Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Waiting Season

When my girls were small we had a favorite waiting-for-Christmas tradition: a fabric “calendar” with a little stuffed mouse that moved forward one pocket each night. Even when they were old enough to have cell phones and day planners we hung up that calendar. It was a fun and meaningful way for them to mark the passage of time. The church has designated this waiting-for-Christmas period as the season of Advent, a season of waiting. Advent is filled with texts about the coming of the Savior, and the coming-again of the Savior. It is not a passive sit back and wait – it is an active, waiting-and-watching season of life.

I spent two Advent seasons “great with child.” Pregnancy is the epitome of active waiting: preparation for an unknown but beloved person to arrive, preparation for the needs of the tiny guest and all those affected by her birth, and watching for signs of her imminent arrival. Evaluating every twitch, itch and tickle, watching for the labor pains that would deliver her to this world. Alert, watchful, making preparations, it was Advent come to life. 

In the instant culture of the 21st century, waiting is rare, and most of us don't know how to wait well. I have been driving a lot the last couple of weeks and in at least 4 states I saw signs for hospital emergency rooms with “approximate wait times” displayed in digital lights that changed with circumstances in the ER. More and more babies are induced or delivered by C-section at a time mutually convenient for doctor and mother. Kindles and Nooks make waiting for the library to open, or for Amazon to ship, a thing of the past. Waiting has become so uncommon that last week's Facebook status updates featured a lot of comments about traffic, lines and waiting – because it was unusual.

In the end, we are all waiting for the great unknowable visitor - death, whose arrival cannot be predicted, but there is a more immediately relevant reason for deliberately teaching our children to wait: it is good for them. Many years ago a study found that the ability to wait, to delay gratification, was a significant predictor of future success (measured by normal, American standards such as getting a job, finishing school, forming lasting relationships,etc.) Check out this clip from a recent repeat of The Marshmallow Test.

Can your child wait? Can you help him learn to wait? Since there is so much to wait for with Christmas coming, this is a natural time to practice.  Practice the old swimming rule of thumb - wait for 30 minutes after eating. Remember how endless that seemed? Yet all the time it was helping us learn to wait. Try meeting a “Can I” question with “I have to think about it; I will tell you in 30 minutes” or, “we'll talk about it after you've finished your homework/chores/project.” If your children have had very limited waiting experience, this may prove difficult for them, but you will be blessing them for life.

Welcome to the Waiting Season, your estimated wait time is 24 days. . .

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Gratitude Season

Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the appreciation season. From now until the end of the year I will open my mailbox and find cards: from charities I've given to, my car dealership, and probably Groupons, all thanking me for the money I spent with them this year. And I will be making cards and baking for people I appreciate: the woman who cuts my hair, the maintenance guys where I live, friends who've done me special kindnesses this year. There will be a lot of appreciation flowing for the next five weeks. This is good.

Appreciation expresses who we are and what we like; what makes us happy. Gratitude, on the other hand, profoundly changes who we are and how we see and, I guess, what we appreciate. This year I find myself grateful for something I have always merely appreciated: water.

My grandparents lived within the limits of their cistern. If the cistern went dry they had to buy water and fill it. They didn't know the plentiful water that we take for granted until very near the ends of their lives. Their gratitude for water, though never verbalized, was evident in the way they handled it. Water rarely went down the drain. It was used and later returned to the earth. Hand washing was accomplished in a basin of water that grew cold as the day went on, and when it became too dirty to clean your hands, was dumped on trees. Water was scarce; scarcity made it precious.

Water has been scarce in my part of the world this year. We are experiencing a drought on par with the one during the dust bowl. Stage two restrictions are in place: No water in restaurants unless requested. You can't water your yard more than once a week. Cars can only be washed at car washes that recycle a certain percentage of the water used. We are encouraged to turn off the water when we brush our teeth, and to use our toilets more often without flushing. This is a far cry from the scarcity of my grandparent's situation, but a significant change for many of us.

Scarce as it is, water is also common. It is our first home – before we are even born water in a womb cushions us, cradles us, and nourishes us as we grow. The waters of baptism become our second home, marking us with the cross of Christ and sealing our identity as children of God forever. Tears allow us to release our deepest joys and sorrows. My body is more than 50% water. None of us can survive very long without it. In that, all of us are one. The need for water may be the most unifying of all human qualities.

Much has been written about the power of gratitude. From monks in the Middle Ages to Oprah Winfrey, thoughtful people have pointed out that being grateful changes us. Gratitude shapes our attitudes and impacts our choices. It creates awareness and empathy. Moving from appreciation to gratitude is movement toward God.

I am grateful for water this Thanksgiving; for its scarcity and its commonness. That gratitude allows me to encounter the sacred many times each day. Sacred water points me to the creator, provider, and redeemer of all. Thanks be to God.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Serving Season

