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!