Christianity

Fasting During Advent: A Spiritual Practice

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Crying in the Toilet Paper Aisle

Last year during advent I went to the grocery store to get toilet paper. Doesn’t seem like something I’d remember a year later, except for the fact that I know began to cry, right there in front of the toilet paper. I can’t remember what the underlying sadness was about, but I do remember the tears began to flow when “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” started playing really, really loud. It was late at night, probably 10 p.m., and there was nobody else around. It was me, the absurd number of toilet paper choices and Mr. Holly Jolly, on full blast.  Instant tears.

I don’t know exactly how many people for whom this story might resonate, but I suspect I’m not the only one. The holidays are challenging for a lot of people, and for a lot of different reasons. For some there are feelings of loss and grief as we remember loved ones who aren’t around. Some are far from family and wish to be near. Some are near to family that is constantly fighting. Sometimes there are additional work or social obligations that pile up and pile on. For some it’s a time of financial strain. Whatever the reason, I don’t think we talk about it enough. I think we do what I did last year when I was crying in front of the toilet paper. We take a deep breath, buy the toilet paper, and muddle through.

But what if there’s a better way?

For Christians, advent is the time leading up to Christmas. It starts this Sunday, November 29th and ends on Christmas Day. Theologically, it’s a time of waiting and preparing for the Christ child to be born anew in our hearts.

Though the culture wants advent to bright and loud, we can make it dark and quiet if we need to.

We can look at advent just like we look at lent: a time to get serious about what these seasons mean theologically.  

To do this, we need to be critical thinkers and questioners. This is different than being cynical or saying “bah humbug!” One question we might ask is is that true?  I saw an ad for diamonds that said something like “Give her the best Christmas ever.” For a fleeting moment I thought “What if I lived the type of life where my husband gave me diamonds for Christmas? I would love that!” And then I thought is that true?

All that glitters isn’t gold. All that sparkles isn’t love.

I’m starting to wonder if Christians need to think seriously about fasting during advent, just as we do during lent. If this appeals to you, I’m going to give some suggestions for types of fasts that might be useful. Let’s give them a try and report back. Let’s see if we can make advent a meaningful time of waiting for the light of the world without resorting to crying in front of the toilet paper. Here are some ideas. Do you have more?

Fast from Buying Gifts You Don’t Want to Buy

Instead of gadgets and plastic and trinkets, thoughtful notes and cards. Homemade artwork. A poem. I’ve never given or received a gift like this and felt bad about it. What if you said to your friends, “Let’s share a cup of tea (glass of wine, bottle of beer, bowl of soup) and laugh for an hour? It will be our gift to one another.” I imagine it would be one of the best gifts you could hope to receive. Gift giving isn’t bad or wrong. It’s a great way to teach children about empathy don’t think about what you want, think about what grandma would like. I’m not suggesting that everyone say no gifts ever to anyone. I am suggesting, though, that we fast from the obligatory gift giving, the giving that doesn’t bring joy, the giving that feels like work. Let it go.

Fast from Social Media (In part or altogether)

There’s a wide range on thoughts about social media and I’m definitely not in the “eww, it’s evil” camp. I love social media. I feel connected to friends far away, I have conversations with clergy colleagues around the world. I get great ideas for artwork and sermon preparation. I’ve also experienced a calm and quiet when I’ve turned it off, only used it between certain hours or taken “social media free” days. Give it a try, maybe?

Fast from your Phone

iPhone users: “Do Not Disturb” is your friend. It’s a setting on your phone where you can set it to not ring, or buzz, or beep, or ding or anything. You can even set certain “favorites” who can get through in case of emergency. Every night at 9:30 I go through a process of setting my phone to “Do Not Disturb” and also setting each app that has banner notifications (in my case text, phone and gmail) to “no notifications.” That means if I check the time on my phone in the middle of the night, there are no texts waiting to be read, no emails staring at me, no missed calls. I turn it all on in the morning and figure out what I’ve missed. It was really hard the first week or two. Now it’s become a place of peace and rest. I know people can get me in an emergency. Freedom.

