A Joyful Heart
Advent, Humility, Joy
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Preparing, Waiting, and Joy

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I love how life teaches me about faith.

Advent is about waiting and preparation.  I know that.  I knew that.  Except I didn’t really get it until the year I was pregnant.  That was the year I encountered the blessed waiting of Advent as an expectant mother in her first trimester.

Up till then, my “preparations” were focused on gift-giving and party-attending.  Don’t get me wrong – I planned, prepared, and purchased gifts from the heart.  I organized Christmas caroling at the nursing home for my high school students.  I participated in Giving Trees.  It wasn’t that I was self-centered and materialistic… I just didn’t get the whole waiting and preparation thing.

But that Advent when I was pregnant with my first child, I sat at Church one Sunday, ever-so-aware of how nauseated I felt, ever-so-aware of the little life growing inside me, and ever-so-in-awe of the path that lie ahead. Preparation wasn’t about nursery colors, registries, and baby names.  It was about preparing our lives–and our marriage–to receive and raise a child.
New Born Alex

Fast forward nine years.  I thought I knew what waiting and preparation were about.  And then, on December 1st, the day after the First Sunday of Advent, my husband came home with the news that he was being furloughed.  Furloughed is not unemployed; you technically keep your job but aren’t allowed to work until the company can afford to pay you.  He’s an aerospace engineer, working for a company contracted by NASA… How long would the furlough last?  Until contracts were signed and there were funds to pay for his position.  Possibly in a day or so… possibly 4-5 weeks.

So we waited… and hoped… and prayed.

In the waiting, there was an absurd amount questioning (particularly second guessing financial decisions and employment possibilities) and the awareness of a humbling loss of control.  From day to day there would be a glimmer of hope, and then a “no.”  A lot of uncertainty.

Through it all, I was struck by a deep sense of perspective.  We faced temporary unpaid leave.  Many are in the midst of long-term unemployment.  Others face terminal illnesses or a tragic loss of a loved one.  Sure, we’d rather not be in this situation, but it could definitely be worse.

This past Friday, after two weeks of uncertainty, Peter went in to work for a meeting and then used up the last of his paid leave.  There was one more glimmer of hope: his company had won a contract with three-persons-worth-of-work, but it was a matter of waiting to see if they would assign it to him.

Sure enough, the answer came Saturday night while we were at his boss’s house for a Christmas party.  Praise God, Peter was assigned to part of that new project and could return to work on Monday.  Awash in joy, I couldn’t wait to share the news!
Back To Work Post

The next morning was the Third Sunday of Advent – Gaudete Sunday, which is Latin for joy!  We light the pink candle and remember to be joyful.  Let me tell you, joy radiated from within, and it felt incredible!

Children seem to dabble in joy so easily, especially at Christmas; adults seem to struggle with stress, especially at Christmas.

We really do need that pink candle to remind us to be joyful.

Well, with this good news, I was determined to be joyful!

To be honest, although I had been setting aside money from Criagslisting old toys, I was hesitant to do any Christmas shopping until I knew whether we might need those funds in other ways.  So between Amazon and all the other stores for all the other things, I’ve been buying gifts this week.  It’s a little crazy out there.  It’s tempting to forget joy and embrace stress… after all, everyone else is doing it.

So every day this week, in the midst of every errand, I find myself pausing in reflective prayer: I am so thankful for the opportunity to do this. I choose joy.

 I invite you to do the same: choose joy!

  • How has your life taught you about faith recently?

  • How can you choose joy this week?
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Prisoners
Article, Informational
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Moral Teaching on Torture

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The release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s “Torture Report” brings a slew of articles on the use of torture and the deceit surrounding it.  Although the report itself is 500 pages, there are plenty of sites that offer snippets of commentary alongside snapshots of the report itself.

It is difficult to read about the details.  Even the vague descriptive terms make me squeamish.  But I think that’s a good thing.  It should be difficult to read.  We shouldn’t be desensitized to the details of torture.  A visceral reaction to articles about torture reflect our recognition of the evil in the act.

