I will confess that one of my annual Christmas traditions is to get
sick. For many years, when our kids were small (and not so small), due
to my own exhaustion brought on by limitless attempts to create a
perfect holiday, I generally spent much of Nativity Day down with the
flu, succumbing to a head cold, a scratchy throat and clogged sinuses
making me miserable.
The last few years I have triumphed
(partly due to flu shots and partly due to scaled-back expectations).
What a joy to be able to say to myself, “Well, I didn’t get sick this
Head colds are the way my body tells me I am under
too much stress. Sure enough, when that old interior piston starts
charging, and the ridiculous ideal of creating a “perfect” Christmas
kicks in, and I don’t pause, look it in the eye and say, “Whoa, lookee
here lil’ lady, what in the heck do you think you’re doing?”, for sure
I will get sick somewhere between the 22nd of December and the 24th,
So, how am I going to keep from getting sick
this year? The secret to a healthy, happy (and scaled-back) Christmas
celebration is found in all four Gospels. In liturgical churches the
Scripture readings for the first Sunday of Advent (four weeks before
Christmas Day) generally begin with a wail, a howl and a cry from the
wilderness. John the Baptist is on the move. I love the beginning of Godspell,
the pop musical that was all the rage when David and I were pastoring
an inner city church in Chicago. A ram’s horn blows long and loud—the
curtain call, which grabs the attention of the players, generally
already on stage or in the aisles. The set, if you remember, is a
Then the actor who plays John sings, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Prepare ye the way of the Lord…”
those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea,
and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!’” These words are from the Gospel of Matthew. Mark begins his Gospel with, “As it is written in the Prophets: ‘Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, Who will prepare Your way before You.’”
John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of
repentance for the remission of sins.” So goes the other two Gospels.
Indeed, John told it like it was, calling out the Sadducees and Pharisees, the religious leaders of that day: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
did the church fathers think this was an important place to begin the
first Sunday of the Advent season leading up to Nativity Day? After
all, John’s dire warnings didn’t come to play in the Scriptures until
he and his cousin, Jesus Christ, were both young men in their thirties.
I suspect the answer to this question is that wise elders know that
viperish tendencies exist at the core of most of our hearts. If we are
really going to receive Christ—as infant or as Messiah or as Lord—we
are going to have to take a long hard look at the shadowy places in our
souls or we will not be properly prepared.
Prepare ye! It is both warning and command.
some viperish incidents have been creeping out of my own shadow self. I
was teaching in Maryland on a three-day retreat and I spied a pair of
glasses someone had pinned to a bulletin board. They were readers, the
cheap little pairs you can purchase in grocery stores or at Walgreens or
Target without a prescription. Not giving it much thought, I pulled
them down and tried them on. “Oh,” I remarked. “These are 2.5—my
diopter!” In other words, I could actually see out of them. And since I
seed the world with forgotten, dropped, abandoned readers like Johnny
Appleseed broadcasting apple seeds, I took them down, just for the
weekend. A gift, I thought to
myself. And sure enough, I misplaced the reading glasses (2.5) I had
brought with me and was forced to use the readers I had “borrowed” for
five teaching times on the topic of The Predicament of Living With Contradiction.
when I got home and still had the reading glasses, I needed to justify
the fact that I hadn’t put them back on the bulletin board. I forgot.
The world ought to provide readers the way certain cities provide free
bicycles. You take a set to use, then put them back where someone else
can use them. The person who owned these was probably like me, sowing
cheap reading-glasses by the wayside.
