What Ramadan Taught Me About Spiritual Purification

What Ramadan Taught Me About Spiritual Purification

Katie Steed

ramadan

The more I learn about Islam, the more I admire the dedication and strength of its believers, especially during the month of Ramadan.

Ramadan is observed during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and lasts between 29 and 30 days. It is a month of intense daily fasting, prayer, and introspection, with the ultimate goal of growing closer to God through physical and spiritual purification.

As I read more about Ramadan, I found myself deeply drawn to the idea of spiritual purification. My faith in God has suffered over the past year after going through some difficult times, and I’ve been struggling to re-center my beliefs. Inspired by Ramadan and as time allowed, I decided to take two weeks to highly focus on my own spiritual purification. I am unable to fast from food and drink because of some medication I am taking, so I tried to “fast” from other things that play a big part in my life, like taking time off from social media and turning off my cell phone.

The first couple of days were quite difficult, as I kept getting caught up in my day-to-day routines and forgetting about my goal. When I’d remember to turn off my phone in the evenings to do some pondering, I found myself distracted by what I might be missing and wondering if anyone was trying to get in touch with me. I had to remind myself that spiritual health is more important than the latest photo on Instagram. My “fast” got easier every day and I was surprised at how much simpler it was to focus on my goal when I avoided those things, as I would imagine going without food gets easier and helps maintain the focus on mind (and spirit) over matter.

For the first week, I decided to get to the root of the breakdown in my faith, and that meant digging into issues that I had been purposely avoiding. Taking time to full-on face my spiritual weaknesses was painful. Admitting and accepting personal weaknesses is never a fun thing, but is necessary to progress and become stronger. I finished the week with a better sense of self, both good and bad, and a list of things I wanted to improve.

During the second week, I focused on my faith and relationship with God. Again, the beginning of the week was rough as I faced my doubts in God and some frustration I had been harboring. However, as the week went on I found myself looking forward to my quiet evenings of pondering and prayer. I was reminded of what I believe and why I value those beliefs. I can’t say that my faith is completely healed or that I have no more pain or doubts, but I am more aware and less afraid of my weaknesses, and my faith in God is in a much better place.

Ramadan ends with a three-day celebration called Eid al-Fitr (the Feast of Fast-Breaking). It includes special prayers, meals with friends and family, and gifts. I think this is such a beautiful way to end what, I would imagine, can be an extremely trying month. After only my small two-week attempt I felt like celebrating, as my soul and faith felt refreshed, lighter, and stronger. Thanks to what I learned about Ramadan, I have an improved awareness of my spiritual health and a greater commitment to keeping it steady.

Katie Steed is a graphic designer who also loves to write. In her spare time she’s either biking, reading, or traveling.

Getting the Low-down on Fatherhood

Getting the Low-down on Fatherhood

Erin Facer

underdog

I walked in and sat down at a round table with two gentlemen. It was evening time and everyone was finishing up their desserts – mandarin oranges with cool whip. I struck up a conversation with the man sitting across from me. The other one didn’t say much. His head sagged and he struggled to bring it up to negotiate the food into his mouth. Out of the blue, he put his spoon down and asked, “have you heard this song?” He began singing,

“I was born almost ten thousand years ago,

And there’s nothin’ in the world that I don’t know;

I saw Peter, Paul and Moses,

Playing ring-around-the-roses

And I’m here to lick the guy that says ’tain’t so.”

Here in the local assisted living center, it felt a bit like some of the residents may have been born 10,000 years ago. Yet, as I chatted with various seniors, it became clear that there really was little in the world they didn’t know! The more I listened, the more I came to see them not just as old people in a nursing home, but as fatherly figures, not unlike my own grandpa. From the stories they told and the lives they lived they gave me new perspectives on what it means to be a father.

Fatherhood requires faith.

I am in awe of the variety of struggles represented by this relatively small population. John had 3 children. The oldest was adopted and struggled with mental and physical health issues. Ed’s wife had gotten pregnant three times, but all three ended in miscarriage, leaving them childless. Frank never married and has had a terrible relationship with his own father. Christopher’s grown son had passed away from cancer.

Being a father is not just the cheery idyllic picture of a man playing catch with his boy. Fatherhood is complex. It requires men who believe in sacrificing to put their families first. Fatherhood requires men willing to try and have children despite the potential for heartache. It requires men who believe they can be better fathers tomorrow than they were today.

Being a father takes work and worry.

One resident, Tom, described living in the ghetto of L.A. He said it was a dangerous area with gang violence and crime. On many occasions he had to physically protect his children against would-be attackers. One day he got a knock on his door. Upon opening it he found two young girls on his door step. He asked if he could help them and they quickly responded, “will you be our grandpa?!” He was surprised and asked why. They then explained that they often were scared and needed someone to protect them. They had recognized that he was not just a biological dad, he was also a protector and a provider. He was a father.

Being a father is the best.

