Tu BiSh’vat—A Jewish Holiday for Us All

Tu BiSh’vat—A Jewish Holiday for Us All

By Rachel Coleman, FaithCounts.com Contributor

Tu Bishvat
I am a child of the desert and a lover of trees. I grew up with figs and pomegranates and acres and acres of citrus groves in my backyard. These trees bloomed in early spring and bore fruit all winter. I played in the secret shade of their green leaves all year long.

Then I moved to a place where winter was a gray crusty thing that often overstayed her welcome, where everything froze, and everything died, and there were plenty of days when it hurt my face to go outside. There was no secret green shade in this winter.

Nearing the end of my first winter there, I was convinced I had made a terrible mistake by moving to this frozen wasteland. And then I saw a maple tree bloom. It took me by surprise, in the still-cold air of early spring. Bright green buds unfurled, the sun shining behind them lighting them up like green stained glass. Next, leaves grew—huge—the size of dinner plates. In the heat of summer, I found shade.

Today, Jews celebrate Tu BiSh’vat, sometimes called Jewish Arbor Day or New Year of the Trees. It’s a time to plant trees, reflect on the lessons they teach, and connect to generations before and after.

I have planted over twenty trees since moving. It’s a wonder to me every year, after enduring winter, to watch the trees reawaken.

In that time, my heart has been broken. Shattered really, and more than once, hasn’t yours? Griefs, disappointments and betrayals are part of being human. No one is spared.

Sometimes after so much hurt, we walk around numb, frozen, guarding our hearts against future fractures. We push through, carry on with the business of life, steel ourselves, because we must. After all, so many rely on our strength to get things done. The world does not stop turning for our sorrows, so we bind ourselves up, compose ourselves, and do what we must to meet the unrelenting expectations.

Tu BiSh’vat is for all of us. On this day, we remember how even solid ground thaws year after year. We remember that no matter how dark or cold the winter, buds swell, tender shoots appear, leaves unfurl with complete faith in another growing season. Tu BiSh’vat reminds us that we can open our hearts again, with faith that the light will seep in, and we can soften, thaw, regenerate—and grow. Click here to learn more about Tu BiSh’vat.

Rachel Coleman is a writer, designer, and believer. Contact her at rachelandcompany@gmail.com

3 Lessons I Learned from Meditation in 7 Days

3 Lessons I Learned from Meditation in 7 Days

By Ariel Szuch, FaithCounts.com Contributor

3-lessons-i-learned-from-meditation-in-7-days
Until recently, my experience with meditation was that time at the end of a fitness class in college when “meditate” was code for “doze for a few minutes before you get up and run to your next class.” I had heard about some of meditation’s benefits but never really tried it, so when asked to write about it, I said, “Thanks, but no thanks” on account of zero practical experience.

“Why don’t you try it for a week and then write about it?” came the reply.

Seemed reasonable.

In its basic definition, meditation is the practice of training the mind to be focused and calm. However, as even a simple Google search on the topic will tell you, there are a dizzying number of ways to do that. I felt overwhelmed by all the information about posture, breathing, different kinds of practices, and so on. Finally I decided that the best approach was the same one used for getting used to cold water—just jump in.

So I did. Each day for seven days I looked up a video or audio recording that guided me through some form of meditation that would help me in an area where I was struggling that day. I did several meditations from Self-Compassion.org, yoga for meditation, mindfulness and anxiety meditations, and tai chi, and I found that my mental focus was the best when I did some form of movement (yoga or tai chi) followed by some kind of audio.

As I went through the week, I gained a few insights on the practice of meditation:

1. Meditation is about practicing present awareness and exercising self-compassion along the way. I tend to be hard on myself in general, which extends to getting off track and distracted during meditation. Sometimes I feel like keeping hold of my focus and staying in the present is like trying to hold a wriggling fish in your bare hands—the tighter you hold on, the more it slips through your fingers. On Day 1 (and a couple days afterward) I lost the battle and dozed off. However, meditation is called a practice for a reason; being present and focused is a learning process. In several of the guided meditations I did, the audio talked about how if your mind wanders, you just bring it gently back to the point of focus. No shaming self-judgment—just acknowledging that you’re learning and moving forward. It was healthy for me to practice some intentional self-compassion.

2. Meditation is about taking time for self-care. I struggle with this. Even though I just have me to take care of at this point in my life, I tend to disregard my own needs as less important than others. At one point a friend told me, “No one cares about your feelings except you!” What she meant was that I have to care for myself—my physical, spiritual, and emotional needs—because I am the one who is responsible for them. It’s not about putting my needs above everyone else’s, but honoring my needs as valid and my part in getting them met. Meditation helped me tune into myself physically and emotionally, and I could better see how to take care of myself and what help I needed from others.

3. Meditation is about setting the stage for truth to come—truth about ourselves, our lives, and our faith. By cultivating that present awareness in body and mind, tuning into myself physically and emotionally, I put myself in a state to receive truth. In several days over the course of the week I would start the meditation feeling agitated and by the end was able to get at the root of what was bothering me. Sometimes that truth was hard to face, but coming to terms with it was the way to move forward.

