Thursday, December 30, 2010

There are resolutions and there are RESOLUTIONS

It's the second to the last day of the year and time to start committing to whatever resolutions we make for the new year.  I just stumbled on a story about a FAMILY RESOLUTION that is absolutely fascinating to me, and also embodies some good, intentional parenting stuff.

Since last Jan. 1, Jessica and Jaime Gabriel and their three sons – Andrew, 9, Ben, 5, and Will, 3 – have embarked on a challenge to buy nothing new for a full year. They explain: "[W]e are making a conscious decision to go to the other end of the buying spectrum so that next year when we start buying again, we will be able to know where the middle is for OUR family." With the exception of food, hygiene and safety products (like new brakes for their truck), almost every material item they’ve purchased this year has been sourced second-hand. Jessica made a random mention of this on her Facebook account early in the challenge, and it drew so much attention that she started a blog about it in March.  As the year draws to a close she remarks on a number of things they've learned from their experiment.  Quotes from the blog:
  • Our main focus is to teach not only ourselves, but more importantly our children, the value of a dollar, delayed gratification and reevaluating our needs and wants as well as how to meet them.
  • [W]hen we DO go back to buying, we will be making more informed choices, where the bottom dollar isn't always the guiding force. Sometimes you can't get more for less. Sometimes you have to spend more to get more.
  • We are going to start thinking of some great decorations that we can make once and use for all our birthday celebrations and start a tradition of our own, a tradition of longevity, items with memory and family time while doing it.
  • LOVE the library!
So many different lessons, obstacles and challenges encountered, simply by choosing to make one change. 
What do you think of making a family resolution?  Trying something new just to see what would happen?  What if we turned off the television for a year?  What if we embraced the radical Sabbath Manifesto?  How would our thinking change?  What would we learn?  What would we embrace in the time freed by changed practice? 
I hope the coming year will be one of life and growth and joy and family.  Let me know if you decide to make any changes!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Child is Born

For unto us a child is born , unto us a son is given : and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor , The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9:6 KJV

Even as I read these words I hum various parts of Handel's For Unto Us a Child is Born and the Hallelujah Chorus. Thank you George Frederich Handel. You have corralled the overwhelming news of God come down from heaven into a measured yet full response. You give voice to the magnitude of this event.

For unto us a child is born. . . those of us who are parents recognize the depth and beauty of this statement. Yet Isaiah's "us" refers not to parents, but to a people. "The people who walked in darkness", that is, all of us, were all blessed by the arrival of this child. I believe in the Child. I also believe that every child among us is heaven sent. And, like Handel's Messiah, raising this child is not a work that can be performed alone. One lone rock star is not sufficient. It takes a large number of people doing their part: parents, yes, and teachers and preachers, and politicians and pundits, and farmers and grocers, and neighbors and friends to give full measure to this life. If one group doesn't show up, the show may go on, but the magnificence of the work will be diminished.

It takes a village, a chorus, an orchestra, to raise a child. It takes all of these doing their utmost, to make an environment that will allow this child to be all that he or she was created to be. It is necessary that we show up. That we perform our part in the work of this life. That we, the us to whom the children are born, make sure that they have clean water and food and shelter and education and loving, caring adults around them. That we continually strive to make the world safe and hospitable for them.

I've heard it every day since Thanksgiving: "Christmas is for children". Let it be so! And let's show up AFTER Christmas day for the children, in whatever ways we can.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Making Memories

There's a scene in the movie "The Parent Trap" where one of the twins, pretending to be her sister, hugs her grandfather tightly and kind of sniffs at him.  When he asks what she's doing she replies: "Making a memory! Years from now, when I'm all grown up, I'll always remember my grandfather and how he always smelled of peppermint and pipe tobacco."  Since my own grandpa also smelled of peppermint and pipe tobacco, this idea charmed  me the very first time I heard it.  And it contained an idea that has stuck with me ever since:  We can deliberately choose to remember certain moments.

As I work at holiday preparations I often muse about what will make this Christmas memorable.  It's not always possible to predict - some of the best memories are completely unplanned, but not all.  As I look back over my Christmas memories it seems like it's about half and half.  Half of my favorite memories were created by someone's intention: carefully chosen gifts, invited guests, inspired worship.  Others were happenstance: blizzards, random encounters, life-stages.  Either way, memories shape both our anticipation and our definition of Christmas.

I have many memories of Christmases past.  Most of them make me smile.  Two have shaped my Christmas perceptions more than any of the others.  The first is probably from around age six.  That was the year my mom introduced the tradition of Jesus' birthday cake. I can remember singing Happy Birthday to Jesus on Christmas day. There were even candles.  It made the central point of the whole celebration so clear to me. The second was my last Christmas before becoming a parent. I was, as they say in the Bible, great with child.  There would be no traveling to parents or in-laws that year.  I remember hearing the Christmas story that year as if for the first time: a young couple, far from home, a child about to be born. . . it was God's story and it was my story.

Like Mary, I have pondered these, and many other memories, in my heart for years.  Some of them may bear little resemblance to the "facts" of the event or to someone else's memory of it.  They are my memories, and they are part of who I am.  Like a river running through the hills, my memories have shaped the landscape of my life.  They have rounded the sharp places and created new routes in my thoughts. Looking for things worth remembering is a useful habit, especially if you choose well.

I know, and we all know, people who seem to remember all the slights, the hurts and the disappointments of their lives. While they may truly never have had a happy moment to remember, I think it's more likely that their constant focus on past hurt has blinded them to the good things in the present.  Others are constantly comparing this year to their "perfect" memories of Christmas past and always feeling that the present falls short. This is equally blinding. We can't really focus on two things at the same time. This is where looking for things worth remembering can be helpful. If we are looking for things to happily remember in the future, we will not be busy remembering unhappy things from the past or finding fault with the present.  (I'm not advocating for pretending things never happened or that everything is perfect when it's not.) I am just choosing to make memories in the present. To BE PRESENT in the present and not lost in the past.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas and please, make some wonderful memories!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Sign of the Times

I don't shop much.  I developed a real aversion to shopping when I was a single mother living at the very edge of my means or beyond.  Time spent at the mall seemed to bring out bitterness and anger that I wanted to keep in check - so I just quit going there.  Since then, I have narrowed my habits to the point where I visit only a handful of stores on a regular basis.  Lately though, I've had occasion to go to a bunch of stores and I feel a little bit like a tourist.

One thing has caught my eye that I think is clearly a sign of the times.  In every store there are piggy banks of every conceivable shape and size. Big piggies, little piggies, pastel piggies and bold piggies.  Piggies with polka dots, stripes and the logo of every major league team and most of the popular college teams.   There are piggy banks for kids, and piggy banks clearly for adults.  And there are lots of other kinds of banks too - the ones that keep a running total of your deposits with an electronic display.  The ones that will sort your change for easy rolling.  Banks that talk to you when you put money in them.  It's phenomenal.  And telling.

If I were actually a tourist, I might interpret this as a sign of American self-reliance; that America is so rich because even its children are taught to save for a rainy day from a very early age. In reality, it is a clear indication of the current economic conditions.  For me, it is also nostalgic. I had several piggy banks during my childhood years.  The most favored one wasn't a pig at all, but rather a spaniel that bore a striking resemblance to my Grandpa's dog Frisky.  And that bank came from my Grandpa, who I believe got it free from some bank vying for his business.  Does this mean we will start getting toasters for opening accounts again?  I'm guessing my twenty-something readers don't even know what I'm talking about here.

People who came through the depression knew the true value of a dime.  And we are beginning to realize it too. Money is a tool. Everyone knows the value of a good tool: writers like certain kinds of pens, gardeners like certain kinds of rakes, cooks like certain kinds of knives.  I wonder if we quit seeing money as a tool when we quit seeing money and started swiping cards for everything.  It would appear that money is real again, in the eyes of the American shopper anyway.

These piggy banks give me a flutter of hope.  People are figuring out what they need to teach their kids about money.  And, they are teaching them to wait for what they want.  And that, in the end, is the truest value of a piggy bank.  Learning to wait for what you want.  Learning to work toward it, one dime at a time. Because anything that is worth having requires this.  Getting an education requires mastering one thing at a time.  Growing a garden requires waiting for the produce to ripen.  Raising competent children requires daily  investments of time and love. Life is not like the lottery - it's like the piggy bank - and children who learn this are way ahead when they reach adulthood.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Always drive a car big enough to carry a cello. . .

Yesterday I saw one of the early signs of the holidays: the car with the wreath on its grille. That got me to thinking about all the bits of wisdom related to cars that I have collected from other parents and from my own experience.  The advice about the cello obviously came from a parent with musical children and it was very good advice.  Driving your kids, and their friends, where they need to go is a great way to stay connected in the midst of your crazy schedule.  As the driver, you become invisible to everyone behind the front seat. And, if you can keep your mouth shut, you can find out a lot about what your kids are really thinking and doing. (If you decide to talk about something you overheard - don't blow your own cover!  Find another reason to introduce the topic so you can continue eavesdropping!)

Another useful item from my collection: Road trips are a great way to bond during the silent years.  Even the most remote teen cannot bear two days in the car without conversation.  Eventually they will make some kind of overture and you can probably have some meaningful discussions, if you are willing to wait in silence for a while. 

