Thanks for giving, not shopping

Happy Thanksgiving!

During this time when we pause to give thanks in the USA, I take this Scripture seriously:

In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.

1 Thessalonians 5:18

But, the truth is, gratitude is only some of what is stirring in my heart.

I am also restless and longing for greater peace and justice for God’s people. Sometimes this causes there to be layers of sorrow, judgement, disturbance, discouragement, disappointment and anger too — layers that I fear might be thicker than the gratitude that I feel.

As many people begin their holiday shopping, it’s especially tough for me to not become angry about the consumerism that our culture force feeds us. People are excited about sales, about shopping and buying more stuff. What is the craze about? Is it about generosity? Or, is it about greed and getting new stuff, just so we can throw out the old?

Whatever the case may be, let’s not throw out our consciousness that Earth is hurting and our consumption is causing serious destruction. Let us heed this warning:

The real culprit of the climate crisis is not any particular form of consumption, production or regulation but rather the very way in which we globally produce, which is for profit rather than for sustainability. So long as this order is in place, the crisis will continue and, given its progressive nature, worsen. This is a hard fact to confront. But averting our eyes from a seemingly intractable problem does not make it any less a problem. It should be stated plainly: It’s capitalism that is at fault.

Christians, we are not here to cause more pain and suffering. We must attempt not to contribute to the systemic problems. Even when it’s easier to avoid the heartache of truth, we must step out of our comfort zones and be converted.

Doing so will help move society toward solutions. It is time for us to work for a more sustainable, equitable and just society, a world that builds up the reign of God. This is how we store up treasures in heaven!

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.

Matthew 6:19-21

Although this can become a time when a lot of people are crazily shopping and consuming, this is also a wonderful season of generosity, community, sharing and celebrating the goodness of God! This is what builds up God’s reign! This is what we are made to promote!

So, what’s a Christian to do? How can we resist the craze of consumerism and be countercultural peacemakers?

Here are some ideas:

  • Collect donations for your local homeless shelter, transitional living program or food shelf. Want to give things that they really need? Then call them up and ask what that is! Most likely money is one of the greatest needs.
  • Honor children and elders: Mentor young ones and teach them about generosity. Help meet the needs of those who are vulnerable. Visit elders who are homebound and lonely. If anyone asks me what I want for Christmas I’m ready to tell them that I want donations to Tubman House for Christmas.
  • Pray for peace: This includes asking God how you are needed to be peacemaker.
  • Connect to the tough parts in the Christmas story: Advocate for immigration reform and stand up for anyone who is oppressed by violence and injustice.
  • Spread the Love: Tell young people that they matter and you care about them. Write letters and cards. Be intentional about how you spend time with others.
  • Getting creative about how you give presents: Re-gift. Buy things at thrift stores. Making DIY crafts out of stuff you have around home. Utilize some of the resources from “Buy Nothing Christmas” and bake goodies to share.
photo credit: http://www.accessoriesmagazine.com/

On this day of true thanksgiving, let us give God all that is on our hearts! And, let us make a plan for how we will express our gratitude through our countercultural, generous living. Amen!

This blog post is adapted from the November 25, 2011 blog post entitled “thanks for giving, not buying” and the November 27, 2013 blog post entitled “Craving a countercultural Christmas.”

Thanksgiving in the midst of this mess

“It’s getting ugly!” “Society is starting to collapse!” One might be tempted to scream and cry when the headlines are scanned; when turmoil bubbles up and splashes upon any sense of security and comfort that has been shielding our privileged lives.

The mess of injustice can burn us or it can mobilize us to be who we are made to be. This is the time for us to give of ourselves; to share compassion, kindness, solidarity and prayers—we have been practicing for this since the time of Jesus Christ. Yes, we Christians must indeed stand with the vulnerable and weak right now; we must protect and care for those who are oppressed and suffering with all our might. We must pay attention and help all people unite as peacemakers, as people who nonviolently resist the hate crimes and violence that are ripping communities and our nation apart. Yes, we must resist nonviolently, even willing to do so to our death–Jesus already showed us the way.