My meditation practice is still fledgling, but I’m grateful for what I learned over the course of the week and have incorporated aspects of meditation into my life since then. It has helped me focus at work and navigate stress in my personal life. Pausing for even a few moments to breathe and care for myself in high-emotion situations has made a world of difference for my overall wellbeing and peace of mind.

Ariel Szuch is a word nerd, writer, and compulsive reader who finds purpose in a life of faith.

Kindness: Kindling for the Flame of Faith

Kindness: Kindling for the Flame of Faith

By Linda Clyde, FaithCounts.com Contributor

kindnessA Kindness Experiment

During my late teenage years I found myself working one of the checkout counters at a local department store during the holidays. It was a boring job, and one that required me to interact with a lot of people each day. Most of the people that passed through my line were mothers with young children. These moms were often harried and preoccupied as they juggled their children and went through the process of making their purchases.

The children on the other hand were doing what kids do. They were soaking up their environment. They were busy observing people and things—including me. While their parents rarely made eye contact with me, the children almost always did. I found myself engaging in a little experiment to pass the time. When I would catch a kid sizing me up, I would return the eye contact and give them a brief smile. There were a few shy ones that would hide behind their mothers, but most would instinctively smile back. It was fun, and it taught me a few things. First, that a simple smile is powerful, and second, that even small children recognize and respond to kindness—it’s contagious.

The Universal Language

Remember the last time you were deliberately kind to someone, or had someone do something nice for you? The times when we’ve been the recipient of kindness, or shown kindness to others are both powerful and memorable. It’s a universal language—one that even babies and dogs understand.

Kindness fosters love, mutual respect, and creates an atmosphere of openness and honesty in relationships. It increases our receptivity to others, and we’re even more likely to listen to the counsel and opinions of those who treat us well. It works the other way too. If you want someone’s respect, or are hoping that they’ll listen to you, add an extra dose of kindness to your interaction with them.

The Kindling for Faith

Have you ever considered how kindness is connected to faith? Even a little kindness, directed anywhere, is kindling that can start the fire of belief—in each other, in ourselves, and in humanity. When we’re kind to one another, it’s easier to have faith that the world is a good place to be. When we notice God’s kindness toward us, it builds our faith in Him, and if you’re a believer in karma, you’ll have faith that by showing kindness to others, it will always return to you.

All acts of kindness are a joy to witness and experience. They lift everyone, even those who are only watching. They help us to feel safe and comfortable in this wonderful world that we share.

When I Lift You, I Lift Me Too

Kindness is its own reward. It’s a well-known fact that when we choose to be kind that it gives us a boost too. It’s just one more reason to look for those daily opportunities to be nice, and here’s the good news—these opportunities are everywhere.

Just like dropping a pebble in water causes a ripple effect, acts of kindness ripple outward in a contagious wave of love. So get creative, share your smile, lend a hand, and be generous. The smallest acts of kindness—even a brief smile at a child—can start a loving ripple in this world.

Linda Clyde is foremost a wife and a mother of three. She is currently employed as a writer for the LDS Church. You may contact her at colossalthought@gmail.com

Making Your Life A Masterpiece

Making Your Life A Masterpiece

By Danielle Moran, FaithCounts.com Contributor

making-your-life-a-masterpieceAs a child, I was dedicated to the show “Adventures from the Book of Virtues.” One episode focused on diligence and showed Michelangelo’s determination in all the works of art he created, especially his paintings in the Sistine Chapel. Over the years, I came to admire his other works of art like the statue David and the Pietà. His masterpieces are evidence of how great he was and how great we can become as well. We can make our own lives masterful works of art by following 5 lessons we learn from Michelangelo.

1. “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”

Michelangelo saw things as they could become; not as they were. Though he started with slab of marble or stone, he chose to see more than that. He chose to see potential and you can do the same. You can find beauty and holiness all around you: in people, in nature, in everything, if you but choose to.

2. “The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection.”

Michelangelo gave credit to God for his talents, and in each piece he crafted he showed his love for divinity. Have a heart of gratitude towards God and be humbled for the talents He has given to you. Use your gifts to bless the world, that His light may be reflected in you.

3. “Lord, grant that I may always desire more than I can accomplish.”

Ask God for help. Pray. Even if you just need to pray for a greater desire to love, serve, or work harder; He will help you. Ask and then do. Take leaps of faith big and small. Life is busy but find a little bit of time to be better– smile at a stranger, call an old friend, etc. He will help you to accomplish all that He needs you to do.

4. “The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”

Don’t settle. Don’t take the easy way out. Aim higher and reach further. You are destined for greatness. Believe in that. As you set your goals, don’t be afraid to fail because through the failures you will find knowledge. You will find the way to success. But do not be less than you are.

5. “Genius is eternal patience.”

Masterpieces take time. Be patient. Don’t get angry with yourself or give up when things go wrong. Wait. Stop. Take time and refresh. Be patient with yourself and with others. Accomplishments come over time and with hard work. Keep going.