However, that sure
inner Word that never says very much (thank God) kept whispering,
“Karen, they are not your glasses.” I was also reminded of the
scriptural proverb “the little foxes spoil the vines,” and “she who is not faithful in little things cannot be faithful in large things.”
sent the readers back to the Retreat Center of the Saint Elizabeth Ann
Seton National Shrine with a note of explanation and an apology. I have
never included stealing as one of my prevailing sins, but when the
checkout-counter gal in the Garden Center at Lowe’s failed to charge
me for three potted Joe-Pye Weeds (Eupatorium maculatum)
hidden beneath two Butterfly Bush tubs and several fall mums, I noticed
the discrepancy, and I also felt a little nudging temptation: She
made the error; free for you. What is it going to matter to Lowe’s if
they don’t get the margin of several dollars from the sale of each of
these plants? I immediately took the receipt back and showed her the error. Now, I am being watchful, self-watchful.
at Advent is a time to first look at our souls before we plan a
Christmas menu. It is a time to listen to that sure inner Word before
we line up a calendar of festivities. It is the way we get in touch
with those overweening ideals that are so exhausting we can’t do
anything but get sick. It is where we look at ourselves and ask, “What
in the world am I really trying to do? What does any of this have to do
with the true meaning of Christmas?”
This year at the Hungry Souls Advent Retreat of Silence our theme will be Prepare Ye!
We are prayerfully planning an environment in which you can do the work
that makes you ready to receive the Christ Child—in yourself, with
those you love, in your home, throughout the rest of the season. Then,
as a bookend, we want to send you out thinking about readying yourself
for the Second Advent. Are you preparing yourself, existentially, for
that promised time (which surely must be getting nearer and nearer)
when Christ will come again?
For those who are not close
enough to attend or whose schedules are prohibitive, I suggest you do
what I did this morning. Take out your Bible, read the accounts in all
four Gospels about John’s cries from the wilderness, then ask yourself,
“Why is it so important to begin the first week of Advent with these
I am watching for the little foxes that seem to
be creeping around the vines. My prayer is that I will observe
Christmas this year with a heart that is ready (and that I will not
come down with a cold).
Hark! the glad sound! the Savior comes, the Savior promised long; let every heart prepare a throne, and every voice a song.
He comes the prisoners to release in Satan’s bondage held; the gates of brass before him burst, the iron fetters yield.
He comes, the broken heart to bind, the bleeding soul to cure; and with the treasures of his grace to enrich the humble poor.
Our glad hosannas, Prince of Peace, thy welcome shall proclaim; and heaven’s eternal arches ring with thy beloved Name.
Hymn for Advent, Philip Doddridge (1702-1751)
ANNUAL ADVENT 24-HOUR RETREAT OF SILENCE
Hungry Souls is doing TWO new things this year. We are running
back-to-back retreats AND we are opening the weekend retreat, Friday
evening to Saturday afternoon, to men and women.
means you can send a husband or a friend or you can share a room as
couples (as long as you practice silence behind your closed door!).
The details are:
The first retreat will run from Wednesday, beginning with
dinner, December 2 through Thursday, ending by 4:00 in the afternoon,
December 3. The second retreat will run from Friday, beginning with
dinner, December 4 through Saturday, ending by 4:00 in the afternoon,
This will make room for those who work during the days and don’t feel
as though they can take time off during the week.
Our fees will be $120 for a single room with private bath. However, if
you register early, by October 15, your fee will be $100. If you bring
someone who has NEVER attended a Hungry
Souls Advent Retreat of
Silence, the welcome fee for any new attendees (and for you) will be
(The weekend retreat costs us $5 more. Add that amount to the fees --
$125, $105 or $95.) The cutoff date for registrations is November 25.
Since we must
give a firm number to the Bishop Lane Retreat Center in Rockford, IL
and pay for that number, we cannot return payments after the cutoff
Valerie Bell, Karen Mains and Sybil Towner will lead these two retreats. This Hungry
Souls Retreat of Silence is a guided
retreat. We begin silence at 9:00 the first evening. If you are
interested, contact our volunteer registrar Melodee Cook at
If you are outside of the Chicagoland area and would like to fly in for
any of our retreats, our staff or volunteers will be happy to meet you
at the airport and facilitate any sleeping arrangements that might need
to be made for our silent retreats.
