Every morning around 6 am I hear the soft thud of four-year-old feet hitting the ground, the creak of a bedroom door, and the secretive steps of one of my girls creeping down the hallway to surprise me. A brown-haired head pokes above the arm of the sofa I sit upon and I gasp in mock surprise as my quiet time with the Lord comes to an end.
Every morning, my daughters come out of their room to discover my husband and me in our living room with Bibles open, journals covered in scrawled prayers, and theological books strewn around us. We get up at 5 am to have an actual quiet time of prayer, worship, and time in the word.
Though my faith journey has taken me through many stages and seasons and places, my morning time with God has never wavered. It was ingrained into me far before I could even tell what those hours might mean or what the story of the Bible was or what prayer meant. It was something I saw modeled for me each day by my father.
Thirty years ago it was my footsteps creeping down the hallway to enter the living room and see my Dad with his leg crossed and eyes closed, Bible open on his lap. He often wouldn’t even open his eyes as I passed through to the kitchen. But he was there, day in and day out, meeting with Jesus. It left an everlasting impression.
Humans are great imitators. We see someone do something interesting, beautiful, funny, or provoking, and we go and do that thing. But because we are so impressionable and so willing to imitate that which we take in, we must be thoughtful about what we choose to fix our attention upon.
If we’re honest, our attention is often fixed upon people and things that are not going to produce lives of faithful discipleship and deepen our love for Jesus. But if we put on habits and practices that draw us closer to the Lord—reading his word, spending time in his presence, adoring him in worship—we will inevitably begin to look more and more like him.
This is what Paul invites the Corinthian church to do when he writes to them—to watch the things he does and listen to the things he says and to go and do the same things.
I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me. That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ. – 1 Cor 4:14-17
Though you have countless guides, you do not have many fathers. Though we may not feel like the spiritual giant that Paul was, our children will have many guides, but they will only have one mother and father. The things you do, the words you say, the habits you have will shape your children. What a responsibility! But as Paul says, he doesn’t write these things to heap on shame that you aren’t living life perfectly for your children to see. He writes it to encourage us as God’s beloved children whom he is deeply invested in and who he longs to see grow up into maturity in Christ.
But Paul at one point wasn’t a mature disciple who could tell people to imitate him as he imitated Christ. Paul became a mature believer who fixed his gaze unwaveringly on Jesus when Jesus intervened in his life and transformed everything. When he met Jesus, he devoted his life, his time, and his mind to come in accordance with the things of God. And he was able to do this—to become someone who reflected Jesus in word and deed—because Jesus himself empowered and equipped him through His Spirit.
As we grow in imitating Jesus, our children will grow in imitating us. And like our own lives, it won’t be perfect. It will be full of mistakes and tears and fights, but the thrust of a life lived after Jesus leaves an impression. Today, take heart in knowing that your parenting doesn’t have to be perfect. You are called to a life of following and imitating Jesus before you are called to mother and father your children. And our God, who loves us so much that He would put on flesh and live a life in submission and obedience to the His Father, goes with us. Impressing his love upon our hearts, giving us the words of life, and maturing us into spiritual adults for the sake of His Kingdom—a kingdom that comes in our very homes.
An upsetting thing has happened to me since becoming a mother almost three years ago; an awakening of sorts. Where I once went about my days mostly concerned about my own well-being and the health and safety of those closest to me, I now find myself regularly undone when I see or hear of suffering in another’s life.
It started small, crying during Little Women when Meg said she felt alone, tearing up seeing Facebook posts about kids who were sick, trembling at the thought of something happening to my girls; hearing about suffering caused a surge of gut-wrenching compassion that alarmed me.
As a kid, I confusedly watched my own mother cringe at headlines or say something like, “I just can’t watch that,” when we were choosing movies. What I had once attributed to weakness, some foreign power that made my very strong mother very emotional, was now my reality. At first, I marveled at what felt like a newly torn hole, a whirlpool of compassion that drew in anything that came near, but soon realized that this sensation was here to stay, locked firmly in my life scooping up any passing grief with unrestrained emotion.
When it was said in response to the murder of George Floyd, “All mothers were summoned when George Floyd cried out for his momma,” I cried as the puzzle pieces snapped into place. Every mother was summoned because every mother has been awakened to a new depth of mercy coursing through her heart. The sad privilege and sin of only caring for oneself dies when a woman becomes a mother, her life and body now permanently put on guard, ready to go into battle for another, ready to hold and hug and listen and be called into action.
