What are Spiritual Practices Without Community?

When I was growing up, communion was served on silver trays with a pyramid of plastic cups filled with a swallow of grape juice. In the middle of the tray was a pile of small crackers. We would pass the tray down the aisle, each taking the bread and juice. We would hold the elements and wait for everyone to be served. Then, as a congregation, we would eat together. Now, we go to a church where communion is served at the front. We walk down in a line and one person tears a piece of bread from a loaf while another person holds a chalice of juice. As we dip the bread, we are reminded of the blood of Christ, shed for me.

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Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

Even though my childhood communion was eaten simultaneously with the entire congregation, it felt like a lonely act. And even though I’m eating the juice-dipped bread on my own as I walk back up the aisle, I feel much more connected to my community in this format. And isn’t that part of the point of communion? This communal aspect?

Recently, I got an email from Kiva microloans, celebrating seven years of lending with them. This means that this is my seventh year of Lenten practice. We’ve given up wine to fund microloans, I’ve written to forty influential women, I’ve fasted from social media, and I’ve prayed for forty of the president’s staff. This year, I wrote about needed a quieter, gentler Lent. Our season as a family needed something that required a bit less intention.

But now, just over a week away from Easter, I’m wondering if Lent is meant to be quieter? While I’ve enjoyed my daily Bible reading and on some days, it definitely has felt like I’m “giving up” time I could be spending reading other things, I’ve felt it’s missing something.

In reflection, the Lenten practices I’ve most connected with are the ones in which I’m participating with my community. Maybe I’m not doing the same thing but I’m engaging with others – through giving, through encouragement, through prayer. The practices that have fallen a bit flat are the ones that I’m all alone. The social media fasts are good but they also were inconvenient for my community. This year, my daily reading was good but they didn’t necessarily connect me with anyone else.

It has me thinking about the difference between mindfulness and spiritual fasting. Giving up the spiral of social media helped me be more mindful of my surroundings but was it an actual spiritual practice? I suppose if I had replaced my scrolling with Bible readings or devotionals, it may have felt more like that.

There are many important and healing mindful practices I can observe: moving my body, getting fresh air, limiting screen time, absorbing books and articles that make me think are all ways in which I stay connected to my world. In some senses, I’d call these spiritual practices. And yet, they are quite personal. Getting outside for a walk improves my own mood but it is something I can do in isolation just as easily as I can with a friend.

I’ve been thinking about spiritual practices and how Protestant Evangelicals are becoming more and more enamored with liturgical observations. Advent and Lent are becoming norms. We announce our social media fasts on all our platforms so people won’t miss us; we take beautiful candlelit photos leading up to Christmas; we find parts of the church calendar that make sense. I think it’s awesome. These rhythms have helped me slow down and notice. I love the seasonal aspect of the church calendar and how it helps me recognize the story of Christ throughout the year.

And yet, we’ve held onto our Personal Savior mentality as we try out these communal practices. We do Lent alone – it’s more about our own personal mindfulness than a communal practice. I’m wondering how I can change this? How can I better engage with my community as we deepen our practices together?

Maybe that’s what I’ve learned most this Lent. That I’m not meant to do this alone. The years when I’ve engaged with others have taught me so much – about myself, my world, and how God speaks through our longing. This year, I’ve learned that the absence of that was noticeable.

I’m glad for this Lent – that I did it alone. I needed the reminder to keep returning to community, however that looks. Maybe next year will look like intentionally fasting from something as a family or finding a friend to work through a study together. Maybe it will be getting out in my community and stretching myself. I have a year to lean into this reminder.

Ultimately, I’m remembering that, when God tells us that the greatest commandment is to Love God and Love our Neighbors, any practice I implement must reflect that. It’s not just about me. It’s about me loving God and my Community.

Do you follow the church calendar? How do you incorporate community into your personal practices? What have you learned this Lenten season?

The Compost HeapMy monthly newsletter, The Compost Heap is going out on Thursday! Are you signed up? It’s filled with book recommendations, poetry, a personal essay, and photos of our daily life. I hope you’ll join!

When Life Gets in the Way

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a dozen times: Hold expectations loosely during this holiday season. It’s hard to do, though. Often, I don’t even realize I have expectations until they’re unmet. I’m over at SheLoves Magazine today, reflecting on how life is always in the way of holy moments. Here’s an excerpt, but I hope you head over to join the conversation!

annie-rim-when-life-gets-in-the-way2I entered Advent with a bit of a swagger this year. We’ve done this before! We’re figuring out a routine and rhythm that work for our family! I don’t want to use the word “expert,” but “confident” definitely encompassed my attitude as we approached that first Sunday in December.

