Questions for a Calmer Christmas

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It’s Christmas time, people, and all too often I head into this season of hope with an anxious scarcity mentality. This has to be the most perfect holiday ever, I tell myself. And usually conscious thought stops there as the emotional hyperventilating commences.

But this year, I’m forcing myself to fully explore my insane thought process. It goes a little something like this: The kids are growing up. I can’t waste these prime magical Santa years! Before I know it, they’ll be out of the house. What if they never realize how much we love them? What if they have no positive childhood memories? What if I fail in this whole parenting gig and they grow up dysfunctional, unable to carry out a fulfilling and self-sufficient life? What if they have no moral or spiritual center? What if, as adults, they’re just relieved to escape me and never want to come home? Mr. M and I will be abandoned on Christmas! We’ll be abandoned in general! Clearly, if I don’t hand-make a gorgeous Advent calendar from reclaimed pallet wood RIGHT NOW, the children will be traumatized and I will die alone and unloved.

Oh, God in Heaven. I’m uncomfortable using power tools. We are all SCREWED.

 Okay. So writing it down makes me realize that it’s crazy. And yet, this crazy and often subconscious inner monologue is exactly why I commit to too much and then berate myself for not following through (or for following through with bitter cynicism instead of oodles of genuine goodwill).

This year, I’m determined to step back from the ledge.

For me, that means visualizing my ideal future and setting specific holiday goals that will move me in that direction. Oh Kate, you might be thinking. Isn’t that a little extreme for holiday planning? Can’t you just put up some decorations, make some hot cocoa, and let Bing Crosby sing you through the season?

Theoretically, yes. I’m sure that’s how reasonable people do things. But I tend to be far from reasonable, especially during this time of year. I succumb to ridiculous self-imposed expectations, excess, and over-extension that generally sour my whole Christmas season. I’m hoping to avoid all that by having a strong vision rolling into Advent.

According to my backwards logic, I need a complicated plan to ensure that my Advent and Christmas season stay simple. (Feel free to judge that all you want. Heaven knows, I certainly do!)

So I’m stepping back from Pinterest. Instead, I’m considering my holiday plans in light of the following questions:

  • When my co-celebrants someday look back on this year and/or time, what do I want them to remember? How do I want those memories to affect their/our future? What special memories do I have regarding the holidays of my past? What can I carry over and share in the present? What memories do I want to create? How do these kinds of memories connect to my larger goals and values? How do I hope my current celebrations will influence my future and my evolving relationships?
  • What realities must I acknowledge in my holiday planning? What non-holiday obligations do I already have on my plate? Are there traditions already in place that I need to uphold? What limits do I need to respect?  How many activities, traditions, or obligations can I honestly take on while maintaining my wellness?
  • With whom do I celebrate the holidays? What are their ages, temperaments, and needs? How must I account for this as I plan? (Confession: all too often, I’ve had a “fun” experience go irredeemably south because I ignored the likely possibility that my two-year-old would, in fact, act like a two-year-old.)
  • What do we gain and what do we lose by attempting any particular holiday tradition or activity? How much time and energy will it take? What are the potential benefits of taking this on? What are the potential costs? Is this worth it? How does this tradition or activity relate to my larger goals and values? Is there another way to put those goals and values in action—and if so, would this be a better option for us at this time?
  • What motivates me to even consider incorporating a particular activity or tradition into my holiday season? Will this really add joy or other value to my life? Will it really bring joy or other value to my co-celebrants? Or am I once again making decisions with an anxious scarcity mentality? Am I “shoulding” all over myself? (Father James Martin SJ suggests of that last phrase, “Say it aloud and the negative meaning becomes clearer.”)

I’m hoping this little litmus test helps to guide my family towards a more peaceful and rewarding holiday season. Here’s hoping that some small part of it may do the same for you, dear reader!

Common Sense for Christmas

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(If you’re lucky, Santa might just bring you this book.) 

It’s nearly Advent, and the Christian readers of this blog (do I have any readers?) probably know what that means… happy new (church) year!

I don’t know about you, but for me any prospect of a fresh start is both thrilling and dangerous. It’s thrilling because this is my chance to finally live out all of my best intentions. And it’s dangerous because my “best intentions” often don’t take into account such pesky little details as, oh, reality.

I’m really hoping that this holiday season (and Year A in general) buck my usual trend.

That trend goes something like this: at first, I’m buoyed by the general excitement of a new beginning. At the beginning of a new church year, school year, or calendar year I make tons of resolutions and move forward with gusto. But all too soon, I abandon whatever it was I was theoretically so passionate about incorporating into my life. And then, as an extra-special emotional bonus, I pile on the self-shaming because I was “too lazy” to make those changes.