The heartache is real, the challenge is intense; the truth is disturbing and can mess up our comfort zones and our temptation to avoid. And it should. We have a lot of work to do.

But, tomorrow is THANKSGIVING. A day to feast, to pause. A day for loved ones to sit around tables and eat, eat, eat; play games and laugh, and tell stories. Can we afford to take a break?

Yes. We must. We absolutely must.

Thanksgiving is a day to practice the essentials; to lean into those we love and gain strength, to connect with our roots and remember who we are and how we’re meant to be.

Many of our families are likely to be split over the issues, to be a collection of folks who sit at different spots on the political spectrum. This day of thanksgiving—no matter who we spend it with—is a day for us to practice what we believe it will take to heal our hurts and mend the broken, messy society. We can avoid controversial topics and keep all things light and cheery (and that’s OK; that is healing and important too) or we can look into the eyes of those who are near us and try out those dialogue skills, even awkwardly. We can ask, “How are you doing, really?” and “What are you worried about right now?” and “What do you believe will help us be better?” We can listen (with compassionate curiosity), love unconditionally, tell true stories, and imitate Christ. We can practice self-sacrifice.

Thanksgiving is a day for gratitude. We can closely examine the beauty that surrounds us in faces, in food, in the dance of color and light. We can think about all the things we have learned, that have been exposed and broken open. We can consider how we’ve grown since last Thanksgiving and how God is guiding us through.

We can make “thank you” our mantra of love. A lot is good and we really are blessed, abundantly. To pause and celebrate the goodness is not only healthy, it is necessary; only in our gratitude and relationships shall we have the strength for the mission we are made for, a mission of love and joy.

There’s a lot of beauty in the endless opportunities of this sacred feast. This is an important time and by God’s grace we are ready. For this we can also say “thank you.”

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

"evening light" Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Evening Light” by Julia Walsh, FSPA

 

 

 

Bring on the darkness

I don’t know why it is, this time of year, that I gear up for action. Once Daylight Saving Time ends, I’m ready to go. Most people tend to simmer down when the cold weather seeps in, the nights get longer, the house gets cozier, and the soups just sound more delicious.

I’m ready to get OUT. Let’s lose some weight! Yes! Right before and during the holidays! Yes: that makes perfect sense! In fact, let’s get all the outside projects done while the night approaches and we work in the darkness. Because who doesn’t love not seeing what they’re doing?

Photo courtesy of www.freeimages.com
Photo courtesy of www.freeimages.com

Honestly, where was all this energy during the summer when it could be more useful? This flummoxes me every year. But what helps me feel a little more normal is that it nicely lines up with Advent. Maybe it’s a little earlier than the season, but you get the idea.

I get EXCITED when the nights get longer. It forces me to contemplate. It makes me go inside myself and do some really difficult work. Darkness lets me dream more, and my dreams are little messages from God helping me through that work. It helps me free up emotional and spiritual space for more adventures—lovely adventures that open your life up to the spirit of Jesus and never-ending possibility.

I think sometimes we just stuff ourselves silly with the status quo of our lives. We keep our stuff because it gives us security and confidence, and we don’t want to ever waste anything. Some of this is completely appropriate, but I’m pretty sure there are areas in our lives that need to be thinned out. Are we scared to have vacancy somewhere? Does that make us vulnerable to … what … despairing need? Or does it open us up to more rewarding opportunities?

Sure I could wait until Advent to get started, but personally I think this process takes longer than 25 days. Clear out those cobwebs. Let’s REALLY get ready for Jesus this year, starting now.

The backwards blessings of being busy

A little bit after my Christmas break began a couple weeks ago, I realized something was wrong with me.

Here I was, entering into days that were meant for rest and rejuvenation, and I totally felt stressed out about all I had to do. Sure, it made sense. The end of the year and the holidays are a busy time for most of us. Maybe procrastination had gotten the best of me. I do know that during those hectic weeks between Thanksgiving and the start of my Christmas vacation, I moved several things on my to-do list into those big gaps of “free time” on my calendar around Christmas.