The problem of course is that suffering is everywhere. Suffering from the pandemic and racial injustice, suffering for refugees and persecuted Christians, suffering for my family and friends and yours. I find myself overwhelmed by a compassion I did not necessarily choose or cultivate but was rather thrust upon me like my own twin daughters on my chest when they were born at 3 AM. But what I have largely processed as being burden uncovered by motherhood, newfound compassion is not a loss, it is a gain.
Upon entering motherhood we are swept into a greater mission that goes beyond merely caring for and protecting those who are close to us. We become mothers, allies, and protectors of other’s children young and old, of other mothers, of any who might stir compassion in our widened hearts. Though motherhood is not the only vehicle for growing in compassion—Jesus was never a father and yet is our exemplar of mercy—motherhood takes us out of ourselves in a literal way, asking us to care for another no matter how weak or weary we may be. This ability and depth is terrifying, but it is also a gift.
But embracing this change has not been clean or simple. In my fear of this new mercy, I find myself trying to hide or simply look away in a sad effort to feel less. I want to evade the swell of pity and sorrow that rises, desperately trying to unbear this burden or allowing it to drive me away from compassion into worry and anxiety. A fire of mercy had been stoked, but I am only and desperately trying to extinguish it. To feel compassion unrestricted is to feel too much. For many, motherhood may not be the primary place that the Lord chooses to widen your heart in compassion, but if you find yourself undone like me, take heart. We can and must learn to wield and embrace mercy as part of our identity rather than hide from it.
Compassion as discipleship
Compassion is a gift that is designed to reshape our lives and bodies to care not merely for our children whom we love, but for all children of God. It is a gift from a merciful savior who is committed to transforming us into His likeness and His likeness is deeply merciful. He is “the Father of all mercies and God of all comfort who comforts us in our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction (2 Cor 1:3-4). It is His will for us to care for the widow and the orphan (Jas 1:27), to give generously of ourselves and our time in the exact same way that He did.
Mercy, therefore, becomes one of the most important paths of discipleship that we can tread because it takes us into the heart of Christ and out of our concern solely for ourselves. We must be willing to shake off the temptations to hide from compassion or look away so that we might learn what our God has ordained for us in motherhood: a heart that is rich in mercy and willing to comfort those who suffer.
A fire of mercy had been stoked, but I am only and desperately trying to extinguish it. To feel compassion unrestricted is to feel too much.
A mothering God
Growing in compassion through motherhood is no accident or hormonal adjustment, it is woven into God’s perfect design, written into our hearts before we knew it was there so that we might one day more deeply understand the height and depth and breadth of God’s love and compassion for us. In grief over his lost children, Jesus said, Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing (Matt 23:37). Merciful Jesus longed to care for his people like a mother hen, drawing His people to Himself to provide for and protect them as a mother does.
But the power of a mother’s mercy is not only found in the tenderness of Christ, we see it in the enduring compassion of the Father when he too expresses his love for his children by saying, Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you (Is 49:15). And Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river…and you shall nurse, you shall be carried upon her hip, and bounced upon her knees. As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem (Is 66:12-13). In our Father’s steadfastness, he compares himself to a mother who nurtures her children, carrying them close, feeding and comforting them.
God chooses to talk of the depth of his compassion in terms of motherhood because motherhood is uniquely powerful. In His perfect and inspired Word, our God holds motherhood in such high regard that He expresses His own commitment and devotion to His people in terms of it. If our Father chooses to widen our hearts through motherhood it is so that we more fully understand His—one that longs for His children’s flourishing and would do anything to see make them know His love.
The courage to follow
Growing in mercy will grow us in godliness because Jesus is mercy at His core, breathing and bleeding compassion, bearing the weight of a broken world to the point of death so that we don’t have to hide in fear from it. We must be brave and humble, willing to feel the pain of our brothers and sisters, to bear the burdens of others, to weep with those who weep, and follow merciful Jesus to the end. The Jesus who touched our sores and wiped our tears bore it all not so I could hide from a compassion like His but so that I could receive it myself, coming alongside Him in his work as one willing to face suffering with the hope of knowing that the worst we encounter here will be redeemed to the fullest one day.