Also, driving in the dark can provide great opportunities for embarrassing discussions.  If you can bring your self to open the discussion by remarking on a XXX-video store or billboard for a "gentlemen's club" you can find yourself addressing a lot of questions your teens may be carrying around with them. I once, in the dark,  explained the actual meaning of every forbidden word my kids had ever seen written on a bathroom wall (and why we obviously shouldn't use them).  Definitely a discussion that would not have happened face to face in the light of day!

From another friend: when your kid drives someplace alone for the first time, find someone to wait with until the "I have safely arrived phone call comes."   This is a multi-phase kind of rule.  First they drive to the grocery store or church or school by themselves.  Later they drive to the suburbs.  Then, it's the next big town over and eventually it's an interstate trip. Finally, they will take trips and tell you AFTER the fact.  And you'll be relieved you didn't have to worry the whole time they were driving from college to Canada just because they'd never left the country before. . .

And a few don'ts from the same sources:
  • Don't ever give them a brand new car.
  • Don't be afraid to make them earn their car: I know someone who successfully raised three fine young men by forcing them to drive the family minivan until they finished their Eagle Scout requirements.
  • Don't make them bear all the expense of having a car.  1) Because they will have to have a job during the school year and then quit all their extra-curriculars to find the time to work.  And instead of hanging with  high-achieiving band members or athletes or school newspaper reporters, they'll be hanging with high-school dropouts at minimum wage jobs. 2) You can't really take it away if they bought it themselves.
  • Don't assume they are going where they say they are going.
  • Don't hesitate to make them responsible for washing and gassing it or for driving their younger sibs to things.
Cars are kind of like an extension of our homes.  Your family life can happen in them if you are intentional about it. I love the people who put antlers or wreaths on their cars at Christmas time!  They clearly know that their car is part of their home.  Forget the Christmas sleigh rides - just go for a jaunt in the family car.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Counting Blessings

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. When I was a kid, it was the only major holiday we had away from home because, for pastor's families, Christmas and Easter are always spent at home. But every Thanksgiving, we would go to church on Wednesday night and then leave for the grandparents' immediately after the service. It seemed to take forever (Google maps says that it was only about 3 hours) and we inevitably fell asleep in the car and awoke in our familiar room at Grandma's house with wonderful smells wafting up from the kitchen on Thanksgiving morning. In my little girl memories it snowed every year; this is probably incorrect but it is how I remember it. We would leave home in cold, wet, brown fall and wake up to untouched winter white splendor.

Before we fell asleep we always played the Thanksgiving version of the Alphabet Game in the car. Instead of I'm going on a trip and I'm taking a ___________ we would scramble to find something to be thankful for starting with each letter of the alphabet. (I know - this was sooooo little house on the prairie!) Thirty years later I became the driver and we played the same game over many long Thanksgiving road trips. And this year, on the night before Thanksgiving, I plan to fall asleep chanting "I am thankful for Austin's weirdness, I am thankful for books, I am thankful for church, and dogs, and Emily, and friends, and Gracie, and holidays, and", well, you get the idea. I could repeat this litany many times, changing every item - I am blessed beyond any deserving.

Most of us are blessed beyond measure and, as we barrel toward the ultimate consumer holiday, it is fitting that we stop and count up what we already have. It is the season of Thanks, and it's immediately followed by the season of Giving. Giving, not Getting.

I think it's easier for children to turn their attention toward giving if they are mindful of what they already have. So, after you have given Thanks, eaten turkey and dressing and cranberries and watched some football, I have a suggestion. Count your blessings. Then consider joining the Advent Conspiracy. You can check it out here:

Let your kids help you figure out who really could use a gift. Then, let them help pick it out. Or let them help figure out what to skip so that you can give more away. The video says it all - $10 Billion could solve the world's water issues. I am thankful that I can walk into my kitchen, turn on the tap and find clean water flowing out of it. Hot or cold - whatever I want! Next year, wouldn't it be awesome if we could be thankful that people all over the world have clean water?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Salt Water Cure

When I was growing up the American Cancer Society had a compelling set of public service announcements about the seven warning signs of cancer. One of those signs was "a sore that does not heal". I remember thinking that that was a ridiculously obvious sign - because sores always healed and you would certainly notice one that didn't. A sore that wouldn't heal was just unimaginable. Healing was both miraculous and ordinary.

Fast forward a few decades and I look around and see people who have scars from incredible traumas and disease but acknowledge their healing as their greatest blessing. And I see people with open wounds, physical or psychic, doing everything they can to be healed. And then there are those who continually re-open their old wounds, pick the scabs, to use a gross analogy. They don't seem to look for healing, they appear to relive the hurt over and over again in their mind's eye. Their hurt becomes their identity: wounded one, victim, patient.

I wonder a lot about those people. What makes them want to re-open their wounds? What makes them so unable to move on from their trauma or illness? Why do some people get stuck in sickness while others rise above it and go on to the next thing. Why doesn't God heal them? Is it because they don't believe healing is possible? Disclaimer here: I know that a lot of people have been deeply wounded by someone telling them they aren't being healed because they don't have enough faith. It is not my intent to suggest this in any way.

Healing is God's way. Jesus walked among us and healed many people. Many sought him out - crying out as blind Bartimaeus - Jesus, Master, have mercy on me. Others were brought by their friends or family - remember the story of the young man let down through the roof? Sometimes, he saw people and had compassion for them, healing whatever ailed them - even to raising a child from death on the way to the tomb.

So why do some people continue to be sick, or to make themselves sick? I don't know, but I believe that God is still at work healing them. Perhaps the wound we see is merely a symptom of a much deeper hurt or disease. Perhaps they fear wellness. A wise woman, with a very sick child, once told me that she knows that God will ultimately heal her son, she just doesn't know on which side of heaven it will occur. Healing is God's work. It happens in God's time. And God's time is not necessarily the same as mine.

God's healing work is out and about in the world today. Just the other day there were news reports that the vast majority of the oil spilled in the gulf is gone, eaten by microbes. Who saw that coming? Definitely a God-given healing to a deeply wounded body of water, all ,in God's good time, which was far sooner than we dared to dream. We don't yet know the full story of the healing of the gulf, or of our own. That will only come to us on the other side. In the meantime, let's make sure our kids notice God's miraculous healing, whenever and where ever it pops up!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

It Gets Better

Last week people all over the place were posting videos and essays and other means of encouragement for high school kids, telling them that "it gets better". As you undoubtedly know, this began in response to the high number of suicides by gay youth but, gay or straight, high school can be a terrible part of life. Some of us look back on high school days as the most fun years of our lives. I'm not one of them. So I want to add my voice to everyone who says that it gets better.

"It gets better" is one of those incredibly simple facts of life that kids don't have the experience to recognize. And they often don't observe this as a phenomenon because we adults often work very hard at making life look easy. Why is that? I think there are definitely things that kids should be spared, but reality is probably not a good choice. Parents must decide what is appropriate to share, but every parent really ought to share with their kids when they find themselves in a tough spot. This is how kids learn that it does get better. And, when you share with them, it frees them to share when it's not good for them.

Maybe your worst days were in high school. Tell your kid about it. Maybe your worst year of work is this one because everyone at your company is waiting for the next layoff. You will probably make some changes in preparation for the worst, so explain to your kids why everyone's spending is curtailed. Then, when the crisis passes, you will have the chance to say "See! It gets better!" Maybe you have lost a beloved parent or friend - letting your kids see you grieve also lets them see that, over time, it gets better.

It gets better. Three little words of encouragement, a priceless gift. Somewhere, sometime in your life, someone has thrown you some much needed words of encouragement. Somebody said that you could do it; that you were improving; that they were glad to have you on their team. You smile as you think of it. It did get better! You've lived long enough to know this to be true.

There are people who believe that the easiest way to teach a child to swim is to throw them in the deep end of the pool. While struggling to swim enough to survive certainly motivates a kid to try hard, it's a dangerous practice. A kid can drown in the deep end of the pool. It makes more sense to me, to get in the water with your kid at the shallow end and work your way into the deep water, adding more skills as you go. Then, when you let go of your child and she swims to the side of the pool she has a sense of mastery, and a deep inner knowledge that she is getting better. And better.

Look for opportunities to teach this lesson. Your kids, your nieces and nephews or grandkids or neighbor kids all need to hear that it gets better. They don't know it, but you do. This little piece of knowledge can be the raft that holds them up when they are close to drowning. It really does get better. Pass it on!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

It's Child's Play

The group I work with is going on retreat this week and we have been making promises to the new members of the staff about how much fun we have playing Taboo™. This, our favorite bonding ritual, is followed closely by a game called Imaginiff™. With both of these games, what makes it fun is only partly the game itself. The primary ingredient of the fun is the particular group of players. A secondary ingredient is the memory of games past.

Playing is a vastly important component of life. I recently listened to an interview with Adele Diamond (one of the founders of the field of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience) and was struck by what she had to say about play and learning. While she was particularly interested in dramatic play, I couldn’t help but jump from there to my own experiences with playing games, period. In her research on the pre-frontal cortex (I’m giving you all this so you can read more yourself) she has found that play gives kids better “Executive Functions”. There are three executive functions: Inhibitory Control, Working Memory and Cognitive Flexibility. These are pretty much exactly what they sound like they might be and here’s how they “play out” in games.

