t so much the time, it’s the focus. We spend a lot of time looking at the walls themselves and much less time looking at the space they create. For sure, beginning or deepening your spiritual practice will require putting up some boundaries around your time. But what it will give you is a whole new room in your soul.

In the interest of finding some room of my own, this year I’m focusing this blog on spiritual practices in today’s world. That’s not so much because I have all of the answers and want to share them with you (go me!) it’s because I’m increasingly curious about how folks are tapping into their spiritual side. I’m inspired by my not-particularly religious friends who craft lovely ceremonies for their home. Or my interfaith friends who are blending religious traditions. Or my religious friends who are figuring out how to do be Christian even though the church no longer feels like home to them. There is a wealth of wisdom out there. And of course, I bring my own lens to all of this, as someone who is steeped in Christian tradition and finds it life-giving and beautiful (but is married to a non-religious type, so there’s that.)

 

Here’s how I’m shaping the year:

 

January: The Why and How month–what’s a spiritual practice, why do we care, are they just for religious folks, are they just for non-religious folks…

February: Food and the Spirit–does what we eat influence our spirituality? Does our spirituality impact what we eat? How do we craft rituals for mealtimes and why are they so powerful?

March: Forgiveness–sure, it’s a value in many religious traditions but how do we actually practice that? What if it’s hard? Are we really supposed to “forgive and forget?”

April: Silence–No, really, how do we make time for quiet?

May: Blessing–What is a blessing? Are we “blessed?” Is this just another word for a gift or an act of service, like “I blessed someone by giving them a hot meal?”

June: Sabbath–Oh, you mean that crazy rule about resting once a day? Who has time for that? If I can’t set aside a whole day to sit around, how do I it?

July: Service–Service opportunities are the thing people want most from their church, which tells me that it’s helping people connect to God. How? Why?

August: Gratitude–wait, what? You’re not saving this for November? No, because I want explore it outside the context of the obligatory “month of gratitude.” And maybe it’ll help set us up for some rituals you can implement in November when we have cultural momentum on your side.

September: Creativity–how does creativity connect us to God? Does it always connect us to God? What are the limits of claiming creativity as a “spiritual practice?” Do I have to be creating something religious for it to count? Are all artists spiritual?

October: Giving–Again, not in the logical month of December and again, because I think I’ll delve more deeply into this outside of “the giving season.” And yes, let’s look at some practices that will set us up for December.

November: Sacred texts–So the Bible isn’t a literal history. Why do people read it? Is it any holier than other religious books? What about non-religious books? And how should we use this confusing book?

December: Open space–here’s where I either revisit some themes that could use some more time, do a “best of” section or maybe just take a break. I don’t know yet but time will tell!

Being a personal blog, I reserve the right to throw some random musings in there from time to time. That is, after all, the beauty of the space. But these themes will provide some walls for my own spiritual practice of writing so they’ll be my main focus. I’ll keep these posts in the handy-dandy new tab I’ve created called: Rhythms and Rituals. As always, I’m looking forward to hearing from you about the ways you’re making spiritual space.

The Day We Prayed for Santa Claus

The Day We Prayed for Santa Claus

Christmas Eve in 2006 fell on a Sunday.  The air crackled with the excitement of the children as the congregation gathered for church that morning.  As was our custom, I started the service by asking if there was anything people would like to pray for.  One girl, a quiet, reflective preschooler, raised her hand.

“I’d like to pray for Santa Claus.”  She paused, looking up quickly at my face. “Because it’s very cold out and his job is dangerous.”  Her little voice was quiet but resolute as she made her request.

Now, I was fresh out of seminary and pretty determined to do everything right.  Like many before me, I was going to save humanity with my passion for properness.  I would gather God’s people as I preached the right sermons, led the right Bible studies and wrote the right liturgies. Praying for a fictional character clearly missed the mark.  

My mind whirled. What would people think of me as I prayed for Santa Claus and his non-existent journey around the world?  What would God think of me? Could I cover it with a more general prayer for all of those who faced danger that night?  One glance at the girl’s concerned face told me that I could not.  Her trust was in a God who would protect Santa Claus and a church who would deliver that prayer.

So, in between offering thanks for a family visit and  asking for healing for a sick parent, I prayed for the safe journey of a jolly red man delivering presents by flying sleigh.  

Buried beneath that sentence was a silent, fervent prayer that God would forgive me for wasting God’s time.  And buried deep beneath that was a lurking fear that I had committed sacrilege, taken Christ out of Christmas and given into satanic forces by idolizing Santa. (After all, if you rearrange the letters, they spell Satan.)  The fires of hell were probably being stoked in that very instant.  