But even though it may have made sense that I felt stressed, it didn’t seem right. I couldn’t actually relax and just take pleasure in the things I needed and wanted to do. I even found it difficult to actually focus on the work, because my anxiety about it all felt so intense. A sudden abundance of “free time” strangely seemed to put extra pressure on me to achieve, accomplish, produce. Whew.

I couldn’t help but to wonder: Am I addicted to being busy? 

My heart was deeply pondering that uncomfortable question. My body was desiring some real rest. And, my mind was longing to actually accomplish some necessary tasks. So, I couldn’t help but to pause and immediately read this article when it came across my Twitter feed:

Why is everyone so busy? The Economist

I took a break from the anxiety about the work and delved right in. Then, I totally calmed down. It was an incredible and interesting read, not something I could skim. In fact, the article actually stirred up some good personal reflection for me. The article contained particular insights that I found to be so striking that they lingered with me during the rest of my break (especially whenever I was tempted to feel shame for not being productive.) Here’s a few quotes:

  • Nowadays professionals everywhere are twice as likely to work long hours as their less-educated peers. 
  • Lunches now tend to be efficient affairs, devoured at one’s desk, with an eye on the e-mail inbox. At some point these workers may finally leave the office, but the regular blinking or chirping of their smartphones kindly serves to remind them that their work is never done.
  • The rising value of work time puts pressure on all time. Leisure time starts to seem more stressful, as people feel compelled to use it wisely or not at all.
  • The endless possibilities afforded by a simple internet connection boggle the mind. When there are so many ways to fill one’s time, it is only natural to crave more of it.
  • The struggle to “have it all” may be a fairly privileged modern challenge. 
  • The years soon bleed together and end up rushing past, with the most vibrant memories tucked somewhere near the beginning. And of course the more one tries to hold on to something, the swifter it seems to go.
  • Leisure time is now the stuff of myth. Some are cursed with too much. Others find it too costly to enjoy. Many spend their spare moments staring at a screen of some kind, even though doing other things (visiting friends, volunteering at a church) tends to make people happier.

It wasn’t news for me to know that I am an experience junky and that I am over-ambitious. And, I know I have some bad habits. I’ve been aware for a while that more mindfulness and intentionality about how I use my time would benefit me. But the real striking and fascinating, thing I learned from the article is that part of the reason I feel such a pressure to be productive is that I am a well-educated and privileged American. There’s a backwards blessing in being busy mixed into all this.

As a Franciscan Sister, I find that my life really is an awkward dance of service and contemplation, of solitude and community. I have chosen this lifestyle/God gave me this vocation, because the life really does offer much potential for balance. With balance comes health and happiness.

As a disciple of Jesus, I continue to learn and re-learn that what matters most is not what we do after all. God doesn’t necessarily call us to be productive, but to be present. (I recently came across another brilliant piece of writing that deeply explores this dynamic of our busy lives.) The kingdom of God is build through relationships and love, not goals and accomplishments. What matters most is how we are with each other.

In the end, I did have a restful and rejuvenating Christmas break, with a good balance of leisure and work. I’ve been back to teaching for a couple days now and in the classroom with my students I feel lighter and more grounded than when my vacation began. The balance of my break has had healthy impacts. I am so thankful that I was able to fill my time with stronger doses of human connection and celebration, contemplation and rest, as all of it helped me be a better teacher and servant.

Now, the question that I felt challenged to confront at the beginning of my Christmas break lingers: Why do I allow myself to be so busy? I am not sure what the answer is. But, I don’t think I am addicted to being busy after all. My new years resolution is to remain balanced, intentional, to move slow. Then, maybe, I can enjoy the blessings of being busy.

Christmas Every Day Conclusion Letter

Merry Christmas Everyone!!

Hey! Don’t roll your eyes, I am not late. The Christmas season actually lasts through this coming Sunday, the feast of the Epiphany.

Now I have a question for you.

This morning I wrote a Christmas letter for 2013 and I’ll mail it out to some family and friends in the coming days. I really appreciate all of you who are the readers of Messy Jesus Business and many of you are also great friends to me, so I thought I’d share an abridged version of my Christmas letter with you.

