Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Holiday Blues

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: Feeling sad or angry. Life isn't fair. People lose jobs, get cancer, lose custody of their children. 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 #2: Shopping stress. Some people love shopping. They even love the kind of aggressive shopping that happens on "Black Friday" (which is now, I guess, shifting to Thanksgiving.) Some people love shopping, but only in relaxed circumstances--when they have plenty of money and time and when the stores are not overly busy and the help is competent and readily available. And some people find every aspect of shopping for Christmas stressful--they hate shopping and hate trying to please people with gifts, and struggle to pay for the gifts they feel obligated to purchase.  The other group of people who feel the stress at this time of year is, of course, people who work in retail. In many cases they rely on holiday-related sales to keep their businesses afloat, and that pressure falls hardest on the front line employees, such as cashiers and sales clerks. I know people can be awful. Know that I'm praying for you. Try to be good to yourselves and plan something to look forward to at the end of each shift, and also try to plan a vacation after it's all over (if you can afford it, of course--many retail jobs don't pay very much.)  There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of shopping. If you love shopping for Christmas and have money you want to spend to stimulate the economy, Your best bet is to take advantage of extended hours and shop in the middle of the shopping season and later in the evening. Retail establishments tend to be less busy after the dinner hour, until the last few days before Christmas, when the busy-ness can extend into those hours as well. If you don't have the kind of money you would like to have to buy things for loved ones this Christmas, consider approaching the loved ones for whom you would habitually shop and suggesting that you change your approach this year. You could agree to exchange items within a set dollar limit, exchange items that you already own, or even forgo a gift exchange entirely. Some families exchange photos of the items they plan to buy for one another and then purchase the items in the post-holiday sales. Another alternative is to donate to a charity that is meaningful to the other person.  Not everyone appreciates this gesture, but some folks do.
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 #4: Loneliness. For some, holidays are overstuffed. For others the days are overly empty. Perhaps you are single and live alone, have few family or don't have very loving relationships with family. Maybe you've tried spending holidays with friends or coworkers but found that awkward.  I've spent Thanksgiving alone and Christmas virtually alone, and found the days relaxing--certainly much more enjoyable than holidays I've spent filled with travel stress and family infighting. I'm not sure how to tell you to do the same. I am an introvert and so I enjoy time I spend alone. If you are not an introvert and don't want to be alone at the holidays, try going to a public place, such as a church, and striking up a friendly conversation. And, of course, there is always the option of volunteering. Most volunteer organizations are over-subscribed for Thanksgiving, but volunteering on Christmas Day can be helpful and meaningful. Google is pretty good at bringing up local opportunities if you don't know where to start.
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 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. The 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 pensive songs I associate with the holidays. It always lifts my spirits.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Church 101: A Seeker's Guide

Maybe you've never been to church before except for weddings and funerals, or maybe you used to go a long time ago but haven't gone lately. For whatever reason, you want to give church a try. This guide is for you. I've been there myself--I stopped going to church when I was fifteen years old and returned to churchgoing at age twenty-one. In the intervening years I tried going to a few different churches but they turned me off. Finally, after talking to a friend who enjoyed her experiences at church and reading a book by a feminist nun, I decided to give church another try. This time it "took." Eventually I studied theology and became a Pastor. I still think of myself as an ex-ex-Christian, and I have a lot of compassion for people who are not part of a church community. I've been there. Your gripes are based in reality. And yet...church still exerts a pull. This guide is for people like that, people who want to give church a try. I'll try and put my pointers in order of importance, but honestly everyone is different so you might see it differently from me. I am a Protestant and was raised as a member of a Protestant church, but during my own time of seeking I attended a Roman Catholic church. In addition, as part of my education I have attended services in a variety of traditions, including Orthodox churches. This advice applies to church seekers across all traditions.