I should have, I supposed, figured out a way to be a better gatekeeper, to manage the child’s concerns without interrupting the important work of Ruling the Universe.

But you don’t need me to tell you that there’s a Bible story exactly like that.  It’s about the gatekeepers, worried that children’s petty concerns would get in the way of Jesus’ important work.  To which he says, “they are my important work.”

There are sometimes small moments in which you realize that your theology needs shaking up and for me this was one of them.  Somehow, in my core, my belief in God had gotten tangled up with some pretty shady theology. While I would have said I believed in a loving, inclusive, expansive God, inwardly I was still afraid of a judging, exclusive, proper God. You know, the kind of god cares more about what we say when we pray than where our hearts are. The kind who’s more concerned that our prayers are Good and Right and preferably in King James English than that they’re heartfelt moments of connection and opportunities for a developing relationship.

I suppose it’s not enough to offer a full theology of prayer based on the simple fact that I wasn’t struck by lightning in the process of praying a completely useless prayer. Still, I can say that God was in that moment. And if God was in that silly, awkward church-blooper moment, than I suppose we might find God in all sorts of prayers–the poorly thought out, the desperate tumble of words, the dumbstruck silence and even the proper, stilted, struggling version of those of us who still aim to Do It Right.

When I remember that day, I am reminded that people of faith have a sacred trust. Whether it’s with our family, our friends or our church, when we claim to be praying people we have an obligation to follow through. But that’s the only obligation we have.

We don’t have to figure out how prayer works. We don’t have to be worthy. We don’t have to determine who else is worthy. We simply have to uphold our end of the deal: to take it to God.

All these years later, I still take that as a both an awesome challenge and a great comfort.

 

 

Strangers in a Christmas Land

Strangers in a Christmas Land

I borrowed my title for this blog from the clever folks on our church’s worship planning team. The title came about as we discussed whether to hold a “Blue Christmas” service this year. If you’re not familiar with Blue Christmas, sometimes called “Longest Night,” or “Darkest Night,” the service is a lament service offered sometime in December. The goal is to offer a time for people to experience sadness in the midst of all the holiday cheer.

If you’ve ever been heartbroken, depressed or simply down in the dumps during the Christmas season, you know how hard it is. Everyone else is fa la laing along while you’re just hoping to make it through. It’s hard enough to be sad. It’s even harder to be sad when every store front is urging you to “be of good cheer.”

We can, indeed, feel like strangers in a Christmas land.

The feeling comes when everyone else is complaining of the busyness of the season and you’re spending your evenings watching re-runs of holiday movies on TV.

Or when you decorate your tree and remember the last time you decorated it with them–the child, or parent, or spouse whose presence no longer graces the house.

It comes when the service is full of stories about expectation and pregnancy but your story is full of doubt and disappointment.

And sometimes it just comes for no reason. When the nostalgia suddenly turns to grief. Or the tinsel is suddenly revealed as nothing more than cheap strands of a fool’s dream.

Sometimes, we don’t even know why we’re being left out of this Christmas fairy land, we just know that we are. But what makes it worse is the pressure to feel better. Because for the love of Christ (literally) it’s a celebration. We’re supposed to “be of good cheer,” and “God rest ye merry, gentlemen,” and celebrate because “it’s the most wonderful time of the year.”

So here’s what I want to say about that. I’m not at all convinced that the point of Christmas is to be happy. I think the point of Christmas is to remember that God makes a way. God makes a way through grief, through happiness, through distraction and through relentless boredom. God finds us no matter where we are. And maybe God isn’t on calendar time, and maybe God doesn’t know that God’s required to show up by December 25, but God is making a way.

One of the buzzwords at Christmas is “glory,” which might help us out here. Biblically speaking, glory means “making the presence of God known.” On the other hand, we sometimes we use “glory” much the way we would use the word “delicious,” as though it describes a particular experience. But there’s nothing about glory that requires us to feel happy–in fact, most biblical and personal instances of God’s glory revealed come in times of hardship.

Our work this Christmas season is the same as it is the rest of the year: to look for God in all times and places. So maybe you’re looking for God’s glory amidst a too-busy winter schedule. And maybe you’re looking for God’s glory amidst the ghosts of Christmas past. Maybe you’re even having one of those amazing Advent seasons that comes along once in a while, where you’re finding it easy to stay centered and focused and prayerful. Those are all fine ways to do Christmas.