Another type of mini-fast for heavy phone users (like me). Put your phone far, far away for short periods of time when you’re doing something important, like talking with a friend or playing with your children. I put mine in another room or turn it off for 15 minutes, a 1/2 hour, an hour, four hours. (Four hours sometimes sends me in to cold sweats, but I’m working on it.) I can’t control nuclear launch codes from my cell phone, nobody needs me that badly. I’m redefining urgent. Maybe you are, too.

Maybe an advent fast would mean trying one of these two disciplines every day from the first of December until Christmas Day. Turn your phone off every night at a specified time, all month. Commit to one hour of no cell phone use every day so that you can replace it with something important: being with family, reading a novel, creating art.

Fast from TV

I’ll never forget a sermon I heard from John Ortberg where he said “Nobody sits down for a couple of hours of mindless TV watching and then gets up and says ‘Man, I feel great!‘ Everyone laughed, because we knew it’s true. TV is like a drug, sometimes. We zone out, we just sit there and pass the time. It’s not that we can’t ever watch TV, but we know when it’s getting unhealthy. After I had Clayton I went through this period of TV watching that I think was truly like some sort of addiction. I would get up to nurse him, flip on the TV and just sit there, zoned out and looking at nothing, for hours. The cure for me was the radio.

Fast from Unhealthy Habits 

Maybe advent is a time, just like lent, to think about what we’d like to give up or limit in order to gain something new. Maybe the person who most needs a gift this advent is you. I started to list off some of the unhealthy habits, but it looked judgmental. don’t know what’s unhealthy for you and what you need to limit or eliminate, but I know you do. Give yourself a gift.

Other Fasting 

Maybe some of these will spark your imagination as well:

  • Fast from putting yourself down (“I’m not doing enough at work or home or relationships”)
  • Fast from driving everywhere — Can you walk or bike or take a bus?
  • Fast from paper products or excess trash
  • Fast from eating out or driving through

The point of fasting during advent is not on what you’re giving up, it’s on what you’re gaining.

So, the time with the phone in the other room is time to focus on something else. The money not spent on a gift can be given to a worthy cause, the smoothie instead of the donut helps show respect for your body. All of these things aren’t easy, they’re hard. They’re disciplines. Just like with lenten disciplines, they’re easier practiced in a community. Find a friend or partner and share what you’re giving up this advent. What do you have to lose? What do you have to gain? How will Christmas Day take on new meaning?

 

 

 

Say THIS not THAT: 9 Things to Edit out of Christian Helping Speech

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Nine Things Christians Can Edit Out of Our “Helping Speech”

A few months ago I was really struggling with anxiety and migraines. I felt overwhelmed and and a general sense that life was too much to handle. I called on friends (as you do) to help me pick up the pieces. One friend, in particular, really stepped up to the plate. I remember her saying very little. She listened and took me out to eat. She gave me freedom to talk. I can think of a few helpful things she said, but mostly it was the things she didn’t say that helped me get through it all. Part of what was going on was that I waited too long to reach out for help. I said “Thank you for not telling me that this is all my fault and that I should have reached out sooner.” Her response inspired the title of this post. She said “Well, I’m having some of those thoughts, but I’m editing them out and not saying them.” Sometimes there are things that come to mind that we simply shouldn’t say. We need a brain editor.

Since that time I’ve had a blog post rolling around in my brain about things we might want to “edit out.” I’m not an expert brain editor (I often say the wrong thing!) but there are a lot of times people come to me and tell me the things that others have said (while trying to be helpful) that aren’t helpful. This list is a record of some of those. Would love to hear your thoughts about these and what things you would add to this list.

