Dismantling Cynicism for Lent

Growing up, I had a complicated relationship with worship at church. I was raised in a setting where hands were held high in praise, where we swayed with our eyes closed, and where outwardly expressions of worship were a direct indication of your personal relationship with God. My naturally critical spirit turned toward an unhealthy cynicism as I watched my fellow teenagers literally cry out to Jesus on a Sunday morning and then do nothing to love their neighbors throughout the week. My way of rebelling was to mouth the words with my hands firmly planted at my side. I would not participate in any sort of staged worship, however detrimental it was to my own engagement.

Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash

Sadly, this cynicism has stayed with me for decades. In college, I rediscovered a love of singing out loud though the expectations for charisma at an Anglican church are fairly low. As an adult, I attended a variety of churches that featured all sorts of styles, from a robed choir to a leader who is an incredible musician but never invited the congregation to really join in.

At our new church, the worship is reminiscent of my childhood church. Praise music reminding me that God is on my side, a lot of battle imagery, and declarations of prosperity fill our service. When we first started attending, I was struck by the joy of our worship pastor. I had forgotten that worship was supposed to be joyful – that we can connect with God happily and openly.

But I still couldn’t bring myself to participate. A lot of the time, I would interact through quiet prayer. The lyrics often triggered headlines I had read or conversations I had. I used the time to grapple and question and pray. But if I’m honest, I also didn’t participate out of habit. After not singing for so long, it was easy to stand quietly.

One day after the service our worship pastor approached me and asked, Do you not like the worship here? I notice that you never sing along. Yikes! The blessing and curse of going to a well-lit church with an intimate congregation is that people notice. I stammered out a reason but his questions stirred me to really reflect and dig deeper into why I don’t participate.

Lent begins this Wednesday and for a time, I was stumped as to how I would participate in this season of remembering. My practice is to add something to my days, from writing notes to researching politicians leading our nation. Then, I read through Sarah Bessey’s Forty Simple Practices of Lent and paused at Day Thirty: Go to a church or a concert or an evening prayer service and sing your heart out.

So this Lenten season, I decided to sing every song at church. I’ll participate in dismantling my deep-rooted cynicism. But, I also want to recognize and celebrate my curiosity. So, in addition to singing along every Sunday, I’ll research the songs we’re singing. I want to know their origins and the biographies of the authors. Maybe I’ll walk away still unsure about singing along but I hope I’ll rediscover the power of corporate worship, of singing together, regardless of where we are on the journey.

Do you participate in Lent? I’d love to hear how you’re observing these weeks before Easter celebrations.

I’ve written quite a bit about Lent over the years. Here’s a link to previous posts: https://annierim.com/?s=lent
Some of my favorite practices have included writing notes to forty women, letting them know their impact on my life;
Listing forty cabinet members, researching their background, and praying for them (You could do this with presidential candidates or legislation, too);
Changing my phone settings to gray-tones to remind me of the false filters we often put on our lives;
Giving up wine and using that budget to fund Kiva microloans .

Keeping Christmas Magical

I have no memory of believing in Santa Claus. Apparently, there was a party and a Santa with whom I wasn’t impressed and so quickly ended that magical relationship. I don’t know that I really missed out on anything. “Santa” gave us a present each year and I still believed in the Christmas spirit.

Now, my girls believe in Santa, though not rabidly. There’s a peripheral acknowledgment that they ask him for gifts but I’m not sure they actually believe. Bea is getting older and I expect it’ll die down sooner than later, which means Elle will follow close behind.

This past weekend, we took the girls to the mountains to ride a Santa Train. We’ve done this a couple times before and it’s a great way to enjoy a Christmas market, ride a train through the snowy mountains, and include Santa in the experience without making a visit with him the main focus. This year, after waiting in line to get on the train, waiting for Santa to make his way to our car, and then waiting for Santa to slowly work his way down the aisle for each family’s photo op, Elle was done. To top it off, Santa had the audacity to give Bea a high-five but gave Elle a tickle instead. She reluctantly told him she wanted a violin and a harmonica and then wanted off the train.

It made me wonder if this is our last Santa train experience. I enjoy our family excursions but also wouldn’t be too sad about moving on. What I do want to keep is the magic of Santa. I’m not sure if I’m ready to replace this piece of cultural mythology solely with the historic Saint Nicholas, though we have already introduced him.