Christ the merciful and compassionate showed me mercy so that my heart might break like his, not to protect me from feeling broken. I may fight the swell of compassion because it feels like weakness, but in Christ, our mercy is our greatest strength. He plants compassion in our hearts to rehumanize and reawaken us to His Kingdom coming. The choice we make is not whether to feel, it is whether to hope that the resurrection is true and real and tangible today, putting in its place our suffering as a light and momentary affliction, a signpost that we are not yet home, but we are growing as we walk this path of motherhood.
Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. – GK Chesterton
Again has been the theme of the pandemic for me. Another day dawns and I do it all again. Get to work, take the girls to the park, squeeze a run in during lunch, cook meals, clean the house, work some more. Again, and again, and again. Time is trudging along, but each morning I wake up and hear the word, again. Do it all again today.
But this again hasn’t been the delighted shriek that my girls emit on the swingset as they ask to “go to the moon” again, it has been an exhausted sigh. A friend of mine was lamenting how mundane life feels right now; it’s enough to make one feel depressed, or at least apathetic. I often dread the morning again as I wake to my daughters crying and know that today will be tight with work meetings and cleaning up crushed goldfish and wondering “is that pee or water?”
But again is a fundamental reality of being human and the pandemic has only heightened our experience of repetition. We will eat meals, brush our teeth, clean the house, buy groceries, get in fights, and go to sleep again and again until the day we die. We are creatures of again, we are made for again. So why does again feel like a curse instead of a blessing?
GK Chesterton chastises adults in their inability to withstand monotony, arguing that children understand the heart of God, and the heart of being human, in a more thorough way than adults. He calls our weariness of repetition weakness, a diminished capacity that ought to draw us closer to our creator God who delights in each sunrise and sunset, every single daisy.
The Christian faith is built around repetition, agains that produce meaning as we faithfully run the course. Like practicing a free throw or scales on the piano, Christian formation occurs as we accumulate agains. Time in scripture slowly accrues a breadth of knowledge. The habit of prayer tends to draw our eyes off of ourselves. Christian life celebrates agains because to do it again is to be human. God has made us to need agains so that we might know ourselves and know him better.
But as Chesterton points out, the beauty of again can become warped in adulthood. Not unlike the curse over humanity as Adam and Eve are exiled from the garden, again will rule over us, making us bitter and unfeeling, darkening our eyes, and stealing our joy rather than giving it. Even giving again a spiritual dimension does not exempt our lives from monotony or suffering in repetition. I have struggled more than ever with my current list of agains, as a mother to young children in the midst of a really difficult year. And yet this is my life, and my life is happening in the agains. We must be willing to accept and celebrate that we are made for repetition and look to our Father, and our children, to rediscover the beauty of again.
Recovering a fierce and free spirit
One of the reasons children are fierce and free is because they are unencumbered by the cares of the world. Though part of growing up and reaching maturity is navigating the brokenness and suffering of our world, Jesus exhorts us to retain a childlike heart; a heart that trusts completely in the goodness and provision of the Father. Just like my children trust me to care for them and give them what they need, we must take seriously Jesus’s words to not worry about tomorrow because our Father in Heaven loves us and promises to provide for us (Mt 6:34). It is easy to read Jesus’ words about caring for the birds of the air or asking us to lay our burdens at his feet and only consider them to be a nice sentiment (Mt 11:28). Jesus wasn’t kidding, and there is no virtue in bitterness or cynicism when it comes to the words of our Savior. If we ever hope to recover a childlike heart, a fierce and free spirit, we must learn to trust our Father like our children trust us. We must learn to have a childlike faith without closing our eyes to the world around us.
The cure for monotony
Creativity kills monotony. Though I will likely be doing my current routine of again for many more months, it does not need to be monotonous. Each morning, we can choose to reflect our creator as creative people. Though many people do not consider themselves to be creative, they are wrong. Every person is creative. Every person has the capacity for imagination. It is part of what it means to be created in the image of our creator God. Picasso famously said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist when he grows up.” Picasso and Chesterton are in agreement that maturing into adulthood most often strips us of something that we were meant to be. We must recover our ability to be creative in the ways we approach our children, our work, and our tasks with new eyes. We must ask our Father to enliven our imaginations to see our world bursting with life and full of hope.
Being the child
Perhaps the best way for adults to recover childlikeness is to remember that we are God’s children. Though my husband and I grow weary of our daughters cries of again, our Father does not. He is not annoyed when we confess the same sins and pray the same prayers. Our Heavenly Father says, “Again!” He wants us to come to him again, to delight in his goodness again, to cry out for help again, and to have our imaginations set ablaze with the hope of the gospel again. As children of God may we learn to exult in the Again of the Father, finding joy in our repetition just like our Father does. Again and again.
