Busy Bees and Hummingbirds

‘When we decided to write benedictions for our children, we simply wanted to help them find their anchor when they are inevitably tossed about.’

[Osheta Moore]

It’s half-term, and I have finally carved out some time to write benedictions for my girls – a practice I have been inspired to adopt by reading Osheta Moore.  She writes here about Back to School Benedictions (and here about an equally inspiring twist on the original idea).

In the first post she writes about her own love of benedictions – of having truth spoken over her as she leaves a gathering so that she leaves knowing she is loved and confident that she is not alone.  She and her husband wanted this for their children as they went back to school – ‘a confidence in their belovedness even when they’re not with us’ – and so they created a blessing for each of them.

It is Autumn now, of course, and long past writing anything for ‘Back to School’, but over the past months as Liv has returned to school and Imogen has started for the very first time, Osheta’s practice has stuck with me.  I, too, want to see my children as they are, bless them, and send them on their way in peace.

My girls are still very little so I picked animals as their ‘Benediction names’.

I thought of Imogen – all business and focus, the pride she takes already in a job well done.  Eugene Peterson says ‘work, by its very nature, is holy’, and I want to bless the worker in her as she grows up.  (It’s tricky, I know, this trait is often hijacked by our culture into something unhealthy).  I also want our home to be her safe place, her soft landing place.

I bless you to be a busy bee at school – hardworking and helpful.  I bless your attention to detail, your lovely classwork and homework. I bless you to be like Nehemiah – a determined builder and rebuilder, who can work well with others who are good at different things.   I bless our home to be a place of rest and cuddles for you.

I thought of Olivia – dreamy, creative, inquisitive – happier exploring forests than sitting at a desk.

I bless you to be a hummingbird at school – curious and free.  I bless you as you spread your wings, as you move toward and sample all the things that interest you.  I bless your quiet confidence.  I bless you to be like Daniel – kind and considerate to everyone – but sure of who you belong to and what you love. I bless your inner strength.  It can be hard, sometimes, to be a hummingbird at school, I bless your ability to sit still and concentrate when you have to.  I bless our schedule to make time for climbing trees.

I hope my girls will feel affirmation and freedom as I pray these blessings over them, I hope it will feel a bit like the ‘invisible string’ from the book we used to read Liv when she was wobbly in P1, something that keeps us connected throughout the school day.  She still struggles with thresholds, with letting go, so I will keep praying that she goes in peace, knowing she is loved, confident she is not alone.

It will be back to porridge next week, after the Halloween holidays and our mornings are fairly predictable.  There will be this tiny blond boss-lady, dressed in 3 minutes, bustling around our house.  There will be another girl hidden under a duvet with her nose in a book, she’d like to stay there, she’ll dig in.  In the middle of our ordinary, messy mornings, though, I hope I take the time to bless them – to be busy, to be dreamy – to carry their gifts into their classrooms and through their days.  And later on, I hope I’ll make space for the blessings of tree climbing and cuddles, of caring for these very different little girls, of believing that it matters.

 

 

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I’m in the kitchen

I recently heard Rob Bell on a podcast describe the gentle yet profound way in which people’s words can fall as like a velvet hammer.  He talked about the best kind of wisdom that appears soft so you let down your guard and then it works its way in and you’re “just levelled.”

This has been my experience of meeting with a prayer guide over recent weeks.

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Last week my prayer guide casually referred to “the other Sharon”.

We were reflecting on John 1:35-42, on spending the day with Jesus.  At the end of the passage Andrew goes and gets his brother Simon and brings him to Jesus.

“Maybe you need to go get the other Sharon,” she said, “bring her to Jesus.”

The other Sharon.

It dawns on me slowly.

Then it strikes hard.

The other Sharon.  Well, of course.

The one who doesn’t feel seen by Jesus, the one who doesn’t spend the day, the one who has trouble with this path.

*

I take this nugget away and it seems so obvious, now she has said it.

It explains so much.

We are drawn like moths to a flame to something that is true, beautiful, simple, profound.  We find this way to look at Jesus, or ourselves.  We follow a nudge of the spirit,  we give something our Amen.  We pick a priority for our family, we lean towards a way of parenting.  We choose role-models, mentors, every day heroes.  We say yes.  We say no.  We open our hearts.

Don’t we?

Didn’t we?

We’re not sure.  We falter.  We’re not all in.

I don’t always pay her much attention, the other Sharon.  I think I know what I’m about.  I think I know better.

*

After the velvet hammer comment my prayer guide gave me Luke 10: 38 – 42.  Mary and Martha. (The 2 Sharons, I think).

I spend a week with those 5 verses.

