Friday, November 28, 2014

Budgeting for Black Friday and Beyond

The weeks before Christmas pose challenges to most of us, no matter what beliefs we hold. Even the most balanced of us can lose our way during this time of frantic busyness and hectic schedules and our culture beaming messages at us that we must spend more. How can we as Christians best use our gift giving dollars?

Our first impulse might be to give our gift giving dollars to various charitable organizations. I’m fortunate enough to be able to buy all the material stuff I need. I am haunted by all the charities that are underfunded. I am haunted by the gaping needs in the world. I would prefer that people give money to the needy than to buy more stuff for me. Chances are good that lots of people on your gift list feel the same way. Then the hard part comes in choosing the charity.

Philosophers like Peter Singer would encourage us to send our charitable dollars to charities who serve the developing world, where our dollars go further. Organizations like Lutheran World Relief have long histories of delivering our donations efficiently to areas of the globe with great need. But we know that there’s plenty of need here in our home countries.

Some people who give money to charities in lieu of gifts have fun matching the charity to the personality of the gift recipient. Some families choose one charity and give all their gift budgets to the one charity. Some families support local churches.

But what about the people on our list who aren’t as charitably minded?

Maybe instead of a gift, we could give an experience. Why not give your loved ones a retreat at a church camp? Many church camps have shorter week-end retreats that are affordably priced. Why not give theatre tickets?

We could give the gift of time together. You could take your gift recipients out for dinner. Make a date for a museum or a movie.—in February, when life calms down, and we need a treat to make it through the rest of winter.

We could give magazine subscriptions, the gift that gives throughout the year. A book of devotions could do the same thing, while nourishing our gift recipients on a daily basis.

This year, we might want to give gifts that help support local businesses so that they survive. We could give any number of gift cards to local businesses: car mechanics, gym memberships, hair stylists, boutiques, bookstores, restaurants, move theatres. We could broaden our approach and choose gift cards that support our Christian vision. Instead of an Amazon gift card, we could support Augsburg Fortress. We could buy fair trade products from organizations that support people in developing nations.

But what about the people on our list who don’t want a gift card? What about the people who want an object specially chosen for them?

One year, my family had a lot of fun by giving handmade gifts. But most of us don’t have time between now and Christmas to give handmade gifts.

Luckily, other people have been preparing. Why not support a church craft fair? There we’ll find beautiful objects to suit all sorts of budgets—and we’ll support church ministries. We could support local artists. Even if you think you can’t afford art, you will likely find something in your budget, like a set of note cards or a beautiful pottery mug. We could buy our gifts from SERVV or other groups who support artisans in the developing world. We could buy books from local authors.

However we choose to approach our gift giving, we should create a budget before we begin shopping. It’s easy to get caught up in the good feelings that spending money can produce for many of us. It’s easy to whip out our credit cards and worry about how we’ll pay for it later. Unfortunately, when we do that, many of us will still be paying for those Christmas presents next summer. And when we do that, we don’t have that money available for other worthy causes.

And there are so many other worthy causes.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Gratitude Haiku for Thanksgiving

What are your gratitude customs for Thanksgiving? Surely you have some. The holiday, after all, is not supposed to be about a big meal or getting ready for Black Friday shopping.

I'm proposing something different for your family to try this Thanksgiving: the gratitude haiku!

Why gratitude haiku, you ask?

First of all, a disclaimer. I'm using the word "haiku" very loosely. I understand that there's much more to haiku than the syllables per line (5-7-5).

The practice of gratitude journaling is one I've comd back to periodically. You've probably done it too: at the end of the day, write down 5 things that fill you with gratitude. No doubt that it's a powerful practice. But I wanted to be honest. When I've kept this discipline for any length of time, my gratitude lists begin to seem quite similar. As always, cultivating a quality of mindfulness does not come naturally to me.

Once, I changed up my gratitude journaling practice. Quite by accident--as I recall, it was in a desperate attempt to stick to a poem-a-day ritual one April--I wrote a gratitude haiku. And then I wrote another. And I kept doing it for several weeks. The practice short-circuited my tendency to keep the same list. I found myself paying attention and trying on subjects for haiku possibilities. I found myself more lighthearted than I sometimes am when I'm keeping a gratitude journal--it's fun to write haikus.

So, I offer this to you as a complement to your other Thanksgiving traditions. It involves no time in the kitchen, no exotic ingredients, and easy clean up--what could be better?

I'll start:

Thanksgiving 2014

Travels behind us,
We gather for food and fun,
Deeper nourishment.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, November 30, 2014:

First Reading: Isaiah 64:1-9

Psalm: Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18 (Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 NRSV)

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:3-9

Gospel: Mark 13:24-37

You may read the Gospel for Sunday and wonder if I've pasted the right lessons into the space above. You may have been prepared for angels appearing to Elizabeth, Mary, and Joseph. You might be like me, a woman who has already been listening to Christmas CDs; you may be hoping for a glimpse of Christmas in Advent.