Inhibitory Control is basically waiting your turn, or waiting for the right time. This is one of the first things that playing games teaches us. Can you wait until it’s your turn? Can you wait to show us what’s in your hand until it won’t hurt your strategy?

Working Memory is just what it sounds like too. What do you need to hold in your brain to play the game? If you are playing Taboo, you have to remember which words are forbidden until your team guesses the word or your turn is over. In Canasta you have to remember what your meld is for this turn, and so on.

Cognitive Flexibility is being able to create a new strategy when conditions change. If I’m playing Yahtzee™ and I hold two 2’s and roll three 4’s I am probably going to shift my plan to collect on the full house instead of going for the 2’s.

Did you have any idea that playing with your kids could build such important skills? I wouldn’t tell them, but I would definitely make a visit to the game cupboard over Thanksgiving weekend (or sooner) and give your kids the gift of Executive Function. Even if they come grudgingly they will mostly likely get involved to some degree – and if a board game won’t work, how about going bowling or playing with the Wii? The benefits will be the same - fun, learning and memories.

One last tale of Cognitive Flexibility: I recently heard a mother say “Marco” in a crowded room to which her child dutifully responded “Polo” and ended the mother’s search. Who knew it would work out of the water?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Teachable Moments: Death

Halloween is coming. I had a funny conversation at dinner recently about costumes that had to fit over snowsuits and frantic searches for replacement costumes when a cold front cancelled the Malibu Barbie costume planned for the balmy Texas weather . Was there ever a more bizarre holiday? We spend all year talking to our kids about stranger danger and good nutrition and then, on Halloween, we let them dress up in costumes and go out to knock on the doors of strangers to beg for candy. . .

Since Halloween is already weird and scary, this can be a great time to talk to your kids about death. Death is like sex - your kids are going to learn about it. If you don't teach them, someone else will and they may not teach it the way you would prefer. Children will encounter dead deer on the side of the road, and dead fish in the aquarium. Villains, heroes and other characters will die in fairy tales and on television. You can't avoid it so you'll have to talk about it. As a person of faith, I want my children to learn about death in the context of faith (as well as sex, money, the environment, relationships, politics and a host of other topics.) The worst time to talk about death is in the midst of grief and anguish when a death occurs. You cannot teach as clearly, and your child cannot learn as well, when circumstances are strained by loss.

The best time to talk about any tough subject is when it can be brought up naturally. So, use Halloween as a natural opportunity to visit a real cemetery with your child. Once there you can talk naturally about death, life after death, burial, cremation, the circle of life, and other related topics. Walk around; look for the oldest person, the youngest person, the oldest stone, and the newest grave. In a quiet setting like a cemetery or columbarium (where ashes are interred) your kid may feel free to ask about what is on his or her mind.

This may sound very artificial and strained to you – and it is! It was different in the past when death was a natural part of life. People died at home. People lived in the same places and knew everyone around them, and knew the circumstances of their deaths. Every church had a cemetery and every child knew the story of someone buried there. These days, the reality of human death is veiled in mystery; kids have very little real information or experience from which to draw conclusions. You, as the adult, have to be their bridge, even though you may have very little experience yourself. Look at your feelings and memories as you prepare for their questions. Do a little homework if you feel the need – hospice has lots of information for talking to children, and so do lots of websites and libraries. You may not be able to answer all their questions but you can assure them that, no matter what happens along the way, God will be with them on each and every step – even the very last one.

So, it’s a bit of a somber topic for the year’s weirdest holiday but what better time? And for those of you who hate half told stories – the Malibu Barbie costume was replaced with the ever ready princess costume: a bridesmaid dress from the ancient past and a dime store tiara saved the day. You just never know what you’ll need, or when, so it's a good idea to grab those opportunities for advance preparation!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Good Fortune

I ate Chinese food for lunch today, as I do almost every Tuesday after staff meeting, and got the most peculiar “fortune” in my cookie. It said, “Your blessing is no more than being safe and sound for the whole lifetime.” How bizarre! Still, as I rolled it over in my brain I began to realize that it was pretty true. I have been pretty much safe and sound for my whole lifetime!

Just by virtue of being an American, I have been very safe. Even counting the extreme nature of events on 9/11/2001, being born on the North American continent has given me a lot of protection. It’s a blessing I don’t always count when I’m adding things up, but one I should strive to remember regularly. I could just as easily have been born in Ireland or Palestine or Viet Nam and have known danger my whole lifetime.

I was also born wanted, to parents who understood how to love unconditionally. This is a true blessing and one that I do celebrate regularly. Many people I know had childhoods lived in the shadow of addiction, poverty, mental illness, or abuse. People who had scary or insecure childhoods never really felt safe and carry a deep need for security into many areas of their adult lives.

Some people have dealt with fragile health – their own or someone else’s – all of their days. I have had the good fortune to be “sound” from infancy. This is a fortunate circumstance that I really take for granted. Others have not been so lucky.  On the other side of the health equation, you can often recognize a child who had a shaky beginning by the way his parents treat him – as if he might break. This can make the world very un-safe for children because not everyone is going to be as solicitous as their parents.

So – my blessing may be “no more” than being safe and sound for the whole lifetime but what a blessing!!! My blessing is also “NO LESS” than being safe and sound. I need to remember to celebrate this every day.

Isn’t it funny how most of us look at what we don’t have, instead of what we do? I can almost guarantee that in any group of children it would be easier to elicit a response to the question “What do you wish you had?” than if you asked them to name a blessing. Seeing the blessings that fill the world creates a sense of safety for our children. Seeing the world as lacking creates insecurity.

Given the chance, I would rather help my kids develop an awareness of their world as a place filled with blessings. It’s a lot like wearing a life jacket; it doesn’t change the danger of a given situation, but it helps us cope if the boat gets overturned. We can all use a little extra buoyancy for floating in these baptismal waters.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Waiting and Wanting

When I talk with older folks, well, older than me, I hear a recurring opinion about young people - they don't appreciate anything! There is some truth to this - especially that they don't appreciate any THING. I think that most people under 35 have had a lot of stuff in their short lives. And they aren't impressed. Stuff is just stuff for the most part. Most of them have known very little want or wait for things, and so they don't appreciate things, as we, who have experienced want and wait, do.

When I talk with younger people, I hear a recurring opinion about older people - they don't appreciate the value of my time! And, this is also somewhat true. People my age and older routinely call meetings to settle matters that could be handled by e-mail. We often try to handle things by e-mail that would be more easily managed by phone or face-to-face. Most of us were not hurried from early childhood on, and so we don't appreciate the value of time as our younger friends do.

My daughter recently, and casually, dropped the phrase "feast and fast" into a conversation we were having. I've been chewing on that for a couple of weeks - you can't enjoy the feast without the fast. And what is fast but wanting and waiting. Fasting is practice from days gone by that has never, truly, been part of many people's lives beyond observation of other cultures. In many places around the world, people only eat meat on special occasions. A feast day is truly a feast day! Here in the U.S., we have been so richly blessed that we feast all the time. The media is full of reports about American obesity but I think this continual feasting has also impacted our character. Living life without want or wait affects us in interesting ways.

Living without want can make us, ironically, insatiable, or "unsatisfiable". Without a true hunger there is no true satisfaction. This creates an opportunity for other people to tell us what we want – advertisers and the media regularly tell us we would be happier "if only". Yet when we get what they suggest, we remain unsatisfied.

Living without wait makes us impatient, demanding and thoughtless. We medicate ourselves with text messages, phone calls or i-pods, just to make it through the wait in line at the post office or the bank.

Young friends, perhaps it would bless you and your children to fast from something (TV, sugar, technology?) occasionally. They, and you, will learn a little more appreciation. My dear older friends, perhaps it would bless you and your families if you could see time together a little more as a feast to be savored. You might learn to appreciate the gift of time a little more.

Nature fasts and feasts - there are times of drought and times of rain; times of abundance and times of scarcity. Maybe it's helpful to assume that this is part of God's plan for creation and join in the feast-fast cycle of creation. It might help us understand one another better!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Have a little faith

I love my confirmation students. They are bright, funny, full of energy and generally love life and each other. Most weeks they share their highs and lows and what I hear makes me worry. These kids have schedules and pressures that would be daunting to most 30-year-olds. Of course, they don't manage this themselves, parents are doing the juggling required to allow these hectic schedules. I honor these parents for their commitment to their kids. I also wonder how it came to this - that neither children, nor parents, have any time to play.

When I listen to the highs and lows of middle schoolers I hear things like: got an A on my math test, my team won their game and, on the flip side: had to miss sleeping over at my friend's house because I had a tournament, got a C on a Spanish quiz. Which of these things do you think will matter to them when they are parents themselves? Mom and Dad, what do you remember from 7th and 8th grade? I remember hanging out at the community pool with my friends, a special family vacation and being allowed to sleep in the family pop-up camper in the back yard with friends. It was all about relationships. Sure, there was school, but what I remember most about school is the people. I remember who my choir teacher was and who got into trouble in Social Studies but I don’t remember what books I read in English (my favorite subject).