If I’m not careful, I can get through a whole day without really looking at my kids. Sure, I see them running down the hall and throwing blueberries at one another, but I can be so busy and preoccupied with whatever else I am doing, that I don’t really see them. I don’t gaze upon them. I don’t enjoy their triumph of climbing the rock wall or notice the deep empathy of one comforting the other. Especially in this season, I can approach motherhood with a survival mindset, just trying to make it through another day.
This same phenomenon happens with God. I can go a whole day, a whole week even, without gazing upon the beauty of Christ, being struck by his majesty or humbled by his power and grace. I can get through another day, doing the things that need to be done but drifting on the surface of a relationship that wants to shake me awake, pull my eyes upward and command my heart’s attention.
In the Bible, this kind of attention is called beholding. “And behold, it was very good” (Gen 1:31). “Behold, the kindness and the severity of the Lord” (Rom 11:22). “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev 21:5).
Behold means to look and learn; to pay close attention to; to gaze upon. God has created us to be beholders, but we often find ourselves keeping our heads down just trying to get through. This past year has caused unique stress and suffering and it might seem like the easiest way to cope is to merely survive until the pandemic is history.
But this bucks against the very fabric of how we are created. We are created to be present in our lives and the lives of others especially when it is painful and uncomfortable. We are created to stand at attention to our God in every season of our lives, so now more than ever we need to learn how to lift our heads and behold.
Made to behold
When our daughters were first born older mothers kept telling me, “Enjoy every second; it goes so fast.” Though it became so familiar that I barely even registered the advice, after a few months of sleepless nights and spending all day feeding two newborns, this advice started to bother me.
Am I truly supposed to enjoy this?All of this? Not every second of motherhood is enjoyable. Not every second of life is enjoyable. Enjoy was the wrong word, what the mothers were trying to say was, “Behold every second with them, it goes so fast.” Behold. Pay attention, gaze upon the beauty of your child, watch them closely, this season will turn before you know it.
But we are not simply made to behold our children, we are first and foremost made to behold our God. As the church we should be like older mothers whispering to one another, “Behold the goodness of the Lord this week. Behold his power and his grace. Behold your risen King who loves you. This day, this week, this year will go quickly. Pay attention to what the Lord wants to show you.” Our God reveals himself to us and we must remember that he has made us to see him, gaze upon him, and as we do so, to love him.
Beholding takes discipline
When was the last time you were surprised or caught off guard by something beautiful? Awe and wonder strike without warning–the way a sunset lights up the clouds, a perfect fall day, a child exuberantly shouting, “I did it, Mama!” Though awe has an element of surprise in its nature, beholding is something we must cultivate, and learning to behold begins with deciding what is important.
My husband and I clean the house on Thursdays and I love to get a jump-start on the process. I wipe down counters while the girls eat lunch, do dishes while they play in the living room, and even vacuum in spite of knowing their sheer terror of the machine. Calls of “Mama, come look” and “Mama, NOOO” (regarding the vacuum) produce an uncomfortable tension in my mind–what is most important right now? I may want to sit down at 6:30 pm with a clean home and be done for the week, but right now my daughters want my attention, want to show me the chalk drawings they made and how fast they can run. I must choose what I will do: vacuum that floor, or turn my gaze upon them and pay attention.
Likewise, each day the creator of the universe wants to catch and hold your attention. He wants to draw your eyes to his majesty, his goodness, his mercy, and his grace. Maybe it is less obvious than a child crying out for attention, but all of creation witnesses to the love and greatness of our God. We must train our ears to hear the invitation of the Lord to come and look and train our our eyes to see glimpses of God’s glory in the midst of dailiness. We must learn how to walk away from distractions and behold the everlasting God today.
The lifter of our heads
But you, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head. I cried aloud to the Lord, and he answered me from his holy hill. I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the Lord sustained me. – Psalm 3:3-5
Our god is the lifter of our heads. We don’t have to live these days in survival mode or just keep our heads down. He lifts our heads, he hears our cries, and he sustains us so that we might behold him. Today, allow the Lord to lift your head so that you might behold his glory. Today, allow the Lord to lift your head so that you might behold his sovereignty and love. Today, allow the Lord to lift your head so that you might gaze upon the beauty of Jesus.
