Last night, when the sky was overcast and possible rain made it a little cooler than the high 90's that we have been getting all summer, Benjamin and I took one of our early evening walks. It's one of my favorite things to do with him because, most often, it's how we get to know each other better. There are no distractions: no computers, or phones, or televisions, or (for me) books. Instead, with all of that gone, we have our conversations. Most of the time, I let him talk about whatever's on his heart and mind. Sometimes I give advice, sometimes I just listen. I am learning that people, even our children, don't always want us jumping in with our answers, but they simply want to be heard.
Listening is a spiritual skill that I am working at improving on. Too often, I am hearing (not listening) so I can say whatever thought has popped into my mind and I don't truly and considerately listen to what the other person is saying. I'm finding that wisdom can be often silence on our own parts and not filling the silence in with words and chatter. Also, to really love someone you must listen to them, give them you pure attention. This is rare in our culture where everyone has an opinion and wants it to be heard. I am working on less opinions and more considerations. And I'm starting this at home.
As we walk, Benjamin loves to ask me questions about what it was like for me growing up. He asks me a lot about my mother, who died before he was born. I love sharing about my own life because how often do we get to do so with our kids? How many of us wish we knew more about our parents as people than we do and it's too late because they have passed on?
We are our stories. Jesus understood the importance of stories and how we connect through them more than we do theology. Stories get to the heart of who we are, so by my sharing mine with my son, we are connecting on more than a head level, but on a heart level. He is also getting a better understanding of what has made me, for better or worse, who I am today.
I also get to tell him things that I wish I could go back and tell myself at his age.
Since he is into computer programming and is very good at it, Benjamin often hears people referring to him as the next "Steve Jobs" (although he prefers Steve Wozniak the programmer and co-founder of Apple) or "Bill Gates." As his father, I remind him that he should not make it his goal to pursue fame or fortune because, if he does, neither will ever be enough. Focus first and foremost on God and the rest will fall into place or it simply won't matter. "Success is not what you have," I've told him, "but what you can give. It's who you are, not what you do." We have talks about what it means to be true to one's principles and to have integrity in this world. Integrity means that his outward actions will line up with his inner beliefs where God is center and foremost.
Faith is often a topic of our conversations. If it's a Sunday night, we might talk about the sermon we heard that morning. Benjamin likes that I ask him his take on what he's heard. It's important for me to know what he's hearing, what he's picking up on because it gives me a better sense of where he is in his spiritual walk. I allow for questions, for doubts, for my answering sometimes with simply, "I don't know the answer to that."
On our last walk, the subject of prayer came up. He said he often has trouble praying and did I? I answered him honestly and admitted that there are times in my life where the prayers have dried up inside of me, where the words get stuck in my throat and I find it a struggle to pray.
"What do you do then?" he asked.
"Pray someone else's prayer," I replied.
"What do you mean?"
"Often I pray the Psalms. I pray them because they are honest and don't gloss over the hardships of life. I think we live in a culture, even in church, where we have forgotten the power of lament and how laments can help us heal when we are most grieving."
Then he asked, "What are you doing when you pray silently for so long?" (By so long, he means anywhere from 15 minutes to 30 minutes depending on how long it is before Cava needs my attention).
I explain to him about centering prayer. Since it's not something ever mentioned in our denomination, I have to walk him through the steps of centering prayer. How I start with a prayer from scripture, I then choose a word that describes an attribute of God (holiness, mercy, grace, compassion) that I can focus on whenever my mind starts to wander, and I sit there in silence so that I can attune myself to listening to the still small voice that is the whisper of our Creator. Then, I end with another prayer.
"Oh, I could never do that," he shook his head.
"You could. It just takes practise and I'm not saying it's easy. But start with 5 minutes."
This moves into the sacred art of stillness. "Be still, and know that I am God" as the Psalms tell us. God wants us to be still and silent. He requires it of us. We break down that small verse:
Be still, and know that I am God.
Be still, and know that I am.