Despite the worry and the heartache, the men I spoke to believed that being a father was the best. When asked what it was like to hold his first child in his arms Christopher said, “there is nothing like it.” Reminiscing about their lives, they could have told me about their careers or fun vacations, but they chose to tell me about their children and grandchildren. For them, that was what mattered most. And I reckon they would lick the guy that says ’tain’t so.”

Erin Facer is a graduate of Brigham Young University and proud southerner. Arranging flowers, perusing through old documents and spreading peanut butter on celery stalks are a few things that make her glad to be alive. Contact: Facererin@gmail.com

The 411 on Shavuot

The 411 on Shavuot

Chad Schaeffer

Love Thy Neighbor

Shavuot commemorates the revelation of the Torah on Mt. Sinai to the Jewish people and occurs on the 50th day after the 49 days of counting the Omer. The counting of the Omer is an important verbal counting of each of the forty-nine days between the Jewish holidays of Passover and Shavuot. Men typically don’t shave or get haircuts during this time, as stated in the Hebrew Bible. Shavuot is one of the three biblically based pilgrimage holidays known as the shalosh regalim. It is associated with the grain harvest in the Torah.

During the course of the holiday, Jewish people don’t go to work, drive, write, or use electric devices. We are permitted to cook and to kindle a stove with a flame that existed before the holiday (or which was lit from such a flame).

Shavuot eve

It is customary to decorate synagogues and homes with flowers and boughs.

Women and girls light candles this night to usher in the holiday. I’m not sure of the reasoning for this, but it is a tradition that most synagogues follow. After the holiday evening prayers, a festive holiday meal, complete with the recitation of the holiday, kiddush is enjoyed. (Kiddush is a prayer and blessing over wine, performed by the head of a Jewish household at the meal ushering in the Sabbath or a holy day, or at the lunch preceding it. On this night it is customary to remain awake and study the Torah until dawn. Every year it is fun to see the kids try to stay up. Some make it but most fall asleep. Typically most synagogues will bring in a scholar and have him or her teach to those in the synagogue.

First day of Shavuot

Torah reading: Exodus 19:1–20:23; Numbers 28:26–31
 Haftarah: Ezekiel 1:1–28; 3:12

Reading of the Ten Commandments is done on the first day of Shavuot.

All men, women, and children go to the synagogue to hear the reading of the Ten Commandments. At many synagogues, the youngest children recite the Ten Commandments. This is in commemoration of the Jewish people declaring, “Our children are our guarantors [that we will keep the Torah].” They do this because there is a midrash which states that this is the only guarantee acceptable to G‑d.

In the past, priests would bless the congregation with the priestly blessing during the Musaf prayer. Many communities chant the Akdamut poem before the reading of the Torah.

Kiddush is recited and a holiday meal follows. It is customary to eat dairy foods this day.



Candle-lighting, from a pre-existing flame, occurs after nightfall. Whoever will say yizkor lights a yahrtzeit candle, also from a pre-existing flame. After the holiday evening prayers, people have another festive holiday meal, complete with the recitation of the holiday kiddush.

Second day of Shavuot

Torah reading: Deuteronomy 15:19–16:17; Numbers 28:26–31
 Haftarah: Habakkuk 2:20–3:19

The Yizkor memorial service is recited (and charity is pledged usually) for the souls of departed loved ones. Kiddush is recited and a holiday meal follows. Some communities have the custom to read the Book of Ruth on the second day of Shavuot. The holiday ends at nightfall.

The History of Vaisakhi from a Sikh’s Perspective

The History of Vaisakhi from a Sikh’s Perspective

Satnam Singh

vaisakhi

In India, Vaisakhi is a month where the year’s crops are harvested. It’s a joyous occasion when farmers and their workers celebrate their success. However, Sikhs celebrate Vaisakhi for another reason; on this day, a new crop of mankind was created— “The Khalsa.”

On the day of Vaisakhi in 1699, a revolution occurred in the Punjab. At Kesgarh Sahib in Anandpur, a new nation was created by Guru Gobind Singh— a nation of warriors who fought against oppression; a nation who fought for the poor and the needy; a nation who fought for the rightful cause of mankind.

The Guru convened a large gathering in Kesgarh at Anandpur. The Sikhs were invited by special “HukamNamas” (orders) from faraway places. Divine music was sung and as the chanting of Asa Di War (morning hymns) concluded, the Guru retired inside the tent. He then came out and brandished his sword and addressed the assembly, “My devoted friends, this sword is daily clamoring for the head of a dear Sikh. Is one among you ready to lay down his life at a call from me?” There was a deep silence and everyone wondered as to what the Guru had planned.

At last Bhai Daya Ram, a 30-year-old Khatri of Lahore, stood up and bowing himself before the Guru, he offered his head. The Guru took him into the tent. A few moments later he came out with blood dripping from his sword; again, he made the same request and four more followed including: Bhai Dharm Das, a 33-year-old farmer from Delhi; Bhai Mokham Chand a washerman of Dwarka; Bhai Sahib Chand a barber of Bidar; Bhai Himmat Rai a water carrier of Jagannath.

