Month: November 2014

5 Simple Spiritual Practices for Advent (for individuals or families)


More and more, advent feels like lent to me: a time of darkness and waiting and preparation. The older I get, the less I am attracted to the hyperactive frenzy that our culture tries to impose on us during advent and Christmas. I’m starting to relish advent as a time to snuggle in, sit in the darkness and gaze at flickering lights. Though it doesn’t seem to be the image on TV, I think advent can be a time of shadows, of yearning, and of waiting. Here are 5 spiritual practices you might want to do this advent either by yourself or with your family or community. Give them a try!

1. Word a day creative challenge. (Photo challenge, art challenge, journal challenge). This one is easy. For each day in December (from the 1st to the 25th) meditate on a word and what God might be telling you through that word. Take a photo to represent it, paint or draw or create something. Do it together as a family, a community, or on your own. My congregation is doing this as a photo challenge this year and posting their photos online. I think I might do some paintings this year, too. Make up your own words, or use these:


2. Gratitude paper chain – Make a paper chain throughout advent (use blue or purple pieces of paper for a liturgical connection or use the traditional green and red). Each day write one thing you are thankful for and put it on your chain. On Christmas morning, put the chain on your Christmas tree or hang it in your home.

3. Advent Poetry/Devotional Reading – Find a book of advent poems or readings and read one each evening in the darkness or in the early morning. Suggestions: Luci Shaw, Accompanied by Angels or the Anglican resource Love Came Down or Chalice Press’ lovely (and inexpensive!) Partners in Prayer. It’s not too late for any of these! They’re all available in e-formats, or get them by mail and just wait a few days to start.

4. Color Your Way Through Advent – Coloring pages. Coloring is not just for kids, you know. Check out these fantastic daily coloring pages produced by Ann Voskamp, author of Unwrapping the Greatest Gift.

5. Adopt an Advent “Fast” – We usually think of fasting as something that happens during lent. We “give up” something sometimes as a sacrifice or a symbol of repentance and returning to God. In the frenetic “more more more” of our culture during this season, it’s a great idea for people of faith to adopt a “less, less, less” approach. Fast from buying (what would that look like?) or fast from busyness. Perhaps you are able to give up one weekly (or daily) meeting during advent in order to listen to God’s voice and prepare for Christ to be born anew.

Happy Advent!

Like these? Check out my book Seamless Faith: Simple Practices for Daily Family Life which has ceremonies and traditions for families in addition to a variety of spiritual practices. Available at Chalice Press or Amazon.

An Immigration Policy We Can All Agree On: #EndChildDetention #EndFamilyDetention


I’ve been visiting a mother, Alicia* in family detention in Karnes City for a few months now. Family detention is the almost unbelievable practice of locking up young mothers and their children in prison. No matter what we think about the right of immigrants to cross the border without proper authorization, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where anyone believes that children deserve to be locked up. The United Nations agrees. The committee on the rights of the child says:

Children should not be criminalized or subject to punitive measures because of their or their parents’ migration status. The detention of a child because of their or their parent’s migration status constitutes a child rights violation and always contravenes the principle of the best interests of the child.

For several months I’ve been actively volunteering and working with Mission Presbytery’s efforts to help refugees from Central America who find themselves in the bounds of our Presbytery. There are a lot of overlapping, complicated issues. Though we see these issues through the eyes of faith (“Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” – Exodus 22:21) our work necessarily takes us to places where broader policy is involved.
Not everyone agrees on what the policy should be. Should there be quotas? Should more people be given asylum? How should new arrivals be handled? Should people be deported right away? How many people should be allowed to come and under what circumstances? What about people who have been here for a long time? And what about family members? Should adult children of US citizens be automatically given visitor’s visas to come visit? (This affects my own family and Elias’s adult children who have not been allowed to visit in the 6 years Elias and I have been married, though they have applied). It would take a lot of blogging to address all of these policies and to propose solutions, and these are all very complicated questions and solutions.