Living the Dream

Living the Dream

By Breanna Olaveson, FaithCounts.com Contributor

martin-luther-king-01I was 14 years old the first time I went to Hawaii. Part of that dream vacation involved a trip to Pearl Harbor, where I read the names of the attack victims, watched a film detailing the history, and saw photos of Hawaii taken on the day that has lived in infamy.

It was a poignant moment for me as an American as I tried to imagine what that day must have been like. But it was also an uncomfortable moment, because I was surrounded by dozens of Japanese tourists who watched the same film, saw the same photos and read the same names I did. I wondered what the experience was like for them; I wondered what it was like to confront this part of our past from the other side.

Thirteen years later, I experienced a little of what those Japanese tourists must have been feeling.

My husband and I took our two daughters to the library in our Texas town. The children’s story time room contained an impressive display for Martin Luther King, Jr., Day. The display included a video recounting the history of civil rights in the U.S. and powerful photos of civil rights demonstrators, one of which included a police dog attacking a black man in Birmingham.

“How do we teach our kids about this?” I whispered to my husband. But instead of his voice, I heard a child near me ask his dad a question:

“A dog is attacking him, Dad? But he’s not even doing anything.”

The boy was African-American, probably not much older than my oldest daughter. His dad was also looking at the photo, though with perhaps more emotion.

“That’s right,” he said. Because what else could he say?

For the first time since our arrival at the library, I really looked at the other families in the room. I discovered that everyone else was African-American; that my family and I were the only white people there. And I understood a little bit about those Japanese tourists.

I recognized the negative history that existed between the races in our country. But I also understood how far we’d come, how little animosity remained in that room, and how blissfully unaware my children were that there was any difference between them and the black children at all.

My parents were far removed from the civil rights movement of the 1960s. They were farm kids living in Idaho, a thousand miles away from that police dog in Birmingham. I’m not even sure if a single black person lived in their entire county. I know that no matter how much I read or learn, I will never really understand what the photos on those walls meant to the families that surrounded me. But I can try to imagine.

Another young mom approached my daughters and I as we watched the film. She talked to my oldest daughter, who was wearing a light blue princess dress-up.

“Are you Elsa?” she asked. My daughter, always the shy one, looked away and wouldn’t answer.

“She is,” I smiled. “She’s being shy.”

“We know all about Elsa,” she said. “My son — even though he’s a boy — sings ‘Let it Go’ all day long.”

And there we were, two young moms with children who loved the same Disney movie, chatting about our lives that were more similar than they were different. Her son did a silly dance move and made my girl laugh. We learned that our children were similar ages and both loved to watch “Bubble Guppies.” We talked while in the background Dr. King’s voice on the film said “I have a dream that one day … little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

While we still have a very long way to go, I saw a little piece of Dr. King’s dream come true that day. In the children’s room of a public library in Texas, white families and black families metaphorically joined hands as sisters and brothers. We were on our way to moving forward together with faith in the future.

Breanna is the author of two books, the mother of three children, and a frequent contributor to several faith-based magazines and blogs. She blogs about her faith, her family, and her favorite things at www.breannaolaveson.com.

Finding Meaning in the Mundane

Finding Meaning in the Mundane

By Erin Facer, FaithCounts.com Contributor

mundaneEver wished you could speed through certain phases of your life? As a kid, I often imagined this possibility. I pictured using a gigantic TV remote to fast forward through the parts of life that were boring, stressful, frightening or mundane and skip ahead to “the good stuff.” Looking back, I’m grateful I didn’t have access to such a remote. My life would have consisted entirely of Christmas mornings and birthday parties; there is so much I would have missed!

Although now I can admit that wielding a gigantic TV remote might not be the best way to approach life, I sometimes catch myself drooling over the exciting lives depicted on social media or in movies, forgetting the fact that these are merely highlight reels, lives that have been distilled into a thick concentration of thrill.

It’s not real life.

Real life is made up of brushing your teeth, running late for work, and washing dishes over and over again. Real life is t-ball practices, long grocery lines and sitting at a desk from nine to five. Much of real life can be pretty monotonous. But in spending all our time wishing and waiting for the thrills and trying to evade the monotony, we attempt to fast forward through real life and begin to view the daily grind with contempt. Faith, however, provides a better perspective. With faith we find meaning in and even celebrate the humdrum of daily living.

Ironically faith, or belief in the unseen, is all about vision. Faith allows us to “see” what normally goes unnoticed. In this case, faith can help us see inglorious monotony with gratitude.

Stop Taking Life for Granted

A few years ago my family took a trip to France. While visiting a small town outside Paris, we drove past a beautiful but non-famous chateau. I was in awe. Looking around, however, I realized that no one on the streets seemed to care. They were all busy carrying their groceries, listening to their iPods, and considering their unpaid bills. For those who lived in the town, this was just another monotonous day. Incredulous, I began shouting, “You live next to a castle! Don’t you care? You’re missing it!”

I wonder if God ever feels the same way about us. Are we seeing life’s chateau? Or are we missing it?