We participate in all this activity out of fear. We are afraid our kids won't get into the best colleges. We're afraid that if they have too much time on their hands they'll get pregnant or experiment with drugs. We have, somehow, been convinced that there is more bad than good in the future. Yet we claim to be people of faith. So - have a little faith. Your kids need to know that you believe in them and in their potential and that you believe that God will take care of them. This frantic pace is sending your kids a message: they won't be good enough! Please, tell them they are so worthy that the creator of the universe came to earth and died and rose again out of love for them. How much better do they need to be? They are worthy because they ARE, not because they DO. And so are you dear parents! Your kids and God love you for who you are, not for what you do!

I'm not suggesting that you and your children should be slackers. I just want to encourage you to trust God with your child's future. No matter what you plan, there is only so much you can control. Promising athletes get injured, impressive scholars burn out, geeky high school kids grow up to start giant companies. Have a little faith! Slow down and check out your choices. Are they made from a place of love, or a place of fear? Is your child playing soccer, saxophone, or Cyrano to please you, themselves or some mythical college recruiter in their future? Might that child rather just be playing?

Fear freezes but love flows. Love moves us with it like water in a stream. You will not stay in the same place if you fight against it or go with it. It will carry you along regardless. Where you end up may not match your planned destination but if love takes you there, it will be blessed. Have a little faith.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

I Don't See It That Way

You, my friend, were created in the image of God. And so was I. It is a mind-boggling measure of God's complexity that both of us, and everyone who reads this, and all our children, siblings, co-workers, friends and enemies were also created in the image of God. It is beyond the scope of our human imaginations to conjure a being of such diverse and transcendent qualities.

Because we cannot imagine a Being so complex, we have a tendency to focus on God in our own image. Those of us who are (or aspire to be) powerful, are drawn to God's power and might. If we are perfectionists, we tend to stand in awe of God's perfection. If we are peaceable people, we usually see God as a gathering, rather than divisive force. Loving people focus on God's compassion. God possesses all these qualities and many more.

I think this ties back to the "interior culture" I was thinking about last week. We each, literally, see the creation, and the Creator, through different eyes; and our worldview is further impacted by the lenses of our experience. Just as most of us cannot see the world from any point of view other than as an American, we also are constrained by our temperaments. This becomes abundantly clear when we wade around in the Psalms. One says "The Lord is my Shepherd", another "The Lord is my light and my salvation", still another "The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer." Elsewhere the psalmists describe and ascribe to God titles and traits: "The mighty One, God the Lord", "In you O Lord do I take refuge", "The Lord Reigns, he is robed in majesty", or "O give thanks to the Lord for he is good".

What difference does all this make? I think that, for those of us who are trying to make God known to children, an awareness of "other-ness," both from God and from one another, will bless our teachings. Someone told me yesterday that she had finally determined that the problem with a dog she was trying, somewhat unsuccessfully, to love, was that it wasn't HER dog. I think this happens between parents and children as well - too often the God a parent introduces to a child is constructed in the parent's own image. So what the child then sees is God as a BIGGER parent - an extension of the parent, rather than a larger, more complex and separate being. This can be a serious distortion, one that gives a child a false relationship with God - and one that potentially carries with it all the issues of the parent-child relationship.

Which brings me back to a familiar theme: people were made for community. In the community there are people who can enlarge both your own, and your children's perceptions of God. People who can describe their experience of God from a worldview that may be far from your own but closely attuned to your child's point of view. The community provides yet another reflected image of God to contribute to our understanding. So jump in - there are lots of different people in the swimming hole of the community
and God will be reflected in many different places. And you know, we all look different when we're wet.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Being Temperamental

I had a long conversation with a friend last week where I insisted that happiness is an unworthy goal.  You know how people say "I just want my kids to be happy"?  Well, I get a little offended by that because in my mind they are saying that all they want is for their kids to avoid anything that makes the kids unhappy (and as we all know, when our kids aren't happy, we aren't either so whose happiness are we really wishing for?)  I argued that happiness is a passive state and that I wanted more for my kids than simply the absence of anything that diminishes their passive state of happiness. 

For the record, Websters says happiness is a state of well-being and contentment.  Alternate: a pleasureable or satisfying experience. Happy is defined as favored by luck or fortune.  This pretty much matches my definition, and probably most people's.  The difference, I realize, is that for me, happiness is pretty much a perpetual state of being.  Under my circumstances, setting a goal to be happy is both self-serving and an avoidance issue.  Once again I have made the mistake of seeing my worldview as universal.

It's so easy to understand that we have a different world view from people of other cultures.  It's harder to understand that each of us, regardless of our external culture, has an internal culture that influences every decision, interaction and our very state of well-being.  I know this about my children.  I have compared and contrasted their inner cultures since the day the second child was born.  It's very easy to see a baby's inner culture (Do they sleep well?  Like people?  Smile a lot?  Cry a lot?  Like to be held?  Startle easily?) but much more difficult once we have donned the uniform of adulthood. 

I call it a uniform because it's a covering designed to make us all the same.  Stripped of it, we're still pretty much the same person we were as an infant.  Judging from the photos and my mother's reports, I was a happy baby.  So no surprise that I am pretty much a happy adult, except when things interfere with my happiness.  Back then it was a wet diaper, today it's more likely a wet blanket.

The ancients called my personality "sanguine".  Hippocrates theorized that everyone's personality was ruled by one of four body fluids, or "humors": blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm.  (Gross, I know.)  Later these were characterized as Sanguine, Melancholic, Choleric, and Phlegmatic.  Eventually these became known as the Temperaments.

Now I can guess that some of you are dying to know more, some of you are indignant at such over-simplification, some of you don't believe this theory applies to you, and some of you have quit reading by now.  And you are all right, because each of you has a different inner culture.  So for me, and all my sanguine compatriots, happiness just happens and isn't in the least bit worthy as a goal (kind of like learning to speak English in an English-speaking country) but I revoke my initial criticism, because happiness is a worthy goal for those of you who live in a different inner culture.  And if you have a child who is not sanguine - it's a loving wish to hope for their happiness.

I'm going to quit now and start a new entry because it has just occurred to me that this probably also impacts the way we see God!  In the meantime, wade in those baptismal waters and know that regardless of your temperament, when we wade, we all get wet.  We just don't all share the same feelings about it!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Big Rain

Over the last 36 hours it has rained about 8-1/2 inches here. The variety of responses to this most unusual event really interested me. Here are a few samples of what I heard:

• I just wanted to stay home and read a book today.
• I went out between showers and pulled a few weeds – it’s so easy when the ground is wet.
• My shoes are ruined!
• I can sit on my porch and listen to the rain for hours.
• 200 pounds of mulch washed down the hill!
• My dogs refused to go outside until it had passed.
• You can thank me for all this rain – I bought a convertible yesterday!

Aren’t we amazing? In the midst of this collectively experienced event, we all respond differently. It’s remarkable that shared experience does not give us shared viewpoints. Some of the people I quoted above acknowledged the rain as blessing, some saw it as an inconvenience and yet others were frightened by it. Even within those broader responses there were many subtle shadings.  Our collective experience only gives us a common memory; the experience shapes each of us differently.

I used to think that as a mother I could shape my child’s world view. I thought that if I consistently described the world in glass-half-full language that would be the way she saw it. It seemed logical that if the unknown was consistently presented as exciting, and the child was made to feel competent, that she would skip off into the future with great expectations and reasonable caution. Looking back, I have to shake my head at my own arrogance. Why would I think I could form a better perspective than the one supplied by the Creator? God knows (and I mean that literally) what we are going to need for our individual life journeys. I’m sure I was equipped from birth with optimism because God knew I was going to need it. I think my acquaintance whose mulch washed down the hill was given a crazy sense of humor because his life was going to require him to find humor in difficult situations.  God, who can control ALL the variables, still made each of us unique.

Another remarkable layer to this rain event: Only last summer Austin had the worst drought conditions in 50 years. Our big lake was so low that there were almost no boats on it and businesses all around it were going broke. It seemed it would take many years of generous rains to even make a dent in the dryness of our region. Today, we sit under flood warnings because of the exceptional amounts of rain we have received and the lake levels are the highest in decades.

The power of the Creator is beyond belief – whether you look at rain that can fill immense canyons to overflowing in a few hours or at human beings, each uniquely endowed with the gifts needed to navigate the future – it defies description. In the face of all these thoughts, I can only exclaim in wonder with the writer of Psalm 104:

24 Lord, you have made so many things! How wisely you made them all! The earth is filled with your creatures. 25 There is the ocean, large and wide, where countless creatures live, large and small alike. 26 The ships sail on it, and in it plays Leviathan, that sea monster which you made. (TEV)

Thanks be to God for gifts of water, and perspective!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Where Do You Go All Day?

As we float through this week toward Labor Day, I am thinking about how kids think about work. Those of you who work away from home do work that children don’t actually see. Consequently, they develop a fantasy of going-to-work based on what they hear us say. One of my daughters, when she was very young, believed that her Daddy “went to work and made money on his ‘puter.” In the dark ages of the late 1980’s she hadn’t ever played a computer game, or been behind the locked doors of her father’s workplace. It was entirely logical for her to believe that a computer was a machine that spit out money like an ATM.