Instead, again, you get this apocalyptic text from Mark, about tribulation, and a darkened sun and moon and stars falling from the sky. Yikes. Isaiah's not much better; we're not to the comforting texts yet.

But the end of this chunk of Mark is important. It implores us several times to watch. We're not very good at watching. We're not very good at waiting. These statements are true throughout the year, but they're especially true during the liturgical season of Advent. The pace of our socializing goes into full-throttle frenzy, and we give ourselves over to trying to create a perfect holiday. Then we spend the month of January nursing a cold (or succumbing to more serious illness) and the rest of the year paying our credit card bills.

Seen in this light, the Gospel chunk of Mark makes sense. The way we celebrate Advent is indicative of the way we spend the rest of the year, and in this way, the apocalyptic tone makes sense. So many of us are making a ruin of our lives. What can we do so that our lives do not end up in ashes?

The Gospel tells us to keep watch, and we might return to some ancient spiritual disciplines to help us with that. We think of Lent as the time of year for spiritual discipline, but Advent might be an even more important time, since our culture gives us more pressure in the season of Advent than Lent.

Return to the old practices. Light an Advent wreath each evening. Or buy yourself an Advent calendar. Those of us without children often let these traditions slide. Maybe we could take them up again.

We could return to some even more ancient practices.

Add some devotional time to your day. There are many books set up specifically for Advent or you could resolve to read more of the Bible.

You might keep a journal to record your thoughts as you move towards Christmas.  If you don't have time to write much, write a haiku or a sentence to capture your thought for the day.  Or take a picture.  This practice can help you stay alert.

Perhaps you might decide to undertake a fast. Many of us gain 4-10 pounds during an average holiday season. If we choose to abstain from food one day a week, we might avoid that fate--and our hunger pains might lead us to think about the real reason the season exists. Maybe we'll fast from parties. Maybe we'll get together with the adults in our lives and decide to fast from gifts. We could give each other time, instead, an afternoon spent in each other's company. Maybe we'll fast from the news, with its relentless grim information.

Maybe we want to be really brave and consider a larger technology fast. How much time do you spend on the Internet? How much of that time brings you closer to God or your fellow humans? How much of that time transforms you into a more creative person? How much time do you spend tending to your electronic devices? Computers, cell phones, T.V.s and Tivos, and Ipods, and gadgets I don't even know about yet. What would happen if you turned them all off for a day and spent your time observing the non-electronic world?

You might decide to give some of your time and/or money to charity. Or you might resolve to help those charities in January, when the fervor of charitable activities at year's end dies down, and those organizations really need you.

You could decide to pray. Maybe now is the time to add fixed-hour prayer to your life. Even if you don't want to buy an expensive set of breviaries and prayer books, you could go to this site: http://www.annarborvineyard.org/tdh/tdh.cfm. The prayers change through the day.

Whatever you do, choose a discipline that will help you keep watch. When we train ourselves to be alert, we'll be amazed at how much evidence of Divine Love surrounds us every day.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What's the Best Thing that Happened?

Back in the summer, I kept a logbook--see this post for more details about a logbook.  It's much easier in many ways than keeping a journal or writing blog posts.

As I was going back through it, I came across this idea, which seems infinitely adaptable for Thanksgiving conversations.  Maybe we can avoid the family arguments that so many of us dread around the holidays.

I came across this idea when reading Austin Kleon's Steal Like an Artist.  It's a quote from Nicholson Baker*, talking about writing The Anthologist"If you ask yourself, ‘What’s the best thing that happened today?’ it actually forces a certain kind of cheerful retrospection that pulls up from the recent past things to write about that you wouldn’t otherwise think about. If you ask yourself, ‘What happened today?’ it’s very likely that you’re going to remember the worst thing, because you’ve had to deal with it—you’ve had to rush somewhere or somebody said something mean to you—that’s what you’re going to remember. But if you ask what the best thing is, it’s going to be some particular slant of light, or some wonderful expression somebody had, or some particularly delicious salad. I mean, you never know… "

It's a variation on the gratitude exercise, it seems to me:  list 5 things each day for which you are grateful.  Your life/outlook will change.

I wrote this down, thinking I'd use it at work.  Maybe when people come to me to complain, to fret, to blow off steam--maybe I'll start remembering to use this prompt to shift the conversation:  tell me the best thing that's happened to you this week.

And maybe this week, during my Thanksgiving travels, I'll ask this question about the best thing that's happened in the past year.

*I realized I'd never really heard of Nicholson Baker, or at least, I thought I hadn't.  So I did what modern people did:  I Googled.  I came across this fascinating article from a few years ago.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Acting the Parable

Yesterday, after a good morning jog and listening to a fascinating show on Islam on NPR's show On Being (you can listen/read here), we headed off to church.

