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On a rare afternoon of one-on-one time with my oldest child, I wanted to balance the work I needed to get done around the house with spending quality time together. These opportunities of time alone are fleeting, and they are precious. The last thing I wanted to do was spend all of it cooking and cleaning.
And so, I decided to invite my son to make dinner with me.
“I’ve got some very special jobs I’d like you to help me with,” I said.
He got an excited look on his face and said, “I love Mom-and-me days.”
“First, we need to snap the green beans.”
We sat on the step together and I showed him how to snap the beans and place them in the strainer. We talked about wanting to plant our garden in the next week or so, and we laughed when we found strange-looking beans, or noticed the squirrels hoping we would drop some food for them.
We brought our beans inside to wash, and then we worked together buttering the bread for garlic toast. I taught my son how to turn the oven on, all the while we were talking about his day at school.
It was a simple meal of spaghetti, garlic toast, and green beans, but I watched his face brighten each time he got to try something new – especially turning on the oven as he’s just now old enough to learn how to use it.
We waited for the water to boil, and then we added the pasta. Right as we were finishing up our work in the kitchen, my husband and daughter arrived home.
“I made our dinner tonight!” my son said with excitement. “I can’t wait for you to eat it…and I hope it turns out all right!”
Quite a change from, “What’s for dinner, Mom?”
I’ve often heard it said that involving children in cooking family meals and preparing snacks encourages them to try new foods. It gives them a sense of investment in what is being served and a sense of accomplishment in making something that is for everyone to share.  I noticed my son’s pride, and could see his investment, but I also started to wonder about how this applies to other areas of lives.
I believe something happens when we stop observing our lives and start participating in them.
Something changes inside of us when we no longer allow the current to sweep us along and deposit us in some strange place.
But, even if we know this to be true, it can be terribly difficult to practice. Richard Rohr once wrote, “It has been said that 90 percent of people seem to live 90 percent of their lives on cruise control, which is to be unconscious.” We mindlessly float through the routines and expectations of life without truly involving ourselves in what we’re doing and who we are becoming.
Life isn’t something that’s meant to happen to us; it’s something for us to participate in.
We aren’t just observers, we’re a part of what’s going on.
But taking that first step can be a tremendous challenge. Or, as I once heard someone say, “Deciding to get involved in what’s important to you is easy for those in the habit of participating. For the observer, it’s a tough decision.”
I’m not completely sure why this is, but it has been true in my experience. The more I participate in something, the more invested in it I become. The more invested I am, the the more invested I am in how things turn out.
The positive side of participating in our lives rather than simply observing is that the rewards are so much greater. One of my most profound joys as a mom is preparing a meal and watching my family enjoy it. I feel like I have shared a part of myself with them as I feed them, like I am part of their growing, changing, and development into who they are.
The negative side of participation is that sometimes it’s painful.
Many years ago, I was part of a fun and funky youth group in the inner city. Participating in that group brought me some of the most profoundly joyful experiences I have ever had in ministry, but I also felt deep pain as I watched teens struggle with pain in their own lives. I felt disappointment when things did not go as I had hoped. More often than not I felt enthusiastic, inspired, and joyful as I watched the Spirit at work in the lives of the teens I worked with. But on those occasions when something didn’t go as hoped, I felt angry, or sad, or even hopeless.
Observing would have saved me from that pain, but I would never have experienced the joy either.
I still struggle with going back on autopilot at times. Sometimes I desperately wish that someone or something else could just make choices for me. Sometimes I wish I could sit on the sidelines and complain. But, as my karate Shihan likes to remind us, “If you are complaining, you aren’t training.”
The sidelines are a great place for Monday morning quarterbacks, but I think there’s much more enjoyment in being part of the game. Participating can be painful, but it’s where the stuff of life really happens.
So, let’s make dinner together and serve the world. Let’s work together through the disappointments and heartache of life. Let’s get our hands dirty because we care enough. It will be tough sometimes, but it will be worth it.