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!

Small Actions Take Courage

I had the honor of writing about my experience in our school’s Family Literacy Program for the MOPS Magazine. They’ve republished the piece over at the MOPS Blog today so I thought I’d share an excerpt. I hope you’ll head over to read the rest!

nordwood-themes-179255-unsplashWe sat together, sipping coffee. She asked how I took my coffee and I replied, “Usually black.” She told me she was the same. Back home, they grew and roasted their own coffee, which she would drink black. But here … We smiled and rolled our eyes toward the cream-filled mugs.

We talked about family and I asked her if she had plans to go back to Ethiopia to see her mom. She said, “No.” Last year, her father had been brutally killed, their house burned down, and her mother and siblings went into hiding. Now, they’re able to talk on the phone sometimes, but it’s hard. She doesn’t want to go there; they can’t come here.

When I signed up to be a tutor for the family literacy program at my daughter’s school, I hadn’t anticipated these stories. Stories of leaving children behind; of worrying about policies impacting their families here. Stories of loss and hope and struggle; the reality of living as an immigrant or refugee in America.

My first thought was that I had absolutely nothing to complain about. My life seemed easy, privileged and unreal compared with my fellow moms. Who was I to feel tired or annoyed with my kids? Who was I to question my next steps or identity as a stay-at-home mom? These women were working multiple jobs! They really knew what stress and work-life balance (or imbalance) looks like!

But that’s not fair – not to them or to me. I’m learning to stop and listen, but not to let the stories of others overwhelm my own journey. Maybe I don’t have to decide to move my family to another country, but I do have to make small decisions that will impact our future. Read the rest over at the MOPS Blog!

What are ways you’ve been gusty lately? How do you remember that your own courage matters, without comparing your journey?

When the World Feels Big

I’m just dipping my toes into the Enneagram, a personality structure. I’m pretty sure I’m a Type One which means Perfectionist or Reformer. One of the strengths of this type is that I’m always looking for ways to make the world a better place. One of its weaknesses is that I have trouble stopping to notice the beauty in the moment.

IMG_8428There are so many studies and books about the importance of daily gratitude. It makes sense that pausing to be grateful is healthy. It changes our perspective and helps to ground us.

I especially need to remember the small moments when the world feels big and overwhelming. In my head, I know that the small daily things are world-changing but my feelings don’t always match up. When I stop and remember the beauty, I remember this important daily work of loving my girls, loving my family, loving my neighbors is really what does change the world. Calling my congresspeople is essential, but it doesn’t trump loving my neighbors.

So today, as we walked to school in 13-degree temperatures, I’m thankful for the opportunity to walk to school every day. We talk with the crossing guards, have gotten to know other kids and parents, and have formed community, even when it would be more comfortable to drive.

IMG_8376I’m thankful for the opportunity to volunteer every week with other moms as they learn English. They’ve taught me so much and I feel much more connected to our school community because of them. I’ve learned about immigration in ways I never could have by reading articles.

I’ve thankful for the flexibility to be at home with Elle during these little years. It’s tiring and boring but it’s also such a gift to follow her lead if we need a pajama day or a museum day or something in between.

Remembering the beauty around me in these small moments gives me the energy to push back against systems that need reform and gives me hope for the future.

How do you reenergize for the strength to be active in your community? How do you pause and recognize beauty in the everyday moments?

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

Actively Loving My Neighbors

We sat around two tables, ten women, a teacher, and me. Five women wore a hijab or some sort of covering. Four women were from Mexico. Two women relied on their friends for translation. We sat in a mobile classroom with a broken air conditioner, though during the morning class the heat wasn’t all that noticeable. We played a few name games, I helped a woman fill out a registration form, and after the coffee break we practiced leaving a voice message to let the teacher know if there was an absence or tardy.

school-375976_960_720Earlier this year, after the travel ban was enacted, I looked for ways to tangibly show my immigrant neighbors that they were welcome and a necessary part of our community. I reached out to a few different organizations but they were flooded with volunteers and yet had a lack of refugees who needed help. An acquaintance advised me to wait – that school would provide a more organic opportunity to help.