Three months into shelter-at-home, Andrew and I got Disney+. The first movie our daughter’s watched was Frozen, which turned out to be more than a hit as they cried, “SISTERS!” Each of our girls identified more with one of the sisters–Abigail insisting on being Anna, Evangeline only talking about Elsa. AnnaElsa or ElsaAnna (depending on who you are hearing from) quickly became one of the phrases emerging from our daughters mouths as they attempted to tell us what happened in the movie, who was singing in their favorite song, or explain why one was upset.
On a rainy day, I ventured to Target with them and was immediately overtaken by shouts of AnnaElsa! AnnaElsa pajamas, water bottles, hats, dolls, toys. They were everywhere. Every turn brought a shriek of joy as one discovered sheets featuring Anna and Olaf or a figurine of Elsa.
Our world has become saturated with the Frozen story. Our daughters want to watch it every single night. Their whole world is being shaped by Frozen and everything connects back to the story. The horses at the farm are Svens (the name of the reindeer), girls with brown hair are Anna, and girls with blonde hair are Elsa. They want to listen to the music in the car, during meals and are learning all the words. They ask for AnnaElsa tattoos. Truly, Anna and Elsa are a way of life.
Andrew and I were laughing about how crazed they are, but then it hit me–seeing the story everywhere, in everything, and wanting to talk about someone all the time is the same kind of transformation that should happen in the life of a Christian after discovering the beauty of the gospel. I can laugh at their profound commitment to Frozen, but perhaps they understand something that I do not–our lives should be saturated and overwhelmed by the story we love. For Christians, this is the story of God. And if you find yourself underwhelmed by the story of the gospel, the promises of Jesus, and the ongoing work of the Spirit, we must ask ourselves what story are we living in most.
Not living in the story of our circumstances. This year has provided a unique set of circumstances. We moved in early March. January and February were filled with lots of goodbyes and lots of packing. Within two weeks of moving, we received the shelter at home orders. No exploring a new city, no childcare while we transitioned into two new jobs, no getting to know new people, just hunker down and wait for the storm to pass. Our lives have probably never been more dictated by outside forces than this year and it is easy to find myself thinking my moments of hopelessness or anger or despair are simply because of our circumstances.
It is easy to live in a narrative that is based on our circumstances. But the story of God supercedes circumstances. Take Paul. Though his circumstances were grim during imprisonment, he chose to live in the story of the gospel and give thanks, encourage his brothers and sisters, share the gospel in the prison, and fully believe that to live was Christ and to die was gain (Phil 1). This is a man whose joy and hope was not dictated by his circumstances. His hope was in the gospel, which is unwavering, unchanging, and unfailing.
Not living in the story of our emotions. Every single day of the pandemic has been a rollercoaster. I have cycled through enjoying sweet time with family, raging over having to vaccuum again, missing family, feeling isolated. I can be completely run by how I feel on any given day, and it is a dangerous way to live.
The story of God not only allows for our emotions but validates them as part of our human existence. Our emotions are God-given. They are road signs to how we are actually doing and part of our spiritual maturity is learning how to interpret them. The Psalms are devoted to faithful followers crying out to God, asking for help, questioning what he is doing, or how long they might feel a certain way. The story of God accounts for our emotions but warns us not to live by them. So join in the story of the saints by bringing your joy, sorrow, grief, and despair to your Father who hears and desires to comfort you.
Not living in the story of our culture. When Andrew and I were watching Frozen 2 for the first time, we were struck by one of the songs that sounded like a worship song. In it Elsa sings,
“Show yourself, I’m no longer trembling. Here I am, I’ve come so far. You are the answer I’ve waited for all of my life. Oh, show yourself, let me see who you are. Show yourself, step into the power, grow yourself into something new. You are the one you’ve been waiting for all of your life.”
In her journey of self-discovery, Elsa finds that she is in fact the one she has been waiting for all of her life. She is the one who will uncover her power, who will transform herself, and who will bring herself into full self-actualization. Though I might find myself singing along unquestioningly, the story Elsa is telling is the story of our culture. But more than that, it is not the story of God.
The story of God is better than any story culture can tell us. Do you believe this? Largely, I get the sense (and sometimes believe myself) that Christians are mildly ashamed of the story they inhabit. Though Elsa’s story might seem innocuous enough, the narrative of individuality and self-discovery apart from our loving creator who made us to worship him leads us into a never-ending trail of self-centered living. The Christian life is a life that is distinctly not about me; it is about God. And this is good news. I get to uncover my identity in Christ— he promises to sanctify and grow me. He tells me I am made with purpose, for good works, and to bring him glory. My story is wrapped up first and foremost in the story God tells about me. And this is the good story I want to choose to walk in each day.