Develop an Alternative Perspective on Growth

Sometimes things feel monotonous because we cannot see progress. We seem to be metaphorically punching a wall over and over without noticeable effect. Perhaps it’s our perspective that needs an update. A change in perspective allows us to recognize that even if the wall is not coming down, our arms are getting stronger.

See How Far You’ve Come

Even grand adventures like swimming the English Channel or hiking Mount Kilimanjaro require repetitive steps. We call this diligence, persistence and tenacity. Grand vistas and epic photo ops are exciting because they are the culmination of previous perseverance. Faith reminds us that each forward step matters. There is a majestic vista ahead of us.

By choosing to view our lives through the lens of faith, we can choose to believe that our small, simple, albeit mundane, actions matter. Rather than distract ourselves from life’s monotony, we can remember that each moment is a gift, given by God for a reason. There is always something to learn, appreciate, work at and celebrate. Why would we want to skip to the good stuff? It’s all good stuff!

Erin Facer is a graduate of Brigham Young University and proud southerner. Contact her at facererin@gmail.com

Choosing Mindfulness

Choosing Mindfulness

By Camille Ward, FaithCounts.com Contributor

choosing-mindfulnessEven when sitting still, I feel like I live in a perpetual whirlwind of chaos. On particularly stressful days I find myself pulling my coat tighter and tighter, as if it were the only thing holding me together. I’m not just bad at mindfulness, I’m downright terrible at it.

Sounds like I could use some time in mindful meditation, right? But that would take even more time out of my day.

Maybe that’s the point. Time out.

I’ve begun to realize that I’ve been thinking about mindfulness all wrong. Mindful meditation isn’t about putting another item on the schedule, but about taking things off. All of us need a time out at some point. Meditation allows us to step out of life to practice…for life.

We arrive to life in a shocking explosion of cold and noise and pain. No crash course. No manual. We’re expected to wing it from day one. And it just keeps getting crazier. Yet when the opportunity actually comes along to practice for this circus we call life, we pass it by because we’re too busy. But life, like any other skill, requires a mastering of the basics: The ballerina’s first position, the bassist’s scales, the ball player’s swing. And a brain’s mindset.

Mindful meditation isn’t the goal. It’s the practice. Our goal is a mindful life.

When meditating, we focus on the sensations of the present, allowing distracting thoughts to come and go without judgment. By practicing the skills we need to make the most of life we learn to experience life intentionally and observe and accept change without fear. Hopefully we emerge to find ourselves more content, peaceful, and ready to face life.

Of course, none of these things are useful if we dive back in with the same attitude we had before meditation. We have to learn to apply mindfulness to our life as a whole.

Worry is the opposite of mindfulness. All of us have fruitless worries that clutter up our lives. They pull us into the future, prevent us from engaging with the present, and manage to be exhausting without actually accomplishing anything besides making us unhappy.

In an effort to live more mindfully, I’ve begun my week by listing 5 concerns that I am consciously choosing NOT to worry about:

  • Finding a new apartment next year.
  • Finding gifts for my friends’ unborn children (who aren’t due until July…).
  • If people think I’m lazy because I need naps.
  • If the weather will keep me from getting to work this week.
  • Whether or not I’m ever going to get married.

Okay. That list was kind of hard. But also very relieving. While some of my worries made me feel silly or vulnerable, writing them out helped me remember that most of them aren’t even in my control. They’re real worries, but they interfere with living a happy life. This week, instead of stressing over those things, I’ve been enjoying where I am now. So far it’s felt great.

What about you? What 5 worries are you going to reject? Share in the comments below or on social media, using #faithcounts.

Camille Ward is a student of English Education at BYU. She loves to spend time with her family and is not to be trusted with a budget in bookstores or bakeries.

5 Uncommon Gifts to Give This Christmas

5 Uncommon Gifts to Give This Christmas

By Breanna Olaveson, FaithCounts.com Contributor

uncommon-giftIt’s almost time for Christmas. You’ve sent your holiday cards, baked delicious treats, decorated the house and checked off every item on your shopping list — after all, the spirit of Christmas is the spirit of giving.

Generosity is central to the holiday season, and nothing says “Christmas spirit” like choosing the perfect gift for someone you love. But some of the best gifts you can give aren’t under any Christmas tree. They’re free, they won’t wear out, and they only get better with time. When you give these gifts to family, friends and strangers all year long, you’ll always get more than you give. This year, give these five gifts to everyone you meet.

1. Gratitude

It’s often said that gratitude turns what we have into enough. Maybe it’s a good thing that in the United States, Thanksgiving comes shortly before Christmas. When we take time to reflect on the wonderful things we have, and when we are truly grateful for those blessings, we feel more content and positive.

This holiday season and all year long, cultivate an attitude of gratitude. Be grateful for the gifts you receive, and count your blessings every day. Express gratitude to those who help you. Showing others gratitude will increase love and strengthen relationships.