When we allow for the stillness and the silence to work in us, when we focus on the great I Am, we take the focus off ourselves, and be in Him.
Prayer is a part of our walks, though Benjamin doesn't always realize it. As I walk, I pray. I pray for him. I pray for our family. I pray for the needs of others that we know. I pray for our town as we walk through it. I pray for the people that we pass, or the people in the houses that we pass. I pray for the people in the cars that pass us. I pray that if anyone needs to be prayed for, we will be open to stopping and praying for them right there on the sidewalks of wherever we are. I have done this at work and am amazed at how God will provide people for me to pray for right in the middle of a Wal-Mart.
I love our walks because they remind me that life is made up of moments. Small moments that add up to memories. Our spiritual walks are the same. They are not about the extraordinary but about the mundane. They are about being present in the day to day. Nothing is too small not to be noticed and wondered about. God is in all of them. He has made all things. All that we see, hear, and experience are made by his love, held together by his love and are to help us to see that we are loved and to love, worship and glorify him even in these small ways. There is Mystery and the Sacred to be found in the commonplace. Life is full of what Frederick Buechner calls the "crazy, holy grace."
These walks are teaching me that.
I am learning more and more to be present. To listen. There is holiness to be found in the moment.
We must be open to the possibilities.
I am learning from Benjamin and teaching Benjamin at the same time.
We are both learning that the best way to approach life is with humor, joy and gratitude.
When we walk, we don't rush along but stop and notice what's around us. The people (last night our downtown was full of them on their phones playing Pokemon Go). The buildings and the details in architecture. Trees and nature. Too often in our lives we see but do not notice, hear but do not listen. These walks allow us the time to do that, to breathe and just be, be together, be with God present and aware that he has given us this precious gift of time together.
I do not take the time I have here for granted. None of us know how long we really have. I'm 48, and find myself at a place in life where I am far more reflective than I have ever been. I am seeing how brokenness can be a blessing, how that allows me to be vulnerable and more compassionate towards the suffering and hurting of others. It also means I am far more reliant on God. I find I am asking myself and, in turn, my son, "How are we being God's presence in the world to others?" Even in our nightly walks?
I am also asking:
How will Benjamin remember me?
What will he remember of me when I am gone?
Will it be my words, my actions, or both?
What will he hold dear from this time we spend walking together?
What will he share with his own kids one day?
What of myself am I passing on to not only him but to his kids and their kids?
I am thinking generationally, which is a biblical way to think.
As his father, how am I reflecting the Father to him?
We laugh and joke around. Nothing makes me happier than to see the smile or hear the laugh of one of my children.
Sometimes, as we walk, Benjamin will take my hand. This melts my Papa's heart. I pray that he will never get too old do this small act of familial love. I pray that, no matter what lies ahead, he and I will always have a strong bond and a deep connection. These moments are building blocks to allowing him to come to me at any time, with any problem and him knowing that there is a trust there, a willingness on my part to listen and love him. He will be off to college in two years, I am aware of that with every quickly passing day. My heart will swell with pride with what he will accomplish and be heavy with the sadness of him not being in my house. But, as I've told him, he needs to go off to college. He needs to miss us and we need to miss him. And I will - deeply.
Benjamin is my son. He will always be my child. I will always be his Papa. From the moment I first held him, he entered my heart.
I like the lessons that Ellen Sophia Bosanquet wrote entitled "What Life Has Taught Me":
Resentment is poisonous.
Compassion is healing.
Love is creative.
She is so right.
The creativity of love is why any of us exist. I understand this better when I am walking with my son, talking with my son, being with my son. I have a better grasp of the love of God by spending time with my son.
Being a father is one of the most important things I will ever do. How my two sons turns out is far more important to me than how much stuff or money I can accumulate in life (which is something I am seriously reexamining as I look at holy simplicity). This time I spend with Benjamin is precious. It is shaping both of us. Because of that, every night, when we get back to the house, after our walk is done, I pray my last prayer, a simple, "Thank you."