Last week I saw a tweet about how the Little People Nativity set is rooted in white supremacy. It’s true, when I look at ours, Jesus is depicted with blond hair and the only people of color are the wise men, who shouldn’t even be part of the scene. But I’m not quite ready to give up our inaccurate set. The girls love playing with it and I’ve loved watching the story evolve over the years as they hear it told again and again.

One day we’ll trade our set for something to get us through the next developmental stage and will maybe even buy extra figurines to round out the actual cast of characters but for now, I want my girls to interact with this story on a magical, play-based level. I think it’s important to actually play with our nativity set and these plastic figures can’t be mistaken for anything but toys.

Like Santa, I grapple with how to best present the Baby Jesus to my girls. The story is rooted in history and yet there is a lot of storytelling that has evolved and captured our collective cultural imaginations. We’ve imagined the holy family to be quite alone on this journey of new parenthood, in a stable, surrounded by Northern European farm animals. For my young kids, I’m not too worried about this mythology. The point is that a baby was born and this baby grows up to be the Messiah.

One day, I hope my kids read the nativity story critically and through a lens that is different from their own North American culture. I hope they will question the accuracy and I hope that I will be able to give them tools to research and grapple with their own spiritual journey.

For now, I want them to focus on the magic of a baby born in Bethlehem. Maybe some shepherds from a nearby field really did visit. Maybe they were surrounded by women who had given birth before, encouraging and coaching along the way. Maybe they were alone, savoring some quiet moments of becoming a family. None of those details really matters, in the end. It adds to the story and creates a scene we can imagine but I don’t think those details are the point.

As Christmas approaches, I want to remember to balance magic with history, mythology and storytelling with critical thinking. I’ll fill the stockings with chapstick and new pens and chocolates from Santa Claus and we’ll keep imagining the story of Jesus with our plastic Little People figurines. We’ll keep cementing family traditions and add new experiences. And we’ll remember that this story we are living is always a dance between fact and fiction, between proof and story.

Did you believe in Santa growing up? How do you balance the magic of a story with its historical accuracy?

Advent Culminates With the Beginning

This Advent season, I’ve been thinking a lot about beginnings. I like to know where the journey is going, to at least have an endpoint. But that’s not life or faith. I’m remembering that God has gifted us very few answers and endings and instead keeps pointing us back to the beginning. I’m over at SheLoves Magazine today reflecting on what I’m learning this season. Here’s an excerpt – I hope you’ll head over and join the conversation!

We are in the midst of Advent, which looks like lighting a candle each night before dinner and reading a short devotion from a kid-friendly book. Our oldest is now able to do the bulk of the reading which has added an incredible element to our evenings. Because she gets the spotlight for the reading, she has graciously ceded the extinguishing of the candle to her younger sister, meaning we have one less quibble at the table. There’s also something amazing about passing on the reading after seven years of finding the “perfect fit.” It’s a reminder of why we create imperfect habits and rhythms as a family. Now, our girls can’t imagine life without Advent readings and I am grateful that it’s an ingrained part of our year.

I’ve been thinking about imperfect habits lately and how it translates to my view of God and faith. Recently, I was reading the parable of the lost son in Luke 15. It’s a story I’ve read countless times since I was a child and recently taught to the kindergarten Sunday school class at our church. As an oldest, rule-following child, I’ve always had empathy for the elder son. I absolutely understood his frustration at watching the mistakes of his younger brother celebrated. Growing up, I was taught to be like the younger son, and not like the ungrateful and shortsighted older one. But the other day, I was struck with the way this parable ends.

After listening to his oldest son, the father says, “You are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” (Luke 15:31-32, NIV)

And there the story ends. We don’t know what happens next. Head over to SheLoves to read the rest!

Where do you see God in the beginnings? What epiphanies are you having this Advent season?

What I’m Reading This Advent

Advent started on Sunday and as I looked at my stack of current reads, I realized that they are all stories that are preparing me for this season of hopeful anticipation. I’m reading an actual Advent-focused devotional but my fiction and bedtime reads are pointing me toward reconciliation, as well. I’m in the midst of them so I can’t vouch for their endings but I thought I’d share what I’m reading right now at the start of this season.

Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent by Enuma Okoro
We’re only on Day 2 but already we’ve covered loss and lament, waiting and hope. Enuma Okoro structures her daily Advent guide around Elizabeth and Zechariah, John the Baptist’s parents and Jesus’ aunt and uncle. Her reasoning is that they open the story in Luke with the all-too familiar humanness of wondering if God’s promises are true.

