Once upon a time there were regular prayer walks in the early morning mists, there was time to read & digest healthy chunks of scripture each day, I met regularly with a couple of people to pray, I wrote at length in my spiritual journal – and of course as I looked forward to becoming a Mum I made plans in my head for passing on a pattern of meeting with God, using Bible reading notes and ticking them off each night, praying together before going to school, family devotions and discussions around the table. And we have had some wonderful patches where some of these tried and trusted patterns have been part of our family life, but they have definitely been very small patches and often if I am honest very fraught.
Bible reading notes have quickly become a source of stress if a day was missed for some reason, then I was faced with screaming meltdowns because we can’t go straight to the right date without completing the ones we missed, and we can’t just do the next one because its the wrong one (even in undated notes – yes we tried!) but equally we can’t finish the bedtime routine without including the notes!
Praying together before setting off for school began well when our older two were just starting out at school. We sat on the bottom step holding school bags, with coats on ready, with just a couple of minutes to spare, and even on occasion managed to include friends who for whatever reason needed to walk with us that day (- goodness those days I really felt giddy with success!) but school mornings became increasingly stressful for us as a family as the distance between our expectations of our girl’s growing independence and the reality of the level of support needed for every part of getting ready became more and more painfully apparent.
Praying together on the bottom step became less and less of a possibility. Even including God in our talking round the tea table was impossible as we discovered that our oldest simply couldn’t cope with eating and the pressure of social interaction, so we began to eat separately in our urgent need to create a space in which she could eat just something each day. All my dreams of Jesse Trees, Lenten readings, chats about the service on Sundays over a good roast seemed shattered and I found myself grieving the patterns of Christian family life I had always assumed we would have.
Putting more pressure on, the morning and evening inflexible routines with the children became so lengthy and all consuming that it has been difficult to find a creative way of consistently finding ‘quiet time’ with God myself. What a mess it became, not only the frustration and guilt of not being able to facilitate the blessing of these disciplines with my children, but also the guilt of not being able to maintain my friendship with God in the ways I had been taught or had experienced.
Then someone gave me Angela Ashwin’s book ‘Patterns not Padlocks: finding Christ among the chaos’ – how apt! and how helpful, full of practical ideas but more than that every page freed me from the sense of guilt at our lack of ability to have ‘quiet times’. I could see in our daughter’s struggles with the slight variations that every day life causes to her routines a clear picture of how patterns can slip into being something they were never meant to be, and turn from being a source of blessing and a discipline bringing freedom to grow, instead becoming something restricting and stifling – a source of stress and guilt.
Years later, and now with three children, the chaos and my girls’ all consuming need for support to face and complete so many of the ordinary tasks of every day are still very much there. But such a lot has changed within me! As I let go of the guilt I began to see grace again – and yes those who know me well will tell you this is on a good day! – achieving ‘quiet time’ did not earn God’s presence any more than facilitating those disciplines with my children guaranteed He would be at work in their lives. By His grace God’s loving presence was simply there in our midst, day after day, in the chaos, the grieving, and the few moments I saw as successful. Its a truth that my intellect had long accepted, but my habits and my feelings had not embraced the reality. All I had to do was inwardly turn to Him, and acknowledge His presence in the midst of the tasks before me. A habit I was not good at! It took practice and discipline – the Brother Lawrence kind. But like Brother Lawrence I am understanding now that this way is not an emergency measure, a second best when quiet times cannot be done; growing in awareness of God’s presence, learning again to recognize His voice in the mundane and his faithfulness in our daily circumstances good and bad, is enriching my faith in new and unexpected ways.
“He does not ask much of us, merely a thought of Him from time to time, a little act of adoration, sometimes to ask for His grace, sometimes to offer Him your sufferings, at other times to thank Him for the graces, past and present, He has bestowed on you, in the midst of your troubles to take solace in Him as often as you can. Lift up your heart to Him during your meals and in company; the least little remembrance will always be the most pleasing to Him. One need not cry out very loudly; He is nearer to us than we think.”
― Brother Lawrence,
In all this change because of the need for my life to be as flexible as possible to accommodate the inflexibility around me, I have been reflecting on our role as parents, not only to go on growing in faith ourselves, but to be watching for God’s presence on their behalf too. And in the same way that we often find we need to translate tone of voice or body language for the girls, we need to name these moments, translate them I suppose. Helping to articulate experiences for them when there are as yet no words. And with delayed emotional processing it can sometimes take quite a while for a new experience to even be talked about. A recent conversation went like this ‘when we were praying the other day I felt very tearful but I wasn’t sad?’ – ‘maybe that’s the work of the Holy Spirit in you?’ -‘Maybe. It didn’t upset me, I just felt extra close to God, is it the same when my arm gets all tingly when we sing praise songs?’ -‘It could be, I sometimes get that too, I think of it as God’s way of reminding me that His presence is with me, it helps me to trust Him and praise Him even more.’ – ‘But you said God’s with me all the time, but that doesn’t happen all the time?’ – ‘No it doesn’t, but it doesn’t mean God’s not with us the other times. I think he just reminds us sometimes because we worry about it, or because we forget, or because we need a hug; what do you think?’
Finding language to name our experience of God is something that will need many posts to explore, I have certainly had to think things through as if for the first time to try to unpack the many metaphors describing God in the Bible, and to try to make sense together of church vocabulary, because so much of it is not meant literally, but of course for many children – including mine! – a literal meaning is what is going to be heard first of all even for those who will be able to see that it may have other meanings too.
So very thankful for grace, I am so amazed that God should choose to be in the midst of our day to day (esp on the bad days!!) just waiting for us to turn and realize, ready to talk about all of it and actually delighting in us as it says in Zephaniah 3:17. I want to go on practicing being fully present in the reality of His, often unrecognized, loving presence.