After taking the fifth man inside, the Guru took a longer time to come out. At last, he appeared with his sword sheathed, his face beaming with joy and satisfaction. Behind him walked those, who had apparently been killed. They were all dressed like the Master in saffron garments. Their faces, dress, and appearance were like the Master. They had given him their heads, and he had given them himself and his glory.

The five Sikhs who had given the Guru their heads were titled the “Five Beloved Ones” (Panj Piyaray). They were then requested to focus their thoughts on the Almighty God. The Guru then stirred the pure water in an iron vessel with the Khanda (two-edged dagger), until the prayers prescribed for the ceremony were chanted.

The use of a Khanda has a deep meaning. The first edge of the Khanda signifies the creative power of life and its sovereign strength, it’s immortality that can never be overpowered. The second edge of the Khanda signifies the power of chastisement and justice which protects truth, and all those who believe in God and truth. The iron vessel in which the pure water was stirred, signifies the strength of heart and mind. The chanting of hymns symbolizes divine power and is meant to give the Sikhs a strong faith in their religion and in the Almighty Lord.

Sugar crystals (Patashas) were added to the holy water (Amrit), which, the Guru’s wife Mata Sahib Kaur brought in. This was meant to bless the initiates, not only with courage and strength, but also “with the grace of womanly sweetness.” With the Amrit prepared (which was called “Khanday Ka Phul”), the Guru stood up and asked the Five to kneel. The Guru showered the Amrit in the eyes of each and asked them to speak aloud, “Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji Kee Fateh” (wonderful God’s is the Khalsa, and wonderful God’s is the victory).

The Amrit was sprinkled in their hair and each was asked to drink the Amrit from the same vessel. This transformed them into lions, knitting them together in a brotherly love—destroying the distinctions of caste and creed. After this, the Guru gave each the title of Singh, or lion.

After instructing the Five, the Guru himself knelt before them with folded hands and prayed for them to initiate him into the new faith. A similar practice was followed and Guru Gobind Rai then took the title of Singh and became Guru Gobind Singh. They became mutual protectors of each other and there was no difference between Guru Gobind Singh or his Khalsa (meaning “The pure one who seeks for Truth”). This gave the Sikhs a perfect principle of democracy, the Guru declaring wherever any of the Five were, there he would be. The “Five Beloved Ones” will have an authority superior to that of his own.

News of this unique event was recorded by a Persian news writer and the official report was sent to Aurangzeb, the Mughal emperor of India at the time. The report quoted the instructions of Guru Gobind Singh to his Sikhs after they were baptized. The instructions were: “Let all embrace one creed and obliterate differences of religion. Let the four Hindu castes who have different rules for their guidance abandon them all, adopt the one form of adoration, and become brothers. Let no one deem himself superior to another…”

The Story of Easter is Personal

The Story of Easter is Personal

Tiffany Tolman

easter

The Story of Easter is Personal

Death is hard because we are inherently circle people. It’s in our nature to see things in terms of forever. Unless it involves something unpleasant like cleaning toilets or getting a cavity filled, we don’t like endings. That’s why death’s stark ending hurts our souls and breaks our hearts.

2016 was shrouded in gloom. As we said goodbye to Professor Snape, Princess Leia, John Glenn and Harper Lee (and that’s just the beginning), death hung heavy in the collective air. But for me, 2017 has been hard for more personal reasons.

Already this year, a close family member lost her mother to cancer, a friend has been battling an aggressive disease, and my father-in-law looked death square in the eye with a massive heart attack that stopped his heart for nearly twenty minutes. He barely survived. For me, this year is the reason the story of Easter is so deeply personal to Christians.

In the Christian faith, Easter represents hope.

For Christians, the celebration of Easter commemorates not only the Passion of Jesus but the miracle of His Resurrection. According to Christian tradition, Jesus was killed on a Friday afternoon and resurrected on a Sunday morning, with the promise that every person ever living (and dying) on the earth will not stay dead forever.

This hope rings true to people of faith—including people from religious traditions outside Christianity—because we are circle people. We like the promise of no endings.

When my sweet ninety-year-old grandmother died a couple years ago, I cried. I have so many memories of times spent just with her. She made me strawberry milk, and I played in the ocean that was her backyard during irrigation days. I miss her. My grandfather, her husband, died just before I was born, so I never knew him. But I’m sure she cried and cried and cried when he died. That’s what happens when we lose those we love.

But the promise of Easter is that those separations and sorrows won’t last forever.

A few years ago, I performed Johannes Brahms’ Requiem in a choir. If you enjoy that kind of thing, it’s a piece you don’t want to miss. After learning to chew up and spit out the unfamiliar German words, I could finally focus on the meaning of the text. And the words resonated with my soul. I spent several rehearsals, tears streaming down my face, rejoicing as the somber plodding refrain, “All flesh is as grass; … for lo, the grass with’reth, and the flower thereof decayeth,” made way for the triumphant declaration, “Death, O where is thy sting? Grave, where is thy triumph?”