  • Ask God to help you find a church. Maybe you have never prayed and aren't even sure that there is a God you can believe in. It doesn't matter. In your own way and in your own words, ask whoever or whatever is out there in the Universe that cares about you to help point you in the right direction.
  • Avoid churches that seem to have all the answers and are convinced that they are right and others are damned. Churches in America have a wide variety of viewpoints about what they consider moral behavior. Just because the members of a particular church seem thoroughly convinced that they are right and everyone who disagrees with them is wrong does not make it true. The certainty may seem appealing to you in a time of uncertainty in your own life, but what you need at times like that is not certainty. You need someone to hold your hand while you slowly and gradually find your own way.
  • Understand that not every church is right for every person. There is a very wide variety among churches--what they value, and how they practice Christianity. Somewhere in that mix you will probably find the right church for you. 
  • The easiest way to find a good match is to talk to a friends who participate in church. Try to avoid approaching friends who seem very interested in recruiting more members to their particular church. These friends, while well-meaning, may not be objective enough to help you, and it may strain the friendship if you try their church and find it not to your liking. 
  • If you don't have friends who go to church, you can try checking out church websites, but be warned: church websites can be outdated and misleading. Some of them are great at providing accurate information that is useful to seekers like yourself. Others, not so much, but they may be a perfectly good church once you get there. If anything attracts you--even if it's just the photo of the building--don't be afraid to check it out.
  • Bring a friend. If you aren't able to go to a church where you know anyone, and you aren't one of those super-friendly, confident, take-charge types, ask someone to go with you. Ideally it should be someone who is not rabidly anti-religious, but a person with no particular interest in joining a church might be a great choice. You can talk about your experience afterwards and their objective opinions might prove useful. One thing to be aware of is that if you are a single woman (or a woman who plans to attend church by yourself) and you bring a friend of the male persuasion, you may be treated differently if you return alone. I don't know why this is but I have experienced it myself. Some churches are less friendly to women alone than others, and if that applies to you, you're going to want to know that. Maybe you could have your friend park the car while you enter alone and then join you within a minute or so. This problem may also apply to men alone, but I wouldn't personally know that. I don't doubt that others experience a sense of not being welcome in some churches just because of who they are. 
  • If you don't feel welcome and in some sense "at home" from the moment you open the door and cross the threshold, this church is not for you. Why is this? I don't know, but experience has taught me that this is the case. Churches have a "vibe." It's mystical, and it's real. Some churches even feel super welcoming when you drive past. Those are probably good bets for you to check out.
  • If a church seems very unwelcoming or even rejecting of you, don't ever feel that God is rejecting you. Some people feel that churches speak for God. You don't need a church to find God. God is accessible to everyone 24/7. You find God inside you. Church is there to help you find God and to make the most of your relationship with God. They aren't there to talk down to you on God's behalf.
  • Be prepared to "dump" a church. Some churches seem great at first but turn out to be really wrong for you--incompatible with your personal value system, or just creepy-seeming. Sometimes individual members in a church may behave in a way that makes you very uncomfortable. Don't hesitate to leave. Churches are human institutions. None of them are perfect. Some of them are very far from perfect.
  • Don't feel guilty about letting go of a perfectly nice church where you don't feel quite at home and resuming your search. Some churches are welcoming to you but will not meet your needs. Trust your gut, not just your head. Don't rationalize too much or overthink it. 
  • There are no perfect churches, but there are churches that are perfect for you. It's like romance--when you have the right chemistry it is possible to live with flaws.
  • Churches have unwritten rules. Sometimes the unwritten rules contradict the written rules. This can cut both ways--it can be a good thing or a bad thing. In this way they are like any other organization--like your job, or the family you married into. Sometimes people may seem upset at you for reasons that have you mystified. The most likely explanation is that you have unwittingly violated an unwritten rule. You can just ask (but maybe not ask that person. Use your judgment. Ask a friend at the church or the Pastor if the person has intimidated you.) You will need to accept a little bit of a learning curve of unwritten rules. You also need to develop some self-awareness about how much of that sort of thing is acceptable to you. You may even find the actual unwritten rules to be offensive. In that case, your choice is to stay and try to change the culture, or leave. Maybe I will cover strategies for changing church culture  in a different blog post. The bottom line is, protect your heart and your dignity. Don't be afraid to speak up for yourself, but if you feel continually trampled on and your feelings ignored, maybe this isn't the right church for you. Church is like love--it's not supposed to hurt.
  • If you think you've found the church that is right for you, join a group. The best way to make friends and have the experience you are looking for at a church is to find a group that does something you enjoy doing and join it. If you like to sing, joining the choir is the best way to make friends, have fun and learn about the church. If you don't like to sing there are still other great options. Often the committees that handle finances or building maintenance have trouble finding members with skills in those areas, so if you like working with that, ask a friend at the church or the pastor how to get involved in those areas. If you love children and teaching, the Sunday School program is often looking for volunteers. Beyond that, most churches have fundraisers or charitable volunteering opportunities, and if you volunteer for those things you will get to know people. Churches also are often looking for people who like to bake things for coffee hour, to donate flower arrangements, and to visit elderly people. If you have an interest in any of those things, you will find it easy to become involved in a church. However, if you have other skills and interests, it can become tricky to find a niche in a some churches--especially if you aren't all that familiar with church culture (those pesky unwritten rules!) Your best option at most churches is a spiritually-oriented group, such as Bible Study or a prayer group. Some churches also have groups that are organized around life stages (such as a singles group or a couples group.) Though the members of a particular group may seem very different from you in terms of age and stage of life, my advice is to give them a chance. (You don't have to go more than once if it's an uncomfortable experience, of course.) You may find that a group of women in their eighties who gather to pray each week may make lovely companions for a person in their 20s. 
  • Start a group--if you are the kind of person who likes starting things and if the church culture makes that easy. Some churches are open to people starting things. Ask the Pastor or a friend at church how to go about starting something new.