“Church teaching is clear. Torture is abhorrent and can neither be condoned nor tolerated.” (USCCB, Background on Torture)

Torture is morally wrong.  It is discussed in the Catechism in conjunction with the 5th Commandment’s discussion of disrespect for human life and dignity.

Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity (CCC, 2297).

Why does the Church teach that Torture wrong?

1. Torture debases the human dignity of both the victim and perpetrator.  Not only does the act of torture violate the dignity of the prisoner, but in order to participate in such vile acts, the dignity of the torturer is also violated.  All levels of authority figures who order and condone the practice of torture participate in violating the dignity of both the victim and the perpetrator.  The practice of torture “estranges the torturer from God and compromises the
physical or mental integrity of the tortured” (USCCB, Background on Torture).

“An evil action cannot be justified by reference to a good intention” — St. Thomas Aquinas (CCC, 1759).

2. The end does not justify the means. People often speculate that torture is justifiable if it ultimately renders information that can save lives, thus asserting that it is a necessary evil.

Research has shown (and evidenced in the Senate report) that information gathered as a result of torture is not reliable.

But from a moral perspective, the focusing on the reliability of the information misses the point.  Morally speaking, we must never do evil to achieve good, nor must we ever try to justify doing evil because good came out of it.  We are not entitled to achieve our goals by any means necessary.  

3. Do unto others is the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31).  Essentially this is the idea that we should not do to others what we do not want them doing to us.  This is part of the reason why torture is illegal according to international law and the Geneva Conventions.

We cannot condone torturing another human being.  As a matter of faith, we must reject this practice.


Prisoners by José licensed under CC BY 2.0

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Family Mission
Action, Life
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Intentionally Living Out Your Values

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In this Season of Advent–as many families are preparing for Christmas–there have been a few families that have made some big, intentional decisions about how they will celebrate this season.

There’s one with what’s called a “click-bait” title that you may have seen (click-bait means it’s an intentionally provocative title that baits you to click and read) called: Why My Husband and I Cancelled Christmas.” It was picked up by both the Today Show and the Washington Post.  Despite the title, it’s a good article: the parents decided to reject the cultural consumerism of the secular holiday season and instead, focus on service to others.  Their biggest motivator in doing so was battling the sense of entitlement that they have begun to notice in their children.

Then, in “The Secret to an Intentional Christmas,” Jennifer Fulwiler of Conversion Diaries reflected on a conversation she had on her Sirius XM radio show with another Catholic-mom-blogger, Kendra about her post “Seven Reasons My Kids Don’t Need Toys This Christmas.”

What I love about what Kendra is doing is that she’s questioning key cultural assumptions about what it means to celebrate this season — even some of our most deeply-entrenched assumptions, like the idea that there should be toys under the Christmas tree.

Emboldened by her example, I’ve started to look at every single thing we typically do during Advent and Christmas, and I ask myself two questions:

  1. Do we really have to do this?
  2. Does doing this reflect the values that are most important to us as a family?

I talked to Kendra on my radio show about this this week, and one of the interesting things that came from the discussion was the realization that you can’t choose activities that reflect your family’s values if you haven’t taken the time to clarify what your family’s values are in the first place.

Let’s say that again: you can’t choose activities that reflect your family’s values if you haven’t taken the time to clarify what your family’s values are in the first place.

Before we married, before we had kids, both my husband and I read Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  While we had found its insights useful in our professional and personal relationships, the application of Seven Habits to our family is worth noting.  Putting the first three habits into practice—being proactive, writing a mission statement, and prioritizing our time, efforts, and energy—made a tremendous difference in focusing us into the kind of family we want to be, and the kind of children we want to raise.  In a word, it helps us be intentional.

Our family mission statement began as a list of words that reflect our values: love, respect, responsibility, learning, playfulness, fun, joy, quality family time, creativity, passion, care, generosity, integrity, gratitude, forgiveness, compassion, service, and communication.  In and through each of these values—guiding and sustaining them—is faith and hope.