Each week focuses on a character or set of characters in the Nativity narrative and each day is broken into a small section of scripture around the week’s theme. So far, it’s just the length and depth I need for this season.

Beyond Our Efforts, A Celebration of Denver Peacemaking by The Center for Urban Peacemakers
This collection of essays, prayers, stories, and meditations is compiled in partnership with Mile High Ministries, whose board Frank has served on for the past year. Starting in Winter and working through the seasons, each section focuses on the radical work peacemakers are doing around our city. Even though its focus is Denver, I’d imagine this book would be encouraging for anyone engaged in the work of peace and reconciliation.

Does Jesus Really Love Me? A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America by Jeff Chu
I’m just a few chapters into this journalistic memoir but I appreciate Chu’s attention to detail and efforts to truly uncover the varying sides of what it means to be LGBTQIA+ and a Christian. Chu’s background in journalism shines through in his interviews and research around the church’s recent stance on accepting and including those who identify as gay. While we have already gone through the process of inclusion as a family, we’ve recently joined a church on the cusp of these conversations and I realized I needed to refresh the whys behind my beliefs. Simply having friends who are LGBTQIA+ isn’t enough for those grappling with what they believe. Written in 2013, I wonder what has changed since Chu wrote this book but so far, it holds up to many of the opinions and questions I’ve heard recently.

I’m also (finally!) reading A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza. I had gotten it from the library over the summer but it got pushed to the bottom of the pile by more urgent return dates. Recommended by a variety of well-read friends, I’m looking forward to diving into this family saga.

And lastly, I’m just a couple essays away from finishing Evangelical Theologies of Liberation and Justice, edited by Mae Elise Cannon and Andrea Smith. This is such a hopeful book, especially for those who were raised in the Evangelical church or who have ties to it. Often, it feels as though the church whose name means good news has lost the goodness of its way. And yet, so many are working toward the powerful liberative practices of justice and peacemaking. This book of essays gave me renewed hope for the church I grew up in and the denomination we now find ourselves attending. Also, the essay called “Liberating Barabbas” by Drew G.I. Hart is worth the price of the collection.

What are you reading during this season of hope and anticipation? What is renewing your sense of good news these days?

Detoxing, Refocusing, and Entering Into Advent

I’m sitting in my living room right now, laptop perched halfway on one knee, halfway on the arm of our old and worn-out chair. The fire is on, snow is covering the branches of the trees outside though the sun has melted it from the sidewalks and streets. My girls are across the street watching a movie with their bestest friend.

Even though it’s cozy and wintery, our house is not yet decorated for Christmas, nor do I have a desire to start early. (No judgement if you’re in the three months of Christmas camp!) I love this week before Thanksgiving. I love easing into the season and being aware. We have our November ritual of thankful leaves each night at dinner, remembering the small and big things we’re grateful for, preparing us for a nightly Advent reading later in the season.

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

WordPress recently reminded me that I started this blog about six years ago. Some years were certainly more prolific than others but it’s interesting to think about writing in this space, in this teensy corner of the internet for that long. I’m glad I took the leap and am especially glad for the friends I’ve made because of this space. Of course, I’d do some things differently but I wonder if there’s any experience I’d be completely satisfied with?

One of the hardest parts about the writing world is the idea that you have to keep getting bigger; that there has to be a larger goal that simply blogging. I am so very proud of my friends who have started blogs that have turned into articles that have turned into books. That is pretty impressive! But I find myself comparing their successes to my own goals and dreams. I tried to make things work that didn’t and spent too much time on things that took away from writing.

So, as we enter this Advent season, a time of joy and anticipation, I want to return to the joy of blogging for its own sake. I’m joining my friend, Leslie in a “digital detox” as a way of staying more present in this season. But I’m also joining her because I want to remember why I started writing. I want to blog about the everyday lessons I’m learning and the things I’m into right now. I don’t want to think too much about polish or reach.

I’ve had an idea for an Advent book for preschoolers brewing for a few years now but have been bogged down in the steps I “should” take instead of writing it for me and my family and sharing it with whoever may benefit from a simple guide to the season. Instead of making it into an ebook or trying to sell it, I thought I’d write it here.

So, for Advent, I’ll be quieter on social media. I’ll be using my phone only for communication with people I know. But I may be louder in this space. I want to enter this season thoughtfully, yes, but I also want to reconnect with the small community here. I’m looking forward to using this season to refocus and to spark my own creativity.

What about you? Have you ever done a digital detox? How are you looking to enter this season of Advent?

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.

debby-hudson-589680-unsplash
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?