Instead, though, I want to focus on this mother and her children, because I think it’s something most of us can agree on:

Children do not belong in detention. Family detention must be ended.

I’ve heard people who work inside the family detention center in Karnes talk about how nice it is. “The children have school and they are fed three meals a day and they are permitted to play outside.”

These things are true, and even so, family detention is outrageous. When we talk about facts and statistics, sometimes our eyes glaze over. (Although, if you’re interested in facts, I suggest reading THIS or THIS.)

Instead of summarizing the facts you can easily read yourself, I want to tell a story, and it’s a story about the mom I’ve been visiting in detention. More specifically, it’s a story about her 8 year old son, Camilo.*

Alicia says that Camilo is having a lot of difficulty in detention. After making a harrowing journey all the way from central america, fleeing imminent gun violence and threats of death, they spent some challenging days at the US/Mexico border. Once they made their way to Karnes Detention facility, she noticed the problems: acting out at school, hitting his head against the wall, outbursts. She says he cries a lot. One of the problems, according to Alicia, is that he can’t make friends in detention. Friends mysteriously arrive and leave. He doesn’t understand why. He also doesn’t understand why they can’t go anywhere. Ever. They can’t go to the store or to church or to the soccer field. They can’t go to get a haircut.

It’s this last one I want to talk about for a second: a haircut. Last time I went to visit Alicia, I asked about Camilo. “He’s sad today. He was supposed to get his haircut, but then he didn’t. He’s been crying about it.”

It didn’t seem like she wanted to talk more about it, and so we didn’t. But I can’t stop thinking about that haircut. As I pack my two boys up in the car to take them here and there and everywhere, I can’t stop thinking about the hundreds of children in Karnes Detention facility who are locked up, in cells, because their parents dared to try and give them a better life. Family detention is outrageously costly to the US government. There are cheaper and more humane options.

#EndFamilyDetention #EndChildDetention

Three ways to begin to make a difference about child detention in the US:

1. Look for information and learn about it. Family Detention seems to get lost sometimes in the middle of a much larger immigration debate. Another reason it gets lost is that the family detention facilities are far out of the way of any major city or area. Out of sight, but not out of mind.

2. Don’t worry too much about being “too political.” It’s a dangerous narrative out there when showing compassion and basic common sense is somehow a political agenda. There is room for all kinds of politics in the immigration debate. There is not room to ever justify locking up children and denying them freedom to live in a house with friends or family while their cases are processed. Whichever political party you support, your leaders can get on board with some kind of meaningful reform. Children deserve to be free. (And, yes, some can come live with me. Mission Presbytery has families lining up to receive families in our own homes if people are given the opportunity).

3. Connect:

Mission Presbytery Refugee Family Response

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service

See also: Babies in Jails


*Names changed for privacy

Advent Prayer Stations – Printable Directions and Service


Advent and Christmas = busy crazytown!

It’s nice, as a pastor, to provide an activity for your congregation to do to take a breath and slow down and focus their hearts and minds. The problem? Creating such an activity can be a lot of work for whoever is putting it together. I found a few super simple activities and packaged them together for busy worship leaders to do in a short amount of time.

Download the complete service of five stations. 

Poetry as a Spiritual Practice for Moms (and everyone!)


If I had a dollar for every time a mother said to me (about parenting) “make sure you enjoy it, because it goes by fast,”  well, I’d definitely not have to say to Clayton “Not today because mama doesn’t have any dollars in her purse” when he’s asking me to go on that train in the mall that doesn’t accept debit cards.

Moms love to talk about how quickly their children grow up. Even though mine are only 3 and 2, I am starting to understand it. I see little newborns and think “Oh! I loved those baby snuggles! I hope I appreciated them enough when I had them.”

As someone wiser than me once said “The days are long, but the years are short.”

Soon after moving to San Antonio, I met my friend Kyndall. She is a pastor, and a poet. I loved how many of her poems are autobiographical and narrative. They are like stories, but still poems. They inspired me to write poetry of my own, mostly about my kids.  I thought I would share a poem with all of you, along with my one and only tip for you to get started. Here’s my poem, Burdens  about Clayton learning to get dressed:


Clayton, my three year old, is learning how to dress himself.