When Christians celebrate the events of Jesus’s final week of life on earth—Palm Sunday, remembering His triumphal entry into Jerusalem as a king; the Last Supper, where He taught His closest followers important Christian doctrine; the Garden of Gethsemane, where He prayed throughout the night; Good Friday, a day of betrayal, anguish, and death—they do it looking forward to the hope of that early Sabbath morning when Jesus put an end to the finality of death.

For circle people, the story of Easter promises an end to the endings and hope for countless tomorrows with those we love. And that makes it personal.

Tiffany Tolman lives, loves, writes, reads, and plays through the window of faith. And that makes all the difference. Find her at th.tolman@gmail.com.

3 Ways to Celebrate Buddha’s Birthday No Matter Your Faith

3 Ways to Celebrate Buddha’s Birthday No Matter Your Faith

Maddy Stutz

purim

Consider this your Facebook reminder that someone has a birthday today…it’s Buddha!

Buddha and what he exemplifies means a lot to millions of people around the world.

Buddha’s real name is Siddhartha Guatama and was an actual person who was born on April, 8th around the year 563 BCE. Buddha started out as a prince, but later denounced his crown and founded Buddhism.

Buddha’s main message was to lead a moral life and to be aware of both yourself and those around you. These principles are basics in any religion, making it easy to apply them in our own lives!

So here are 3 ways you can celebrate Buddha’s birthday no matter your faith.

A Meditation Celebration

Meditating is one of Buddhism’s most talked about methods of gaining enlightenment. Trust me, this works way better than pinning quotes to your Pinterest board! Start by finding a quiet spot that’ll stay quiet for at least 15 minutes. If that means you’re just chilling in your car, that totally works!

Once you find your quiet place, close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Count the breaths you are taking and try to slow them down. Once you find a slow, peaceful rhythm transfer your focus to your body. Are there any areas that are tense? Focus on those areas and imagine cool water brushing over them. When they’re nice and relaxed, bring your attention back to your breathing. When you’re ready, open your eyes and take note of how you feel. You can use this quick meditation as a way to wind down, or start going more in depth with your thoughts. It’s all up to you!

Pat on the Back

Buddhism is all about being self-aware, and recognizing both your faults and successes! So, we’re gonna write ourselves a letter of recommendation!

Yes, I am totally serious.

I want you to write a letter about why you’re qualified for this “job” called life. Write down what strengths you are proud of, and what life experiences have helped you get to where you are now.

Next, I want you to answer the dreaded interview question, “What are your weaknesses?” Take some time thinking through this, but make sure not to punish yourself for your weakness. No one’s perfect, so don’t put that expectation on yourself! Find ways you can turn a happy weakness into a happy strength, then go out and make it happen!

Pat Someone Else’s Back

Not just anyone’s back…but an enemy’s back.

I know a name just popped into your head. One popped into mine, too!

Take a few minutes to think about this person. What have they done right? What about them can you actually admire? If this is taking a while, go ahead and scroll up to that section about meditation. Clear your head a little and try answering this question when you’re relaxed and calm.

When you have at least one good quality, go ahead and pick up the phone and tell them!

Okay, who are we kidding, no one calls people anymore. Especially their enemies.

If you feel comfortable getting on the phone, that’s great! But if not, then go ahead and send your compliment via a Facebook comment or email! Either way, you’re getting outside of your head and focusing on others, despite their flaws.

After all, that’s what Buddha was all about.

As a writer, believer, and chronic Pinterest fail-er, Maddy believes that everyone has a unique message to share with the world, and enjoys finding new ways to strengthen her faith through different perspectives.

A Holi Holiday: Clearing the past, coloring the present

A Holi Holiday: Clearing the past, coloring the present

By Laurie Campbell, FaithCounts.com Contributor

holi
I’m a trauma queen. My therapist says I’ve been through a greater variety of trauma than anyone she’s ever worked with. Jokingly, I “brag” about it. In reality, I’m surprised I’m still alive. And, miraculously—with heaven’s help—my past is becoming the strongest part of my present and the brightest part of my future. It is in this same spirit that I’m celebrating Holi this year, for the first time.

Holi is an ancient Hindu holiday celebrated mostly in India and Nepal. It starts the night of the full moon just before spring—this year starting March 12th. People gather round a Holika bonfire that symbolizes the burning away of the bad and the victory of good. It’s a time to let go of the past, to forgive and forget. The following day, people gather together and celebrate by “coloring” each other. Brightly colored water and colored powders are thrown on each other until everyone’s drenched in color. It marks the beginning of spring. A time of peace and harmony. A fresh start.

We each have things from our past that can interfere with the present. Whether they’re mild or severe, we’re prone to collect them and the negative emotions attached. Like when someone has said or done something hurtful. Or, when we’ve done something embarrassing or hurtful to someone else. The more upsetting the event, the more likely we are to remember. And, the more the emotions can make us feel worse, over and over again.

So, using a fire to symbolize the burning away of the bad and the victory of good can be healing. Fire is often used to purify, cleanse, and change. In nature, fire makes room for new vegetation to grow and the resulting ashes provide nutrients. So, as a Holika fire symbolically burns away emotions from the past that weigh heavy, it can make room for new growth. Allowing for a celebration where we can enjoy the present.