When I saw the poster at the Welcome Open House for Family Literacy, I immediately put my name down as a tutor. As a teacher, it was so hard to watch parents whose primary language wasn’t English try to decipher homework, forms, and school expectations. I knew that helping in the classroom was important, but if I could help parents help in their kids classrooms, that seemed exponentially more important.

Part of this program is English acquisition – practicing daily conversations and situations. Part of it is school specific – filling out forms, doing homework, understanding the new math curriculum. Part of it is teaching the parents how to volunteer in the classroom and give back to the school. It’s teaching them the cultural expectations and norms of American public education.

Our little class has just started meeting and already I’m excited for this year ahead. I look forward to the opportunity to get to know these other moms, not as student-teacher but as fellow moms at the school. I’m here to help with English but my goal is also to listen to their stories and to simply walk alongside them as we all navigate this world of elementary school together.

It’s such a small thing, this once a week commitment but it has already changed the way I read the news and world events. While I’m not out protesting or calling my representative’s office, and while we don’t have political signs in our front yard, I am making a political statement of welcome with my presence. I am actively loving my neighbor and our little circle of women gives me hope.

What are small ways you respond to world events? How do you actively love your neighbors?

A Love That Breaks Down Barriers

Imagine “love.” What colors do you see? What shapes? Now, try to think of the word without the color red or a heart. What do you see?

img_2680I often lead students through this exercise at the museum. An effort to understand that artists are constantly making choices – no matter how simple a drawing or painting looks – is a key part of this lesson. This discussion has so many interesting results:

I drew blue circles – because love is never-ending. And the sky is blue. We need love like we need to breathe.

I drew tulips – because there’s a field of tulips by my brother’s house that I love visiting.

It’s green – because green is calming and love should make me feel safe.

How do you view love? Sometimes I have trouble remembering that love does win; that love trumps hate. These days, it seems that those types of phrases are said in such an unloving way – that they’re used as accusations rather than reminders.

When I look to others and see that definition of love, I’m discouraged. It seems that I have to look so hard. When I close my eyes and think about it – really think, beyond hearts and red – I’m not as discouraged. It doesn’t seem so far away.

This second week of Advent, we lit the love candle. Sometimes it’s called the faith candle: A reminder of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem – a journey of faith and love.

We had our neighbors over to decorate the tree and have dinner. We lit the Advent candles, though we left off the devotional. There was something so amazing about starting this second week with these friends of a different faith background. As the girls decorated, we parents talked about Christmas and Bethlehem but from different perspectives.

As we talked about our own traditions this time of year, as made plans for making tree decorating a yearly tradition, love took on a whole new meaning. I am reminded that to love our neighbors is what this is all about. To come together and do life. To talk about our different experiences and celebrate the rich diversity we bring to our conversations.

I need to remember that as we tell stories of the manger. This love was revolutionary. It wasn’t about drawing more us-them lines. It is a radical inclusivity, where love truly does win and conquers hate.

So this week, I focus on a love that breaks down barriers, that doesn’t see differences, that turns the kingdoms of this world upside down.

What are some tangible ways you let love lead in your life? How do you actively break down barriers?

 

Choosing to Love My Neighbor

Before we had kids, I wondered if we’d get them vaccinated. I had heard a bit about vaccine controversy, but hadn’t thought too much about it. Once I was pregnant, I decided to do a bit more research and quickly found that vaccines were, in fact, not dangerous. Coming to the conclusion that vaccines are a good choice for our family brought up some basic ideals in how we want to raise our kids and what kind of worldview we try to instill in them.