But if you’re feeling like a stranger in a Christmas land this year, remember that glory and cheer are two different things. Just as we can relieve ourselves of the pressure to do Christmas perfectly, we can relieve ourselves of the pressure to do Christmas in manic cheerfulness. Focus instead on glory–not the forced glory of humans trying to create an experience but the glory of the God who makes a way.

 

Christmas is Messy (An Annual Reminder to Breathe)

Christmas is Messy (An Annual Reminder to Breathe)

“Life is messy. Would that every puzzle piece fell into place, every word was kind, every accident happy, but such is not the case. Life is messy”

This bit of wisdom comes from Christopher Moore’s The Stupidest Angel and fittingly enough, it’s a Christmas book. (Sort of.  I mean, it’s wildly inappropriate and not a family read at all but its set at Christmas time and it has a surprising dose of holiday spirit.) It’s fitting that such wisdom comes from a Christmas book because the holiday season is exactly the time when we’re most likely to forget this simple truth.

We might live 11 months out of the year with an impressive grasp on reality but by Thanksgiving, our common sense has been overshadowed by the promise of holiday magic. We suddenly start expecting more from life than life can really give. Here’s a list of things I’ve recently expected:

  • My shopping to be done
  • The Christmas lights to all work
  • The cats to stay out of the Christmas tree
  • The new floor to be installed well before the holiday season, not smack-dab in the middle of it
  • Me to have time to miraculously sew the perfect costume for a Dickens themed party
  • A fun family time drinking eggnog and decorating the tree on Sunday afternoon because that’s our tradition

Instead, we spent Saturday and Sunday doing this:

via GIPHY

And stopping this:

via GIPHY

All while moving furniture into the garage in preparation for the flooring to be installed.

So when we collapsed into bed on Sunday, the tree wasn’t decorated, the Christmas lights mostly worked and the eggnog was unopened. (I did pull together the costume for the party on Friday, though. For what it’s worth, if you don’t have a chance to sew a capelet, a Christmas tree skirt will work.)

There’s a parable in the Bible that’s often read shortly before the Christmas season. It’s the story of some bridesmaids who are waiting for the groom to arrive. Five of them fail to bring enough oil for their lamps. They run out to the store to get more and wouldn’t you know it, that’s when the groom arrives. The party is well-underway before they get back and no one will let them in.

When we read this story, it’s usually as a reminder to keep watch, stay awake and be prepared for the reign of God/the second coming/the day of judgement, depending on your tradition. As such, the story has merits as a reminder to stay focused on what’s important. It’s kind of a dire warning about what happens if you’re caught spiritually unprepared. This parable above all others reminds me that our work as peace-makers is urgent and we can’t fall down on the job.

While this story is about all of that, it’s also about the overwhelming expectation to make everything perfect. Instead of the groom arriving and haranguing the poor bridesmaids for not being ready, I sometimes imagine he arrives with a different message. “Oh, ladies and gentlemen. You should have known, your presence was more important than the best decorations. It would have been so much more important for you to just stay here, unlit lamps and all, and welcome me when I came.”

Sure, we need to stay focused. But part of staying focused is the discipline to stay focused on what matters. I imagine everyone left that wedding feeling pretty bad. Half of the party didn’t make it, the other half were revealed as selfish hoarders and the groom missed out on the company of those he loved.

What might have happened if, at any moment, someone had let go of the expectations they’d built up and remembered that the real focus was being together? What might have happened if, at any moment, someone had remembered that nothing ever comes together as planned—not weddings, not Christmas, not life?

Which is why I try not to ask too much from the holiday season. I’ve found that the less I demand, the more I enjoy. So it looks like we’ll be using white candles in our advent wreath this year and I’m reasonably sure this is the year that the cats tip over the Christmas tree. If they don’t the flooring installers will. But the celebration will be fun, the eggnog will be shared and new memories will be made. Not perfect memories, just happy ones.

Saints and Strangers: Standing Together in Love (a sermon for a divided country)

Saints and Strangers: Standing Together in Love (a sermon for a divided country)

In 1620 a group of about 40 religious refugees boarded a merchant ship leaving England and sailing for the “new land.” Others called them the “Separatists,” or the “Congregationalists” because of their desire to separate from the Church of England and return to the ideals of the Protestant Reformation. They oh-so-humbly called themselves the Saints. With this, they clearly aligned themselves with the religious cause: they were holy people, distinguished from the “Strangers,” the other people on board the ship who were from some other religion, or perhaps no religion at all.