You probably know where this is going. With a two-year-old and a five-year-old, was I really expecting sweet candlelit moments every evening? Was I actually thinking I’d have a slow cup of coffee by the fire each morning, quietly reading my own devotional?

Why did I think that I would find pause in December when I can’t seem to find it in October?

I enter the season of Advent with an idea that I’ll wake up in the dark hours, cup of coffee in hand, sitting before the fire with the glow of the Christmas tree’s lights, devotion by my side, breathing into the morning. For a dose of reality: This morning I was awakened by a completely nude child letting me know it was time to “eat my coffee.” Not exactly the stuff of stained glass windows. Read the rest over at SheLoves and join our conversation!

How do you mix life and holy moments? How do you make space to keep lighting the candles?

Making Space for Joy in the Details

We lit the Joy candle a day late this year. Parties, celebrating, community. This is what gives me joy. In the midst of all the sweet moments, we had our share of meltdowns and overtiredness because that’s part of this season, too. I often need to remember that it’s ok to reset in the mist of everything. I wrote this for the MOPS Blog and I hope it resonates, one week before Christmas.

Annie-Rim_Advent-2017We’ve had five years of practice in celebrating Advent with kids. Last year, I caught a glimpse at the results of our hard work and intention. At the time, my four-year-old was finally starting to “get” the daily readings, the candles, the coloring pages and family discussions. We actually start our preparation in November with a thankful tree so that by the time the first week of Advent arrives, we’re in a ritual as a family.

The thing I grapple with most about creating traditions is keeping the magic and wonder of the season alive. I’ve got the details down: Thankful Tree? Check! Christmas tree and decorations after Thanksgiving? Check! Boots out for St. Nicholas with Christmas jammies? Check! Candles and a wreath on our table? Check! Age-appropriate nightly devotional with optional coloring pages? Check!

Without these details, we wouldn’t observe the slower pace of Advent. It would feel like “one more thing” to do during an already busy month. Knowing which details work for our family has helped Advent run a bit more smoothly and has given space for the magic and joy of this season.

But sometimes I get too caught up in these details. I forget to pause and allow for joy and wonder. I focus on the outcome of the moments rather than the moments themselves. How can I live in the wonder of discovering the point of our Nativity if I’m so busy creating “easy” moments and experiences?

Some of my friends thrive on spontaneity and magical moments come naturally for them. Joy is not something they plan into their lives. Even as I write this, I know that joy is so much deeper than the plans themselves.

But I also am a realist and know that even the best intentions of letting go of holiday expectations can be forgotten in the midst of everything we juggle. I’m remembering that God created me as a detail-oriented planner and I can find joy within my nature.

It’s not too late to pause and recalibrate. I’ll do self-checks throughout this season to make sure I’m truly enjoying all that we’ve planned. If I’m not, I remember it’s not too late to fix it! What can I let go of or reframe so that I’m less focused on the details and more focused on the reason I planned those details?

If you’re like me, and can feel a bit lost in the midst of holiday expectations, can I offer a few ways to keep your joy at the center of all the plans?

Write down what reminds you of the birth of Jesus.

I know this sounds cheesy, but think about which activities you do during this time that bring the focus back to the manger. Is it a personal devotional each morning? Is it playing Christmas hymns in the car or while you make dinner? Is it lighting the Advent candles each night with your family? Whatever keeps that focus at your core, find time to do it every day. Keep it simple!

Decide what you can outsource.

I can’t do it all, nor do I want to. I have a friend who loves crafting with her kids and they sit together cutting out leaves for their Thankful Tree each year. That’s not me. So, I go to our local teacher supply store and buy precut bulletin board leaves. The outcome is the same and it guarantees success for our family. Likewise, my mom has a tradition of baking cutout cookies each year for our annual Christmas party. It’s time consuming and messy and feels like one more thing. But it’s a sweet time of creativity and bonding for her and my girls. Buy something ready-made or find a friend, neighbor or relative who loves doing that. Asking for help is a great way to bring your community together.

Remember that each year is different.