My spiritual life is certainly no exception to this grim pattern. Let’s take this upcoming Christmas season as a case in point. I’ve been scrolling through Pinterest, collecting images of beautiful things that the more motivated mamas are already doing. I build theoretical plans to do this art project or start that ritual… and then I guilt myself because I’m not already doing it.

I feel all this self-induced pressure to make Advent and Christmas magical and meaningful for my family. Unfortunately, all that pressure renders me too anxious to truly enjoy anything with them and I often spend the holidays as a sweating, resentful bystander… or, conversely, treating my partner and children like expendable window dressing in the display of my theoretical perfection. (“Just go away so that Mommy can create precious memories for you!” I find myself thinking. And yeah, I realize that’s not a statement that should be on any reasonable person’s radar. But there you go.)

So this year, I’m going to do a little pre-thinking. Before I get seduced into trying out a cute tradition or a truly awesome reverse advent calendar, I need to ask myself: what is it I’m actually trying to accomplish here? And what are the actual parameters of my life that I need to acknowledge while pursuing that goal? Where can I simplify? Where can I say no?

Saying no is incredibly hard for me, but also (usually) incredibly rewarding when I can manage it.

While I ponder our 2016 plans for Advent and Christmas, I’ll be consulting an invaluable resource—Beyond Happy: Women, Work, and Well-Being. The author of this book, Dr. Beth Cabrera, works in positive psychology. In Beyond Happy, she puts her expertise (plus tons of her peers’ meticulous research) to work analyzing (a) why the culture of anxiety thrives and how we can say no to it, (b) how we can uncover our individual purpose, and (c) how to access that purpose in practical ways that dramatically enhance our quality of life. In covering these points, we can also (d) make a more positive impact on the world as a whole.

Self-induced pressure, you may be a familiar and longstanding companion. But I’ve got to tell you, Cabrera’s message is much more in keeping with the spirit of Advent and Christmas!

Chapter Five of Cabrera’s book is titled “Be Hopeful.” In it, she advises readers to visualize their ideal future and set specific goals that will move them in their desired direction. After completing this important initial work, Cabrera then recommends:

  • Using if-then planning to guide action.
  • Identifying several alternative strategies for achieving goals.
  • Keeping a victory log as a record of all successes.
  • Considering the efforts expended by role models to achieve success.

As I work through the steps recommended by Cabrera, I’ll be posting the seasonal-specific questions I used to guide my planning, as well as some specifics on how they shaped or shifted my perception of our family’s needs.  I’ll add link-backs to those further musings in this post.

But in the mean time, dear reader, how do you create meaningful and memorable holidays?

Sadducees and Election Fatigue

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It’s my week to teach Sunday school, and I’m stuck with a truly snore-worthy passage: the Sadducees questioning Jesus about the legitimacy of the resurrection. Ugh. Somehow, I doubt the preschool crowd will be entranced or inspired by a hypothetical merry widow working her way through seven brothers. Nor will they be impressed by the theological feats of derring-do performed by Jesus as he evades the traps in the Sadducees’ tricky question.

For my own part, I want to scream at the Sadducees: “Quit wasting time looking to discredit someone who’s just trying to help! Why are you so focused on the resurrection or lack thereof? There’s plenty to focus on in the here-and-now! Just do the best you can to love your neighbor and let all that other stuff sort itself out after you die! You should be making allies and finding solutions to the real problems of this world! Starving children. Institutionalized racism. Rape. Violence. Cruelty. Oh, and let’s not forget potentially irreversible climate change. Climb out of your self-righteous little hole and stop worrying so much about protecting your own power, already!”

Hey. Wait a minute, there.

Could I possibly be reacting to our current bitter election cycle? Could it possibly be that the long-dead Sadducees are not the powerful leaders who annoy me? Hi, my name is Kate. I’ve survived watching three presidential debates and I’ve got the emotional scars to prove it.

Hmm. Perhaps the fact that Jesus actually listened to the Sadducees and responded to their concern is proof of his divinity. He didn’t pivot. He didn’t use their question as a platform for attacking a scapegoat, vilifying an opponent, or bragging about his own greatness. He stayed on-topic. It indicates that (gasp!) he may have actually been listening.

I know plenty of people—myself sadly included—who have stopped listening to understand. We merely listen to respond or, even worse, we listen to confirm our own worst suspicions. And really, that’s not listening at all.

I want something better for my children. I want something better for myself. Maybe it’s time to grow up a little, shift my point of view, and do my own part to put the “civil” back in civil discourse.

Good Samaritan for Grown-Ups

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This week, I’m inspired and challenged by author John Metta.

A friend’s online post recently turned me on to writer John Metta–specifically, an article he wrote entitled “I, Racist.” It was a thought-provoking gem of an essay that makes me ache to be back in an AP Language and Composition classroom. (Don’t be surprised if I rewrite this post at some point to include a lesson plan and Socratic seminar questions. I just might not be able to resist.)

While a quick perusal of Metta’s website yields a treasure trove of well-written thoughts I plan to peruse in depth, this particular text ties directly back to the Good Samaritan parable as well as the sermon my pastor gave this week. Certainly, it’s provoking some more challenging self-reflection on my part.

I strongly encourage you to read the whole text. If nothing else, I’d be interested in hearing the thoughts provoked by a brief excerpt of Metta’s work, below. 

Speaking on the Good Samaritan and institutionalized racism, Metta writes, “What if the person wasn’t beaten and bloody? What if it wasn’t so obvious? What if they were just systematically challenged in a thousand small ways that actually made it easier for you to succeed in life? Would you be so quick to help then?”

On Samaritans and Serpents

Know this about Big Sis: she has an amazing heart, strong emotional intuition, and boundless energy and imagination when it comes to solving problems. It should probably come as no surprise that, during our discussion of the Good Samaritan parable, this wise little five-year-old ended up schooling me.

I was prepped to provide all the profundity. I had an Arch Book covering the story! And we were going to brainstorm lists–one about all the ways that we already love our neighbors, another about what else we could be doing to extend and demonstrate that love.

An excellent opportunity to lobby for better treatment of Little Brother, I thought. And I can also make an anti-bullying plug before kindergarten starts. 

And yeah, I got up on that soapbox. Big Sis listened dutifully and even contributed appropriately to my pre-written script. Gold star! Lesson over!

But then she said, “Mom, I want to help the people who don’t have money. Those people we see who are asking for money.  I want to give it to them.”

Say what?

I wish I could tell you that I instantly had a brilliant and generous response. Not so, but at least I didn’t lend voice to my ugly inner thought process. It went something like this:

  1. An initial knee-jerk selfishness mixed with a healthy dollop of scarcity-mentality panic. I’m not sharing my money with panhandlers. They don’t deserve it! And I don’t even have enough for myself, despite the fact that I’m gainfully employed! 
  2. Surprised shame… I can’t believe I just dismissed the needs of an entire portion of the human population. I’m a jerk.
  3. … Quickly followed by justification. But I’m a jerk with a mortgage to pay. 
  4. Then some pain. Remember when Family Member X was living on the streets, hurting and hurtful, spending what he could get on drugs? I felt powerless to help him. I feel powerless now.
  5. And finally confusion. Why couldn’t we just congratulate ourselves on donating canned food and bringing casseroles to sick loved ones? How am I supposed to navigate this surprisingly challenging discussion about loving our neighbor? 

And then I did what all parents do: I handled it the best I could, full knowing I was probably missing opportunities or sending mixed messages.

We decided that I’ll start carrying extra snacks in my purse. We will offer them to anyone who asks for money. We are also going to set aside money throughout the year. Right after Thanksgiving or during Advent, we will have a family meeting about how to spend the money helping others. Big Sis will definitely have a voice.

It’s more than we’re doing now. It’s a good baby step to take. But it’s also a far cry from the radical love and hospitality that Big Sis was originally advocating. She wanted to take homeless people shopping and buy them whatever they said they needed. She wanted to give them her jar of scavenged pennies and birthday money. She wanted to buy them a house “because everyone should have a home, Mommy. It’s not fair.”

And I hated myself a little bit for telling her “Be less generous.” And it reminded me of all the times that I, in my capacity as teacher, inadvertently told my high school students “Think smaller.”

Which brings me to the serpent. Honestly, I’ve always hated the story of Eve biting the apple. The rampant lady-hating! The vilification of learning! And God as angry dad, just a-dolin’ out the punishments!  I’m a feminist, a teacher, and a hippie Lutheran… it pretty much pushes all my buttons.

But after my interaction with Big Sis, I considered the story in a new light. What do Adam and Eve actually learn after eating the apple? They learn shame. They learn fear. They experience pain and separation from God.

This isn’t exactly the brand of “wisdom” I’d hoped to impart as a teacher or as a parent. But how many times have I been a Serpent in the Garden, saying (and perhaps even believing) that “I’m just opening your eyes to reality” when, in fact, I’m pushing cynicism, conformity, or self-doubt? I do it to others. I do it to myself.

I am glad I ended the conversation by telling my daughter I was proud of her. I told her that she can make big things happen, that I’m glad she cares so much, and that she should always believe in herself and her capacity to do good.