You know this story–it’s top of our minds this time of year. You know how hard that first winter was for this band of Saints and Strangers. You know about the generosity of time and spirit shown to these immigrants by the Wampanoag tribes. It’s a story many Americans have historically celebrated. When told rightly, it reminds us that the USA wasn’t just built on grit and perseverance; it was grounded first on hospitality and generosity.

We’re sorely in need of that reminder.

Today, our world is more connected than ever before. The journey that took those early Europeans several months is a mere day’s flight by plane. We can talk instantly to anyone in the world and social media lets us keep up to date on any number of details about a person’s life.

But new circles of Strangers and Saints have also being drawn. They’ve been drawn around city dwellers versus country folks, Democrats versus Republicans, Christians versus Muslims and Evangelicals versus Progressives. Not a day goes by that I don’t hear someone mourning the division and vitriol that exists in our country right now. If you’re feeling that way, you’re not imagining it. Polls measuring political division, racial division and economic division are all showing a record high.

The root of all of this is, of course, fear. We all know that. But I don’t think it’s just fear of the world changing, or fear of “the other.” Those are secondary fears to a deeper fear: the fear of being known. We lash out at other people when our own fears of not being good enough take over. We shut down because we are afraid that if someone sees our vulnerability, or our flaws, or the thousand ways we’re not perfect, they will find us unlovable.

What better camouflage is there than to block ourselves off into ever smaller and smaller groups, narrowing the category of who belongs and keeping everyone else out with bluster and bravado?

***

In 2010, witnessing the growing divisions in the country, a couple of people set out to make a change. On the surface, it seems like their plan was pretty simple—they were just going to get people to talk. In their living rooms. So they called the project Living Room Conversations and started creating ways for people to get involved.

I was trained in the Living Room Conversations model last month and although it’s simple on its surface, it’s revolutionary in practice. It’s built around the simple practice of telling stories and sharing dreams. To date, they’ve created 65 conversations around topics like immigration, zero tolerance policies in education, religious freedom, race and incarceration or student debt. In short, all of the hot button topics today—you know, the ones all of the pundits and politicians are yelling at each other about on television and Twitter.

Here’s the genius of these conversations: they’re not meant to persuade or cajole. There’s no talking points. And each conversation, no matter whether you’re talking about gun control or legalizing marijuana, starts with the same three questions:

  • What sense of purpose / mission / duty guides you in your life?
  • What would your best friend say about who you are and what makes you “tick”?
  • What are your hopes and concerns for your community and/or the country?

People who have used this model say that it works wonders and I believe it because it starts with relationships. People are given the opportunity to know and love each other before they’re asked to start solving problems. They’re given a way to love each other before they can start looking for ways to hate each other.

What’s even more amazing is that people are doing it. They’re inviting others into their homes, or setting up groups in divided churches, or maybe participating in a conversation online. People are hungry for connection. They’re hungry to be known as more than someone “on the other side” of a problem.

Author Dan Allender says, “stories obligate.” Stories connect us to something greater than ourselves. Truthful storytelling enables us to learn each other’s joys and struggles, strengths and weaknesses, dreams and fears. “Stories obligate” because they remind us that we’re all in this journey together and that we all share a duty to know and to be known.

***

Just as these Living Room Conversations don’t start with our differences, they don’t end in our commonalities. There’s no pretending that everyone sees eye to eye–which, quite frankly is just another way that we hide ourselves off and refuse to be known–instead people recognize their differences and choose relationship anyway.

The call to love is a call to love intimately. Click To Tweet

In some ways, it’s much easier to love our enemies than to love, I don’t know, our families at Thanksgiving, because we keep our enemies far away from us. (Plus, we already know that we don’t like them, so we’re not upset when they disappoint us.) With the people close to us—our families, our friends, our fellow church members—love sometimes takes a lot more work. These are the people we see up close and personal. We see them before they’ve had their morning coffee, or when they’re rushing around on a Sunday morning. We know their flaws and we have every opportunity to be irritated by them.

We take a risk when we commit to loving each other; to truly love someone we must truly know them.… Click To Tweet

The bridges that we need to build to heal our world can only come through relationship. The more that we silo off into our self-categorized groups of saints and strangers, the less likely we are to do any real loving. All of our love will be conditional. It’ll be love that’s only given as long as we see eye-to-eye.

I believe that people of faith have a unique ability to play a role in the healing of the divisions that exist and it’s because we’re practiced at the work of building relationship. It’s more than just a theological commitment to love, we actually get to practice working at it. We know what it’s like to stay in relationship with others–even when we don’t agree with them–because we do it over and over and over again.  

Jesus gave his followers quite the task list: feed the hungry, care for the prisoner, protect the child. But above and beyond all of that, he instructed them to love one another.