Some of us work at things familiar to children; the work done by teachers, tellers, garbage collectors, police officers and doctors is comprehensible to them, but many of us, engineers, programmers, and accountants have a much harder time describing what we do to our children. In the absence of observed data, children will construct an idea of “working” from what they hear you say. My daughter’s conclusion that her daddy was printing money at the office no doubt arose from his customary parting statement “Bye-bye Sugar, Daddy’s got to go work on his computer and make some money for us.” What are your kids hearing about work from you? Are they hearing that your work is hateful, hard, or stressful, or are they hearing that going to work is exciting, challenging, or fun? If you are one of those who are fortunate enough to be doing what you are “called” to do, then your children are probably constructing an image of work that makes them look forward to growing up and having a job.

According to Wikipedia, the word vocation, while once almost exclusively used to refer to priests and other religious workers, “has evolved to include the notion of using our talents and capabilities to good-effect in choosing and enjoying a career.” Frederick Buechner, writer and theologian, says “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.” Some of us are called to heal, teach or feed, others to invent, create, or design; still others are called to help the world operate in an orderly fashion. Some of us are called to care for families, create art or write books, often for little or no pay and what we get paid to do is a means to our vocation. Some of us are fortunate enough to get paid for answering our calls. We’ve all met people who exhibit deep gladness in their work – sometimes in jobs we couldn’t bear to do. Wouldn’t it be great if we could help our children find their calling, their deep gladness? Can we give them an attitude toward work that makes it something to look forward to with anticipation?

I have been blessed to have felt a calling where ever I have worked – though sometimes the job arrived before the call. The call was not always explicitly to the actual job, but always seemed tied to a particular need. In the current economy people are thinking about their work from a different point of view. Perhaps some consideration of vocation would be valuable in times such as these. I hope that today, or soon, you have work that brings you joy. And hey – it’s Labor Day weekend. I hope you get to go swimming or run through the sprinkler to celebrate your long weekend!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Hurricane Season

My life has been a tempest in a teapot lately. Last week I whined about my e-mail issues. Yesterday I thought I would probably be crying about my phone issues when, in an apparent act of God (i.e. neither caused nor stoppable by me), my cell phone suddenly locked me out. The screen said RESTRICTED and the only button I could push said UNDO, whereupon the screen said ENTER SECRET NUMBER. I had no secret number. I called my service provider. They told me what the default number for my phone was. That wasn’t the secret number. The Tech Support person offered to do a master re-set for me “but you’ll lose everything”. “What do you mean everything,” I asked, “all my numbers?” “Yes,” she said. “And your photos and text messages too.” I almost wept. Sensing my angst, she asked if I wanted to try calling the manufacturer, to see if they could help.

So I did. At the manufacturer, a very business-like person informed me that it was the service provider who had locked me out and they were the only ones who could let me in. I should call them.

So, I called them back and told a different Tech Support Person that I would bite the bullet and she should go ahead and do a master re-set. She regretfully told me that only the manufacturer could do that.

So, back to the manufacturer I go, only to hear a recorded message lodged within the press # for _______________ menu that says to contact your service provider to reset your phone.

I gave up. Shedding a few tears of frustration, I decided that eating would likely improve my outlook on life, which it did. After eating, I boldly dialed the 800 number one more time, praying that I would get a helpful person. When I got someone from Tech Support on the line, I informed him that this was my third call to them, my fifth call in reference to this matter and that I wanted to try to resolve it completely with this call. He assured me that we would do so, asked for the details of what had happened and then said he needed to do a little research, and to please be patient; he could hear me so if I thought of anything else I should speak up. I sat quietly and waited, soothed by his calm demeanor. When he spoke again he asked me to turn the phone off and back on again. I joked about this being the first thing a person should try before they call and that I’d be really embarrassed if it worked.

And it did. This man had listened to me. He heard what I said, researched the possibilities and solved my problem. He told me not to be embarrassed – it wouldn’t have worked if I had tried it without talking to him first.

I was overjoyed to have my trusty cell phone back. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that perhaps Someone Else had helped me with this little problem too. The same Someone who had answered my bedtime request for a decent night’s sleep in the midst of this tempestuous period of my life. It’s likely that neither of those things would have worked if I hadn’t talked to God first. Anything attempted after prayer goes far more smoothly . . . probably not because God is the great vending machine in the sky, but because, in the asking, I am putting myself in the correct place in the situation.

When I recognize that I cannot stop the rain, I am in a better place to raise an umbrella or lower a sail. School is starting; say a little prayer for smooth sailing.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Dam Habits. . .

My work e-mail has now been down for about 16 hours.  I am stewing, wondering:
  • What am I missing?
  • Who might be trying to reach me?
  • Do they think I'm ignoring them?
  • Did my last e-mail go out?
  • Should I call somebody?
  • Whose fault is it?
Is this really the fabric of my life?  Is my whole life held together by e-mail?  (The answer to this is apparently yes, as I have four e-mail accounts and facebook!)  I cannot believe how anxious this is making me. 

Yesterday I read a reflection on the story of Jesus healing the "crooked" woman on the Sabbath (Luke 13).  Jan Richardson of Painted Prayerbook, asks these questions in her reflection: What are the habits, patterns, and rhythms by which we live our lives?  Are there patterns and habits that, over time, have become confining, keeping us bound and bent and feeling less than whole?  Experiencing this anxiety around the absence of my  e-mail makes me think that this habit might have become confining.  I definitely feel less than whole without it.

I thought I had evolved beyond that. . . I like to think I am a fairly free spirit, unbound by convention, regulation, and rules.  Eldest daughter and I had many discussions about rules while she was visiting.  She, having been raised with the broadest possible rules  likes to devise rules for daily living.  She thinks of them as building good habits - and I have to applaud her creative use of rules for that purpose.  It seems to me that she uses her chosen rules the way children use rules in games - to keep it fair, to foster peace, to make it more interesting.  I, on the other hand, who generally perceive rules as confining, now find myself vicitmized by habits randomly formed, rather than chosen. 

When my daughters were children, I chose their rules with great care. (e.g. "If your action could hurt someone, including you, don't do it!" or "People are ALWAYS more important than stuff.") I didn't want to have to enforce anything I didn't believe in wholeheartedly.  I also didn't want to stifle any of their creativity, or put them in a box that would force them to grow in particular ways.  I wanted them to be free to become the women God had created them to be. 

The rules I consciously choose for myself tend to work a lot like the rules I chose for my daughters:  they are there to protect me and free my creativity.  My habits, however, are not so intentional - and obviously it is time for some examination and re-evaluation.

Since one of my "creative" rules is to find a water connection for each of these musings, I'll share this mental metaphor with you.  Habits are like dams on a river.  They can generate power and regulate flow but they can also cause flooding upstream if they are too high or too inflexible when the rains come. 

I'd like to hear your thoughts on habits and rules. . . so please, jump in and leave a comment!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Of dogs and children and kingdoms. . .

It’s the dog days of summer and “Rex-the-Wonder-Dog” has come for his annual visit. Rex’s summer care was originally my younger daughter’s job and when she left for college I let him keep coming because he’s such a marvelous animal. Last night, he and I watched a fantastic special on PBS called Through a Dog’s Eyes. The program is about service dogs and is both fascinating and inspiring.

The creator of the film, Jennifer Arnold, clearly loves dogs, and she loves people enough to breed, train and match dogs with children and adults who need service animals. The skills the dogs can learn, and the intuition they exhibit with their owners, is phenomenal.  The publicity for the show claims it will make you see your own dog in a whole new way, and, while Rex is only my dog for a couple of weeks, after watching it, I have to acknowledge some of his more “spiritual” qualities.

First I must commend his UNCONDITIONAL LOVE. Every day when I return from work I am greeted with joy. When I take the garbage out and return in 5 minutes, I get the same greeting. I feel like the most important person in the world when I walk through the door. I have done nothing to deserve this joyous welcome but he gives it unsparingly, with his whole being.

Another admirable Rex quality is a FORGIVING HEART. Yesterday I sent him away with a loud and annoyed voice as I was getting ready for work. It was clear as he departed that I had really hurt his feelings. Yet, when I emerged, clean and dressed, he greeted me as if I’d never spoken harshly to him at all.

Rex is also totally AUTHENTIC. He asks for exactly what he wants: scratching on the kitchen wall means “my bowl is empty”, scratching on the door means “I need to relieve myself” and head-butting means “Hey, I need a little attention here!” When he has been on the couch he acts guilty – truly a dog without guile.

You may be wondering what all this has to do with children or faith.  Well, children also love us unconditionally, forgive us when we fail them and are totally authentic. Studies have shown that children from even the worst possible homes still love their parents. Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he said “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10) I think the kingdom of God is far simpler than we "mature Christians" want it to be. If children get it, then what makes it difficult must be something within us, and not part of the kingdom itself. Is it possible that we complicate things just to make ourselves more important in the equation?