As you may know, I have been celebrating Christmas Every Day throughout 2013.  Now I have some confessions and lessons to share from my Christmas Every Day experiment.

I started the year with a lot of Christmassy cheer and idealistic intentions while some of the lighter things of Christmas 2012 lingered.  I packed Christmas cookies in the freezer, acquired a Christmas sweater, and I developed a greater taste for Christmas music. I kept decorations up up in my bedroom even after we took them down throughout the rest of the house on Epiphany. So, all year I prayed with a nativity scene and a Christmas tree in my bedroom. And, last year’s Christmas cards are still hanging up as I write this now, on December 31, 2013!

In my classroom, I was surprised when some students asked if I was intending to celebrate Christmas Every Day so I could get a gift every day.  The receiving of gifts hadn’t even occurred to me as a possible perk when I embarked into my experiment- ha! When I told that to my students, some used my admission as a clever way to ask me to make them some Christmas cookies– which I never actually did, to their disappointment and mine.  I tended to be too determined to instill in the lessons of the theology curriculum, not cookies.

A lot of people said “Merry Christmas” to me at random times throughout 2013 and helped me remember my commitment and when this happened, I had a range of reactions.  Sometimes I felt warm and cozy, like Christmas can be. Other times, I’d feel a bit annoyed or embarrassed, because I didn’t want to admit that the fun of my Christmas Every Day experiment had worn off.

Honestly, my Christmas Every Day experiment started to feel a bit like a chore in March or April, while the snow was melting and I was looking forward to the arrival of Spring.  I realized its REALLY difficult to do something radical very well without the companionship of community.  It was around then that I made a more conscious decision to let go of the petty parts of the holiday and delve into its deeper meanings.  Otherwise, I figured, I wasn’t going to keep Christmas Every Day going.

What I needed to focus on was the True meaning of Christmas.  God became a person and this event– the Incarnation– totally changed everything! It got me thinking: how was I being changed, daily by my relationship with Christ? How was the Word of God making me more into a Gospel-centered woman? As I lived into the answers, I grew to understand that Christ-centered transformation is risky, growth-filled mess mixed right into the commotion of being busy and blessed.

And the Word became flesh

and made his dwelling among us,

and we saw his glory,

the glory as of the Father’s only Son,

full of grace and truth.  – John 1:14

One of the major gifts of 2013 were fruits that came from living a life in union with the Word of God. Specifically, I found that I still gain a lot of energy and joy as I try to be a writer.  (I’ll tell you more about that in an upcoming blog post.)

“Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son,

and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means “God is with us. – Matthew 1:23

There’s been a lot of goodness throughout my 2013, but it hasn’t all been easy or delightful.  My increased reflections on the Incarnation this year instilled a lesson: the meanings of Christmas are not all jolly.  Santa Claus, gift-giving, and candy canes can be fun, but they’re not the real point. “Merry Christmas” means much more than “hope you’re having fun.”

Celebrating Christmas means entering into the Gospel Truth of Jesus’ dramatic birth story and its lessons about God’s presence in the pain, the mess, the obscene, the awful, the mystery.  That’s the real importance of the Incarnation and the great lesson of this year that I want to pass on to others. No matter how much is difficult, how miserable things may seem, or how discouraging or painful your real life is, remember that you are never alone. God is with you always, you are VERY loved and good and a community of Christians are eager to be with you too- to be the Body of Christ for you.

Perhaps these reflections on community and Christ are what compelled me to want to celebrate the ending of my 2013 Christmas with others.  I concluded the experiment of Christmas Every Day by hosting a party for some friends and then I enjoyed visiting friends and family during my Christmas break.  Life is full and God is so good!

Let us be good to one another. Let us rejoice and celebrate the goodness of God in 2014. It won’t be an experiment or anything special for me anymore, except for my usual counter-cultural Christian living.

Even so, MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERY DAY EVERYONE!!

Nativity Scene from Zambia  photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA
Nativity Scene from Zambia photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA