Message in the Mess

Teaching children is not an easy process, but they're doing the same and more for us.

One spring morning, I sat at our kitchen table with a journal, Bible, and cup of tea before the kids woke up. Our youngest, Marilee, had just turned 2, and we’d entered a new season of family life. Marilee had joined her older siblings—Penny, then 7, and William, 4—in sleeping through the night. No one was wearing diapers, and no one had entered puberty. I thought of it as a “sweet spot” of parenting, and it was time, I hoped, to get my life back in order after eight years of disarray. I wanted to resume an old habit that for years now had happened only sporadically, this practice of a morning “quiet time.”

I sat down, feeling satisfied and a little bit proud of myself, and just as I started praying for my children, someone started crying. Marilee was awake and upset, and my quiet time was over before it began. I closed my eyes for a moment, sighed, and then hurried upstairs to retrieve Marilee before she woke her siblings. A similar scene had been going on for years. Long before, I had lost count of my failed attempts to return to the spiritual practices of my life before motherhood. This morning echoed many earlier occasions where my children had seemed like impediments to faith, to grace, and to growth.

Especially after William—our “fussy baby”—was born, the prospect of rising early to commune with God had begun to seem impossible. As an infant, William slept in short bursts and then woke up, violently, intensely, with tears. This cycle continued not only through the daytime but also at night. For eight months. At that same time, Penny, who has Down syndrome, had begun to see four different therapists on a weekly basis. I created a chart on a white board just to try to keep straight the different sets of instructions and priorities from the occupational therapist, speech therapist, physical therapist, and special education teacher. And then, eight weeks into William’s thus-far-unhappy life, I spent a day feeling nauseated, with an intensifying pain in my lower right abdomen. An emergency room visit confirmed appendicitis, which necessitated a few nights in the hospital and 10 days without any strenuous activity.

It was a season of disorder. I didn’t exercise much. I didn’t sleep much. The dishes stayed dirty, and I stopped even trying to write thank-you notes when people sent a baby gift. We still went to church most Sundays, but I usually found myself in the nursery rocking a crying baby or falling asleep in the pews. Meanwhile, I stopped praying, other than desperate midnight pleas for William to sleep longer. And I began to wonder whether this very ordinary experience of welcoming children into our family would cause me, and my faith, to unravel altogether.

That morning with Marilee in tears reinforced a pattern that had been repeating itself for years: Well-intentioned Christian mom tries to ignore the demands of her children and meditate on Scripture. Children demand attention. Mom gives up. My first response was irritation: How dare she interrupt my special time with Jesus? But as I looked down at the words I had just written in my prayer journal—“For help paying attention to Marilee”—I wondered whether this moment, and the years of disruptions before it, was actually an answer.

It took nearly a decade, but I finally started to believe that God was at work, not in spite of my children, but through them. They weren’t an obstacle to faith but, rather, a vehicle of grace. It turns out Jesus taught something similar 2,000 years ago, and His words and attitudes toward the young offer a gentle corrective for moms like me. Perhaps even more so, they offer an exhortation to us all—whether parents or not—to consider the little ones in our midst.

Again and again in the gospel narratives, Jesus surprises His followers through His attitude toward youngsters. Not only does He heal and bless them, giving them the same type of honor that He bestows and calls for with adults, but He also admonishes His disciples to pay attention to and learn from them. Jesus says, for instance, that God has revealed some truth only to babies (Matthew 11:25). When Jesus confronts the religious leaders in the temple, the children nevertheless sing praise to Him because they alone recognize the truth of who He is (Matthew 21:12-17). Jesus even goes so far as to say, “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3 NIV).

I began to wonder whether this very ordinary experience of welcoming children into our family would cause me, and my faith, to unravel altogether.

What if my kids were not distracting me from the work God was doing in my life, but instead had become the work God was doing in my life? What if the messiness and disorder I experienced, the interruptions and lack of control, all came as invitations to better understand and receive His grace? What if God wanted to teach me, to grow me up, through my children? And what if God wants to do the same through the young in our congregations and communities?

When Jesus tells us we should look to children for truth, that we need to change and become like them, I don’t think He’s calling us to become immature, and I don’t believe He’s denying the selfishness kids bring to many interactions. But I can think of a whole list of qualities boys and girls have that adults often lose, many of which seem to matter a whole lot to God.

To begin, there’s wonder and delight. Kids notice the “blue in the sky” and give thanks. They see the natural world as a source of endless fascination. Our son William is always asking for the names of the trees, the birds, the constellations. He and his sisters all jump up and down at the sight of the first snowflake each winter. They intuitively see God’s glory in the world.

What if my kids were not distracting me from the work God was doing in my life, but instead had become the work God was doing in my life?

Beyond that, kids model emotional and physical vulnerability. They depend upon adults for almost everything. And their vulnerability invites intimacy. In our household, as our children open themselves up to their dad and me as the ones who provide for their needs, they also look to us for love and affirmation. They want to climb into my lap or snuggle up next to me on the couch at every possible opportunity.

With that vulnerability come both humility (an admission of need) and trust (an expectation that we parents will fulfill those needs, and gladly). As an adult, I have learned to protect myself rather than risk the hurt that comes from vulnerability. But my kids demonstrate wide-eyed faith in us to take care of them. When He calls His disciples to become like little children, I suspect Jesus most wanted His followers to emulate this level of trust. Again and again and again, He talks about God as our Father—in the Lord’s Prayer, in parables, and on one occasion He even refers to the disciples as “little ones”(Matthew 10:42 NIV).

On that morning nearly two years ago, Marilee interrupted my quiet time. As it turned out, she had a double ear infection. Even after a second round of antibiotics, her ears remained filled with fluid. We drove to a specialist an hour away, and over the next month returned two times. It amounted to hours together, just the two of us. Chatting in the car about books and animals. Listening to her sing along with silly songs. Helping her count to 10 and recite the alphabet. Letting her push the button in the elevator. Holding her hand as we navigated the parking lot.

At one point, I would have seen all those visits as a loss of productive time. Instead, they became an answer to prayer that I not forget our youngest child. They also became something more, as those hours of driving and waiting called me to slow down, pay attention, and love her. They became a way for me to understand that spiritual growth does not depend upon order and control, but upon vulnerability, humility, and wonder at the God who loves me without fail and without end.

My children have impeded all sorts of plans, including those for spiritual growth. Now, however, I couldn’t be more grateful for all those interruptions. For in falling apart and finally letting go of my ideas about what an “adult spiritual life” might look like, I have accepted my children’s invitation to a deeper awareness of God as the father of all. Jesus admonishes us—even those of us without young ones—to pay attention to the children in our midst. If we do, we might just see God’s glory.

 

Photography by Christopher Lane

Related Topics:  Family

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What happens to my notes

25 At that time Jesus said, I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.

12 And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves.

13 And He said to them, It is written, `MY HOUSE SHALL BE CALLED A HOUSE OF PRAYER'; but you are making it a ROBBERS' DEN."

14 And the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them.

15 But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that He had done, and the children who were shouting in the temple, Hosanna to the Son of David," they became indignant

16 and said to Him, Do You hear what these children are saying?" And Jesus said to them, Yes; have you never read, `OUT OF THE MOUTH OF INFANTS AND NURSING BABIES YOU HAVE PREPARED PRAISE FOR YOURSELF'?"

17 And He left them and went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.

3 and said, Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

42 And whoever in the name of a disciple gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water to drink, truly I say to you, he shall not lose his reward."

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