What story are you living in today? Ask the Lord to move in your heart in such a way that you would delight in His story, the story of your salvation, and the promise of your imperishable inheritance in heaven.
Almost every morning for the past twelve years has started the same way. Wake up, make coffee, sit down in my designated spot, and spend time reading the Bible and journaling. Maybe it was walking past my Dad every morning on my way to the kitchen and seeing him with his hands folded in his lap and eyes closed in prayer, or the fact that I love rhythm and routine, but having a quiet time in the morning has been a sacred space for me for almost half of my life.
But in the past few months, this time has been a battleground. Blame the pandemic, the small house, or the two two-year-olds shrieking as they chase one another down the hall, but “time with God” has mostly ended with me feeling angry at my children (or husband for not making them be quieter human beings), frustrated that I wasn’t more focused, and bitter that I couldn’t start the day exactly how I wanted. Ah, the hypocrisy of spending time in God’s word and emerging as an angry and impatient mother.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you should have done without neglecting the others.” -Matthew 23:23
Jesus condemns the religious leaders of Israel for doing certain religious tasks (tithing fancy spices) but neglecting the most important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Though the things we do certainly matter, when they are devoid of love they are worthless. The Pharisees performed religious tasks thinking that would delight the Lord, but they missed the most important matters of the law. Jesus calls them the weightier matters, which basically means the burdensome matters. It is much easier to tithe than it is to pursue justice or have compassion. But more than that, their reason for performative religion was all about them. They wanted to be seen as people who were righteous and holy, they wanted to justify themselves with their actions.
Just like the Pharisees, I need to examine my spiritual activity. Quiet time should be a place of communing with God, remembering his promises, and being encouraged by his word. Time with God is supposed to train you to act more like him. So if the fruit I bear is selfishness and irritability– not mercy and faithfulness and justice, I must ask myself if this discipline of having quiet time is really about God or about me? Do I come to the word each morning to be in his presence or am I simply trying to justify myself by spiritual productivity?
The Lord wants to grow us out of me-centered time with him and teach us anew what it means to pursue him, what it means to worship, and what communing with him really looks like.
Put to death the idol of spiritual productivity. Time with God is good and necessary for all believers, but spiritual performances are not something God desires. Awesome quiet times do not make us righteous, and really nice prayers do not justify us before God. So when we treat quiet time as a stamp in our spiritual passport to heaven, we are trying to prove our righteousness through what we are able to do rather than depending on the salvation of Christ. We need to let the idol of spiritual productivity die. Notice, however, that Jesus says the Pharisees should have done these (tithing spices) without neglecting the others (loving people). We need to hear Jesus’ rebuke of prioritizing religious tasks over love of God and neighbor and then pursue a life animated by the gospel in both my pursuit of him and love of our family.
Broaden your scope of what it means to worship. Because quiet time can become a primary place of worship, we can ignore how the Lord might be inviting us into worship throughout the day. Anything we do unto the Lord can be worship. We can worship him through folding the laundry with a cheerful heart, through reading and re-reading our kids favorite book, by listening attentively to a friend, by cooking dinner. God cares about our hearts more than our tasks. So when our heart is desiring to honor and serve the Lord, any task can become a place of worship. When we relegate worship to the confines of our designated God-time, we fail to see the Kingdom of God that breaking in all around us.
The weightier matters of God start with loving those around you. Though I have long seen quiet time as a place of communing with God, it is only part of the puzzle. Communion is relationship language, so perhaps communion with God really looks like sacrificially loving my family. We commune with God by participating in Him. To think that participation with God is something we can achieve in solitude is to disregard the entirety of Jesus’ ministry. Communion with God happens by loving and serving other people in addition to growing in devotion to him through scripture and prayer. May our pursuit of Jesus be abundant as we pursue justice, show mercy and live faithfully with others.
I recently read a New York Times article about how the economy of the pandemic does not allow for Americans to have both a job and kids and survive. My husband and I have twin 2-year-olds. He is a pastor and I work from home. My friend asked, “Why are people not screaming about this?”
