Friday, December 19, 2014

Holiday Blues Again--Updated with New Shades of Blue!

The time of year known as the holiday season is upon us once again. This season evokes mixed feelings in many people, including some Pastors. Some Pastors actually dread this season. I understand why. The holiday season causes stress that impacts a lot of people, and Pastors have a hard time helping people deal with that stress. In this post I am going to deal with the sources of that kind of stress and offer suggestions to deal with it.

Holiday Stress #1: Loneliness. Some years my holidays have been busy beyond belief. Other years have been more quiet. More than once I have spent Christmas Day mostly alone. I did this partly by choice--I could not be with close family or friends for various reasons, so rather than feel like an outsider at another family's celebration, I spent the day alone. One thing that did help my spirits on these years was hosting a low-key holiday gathering at some other time during the season. I have often hosted a casual soup-and-salad lunch for friends on Christmas Eve. It's an inexpensive way to entertain and provides a service to people--after all, we all need to eat.
Another way to deal with loneliness on the holidays is to give back. One Christmas I bought Angel Tree gifts for 16 children whose parents were in prison and delivered them myself. It made me feel good to do good. It isn't necessary to spend money to do good. Phone calls and visits to people who live alone or in nursing facilities are an inexpensive way to do something good for others. I've also spent Christmas Day at the movies. Studios save some of the best movies of the year for this day. It can give you something to look forward to, and it is still a fairly inexpensive splurge.
Holiday Stress #2: Broke at the Holidays. This type of stress is also not unfamiliar to me. Given an unlimited amount of money, I would feed, clothe and shelter the world and then spend Christmas at the Bahamas with my close family and friends, who I had flown in for the occasion(I'm giving, but I'm not a total Saint.) The holidays in America are currently structured both to make people broke and and make people feel broke. I'm not sure who thought this was a good idea. I think the holiday shopping season has taken on a life of its own, and it is a demanding little spoiled brat. Like most people I have limited cash at the holidays, and need to make difficult choices. Kids want video games but they need shoes. Ask yourself what you and your family will remember ten or twenty or fifty years from now. My parents did their best to make my Christmas wishes come true, but what I remember most is the food we ate, the family togetherness we experienced and the spiritual traditions we embraced.
Holiday Stress #3: Feeling sad or angry. Life isn't fair. People lose jobs, get cancer, lose custody of their children. The world is a scary and ugly place where the innocent die and the guilty are not always held accountable. Blows of this nature can feel more painful during a time of year when everyone seems to be partying, gathering contentedly with loved ones, and in general enjoying life even more than usual. Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Eve are only three days out of the year. You don't need these days to be perfect. If your life is in a time of crisis or higher than average stress, your goal should be to make these days at minimum "okay," no better or worse than other days during this time of your life. Adjust your expectations and your viewpoint. Most people post mostly positive things on Facebook. Remember that a smiling photo is only a moment in time. Some lives that seem picture perfect are very much the opposite. Don't waste your time envying people who give out an image of perfection. And definitely don't try to remake your life in their image. It doesn't tell the whole story. And the real story might even be very much the opposite.
Holiday Stress #3: Jerks. Jerks seem to come out of the woodwork during the holiday season. Jerk shoppers swoop in and steal your parking lot in the mall. Jerks get drunk and pass out during the middle of Thanksgiving dinner, or start an argument about politics on Christmas Day. Once again, the first thing you should do is lower your expectations. If you are bothered by someone's drinking or drugging during the holidays, check out an Alanon meeting during the holiday season. Alanon is for anyone who is bothered by the drinking of another person, even if that person is dead or no longer in your life. Alanon teaches techniques for dealing with fights and drama that alcohol inspires some people to initiate.  The next tactic is to limit time with people who tend to create drama and conflict during the holidays, and make it clear to all in advance that this will be the case (we will arrive at X time and leave at Y time.) If you fear that imposing this sort of limit will lead to conflict, then you need to choose your poison and understand that you are making a choice--do I want to deal with drama before the holiday or drama during?) The third tactic is to plan to leave if/when drama starts--"I'm sorry, but I don't want to get into that right now. I'm/we're going to leave." You must get everyone with you on the same page if you use this technique. I have utilized it myself and it is very effective. The key here is to plan a fun alternative in advance. It can be something as simple as popcorn and Netflix at home, but you should always have a plan to enjoy yourself in lieu of being an audience or participant in drama initiated by someone else. The fourth tactic is to attend the holiday celebration(s) that you are dreading as usual, but plan an equivalent amount of time spent doing something you will enjoy--preferably later that day or the next day. Then when the stuff you dreaded begins, you can mentally check out and start thinking about the activity you are looking forward to.
Holiday Stress #5: Too much of a good thing all at once stress. This may be the most common type of holiday stress in materially blessed countries like the United States. It seems as if the world goes mad trying to cram every second with eating, drinking and being merry for five weeks. You can try to ease that pressure by scheduling some of your personal holiday celebrating and gift giving for later on during the traditional twelve days in the Christmas season (Dec. 24-Jan. 6). Even if you do that, you may find yourself overwhelmed with social obligations. If you struggle with the temptation to indulge in too much food or drink, these social obligations can be a major source of stress. Don't put so much pressure on yourself.  If you abstain from alcohol due to an addiction and your recovery feels at all fragile, don't participate in any holiday celebrations beyond what you absolutely need to for work, and make sure that all of your support systems are fully in place. If your problem is just garden variety overindulging and undersleeping, aim to take it down a notch or two. I'm a recovering compulsive overeater but I haven't binged in over two decades and I let myself have small portions of rich foods at holiday celebrations and don't feel deprived. Whatever you do, don't make a resolution to start dieting/exercising in January, unless you live in the Southern Hemisphere. I've dealt with the problem with "weight creep" a few times in my life and a new diet/exercise plan has the greatest chance of success during the spring and summer. This is true even if you exercise indoors. Why is this? It's just how nature works. You're fighting the circadian rhythm. If you have established a diet/exercise plan prior to the holidays, do your best to keep up with it, even if you are traveling. Indulge a little but don't go overboard--or if you do go overboard, get back on track as soon as you can manage.
Holiday Stress #6: I can't take this much longer/I have no hope stress. I will deal with this type of stress in my next post.

One of the things that helps me deal with stress is music. Studies have shown that music can lift your mood. If you are feeling low, the best technique is to start with a song that mirrors your mood. If that doesn't do the trick, gradually switch to more and more uplifting music.
Here is one of the songs that always makes me happy.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Evil Eye 2: Electric Boogaloo

 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” --The book of Exodus, Chapter 20, verse 17, also known as #10 in the ten commandments.

Time for a true confession: I've always kind of thought that commandment ten was kind of a lesser commandment among the ten commandments. I mean, number barely makes the list, right?

I no longer feel that way. Coveting, or what we might call jealousy or envy, inspires some pretty terrible acts. It's what led Cain to kill his brother Abel, in the first murder in the religious canon of the Abramic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam).

The Evil Eye is a concept found across cultures and in many religions (including Christianity, Judaism and Islam). The basic idea is that jealousy or envy is a real invisible spiritual force, and that it can harm the object of envy or jealousy. One of the traditional remedies for this malevolent force is deflecting compliments. It was believed that compliments drew God's attention to your good fortune, and that upon reflection God might decide you were too blessed, so responding to a compliment about how nice you look with "This old thing? I've had it for ages," could very well be a cultural vestige of a belief in the evil eye.

Another common remedy for the evil eye is the use of protective talismans, such as jewelry or a symbol hung outside of your home.  

I personally find such "protective" items sold in stores, such as jewelry and t-shirts, stylish and visually appealing, but they take on the problem of coveting from the opposite side of the tenth commandment. The commandment aims to protect people from the evils that arise from coveting others by getting everyone to work on their own covetous behavior. It's fair to characterize this as idealistic. After all, Naomi Campbell and Kim Kardashian aren't just using evil eye jewelry to ward off crazy fans and others who might seek to harm them out of jealousy. They don't hesitate to employ a security detail as well. 

If wearing an evil eye bracelet or hanging a hamsa hand symbol on your wall reminds you to keep your own feelings of envy and jealousy in check, great. But wearing jewelry is no substitute for doing real spiritual work.   Working on envy requires a few simple steps. 
  1. Becoming aware of envy. Envy is all around. We envy others and are envied by others. It's a normal impulse, but it's easy to let it get out of hand. 
  2. Practice gratitude. When you start to envy someone else, take a moment to count your blessings and say a prayer of thanksgiving for what you do have.  
  3. Ask for God to heal your own envy. If you have envied others, even if you haven't done anything about it or told anyone, ask God to remove your envy and replace it with gratitude. 
  4. Pray for those whose envy of you is leading them to act to harm you. Ask God to intercede, to provide protection to all parties involved and to heal the relationship.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Evil Eye

Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.”

Sarah looks upon her servant Hagar, who, like her, has born a child to Sarah's husband Abraham, with envy. This type of envy has long been seen as a powerful malevolent spiritual force, and in many cultures it is referred to as "the evil eye."  These glass talismans, known as "evil eyes," are believed by some to offer protection against the spiritual force of this kind of envy. I don't know about you, but I find them both beautiful and creepy looking. I've been seeing them more and more lately. Michael's crafts currently has an entire section devoted to charms, beads and pendants featuring the evil eye. Do I believe that someone can look on another with envy and, without even intending to, cause harm, but that a piece of glass can prevent such injury? No, of course not. And I think most modern people who wear them do so less because they believe that they offer spiritual protection and more as a fashion statement. Still, there is a lot of ancient wisdom behind the concept of the evil eye. One of the ideas about envy is that it poisons both parties--both the envied and the one who envies. 

I don't think it is possible to go through life without feeling at least a few twinges of envy. I do think that how we respond to our own feelings of envy, and to being envied by others, can help us to improve the quality of our own lives. Giving in to envy can lead to a kind of insanity. In extreme cases it even leads to murder. Learning to be happy with our own lives and decisions and not trying to become an object of envy or to envy others takes real spiritual work. I think churches should help members learn spiritual practices from our own traditions that can help protect us from the very real harmful behaviors that result from giving in to envy and other powerful negative emotions. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014


Pentecost Post-it mural created by 2010 Confirmation Class at Riverton Congregational Church.
On June 8 we will celebrate Pentecost, a holy day that marks the beginning of the Christian Church and celebrates the work of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost has always been one of my favorite holidays. I have to admit I have a soft spot for "minor" Christian holidays. By "minor" I don't mean unimportant, but uncommercialized. And I also don't think of Pentecost as a minor holiday at all. That's why I like to pull out as many stops as I can when observing Pentecost in church. This post will offer up some of the ways I've observed Pentecost, along with tips for DIYers who might want to try the things I've done.
I can't claim credit for the project depicted at the top of this post, the Post-It mural. I copied the idea from another church (Center Church on the Green in New Haven Connecticut), showed photos to my Confirmation class, handed them about $30 worth of Post-It notes and then gave them free reign to design and create their own version of a Post-It mural for Pentecost. I think they did a great job.

Another favorite Pentecost idea of mine is Prayer flags. I came up with the idea and a church member at First Church of Christ Congregational UCC in New Britain ran with it, buying and sewing the flags. The flags were available for inscribing with prayers (using Sharpie permanent ink pens) for a few weeks before the holiday, and then they were strung up outside of the church entrance for Pentecost.  Fortunately it was a breezy day!