*

I am Martha.  I welcome Jesus into my terrace house.  He sits in the Parker Knoll chair, beside the bookshelves, my sister at his feet.

I welcomed him in, opened the door, but I am distracted.  I am busy.  I am playing a loop of  ‘it must be nice for Mary‘ in my head.

Jesus says the words that I now have strung up in my kitchen, written in white chalk:

You are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed.

It dawns slowly, it strikes hard.

*

I am Mary.

I sit by the Parker Knoll and listen.  I am drawn here.

But I hear the bustle around me and I feel judged.  Even before Martha says anything out loud I feel judged, compared, uncertain.

Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.

I am surprised when Jesus says this.  I don’t expect this validation.

It’s beautiful, my prayer guides tells me.

Beautiful.

*

I am drawn to the feet of Jesus like a moth to a flame.

But then.

I suspect I am wrong.

I doubt my choice.

I take it away from my own self.

*

The truth is, I am open to seeing much of my bustle and productivity the way Jesus sees it – as worry and upset.  I am open to his message – that few things are needed.  I am open to his validation when I choose like Mary – it is better, it will not be taken away from me.

The truth is, I am open to these words and this message, but the other Sharon is not.

I have not internalised this voice of Jesus that I think I love so much.  I don’t hear it.

I have internalised the voice of Martha.  I hear – “aren’t you annoyed?”.  I hear – “Tell her to help me!”

*

I wonder what Martha’s preparations were, what had her so distracted.  I usually picture her in the kitchen, making dinner – because I am so often in the kitchen, making dinner.  It’s important to me.  I am drawn here too, actually.

I am Mary and I am Martha, and Jesus speaks kindly to me, whichever mode I’m in.

“God comes to me where I live and loves me where I am”, Brennan Manning says.

“If I am not where I am, God cannot meet me.  It’s as simple as that.”

I’m in the kitchen.

I’m remembering that few things are needed, that what I have chosen will not be taken away from me.  

I’m in the kitchen, listening to Jesus as I make bolognes.

 

 

 

 

4 O’Clock in the Afternoon

So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon.

[John 1: 39]

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Every Monday evening I head to the foyer of the local parish in our small town, to meet with a prayer guide who is teaching me to pray with scripture; a prayer guide who is holding space for me, who has me on her heart.

The first passage she discerns for me is in John 1 and I smile to myself as I hear the familiar words, realising that my Catholic prayer guide has chosen the same passage my Presbyterian minister preached from the day before.

*

I find a quiet place daily, I light a candle, I read it slowly.  I have been given these 8 verses for a week.  John’s disciples follow Jesus.  I remember what we’ve been told – You may feel that nothing at all is happening and that you are wasting your time, you are not.

I notice the words and phrases that grab my attention and after a day or 2 I start to write them down.

“What do you want?”

Come.

They spent the day with him.

It was about 4 in the afternoon.

I start to put in my own name, as my guide suggested.  Jesus turns around and sees me. He asks me the question I don’t know how to answer, “What do you want?”. We spend the day together.

It isn’t urgent, I note in my journal.  There is no hurry.

Every day I sit with this passage.  Jesus turns around and sees me, asks me what I want, we spend the day together.

*

One day I don’t do it, it was my most stressful day, of course. There were no quiet places in this day, no candles.

There was a very noisy changing room, a very major public meltdown from my daughter, a situation I wasn’t sure how to handle.

It was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. (That’s never a good time, Jesus).

*

When I reflect on the week with my prayer guide I tell her the ways this passage is rewriting my misconceptions about following Jesus.

No matter how many times I read it at my kitchen table, Jesus never once asked me to do anything or prove anything, or to hurry up in case I got hit by a bus.

Look, John says.  I start to follow Jesus.  He sees me.  He wants to know what I want.  (I didn’t know that mattered).

When I reflect with my prayer guide about my stressful day, my wobbly daughter, the lack of time – she tells me that’s where Jesus wants to meet me, to spend the day – in the changing room, in the tantrum, at 4 o’clock in the afternoon.

*

I think I need this, even more than quiet places and candles, I need this Jesus who spends the day, the whole messy thing.  He meets us at 4 o’clock.  4 o’clock! At witching hour for tired mothers everywhere – he sees us.

 

Dig in & Tend

‘While I adore the thought of living a nice, steady, evenly balanced life, I am convinced that the relentless pursuit of this ideal is at best like chasing after a fairytale, and at worst a dangerous distraction from being present to the life we have.’

[Jersusalem Jackson Greer]

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Two years ago I took a career break, and people often ask me how’s it going?