At first we brainstormed our list at the dinner table, transcribing them with a sharpie onto a piece of scrapbook paper. 
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Initially the boys were too young to really participate in the conversation, but as we have added to the group of words over time, the boys have also contributed to the mission statement. By working on it together, we make sure it reflects all of us.  Eventually I painted the words on a canvas with a nice background. 
IMG_0682

Our family mission statement hangs in our dining room, reminding us of who we are and how we will be with each other and the world around us.

As different negative, unhealthy behaviors come up, we have pointed to our family mission statement and reminded the boys that’s not who we are; that’s not what we are about.

Likewise, the Family Mission Statement reminds us that we are committed to playfulness and fun, so we are sure to make time to play a family game, or go on a bike ride to the park, or drive over to the Kemah Boardwalk and ride the roller coaster.

Try it: grab a sharpie and a piece of pretty paper.  At dinner, talk with your family–or your spouse or yourself–about what your guiding values are.

The next step is to put it into practice and make sure that how you spend your time, efforts, and energy reflect your values.

  • Have you given thought to expressing what your values are?
  • What is one way that you practice living out your values on a daily/weekly/monthly basis?
  • What is one thing you could do this week to be more focused on living according to your values?

 

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Christmas Tree Decorating
Advent, Life, Love
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Rejecting Perfectionism and Embracing the Beauty of Life and Love

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I love decorating the Christmas tree.  I relive the memories associated with each ornament – remembering special moments with friends and vacations with family.  I turn on Christmas music, I have a glass of wine, and I enjoy the memories.

A few years ago, my husband wanted to try doing a time-lapse photography of our Christmas tree decorating.  Photography is one of his hobbies, he already had most of the gadgets, and was able to borrow the one piece of equipment he didn’t have (an interval-something).  Afterwards, he’d take the hours of pictures and edit them into 2 minute video clip set to music.  All it required of me was to decorate, so I agreed.

I have to admit, the Tree Trimming video turned out so well that it became a tradition.

The thing is that every year, I struggle with the Tree Trimming video drawing my attention to all that is less-than-perfect.  This year we got our first artificial tree, and despite my attempts to spread out the branches (as evidenced in the first full minute), I notice at least three gaping holes.  My boys love helping, and I know it’s important to share the memories with them… but they move faster than my stories do, and they don’t spread the decorations… they clump them together.  So I spend much of my time re-locating their efforts (as evidenced by minutes 2-3:45).  At 3:05, you’ll notice that glass of wine.  At 3:18, my older son knocked it over and I spend through 3:27 cleaning the stain out of the carpet.

“Who told you that you were naked?”  –God (Genesis 3:11)

I don’t want to be so focused on imperfection that I fail to appreciate my blessings.  I don’t want to shape my children’s memories of me by pointing out everything that is wrong.  I also don’t want to create some sort of passive-aggressive dynamic where boasting my inadequacies pressures others into telling me how wonderful I am.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.  Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.  (Psalm 139:14)

On the one hand, my attention to detail serves me well as an author and editor, as a problem solver, and as a doer-of-things.  On the other hand, if I allow perfectionism to dominate my interactions, it will interfere with loving myself, others, and the God who created me.  Perfectionism is alluring because it offers the illusion of control.  But that control comes at a price–it almost certainly costs us peace and usually wreaks havoc on our relationships.  Moreover, it is asserting a level of control that comes close to violating the First Commandment.

I am the Lord your God… you shall have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:2-3)

So on my path of preparation this Advent season–in this time of preparing my heart for the hope and joy of the coming of Christ–I will open myself to choosing the beauty of life and love.

This means that I will choose to embrace the cuteness of minutes 1:18-1:24, where Alex reads the meaning of the Twelve Bride’s Tree Ornaments while Max and I hang them.  Or at 2:25 where I get my 8 1/2 year old to pause for a kiss long enough to capture it on the time-lapse.  Or 3:37 where Max suggests “a family hug,” followed by dancing.