BLOG: Gettin' Thru the Day
In order to build the Internet presence of the ministries of Hungry Souls,
which is mostly a science of how search engines pick up certain
keywords and phrases, Karen Mains is blogging. Actually, because she
feels called to write out into the culture, this blog is geared to
Internet browsers of all kinds who are at a point in life when it takes
everything they have just to get through the day. We are at the
first phase, 50 blogs!—things should start picking up at 200 blogs (!).
This is an almost daily entry and is not as overtly spiritual as the Soulish Food
e-newsletters, though the spiritual threads are not covert. The blog is
simply slated toward another readership. However, if you are at a point
when just getting through the day is harder than it should be, you may
want to check out this blog at blog.karenmains.com. Gettin' Thru the Day begins with blog 1-47.
Karen Burton Mains Web Site (Being Built)
year, six “Wannabe (Better) Writers” joined Karen in an experiment,
learning to write using telephone conferencing. The test writing-phase
was a great success, with most of us sticking with the two-hour,
bimonthly for eight months free conference calls. As part of her writing
assignment, Karen submitted an eight-month curriculum on Personal
Memoir Writing for the group to review, which will hopefully begin in January 2010. Further information
will be posted in October 2009 on that blog. This notice is a heads-up
for any who might want to take this teleconference course. We’ll let
you know when the curriculum is posted, and when Karen's professional Web site is up and running.
The Soulish Food e-mails are
posted biweekly on the Hungry Souls Web
site. Newcomers can look that over and decide if they want to
register on the Web site to receive the biweekly newsletter. You might
want to recommend this to friends also. They can go to www.HungrySouls.org.
"Viperish tendencies exist at the core of most of our
hearts. If we are really going to receive Christ—as infant or as
Messiah or as Lord—we are going to have to take a long hard look at the
shadowy places in our souls or we will not be properly prepared."
Advent Calendar: The Amazing Emmanuel
of us were not raised in liturgical church backgrounds, so following
Advent is not part of our tradition. More and more churches, however,
and more and more people are attempting to observe the four weeks that
proceed Christmas Day in a way that makes the Christmas holiday more
meaningful. Mainstay Ministries has designed a series of
(non-demanding) Devotions for December in the form of a table top
Advent Calendar that walks people through this all-too-often hectic and
Because of so much emphasis in pop
culture on superheroes, David Mains (director of Mainstay) and his
creative team designed a calendar titled The Amazing Emmanuel!
It develops the perspective that the Christ who is with us is also our
True Hero. By flipping the pages of the desk top calendar and following
the daily readings, you will:
• Discover What True Hero Worship Is Like • Learn to Share Your Hero’s Super Stories • Protect the Weak in Superhero Fashion • Keep Alive the Tale of the Wonder Child’s Birth • Experience Your Hero’s Super Power • Watch the Sky for Your Superhero’s Return
is a metaphor that works for kids and teens, but it has deep meaning
for adults who have been regularly disappointed and disenchanted by the
mentors, church leaders and “heroes” of our culture.
Beginning with Advent Sunday 1 and continuing through the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas, this journey involves:
• A manageable plan for a Christ-centered Christmas. • Daily Scripture readings to keep your focus on Christ. • Uplifting devotional thoughts that point you to the true Spirit of Christmas. • Practical suggestions for simple Advent activities to deepen your holiday journey. • Innovative ideas for families with children as well as for couples and singles. • Simple but meaningful candle lighting ceremonies for children and adults. • User-friendly instructions on making an Advent wreath to enhance your celebrations.
cost of each calendar is $10.00 plus shipping and handling. If you
would like to give these as gifts and order five or more, the cost is
$6 each. We will send the calendars with an invoice. If you order right now,
you will have time to receive a calendar, peruse it, and send them as
gifts to family and friends. Click on this link. The first Sunday of
Advent begins the 29th of November. You will want to have copies before
Thanksgiving, particularly if you are sharing them with friends.