1. Edit out: God never gives you more than you can handle.
Say Instead: That sounds really difficult.
Rationale: First of all, “God never gives you more than you can handle” is not in the Bible. The verse people are referring to is 1 Corinthians 10:13 which is a verse about temptation. When we say to a person who is suffering ‘God never gives you more than you can handle” what we mean to say is “You are strong. You will get through this.” Instead, though, it rings hollow to the ears of those who are suffering.  Sometimes it feels like we can not and will not survive. Sometimes we need someone to acknowledge our pain and say “That sounds hard.”

2. Edit out: Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help you.
Say instead: I’d like to arrange a cleaning service to clean your house for you. What day is good? or I’m planning to bring my chicken curry over for supper. Should I leave it on the porch for you today, or ring the bell?
Rationale: In general, I think we should err on the side of thinking of something that might be helpful and offering to do it rather than putting the burden on the suffering person to decide what might be helpful. Nine times out of ten if you say to a suffering person “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help” the person will not reach out. Often a more concrete offer to do something will be well received, especially if there’s a way for the person to opt out. If you say “I’m bringing dinner this week, what day is good?” the receiver can always say “Please, I’d rather not.” Better yet, just drop the meal at the door (in disposable containers) and run. The recipient can always freeze or throw it away if it’s not needed. Suffering people have enough to manage without managing caregivers as well.

Bonus: 4 things do offer for someone who is suffering/grieving:

  • Babysit their children
  • Take them a meal
  • Clean their house (or have a service do it)
  • Have flowers delivered

3. Edit out: He/she is in a better place.
Say instead: I’m so sorry for your loss.
Rationale: Someone recently told me that every time someone says “He’s in a better place” she thinks “Well, I’m not.” Reason enough not to say this.

4. Edit out: Let go and let God
Say instead: I’m thinking of you
Rationale: I’m not even sure what “let go and let God” really means. It seems empty and feels empty to the ears who hear it.

5. Edit out: He/she isn’t “the one.” or “It wasn’t meant to be”
Say Instead: I’m sorry you’re going through this very painful breakup.
Rationale: I learned this the hard way… by saying it to a friend who was experiencing a painful breakup. She rightly called me out on it. “I’d rather decide if someone is or is not ‘the one,’ it’s not your job.” Very true.

6. Edit out: I know exactly how you’re feeling.
Say instead:  How are you feeling today? (Thanks Teri)
Rationale: It’s human nature to want to compare our experiences to others, but the truth is, even if we’ve gone through the same thing (loss of someone we love, illness, etc.) our experiences and feelings are different, because we are different.

7. Edit out: God has a reason for this. / Everything happens for a reason.
Say instead: This is really hard to understand.
Rationale: When Christians say “God has a reason” we are often thinking of the Romans 8:28 that says “We know all things work together for good for those who love God who are called according to his purpose.” It’s a lovely verse. Yet, when tragedy strikes, it’s often very, very hard to see how it could lead to anything good. Sometimes we are never able to make sense of a tragedy, and that’s ok. When we are going through hard times, it’s comforting to know that others find them difficult to understand as well.

8. Edit out: God must have needed another angel in heaven
Say instead: I’m so sorry for your loss.
Rationale: Implying that God snatched an unborn child (or baby, or child, or young adult) from this earth and put that soul in heaven to make him or her an angel rather than allow that person live to old age makes God sound mean. There’s nothing in scripture that says anything even close to this, and I’ve never once heard someone say that it was helpful for them to hear it.

9. Edit out: When God closes a door, God opens a window.
Say instead: I’m here for you (if you are, of course!)
Rationale: Sometimes when roadblocks come our way other opportunities open up. Sometimes they don’t though. What if it’s hard to see the window? Better to let the person decide for him or herself if there’s a “window opportunity.”