2. Forgiveness

Buying someone the latest technology is great, but sometimes the best thing you can give another person is your forgiveness. When we forgive, we heal. Others heal. We let go of a weight that brings us down, and we rebuild bridges that were previously burned.

Forgiveness may be one of the most valuable gifts we can give, but it can also be one of the most difficult. If it helps, pray for assistance. When you genuinely seek to let go of anger and hurt, forgiveness is possible. And it is liberating.

3. Love

People from all over the world speak the same language — love. This year, give everyone around you more of it. Give your family a little more of your time. Pay attention to how others are feeling and offer extra kindness to those around you.

This gift can even extend to people you don’t know. Treat your mail carrier, your waitress and your grocery store clerk with extra attention and kindness. When you spread that kind of joy around, you can’t help but feel a little more joy yourself.

4. Positivity

It’s stylish to be cynical, but you don’t have to be. While many people seem to take pleasure in leaving negative reviews online, being critical of others and being generally pessimistic, you can do better. This year, give everyone around you the gift of someone positive to be around.

Try it: when you’re tempted to complain, say something positive instead. Look for the good in someone who upsets you. Thank others for offering you service instead of pointing out how they could have done it better. Being positive and happy is contagious and is the perfect gift to give this year.

5. Faith

We often think faith is something we have in God or in the future, and that is certainly true. But this year, you can give the gift of a different kind of faith: faith in those around you.

Everyone has plans and ambitions, but courage can be difficult to find. Let a friend or family member know that you believe in him or her. Encourage those you meet to pursue their dreams, and offer help and guidance as appropriate. Having faith in the potential of others — especially when they might not believe in their own potential — is among the greatest gifts you can give.

Breanna is the author of two books, the mother of three children, and a frequent contributor to several faith-based magazines and blogs. She blogs about her faith, her family, and her favorite things at www.breannaolaveson.com.

5 Life Lessons from Jackie Kennedy

5 Life Lessons from Jackie Kennedy

By Amy Higley, FaithCounts.com Contributor

jackie-kennedy-01FEED YOUR SPIRIT

“If you cut people off from what nourishes them spiritually, something in them dies.”

Sometimes we may find ourselves feeling like we don’t need religion or spiritual influences in our lives. When that happens, we lose perspective and a sense of purpose that guides much of what we do. Life moves quickly and every day more things can happen to make us feel afraid or out of control. We can stay centered by reading scripture, praying, and serving other people.

MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE

“Even though people may be well-known, they hold in their hearts the emotions of a simple person for the moments that are the most important of those we know on earth: birth, marriage and death.”

Even though some of Jackie’s life appeared to be gilded, her marriage to John F. Kennedy wasn’t perfect, and her family faced several health challenges. We may only see superficial and light-hearted posts of endless perfect moments on Pinterest and Instagram, but behind these posts we often find people experiencing similar insecurities as us. Pictures or tweets don’t tell the full story. We can’t truly see into a person’s heart.

LIFT YOURSELF UP

“One must not let oneself be overwhelmed by sadness.”

After ten years of marriage, Jackie was left a widow with two children. She lost her husband and one son in a three-month time span. Although our losses might not be the same, we all experience devastation. It is perfectly justified to be overcome by feelings of grief and pain as a result, but we shouldn’t let our circumstances rob us of all future happiness. We need to remember happiness is often something we have to choose. If we can’t be in charge of our situations, we can at least be in charge of ourselves. We can try to focus on what we can control going forward. Jackie said seeing the world through her children’s eyes helped restore her faith in her family.

BE PROACTIVE

“We should all do something to right the wrongs that we see and not just complain about them.”

Only talking about problems is not the same as working toward solving them. As First Lady, Jackie was effective at presenting alternatives to issues that concerned her. We need to find reasons to be positive, steps we can take, or habits that we can change. Anyone can criticize, but those who offer solutions become leaders. We should be anxiously engaged in good causes. When we see wrongdoings, we can set about fixing them to improve lives.

MAKE A DIFFERENCE

“One [person] can make a difference and every[one] should try.”

News headlines make it seem like only wealthy, prominent people and heads of companies are capable of making big changes in the world, leading us to sometimes forget the power of people like you and me. Things rarely change when we think others are the ones responsible. We tend to underestimate the change we can bring about. When we hold ourselves accountable for our part and everybody works together, situations begin to improve. Even if we can only give a small amount of time or training or money or food or love, our efforts affect many circles and cause chain reactions. When we see someone pay it forward, it’s easy to follow their example.

Surprising Meanings Behind Christmas Symbols

Surprising Meanings Behind Christmas Symbols

By Sarah Eyring, FaithCounts.com Contributor

holly-art-640x360It’s Christmastime, and while the holiday music plays you and I are hanging wreaths, lights, tinsel, and stockings—but why? What makes tinsel a Christmas tradition? Who first thought wreaths represented the season?

The stories behind some Christmas symbols are easy to guess, but others could surprise you.

An Orange in Your Stocking

Do you usually find fruit in the toe of your stocking on Christmas morning? This tradition dates back to the day of the real Saint Nicholas. Born in present-day Turkey, Saint Nicholas was a bishop who inherited a fortune that he used to help others in need.