Another way to observe Pentecost (which is conveniently relatively easy) is to create a Pentecost-themed altar display using candles and "hot" colors (red, orange, yellow and hot pink).
This altar display also featured suncatchers hung by fishing wire, which are somewhat easier to see in the second photo.

To create the suncatchers I used meltable plastic bits and some beads, but any method of creating suncatchers would work as well.

I also like to extend the festivities into the fellowship time, by including Pentecost- themed refreshments. One year I created a cupcake tower featuring red and pink roses (it was rose season, so the flowers and mint leaves came from my garden.)
I created the cupcake tower by gluing together cupcake rounds with red plastic cups in the middle, but I have since learned how to create reuseable cupcakes stands using recycled glass and industrial velcro.
For Pentecost you could even use red glass.
A simpler Pentecost treat involves using strawberries to decorate cupcakes or cakes.
 If you don't feel like cooking, you can even use a Sarah Lee Poundcake.

And, last but not least, you can encourage everyone to come to church wearing red:

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Twenty-third Psalm Pin

23rd Psalm Pin
I've been creating beaded pins that symbolize popular stories and verses from scripture for some time now, but this is the first time I've gotten around to providing the instructions.

Twenty-Third Psalm Pin
The Lord is my SHEPHERD, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green PASTURES,                                                                                He leads me beside quiet WATERS, He restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of RIGHTEOUSNESS for His name's sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of DEATH,
I will fear no EVIL, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a
TABLE before me in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with OIL;
My CUP overflows.
Surely GOODNESS and MERCY  will follow me

all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the
LORD forever.
  • Large safety pins in silver or gold
  • Large glass seed beads (big enough to slip over safety pin) in assorted colors (You can use my color scheme, or create your own. Use beads to represent important words/ideas and use an equal number of beads on each side of the pendant.) The colors I used are gray, blue, green, black, brown, red, yellow, rose, gold and silver.
  • small cross pendants
  • Jump rings to attach pendants to safety pin
The order of the beads I used is

Don't stress over finding the exact colors I used. Put your own spin on the idea. BE CREATIVE and HAVE FUN with it! You could even use a brown bead for the staff and put a sheep in the middle!

The process for creating the pin is fairly easy--especially if you find one  these jewelry pins (I found them at JoAnn Fabrics Etc. for $1.49/18 pieces). I had the beads on hand but all the supplies are generally available at large craft stores such as Michaels or JoAnn.

Materials needed:

I loaded my beads in reverse order so that the pin opens on the right side. You begin by opening the safety pin wide to receive the beads.
It is possible to use a regular large safety pin, 

but it requires you to bend the round circle on the end straight and then bend it back again after you finish loading the beads, which is a little bit hard on your hands.  (It can be done, and I have done it myself many, many times.)

Then you load the beads on in order, with the cross pendant serving as the bead in the verse Your rod and Your † staff (cross), they comfort me.

gray, green, blue, silver, black, black, CROSS, brown, yellow, red, gold, rose, gold. 
I actually placed the beads on the pin in reverse order, so the first pin I add goes closest to the fastener end:
gold, rose, gold, red, yellow, brown, CROSS, black, black, silver, blue, green, gray. I used the transparent colors for this pin (except for the gold and silver beads), but the opaque beads look good as well.

 This is the actual completed pin, which opens on the right. When worn, the beads are read from right to left.

I create little flyers with the color key and pin the completed safety pins onto the flyers. These are great to use for Children's time. After you explain the pins to the kids (only the ones old enough to handle pins and tiny beads of course!) it is ideal to have enough pins to hand out to everyone present, as adults really like the pins. I was a little afraid they would be seen as "girly" but I have had grown men pin these onto their motorcycle jackets and suit jackets and wear them everywhere. It is a way to wear your faith on your sleeve.

Please drop me a line/send a picture if you create any pins of your own. (I have also created pins for the story of Easter with a butterfly pendant to symbolize the resurrection, but I don't have any photos of those right now. If I do it again I promise to post the photos.)