The Stench of Resurrection

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This week I caught up with a colleague over a cup of coffee. It was there she told the story of an Easter morning debacle unlike any I had ever heard: A rat had crawled into the oven and died sometime during lent. When the oven was turned on to heat up breakfast casseroles, the dead (and now burning) rat began to perfume the entire building with its awful stench. “I don’t know if you’ve ever smelled anything like that, but I can’t even describe it,” she said. She went on to tell about how she and parishioners frantically opened windows, trying to rid the building of the gag-inducing smell. “Nothing says ‘Christ is Risen’ like the smell of burning rat flesh,” we laughed. Hilarious. Awful. Gross. As I reflected on it later, though, it occurred to me how poignant and maybe even appropriate the whole story was — the smell of death lingering in the air on Easter morning.

Just before Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, Martha says to Jesus “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.” (John 11:39, NRSV)

There is a stench in the air on the day of resurrection. I don’t think we talk about that enough, but we probably should.

On Easter, the alleluias come back and the lilies come out. The trumpets sound, and the bells are rung. But the poor are still hungry. The prisoners are still captive. The terminally ill are still dying. Writer Barbara Johnson said it this way: We are Easter people living in a Good Friday world*. We who proclaim the resurrection know that it is very good news. “Death has been swallowed up in victory,” we proclaim, and we mean it. But this victory is not easily won and the death is not easily forgotten. We don’t like to talk about it, but there’s a stench, a smell, we can open the windows and bring in flowers, but it’s still there.

After Lazarus is raised from the dead, John 11 tells us another interesting detail in verse   forty four. He writes, “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth and his face wrapped in a cloth.” I remember a fairly disturbing coloring sheet from my childhood depicting this event. Lazarus, the walking mummy. The biblical narrative is matter-of-fact and doesn’t linger in details. Jesus simply tells Mary and Martha “Unbind him, and let him go.”  What does it mean to unbind a newly resurrected body and let him go?  What was it like for Mary and Martha to remove those strips of cloth from Lazarus’s  flesh? What did it smell like?

As we Easter people go about the work of cleaning up after the resurrection, we have a job to do: unbind him and let him go.  We participate in the work of resurrection, and it is hard work. It isn’t as clean as we have been led to believe, perhaps. There’s a smell in our nostrils we can’t quite get out.

Though the stench might seem to put a damper on the celebration, I have to wonder if it doesn’t do us a favor. It reminds us that even after the resurrection, death is lingering in the air.

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Original quote from “God’s Tear Bottle,” The Best Devotions of Barbara Johnson

The Confirmation Project: Guest Post by Katie Douglass, Co Director of the Confirmation Project

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Traci’s Note: One of the things that always seems strange to me in the protestant tradition is that of confirmation. If done right, I think confirmation can be a rich time where young people grow to understand their faith and their role in it. Many times, though, students report confirmation as a time where they are asked to “jump through hoops,” or are “kicked out of the church.”  It makes me sad and angry to hear stories of young people who are experiencing a normal part of faith development — questioning — and are then made to feel unwelcome in the church. I don’t believe the church should get rid of confirmation, but I do think it needs some serious evaluation and discussion.

Enter the confirmation project. The confirmation project, co directed by Katie Douglass and Richard Osmer is an academic study of confirmation. I can’t tell you what they’ve found yet because, well, they’re still finding it. Read a little from Katie below and if you are interested in participating in the survey, please get in touch with them via http://www.theconfirmationproject.com  I’ll keep you posted on their findings. This research is important to how we pass on faith to our kids!  

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Katherine M. Douglass, Co-director of The Confirmation Project

Princeton Theological Seminary

December 2, 2014

Thanks for inviting me to share a guest blog post on your website Traci. Like you, I want to help parents and ministry leaders encourage growth in the faith of youth and their families. Confirmation is one of those traditional practices in the church that is meant to do just that. I currently co-direct a research project called The Confirmation Project with Richard Osmer that is aimed at discovering how congregations practice confirmation and equivalent practices. We are interested to discover how participation in confirmation intensifies faith in youth and integrates them into the body of Christ, the church.