They ask because they’re interested in me, and they ask because they’re often hovering around some question of their own.  Maybe they’re a parent wondering if I’ve found the key to work-life-balance, to fulfillment, to thriving family life.  (I haven’t).  Maybe they’re considering a tweak, a change, a shift of some sort in their lives and they’re looking for permission, or proof, to pursue it.

Two years ago I wrote a post (imaginatively entitled Career Break) and it resonated with a lot of people. 

There have been fragments of a follow-up post floating around my head for a while now.  I was going to write about walking Liv to school and the trees by the allotments at Imogen’s nursery and about making Apple Crisp.  I was going to write about the tantrums that turned up in all these places.  I was going to write a version of what I always write.  I’d write about ordinary life.  I’d write that the small things matter.  I’d write about the beauty and the mess. I’d write knowing that we’re, all of us, doing some version of this -reading Little House books to our children one minute and losing our minds the next.

I was going to weave snapshot after snapshot together.  Beautiful, messy, beautiful, messy.

Ask me how my career break’s going and this is what I’d tell you.

But, actually, the truth is: ask me how my career break’s going, and we need to talk about Benedictine Monasticism.

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In a quiet monastery in the shadow of the Mournes, I meet with a monk for spiritual direction.  I tell him I have been reading about the Vow of Stability.  I gush, somewhat, about what I think this means, and it seems to me that he is looking a little amused.

His own words about Stability are measured and wise.  Even so, I can’t remember, afterwards, exactly what he said.  Later in my room I note the words ‘moving with intention’ and ‘facing things’ in my journal.

I have various quotes about the Vow of Stability scattered through my journal.  It seems like Stability has been trying to get my attention.

Dennis Okholm writes, ‘Stability means being faithful where we are – really paying attention to those with whom we live and to what is happening in our common life.’

Tsh Oxenreider quotes the nuns at Our Lady of Mississippi Abbey who describe this vow as a way of ‘resisting the temptation to escape the truth about ourselves by restless movement from one place to the next.’

In her book about Benedictine spirituality and everyday life Jerusalem Greer writes about digging in.  She writes about learning to water the grass beneath our feet. It has the potential to be the greenest of all, she insists, but we have to tend to it.

Stay in your cell, the Desert Fathers said, and your cell will teach you everything.

Stay.

Tend.

Resist the temptation of escape.

Pay attention.

Be faithful.

Ask me how my career break’s going, and these words frame my answer.

*

I’m an Enneagram 9.  I didn’t know this when I took my Career Break.  I didn’t know that that decision was an example of something called ‘right action’ that happens a handful of times in a 9’s life, helping us overcome our tendency toward indirection and overwhelm.  So I’m an advocate for ‘right action’, in your life and mine, I’m an advocate for making important changes and dreaming your own dreams.  Amen.

I’m also a cheerleader for ordinary life.  So when our bold actions and inspiring dreams turn out to be as frustratingly messy and beautiful as our life has always and forever been – well – of course! What did we expect?  That one decision would change everything?  I believe in celebrating that beautiful mess anyway, and writing about it, sometimes.

I’m not a Benedictine Monk.  But I’m leaning in to their wisdom in the life I have.  I’m thinking about what this Vow of Stability means for my little terrace house and my young family – that both the physical place I am planted in, and its people, will be used to change me.

I get distracted, often, in this culture of upward mobility.  I’m attracted to ideas of quick-fixes and greener pastures.  And yet I think I hear the Desert Fathers whispering: Stay in your terrace house, and your terrace house will teach you everything.

Choose right action.

Accept the mess.

Dig in and tend.

I wish.

I tell my friend that Chris is going on a work trip, to Budapest, my favourite city.

“Can’t you go with him?” she asks.

“I wish”, I reply.

*

I see the post on Facebook, the red brick, the blue sky, “Are you ready to walk through these gates yet? #Chq2017”.

I tag my friend Lynn.  I type 2 words: “I wish”.

*

My Auntie Po is in Australia.  I see her lovely photos – places I visited, places I lived, the faces of our family.

I like the photos, but also, I wish.

*

It’s fine to be a little wistful, of course.  A little dreamy and nostalgic.

But then there’s envy.  There’s discontent.  There’s sighing over your kitchen sink, sighing over your right-now-life.

*

Marian Vischer writes about learning to receive her own summer life.  I am learning this too.

‘Real life is not lived in highlight reel moments’, she says.  ‘When we receive those moments, they are worthy of celebrating. But the mundane moments matter too. And to begrudge them because everyone else seems to be living their best summer life now, well, it makes a mockery of our beautiful, ordinary lives.’

*

I have had some life-changing, memory-making summers, and I’m grateful.  I’ve been to some beautiful places, packed backpacks, talked under the moonlight.