Thanks, Big Sis, for teaching me yet another lesson about love.

A Place at the Table

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Our song of the day during worship this morning’s service was A Place At the Table. After a week of tough news in the United States, it was both healing and challenging to sing lyricist Shirley Elena Murray’s refrain: “God will delight when we are creators of justice and joy.”

Normally, hymns are hardly my favorite part of worship. I observe them politely while remaining essentially unmoved. But today’s featured song forced a bit of self-reflection that went a little something like this:

Sometimes, I feel stymied by the vast quantity of issues humanity has yet to surmount or, in some cases, even acknowledge. I feel helpless. I feel hopeless. I cling to the sour conviction that I am vastly under-qualified to  address personal and institutionalized prejudice against “others” (take your pick as to how we define those others at any particular moment).

But discouraging though my perceived helplessness may be, I suspect it’s actually the more pleasing alternative. What if I’m not helpless? What if, instead, I am paralyzed by fear?

Sure, I make parenting and personal decisions that I’d like to think have a positive impact on the world. But I could be doing more. What stops me? Fear. If I stand up as a stronger advocate for victims of injustice, some people may disapprove of my words and actions. Worse, some of the disapproval may come from people I care about. I don’t want to discover bigotry and/or ignorance in my loved ones. And I certainly don’t want to discover it in myself.

But my blind spots are there, whether I acknowledge them or not. I’m a product of my gender, my sexual orientation, my race, my class, my region, and my educational background. I have privileges I don’t even realize. There are ideas and realities to which I’ve never been exposed–either because they’re entirely outside my realm of experience, or because I haven’t been paying very good attention.

How can I be an advocate if I’m not an expert? How can I be an ally without co-opting or corrupting more authentic voices?

Beyond cultural issues, there are the usual human factors to consider. I can be cowardly, self-involved, and egotistical. I’m not always a good listener. And sometimes, I get so worried about causing or feeling discomfort that I avoid the difficult conversations and uphold a shameful silence.

“I’ll be more helpful when I have more time,” I tell myself. “I’ll contribute when I have more money, more knowledge, more patience, and more talent.”

Enough.

Today I’m admitting that I’ll never be perfect, and there will never be a perfect time to grow my own skills as an advocate or ally. But that doesn’t matter. My shortcomings are no excuse for holding back. Imperfect efforts are better than inaction.

The odds are that I won’t singlehandedly cause an amazing and newsworthy shift on behalf of human rights. But you know what? I don’t have to make headlines. I don’t have to be a visionary leader. I can be a courageous follower. I can join all the other humble people quietly building a more compassionate culture.

That’s the world I want to live in, the one Shirley Elena Murray describes in her hymn: “For everyone born, a place at the table, to live without fear, and simply to be. To work, to speak out, to witness and worship, for everyone born the right to be free.”

 

Year C, Summer Lectionary

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Is June really almost already gone? Yes. What have I been doing with my summer? I’m not really sure. It seems to be dribbling away in an effort to keep the house semi-clean and the laundry semi-caught up. (Oh, and jam. We’ve made a lot of strawberry jam.)

Clearly, I haven’t been updating this blog. Sadly, I haven’t been following my kids’ lectionary cycle either. But I’m going to leap in this week with a little Galatians and see where it takes me!

* * * * *

Holy Trinity Sunday (5/22) – The Gifts of Wisdom – Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

Lectionary 9 (5/29) – A Centurion’s Servant – Luke 7:1-10

Lectionary 10 (6/5) – Paul as Apostle – Galatians 1:11-24

Lectionary 11 (6/12) – Saved by Faith – Galatians 2:15-21

Lectionary 12 (6/19) – Purpose of the Law – Galatians 3:23-29

Lectionary 13 (6/26) – Following Jesus – Luke 9:51-62

Lectionary 14 (7/3) – Mission of the Seventy – Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Lectionary 15 (7/10) – The Good Samaritan – Luke 10:25-37

Lectionary 16 (7/17) – Martha and Mary – Luke 10:38-42

Lectionary 17 (7/24) – The Lord’s Prayer – Luke 11:1-13

Lectionary 18 (7/31) – New Life in Christ – Colossians 3:1-11

Lectionary 19 (8/7) – Meaning of Faith – Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

Lectionary 20 (8/14) – Heroes’ Faith – Hebrews 11:29-12:2

Lectionary 21 (8/21) – Healing on the Sabbath – Luke 13:10-17

Lectionary 22 (8/28) – Humility and Hospitality – Luke 14:1, 7-14

Lectionary 23 (9/4) – Paul’s Plea for Onesimus – Philemon 1-21