Maybe what we really need to do to be the children Jesus describes is to stop looking at ourselves, and our needs, and focus on the good and gracious giver of all. When I consider everything that God has done for me,  I am overcome with wonder. And I think that’s what goes on in Rex’s mind when he looks at me: “She feeds me.  She opens that door – I love her!”  Likewise, children look at adults and are always aware of everything we can do that they can’t – “She can drive a car! She can swim! She knows when I’m getting into something I shouldn’t!” – and they love us, enough to want to be us.

Although I only get Rex for two weeks a year, and my own children are grown, I get to spend time with children nearly every day.  With their unconditional love they give me a little window into the kingdom, and I am truly blessed!  And - in case the jury is still out for you - I think that all dogs DO go to heaven!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Hold fast to the steadfast

I feel like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz today: “My goodness! People come and go so quickly here!” In just the past few days I’ve experienced:

• a visit with my daughter and her husband,
• the arrival of a bevy of day camp counselors,
• the death of a friend’s father,
• the departure of some college students usually in my orbit,
• people returning from vacation
• people leaving for vacation,
• the arrival of a new co-worker,
• the end of one camp and the start of another,
• a visiting dog
• the unexpected gift of an orchid lei from across the ocean.

I wonder what effect all this coming and going has on all of us. It is exciting, to be sure. Is it healthy? I’m not certain – but it must be at least as healthy as never going anywhere! It certainly helps us be aware, and appreciate, that only God is steadfast.

People come, people go; I come and go, but God is ever steadfast. My time zone, or state, or continent is of no consequence to God. Like air, like water, God is simply there. Never sleeping, never traveling, never absent nor away, God waits, steadfastly, for me to notice.

If we look for God, like sailors navigating by the stars, wherever we may find ourselves, we can orient ourselves by looking for God. In this crazy tornado of a week I have spotted God in so many places:

• in the sun rising over the lake
• in the passionate heart of a young person
• in the unconditional love of a child (and a dog)
• in kindnesses shown between people
• in the forgiveness of my sins
• in the synergy of a group of people at work
• in the stubborn grasp of a flower growing through a crack in a rock
• in the music of the blues mass
• in the words on the page of a good book

Like the star that our planet revolves around, God is always there. Though I may spin on my own axis and experience periods of light and dark – God is steadfast, God is light, and God is my home where ever I may be. And, to quote Dorothy Gale a second time, “There’s no place like home”.

After tornados or travels or travails, come home. The steadfast One waits.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Still Waters

A long time ago a wise person challenged me to spend the first 5 minutes of every car trip in silence. What would you think about if the radio weren't on? It seems such a small thing but it creates an oasis of silence in the middle of the noisy world. In that silence I can hear what I'm really thinking. I can hear the still, small voice of God. And I rest.

Being still is a skill that can be practiced, and with practice, learned. It can be taught to children, even those who are very young. It is invaluable, and more important than it has ever been because there are is so much noise demanding our attention. In his book Crazy Busy: Overbooked, Overstretched and About to Snap, Dr. Edward Hallowell talks about the barrage of stimuli that people are subjected to every day. He believes there is a kind of acquired attention deficit disorder emerging as a result of all the stimulation we recieve. As I read this book I realized that there is no way to immunize our kids against noise. The best we can do is protect them with "noise screens" the same way we apply sunscreen to their skin. One way to do this is to teach them to be still.

If you already have a quiet time each day you are well aware of the benefits of quiet and positioned to share stillness with others. If you don't, begin as I did, with 5 minutes in the car. This isn't really stillness, your mind remains occupied with operating the vehicle, watching the traffic, etc. but it's a change that at least partially frees your mind. From there, extend the number of minutes or miles with no noise and observe yourself to see if you are changing. As you get more comfortable with silence, try taking it out of the car. At home, I find it helpful to pray first and empty my thoughts out so that there is room in my head for God.

To teach stillness to children you may have to start with periods as short as a minute. The first step is no talking. Then, you may also have to help still individual parts of the body. "Make your feet still; make your hands still: make your legs still." As with adults, car time provides a good place to start. Take advantage of the relative immobility created by a car seat and also wait 5 minutes to turn on that movie! Bedtime practice can also be fruitful and has the side benefit of providing your child with self-calming techniques.

Think about your language. My mom once overheard a young mother telling her child to be silent, instead of quiet. Mom commented that she had never thought about how different these two instructions are. Being silent goes much further than being quiet. Likewise, being still goes further than being quiet, or even silent. Being still involves your whole body, and your whole mind. It probably doesn't matter what you call it - but it probably does matter that you are consistent and differentiate between the words.

So why pursue stillness? I am drawn to these words from the Psalms: "Be still and know that I am God" (46) and "He leads me beside still waters; He restores my soul" (23). I pursue stillness because it restores my soul to the place where it is possible to hear God. May you also find still waters in the midst of your noisy world..

Friday, July 16, 2010

Clean Hands

Late again - blame it on Daily Bread Cooking Camp. Twice each summer I lead a week-long cooking camp at my church for children of various ages. This week I had the littlest campers - 6, 7 and 8-year-olds. What a week we've had! Grand adventures in the kitchen, Bible studies that added new spice to old, familiar stories, and lots of laughter around the tables as we ate what we cooked.

There are a number of water connections I could make - today we boiled water, used ice to make ice cream and watered the little garden we're tending for the Sunday School. Yesterday we visited Boggy Creek Farm and saw many drip irrigation lines which prompted the comment "only the roots get thirsty - like your mouth" from a knowledgeable 7 year old. Oh, I could tell a dozen stories but the thing that has me thinking this week is hand-washing.

On Monday morning, after we pray, the very first thing we do is learn an important safety tip that helps us to keep everyone safe in the kitchen: always cook with clean hands. We line up and wash with soap for as long as it takes to sing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" at normal speed and then rinse, dry and go to our cooking stations. If a camper touches anyone else, or his or her own face, hair or ears, the camper is sent back to wash hands again. It's a little bit like Chutes and Ladders - back to the beginning with almost no notice. The kids police each other and somehow, my youth helpers managed to make everyone feel like it was okay to go back to the sink again and again. One budding cook came to me to report another camper's hair-touching-violation and enthusiastically demonstrated the scope of said violation by running her fingers through her own hair. When I pointed out that now she had to go wash her hands again she almost collapsed from laughing at herself. This is grace - to know that forgiveness is coming even as we commit the sin.

I think I'm going to try to live like my little camper and rid myself of "germs". I'm going to figuratively wash my hands in the baptismal font every time I catch myself in violation of the cardinal rule of loving God and loving neighbor. Instead of beating myself up, spending endless hours trying to figure out how to undo some thoughtless moment of insensitivity or neglect, or making deals with God to mitigate my guilt, I am going to go and wash my hands. I am going to make right what I can fix, tell God about my germs and then wash my hands in the waters of baptism and make a soapy sign of the cross on my forehead to remind myself that I am forgiven.

And I believe I'll sing as I row my boat gently down the stream of God's unlimited forgiveness:

Jesus loves me! He who died, Heaven's gates to open wide.
He will wash away my sin,
let each little child come in!
Yes! Jesus Loves ME!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Raining Mercy

I arrived at work in the gentlest of rain showers this morning; it was wetter than mist but just barely rain. Both air and water were warm and I could have cheerfully stayed out in it until I was soaked. It was fitting weather for my mental meanderings about mercy.

I was thinking about the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) because it's the lesson for this Sunday. Usually, when I think or talk about this lesson, I go straight to the "who is my neighbor?" question. This time, for some reason, what jumped out at me was the answer to that question, which is, "the one who showed him mercy". So, I got to thinking about mercy.

One of the first things to pop into my head was Portia's monologue from Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice . It's a lovely passage, memorized by earnest 8th graders all over America in my day. Remember the bard's great words? "The quality of mercy is not strain'd, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes."

So, in the rain this morning I found myself again thinking about mercy. I understood mercy so well as a child! Life was consistent for me and I knew the rules and the consequences and so when I was spared a deserved consequence I recognized mercy. In those situations mercy looked a lot like forgiveness or grace. Other times, it was a peer helping me bridge the gap of being the new kid - offering me a place at the lunch table or supplying an introduction to a teacher or student. In those situations, mercy was closer to kindness. In both cases though, the forgiveness or the kindness, mercy was not asked for by me nor coerced from the giver.

In the Good Samaritan story we are told that the Samaritan was moved by pity. I think that's why a parent revokes a well-deserved punishment or a child befriends a new kid at school - they are moved. Maybe pity isn't the best word. Other translations and paraphrases of the story say things like "his heart went out to him" or "he had compassion". That fits closer with my own experience and understanding of mercy but I really want to hang on to the idea that we are MOVED to be merciful. I think that is why it blesses us to show mercy - that impulse is a small encounter with God.

And then here's the part that could keep me standing outside in the rain for a long time - as soon as I start TRYING to be merciful I don't think that what I give will be mercy. It might be forgiveness, and it might be kindness, but it won't be mercy. I'm pretty sure I can only do mercy when God is working through me.

So mercy falls as gentle rain from heaven; may we be moved to mercy often. And if the spirit moves you - go out and play in the rain with some kids!