In one story of his service, Saint Nicholas learned of a poor man who had three daughters. With no money to offer as dowries, the man feared his daughters could never get married. In the night, Saint Nicholas visited the house and tossed three sacks of gold down the chimney. Some of the gold landed in the girls’ stockings, which were hanging by the fire to dry. The oranges we give today symbolize the gold that was left by Saint Nicholas.

Boughs of Holly

With its bright red berries and green leaves, holly is a beautiful sight, but it’s sharp to the touch. To Christians, the sharp-toothed edges of the holly leaf are symbolic of the crown of thorns placed on Jesus Christ’s head before he was hung on the cross. The red berries are a reminder of the blood Jesus shed.

Tinsel on the Tree

Whether or not you are a fan of tinsel, you will likely agree that it’s better than the alternative in this legend. It tells of a poor family and their first Christmas tree. When Christmas Eve came, they still could not afford to decorate the tree. They went to bed with heavy hearts, and as they slept, spiders covered the tree in webs. Before the family woke, Father Christmas kindly turned the spider webs into silver, and by morning the poor family found it dazzling in the sunlight. The tinsel we hang on our trees is a symbol of that Christmas gift.

Evergreen Wreaths

Both the shape and material of this holiday symbol hold significant meaning. Evergreen plants retain their green leaves or needles, regardless of the weather. They symbolize the life, light, and hope that continually shine—even in the dead of winter. The circular wreaths we shape them into are symbolic of God, who has no beginning and no end.

Poinsettias

This plant’s connection to Christmas began in 16th-century Mexico. The story says that a child with no money was searching for a gift to bring to the church on Christmas Eve. She gathered weeds from the side of the road and placed them on the altar. Immediately, crimson flowers blossomed from the weeds. The star shape of the flower symbolizes the Star of Bethlehem, while its red color represents Jesus Christ’s sacrifice.

What is your favorite Christmas symbol, and what does it mean to you?

5 Inspiring Lessons Learned From Helen Keller

5 Inspiring Lessons Learned From Helen Keller

By Audrey Denison, FaithCounts.com Contributor

helen-keller-015 Inspiring Lessons Learned From Helen Keller

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.”

1. When Helen Keller was just nineteen months old, she developed an illness that resulted in both blindness and deafness. As Helen grew into a young girl, she and her family became increasingly frustrated with her inability to communicate. She learned to recognize her family members by touching their facial features, their clothing, or by detecting the scent of their perfume. Not knowing what to do, Helen’s parents consulted Alexander Graham Bell, who worked with the deaf. He suggested they hire a young woman by the name of Anne Sullivan as Helen’s teacher and mentor. This decision changed Helen’s life forever.

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”

2. After establishing what would become a lifelong friendship, Anne began to teach Helen the alphabet by finger spelling the sign language letters into the palm of Helen’s hand. The most challenging lesson was to help Helen make the connection between a word and a concept. The world-changing breakthrough happened when Anne pumped well water into one of Helen’s hands while finger spelling the word water onto her other one. At that moment, Helen understood that a word represented a concept or a thing. Soon, Helen began recognizing the letter combinations and this lit a fire within her soul. From that point on, Anne had helped Helen develop a relentless desire to learn. With Anne’s help Helen soon learned how to read Braille, write, and even started trying to speak. With her newfound love for learning, Helen began to have a strong desire to attend college. Although she experienced many trials and hardships along the way, she didn’t allow her physical challenges to set her back from dreaming big and then acting on those dreams.

“It’s a terrible thing to see and have no vision.”

3. If anyone realized the importance of having a vision for your life, it was Helen Keller. One of her many accomplishments includes being the first deaf and blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. Helen did not see her limitations as an excuse not to pursue her dreams. Many people go through their lives with perfect vision, but fail to have a clear vision as to where they want to go and who they want to become. Helen did not let her literal lack of vision stop her from having big dreams. Where many people would have used Helen’s disabilities as a setback and would be focused solely on surviving, Helen was focused on thriving.

“Faith is the strength by which a shattered world shall emerge into the light.”

4. Helen knew perfectly that without faith she would not have the strength to overcome her hardships. She learned to grapple with trials both big and small and learned the importance of looking forward to the future with faith and optimism. She recognized that without the faith that Anne Sullivan had in her, she would not have been able to become the accomplished person that she was. Similarly, if Helen did not have faith of her own that fueled her to believe in the beauty of her dreams, then she would have continued to live in darkness. She was diligent in sharing this faith with the world because she desperately wanted others to walk in the light she walked in as well.

“What I am looking for is not out there, it is in me.”

5. Many people spend their entire lives chasing the next “big thing” thinking that some thing or person out there is going to make them happy and bring them fulfillment. Helen recognized early on that happiness was not found, but rather created. Happiness and confidence were attributes she championed from within, not things she would magically find one day if she searched long and hard enough. She was an author, speaker, and activist with a spirit of determination that served as an advocate for people with disabilities for generations to come. Helen triumphed over adversity and dedicated her life to helping others. Her legacy and beautiful spirit will never be forgotten.