A few years ago, I was in a group therapy discussion where we were working through difficult issues from the past. The instructor had us write down, on a piece of heavy paper, those memories that kept coming up and troubling us. Then, we went outside, walked off by ourselves, and each burned the list. The paper was thick, so it burned rather slowly. I watched as each troubling emotion was consumed, disappearing into the sky as smoke and falling to the earth as ashes. I was making room for new growth and providing important nutrients for that growth to take place.

I’m looking forward to my first Holika fire. And, the next day, where I can welcome a colorful new season of life.

Laurie Campbell can be found, on the first night of Holi, watching past burdens turn to smoke and ashes. Her celebration of spring the next day will likely be a “Westernized version” where she’ll enjoy Peeps of all colors.

Love Requires Faith

Love Requires Faith

By Ariel Szuch, FaithCounts.com Contributor

love requires faith
Valentine’s Day.

Blech.

As a single person, I often have that visceral reaction to said holiday in February. Sometimes I wonder why I react that way. Sure, it’s often a reminder of what I don’t have, the gratuitous PDA, the boxes of chocolate with mystery centers that no one actually likes, the crushed expectations, and so on. But if I’m honest, sometimes it’s the idea of a relationship itself that triggers the rejection response.

You see, I hate risk. I don’t like roller coasters because of the out-of-control feeling. I don’t even like the game Risk because I hate staking my success on shaky odds. CERTAINTY. That’s what I’m about. But lots of things in life aren’t certain, and relationships are one of them. Frankly, as much as I say I feel lonely sometimes, when it comes down to it, being alone feels easier—or at least safer—than letting someone in. Granted, in dating relationships there are measures to keep yourself safe from physical and emotional abuse, but in any relationship there will ALWAYS be risk that you cannot control, and it’s that inherent risk in a relationship that makes me shy away.

Thus, I’ve come to realize that love—relationship—connection—requires faith in a few ways.

1. Faith in the value of connection.

The Bible defines faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1, KJV), “substance” meaning the “reality,” “the material part” (King James Dictionary). So faith is the concrete action that aligns with a belief in something greater than self. Faith in a relationship context is being willing to step into a place of uncertainty, because it’s in that space that a relationship has the opportunity to grow. Connection is the purpose of our existence, and we must risk pain with the belief that caring for someone is worthwhile, no matter the outcome. That belief helps us have the courage to step into that place of uncertainty.

In one of the first conversations of a recent relationship, I was fighting the tidal wave of fear that made me want to run for the hills when the thought came, “You can’t learn what you need to learn by yourself.” I can’t figure things out on my own and then step into the perfect relationship—it doesn’t work that way. We cultivate connection by moving forward in relationships with people and working on issues that come up in the process.

2. Faith in the power of my process.

I told the boy I liked him…and then immediately panicked. I can’t do this. I need more time. How do I know if I can trust him? The uncertainty and vulnerability of that first step was almost too much for me to handle. In those panicky moments I had to get curious about why I was reacting that way, and it led me to recognize the source as some deep-seated pain that I’ve been sitting on for a long time. I was grateful for loving friends that talked me out of running away and helped me feel my way through the pain to address the core issue. Getting at the root of those problems that block connection requires faith that facing the pain will get you where you want to be.

3. Faith in constant sources.

The ability to exercise faith is certainly influenced by the character of the person in whom you place your faith. I find that my faith in God, He who never turns away, gives me the foundation I need to be able to exercise my faith in relationships with other people. The strength of my relationship with Him determines how much I am able to stay open and vulnerable to other people, because if I base my worth and security off my inherent worth as His child, I can weather the storms of relationships with less perfect beings.

And so I move forward. I’m still scared sometimes, but if I value connection, believe that my process will work, and trust in a higher power, then this is what I have to do. If I want my life to be rich and full of meaning, I have to take a chance on people, because it’s only then that I can experience the exquisite sweetness of connection that comes from two people taking a chance on each other.

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

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

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.

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.

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?

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.

3 Hidden Symbols of the Pumpkin

3 Hidden Symbols of the Pumpkin

By Maddy Stutz, FaithCounts.com Contributor

pumpkin
The first sign of fall isn’t an early sunset or the changing leaves…it’s the return of pumpkin spice lattes. In fact, it’s the return of pumpkin spiced anything! From scented candles to new Pinterest recipes you can easily find pumpkin sprinkled throughout hundreds of goodies, but did you know the pumpkin actually has some pretty deep meaning? Here are three things to remember while chowing down on your next pumpkin scone!

The Squash of Abundance

Remember scanning the pumpkin patch looking for the biggest pumpkin you could find? Well the bigger is literally the better, since the pumpkin represents abundance and prosperity! The whole pumpkin represents the world we live in now, and is literally filled with blessings waiting to be granted. Each seed represents an opportunity available to you in this life, and with an average pumpkin having about 500 seeds you can literally count your blessings!