Rejecting perfectionism isn’t easy for me, but it’s something I must do as a matter of faith and a matter of love.  It’s not that I’m not aware of these imperfections… it’s that I am invited to release them so I can experience the fullness of life.


  • What do you need to let go of to prepare your heart for the hope and joy of the coming of Christ?

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Advent Candles
Advent, Conversion, Metanoia
1

Prepare the Way

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We are in the season of Advent.  The season of preparation.  The season of waiting.

We live in an instant-gratification culture that hates waiting. We are barraged with Christmas sales, music, and merchandise in October.  So when we hear talk about “Advent” we tend to think only of the countdown calendars… and even then, it’s hard to understand and embrace the waiting.

But wait, we must.  We encounter the waiting game in every nook and cranny of our lives.  We wait in lines.  We wait in traffic.  We wait for news of a job, news of a diagnosis, news of a birth… a death… a pregnancy…  In this season of Advent, we are given the opportunity to baptize (notice the little “b” there) or consecrate (set-aside for God) our experiences of waiting as time to be present to the moment… to the yearning for goodness.  Perhaps in the waiting, we can put down the cell phones and set aside the frustration and take the opportunity to pray.  In embracing the waiting, perhaps we can relinquish control to the One who is the Messiah.
Advent Calendar

Advent is a Season of Preparation

What is it that we are “preparing” for?  We prepare for the coming of Christ.

For young children, we certainly focus on the Miracle of the Incarnation: in Advent we prepare for the birth of Christ.  But as we grow older, we hear the readings throughout Advent… readings that are not simply about the coming of the Christ-Child, but of the Second Coming and John the Baptist’s message of repentance.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) summed up the meaning of Advent when he suggested that in it, we celebrate three comings of the Lord: the past, the present, and the future,

  • The Past: The first coming was the coming of Christ in history: the Miracle of the Incarnation.
  • The Present: The coming of Christ within the hearts of disciples.
  • The Future:This final coming (often referred to as “The Second Coming”) will take place at the end of the world (the Apocalypse).

The Past – The Incarnation: Amid the secular holiday retail extravaganza, we do manage to see the images of the nativity, however meager. Look for them.  Revisit the story of the Nativity.  Marvel at the Mystery of the Incarnation: God became human.

The Future – The Second Coming:  Though admittedly, we don’t see many images of the Second Coming in seasonal decorations.  Not very heart warming, I suppose. Even as Jesus himself admits we do not know the hour (Matthew 24:36), we are called to prepare our lives for this reality by having our priorities in order.

The Present – In Our Hearts:  St. Bernard referred to this dimension of Advent as the “invisible” reality.  Here, we can look to the multitude of Christmas movies and focus on the messages of conversion, from The Grinch to Rudolph to even my least favorite, Frosty.

Yet still, we manage to misunderstand the meaning of this season of preparation in our daily lives.  Bear with me as I ask you to take a moment to engage your religious imagination:

Imagine going to the mailbox and sorting through the bills and junk to find you have received a very special announcement: Jesus will be joining you for dinner tomorrow night, and he’s very much looking forward to it.  Somehow – however you need – you know for certain that this is not a joke.  Once you get over the shock, what’s the first thing you’ll need to do?

Even as I write this question and I know the “right” answer, I feel myself tempted to do an emergency house cleaning while I let my husband deal with the menu.  And then there’s getting the kids cleaned up, into nice clothes and practicing their table manners.

The thing is that Jesus couldn’t care less about the condition of my house.  What he cares about is the condition of my heart.

When John the Baptist tells us to Prepare the Way… to Repent and believe… he’s telling us to get our priorities in order.  To quit obsessing about the things that don’t matter (consumerism, materialism, and perfectionism, just to name a few) and give our hearts to the things that do matter (love, presence, and a faith that does justice).

So perhaps in the midst of all that time we spend waiting, we could ask ourselves a better question:  


  • What do I need to do to prepare my heart–my life–to welcome Jesus?


IMG_0220 by Alex Harden licensed under CC BY 2.0

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