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
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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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Barren tree in field
Calling, Faith, Spirituality, Suffering
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Depression and Spirituality

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I struggle with depression.

It’s hard to talk about this –this depression thing– because a lot of assumptions, judgments, silence, and well-meaning-but-misguided comments can be really damaging to a person who is already fragile and broken and overly-sensitive from fighting depression.

Right now, I’m doing really well.  Right now, the depression is under control and manageable.  So in some ways, right now is a good time for me to talk about it… because I’m not feeling so fragile.

More importantly, for the third time in the past year, I have been confidentially approached by a friend who struggles with this same life-sucking-beast… Each of these friends sheepishly ask if they are properly reading between the lines; do I struggle?  And each time, I cry with them as I say yes.  And I’m so sorry.  Because it sucks so bad.

I don’t want to be the poster child for depression, in part because everyone’s experience is so very different…  In part because declaring this to the nameless-faceless internet world makes me vulnerable in a way that I don’t particularly enjoy…

But my heart aches for those who suffer in silence and solitude.  I do want to share some “wisdom” I have gained along the way, and if it offers you hope, then it’s worth the risk.

For people that don’t understand depression, the first thing they want to know is why?  Why are you sad?  What’s wrong?  Clinical depression means that there is no good reason.

There are times in my life when a real crisis has prompted depression – sometimes there is a reason.  I’ve heard that called “situational depression.”  But the most confusing part for me was the time in my life when everything was beyond-my-wildest-dreams good, but I was not happy.  I had actually transitioned from a not-great situation into a phenomenal one.

I had two babies under two in an area with no family, little community, and hardly any close friends.  Then my husband got a new job with a great relocation package to an area that was a reasonable drive to my family.  We sold our home in 10 days for full asking price.  I landed a job working from home, writing for a textbook publisher.  After looking at 45 homes in 4 days, we chose one that was a perfect fit for our family and had a lot more space at a lot less cost than our last one.  A mere 6 weeks after we moved in, Hurricane Ike hit.  We were in the mandatory evacuation zone, but with my family in Austin, we had a free place to stay, and the 60 foot pine tree fell away from the house.  Upon returning from evacuation, I started writing and had the world’s greatest part-time nanny.  Instead of contributing a couple of features to the textbook series, I developed the prototype for the teacher’s editions and went on to be a primary author.  My husband was loving, supportive, and helpful in real, concrete ways.  I joined a MOMS Club and befriended a great group of women and their children.  My life was full of goodness.

And instead of being happy, the stress broke me.

You know that expression, “God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle?”  Well, I broke.  It was just too much stress, and I spiraled into the deep, dark negativity of depression.  In my depression, I believed every negative thought that crossed my mind.

  • No one likes you.  They’re just being “nice.” 
  • Every time you lose your temper and yell at these beautiful kids, you prove what a horrible mother you are.  
  • Your husband is going to get sick of your [stuff]. 
  • Pretty soon the textbook publisher is going to realize what a fraud you are.
  • Everything is out of control, and it’s all your fault because you can’t handle it.

That’s the thing about depression; it lies to you about what an awful, inadequate person you are.  And you believe it.

I was just empty – except all the frustration I felt at every little thing, especially myself.  My life was devoid of joy, while I was the mother to two loving, excited, exuberant, exhausting little boys, which made me feel even worse about myself.  My marriage suffered when I finally admitted how I felt and just lay on the couch.  After meeting deadlines and taking care of the kids’ basic needs, I didn’t even have the energy.  For anything.

The depression impacted my spirituality in ways that are hard to explain.  I used to feel connected to God, but in the midst of depression, nothing I did in prayer or worship helped… nothing was connecting for me.  It all felt like going through the motions.  When your job is to write about faith–when your profession is “religious educator”–and you’re not feeling connected to God at all, it’s kind of a problem.

In my book, Continuing the Journey, Chapter 11 is about “Spiritual Crisis.”  What constitutes a spiritual crisis –much like depression– is different for different people.  Essentially, a spiritual crisis is when you are going through a rough patch spiritually.  From “Why is this happening God?!” to “Where are you God!?” and everything in-between.  It’s the desert experiences in the landscape of spirituality… It’s when we earnestly pray, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me” (Psalm 22:1).   Not everyone who goes through a spiritual darkness is in a depression, but for me, there was definitely overlap.  In my book, I noted that several well-known and influential people in the Christian tradition have struggled with this spiritual darkness, or what is often called “the dark night of the soul.”

