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Archive for the ‘Spiritual Life’ Category

Part one: celebrate

So we spent Christmas in Hong Kong. And in spite of all my brave talk about how glad I was not to be stuck in an airport due to the inevitable weather delay–or once arrived, stuck inside due to that same weather–being far away from home at Christmas is just hard. Especially when you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how this place–the place you are–is just not your city, which is the conclusion we’ve come to.

And though we have decided to stay one more year in this not-our-city, it still somehow feels good to say out loud that we have sought out what is good, we have made friends, we have made it our home, but it has not been easy. I’m going to speak in broad, sweeping generalities here, but the folks who live in Hong Kong who share our culture–who are from the US or Canada or even western Europe or Australia–mostly don’t share our values. They are bankers. They spend more on afternoon tea than we do for our fanciest dates. They belong to not one, but two or more clubs, and the clubs are where they spend their time. They buy designer clothes and vacation at Club Med. And that’s just not who we are, both by circumstance and by choice. And the people in Hong Kong who do share our values, who care about the environment and about the poor, who like to make things–they don’t speak English. And while of course these statements are not universally true, they are true enough.

But here’s the thing we’ve also found … we don’t have to have kindred spirits in order to have friends. We can–and do–have meaningful friendships with people based on little more than, in some cases, a shared nationality, and in others, children the same age. My closest friends here couldn’t be more different from me or from each other. Some of them come from India and China, and we sometimes have difficulty understanding each other. Some of them come from unbelievable wealth, and we also have difficulty understanding each other.

And those people who vacation at Club Med and spend all their time in yacht clubs and cricket clubs? I don’t blame them anymore. I know the fatigue that comes with constantly navigating a new culture, and how good it feels to go someplace familiar. I know how quickly I can feel at ease with someone just because they are from America and also grew up with, say, Cabbage Patch Kids and The Cosby Show. I know that they are just doing the best they can with what they have.

So Christmas Eve was, for us, a little tiny experience in Incarnation, in God-with-us. Looking at those around us as if they were Jesus, and inviting them in to our little stable on the twentieth floor. There were friends who had never been to a Christmas Eve service before, and friends whose names I can’t ever pronounce correctly, and friends who I seriously hesitated before letting them see this humble apartment with its peeling paint and bare lightbulbs. It was lovely and chaotic and only a tiny bit awkward. And Jesus was there, in the wine and the meatballs and the crumbly cookies, reminding us that he too came into a strange new world and made it his home. And where he is, there is our home also. Then we all piled into taxis and went to church together, letting candles and carols fill our hearts, until we spilled back into the warm Hong Kong night, glad to be in exactly this place on exactly this day.

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Watch for Light, 3

Third Sunday of Advent (yes, I’m a little late.)

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Isaiah 12:2-6

Philippians 4:4-7

Luke 3:7-18

It’s that time of year again … donation request letters, clothing drives and toy drives and food shelf bins, Santas ringing bells and those folks with the funny hats shaking tins.

Why do we give money or goods to charity at Christmas, anyway? That end-of-the-year tax deduction? Tradition? Because the Magi brought gifts to Jesus? The cold outside, and the fundamental sense that people should, at least, be warm? Or maybe it’s because there’s something about celebrating that brings out our hospitality, and we don’t like the idea of other people lacking food or gifts or a tree. If we’re happy, we want to imagine other people happy as well. We may not actually invite them to our table, but we’ll make sure they have food on their table. And there’s probably at least a little guilt in there too, or maybe just a sense of fairness–if we’re going to spend so much on luxuries for ourselves and our kids, it’s only right to give some away.

I suspect it’s a mixture of all of these, for most of us. I daresay I’ve never thought of it as a way to prepare for Christmas, a way to prepare my heart, as John says in this week’s lectionary reading.

John the Baptist, remember, is the one who came before Jesus, to help people get ready for the Messiah. And this is what he says about how to prepare: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none, and whoever has food must do likewise.” I suspect that what he’s talking about isn’t just a one-time deal, but an ethical shift. A shift in what we think we need, a shift in how we see those around us.

It’s easy for me–and a lot of people I know–to get caught up in all the ethics around giving. And it’s likewise easy to feel a bit cynical about the solicitation requests … it all mingles together into a loud voice of marketers and advertisers wanting my money, telling me that I’ll be happier and more at peace if I just give them my money.

John, however, is nothing if not direct, and he simply says that if we have two coats, we should give one away. He doesn’t promise that it will change someone’s life or even that it will make a difference. And there’s something about the simplicity of this that is compelling, convicting and hard.