Friday, July 2, 2010

White Water Rafting

Sorry I'm late this week. I just returned from a conference for young leaders. It was energizing to see all the passion in these young people. One of the daily Bible studies there challenged us to take "divine risks". As we discussed the Samaritan woman at the well (see John 4) we realized that she not only took a risk by speaking to Jesus, she took an even bigger risk by telling everyone in her town about the encounter. The study was well done and many people took some big risks by entrusting other people with their stories.

The biggest water risk I've ever taken (intentionally anyway) was some pretty tame white water rafting in North Carolina. In fact, my biggest risk was letting my girls, who were in high school at the time, use kayaks instead of joining me and the other parents and younger children on the raft. While it was a fairly tame stretch of river, it had enough rapids to generate a thrill or two and one of our passengers went over the side into the drink. The guides took the raft through ahead of the kayaks so we were able to watch the kids come through various chutes and currents. The excitement, pride and joy evident on their faces was worth every minute of my fear. As the old saying goes, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained applies to faith as well. If I only trust God for what I can do myself, I'm not really trusting God. During that Bible study we were asked to share a time we took a "divine risk". The risk story I shared was small, but it yielded a big step in faith for me. I'm sure some of you have heard me tell it, so forgive the repeat.

A long time ago, when I was a single mom stretched pretty thin to make ends meet, I began working toward tithing - a practice I respected but hadn't practiced for a long time. I started at 1% and began working forward as I was able. I believe I had reached a point around 4% when something nudged me to try to do more. I decided to write a check equal to my FICA withholding (7.85% at the time - nearly double what my budget said I could manage) every payday and see how many weeks I could stretch that far. And guess what! God supplied what my little family needed - whether it was self-discipline or some real thing. God's power grew before my very eyes in this experiment. I never had to cut back to the 4% I believed I could manage. It was a wonderful gain from a simple venture.

As parents we work hard to keep our children safe from the whitewater of life. It's easy to set things up so that they rely on us, or themselves, rather than on God. We feel safer if they don't venture too far or reach too high. We encourage them to embrace risks we know aren't very risky. We hold them back because we are afraid for them. We need to be reminded that God is there in our risk taking and carries us forward even we're not in control of the raft. And, best of all, God will multiply faith with every risk taken.

Go ahead! Climb into the raft - God's in the water and there's a big adventure ahead for those who'll risk it!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Rainforest Adventure

Back again and no rant this week. This week I want to extol the joys and virtues of Vacation Bible School (VBS). I'm not entirely certain who benefits more from this time-worn tradition: kids or leaders. At my congregation we are in the midst of a Rainforest Adventure that is taking us to visit some of Jesus' parables in ways appropriate to the 3-year-old newbie through the jaded 5th-grader. It's so interesting to see what really resonates with them. Today, I'm afraid the visiting snakes will probably get more headlines than Jesus but I know that, in spite of the snakes, we are planting seeds deep in the hearts of these kids.

Some time back I was at a conference that required, for some forgotten reason, late nights and early mornings driving back and forth to Seguin, TX (home of Texas Lutheran University). We were tasked with recording our spiritual development time line. After baptism, the first thing on my time line was a song I learned at VBS. My parents told me I sang it in my sleep for a week after it was over. "Oh who can make a flower, I'm sure I can't can you?" As I worked on my time line (in the car) I realized that the spiritual a-ha moments of my life had a soundtrack and that learning songs was an important part of my faith development. The list included children's songs like "Jesus Loves Me" and "Raindrops" and continued through "Faith of Our Fathers", the first song where I got to sing the alto part, all the way back in 4th grade. James Taylor's "Fire & Rain" along with an entire musical called "Tell It Like It Is" plus a plethora of sacred and secular social justice songs marked my high school years.

As I grew in faith (and musical skill and exposure) I found that God could speak, not only through hymns, but also through the lyrics of popular music and even through purely instrumental music. God sings, from pipe organs, hand flutes, orchestras, ceremonial drums and lone violins. With the birth of my children I rediscovered "Jesus Loves Me" and a host of other children's songs and experienced simple faith from an adult perspective. The downward slide of Je-e-e-sus in a country church rendition of "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" at my grandmother's funeral reminded me of where remembered parts of my faith journey started - at that very first VBS.

My mother wove powerful faith statements into the fabric of my life by humming as she worked through her day. Her mother taught me a Christmas Carol in Norwegian. My father told me, in the last year of his life, that he had always imagined it would be scripture that carried him through the most difficult days but he was surprised to find that it was snatches of song that comforted him. Words learned half a century before now rang with truth to comfort him. I am blessed to have a musical legacy of faith.

Life continues and new music discovered on Sunday mornings has moved me forward. Over the past 10 years, through the committed global approach to God of my friend Carol, I have learned to see God through the eyes of many cultures. From the Central American communion song "Let us go now to the banquet, to the feast of the universe" to the amazing rhythms of African tribal worship - God is made manifest as I internalize song.

For today, though you may be really sick and tired of listening to VBS music as you drive around town, know that your child's faith is being formed and you are fulfilling your baptismal promises. And to you, my contemporaries, who are already engaged in, or approaching, grandparent-hood, think over your own story. Sing your songs to any child who will listen and sing along; for we also make promises every time a child is baptized.

Music may be like the rain forest; never quiet, seeping into our pores, wet enough to change our souls and our hearts. A magnificent forest, filled with power and majesty and tiny, and delightful, surprises; grace notes, I guess.

Go out and get soaked in the rainforest!

Pitter-patter, pitter-patter, hear the little raindrops,
Splash, Splash, Splash, Splash, hear the big raindrops.
God is sending showers for the flowers and the grass,
God is sending showers, Pitter-patter SPLASH!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Oil and water do not mix

I guess I can't write a blog about water and wind without addressing the disaster happening in the Gulf of Mexico. What is there to say about the oil spill? How do we explain this to children who are tender-hearted enough to care about ugly pelicans and uncommunicative oysters? What can we possibly say? Children get in trouble for making a mess by knocking over their milk. Parents lose it over ketchup on a white t-shirt. Why is there is so little outrage over a mess of epic proportions that can't be fixed with a paper towel or a little Spray-n-wash?

When my kids were at the milk spilling age, I was hyper-vigilant at mealtimes, watching for milk glasses that were teetering on the edge of a placemat or within range of enthusiastic gesturing or just in the path of a logically anticipated reach. I did this so that they could avoid making the mess, making me angry, being embarrassed, and wasting the milk. Later, when they reached the potentially blood spilling age of early driver's license, I reminded every teen-aged driver they rode with that I was entrusting them with "precious cargo". The warnings were tailored to individual drivers - ranging from the simple reminder that they were carrying precious cargo, to threats of haunting them forever if they hurt my child by being careless with her in the car. This was often embarrassing (or hilarious, depending on the circumstances) to my daughters, but they emerged from that phase without a scratch and I like to think my admonitions may have planted some safety seeds in fledgling drivers.

For 30 years I have recycled cans and glass. I used cloth diapers in hopes of leaving my kids a world where they wouldn't be buried in dirty pampers. Every one of my cars has been chosen with its gas mileage in mind and my carbon footprint is small enough to be downright un-American. I've probably bought less than 25 tanks of gas from Exxon since the Valdez incident in 1989. And now this. What was the point? I can't control the future. Thanks to events in the Gulf, no matter what I do for the rest of my life, my girls are going to inherit a much dirtier planet than they deserve. Their garden, their playground, their whole planet is befouled and I am outraged.

I am looking for grace in this. Trying to play Pollyanna's "Glad Game" and find something to be thankful for in the midst of this. Surely the magnitude of this will change something. . . surely this will serve as a wake-up call. . . surely we will not let this happen again. . . I'm listening to the news and I'm not hearing anything that gives me hope.

I haven't been diligent about inviting comments from readers but I hope you will chime in on this. I really want to know what you think - and if you can throw me a bit of wisdom or a hopeful word I would be especially grateful.

Today's not a good day to jump in, the water's dirty!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

New Places to Swim

I had lunch at the Walnut Room at Macy's in Chicago on Monday. It's a restaurant in the original Marshall Fields store and it's been there since 1907. The building is nearly twice as old as I am. Our waitress suggested we order the 103-year-old pot pie (which definitely took us aback for a minute!) Two people at the table, whose ages added together do not equal mine, ordered, consumed and enjoyed the ancient recipe. We covered a myriad of topics over a 3-hour lunch and I marveled at these young people and how the world looks to them.

The spatial proportions of their lives are distinct from mine: the height of the buildings, the distances they commute, how long it takes to get from point A to point B and how much time they spend calculating that. How far ahead they plan - 5 minutes in some areas and 5 years in others. So much is instant that it makes many things possible - but also creates in them an appreciation for things that can only happen over long stretches of time.

The future looks different to them than it did to me at their age. They do not seem to dream pipe dreams; instead they carefully construct their plans. They want to be financially secure enough not to worry, but they want to do work that is both interesting and meaningful. They don't seem to believe they can change the world but they are willing to try and influence the sector they know.

One of the things I most loved and admired about these young people, but struggled to understand, is the way they can hold different positions on significant matters and not be uncomfortable with each other. There is something very Christ-like about the way they interact with one another, without judgement or shaming but with simple acceptance and appreciation. Perhaps because they have experienced the world so broadly (whether actually or virtually) they have come early to a place where they can accept that what is true for me may not be true for you.