But we’re memory-making now, I think, with welly boots and library cards and another trip to the same old park.

Here’s this beautiful, ordinary life and if I’m honest – when I sat by lakes, legs dangling off piers, talking all night long – wasn’t I a little wistful for this?  For a future that was still a bit blurry, a bit hard to imagine.

If you had shown me a snapshot, then, of pink rain suits and stick collections and Lego cities, of a house that smells of Apple Crisp and 2 girls that won’t come for dinner because they’re reading… I think I might have said… “I wish”.

 

June: Permission to Waste Time

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‘Parents, can you waste time with your children?’

That question from Pope Francis often rattles round my mind.

‘It is one of the most important things that you can do each day’, he says.

It’s June and I need that question.  It’s busy.  Isn’t it busy?

It’s June and sometimes I can’t do it.  My answer is no.  I cannot waste time.  My husband is away and I am trying to wash up my children’s plates before they have finished their dinner.

‘Sharon, can you waste time with your children?’

No?

What a simple, yet profoundly revealing question.

It reminds me that parenthood isn’t about efficiency, it’s not about being one step ahead or feeling like I’m winning.

It’s June and I’m going to give myself permission to waste time with these stick-collectors, these astronauts, these “just one more chapter” little dreamers.  Permission to walk on walls and climb steps and dance in the doorway of the music shop.  Permission to step away from the sink – to be inefficient, but lovingly present.

It’s June, isn’t it busy?  Let’s waste time as a subversive, and healing, act of resistance.  It’s one of the most important things we can do today.

 

Ancient & Slow in a Culture of Quick Questions

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“Quick Question!”

We hear it at the entrance to the train station.  On the street corner.  In the shopping centre.  On our doorstep.

“Quick Question!”

They know we’re busy, so they’ll be quick!  They launch in.

Whose your broadband provider?  Your electricity provider?  Do you like cats? Do you know anyone who has had a heart attack? Did you know…?

I heard it today as I walked through Belfast on my way to see my Spiritual Director.  It was accompanied with an exuberant bounce, a hand waved in my face, “Hello Miss! Quick Question!”.  I smiled, shook my head, walked on.

I wonder about this Quick Question Strategy – this belief that if they promise us speed then we will make decisions about service providers and charities, that we will set up direct-debits standing beside lampposts.  I wonder about this notion that we can meet their quick questions with quick decisions.

I don’t think or decide or budget or tithe like that.  I smile, I walk on.

*

There are Jehovah Witnesses near the bus-stop.  They stand in their place, unobtrusively.  They hold their pamphlets out in this open, gentle kind of manner that I like.  I see them every month on my way to meet with my Spiritual Director – same spot, same body language.  Quietly, but persistently, holding out what they have to offer.

There are a group of men singing in front of the City Hall – modern, lively worship songs. People are craning their necks to look at them.  When my bus comes and drives past the men, I crane my neck myself.  They are dancing and clapping and bouncing up and down.

On the bus there is a Bible verse, a framed King James snippet, contact details if I want to find out more.

*

It took me over 6 months to find someone I could meet with for Spiritual Direction.  We schedule appointments.  I organise childcare.  I get on buses.  We meet in a room, down a corridor, with the door shut.

My soul does not like quick questions, it does not like street corners.  To be honest, it doesn’t really like exuberant enthusiasm and it doesn’t like pamphlets, however gently they are offered.  It likes a safe space with the door closed and a candle lit.  It likes gentle questions, it likes time to answer.

*

On the bus I smile at the irony of it all – all these people I walk past, all these words I bypass – on my way to a place that is quiet enough for God to speak.  I don’t dislike the certainty of the singers or the pamphlet holders or the verse providers.  I am looking for some certainty myself, yet I am finding it in a place where there is room to say I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.

I am finding what Parker Palmer says to be true, ‘The soul speaks its truth only under quiet, inviting, and trustworthy conditions.’

*

And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

*

The soul is shy, Parker Palmer says, it’s like a wild animal.  ‘If we want to see a wild animal, we know that the last thing we should do is go crashing through the woods yelling for it to come out.’

I feel yelled at, in our culture, even from sincere sources.  I feel hurried, hustled, my attention fractured.  I see your offering and I cannot receive it.

*

In a room, down a corridor, that takes some effort to get to, I am learning to receive.

I am seeking God and someone is seeking God with me, and for me.

I choose this ancient, slow practice.  I listen for the still small voice.  Away from the lively activity, from the quick questions and the persistent pamphlets, I am paying attention here – to what surfaces in the quiet, to a God who is already at work.