Audrey Denison is a young professional working and living in Washington, D.C. Contact her at theanticovergirl@gmail.com

Dealing with Loss During the Holidays

Dealing with Loss During the Holidays

By Ariel Szuch, FaithCounts.com Contributor

dealing-with-lossI’m going into my third Christmas after my mother’s passing from cancer. Sometimes I ask myself if I really know how to “deal with” these things called loss and grief very well. If “dealing with” loss during the holiday season means coping with my grief in a healthy, proactive way, the answer to that question sometimes is, “Yes,” but often is, “Not really.”

I’m grateful for the principles I’ve learned in the last three years from friends, family members, and helping professionals about living with grief and loss, especially during the holidays. I’ve come to realize that putting these principles into effect is a practice—a daily effort over time that has peaks and valleys, but ultimately moves upward.

Principle 1: It isn’t possible to shut out grief during the holidays. You have to make a place for it.

I feel like articles like this tend to promote band-aid solutions to “feel better” during difficult times. The truth is, the pain of separation from those we love will never go away during this life, and sometimes it just hurts. I’ve realized that over the past few years I’ve often run away from my pain or tried to shut it out. However, stifled pain doesn’t go away—it just builds up until it comes out, often at inconvenient times and places.

One of the best pieces of counsel I received from a friend whose father passed away was to create space for grief. Build time into your life to go to that place where you allow yourself to feel that pain, and it won’t pop up and surprise you as much. This can take the form of counseling appointments, rituals like a special candlelight vigil, or an evening in to write about your feelings. Creating this space is always important, but especially at high-emotion times such as the holidays.

Principle 2: Be willing to be present with circumstances as they are and create new traditions.

Tied up in grief is pain of separation and pain of unmet expectations. The separation I can’t control, but I can adjust my expectations of how holidays should go based on my present circumstances.

My kind stepmom and I recently had a conversation about allowing things to be as they are instead of clinging to expectations of how things used to be. I went home for Thanksgiving this year and had a much better experience. I let go of some of my expectations that things would be the same as they were before my mom’s passing as well as my assumption that my family should take the initiative in making sure I had a good time.

For Christmas, my goal is to create new traditions for myself to honor my mother and help myself have a positive experience. My friend who lost her dad said that her family always hangs a special ornament in her father’s honor on Christmas Eve. That idea rang true to me—instead of holding our pain inside, we honor the past while making our loved ones a part of our holiday celebrations moving forward.

Principle 3: Be kind to yourself and reach out for support from those you trust.

During the holidays, some days are going to be painful—perhaps for the rest of my life. Some days I do well, writing about my feelings and reaching out to friends for support, and some days I binge-watch Jane Austen movies and cry in my room. I’m learning how to honor my grief as part of my story without letting my pain drive everything I do. I’m practicing, and my process is okay. Having a friend who can hold space for me without judging, whom I can reach out to day or night, has been invaluable in my healing process, and for anyone going through a similar situation I would wish the same.

Looking forward

So how will the holidays go this year for me? Sometimes when people ask me how I’m doing after a particularly emotionally trying episode, I say, “I’m good.” And I mean it. Growing, refining processes are not always fun and often painful, but they are good. They make me kinder, softer, and more compassionate to others and to myself. They give me the opportunity to come to know myself and come to know God. For me as a Christian, that is what Christmas is all about—hope in Christ and His power to overcome all things.

Ariel Szuch is a word nerd, writer, and compulsive reader who finds purpose in a life of faith.

2 Truths, Some Lies, and an Elephant

2 Truths, Some Lies, and an Elephant

By Camille Ward, FaithCounts.com Contributor

elephantAccording to Winston Churchill, “The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.”

What is truth, and what makes it so valuable?

Webster’s dictionary defines “truth” as “the state of being,” “reality,” or “fidelity to an original or to a standard.” In contrast, “false” means “misleading,” “based on mistaken ideas” and “inconsistent with the facts.”

The struggle to define truth is the product of differing experiences, limitations of human speech, and different interpretations or perspectives. Consider the story of the six blind men and the elephant, a traditional Indian tale:

Six blind men were each invited to touch an elephant so that they might each understand what it was. The first man touched the flexible trunk and declared, “it’s a snake!” Another, feeling the sturdy leg declared “no, it’s a pillar!” Each one in turn felt a part of the elephant, believing they had discovered a wall in the solid body, a rope in the tail, a spear in a sharp tusk, and a fan in the heavy, flapping ears. Each man did his best to deduct the truth, but still lacked the complete idea. So were the blind men telling the truth? It was the truth as they understood it, yet those with sight knew that the elephant was none of the things the blind men described. Despite seeing eyes, our own wrestle to uncover truth functions similarly today.

There are multiple schools of thought where truth is concerned, and they don’t often agree. Some of these philosophies’ definitions include the following:

1: Truth is what is agreed upon by the majority. False. Everyone may agree that it is perfectly safe to jump off a 50 foot building, but that won’t change the outcome. So while it may be wise to learn from others, it is also important to remember that while a majority rule may suggest proximity to truth, it doesn’t create it.