Instead of tossing out your pumpkin seeds after carving a ghoulish face, go ahead and count them up! A fun activity with the family could even include assigning a blessing to a seed and watching how big your pile grows! Sometimes we get caught up in our newest problem that we don’t recognize granted blessings and answered prayers.

I Dreamed a Dream

Along with representing blessings, pumpkin seeds also represent your dreams! Whether that’s a dream for your future or one crafted while getting a good night’s rest, each seed represents a possibility.

Have you ever dreamt about a pumpkin seed? When appearing in a dream the seeds are believed to be deeply connected to your spirit or soul, providing reassurance for a decision or goal you are pursuing. To dream of a whole pumpkin is to symbolize openness to new possibilities and encourage you to try new things!

If you’ve recently dreamt of either a pumpkin or its seeds, take a moment to reflect on its meaning. Our dreams often reflect our deep inner thoughts, which can unearth emotions we didn’t recognize before. Are you about to take a leap of faith? Have you recently made a big decision, but have begun second guessing? Trust your gut, and follow your faith.

I Heard It on the Pumpkin Vine

This one may sound obvious, but the vine of the pumpkin ties directly into friendship and connection. The pumpkin receives all its nutrients from the ground through the vine, and is a connection to the world from which it grows.

Much like the pumpkin, we gain our social and spiritual “nutrients” through the “vine” of friendship. Making a connection with another person is how we grow as individuals, find deeper meaning in our lives, and stay healthy and strong. Without a strong connection to others we begin to shrivel up and lose our connection to the world we live in.

From a spiritual sense, a weak “vine” or connection to our beliefs can weaken our faith and leave us lost. By strengthening our connection with our own spirituality we can better connect with the world around us and help others find their way.

As a writer, believer, and chronic Pinterest fail-er, Maddy believes that everyone has a unique message to share with the world, and enjoys finding new ways to strengthen her faith through different perspectives.

What You Need to Know About Vaisakhi

What You Need to Know About Vaisakhi

Today, millions of Sikhs (members of the fifth largest religion in the world) around the globe are celebrating Vaisakhi—a centuries-old tradition that commemorates the spring harvest in Punjab, the homeland of the Sikhs, and a deeply significant religious holiday. Since 1699, Vaisakhi has taken a special significance for Sikhs after the tenth Sikh spiritual teacher, Guru Gobind Singh, used the occasion to create a formal Sikh brotherhood called the Khalsa Panth.

Every year on Vaisakhi, Sikhs give thanks, renew their faith and commitment and celebrate their identity and reaffirm core values including community service, equality, and humility. Sikhs mark the occasion with family, friends and the community primarily by decorating and attending Gurdwaras, Sikh houses of worship. In the Gurdwara, Sikhs sing traditional hymns with their sangat, or community members, and afterwards partake in a simple, communal, vegetarian meal together.

Sikh Americans will share these festivities with the New York City community and celebrate Vaisakhi with the annual Sikh Day Parade next Saturday, April 23. Thousands of Sikhs from across the country will gather to celebrate the collective values and history that binds them together.

A non-Jewish Guide to Purim

A non-Jewish Guide to Purim

Many people are familiar with the story of Esther and her incredible faith, but did you realize that there is an entire Jewish holiday dedicated to honoring and celebrating her story? Purim is the celebration of Queen Esther and how she miraculously saved the Jewish people.

purim-09

Esther, a humble Jewish girl, caught the eye of King Ahasuerus—who had just sentenced his previous wife to death for not following his orders—and soon became his new queen. Esther did not reveal her nationality to the king at this time. The current prime minister of the empire, Haman, was an anti-Semitic who sought the death of Mordecai, Esther’s cousin. Haman was angry that Mordecai refused to bow down to him and convinced the king to issue an extermination order against the Jews. The name Purim, or “lots,” came from Haman choosing the 13th day of Adar as the date of the extermination by doing a lottery.

Mordecai convinced all of the Jews to repent, fast and pray while Esther asked the king to join her for a feast. Approaching the king without being summoned was not allowed and if the king had been unhappy with Esther for doing this she could have been killed. With great faith, Esther revealed her Jewish heritage to the king during the feast and pleaded with the king to stop Haman’s plans. The king listened to Esther and instead of killing her, he had Haman killed and issued a new decree allowing the Jews the right to defend themselves.

Purim begins this year on the evening of March 23, and many Jews will participate in the following ways to commemorate the holiday.

Reading the book of Esther (the megilllah)

Jews head to their synagogue to hear the entire book of Esther, or the megilllah. The megilllah is read from a handwritten parchment scroll, using an age-old tune. The story should be listened to once on Purim night and again on Purim day. When Haman’s name is mentioned, noisemakers (graggers) are twirled and people stomp their feet to eradicate his evil name. Purim is the only time when there is a mitzvah (commandment) to make noise!

Send food to friends (Mishloach Manot)

Purim emphasizes the importance of community and friendship by sending food to friends. Observers are expected to send a package with at least two different ready-to-eat food items or beverages to at least one Jewish friend during the daylight hours of Purim. A traditional Jew might send “Haman’s pockets” or hamentaschen, which are triangular, fruit-filled cookies to represent Haman’s three-cornered hat. Men send to men and women to women. Gifts are usually delivered by a third party and children are also expected to send their own gifts to friends.