Our first year of Advent as parents looked vastly different from last year, which will look different from this year. I’m learning to gauge what works and doesn’t work and adjust as needed. This may mean that we only read a Bible verse at dinner, rather than a whole devotional. Or maybe this year, we’ll have time to color all the ornaments for a Jesse tree instead of a few selected coloring pages. Remember the practice of this season – we are creating traditions and rituals to help shape our kids’ faith. Keep it about them!

All of these small things helps me remember the joy of the season. As much as I’d love to go back to a time before consumerism and parties and the chaos of December, I am remembering that this is the world I live in. How do I find joy within our cultural norms and expectations? How do I keep Christ at the center of our anticipation? By working to make space in the midst of it all, I am finding joy and Christ in all the details of the season.

How’s Advent going for you this year? What are you learning? How do you make space for resets?

Originally posted on The MOPS Blog: http://blog.mops.org/advent-2017-making-space-joy-details/.

As Light Grows

It can be easy to look back to my childhood and think how different the world was. Of course, I’m remembering this world through eyes of a child. My world was my universe IMG_7521and stretched to the places I could walk and explore. When I was Bea’s age, my world also included our neighborhood in Germany and the countries my parents took us to visit during our years there.

While that would eventually shape my worldview, at the time, my world was as narrow as any 5-year-old’s.

For my girls, their world is our yard, the walks we take to school and the neighborhood park, play dates around town, our favorite national parks, our yearly visits to Philadelphia, and occasional visits to California.

I did a quick Google search of world conflicts in 1982. There were 42, ranging from martial law in Poland to the Hama massacre in Syria. I don’t know what the exact numbers are for 2017 but I do know that conflict has been with us since time began.

When we look at Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt after the birth of Jesus, I wonder how different it was for them to leave family and friends behind, knowing that little boys they knew would be killed from a family fleeing their home today?

Maybe the world isn’t all that different but my hope is different. I’m grateful that my girls will have access to global news easily and quickly. That they’ll know what is happening to their worldwide neighbors – both the victories and the laments.

As we keep lighting the Advent candles and our dinner table grows lighter, bit by bit, I am reminded that this world is growing lighter. That we are raising our kids with a deeper sense of hope and peace.

Where are you finding a different kind of hope these days? How do you celebrate raising kids with a different worldview?

Linked with Five Minute Friday, a time to write without editing. Today’s prompt is “different.”

Learning to Take Sides

Elle, do you know how much I love you? Do you know how wonderful you are? Do you know that you are special?

IMG_7674Ever since Elle was tiny, Bea has been asking her these questions. And ever since Elle was able to respond, she’s answered, Yes! She does know how loved and amazing she is. (And, lest you think Bea is some sort of magical big sister, she learned those phrases from Frank, who also asks Elle those questions every day.)

It’s moments like that that make me smile and think that we are doing something right as parents. And then, later in the day, I’ll hear the shrieks and cries that only sisters who know the art of pushing buttons can elicit. As I go to mediate the fight, I forget the sweet moments and focus on navigating the world of taking sides and teaching apologies.

I keep hearing that we are living in the most divisive world we’ve ever experienced. There are lots of culprits, though social media seems to take the most of the blame. We are at odds politically; our world is constantly in conflict; our churches are fragmented. The divides seem huge and unrepairable.

I was talking with a friend about taking sides and how unhelpful this seems. As we listen to stories and sit with the experiences of others, black and white thinking is much more complex. Even gray doesn’t seem to do justice to a conflict that stems from colonialism and millennia of power changes.

My friend wisely observed that sometimes, we do need to take sides. She likened global conflict to fights between her own children. While she loves both her children deeply, if one provokes the other, she takes one side as they work through the conflict. Often, as parents, we have to take sides in a moment as we teach life lessons of apology and forgiveness. When Elle snatches a marker from Bea and then draws on her artwork, I take Bea’s side in that conflict, teaching Elle to apologize and only draw on her own paper. When Bea runs past Elle, flicking her head in passing, I take Elle’s side as I teach Bea that no one likes their head flicked.

Taking sides doesn’t mean I don’t love both my girls or that I always take Bea’s side over Elle’s. But in a particular moment, the way to resolution is to stand with the oppressed.

We do live in a divisive world, though I wonder if it’s any more divisive than in centuries past. I would love for us to all hold hands, to usher in this season of Advent with hope, love, and peace. To put aside conflict and recognize our own part in the messiness of this world. In the meantime, I’m learning to take sides. I’m learning to stand with the oppressed, even when it feels more divisive or goes against popular opinion. I’m learning that, until the oppressed are given freedom, none of us experience freedom.