We had a variety of experiences at church, but I want to focus on the one that's most intriguing.  At our more interactive service, we divided into 2 groups.  One group prepared the story of the rich man and Lazarus with puppets.  The other put on a skit.

It was the exact same story, of course.  We already had the puppets on hand and a box of costumes.  We had 15 minutes to get ready.

Then we presented our dramas.  And I spent the rest of the day thinking about how this is such an effective way to explore the Biblical texts.

Many of us go to churches where worship revolves around a good sermon.  Now I like a good sermon as much as the next person, but there are all sorts of problems with a sermon.  Many of us don't learn well that way--it's why we might not do well with schools set up with this kind of lecture.  And too many sermons I've heard over 48 years have not been worth the time it took to sit still to hear them.  For more on this subject, see this post over at Jan Edmiston's wonderful blog.

What happens when we act out the story, rather than listen to someone explicate it?  I suspect it lives longer within us.  I suspect that we remember it longer.  I suspect that it nudges us at key points in our lives.

I realize that this approach might have some problems too.  Not everyone is up for this kind of interactivity.  Some people might feel paralyzed with fear at the very idea.

I think of my Quaker friends who would prefer to sit quietly with the text.  Full silence has its pull on me too.

I think of my friends who work in other art forms who would tell us that singing a text or painting a text would work in similar ways.  I suspect they are right.  We have whole libraries of hymnals that show that past generations have thought so.  We have gorgeous stained glass windows and paintings that show that in a pre-literate population, we can learn by other ways.

I am glad to go to a Lutheran church where we experiment with all sorts of ways to hear the Good News.  Our late service was full of testimony--several people who gave stewardship sermonettes.  Our early service before the interactive service has no sermon at all.  And our interactive service contains dramas and art projects and all sorts of alternate ways of coming to an understanding of Jesus and his message.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Last Sunday of the Church Year

It doesn't feel like New Year's Eve, does it?  Yet, in some ways, it is. 

Here we are, once again at the end of a liturgical calendar year, the last Sunday of year A.  It is Christ the King Sunday, a holiday that has never been dear to my heart.

This year's Advent readings come from Mark--ah, apocalyptic Mark.  I am oddly ready.  It has been an apocalyptic year, full of people at midlife battling dread diseases and relationships spiraling apart and all sorts of ghastly news events.  The year 2014 has already been Markian.  The Advent readings will be an appropriate way to end the calendar year.

I often think of Nora Gallagher's comment in Things Seen and Unseen; she talks about feeling like she's moving on an alternate calendar to the Day Timer that charts the calendar year.  I can relate.

It's a great time to read a book about the liturgical year. Even if you're already part of a religious community that follows the liturgical calendar and you think you don't have anything new to learn, Joan Chittister's book, The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life, is worth a look. And for those of you who can't comprehend the value of a church calendar that follows a different cycle than the worldly calendar, Chittister will explain, in elegant, beautiful language.
So, start the new year by reading about the old year, the liturgical year. Even if you're anti-Catholic, like some of the reviewers at Amazon, you'll likely find something to enrich your spirit. And even if you disagree with most of it, it's good to read something completely outside your realm of experience (in fact, a brain researcher, Barbara Strauch, says that's how our brains stay young, by wrestling with ideas outside our realm of experience--go here to read the article).

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Redemption of Spectacular Failure

I had thought that I might be heading to a place of sadness.  I read Nikky Finney's excellent response to Daniel Handler's racist joke at the National Book Awards.  She wrote to the National Book  Foundation suggesting that they apologize too; they declined.  She concludes her piece:  "Even if our mouth was not the mouth that said itwe still must have and find the courage to speak out against such moments as these, lest all our windows be broken, lest all our great literary celebrations be reduced to a watermelon patch."

I felt that leaden sorrow--but then I ran across this story of how Handler is making atonement:  he's making a $10,000 donation to We Need Diverse Books--and for 24 hours, he matched donations.  Now that's a classy way of apologizing.

Sure, it would be nice to live in a world where apologies for these kinds of comments aren't necessary because everyone is enlightened and thinks before they speak.  But we don't live in that world yet.

In her speech at the National Book Awards, Ursula K. Le Guin reminds us of why art is important and how artists will be necessary:  "I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality."

She reminds us that the reality we have now may not be the reality that we always have:  "The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words."

What a wonderful reminder of why we need to do what we do as writers and artists!

And because this is my theology blog, I'd also add that spiritual people have that same sort of power.  The world relies on spiritual people to call us all to be our better selves.

And sure, spiritual people can fail at that, as can institutions--and sometimes fairly spectacularly.  I like the example of Daniel Handler, which serves as a great reminder of how even spectacular failure can be redeemed.