Before getting pregnant, Frank and I took a two week vacation to southern Africa. We started in Zambia and traveled through Botswana, ending in South Africa. We were there during the wintertime, so the risk of many diseases was low, but we still updated our MMR booster, received the mandatory yellow fever vaccine, and took malaria pills, just in case. We had a wonderful time and when we came back, we started thinking about starting a family. Because of the vaccines in my system, I needed to wait about three months before trying to get pregnant. It’s not so much that there’s proof they could hurt the fetus, but no researcher wants to conduct an experiment on pregnant women. Waiting worked well for our timeline, so I didn’t think too much about it.

When I was a teacher, I rarely got the flu vaccination (and never got the flu!) but most of my students did. I totally benefited from their herd immunity. Once Bea was born, Frank and I got our flu shots because she was too young to receive hers. It’s one thing to put myself at risk for an unpleasant week of sickness; It was completely different for me to think about subjecting my infant to a disease that may cause permanent damage or even death.

After her first round of vaccines
After her first round of vaccines

Now, at 2.5, Bea has received all the recommended vaccines on the recommended timeline. I trust our pediatrician to do her research – just like my student’s parents trusted me to research the best practices for teaching their kids and Frank’s clients trust him to be up to date on new tax laws and changes.

Here’s where our family’s worldview plays into our decision to vaccinate our child: I want her to travel the world, to learn from other people and cultures. I want her to know her neighbors here and to be the best friend and kindest person she can be for them. One of the ways we can ensure that we are best loving our neighbors is to make sure we are not putting them at risk. I don’t know which of our neighbors (both near and far) can or cannot get vaccinated. Maybe they have medical reasons not to – it’s really none of my business. But, I want to love them the best I can and that means not putting them at risk for a preventable disease. Or when Bea starts school, I want to know that her classmate’s baby siblings are safe because she will not bring measles to a public school. If I choose what’s “best” for my healthy child without thinking about my community as a whole, what are my life choices showing others?

When I think about Jesus saying, “I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me” (Matthew 25:45), I wonder what he would say to us today?

I know that for us, trusting our doctors, trusting our neighbors, trusting our friends and coworkers all play into how we best love our neighbors and show grace to the least of these. When I think about the most vulnerable not only in our neighborhood, but also the world, I think about how I am best caring for them.

I don’t know how each individual family feels called to show love to their neighbors. Clearly, this is a personal choice and hopefully each choice was made in a well-thought out manner. I know that for our family, the schools we send our kids to, the neighborhood we live in, and the way in which we protect ourselves and subsequently our neighbors are all ways in which we can love those around us.

As a parent, I have decided that my responsibility includes not only my individual child but also those in my community. I don’t view this as sacrificing my child or “taking one for the team” (as someone recently suggested) but as actively loving my neighbors and living out the teachings of Jesus.

Here are some articles and a video that have been thought-provoking for me during this recent round of vaccine debates:

The Christian Case for Vaccinating your Kids by David R. Henson
Of course, nostalgia, like the decision not to vaccinate one’s children, tends to be primarily an indulgence of the white and wealthy. Parents who refuse vaccines tend to be in both of those demographics. Any time a trend like this, with such clear and dire public health consequences, skews white and wealthy, then we must acknowledge that it’s also a race and class issue.

Vaccines: An Unhealthy Skepticism by RetroReport (via New York Times)
An outbreak of measles that started at Disneyland has turned a spotlight on those who choose not to vaccinate their children. How did we get to a point where personal beliefs can triumph over science?

The New Mommy Wars, Vaccines, and White Privilege by Alexandra Kuykendall
In general mommy wars exist because we as moms are passionate about our kids. We parent out of our values and the stronger we hold to a given value, the more we want to defend the decisions that stem from it. I’ve tried my best to understand this underlying motivator as I’ve watched other moms make different decisions than I have and certainly have grown in my ability to let others do their thing without taking it personally. But this new debate coming up prompted by the Disneyland measles outbreak has a different nuance than debates I’ve listened to in the past because what you do or don’t do on either side of the vaccination decision might impact another child in a significant way.

There are so many ways to choose love our neighbors beyond the vaccine debates. How are you actively choosing to love those around you?