We aren’t screaming because we don’t have the energy. Or the time. Or mental space to do anything else in our day. For almost 5 months my husband and I have gotten up early, broken work time into two-hour shifts where we work like there is no tomorrow. But there is tomorrow. And tomorrow starts at 6 am with two crying toddlers. And tomorrow holds what today held: maximized hours, exhaustion, and trying to do three full-time jobs between two people. We are screaming, but mostly on the inside.
As a seminarian, I used to be particularly interested in rest. Sabbath. What a wonderful God-ordained word. I read books, I practiced, I didn’t study on a single Saturday for 3 years. My church did two sermon series in two years on the concept of rest. My husband preached at least one sermon on rest in that time, and I remember him attempting to address rest for parents as someone who did not yet have children. I think his acknowledgment went something like, “For parents, I know this is different for you, but it is still important…” A few years and two kids later and all I can say is, yes, it’s different. Yes, it is more important than ever. But sweetheart, we had no idea the train that would hit us when we had twins, and then drag us through a pandemic and almost no childcare support.
We happened to move on March 1, 2020, to a new city. Two new jobs, a new church, leaving two ministries, and a decade of an established community. On March 16, we got the shelter in home orders. We had one Sunday at our new church. I met a handful of people. Our daughters attended children’s church for the first time which meant that I worshipped without kids for the first time in 1.75 years. And then it all happened. Shelter at home. Quarantine. Social distance.
I’m writing this because if you are a parent who feels like their insides are withering, there is no hope, no timeline, no rest, no difference between weekend and weekday because they are equally exhausting, you, and I, need to cling to someone as tightly as our children cling to us. We need a God who mothers us.
Lately, I find myself struggling with hopelessness as I trudge through never-ending dailiness. I know this is the place of God patiently molding me into His image but right now it feels more like a place of despair. I remember having my second of four knee surgeries and telling myself, at some point you will be done with surgery, off crutches, through the six months of physical therapy, and this will just be a memory. Because you know that, be kind to your mom, expect the pain, get through knowing it will get better soon. Hopefulness. I had something to hope towards, an object of hope. Having such a clear object as well as a clear timeline gave me the hope I needed to persevere in painful circumstances and the perspective to take the bumps that would inevitably come. But that is exactly why this season feels like a free-fall. How many months (years?) will this go on for? Who will I be when I come out on the inevitable other side? How do I stop the spinning to fix my eyes on an object, a direction to hope towards?
The concept of fixing your hope on an outcome or goal is actually deeply biblical. It is central to any understanding of discipleship– we live in a way that might challenge us or make us uncomfortable, but we sacrifice because we have a goal fixed in our minds–salvation and God’s Kingdom coming today as it is in heaven. The Apostle Peter describes this very thing in the first chapter of his first letter when he drops the loaded therefore. Therefore, because you have a hope laid up for you in heaven, a treasure imperishable and undefiled, be holy as I am holy, walk in my ways, conduct yourself with fear and reverence knowing that you will one day stand before the Lord Almighty. If you have a goal worth living for, an object worth attaining, then, as Paul says, run the race in order to win the prize. What we anticipate on the other side of trials shapes how we live today. I know this to be true. It makes sense intellectually, but my heart still fails.
Appealing to eternity creates a few practical challenges in my heart. Eugene Peterson’s voice rings in my ears as he writes in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction that believers today want fast discipleship, they want formation now! Most do not want a daily obedience in the same direction for a lifetime. But that is exactly where disciples are made. In the long haul.
Largely, I feel like I have emerged from life challenges as some kind of victor. A phoenix rising from my own ashes, I view my story as a success story– as most millennials do. But as a working mother, what does “success” look like right now when all you have is pasta on the floor, everyone wanting mommy, and another day of working while your children cry outside your door while your husband tries to calm them down? Where is my commitment to Sabbath? Has my joy in God’s refinement evaporated? I feel as though I used to believe in something and now I am just surviving.
When the pandemic began, I reached for Isaiah. I figured, hey, might as well live in scripture that reflects our current reality. The prophets have become a strange comfort for me– both harsh and exacting, and yet offering the crystal clear view of restoration that only comes from suffering and being humbled. When I taught Bible studies at Harvard and we spent a summer in Isaiah, I signed up to teach chapters 23-26, and the image I remember is that of a woman giving birth to a gust of wind. I remember chuckling at the silliness of that phrase. Israel’s hopes becoming a gust of empty wind, not a new life, not a crying infant bringing salvation. The uttermost of disappointment. Their object of hope seemingly drifting away in a breeze. I read it as a metaphor, which it is, but I read it not as a mother.