Home from my adventure I turned to the recurring task of preparing for Bible study only to find that in the text (Luke 7) for this coming Sunday Jesus tells the parable of two people who were forgiven their debts; one a large debt, one a small one. Then he poses the question "Which one loved [the lender] more?" Clearly, how it looks and how one feels are related to where you are and what you've experienced. Jesus didn't say, or even imply, that they should love the lender equally. He simply pointed out that their circumstances would affect their response . I think my young people are on to something!

I know my customary swimming hole very well. I have recognized a lot of "truths" that help me enjoy it. I need to remember that local knowledge may not serve me as well in the Atlantic Ocean or the Nile River or whatever body of water others inhabit. I'm so glad I swam in a different pool this week! I feel energized, encouraged, excited and empowered.

Go ahead, try out a new pool and see how the world looks from the top of a wave or the bottom of a waterfall! It will change the way you love.

Friday, May 28, 2010

A Cup of Water

May and June seem to be the peak seasons of hospitality. As I write this at least a dozen people I know are getting ready to host parties for graduations, weddings, Memorial Day cookouts, or friends and family coming for a visit now that summer has arrived. About a hundred more, like me, are buying gifts, making side dishes or packing suitcases in preparation for being guests.

Many years ago, on a visit to an infamous mansion where a murder had occurred, I learned that the pineapple is the universal symbol of hospitality. Later, on visits to many other famous and infamous mansions, plantations and castles this theme was repeated. Other journeys led me to St. Benedict who included the practice of hospitality in his Rule for his followers. "Let everyone that comes be received as Christ" is one of the most familiar and oft-quoted phrases of the Rule. Hospitality for Benedictines means that everyone who comes — the poor, the traveler, the curious, those not of our religion or social standing or education — should be received with genuine acceptance.

Perhaps the most common practice of hospitality is the phrase "can I get you something to drink?" When I lived in Minnesota and other cold places this meant the coffee was on. Here in Texas the most offered drink is iced tea. Whatever the drink, the intention is clear. When someone says to me "can I get you something to drink" they are really saying "you are welcome here and I care about your well-being."

So what is the mark of true hospitality? I think it's a simple cup of water. There is nothing more vital to human life than water. Isn't this is so like God - to freely supply what we need for the welcoming of others? Supplying what we need to enter into relationship? I will freely give a cup of water to someone I would be reluctant to invite to my table. Yet, in the giving of the water I am affirming that person's value and my concern for my neighbor's well-being . Jesus said "when I was thirsty you gave me water" and his followers responded "when did we see you thirsty and give you water?" He replies "whatever you have done for the least of these, you have done for me". What a lovely, simple way to love God and neighbor - when they are thirsty, give them a drink.

If you live, as I do, in a city with homeless people who stand at busy intersections with signs asking for food, work, money or rides, you may really struggle with hospitality. The homeless make you feel helpless, inadequate, sad, and guilty. You often wish they would go away. It's hard to explain their presence to your children who still have the natural hospitality most kids possess. Maybe we should start with water. Put a case of water bottles in the trunk of the car and keep a couple inside to hand out the window. It's a decent, kind, helpful, and hospitable thing to do.

We all get thirsty. We're all human. We all need the water, and the welcome.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Path of Least Resistance

Someone told me recently that when she visited the Grand Canyon the ranger who described the formation process of the canyon said “Water is lazy; it always takes the path of least resistance.” I laughed out loud when I heard this because thinking of carving the Grand Canyon by taking the path of least resistance is a delightful irony! Yet look at what the water has done by simply going where it can! What if the path of least resistance is the path God is calling me to follow?

This is an almost incomprehensible thought. We are so indoctrinated to the concept of goal setting and hard work that we actually resist doing things that are easy. Instead of celebrating, and investing time in the things that come naturally or call out to us, we tend to work harder at the things that don't come naturally to us. Bookstores now have entire sections devoted to self-improvement. What if the creator made us for something specific and gave us the gifts we need to do it?

As parents, we reflexively focus on the single B on a report card studded with A's instead of whooping for joy at the child's great achievement. We make a note to pay more attention to the homework from the class with the B instead of looking to see which subject had the highest A and asking our child to tell us about it. What if we sent them to summer camps to celebrate their gifts more often than we sent them to tutoring to shore up their weak spots? Would that look more like unconditional love?

Our incessant striving to improve is caused by our inability to comprehend infinity. We can’t see ourselves as infinite. We see ourselves as finite, with beginnings, middles and ends like TV shows or short stories. We can’t see God’s love as infinite. We think our only opportunity to achieve or serve or matter is through the things we do within the span of our life on earth. And, we want tackle projects that allow us to see them finished. I suspect that most of the important stuff we set in motion will not come to fruition within our lifetime. Who knows what contribution our children's children will make? Who knows what the consequence of a simple act of kindness will be? God only knows. Only God knows. And only God knows what my path is and where it will go. Perhaps God draws us toward our paths by making them places we want to go; places where life is joy and work is pleasure and where we meet less resistance?

The Grand Canyon was formed over the last 40 million years and continues changing to this day. Could God's path for me also be the path of least resistance? Jump in. Let the breath and water of God carry you along the path of least resistance for a spell.

Friday, May 14, 2010

To Live Among. . .

This week I was struck by the phrase "live among God's faithful people" in the baptismal and confirmation liturgies of my denomination. "To live among" is different than "to live with" isn't it?

Those with whom we live form us. Our values, assumptions, skills, and responses were mostly formed by the people we lived with as children. Our circumstances were shared; our observations of cause and effect parallel. We loved the same people and knew the same places. We shared a world view.

The people who we live among, on the other hand, re-form us. They challenge our values and assumptions. They rank our skills on a different scale and make us wonder why we respond to certain stimuli in particular ways. They love different people and different landscapes. They have had different experiences and see the world differently because of them. This broadens our perspective and re-forms our vision of the world.

I think this is a good thing. My family of origin was an exceptionally loving place. It has taken me a lifetime to realize that not everyone was so fortunate. On the other hand, unlike most of my peers, I never lived anywhere where I could go to school with cousins or other relatives. Still, most of the people my family lived among welcomed us into their lives and made us part of their community. When I moved to Austin as a 20-something I learned to better appreciate living among God's faithful people.

Austin, unlike the small towns of my childhood, did not welcome me just because I was someone new. In fact, in 1982 people were driving around with bumper stickers that said "Thanks for visiting, now go home" and "Native Texan". I didn't feel like I was living among, I felt as if I were living outside some charmed circle. There was little southern hospitality extended - even some of the churches I visited were unwelcoming. It was an unsettling experience.

Then one Sunday I walked into the congregation that became my place to live among God's faithful people. It was friendly but not desperate. I was allowed to settle in at my own pace and find my own niche. When my children were born I promised to help them live among God's faithful people; and I did. For more than 25 years I have had my assumptions challenged, my perspective changed, and my world-view broadened by God's faithful people.

I am remarkably re-formed by this experience because living among doesn't mean just brushing shoulders with others. It means living connected: comparing our stories, lightening each others burdens, celebrating and sorrowing together, and building a collection of shared experiences. It means arguing about God's intended messages in scripture and gathering together at table like a family. It means being God's faithful people to other children from other families.

We don't send our children to go swimming without a buddy. We know that they are safer swimming with friends. Likewise, we shouldn't send them out to test their faith alone. Even as we are forming their values we need to bring them to live among God's faithful people and be re-formed. They'll swim more safely in their baptismal waters if they aren't swimming alone.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Swimming Against the Current

Lately I've been swimming against the current. While most people are winding down toward a more relaxed summer schedule, I have been gearing up for the equivalent of retail at Christmas-time. This is the cycle of my job and while it is challenging, it is also invigorating. . . a personal challenge that comes with a huge sense of accomplishment. Nevertheless, I'm going against the current; and some days the current forces me backwards or knocks me off my feet. It's tiring.

It's interesting to think about the ways we respond to the currents. Some people try to always "go with the flow". Others think that going against the "flow" is the only meaningful way to live life. Still others think the most important thing is to stand in one place, to be an immovable object that water flows around. There are even some people who just decide not to get in the water. (I have to add a quick tip for parents here: think about which category your child fits into and compare it to your own. You may discover a whole new way to understand your relationship!)

Whatever your natural inclination may be, the water will always prevail against you. You can go with the flow but eventually, you'll get stuck in an eddy and go nowhere. You can fight against the current for a time, but you will always tire before the current does. Digging in doesn't work, the very ground beneath your feet will erode as you plant yourself. Even staying on the bank is no guarantee - rivers rage, hurricanes blow, banks collapse and you're right in the water with everyone else.

The water will always prevail, but we can rely on, even call on, the one who prevails against the water. On behalf of Moses and the crowd who accompanied him on the exodus, God first turned a river to blood, then parted the Red Sea, and later caused water to flow from a rock. Water, while inevitably stronger than humans, can be harnessed by God.

God harnessed water and comes to us as living water. We are baptized in water and spirit and given eternal life. So float, swim upstream, plant your feet in the mud or just stay on the bank. . . God can prevail over the waters. . . and will. . . just ask!