For the Weeds

It is the perfect summer day: 75 and sunny, with a handful of marshmallow shaped clouds dotting the pastel sky. Vacation is imminent and fruit is ripe and juicy. There’s still plenty of summer on the horizon. 

So why do I feel this way? Tired though I sleep well, needing something more in spite of deep gratitude and joy in my life. 

This past week’s Gospel had Jesus telling the people to let the plants and weeds grow together. Only at the end of it all will God then pull out the weeds and throw them into the fires of Gehenna. Scary language and scary when we think about the message in terms of good v. bad people, heaven v. hell. 

What struck me when I heard this though, two things occurred to me. First was God’s great kindness and patience. There are weeds? Let them grow. They are not a concern for now and so, not really a concern at all. A classic grown up move: “I’ll deal with it later, don’t worry about it.” The second thing that popped into my mind was an inward, mindfulness-based reading of the story. What if instead of concerning ourselves with good and bad people and God’s response, we turn inward? To our own good and bad parts – our good and bad thoughts, actions, feelings?

Thich Naht Hanh (among others) writes about approaching our bad, sad, and negative thoughts and feelings with a kindness and patience similar to God’s in this Gospel. Acknowledge the feeling with a sense of both friendliness and detachment, and the feeling loses some of its sting. 

God is kind and patient and is big enough for strange moods on beautiful days. I think he is inviting us to let these weeds grow in our lives without concerning ourselves with pulling them up. Let them grow, alongside the fruits and plants, and God will deal with it later. 


Mindful Babysitting

During the summer, I work as a babysitter/nanny to two adorable, challenging, wild little girls. The girls are 8 and 5, old enough to play together nicely, though the younger one is just barely 5 and still understands so little of the world (grunting doesn’t count as asking for help). The 8 year old has a host of special needs which makes things … interesting. Her anxiety and sensory issues lead to some interesting and challenging behavior. Luckily for me, these are the kids I love and the kids I work with regularly. Perhaps even more luckily for me, this is the year I am reading and learning about two particular topics: toxic stress in children and mindfulness-based teaching approaches.

While the kids I work with during summer certainly don’t have toxic stress (which is usually a result of grinding poverty, neglect, and violence), the big take away from some workshops I’ve gone to is this: kids respond in a way that seems reasonable to them at the time and kids often don’t know any better. Behavior communicates some kind of meaning and our job as The Adult is to help them express this meaning in better ways.  Many children have literally no idea what that means or looks like: what words should I use? What does “calm” feel like? Adults have to model it, over and over and over and explain it while they do. 

This summer is serving as a laboratory for me to implement some of the techniques and strategies I am learning through some great professional development reading. Mindfulness for Teachers: Simple Skills for Peace and Productivity in the Classroom, by Patricia A. Jennings, has a lot to say on responding to behavior using mindful awareness. Interestingly, most of the book is about what ADULTS need to do to elicit better behavior, through their own mindfulness and self-awareness. So far, here are some things that are working: 