I hope this guide is helpful to someone. People seek to join churches for deeply personal but important reasons. Churches should do a better job of recognizing this fact and do better at reaching out to assist folks that would love to meet them and join their congregation. Until that happens, maybe this guide will help bridge the gap.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Unplug the Christmas Machine!

I can't believe the time for my annual Jeremiad about the commercialization of Christmas is here again.
Stores are opening for Christmas shopping ON THANKSGIVING DAY?

I've taught a workshop called "Unplug the Christmas Machine" (based on a book of the same name, plus other materials such as Hundred Dollar Holiday and To Dance with God) about a dozen times The focus of the book is on putting more love and joy into the holiday. I add some ideas about saving money and making the holiday more spiritual.
The heart of Unplugging the Christmas Machine is the Christmas Pledge, which people are asked to sign and post in their home:

The Christmas Pledge

Believing in the true spirit of Christmas, I commit myself to... 
* Remember those people who truly need my gifts 
* Express my love in more direct ways than gifts 
* Examine my holiday activities in the light of my deepest values 
* Be a peacemaker within my circle of family and friends 
* Rededicate myself to my spiritual growth

 (Find a leader's guide for an Unplug the Christmas Machine workshop here.) The thing is, I loooove the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany season. I love observing both religious and family-oriented traditions, holiday baking, Christmas music and decorating for the season. 
One of our holiday traditions--an Advent calendar of new socks for the children. Each sock contains candy for each child.

Another great Advent tradition is The Jesse Tree. For each day there is an ornament and a Bible story that starts with the Creation story and leads to the Christmas story. Find instructions, and a link to downloadable ornaments that kids can color and make themselves, here.
Little ones love coloring these.

With a little imagination it's easy to bring spirituality into your home. Here is a simple Advent wreath. 
Almost everyone could create this or something similar. Find a devotional guide here.

I enjoy natural decorations both inside and outside my home. Here are directions for making your own evergreen garlands. I use yard clippings and discarded/pruned branches from the Christmas tree.

I also like decorating with cranberries and other edibles.

These decorations are beautiful, inexpensive and earth-friendly, and in some cases even edible, which makes them even more affordable.

I hope you find these ideas inspiring. If you use any of them I would love to hear about it.

Monday, November 11, 2013


On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.-Isaiah 25:6

Judaism is a religion that is mainly observed around a table. Between weekly celebrations of Sabbath meals and observances holidays such as Rosh Hoshanna, Passover and Purim, Jewish families who pray together also eat together. I've been privileged to be a guest at some of these celebrations, and I've enjoyed every moment and every bite. 