2. Truth is what each person knows or believes as an individual. False. Our beliefs color everything we see. Like the story of the elephant, people can come to different conclusions about the same idea because they interpret them through their own experiences. Just because someone isn’t lying doesn’t mean that they have the whole truth. I might find a rope where you find a snake, but the elephant will still be an elephant.

3. Truth does not exist beyond human thought. False. This statement suggests that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to do something. Which is great if you are finger-painting, but not if you are a participant in a murder trial. Instead, I believe that things exist that I have never seen nor will I ever see—my inability to comprehend these things does not prevent them from existing. If we believe reality exists beyond human thought, then so does truth.

4. There is such a thing as an absolute truth: True. The pursuit of truth is similar to scientists’ attempts to reach a temperature of absolute zero. Absolute zero is measured at 0 Kelvin, or -459.67 F (-273.15 C), when no more heat energy exists. Scientists have gotten very close to absolute zero, but they have never reached it. Similarly, I believe that while our personal experiences make absolute truth impossible to attain by men, it still exists. As humans seek to get as close as they can, they reap benefits of increased clarity and wisdom.

5. Truth is independent of men or human thought: True. Unlike men, truth is not affected by the passage of time. Truth is unchanging, holding to a standard that we cannot comprehend. That does not mean that it does not exist. While no man may have the full truth, I believe that someone out there does. God. In fact, I believe that truth is an essential aspect of his divinity. Even if we can’t reach truth, we still benefit from seeking after it—for as we come closer to truth, we come closer to God.

Finding Faith Through Doubt

Finding Faith Through Doubt

By Lauren Elkins, FaithCounts.com Contributor

doubt-of-the-century“The doubt of the century.”

When the Archbishop of Canterbury asked, “Is there a God? Where is God?”, the media frenzied on his doubts and labeled them with the phrase above. You can’t have doubts and lead a church!

That’s the feeling about doubt.

For example, James 1:6 reads, “But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.”

In your mind, does doubt keep company with fear and unbelief, three possible stumbling blocks for faith? If you or I had doubts, we must be in a dark place, spiritually.

Really? Must we?

If Archbishop Justin Welby has a doubt, has he lost his faith?

I believe that faith depends on, even demands, that we experience doubts.

In the hours leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus, Peter was asked about Jesus three times and three times, he denied knowing Him. After the third denial, Jesus “turned, and looked upon Peter,” as recorded in Luke 22:61.

He turned. He looked.

I’ve pictured this story in my mind. I’ve imagined the fear felt by the mortal man, Peter. I’ve imagined the darkness and violence of that night.

I’ve pictured how Jesus must have looked back at Peter. I pictured an expression of abandonment, disappointment, sadness, or maybe even disgust.

Perhaps not.

Perhaps I read it all wrong.

“And the Lord turned, and looked upon Peter.”

That’s it. That’s all that Luke wrote. There’s no sensationalized account of what transpired.

Only a few hours prior, Jesus had knelt in the Garden of Gethsemane. He had suffered. He had bled from the pain. He took the sins of the world upon himself. Now He would know. Now He could succor.

Maybe instead, with His look, he told Peter, “I now know.” Could his eyes have been filled with love and empathy? He looked back at the man Peter, at the doubtful Peter, and perhaps His eyes were filled with understanding.

Perhaps he remembered. Perhaps He recalled a time when He had grabbed Peter’s hand as he sank into the Sea of Galilee. “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”

He now understood Peter’s doubts. He now understood Peter’s fear. He now understood Peter’s faith! Peter stepped out of the boat. He walked on stormy waters. He felt doubt. He began to sink.

The power of doubt comes in how we choose to respond.

The boat was certain to Peter, a vessel built to float. Jesus was a man standing on the waters of a stormy sea. If Peter had given in to his doubt, let it overwhelm him and drive him back to what he knew for certain, he would have turned back towards the boat.

Instead, Peter reached out and called for Jesus.

Some may think it’s blasphemy to have doubts in your faith. Some may think you are transgressing to question the authenticity of your beliefs.

But, an attitude of certainty may lead to an attitude of self-righteous intolerance, dogmatism, and fundamentalism.

Embracing doubt can lead to deeper understanding through a process that strengthens faith. Flannery O’Connor, an American writer and essayist, described this:

“I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened. A faith that just accepts is a child’s faith… [People] think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe.”

“Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”

Like the biblical father who said those words, Peter’s actions said the same: Jesus called; Peter stepped out; winds howled; Peter began to sink.

It was Peter’s doubt and unbelief that enabled him to grasp firmly to his faith.

Through doubt, I take on the necessary exploration of my beliefs.

I challenge those beliefs.

It is from personal doubt and unbelief that I then build the bedrock of my faith.

Lauren Elkins is a professional writer, former IT industry expert, and a mom. She also writes a personal blog and maintains a website at laurenelkins.com.