Monday, January 20, 2014

Telling the Story Part 6: How you tell your story is your story

And now the LORD says,…"It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."--From Isaiah, Chapter 49, verse 5
In March of 1974, World War 2 finally ended for Hiroo Onoda.
According to news reports, 
The soldier became a war hero in Japan after he hid on the Philippine island of Lubang until March 1974. He only gave himself up after his former commander flew out and reversed his orders from 1945, which had instructed him to spy on U.S. troops.
After his death on Friday Japanese government spokesman Yoshihide Suga praised his spirit.
"I vividly remember when Mr. Onoda returned to Japan. That's when I personally felt that the war was over," Suga said when asked about Onoda's passing during Friday’s daily briefing.
Japan had several dozen other men who stayed in various parts of Asia long after the war. Another hold-out, Sgt. Shoichi Yokoi, emerged from the jungle in 1972 to widespread praise in Japan.
Most Japanese troops surrendered when U.S. forces landed on Lubang in February 1945. After they left, Onoda’s biggest challenge had been survival. He stole rice and bananas from locals and shot their cows to make dried beef, according to The Associated Press.
When Onoda surrendered to Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, he wore his 30-year-old imperial uniform, complete with cap and sword, all of which were in good condition.
After the war finally ended for him, Onoda bought a ranch in Brazil before returning to Japan to run a children's nature school.
In a 1995 interview with the AP, he said: "I don’t consider those 30 years a waste of time. Without that experience, I wouldn’t have my life today."
For good or for ill, our experiences shape us and change us.
Today’s reading from Isaiah is written during a time when Isaiah, like Hiroo Onoda, is on a long, enforced exile from his homeland.
It is a difficult time, the sort of time that makes people discouraged.
In a time of hopelessness for his people, Isaiah puts a unique spin on the story of Israel and the exiled people of Israel, Isaiah speaks a word of hope. Through Isaiah, God predicts a new leader.
"You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified."
Isaiah predicts that Israel will arise again out of the ashes of their defeat and exile. This renaissance will not be just a restoration of the former glory of Israel. Everything will be transformed.
Thus says the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers, "Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you."
In a moment of dislocation and discouragement, Isaiah brings a prophecy of renewal through the leadership of someone “deeply despised.”
In our time when we think of this prophecy we think of Jesus, how he came from a despised group-- poor Jewish people in the Roman empire--and how Kings and princes eventually acknowledged him as their leader, but this prophecy speaks in general terms about how change happens.
Mahatma Gandhi used to say,
First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.
Similarly, Martin Luther King, whose birthday we celebrate this weekend, was no stranger to experiencing hatred as he sought to bring leadership to the cause of civil rights.  He had a lot of quotes about returning love for hatred, and about not becoming bitter.
“Love, he said, is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.”
The story you tell becomes your story by the way you tell it.
Isaiah, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Hiroo Onoda and others who faced struggles and challenges and setbacks could have told the story of their struggle as a sad story, but instead they told a story of hope.
The people of Israel were driven from their homeland and stripped of their power. When Isaiah looked around him in the place he was in exile (Babylon, which is mostly modern-day Iraq), there were no signs of hope. The sounds of anguish and bitterness of his people must have filled his ears. But Isaiah saw hope, and heard hope, and gave a prophecy of hope. He found his hope in God.
Isaiah’s message is a one we all need to hear sometimes. We all go through times of struggle and setbacks.
I spend a lot of time talking to church members and Pastors and I hear a lot of complaints.
Pastors are frustrated.
Churches are frustrated.
Churches used to grow. Now mostly churches are shrinking. It’s mostly because the people who built those churches are not having as many children Nothing has happened to American churches as terrible as the things that have happened to Isaiah. Isaiah experienced radical changes in his life and his faith. The worship of Israel was centered on the temple that Solomon had built. In exile, the people had to go back to their earlier, nomadic ways for a time. They had been people of the land, and that land was Israel.
Now they would be people of a story. And so when Isaiah told that story, he did not tell a story of decline and hopelessness and defeat. He told a story of trials that would lead to an unexpected and unimagined kind of triumph. The way we understand it now his story came true through the ministry of Jesus.
What does this mean for us today?
How you tell your story is your story.
Are you telling a pessimistic tale of disappointment? Are you telling an unrealistic story about recapturing past glory? Or are you like Isaiah, open to letting God create a future beyond your previously conceived notions of success?
The choice is up to you.
This is part of a series. Read the introductory post here:
Read Part 2, about Offering Hospitality, here.
Part 3, about Telling the Story without Words, here.
Part 4, Talking about Faith, is here.
Part 5, Getting the Conversation Started, is here.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Telling the Story Part 5: Getting the Conversation Started