I’m learning that I can stand by the oppressed while still loving the oppressor.

How do you “pick a side” on a big issue? How do you intentionally learn about all sides of a conflict?

Finding God in Thin Places

I made the mistake of reading the news early on Saturday morning. We were all sitting around the fire, reading books and snuggling. The girls started playing and I checked my Blessingphone. Over and over again this year, I’ve read the news with a heaviness and disappointment. Many of the laws passed (or trying to be passed) won’t really affect our family much. In some cases, we may even benefit from them. And yet, my neighbors, Bea’s classmates, strangers on the street all will be impacted.

After my initial despair, I read from the beginning of the Gospel of Luke. This year, I’ve been reading the story of the Birth of Jesus each morning. Perhaps I’ll read an additional devotion along with it, but I want to immerse myself in this story. I need to be reminded.

We’re just five days into Advent, but I’ve read these two chapters five times now. I am struck by the obvious fact that Jesus came to earth as a tiny baby. Of course, we see the manger scenes, we know this about the first Christmas. Yet, I was reminded that Jesus coming as a baby was a big disappointment to many people. They were hoping for a Savior. A King. A Powerful Ruler to lift them from oppression.

They got a helpless baby.

Right now, I long for a Powerful Jesus to return, to redeem this world, to bring about a new earth. I don’t imagine this happening quietly or peacefully but with a grand show. I read the news and I think, Come, Jesus! Now is the time to return!

I empathize with those who could not see the Savior of the World as a baby. In many ways, Herod had more faith than I do, believing that this small human could disrupt his power.

I like the idea of Jesus entering this world as a baby, entering Jerusalem on a donkey. Of peace and hope being powerfully intertwined. But when I get antsy for change and when the powers of this world seem overwhelming, I wonder why Jesus chose the upside down path. Why couldn’t he come, sword flashing, power evident, to get rid of all the “bad guys” and restore justice?

I’m reading In the Sanctuary of Women by Jan L. Richardson. In her study of St. Brigid, she explores the soul of time. She talks about time being intertwined, like a Celtic knot, past, present, and future all linked and mixed. She explores thin places – those spaces where heaven and earth touch and the veil is thin. She reminds me that God cannot be more there than here and that if God occupies everywhere then the mystery is finding God in all of these spaces.

So, this Advent I am finding God, even in the spaces that seem hopeless. I am finding God both in the sweet family moments of lighting candles and reading ancient stories and I am finding God in politics and ways I can show love and hospitality to my neighbors. I am opening my eyes to these thin spaces, where heaven and earth touch, where suddenly Jesus coming as a helpless baby really does make sense.

BLESSING

May time spiral well for you,
leading you around
and around yet again
to the landscapes where remembering
offers redemption and grace.

Jan L. Richardson, In the Sanctuary of Women, pg. 85

Where are you finding thin spaces in your days? How do you experience hope as you anticipate the smallness of a baby-savior?

Entering Advent Weary

Our routine has been thrown off this week. I’m looking for something to blame – maybe it was a week of houseguests? Maybe it’s just a growth spurt? I vaguely remember having this same issue with Bea at this age… Whatever it is, I’m definitely not savoring these little years right now. When parents talk about teenagers sleeping in, it sounds glorious.

christmas-2984210_960_720While I was lying awake at 3:00 this morning, I reflected that perhaps it’s not a bad thing to enter Advent weary. A handful of nights of interrupted sleep certainly isn’t the worst of parenting that I’ve experienced so far. I know that there is a light at the end of this stretch and that our rhythm (and sleep!) will be restored.

In the early hours, I thought of all the ways I cannot wait to see the light of hope, of peace, of joy, restored. When systemic oppression ends; when global crisis is recognized; when solutions are realized rather than sides taken; when victims are trusted and believed; when the hierarchy of hospitality is removed.

That’s what Advent is, right? This recognition of global groaning – the reminder that we need a hope and a new way of doing things. I’m entering this Advent weary and I hope to use this physical reminder of the spiritual anticipation this season brings.

How are you entering Advent this year? How does your physical space affect your spiritual space?

Linked with Five Minute Friday, a time to write without editing. Today’s prompt is “near.”