Serving food, serving drinks, serving the hungry in soup kitchens, and serving our neighbors are regular hallmarks of the "extreme season." All around the church and community people are lining up volunteers and asking for donations of money,  gift cards, time, and patience. At home, this may begin to take a toll if your heart is bigger than your available hours or dollars. I remember a lot of years where I was just plain mad all through the holidays because I felt like a failure on every front - everyone needed more from me than I had to give. I used to think this was because I was a single parent on a tight budget but I have since learned that almost everyone feels this way at some point during the holidays. Here are a few things I figured out along the way:
  • Start by deciding how much money you will give ahead of time and then, as a family, DECIDE where you'll give it. Some families pick one thing and stick with it year after year but others like to mix it up and give to a lot of places. Your family members may not all agree so you may have to divide the budgeted funds between several causes. That discussion will be almost as rewarding as the giving. Depending on the ages and temperaments of your children there may be spirited debates over the merits of buying dog food for the animal shelter or toys for children whose parents are in prison. People may get passionate but that's OK - it's for a good cause!
  • Choose ONE actual hands on service project. Giving money is very helpful to recipients but less valuable to your children who really won't fully grasp the giving of money until they have earned some themselves. If your children are very small, substitute for a Meals-On-Wheels driver and take them along. Take older kids to wrap gifts at Blue Santa, help an elderly neighbor put up a tree or some lights, or serve dinner  at a soup kitchen. Wherever you serve, serve together.
  • Find a way to participate at church. Welcome guests, make cookies for the choir members who will sing multiple services on Christmas Eve, help carry all those poinsettias into the church - or offer to deliver them to shut-ins after the Christmas Day services. Check to see if someone could use a ride to church. Sing in the choir or play in the orchestra. Even offer to stay and lock up the building after the last service! Take some of your baking to a family who has had health issues or recently lost a loved one. Serving at church helps reinforce for your kids that it's really all about THE BABY.
  • Don't do things you, or your family, resent. If traveling to see relatives is more chore than joy - stay home! Go another time when you can enjoy it more.  Hate sending Christmas cards but want to stay in touch? Send a New Year's letter or a valentine or write a generic letter that can be sent with birthday cards.
I think it's easy to feel like you're in a rubber raft about to go over a waterfall as the holidays approach but try not to lose sight of the countless blessings in your life and the baby in the manger.  Holding those things at the center can help you float a little more gently down the holiday river.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Extreme Season

Not everything your child learns is taught.  Much of what they learn is absorbed through their environment.  We say it all the time - they are just little sponges!  They soak up everything, good and bad alike.  I bring this up now because we are about to enter the "extreme" season.

What we idealize as the season of love and joy can often be absorbed very differently by our children.  For pre-schoolers it is the time of year when they are left with a babysitter more often, when they are told not to touch more often, when nap times and play times and mealtimes and bedtimes become erratic.  Elementary-aged kids will be out of school, with no homework.   Their schedule will be disrupted and they will see less of their friends.  They may watch more television and get inundated with advertising, creating wants they didn't know they had.  High school kids are similarly disrupted and may be saddled with errands, chores, or care of younger siblings.  They may find you expecting them to be adults.  Your college kids are coming home to find that their friends have changed, their favorite hang-out has been redecorated, and a younger sibling has moved into their room.  They may be longing to tell you all about their life away from home but find you too tired to listen at 11pm, when they want to talk.

I will state the obvious here: As you approach the extreme season, begin with the end in mind.  As with all things related to your children, you have to figure out what your desired outcome is.  When Christmas comes again I want my children to remember ___________.

I wanted my kids to have church and the baby Jesus at the center of their memories.  I wanted them to learn the joy of giving. And I was even clearer about what I didn't want them to remember: visits to a fake Santa at the mall, enough consumer goods to fill a yacht, disappointment because they didn't get this year's "must have" toy.  Those desires ordered our days leading up to Christmas.  (It was still never as calm and loving and gentle as my dreams but that probably has something to do with my overall approach to life, which is usually loving - but rarely calm or gentle.)

Before the extreme season sets in, take a little time and look over your master plan through the eyes of your children.  Like getting down on the floor and looking at things from your baby's perspective, you might be startled at what you will discover.  Sit down with your children, physically or electronically, and ask them what their favorite Christmas traditions and memories are. Listen, really listen, and then 'ponder these things in your heart' like a certain Christmas mother.  You might even be able to upgrade the season from "extreme" to joyful!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Why, but why?

One of my least admirable qualities is a tendency to answer the question I assume you are asking me, instead of the one you really asked.  There are many factors that contributed to this bad habit, but I am making no excuses and trying to overcome it.  As I struggle with this I have noticed something: I don't do this with kids, only with adults.

When I train adults to work with kids I repeat what someone taught me: that I can't read a child's mind. I always tell the same joke, because it completely exemplifies our tendency to do this:
“Daddy, where did I come from?” the seven-year-old asked. It was a moment for which her parents had carefully prepared. They took her into the living room, got out the encyclopedia and several other books, and explained all they thought she should know about sexual attraction, affection, love, and reproduction. Then they both sat back and smiled contentedly.
“Does that answer your question?” her father asked.
“Not really,” the little girl said. “Judy said she came from Detroit. I want to know where I came from.”
These parents clearly didn't answer the question being asked.  I wonder how many times I have done that to adults!

Today I was reading a blog and a woman commented "When questions are asked, they need to be received in love and curiosity; otherwise it can shut one down."  I loved this remark.  We need to RECEIVE rather than anticipate questions.  We need to receive them in LOVE AND CURIOSITY.  I think this is easier for me to do with children because I respect the fact that they are still learning.  Maybe I believe adults should already know, or be able to figure things out.  I need to learn to listen to everyone's questions with love and curiosity. Otherwise it can SHUT THEM DOWN.  I must confess that sometimes that's exactly what I am hoping to do.

Each week I lead chapel with 3- and 4-year-old preschool students.  Their questions are endless.  Why, but why?  And they tell long rambling stories - sometimes provoked by my questions but sometimes provoked by a need for attention, or because something else (a fish in the stained glass window?) made them remember and they wanted to share it before they forgot.  I try to receive them with love and curiosity, and usually I succeed.  I'm going to try and transfer this to my adult  interactions.  So if you wonder why I'm answering your question with a question. . .

Those of you who still have children around your knees, receive their questions with love and curiosity.  You will be blessed to see the world in a whole new way.  And if, like me, you suffer with a tendency to not listen to adult questions, give it a shot.  Love and curiosity will no doubt take you places you never dreamed you would go.