Giving to the needy (Matanot La’Evyonim)

Another one of Purim’s primary themes is Jewish unity, because the Jews were persecuted and saved together. Purim’s special emphasis is on supporting the less fortunate and observers are asked to give money or food to at least two needy people during the daylight hours of Purim. Even small children are asked to observe this mitzvah.

Feast

Prior to Purim, Jews will fast to commemorate Esther’s three day fast before approaching the king. During the Purim day, families gather and invite guests to enjoy a festive Purim meal. The meal begins before sundown and lasts into the evening. The tables are festive with nice tablecloths and candles. The family washes for bread (challah) and enjoys the meal with meat, wine, Jewish songs and words of the Torah.

The Jews also include special prayers on Purim that describe the Purim story and thank God for the redemption of their ancestors. The Torah is read in the morning and Exodus 17:8-16 is read, which describes the battles of Haman’s ancestral nation almost one thousand years before Purim occurred. Children often dress as Mordechai and Esther and participate in a masquerade party at the synagogue.

“And in every province, and in every city, whithersoever the king’s commandment and his decree came, the Jews had joy and gladness, a feast and a good day. And many of the people of the land became Jews; for the fear of the Jews fell upon them.” (Esther 8:17)

10 Life Lessons You Can Learn From Holiday Movies

10 Life Lessons You Can Learn From Holiday Movies

By Maddie Wiley, FaithCounts.com Contributor

The holidays are a perfect time for staying in and watching a classic holiday movie. We can learn a lot about faith, family and love from our favorite holiday movies. Here are a few of our favorite life lessons:

lessons from holiday movies

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Cindy Lou Who and the Grinch teach us that Christmas is not all about the gifts—we need to forget about the presents and learn how to enjoy the holiday season with our families and friends. Cindy Lou Who also teaches us an important lesson on including others and not being quick to judge!

Elf

Aside from Buddy the Elf teaching us how to get into the holiday spirit, Elf is about finding and accepting who you really are. We shouldn’t hide our passion and excitement for the things we love—we should embrace them.

The Santa Clause

What would you do if you were suddenly left with the task of being the new Father Christmas? The Santa Clause teaches us to embrace the trials life throws at us and how to get through them in a jolly manner.

Home Alone

We can learn from Home Alone that holidays really aren’t the holidays if you’re alone. Hold onto your families and friends tight and make sure you invite the older neighbors over too. You never know who needs your kindness this holiday season.

The Polar Express

From the perspective of a young boy, we learn that if you can keep the faith then the wonders of the world will never fade. We are taught to have an open heart and to be brave when faced with uncertainty and the reward will be great!

Miracle on 34th Street

Unhappiness and doubts turn into joyful smiles and a lot of faith in this classic movie! Even when the world is telling us something isn’t true, you just got to have some faith and then something magical can happen.

A Christmas Carol

Learn from Scrooge this season and embrace the magic of the holidays. We learn that we all can have a huge impact on people and if we take some time to be kind we can change lives!

The Holiday

The Holiday teaches us that love is always out there—but sometimes you have to go looking forward. Sometimes an unexpected twist can bring you the happiness you are looking for… you just have to have faith!

A Christmas Story

This classic comedy teaches us the importance of listening to your parents because you really might shoot your eye out one day! Have faith and listen to the words of advice from those around you.

It’s a Wonderful Life

What would the world be like without you in it? It’s a Wonderful Life truly teaches us how important we are to each other and how much one person or even an entire community can be richly rewarded through sacrifice and love.

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Holidays Are about People, Not Things

Holidays Are about People, Not Things

By Karen R. Trifiletti, FaithCounts.com Contributor

I remember one holiday ten years ago, thinking “I’ll keep this simple and faith-focused.” Then I thought of the flute and the violin and the sewing machine and the new guinea pig that my children would love—along with a raft of stuff that was unnecessary and over-much.

I could feel the pull between wanting to offer love-laden gifts, fueling my girls’ talents—and over-indulging. How easy the world slips in, and holidays, or “holy days” are tainted by too many things. That year—though we had a warm time and felt and shared our love and God’s in many ways—I still wanted to take visqueen and duct tape and put it over the need-to-get-stuff basket forever.

holidays-about-people-not-things

Image Copyright Tim Pannell / Mint Images / Offset.com

I don’t think I’m alone. Many of us have had long lists of shopping items for holiday meals, lists of gifts for some holidays, spent time looking for inexpensive flights and special deals, the right décor, or known the overwhelming feeling of holiday craziness.

Certain stress, though, is self-inflicted and often revealing. It happens when we place things over people, stretch beyond our means or worry that our means are never enough, or strive to people-please rather than to genuinely serve or meet a need (see 2 Corinthians 3:5). What we crave most is connection, not things. Holidays are about people—not stuff. So it’s good to remind ourselves and “renew our minds” about what matters and what does not (see Romans 12). As we do, we will seek less to fill our minds and stockings with things that do not satisfy (Isaiah 55:2).