For this project we are only studying five mainline Protestant congregations that practice infant baptism: the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the United Methodist Church. Through the survey and site visits we hope to hear from youth, parents, volunteers, mentors, and ministry leaders.

Every church in these five denominations is invited to participate. If your church has not received an email invitation, you can request one through the “Contact Us” link at our website. http://www.theconfirmationproject.com

The survey takes 15-20 minutes to complete and asks questions about what people believe, their involvement in the church, their interest in various topics, and what they think the point of confirmation is. The parent and leader survey ask many similar questions and, in a more detailed way, about how confirmation is conducted.

Some confirmation programs happen all year and some happen in the spring. Because of this we are keeping the survey open for almost all of the year (fall 2014-spring 2015). The goal is to have youth, parents, and ministry leaders take the survey at the beginning and at the end of confirmation. We are interested in seeing how participating in confirmation brings about spiritual formation in youth.

This study was inspired by a research project happening in Europe. In some European countries, like Finland, confirmation was something almost everyone participated in (over 80 percent of youth!), however, it did not result in high levels of congregational participation (only 2-3 percent of Finns attend church weekly.) In other countries, like Austria, only 10 percent of youth participate in confirmation, however, those who do are much more likely to be regular members of congregations. This study also showed that confirmation gives youth the opportunity to volunteers in ways that are otherwise inaccessible to them. Their study was very well received and as a result they have been awarded further funding to conduct two more waves of the study.

From talking with ministers and pastors early in our research we are interested in knowing if there is agreement between parents, youth, and ministers as to what “confirmation” actually is. If what we heard from the ministers is correct, there is quite a big disparity between what people think this practice is.

We also believe that we will see a higher correlation between participating in confirmation and being an active church-goer. In the US, congregations seem to have higher levels of retention than in Europe anyway, however, we have a hunch that “believing” and “belonging” will go together (i.e. when youth are convicted about their beliefs, they will be more likely to see these beliefs as part of their identity as a Christian, to belong to a church).

Our goal for this project is to help ministers grow in their awareness of what this practice can or could look like. Many ministers we have talked with feel like they are at a loss as to what they are supposed to be doing.  Many, although not all, feel frustrated that despite their efforts to help youth “confirm” their faith, they are seeing this function as the final graduation for youth out of the church. Some have seen great fruit from their confirmation ministry – and through our site visits, we plan to share these stories. I am hopeful that through our research, we will be able to help those frustrated ministry leaders have the resources they need to change confirmation into a practice that integrates youth into the body of Christ and intensifies their faith.

The Things We Don’t Talk About at Church…

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Here’s something I’ve noticed, and maybe you have too… there are some things that we don’t talk about at church. When I say church I don’t mean Northwood Presbyterian Church in San Antonio or First Baptist Church of Anytown or Hope Bible Church in Largecity… I mean church in general. Any church. Some things are freely talked about and others are talked about in hushed tones, if at all. 

I’ll give an example… cancer. Cancer seems to be firmly planted in the “acceptable” camp. When our family members get cancer (and so many do) it seems like something we can talk about. We can say to someone “my nephew has cancer” and everyone will hear it, repeat it, and agree to pray about it. I say, from the pulpit (after getting permission) “Let’s pray for Mr. Jones, Mrs. Garcia’s nephew. Mr. Jones has cancer.” 

But what about… say… depression. Depression seems to be planted firmly in the “we don’t talk about it” camp. When our family members become depressed (and so many do) it seems like something we can’t talk about. Rarely will someone say “my spouse is depressed,” or “I’m depressed.” Have you ever heard a pastor say, from the pulpit (after getting permission) “Let’s pray for Mr. Jones, Mrs. Garcia’s nephew. Mr. Jones is depressed.”? 

Why is that? We know the answer: it’s because mental illness is hidden from plain view not just in the church, but in society at large. Cancer = acceptable. Mental illness = unacceptable. In the example above about depression, one could easily substitute any one of a number of mental illnesses or taboo things that people struggle with: eating disorders, addictions, phobias, relationship problems, financial problems, family problems, fertility problems, and so many more. 

