Friday, February 28, 2014

It's Not *What* You Do...

Each morning on our way to school, I watch the crossing guards ensure our children cross the busy roads safely. They blow their whistles and flash their stop signs and gesture with determination to the hundreds of cars that drive through the intersection daily. If a car comes through the intersection too fast, they wave their arms and deliver a stink eye powerful enough to make grown men feel like children caught.

One crossing guard, a spry old woman as feisty as she is wrinkled, takes her job even further: she stands on the corner where the kids gather on the sidewalk and greets each one as warmly as she would a grandchild.

With the younger kids, she bends her knees and crouches to eye level, smiling large into faces that radiate joy at being seen, recognized. I watch them hug her and share enthusiastic stories, looking straight into her eyes.

With the older boys, she exchanges high fives, fist bumps, and all manner of handshakes. There is no sense of stand-offishness, no dismissive eye roll from these boys wrestling independence and identity. The pull of adolescent cool cannot deny the sincerity of her interest in their lives.

By all definitions, the job of crossing guard is not a glamorous one. Important, yes. Esteemed, no.

But this woman has elevated her position to something holy, sacred. Her presence has transformed the concrete sidewalk to a sanctuary where, for a moment, children are cherished just for showing up. She has not for a second believed that her job is insignificant. Rather, she has filled it with meaning and purpose through love.

The what of our days is so much less important than the how. Whether we operate in finance or construction, retail or medicine, engineering or housework, our day-to-day tasks are transformed by our perspective and intention.

When we believe our work matters to the folks around us, when we believe the people we serve or toil alongside are fellow children of God, then no task is insignificant. And we can no longer believe we are insignificant.

For we have the power to transform street corners to sanctuaries.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Rest Without Ceasing

A few weeks ago, we enjoyed two "snow" days bookending the weekend here in Houston. Freezing rain led to the shut down of schools and businesses across the city and state, which doesn't have the abundance of de-icing equipment found in the northern states. All productivity stopped: work, appointments, school, sports, and extracurricular activities all cancelled.

As a result, the kids and I spent four gloriously mellow days together, enjoying the freedom to meander from game to puzzle to movie to make-believe. During our forced stay-cation, our apartment was full of quiet music and the sound of little voices giving instruction and encouragement on how best to accomplish their minds' vision.

The kids completely upended their room, relocating all closet contents to the middle of the bedroom floor so that they could use the closet space to create the setting for their pretend adventures. Strategically-placed chairs suspended blankets above their heads, and they folded their bodies under their forts, discussing plot points in their alternate reality.

The great lie of our culture is that rest is a luxury, not a necessity; that downtime is wasted time: unproductive, lazy, indulgent.

In fact, this stillness is our very lifeline to connection, meaning, energy, and--paradoxically--productivity.

Our bodies are actually built on this principle, wired to thrive on rest. Any fitness expert will tell you that your body does not get stronger during the intense workout. It is in the recovery that the body does the hard work of repairing the damage, building muscle, getting stronger, preparing for the next exertion. 

Even our minds function in this way. We consolidate our memories, storing and hardwiring all we've learned and absorbed in our days, while we sleep. This is why infants, for whom every experience is new, sleep most of the day and night: they require abundant time to process and store their near-continual learning.

We don't realize we've fallen into the too-much trap until a day with nowhere to go reveals what we're missing in our busyness: the unstructured time to explore the recesses of our creative minds, to re-discover the healing power of togetherness, to remember who we are without the trappings of our achievement-oriented culture. When we break from our responsibilities, we discover ourselves and others.

Is it coincidence that we experienced so little fighting those few days? That we enjoyed a relative harmony with each other in the slow, quiet pace?

I doubt it.

God created us to require Sabbath. He could have made us to run endlessly, tirelessly, but He values the pause, the stillness, the surrender, making it a condition of our very existence.

Without rest, we break down, growing sick, injured, depressed, unstable. We simply cannot survive in a state of perpetual doing. With rest, we get stronger, we learn, we discover the expressions of creativity that have been stifled by our perpetual motion, we reconnect with those around us.

We remember what gives us life.

Is it any surprise, then, that the only "action" we are commanded to do without ceasing is actually a form of inaction? We are told to pray without ceasing, to continuously acknowledge the limitations of our own efforts, to surrender our productivity, to release the dreams of what we hope to accomplish and the burdens of what we should to the hands of the One in whom and through whom all things live and move and have their being.

Prayer looks like nothing. Like sleep and rest, it appears to be an indulgence, a break from the "real work." But when we enter into this form of Sabbath, we realize that anything worthwhile in this life is produced not by our will but by the mysterious workings of Christ in us.

Consider this. That which is essential to our very survival is beyond our power to accomplish: the beating of our heart, the steady inhale-exhale of our lungs, the transmission of millions of messages from body to mind and back--autonomic processes that would absolutely overwhelm us if we had to consciously execute them. 

As much as we think we control our lives, our physical existence is sustained outside the boundaries of mere determination.

So it is with our spirit. When, in prayer, we pause our own attempts to control, fix, manage, or otherwise produce our life and the lives of those around us, we receive everything we need to move mountains. We are invited to lay down our anxieties and questions and uncertainties in exchange for peace and life abundant: front row seats to the redemption being worked in us and those we love every day. Rest without ceasing: what a command.

The kids and I played during those snow days. We set aside the schoolwork, the responsibilities, the chores, and the ever-present list of to-do's in order to create and commune. We lived life like a prayer of gratitude, resting non-stop. The kids made up grand adventures in the wild frontier of their closet. I wrote in between trips to their room to admire their process. And when the time came to clean up, the kids put their room back together in record time with minimal fuss.

By the end of our four-day break, we had "accomplished" so much more than we would have in our daily hustle. The apartment was neater, yes. And our enthusiasm for the daily routine was renewed. But most importantly, our relationships with each other--the dimension of life I spend the most time and energy analyzing, trying to get right, and berating myself for doing wrong--grew stronger, more trusting, more intimate. Without effort, our connection grew, our joy abounded, and our energy multiplied. 

Stillness made space for creation.  Rest begat productivity. Doing nothing yielded everything that matters.

We are not foolish or lazy to slow down. In truth, pausing our rush to meet the insistent demands may be the only way to discover the inspiration, wisdom, and clarity that enables us to accomplish anything worthwhile.

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