So what does giving have to do with preparing? Everytime we give something away, no mattter how small, we are relinquishing control, letting go of some measure of security, and stepping a bit more into a place of trust and dependence on God. Giving opens our eyes to vulnerability, and this is where God lives, after all. Jesus came and still comes in vulnerability. He comes to the hungry, to the poor, to the needy, and to that place of need inside each of us.

The baking and decorating and merry-making that we do can be wonderful, especially for children. Joy opens us to vulnerability too. But these preparations can so easily become distractions and lists and pressures and end up numbing us to God’s presence more than anything. Matt’s and my most consistent observation about watching for light? It’s easiest to do when you get enough sleep …

So even if giving money away is already part of your tradition at this time of year, I invite you to think of it not as just one more to-do, but as preparation, as a way to prepare your heart to see God, to watch for light.

And the pictures throughout this post? They are my friend Krissie’s, from her several trips to India. She sells these prints as a way to raise money to support various projects in India, from wells to an orphanage. If you still have shopping to do, may I commend to you her website, with lovely prints from India and elsewhere, ready to be framed and hung? She’ll be going again in January, and would certainly appreciate the support.

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Done! Of course the plan was to finish it before Advent started, but as it turns out, the process of making was a good one, and I’m glad I let it take its time. The tree took considerable time to cut out, and while I cut the dark felt–the negative space–my mind wandered. I thought about cross-country skiing by moonlight in Maine, and warm blueberry muffins baked by a woman who has since died of brain cancer. I thought of a man, her husband, who taught us to “live without fear and love without reserve” even while watching his wife die.

I thought about a child learning to share and parents learning their child has cerebral palsy. I thought about families and weddings and blizzards and cozy warmth, and I thought about the God who is making the heavens and the earth and who knits all things together for good. And I thought about the Leonard Cohen lyrics:

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

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Watch for light, 2

Second Sunday of Advent

  • Malachi 3:1-4
  • Luke 1:68-79
  • Philippians 1:3-11
  • Luke 3:1-6

Monday afternoon, Nov 30, the first day actively “watching for light.”

The line is long. My kid’s rope is not, or at least, we’re already found its end. Apparently Mondays are a popular day to go to the bank because the line is snaking through the lobby and out the door. I struggle with the push-chair up some stairs and through a door before joining the narrow line, praying that the books I’ve brought will successfully entertain Finn. I consider coming back another day, but Hong Kong is primarily a cash society, and we really need the money. So, I wait.

The line moves slowly. People shuffle along, mostly quiet, except for the occasional cell phone and the not-so-occasional outburst from Finn. I am impatient, wanting to get to the park, willing my son not to kick the legs in front of him.

It’s getting close to our turn. And then some woman comes from nowhere and goes straight to a counter. I don’t know what she says, but she succeeds in getting several of the tellers to attend to her problem, and I go from impatient to fuming. Who is she, to just cut in line like that? Why is she so important? The line isn’t moving at all now, and it’s not quiet anymore. Lots of us are sighing, murmuring, unhappy.

I see a beautiful slice of light coming in the window, and for a moment I think about how lovely it would be at the park, what perfect photography light. And then–oh yeah, I’m supposed to be watching for light–it’s funny how often it takes literal light to remind me to watch for God’s activity. Funny and wonderful.

So where’s the light in having to wait in line for an hour at the bank? Well, nowhere, unless I remember that Advent is really all about waiting. We devise elaborate devotionals and light candles and talk about waiting for God, but nothing can make me feel less spiritual than a line. It’s lovely and mysterious to sing O Come O Come Emmanuel, but waiting in a traffic jam is a different story.

I recently heard Adele Diamond speak about neural development. Just as we really learn to drive by driving, or to cook by cooking, we learn skills like reflection and empathy by doing them. We have to practice morality and ethics, and it makes sense to me that every line, every time I’m put on hold, every traffic jam is a chance to practice waiting, a chance to reorder and remember that the world does not revolve around my needs–in short, a chance to experience Advent.

By the tender mercy of our God,

the dawn from on high

will break upon us,

to give light to those who sit in

darkness and in the

shadow of death,

to guide our feet into the way

of peace.

Luke 1:78-79

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Actually it’s for anyone, but only the Lutherans are likely to have a copy of The Lutheran around …  I have an article in there about spiritual needs during pregnancy and ideas for alternative showers. I’d like to invite (encourage!) you to join in a discussion at The Lutheran this next week if you have suggestions, stories or other thoughts to add. Also, if you look at the article online, there is a list of suggested readings/music/prayers along the right-hand side of the screen. It’s not very obvious, so you ‘ll have to look for it.