There’s no easy answer or solution to making sure that the things we don’t talk about in church are talked about, but we know this to be true: the things we don’t talk about in church are precisely the things we should talk about at church. They are the things that weigh us down and occupy our minds and hearts. They are the things that make us cry out to God. If God cares about these things (and we believe that God does care about them) should not the church care about them too? Let us continue to work toward a world where every struggle is acceptable to name, out loud.  

Four Reasons Why This Pastor Encourages Egg Hunts in Churches

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The Saturday before Easter, my lovely congregation will be holding a little Easter Egg hunt with cupcakes, cascarones, music and laughter. Some pastors might argue this is liturgically, theologically or spiritually inappropriate. I don’t think so, and here are four reasons why.

1. The Easter date was chosen to coincide with a pagan festival... there’s already ample historical precedent for the church putting itself squarely in the middle of culture. The early Christians thought it was a good idea to celebrate the risen Christ in the middle of where the party already was. They contextualized it. It doesn’t make Jesus any less risen, it makes him risen at a time when people are already having a party. I’m fine with that. Eggs and bunnies, chicks and candy aren’t going anywhere, culture-wise. Children will associate Easter with bunnies and chicks and candy and eggs even if there is no egg hunt on the church lawn. So why not have a celebration that includes these things in a place where there are adults who love them and will also share the message of Jesus and resurrection and new life?

2. It’s a great way to reach out to people who don’t have a faith home. Eggs and candy and games are a very low-stress way to drop by a church. If a child and his or her parents drops by and has a great time and is inspired to come back, I see that as a huge win. If not, it’s an opportunity to share our love and joy with the community.

3. There is time for deeper reflection and Good Friday Mourning later One of the arguments against holding Egg Hunts before Easter (during lent or on Good Friday or on Holy Saturday) is that it is to be a time of penance, mourning and reflection. I agree with this, and I think that families can do a lot of age-appropriate things to teach their children about meditation and grief and restraint. At the same time, let’s let children be children, let’s let them be joyful even if we ourselves are in mourning Life is hard and our children will be adults soon enough. I believe that we, as adults, have a responsibility to shield our children from some of the darkness that is Good Friday. There is a balance here. We can’t ignore the truth of what happened on the cross, but we have to be mindful of what little heads and hearts can grasp at tender ages.

4. There is room for both. I don’t think we should baptize the Easter Bunny, but our children can have both. They can understand that Easter is about the Resurrected Lord and it’s also about celebration and joy (and sure, candy eggs, why not?) There is nothing to fear. If we do our jobs, Jesus will become more real with each interaction they have from loving adults and pastors who will stop at nothing to make sure that they grow up to be fun-loving, Jesus-following, life-giving people.

What do you think?

For Further Reading: Where Did the Easter Bunny Come From?

Hurry, Hurry

Here we are, in the season of advent. See, right there, you know I’m a pastor nerd. For most people, this is “the Holidays” or “the Christmas Season.” For pastors, it’s advent. What’s the difference? Well, advent is a time of waiting and longing for the coming of Christ. It’s actually kind of somber and very, very quiet. There’s not a lot of glitter or sparkle in advent, just a cool, dark, night. In advent we wait. I talked about this in my sermon yesterday, about how truly countercultural advent is. Absolutely everything around us screams SHOP! BUY! PURCHASE! DECORATE! For us to take a stand and decide to do something different

to slow down

to wait

to be still

we are recognizing that advent is a time of spiritual preparation, not all that different from Lent.

Yesterday I read the poem “Hurry” by Marie Howe. Even if you heard it yesterday in the sermon, it’s worth another listen in the poet’s own voice. You can hear it at the top of the page HERE.

How will you celebrate advent this year?

For further reflection:

Advent Conspiracy