Here are 5 ideas that have spurred me on to focus more on people, not things, during the holidays—gems from my own and others’ experiences.

1. Slow down 

C.S. Lewis reminds us that “the future is something which everyone reaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.” And Kissinger said, teasing about over-planning, “There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.” We laugh. We relate. Sometimes we slip into a gear that is too high for too long. Psalms 31:14-15 reminds us of another pace, a pace set as we count on faith, trust in and rely on the Lord and look to Him in our plans to bless others and build lives, not just to create pandemonium: “I trusted in You, O Lord. You are my God. My times are in your hands.” With God in mind and allowing Him control, we may be less inclined to micromanage everything and to overdo to satisfy others rather than glorify Him through serving others.

2. Embrace imperfect

Sometimes we have rigid expectations that straight-jacket us, like Tigger in Pooh Party who loses joy as he fusses to over-orchestrate it. We can become so focused on “the schedule” and what we’re doing next (How will I get the turkey done at the same time as the casserole or the chairs out before the next set of guests arrive?) that we miss the party or are locked out by our emotional absence or sense of distraction. It can happen to all of us—but being aware and being present; allowing others to help; allowing messes in our tidy home; having children get in the kitchen and create a traditional family recipe; and making memories, can enable a closeness and focus on each other, rather than on externals and performances.

3. Think of the gifts you remember most

For me, it was the CD that my daughter and her friends created from a simple set of Christmas lyrics I’d written, or a piece of used furniture my son-in-law personally painted for me. Another was a small special notebook that another daughter wrote in each night for months, penning a thought from her day, and then wrapping and sharing it with me. That 3×5 notebook holds a kept place in my heart and my nightstand. Additionally, some of my fondest memories include sitting around the fire or lit-up-tree talking or playing word or picture games with family, reminiscing, having late night snacks and sitting around in our PJs.

Reflecting on the memories that have meant the most to you and that have reflected faith, hope, and love can light up your life during the holidays and can help you deflect the messages of the media and the commercialism around the holidays. We’re either impacted by the Word, which moves us to lift and stirs our faith, or by the world, which strives to weigh us down and dilute our faith by pushing our fleeting want button.

4. Give purposeful and time-centered gifts

When the holiday involves gifting, reconsider giving things that can influence a person’s character, forward their life purpose and gifts, and not that satisfy yourself or eliminate old gifts in your recycle stash. People can feel the spirit behind our giving. A subscription to an interest magazine, tickets to a special event that will be long-remembered, setting up a time to have dinner together or providing a certificate for teaching your loved one or friend a skill you have, can personalize a gift and replace the last-minute desperate search for that tawdry plastic-laden gizmo that doesn’t fit on the kitchen counter or in the cabinet anyway. Gift-giving doesn’t need to take on a life of its own—it exists to reflect our love and the love of the Source of all love.

A Cornell psychologist and consumer researcher, Thomas Gilovich, says that new things are exciting to us at first, but then the novelty soon wanes. So rather than buying the latest model car, or newest tech gadget, he suggests we know more happiness spending money on experiences like attending concerts, engaging in in-or-outdoor recreational activities, conversation, developing a new skill, or sight-seeing. “Our experiences are a bigger part of ourselves than our material goods,” says Gilovich. He adds: “You can really like your material stuff. You can even think that part of your identity is connected to those things, but nonetheless, they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences.” Giving experiences is a way to invest in the future of your relationship with someone. Consider ways you can do so this holiday season.

5. Consider the less fortunate

For those who love giving, considering the less fortunate is a daily affair. Yet the holidays provide additional opportunities to render special service to those who might be lonely or disadvantaged. As KidsHealth.org records,

A group of friends in a Vermont snowboard squad like to go to their local homeless shelter and give the homeless a day to remember. They begin preparing at the start of the snow season by asking people who come to the mountain to bring old winter gear like jackets, boots, gloves, and hats. Then the group visits the shelter to distribute the gear — along with a little extra. Says Jay, 18, one of the organizers, “‘We tell them, ‘Now you guys are coming with us and we’re going to teach you how to ski or snowboard all day for free.’” It’s awesome to know that we are able to take their minds off the stress in their lives for one day.

Observe and seek out your own ways of serving and giving to those who need comfort, strength, or relief consistently, including during the holiday season. It helps to match your gifts and talents with a need in your community. You can also choose a fund to donate to as a gift to those in need.

Serving others diminishes our own need to want more ourselves. Happiness expert and University of Illinois psychology professor, Ed Diener, said, “Materialism can lead to chronic feelings of dissatisfaction. It is open-ended and goes on forever—we can always want more, which is usually not true of others goals such as friendship.”

Perhaps each of these ideas can help us engage a different mindset in relationship to giving, material things, holidays, and happiness. One spiritual leader says it succinctly: True happiness comes only by making others happy.” With that in mind, and our hearts full of abundance and gratitude for the gifts of life and hope given us by our Creator, we can reach out to serve with real holiday spirit.

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