And to give a little back story, this piece was born out of conversations with several friends about what they loved or lacked during their own pregnancies. Erinn Tubbs, a friend from our church in Hanover, is the one who first mentioned to me the movement of “mother blessings” and other alternative showers. During my own pregnancy, I was blessed to be supported materially by a very generous shower held by our church and numerous meals after Finn’s birth, but also spiritually from my EFM (Education for Ministry) group. A passing conversation with a church member’s daughter led to thoughts about the church’s lack of comfort with Mary’s physical pregnancy. She was married to a pastor, and often made seasonally-inspired stoles for him to wear. She always got great feedback about the stoles until Advent came along. She portrayed Mary with quite a bump, and got not one comment about the stole.

And–full confession–currently in my own church, we do absolutely none of this. I am part of a mom’s group and have known several pregnant women, but my only contribution to encouraging any sort of spiritual reflection has been in personal notes and gifts. So I know from experience that this can be hard to start if it’s not already part of the culture. My hope is to talk to the other women in the mom’s group about what we could incorporate into our celebrations for the pregnancies and babies.

I’d love to have you join the conversation!

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Watch for Light

First Sunday of Advent

  • Jeremiah 33:14-16
  • Psalm 25:1-10
  • 1 Thess 3:9-13
  • Luke 21: 25-36

This is a difficult set of readings for me. Not only do they initially seem irrelevant for Advent, but my eyes tend to glaze over when I read of signs and looming disaster in the Bible. Honestly, I’m looking for something about cozy smells and Christmas baking. I want to read about how Mary said Yes! to God — that’s the kind of advent story even “positive thinking” gurus can get on board with. I want to walk away uplifted and smiling.

And then I remember that this is Advent. Not Christmas. And even if the mall decorations went up weeks ago, advent isn’t really about ticking the days and tasks off until Christmas … it’s about learning to live with hope even in the midst of chaos. It’s about having confidence in what God is doing even when the economy is horrible and waters are rising. It’s about not giving into the temptation to either ignore the problems of the day or to be drowned by them.

Advent has historically been a solemn fast, a time of self-reflection in preparation for Christ’s coming, and a time that looked forward to God’s full redemption of the world more than it just retold the story of waiting for Jesus’ birth. And despite the way that today’s readings initially caused my eyes to glaze over, Jesus actually calls us to hope and action rather than fear when the “distress among nations” begins.

For the last few years I’ve tried to create a distinction in our home and family between Advent and Christmas, letting these dark times be dark and trying not to stuff the emptiness with rich foods or flood the darkness with lush decorations. It’s hard to put into practice though–I love Christmas planning and parties as much as anyone. I’ve already led one Christmas baking class this month and I’ve got more scheduled. My Christmas gifts and cards have to be mailed early, so I’ve been working on them for months now, and decorating the home early certainly helps me feel less homesick. So how to cultivate an Advent awareness of darkness and longing even while carols plays relentlessly?

It’s actually not hard to be reminded of the darkness–just open the paper and there it is. What is hard is continuing to face it, while at the same time always watching for light–watching for the ways that God’s love and presence breaks through, often in as unexpected a way as a poor baby’s birth.

What I’m going to do is this. We’re certainly not going to avoid decorations, parties or carols during these weeks leading up to Christmas–who among us is so rich in joy as to be able to afford that? We already do an Advent wreath and light candles each week, watching the light grow along with our anticipation. To expand on this, we’re going to be intentional about watching for light, speaking each night about the places we’ve seen God at work. I’m making a banner reminding us to “watch for light” and we’ll add stories, news items, images and incidents as we find them.

I invite you to think about ways to consecrate this Advent season, whether it’s intentionally “watching for light” as we’re doing, or something else. Christmas Change is one site with ways to make the Christmas season more meaningful, and I’m sure there are lots of other resources out there as well.

Blessed Advent, everyone!

*thanks to Liese Shewmaker, who graciously let me use the photo above. Taken December 13, 2005, at 10:35:05 am just as fog was lifting from Mink Brook.*

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Anxiety

We had a scary situation this weekend. It wasn’t that bad–no blood, no emergency–but for a moment we had a glimpse of what life could be if that scary “A” word–autism–entered the picture. This particular condition, with all the publicity it gets, has captured our imaginations as the worst thing that could happen. I’m sure each generation has its thing–what it looks for, analyzes, agonizes over–and for this generation of parents, it’s autism. For good reason, I might add–with 1 in 150 kids in America diagnosed today, and the way it challenges our expectations of relationships–no wonder it scares us.

So Finn woke up from his nap Saturday seemingly awake but refusing all interaction. He sat on the floor away from us, resisting eye contact or touch of any kind. It was breathtakingly scary–he was so withdrawn and inward-looking that both Matt and I wondered “Is this how it starts? Is this the beginning of a journey we don’t want to take? Will this day be forever frozen in our minds?” We couldn’t even acknowledge our fears until much later that evening, after he had mostly come back to us. He seemed distant to me the rest of the day, actually, but was completely himself the next morning and ever since.