It’s a hoot!

Mismatched clothes aren’t the half of it

shirts on backwards (and upside down!)

out of season clothes worn proudly in public

the robot shirt every day of the week

— if he can get away with it

(and he usually can).

A few weeks ago he was struggling to get out of that robot t-shirt

grunting and straining

“Do you need help?” I asked.



More struggling, more grunting

his arms all tangled up over his head


“My arm is too heavy, Mama,”

So endearing, right?

My arm is too heavy. 

It’s like this three year old way of trying to say

I don’t know how this whole “getting dressed” thing works. 

Endearing, yes, but also heartbreaking, somehow.

my eyes welled up with tears at the sound of those words.

My arm is too heavy. 

I started to think of all of the burdens and struggles he’ll face throughout his life.

There are lots of times when your arms are too heavy, but that’s not the half of it

There will be times when it’s not his arms that are all twisted up and too heavy, but his spirit too

And his little heart.

I wanted to say “Sometimes my arms are too heavy, too.” 

But instead I smiled and said, “Here, let me help you.”

My one tip to writing your own poetry: don’t judge yourself. Don’t say to yourself “I can’t do it. I’m not a poet.” Sure you are. If it’s just for you, if it’s just to sit down and write out some things that you’re thinking about and feeling, you’re already a poet. Who knows what you will discover in the process.

Junia, John and Clayton

Flowers in memory of the saints in our lives. Photo Credit: Melissa Johnson

Flowers in memory of the saints in our lives. Photo Credit: Melissa Johnson

Today is All Saints’ Sunday, a day when we remember the community of saints who have gone before us and reflect on their meaning in our lives. I love All Saints’ Day for so many reasons. Today at Northwood Presbyterian Church we each brought up flowers and laid them on the front table, remembering and naming saints who have a special place in our hearts. Today I told the story of three saints that mean something special to me this year, 2014.

Junia – Junia is an apostle whose appearance in the Bible is limited to one important verse. Romans 16:7 in which the apostle Paul says, “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” Junia is clearly and convincingly a woman’s name and in the oldest New Testament manuscripts we have, her name is preserved. Later, though, Junia was changed to Junias, a man’s name. There’s a whole book dedicated to this small (but so important) change. It feels plain to me. Junia was erased. There’s so much I could say about women’s identities and voices being erased throughout history and today, but I’ll leave it where I left it this morning: I know what it’s like to be erased because of my gender, and I’m grateful that those who said “Yes, you are called” and “yes we believe in you” were louder than the voices that said “Women can’t be ministers.” See also:

John – John was a colleague in my Presbytery. We didn’t know each other very well, but we had a few important things in common. We were (are) both European-Americans married to Colombian-Americans, we both love(d) to dance and laugh. We were(are) both deeply concerned about the suffering of Central American Refugees in the United States. On John’s last day on earth he opened a meeting with this prayer for refugees.. It feels like a sort of gift and also a challenge. More about John here.

Clayton – Clayton was my grandpa. (Readers of this blog know that this is also my son’s name). As I told the church this morning, grandpa Clayton understood faith in a very different way than I do. His was a quiet and personal faith. My grandpa kept a diary every day (or nearly every day) from 1933 until the mid 90s (they started getting more sporadic when his memory started to fail.) I, too, keep journals. The difference between Clayton’s journals and my journals are stark. Whereas my journals are emotional and rambling, his are concise and non-emotional. Got a haircut. Listened to Moody Bible preaching on the radio. There are lots of entries about the car. Oil changes. Even so, the entries reveal a person of deep and inspiring faith. On one particular day, he is reflecting on the death of a family member and writes simply “XXX died. The Lord Giveth and the Lord Taketh Away.”  Powerful.

Today I named Junia, John & Clayton. Who are the saints you name this day?