  • “St. John of the Cross is credited with the expression “dark night of the soul.”  In 1577, John was abducted, imprisoned, and tortured for his part in working on reforms to the Carmelite Order.  While in prison, John composed the poem Dark Night of the Soul.
  • St. Teresa of Ávila was a close friend and contemporary of St. John of the Cross.  After unexpectedly healing from a serious illness and professing great devotion to St. Joseph, Teresa began struggling so deeply with spiritual darkness that she stopped praying for nearly two years.
  • C.S. Lewis wrote about his spiritual darkness in A Grief Observed.  After years as an author, theologian, and expert in Christian apologetics, Lewis married his longtime friend Joy, who died of cancer only four years after they wed.
  • Mother Teresa experienced a spiritual darkness that lasted for decades, which began shortly after she founded the Missionaries of Charity and started her work with the poor.” (Continuing the Journey, 47)

Reflecting on the idea that saints and holy people alike have struggled with the dark night of the soul gave me tremendous hope.  If they struggled with this emptiness, maybe it wasn’t a sign of my inadequacy and weakness… but rather maybe it was just a part of my story.

So getting back to my story: with the help of a really good therapist, the right anti-depressant, spiritual direction… and a lot of patience, and I came through it.

It took a few tries to get the right anti-depressant.  The first one numbed me… it was better that I wasn’t feeling so negative, but I also wasn’t feeling joy.  The second one worked for a bit… until it didn’t.  The third one was the charm.  While I worked with a psychiatrist to tinker with the right dosage of the right medication to get the chemicals in my brain to behave, I took the opportunity to work with a great counselor.  She helped me differentiate between what was real and what was my skewed interpretation of things courtesy of depression.

Depression lies.  It makes you not trust your own judgment.  It makes you feel like you deserve the negativity and emptiness.  Counselors can help you wade through this before, during and after the medication takes effect.

Counselors can also help you identify the warning signs of depression.  And triggers.  For me, stress triggers depression.

Last spring and summer, I worked my tail off to finish writing and publish my book.  Without money for childcare, I wrote about half of the book after the boys finished their school year.  That was extremely stressful.  And the depression came back.

As difficult as it was to admit that the depression was back, as difficult as it was to manage the stress, as difficult as it was to function, this time there were a few differences.

We had houseguests–a very special family of houseguests–in late-May.  As per my depression, everything annoys and frustrates me.   In this case, I had been annoyed and frustrated that one of these very special houseguests (“H”) was blowing off quality time visiting.  Now I knew that H struggles with anxiety and depression, but I hadn’t realized that when H would leave for large chunks of time to “go on a walk,” it was to work out the extra energy that accompanied the anxiety.  I was humbled.  And impressed by how insightful and courageous it was for H to prioritize self-care.  Because in the end, doing so made H a better parent, spouse, sibling, and friend.  And an awesome one, at that.

H and the family of very special houseguests extended their stay by a day because we were having such a wonderful visit.  After they left, I reflected on H’s insight, courage, and commitment to manage the anxiety and depression.  And I made an appointment to see my doctor about getting back on the anti-depressant.

Here’s what the anti-depressant does: it helps me be a little more in control of my spiraling emotions, which decreases the negativity just enough.

In the midst of all of this, I was also working on a retreat with an amazing group of women.  I felt that God was calling me to honestly share my struggle with depression, but I had no idea what to say.  Or why.  I actually got a little angry with God about this point.  After spending hours trying to figure out what to write, I sat back in my chair, leaned away from my laptop, raked my hands through my hair, looked up and yelled, “You want me to talk about this?  Then tell me what to say!  Because I don’t get it.  I’m done.”  It was nearly midnight and I was now frustrated and annoyed with God, so I walked away from the computer and went to bed.

The theme of the retreat came from Matthew 28:20  “I am with you always.”

Jesus walking on a path

At 5:51 am, I awoke with tremendous clarity, feeling fully refreshed.

I realized that in the midst of the darkness of depression, God never stopped whispering: “I am with you always.”

From the timing of the very special Houseguests, to my friends, to the community of women I shared my retreat with, to my husband, to my boys, God never stopped whispering his love.

Instead of accepting the lie of self-doubt and loneliness that depression brings, I began to see–and try to feel–the adoration of God.  As I sat at my desk that morning, trying to put into words how God whispers “I am with you always” to me, my 8-year-old son came bounding in to my home office just to give me a hug and kiss and tell me, “I love you, Mommy.”

That’s how I came to see and experience spirituality in depression: I surrendered to undeserved love.  And through the arms of my child, God hugged me.