  1. Routine: As adults, we can feel out-of-whack if our routines are impacted too much. This stresses our fight or flight response, impacting our cardiovascular system, immune system, cognitive function, etc. And we’re grown ups! – we have at least some awareness of what’s going on. Now imagine you’re 3 feet tall and you still don’t understand how to tie shoes or why cars have red lights on the back of them. Imagine every day is different and you don’t know what to expect. That can’t feel very comfortable, and adds stress to your tiny body. For some reason, we think of “routine” as a militaristic, no-fun concept. But routine can be simple for kids. Even the littlest sense of structure takes away a lot of stress for kids, especially those like the 8 year old I watch. She’s already anxious – let’s take some anxiety out of the environment by having some structure, like breakfast and lunch in the same time, same place. Small steps make a difference. 
  2. Don’t personalize the behavior: It is always amazing to me how irritated and mad I can feel at small children. They are so wildly frustrating sometimes that it is hard not to take it personally. For example, we had to clean our rooms the other day. The little one gets right to it, no help needed. The older one, though, spent time sulking and just lounging on her bed fiddling with the radio. My level of frustration kept rising as I kept reminding her what needed to get done. (“What a brat she’s being! Why is she making this hard?!”) Feeling my anger, I noticed it, took a breath, and tuned in. I again asked her to start cleaning, and sullenly she said she was trying to get the radio to work. I realized that she was jealous of her sister, whose boombox was playing loud Disney tunes as she cleaned. All she wanted was to have some fun like her little sister was doing. I offered her my phone to use instead (Taylor Swift, for the win!) and finally she got working. I could only help her solve the problem and tackle her job by being mindfully aware of my own feelings. If I stayed angry and took it personally, I would not have seen the situation in its full reality and found a solution. 
  3. Attacking behavior with warmth and love: Children are wildly perceptive. For their survival, they need to be well-attuned to subtle emotions. Unfortunately that means for us adults, they sense when we feel tense and frustrated and angry. So when a child is acting up, though it’s very easy to respond with frustration, that can often lead to a spiral of bad feelings and worse behavior. Using a key mindful technique of slow and deep breaths, I am able to help lessen my negative feelings and thoughts. Then, I try to really look at the kiddos: they are so small! Look at how soft their skin is. How do you get teeth so tiny? I tune in to the physical reality of their littleness and the frustration melts a little more. Now I can approach with more love: are you hungry? Can I get you water? Would you like help? Do I need to tickle or dance the bad behavior away? This doesn’t always work (sometimes kids are like adults: just grumpy and in need of wallowing) but it at least makes me feel more compassionate and helpful. 

These things are hard to do largely because they demand a lot from us cognitively, emotionally, and physically. Mindful awareness of breath, doing body scans, and using other such techniques, though, are a helpful starting place. Through my jobs I am seeing that working on children’s behavior has to start from adults working on their own emotions and actions. So here’s to a summer of mindful experimentation and many, many deep breaths. 

In Genesis, there is this funny and beautiful thing that happens where stories repeat, nearly identical in nature, but the characters are different. What happened to Abraham now happens to Isaac. I’m sure there’s a reason behind it – layers of meaning rooted in theology and history. It means little to me though, except to be equal parts confusing and amusing. I’d ask more questions about this – why the repetition, what does it mean for Israel, or about God, or in my own life – but I wonder if those are even the right questions to ask. Or if I need the questions at all.

Questions are important and necessary; they demand and invite and bring light to the cracks in a text. But they have to be the right questions, or we don’t get anywhere. And if they aren’t the right questions, maybe it’s better to just sit and rest with the text.

At the end of my time in Kentucky, I sat down with my program director and a volunteer coordinator to  process my year of service and community. I remember speaking about how I admired the people there for their commitment to reading and knowing Scripture. Certainly, they read it in a different light and there is a danger to continually re-reading something like Scripture – it can start to feel like you know it, period, end-of-story. But my co-workers and housemates all had a regular, personal relationship to Scripture, which is to say they all engaged myth, story, poetry, wisdom – daily. I wanted that, I said, but it can be so tedious – after all, there are so many rules and so many “begets”. The programmer director, a woman whose relationship to Jesus was personal, hard-earned, and earnest, gave me this advice: “I just ask God to let it somehow speak to me, and then I read it.” That was it.

She didn’t sit with the Bible and a commentary; she didn’t interpret or analyze or underline – though at times these are perfectly valid and appropriate approaches. She read it and let it sit in her heart. I think of Mary, who “reflected on all these things in heart” when she, for whatever reason, said yes to God.

Sometimes the question is a barrier. A way to have some power over a text that is remarkably profound and confusing and important.

I’m trying to read the Bible, and I don’t recall why I started, and I’m not sure what I’m hoping to get out of it. I’m still only in Genesis. It’s slow-going. Reading it, I see how imminent God is; how poetic; how personal. He lets Abraham bargain for Sodom & Gommorah. He sends signs like rainbows, and compares his promises to the stars in the sky. Those are things in my world, here and now. More often than not, though, it seems to make little sense and I wonder if my understanding is doing anything to build my relationship with God and with my world.

I pray that it is. I pray that it’s making me see a little more clearly. I pray that even if it isn’t, I can be connected in relationship to these characters, and the scores of Christians throughout the ages who found value in this practice, and to this God who is, frankly, bizarre and still mostly unknown to me. I put down my questions for the time being, and reflect on all these things in my heart. Maybe it’ll work.