All of these other things, these other cares and concerns of the world will tear us apart if we’re not grounded in love. But the reverse is also true. When we are grounded in love, all manner of things are possible. Differences might be overcome, flaws might be overlooked, vulnerability might be welcomed so that in the end, strangers and saints find themselves all part of the same great big circle of love. May it be so with us.

Stewardship: what money has to do with spirituality

Stewardship: what money has to do with spirituality

When I was a kid, my sisters and brother and I would often play a game of “if we were rich.” You know the game, right? “If we were rich, we’d have a house with 100 rooms.” “If we were rich, we’d have a pool on the roof.” “If we were rich, we’d hire a maid.” And, of course, if we were rich, we’d help all of the homeless people and the hungry people and the sick people.

I had no idea at the time what “being rich” meant, I just knew that if I were rich, I’d have enough money to do all of those things.

A recent poll showed that the definition of “rich” changes depending on how much money you have. That is, the more money you have, the more money you think you need to be rich. What this says to be is that we never feel like we have enough—let alone, more than enough. Our expectations for what we “need” is a moving target.

I think it’s important to recognize this relationship we have with money. Chances are, we will never feel completely “secure” about how much money we have. Unless we confront ourselves this, we’ll find it very hard to make a spiritually sound decision about giving. I know, because I’ve made fear-based budgeting decisions myself. Sometimes in situations when I really had good reason to be careful with my finances and other times when I was simply letting my sense of scarcity outweigh my sense of gratitude.

In Christian tradition, we call monetary decisions “stewardship.” That’s an important distinction from the regular old “budgeting”. Stewardship means that we look at our finances with a spiritual eye. Our budgets are the place where the rubber meets the road when it comes to living out our values. We may believe that God is at work here in our families, we may believe that God is calling us into new and courageous acts of ministry, but unless we are willing to live into that idea in practical, real ways, those things will simply remain beliefs.

What separates “belief” from “faith” is whether we are willing to act on it.

I’ll never forget an article that a pastor and friend, Lary Diehl wrote. Lary was the pastor at the church I interned at and during stewardship season one year, he asked this: “Is your stewardship pledge a white elephant swap or a secret Santa gift?” I ponder that every month now when I pay bills and examine our family monthly budget. Is my giving coming out of what’s left over once all the good stuff is gone—like a white elephant gift exchange? Or is it coming out of the generosity of wanting to make someone else happy, like a Secret Santa swap? Am I calculating what I’m going to get back, or comparing what others are giving, or am I just giving as much as I can and trusting that others will do the same?

Although Lary was talking specifically about church giving (and indeed, this post is heavily based on a stewardship sermon I gave last week), the principles remain the same whether you’re part of a church or not.  For spiritually minded people, money is another way to practice spirituality.

What does this look like practically? Part of it is about intention. Like a good yoga practice, every bill paying session can be transformed into a spiritual exercise if we set our intention for it to be that way. During the recession, which was also when we had a baby, changed jobs and moved across the country, fear was getting the best of me. After months of carrying dread along with my wallet, I learned to center myself on a favorite hymn before I paid bills or checked our investment accounts. Others have suggested these spiritual money practices:

  • Stretch yourself to give a certain amount. A wise steward and mentor shared with me her method for increasing her giving by upping the percentage she donated by 1% every year.  Her original goal was to be able to make a 10% tithe but she found that the challenge was engaging enough to continue long after she hit that amount.
  • Donate 50% of every non-necessary purchase you make. Buy a new party dress? Plan on spending half of that amount in a donation to a worthy cause.
  • Take advantage of those “round up” plans offered by some debit cards but donate that savings account at the end of the year. It’s a modern version of the Christmas Jar for those of us who rarely carry cash anymore.
  • Inspect your financial plan with a spiritual eye. Look at your budget and see what it says about you. If a stranger looked at it, could they tell what your values are?
  • Give spontaneously. All of this talk of planned generosity is important but don’t forget that sometimes generosity sneaks up on us. When that happens, sometimes the craziest thing we can do is throw away the plan. What if you met the next worthy cause with wild abandon? What would it shift in you if you gave recklessly, just once?

I’m collecting ideas about stewardship and would love to hear your stories. How have you transformed your boring old money into a spiritual practice? What keeps you centered when money is tight and fear closes in? If you have more room in your budget, how have you embraced your abundance and used it to deepen your generosity?  Or, if this whole money-as-spiritual-practice thing is a new idea, let me know in a month or two what you try and how it works. You can comment here or email me privately–I read them all!