Christians also have a tradition of feasting. Our most commonly observed sacrament, communion, originated as part of a Passover feast. Often when we celebrate this sacrament in a church, the Pastor says, "let us keep the feast." Then everyone shares a tiny wafer or morsel of bread and a sip of wine. It has become a symbolic and spiritual feast, a ritual re-enactment of a feast, rather than a feast in the traditional sense of eating heartily of rich foods. After worship, at most churches, the Worshippers head to a fellowship room and then the real feasting begins--coffee, cookies, donuts, muffins, sometimes even cheese and crackers. 

How did this happen? I'm not entirely sure. Some of my seminary professors bemoaned this fact, but none of them went into a detailed accounting of the history. There is some interest in recovering the tradition of eating as part of worship. (For a wonderful introduction to this, check out Feasting with God by Holly Whitcomb. I have road-tested a number of the feasts and recipes in the book with a variety of groups from ages 6 and up with great success.) And churches and Christians do tend to eat together quite often. Everyone who has been part of a church probably has a copy of a well-thumbed church cookbook (or two or three or ten) and a lot of happy memories of breaking bread together in the church building. My own tradition, the United Church of Christ, traces our roots back to the Pilgrims who originated the celebration of Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, in part because of its spiritual roots and in part because it is pretty much impossible to commercialize it to a great extent. It saddens me to see retailers opening stores on Thanksgiving. I like the idea that since the 1930s most Americans have been able to take advantage of the national holiday status of the day to sit down to a meal with the people who mean the most to them,  and retail outlets are starting to erode that. It also makes me sad that they are doing it because people are actually interesting in shopping on Thanksgiving day.  I don't like to be one of those old people who clucks about the erosion of traditional values that made our country great, but, gee whiz, we're talking about Thanksgiving here. It doesn't get more traditional and American than Thanksgiving.

It is possible, of course, to celebrate a feast on any day of the year, and most people who can't share a feast on Thanksgiving Day find a way to celebrate the holiday on another day. And that's a good thing. Feasting helps build bonds of fellowship and love, whether it happens in a church, around a table or anywhere else.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Church, or Christian Club?

I'm in the process of applying for a church pastor position. Some of the available positions are, um, interesting. For example, for "number of members," one lists "20." For salary range, it says merely, "negotiable." In other words, will you let us pay you in garden vegetables and eggs?

Now, there are new churches of that size that are bound to grow. And there are old churches of that size that somehow also manage to grow. But for the most part, tiny churches that used to be much bigger have become, in actuality, Christian clubs rather than churches.

What is the difference? The role of the church is to be the Body of Christ in a suffering world. They seek to bring healing to the sick and Good News to the sick of heart. They provide a (partial, imperfect) experience of the not-yet-fully-realized Kingdom of God. While one individual congregation cannot serve the needs of all Christians, a church is able to meet the spiritual needs of a fairly wide variety of people. For this reason, a church needs a pretty high degree of openness.  A club, in contrast, need not be open at all. They can add members as their leadership and/or the totality of the members see fit, or not at all. Within the limits of the law they can erect barriers to membership, such as secrecy or hazing rituals. Many Christian clubs are wonderful, and do a lot of good for their members and other people. There is nothing wrong with being a Christian club--unless, of course, you are advertising your club as a church. Then you are engaging in deception. It may be born of self-deception, but it is deception, nonetheless.

Many of these clubby little groups that meet on Sunday morning in a building with a spire on top use words like "friendly" and "loving" to describe themselves, and they can be both of these things, but--let's be real--they most certainly are either not uniformly friendly and loving or at the very least have a checkered past in that regard.  They may think of themselves as welcoming, but they are not. In fact, most if not all of them are exceptionally good at being unwelcoming.

Is there hope for Pseudo-churches who want to change from being a Christian club back into a real church? Yes, but not without acknowledgement of the real situation. Why does it even matter? Because sometimes--often--someone really needs a church, and if that person tries to go to a church and finds out it really isn't a church, well, that's just really awful.