As I finished the book in this season, it was the final chapter that caught me. I think about reading God’s word like winding a ball of yarn. The yarn remains the same, the same thickness and width. But it is the habitual, daily wrapping that creates something solid and of value. Growing every wrap. Gaining volume and mass quietly, invisibly. You wind and wind and all of a sudden it’s the size of a grapefruit. Slow and steady. That’s how it is reading God’s word regularly. So while the gust-of-air-birth is somewhere in the middle of my yarn-ball, another image was added this time around.
At the end of this massive prophecy spanning two centuries of the story of God’s chosen people, their daily struggles, the promises of how they will be turn out on the other side, all of it is wrapped up with the image of a mother. God as a mother. Consoling her beloved child. Holding it. Nursing it. Tenderness. Hope. Our Father, like a mother.
“Before she was in labor she gave birth; before her pain came upon her she delivered a son. Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things? Shall a land be born in one day? Shall a nation be brought forth in one moment?” (Isa 66:7-8). A mother does not give birth before labor. A mother does not give birth before finding out she is pregnant. No child comes before a mother is scared, before she waits, before she grows and expands, before she suffers, before she loses sleep, before she loses herself to another.
Motherhood, like God’s formation of his people, is a slow maturing, an uncomfortable forming, a losing, a preparing. A long obedience towards literally bearing new life. And God, like a mother to his people, is the refresher and nourisher, the one who delivers that which is promised. He gives birth to a nation, a royal priesthood as Peter calls us. He sustains and feeds and consoles his growing-pained people on his abundant chest (Isa 66:11). This is our God. A God who extends peace like a river when our bones our weary, who hold his children close and feeds them with tenderness, who carries His children on his hip when they need to be held and bounces them upon his knee out of sheer delight (Isa 66:12-13). This is our mothering God.
The thing that has struck me time and again in my brief two years as a mother is how slowly we grow. How slowly our children grow. People see me with my young girls and say, “Oh, enjoy every moment! They go so fast!” I think what they are really saying is pay attention. I will not enjoy every moment. But I do need to be present because someday they will be grown. But today, they are not. Today they are two and still in diapers and stringing some nonsense words together and smearing yogurt in their hair. Growing up takes time. Just like being pregnant, growth takes time–there is no way to speed it up and keep it real. Isaiah is getting at this in the final chapter. You can’t give birth before you have labor pains. And God actually planned it this way. He likes watching us grow. He made us to be slow movers. The long days are where we actually choose him. Our lives and our children testify to this. We are simply not designed for fast discipleship. We are designed for slow days of choosing the good.
Somewhere in the middle of my reading of Isaiah, a young woman I know was questioning this “comfort” God gives. The imagery of Isaiah is tender to be sure—“As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you” (66:13), but what do we do when we don’t seem to be experiencing it? I comfort my daughters on my chest. I hold them close after they wake from a nap. I rock them when they cry. I comfort them. And this is true enough comfort, but it is not the whole biblical picture. Reading The Jesus Storybook Bible, by Sally Lloyd-Jones, my husband came to dinner one night astounded with the new knowledge that when God talks about comfort, he isn’t talking about a warm blanket for nap time. He is talking about spurring weary soldiers into battle. As our comforter, God calls us into battle to fight for His Kingdom to come in the daily work of being his saints. God calls us to action. Comfort is both the tender faithfulness of a mother holding a crying child and the battle cry to fight alongside our God.
Mothers lead into battle. Mothers summon courage and strength. Mothers speak wisdom, truth, and life into their children. And this is only a reflection of our God. Right now, I need that mother. I need that mother so badly to carry me on her chest. To tell me the tides can change quickly, but she will remain the same. As I mother my own daughters and bear this image to them, I need someone to bear it to me. I need my Father in Heaven to mother me. To bounce me on his knee and also summon the courage I need to keep fighting.
Today, if you find yourself weary of mothering, weary of fighting on behalf of others, weary of the slow dailiness of being a Christian, remind yourself that your God chooses to identify with you, your motherhood. He deems it infinitely valuable. He holds your unique burdens and pains in such esteem that He chooses to wear the spaghetti-sauce-stained clothes of motherhood so that we might understand him more. And he does not grow weary. When your arms and patience fail, His will not. He will not grumble as he holds you, he will not resent your neediness. Today, find rest leaning on the chest of your mothering God.