For all the negativity I feel in the depression, God still manages to remind me I am with you always and I adore you.


This called my home by Daniel Wehner licensed under CC BY 2.0

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The Creation of Adam
Article, Informational
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Creation and Evolution and Pope Francis

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The Religion headlines of a variety of mainstream media news sources have noted that Pope Francis says evolution is real and God is no wizard.  Social media was all atwitter with reaction, from shock and excitement…

Evolution and Creation 2

 

…to sarcasm, because this is actually not new.

Credit - Catholic Memes

Creation Evolution

No Conflict

Sarcasm aside, the Catholic Church does (officially) teach that there is no conflict between faith and evolution / the Big Bang theory.  Specifically, the Church teaches that Scripture is authoritative only in matters of faith, not science.  To put this another way, the Church will speak to the Why of creation, but not the specific details as to the How.  Catholic teaching asserts that God created all things from nothing, but does not say how.  Explaining how everything came to be belongs to the realm of science.

Continuity

The Church has held this position that there is no conflict between faith and evolution / the Big Bang theory since Pope Pius XII in 1951.

  • Pope Francis made a statement at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on October 28, 2014.
  • Pope Saint John Paul II made a similar statement to that same group in October 1996.
  • Pope Benedict XVI not only agreed with his predecessor and his successor there is no conflict, he specifically spoke against the idea of teaching “Intelligent Design” as a scientific theory.

It is important that popes reaffirm this teaching in continuity with one another because many people still do not know that this is what the Church teaches.  So, of course Pope Francis made the statement!  But no, Francis did not disagree with Benedict, nor is Francis’ statement in stark contrast to Benedict’s.  There is continuity, as there should be.

Intelligent Design

In 2006-2007, during Pope Benedict’s papacy (2005-2013), there was a heated discussion about teaching Intelligent Design and/or Creationism alongside the theory of evolution and the Big Bang Theory.  Concern arose because proponents wanted to teach Intelligent Design and/or Creationism as alternative scientific theories.

“Intelligent Design Theory” attempts to be a form of science, redefining science to accept miraculous explanations; Creationism specifically uses the bible as a source of scientific authority.

An article in the Vatican newspaper made it explicitly clear: “Intelligent design is not science and should not be taught as a scientific theory in schools alongside Darwinian evolution.” (Catholic News Service)

Good theology understands God’s role in creation, but that’s theology, not science.  Believing in an “unmoved mover” or “superior cause” or “intelligent designer” is theology, not science.  The Church grants science the rightful domain of explaining the origins of the universe, but acknowledges God’s guidance in some way (and does not define what that “way” is).

Recognizing that it speaks with authority in matters of faith, not science, the Church does not officially endorse any one specific theory. However, the Church does recognizes the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting the Big Bang Theory and evolution, and officially states that creation and evolution are not contradictory (the faithful do not need to choose one or the other).


Adam creation © Depositphotos.com/savacoco

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Figurines Hugging
Action, Calling, Love
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Give Some Love

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You know how timing is everything?

One night last week I was working on Sacrament prep with my younger son, Max.  The lesson, “God Loves Us,” asked him to identify some of the ways different people in his life help and love him.  Then, it asked him to identify some of the ways he offers help and love to others.  It was a good, simple 2nd Grade exercise, but it didn’t make that explicit connection back to the lesson title.  So we talked about it:

“Do you see what’s happening here?  God expresses his love for us through other people.  When you feel loved by someone, they’re helping God out by delivering that love.  When you offer love and help to others, you’re helping God out by delivering that love.  Sometimes God tugs on your heart and fills you with love, or care, or concern for someone… and you have a choice to either help God out and give some love or just ignore it.  Did you know that’s how God works?”

Max scrunched up his face as he thought for a moment, and then smiled and said, “Well, I didn’t know it, but it makes a lot of sense.”

It turns out that our Sacrament prep conversation occurred on the evening of St. Teresa of Avila’s Feast Day.  The prayer attributed to St. Teresa, “Christ Has No Body But Yours,” touches upon this theme of God relying upon us to help and love others.

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Making that connection between the idea of God’s love for us and our role in making that happen is important at any age.

Fast forward a couple of hours, and later that night, instead of making the kids’ lunches, I sat on the floor of my office and packed up 70 copies of Continuing the Journey to ship out to 35 different parishes in the Houston area.  (Yay book sales!)  So I went to bed promising to do lunches in the morning, even though I know that’s never a good idea. When I awoke with a viscous head cold, I decided to sleep in a little later, drop the kids at school, and then make and deliver those lunches by 11:30. Plenty of time!