We suspect that Finn is fine, that he had a bad dream or was in the middle of a sleep cycle and needed to awaken more fully. Or maybe he felt sad and was just trying to understand it. He walks around stomping his feet and proclaiming himself “Happy,” but there’s no song, after all, about what you do if you feel sad or how you know it.

So yes, we watch Finn run up to kids on the playground, eager to share his ball and to say hi and we suspect autism is not an issue for him. But of course, you never know, and even this momentary fear has started me thinking about the nature of parental anxiety, and what it means for our children when we take our legitimate responsibility of observation and awareness too far, to the point of constantly looking for something to diagnose, something that is wrong.

I have to admit I’m uncomfortable with how quickly we can descend into this place of anxiety, where anything is a potential symptom. Not that parents shouldn’t be alert to potential problems–of course not. We have friends whose observation and persistence in the face of doctors who wanted to wait and see has gained their child untold advantages. By obtaining an early diagnosis of a prenatal stroke, his physical and occupational therapy began that much sooner, while the brain is still developing and forming. Clearly this sort of attention and recognition of a problem is exactly the job of parents.

But there is an alternate world of “parenting” out there that offers only an addict’s relief for our trembling fear. Shelves of books promise to provide a full night’s sleep, a beautifully-behaved child and a high IQ to boot. They compete with websites, blogs, forums and parenting magazines, which offer the consumers’ solution: buy the right products, the best toys, the safest equipment, and everything will be fine. These solutions, of course, only foster more anxiety–any temporary comfort quickly subsumed by a new study or a tragic story. It is not a far stretch to say that the anxiety produced by those shelves of parenting books and endless hyperlinks–read or unread–robs us of the confidence and ability to look inside, listen to our instincts, think rationally or even pay attention to our particular child with his or her particular needs, temperament and personality.

In this alternate world of parenting, one moment can indeed spiral into a diagnosis–and it’s only a short walk from there to the realm of “what did I do wrong and how can I fix it?” It’s so tempting to think that even in the face of an uncontrollable world, we can control our child’s world. But we parents are only stewards, not saviors.

The truth is that our children are born into an imperfect world to imperfect parents. They are full inheritors of the human condition–sadness, bad dreams and failures included. I remind myself of this– that, in the words of the Ash Wednesday liturgy, both Finn and I are dust, and to dust we will return. It is a strange grace to remember, but grace nonetheless. Finn belongs to God before he belongs to me.

Yes. This is my theological answer, but my everyday, lived answer I’m still working out.

On that day when we felt stricken with fear–and in the days since–we wondered if Finn was indeed on some sort of cusp, and if so, was there anything we could do to bring him back? Could we, by sheer force of love and physical presence, hold him to us, not let him slip away? Maybe so, and we have certainly been quicker to pick him up, quicker to bring him into our bed at night, quicker to cuddle.

I think that holding him when we feel scared is not a bad start. Ironically, it’s the quotidian acts of parenting that most relieve me from the anxiety and the idea of parenting. Because the other side of this anxiety is that I do experience God in the work of parenting, in the creativity and the guidance required, in the mundane duties and the selfless love. The dailiness and constancy calm me, give rhythms and patterns to my prayer.

Ideas like “being present” and “being mindful” may be much talked about and written upon, but never have they been made so manifest in our lives as when Finn entered in, casting a hazy spell which blurred everything except counting 10 perfect fingers and toes over and over again in a strange rosary of parently bliss.

And these days, walking at a toddler’s pace and cleaning something for the millionth time–these are the disciplines that shape my days. Accepting my lack of control over how often the milk is spilled, when the diaper leaks or where he throws a tantrum helps me to accept my lack of control over the world. And when I choose to read a novel instead of a parenting book, I’m accepting my limits and somehow accepting Finn’s limits too. I know that we both have–and will continue to have–bad days. And I know that whatever issues do come up for us–whether it’s developmental delays now or reading problems later–those issues, diagnose-able or not, don’t have to define us.

I know that none of this is any kind of hedge against the terrifying possibilities of life. But that’s the point–reading endless articles isn’t a hedge either. I have certainly found valuable resources in a few parenting books, and I wouldn’t advocate throwing them out. But sometimes–more often than not, I suspect–the healthy thing to do is to shut the books, stop googling lists of symptoms (as I spent Sunday morning doing) and simply be with my child. Or knit a few rows, letting my control over yarn soothe me. Or make pancakes, which has never yet failed to nourish myself, my husband or my son. These little acts of creativity, of life, help me to hold onto the “already” in the midst of the “not yet,” giving me a glimpse of the Kingdom right here in my kitchen.

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