"But I wouldn't know what to say."
That's the number one response I hear when suggesting that people start talking about their faith.
It's scary to try something new. What if we do it wrong? We might offend somebody. 
 Yes, we could possibly offend somebody. On the other hand, we could also inspire somebody who really needs to be inspired. We could help put someone on a new and exciting life path. We could grow closer to people we don't know very well, and put ourselves on a new and exciting life path. 
The goal of talking about your faith is not to win converts. It is to simply share what you understand as good news. Whether or not people agree that it is good news, and whether they choose to do anything about it is up to them. Most people who start coming to church do so because someone they know invited them. It is awkward to invite someone to church "out of the blue," but if you talk about your experiences in church and someone expresses interest in it, it becomes easy and perfectly natural to issue an invitation. 

In talking about faith, the key is to speak about your own experience. Try to keep it positive.  The main reason people are uncomfortable hearing people talk about faith is that a lot of religious people broadcast their judgmental attitudes in the media. On social media accounts people have made comments to me like, "Since you are a Christian, I assumed you were hateful."  That saddens me but it doesn't really surprise me.
Also, think twice about venting to non-church members about church conflicts. Churches are made up of human beings, and churches experience conflicts. Church conflicts can be painful for church members, and people need to work through them. It's fine to acknowledge that your church has experienced or is experiencing conflict, but if you are presenting only a negative view about your church to others you are feeding the conflict.

When talking about your faith, use "I" statements such as "I feel," "I like," "I appreciate." Avoid "you" statements, especially ones like, "you should," "you ought," and "you need."

When talking to people who are not part of your church, don't go out of your way to mention your faith. That will most likely create an awkward moment.  However, many people find that the more you talk about your faith with people who share your faith, the more you will naturally find yourself compelled to talk about your faith outside of church.  It is important to follow any ethical rules that apply where you work or volunteer. 

I've come up with some icebreaker phrases to use in talking about your faith.

With other people in your church:
"I really appreciated _____ in church today."
"I've always liked it when we do _______ in church."
"I would like to see more _______ happen in our church."
"I've always wanted to try/start ________ in our church."
"I've been praying a lot about _______."
"I'm starting to feel that God is calling me to ________."

With people who are not part of your church:
"I will pray for [your problem.]"
"My church has a prayer list. Would you like us to pray about [your problem]?"
"I"m still praying about [your problem.] How is it going?"
"I don't know what to think/do about [a personal problem/problem in the world.] I'm praying about it a lot."
"I'm in a good mood because in church we did ______ yesterday."
"I'm looking forward to _______ coming up at church."
"My pastor/Bible Study group/friends at church were just talking about that."

Talking about faith sounds scary, but many people find that once they start it becomes rewarding and fun and they never want to stop. Whatever you are on your journey of talking about your faith, I wish you well.
This is part of a series. Read the introductory post here:
Read Part 2, about Offering Hospitality, here.
Part 3, about Telling the Story without Words, here.
Part 4, Talking about Faith, is here.