Except before I went over to school, I stopped at the Post Office.  Turns out it takes a lot longer to mail 35 packages than I expected.  Turns out that I really should have either pre-paid or made an appointment.

All this to say that I was a little late in delivering the lunches… so late that I needed to walk them up to the boys’ classroom.  When I entered, I saw that my 8 year old son, Alex was sitting next to his teacher (never a good sign), who tells me, “We’re working on calming down.”

I take one look at Alex’s face and see the swollen, puffy red splotches around his eyes.  It was one of those “one-too-many-things-went-wrong” situations, but all he could focus on was this little plastic shoe lace lock thing that broke.

“Honey, I’m about to run some errands; do you want me to stop at Academy and pick you up a new shoe lace thing?”

A very sad, but relieved “Yeah…” came out.

“Actually, Alex, would you want to come with me?”  (I look at his teacher and she nods in agreement.)  “You could eat your lunch in the car, take some time to calm down, and you can come back to school later.”

“Okay.”  And he put his little hand in mine as we walked out.

We have an expression in our male-dominated, engineer-brain, intense-personality house, which is simply “I need some love.”  Whether a person is sad or frustrated or feeling down or lonely or simply feeling cuddley, “I need some love is a request that is always honored.  It’s a stop-what-you’re-doing and be fully present to a full-body hug.  Thus far it has also involved the boys crawling into my lap.  This expression gets adapted to question form: “Do you need some love?” as well as a statement that accompanies a bear hug: “I just want to give you some love.”

So as we walked out of the school building towards the car, I picked him up into a bear hug so I could give him some love.  We got into the car and pulled out of the parking lot.

“Alex, I want you to know that if you’re ever having a difficult day, it’s always ok to call me and tell me that you just need some love.  I will always do my best to be there for you.”

This made him cry even more, so I pulled the car over, he climbed into the front seat, and I just gave him some more love.

“Aside from your shoe, can you tell me some of the other things that happened to make it such a frustrating day?”

Alex is not the most verbally expressive kid, so I only got a few garbled pieces in a very high pitched voice, but one tidbit stood out.  When he had started to get emotional at school, one of the younger children in their mixed aged class called Alex a cry-baby, and then denied doing so when confronted.  Alex was most upset by the injustice of it all: Together, the students had created, agreed to, and and signed a Class Constitution that explicitly stated they are to show compassion to one another (not make fun of each other).

He was too upset to talk about it any more, so I gave some love and we went about running errands, fixing shoe lace locks, and stopping by a Starbucks to pick up a kid-hot-chocolate (which is a super-small serving at a kid-friendly “warm-chocolate” temperature).

Later in the afternoon, I told him about why I was so late to drop off the lunches–it took a lot longer to mail 35 packages than I thought.  But instead of the Post Office being a thorn, it turned out to be my rose.  If it wasn’t for this unexpected delay, I wouldn’t have been so late in dropping off the lunches that I needed to walk into his classroom at that moment and see him.  I wouldn’t have been there at exactly the right moment to give some love.

“You know Alex, last night when Max and I did Sacrament prep, we talked about something that relates to this.  You know that God loves us, right?  Well, the way God helps us experience that love is through one another.  God knew you really needed some love today, so He took advantage of my delay and put me in the right place at the right time.  God sent you love through me.  God gave me the opportunity to love you, and of course I said yes!

That’s how God works.  When someone is upset or in need of help (or could just use some love), God tugs at your heart and asks you to help.  You have three choices:

  1. You can ignore it, which kinda hurts God’s feelings.
  2. You can be mean to the person, which really hurts God’s feelings.
  3. Or you can give love, which really helps God out.

And that’s the thing that’s so upsetting about [your younger classmate].  He saw that you were upset and instead of offering love or compassion, he chose to be hurtful.

I hope that the next time you see someone who is upset, you’ll remember how important it is to offer love.”

The reality is that this dynamic of giving and needing love presents itself to us every day.  Sometimes it’s obvious: your child is visibly upset and you have a unique opportunity to respond.  Sometimes it’s more subtle: a friend crosses your mind while you shower and you find yourself suddenly filled with gratitude for their presence in your life.

It’s at these times–both the obvious and the subtle–that God is tugging on our hearts and asking us to help Him shower His people with love.


  • How do we respond to this tug?  By ignoring it? By lashing out against it? Or by offering love?


Free hugs by Hien Nguyen licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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