Does Spiritual Growth for Parents Pause While Kids Grow?

TL;DR: I invite you and your kids to come on a retreat.

Roar and I have gone to church twice now. It’s a mostly new experience, Rebel was in the nursery for the first year while I was working. Also, what will surprise no parent of more than two children: my two girls are very different. Roar roars. She can roar so loudly my eardrums rattle. (I’ve started facing her towards my bad ear when she cries, so my good ear doesn’t go bad.) She doesn’t always roar, most of the time she’s just making baby noises and trying out her smiles. Even though she’s got lungs to match the angels, I keep her in worship with me. (There’s no nursery, but, she’d stay with me anyway.)

I keep her in worship because I believe it is never too early to let children know they are loved by God. The community reflects God’s love especially when it welcomes children who act like children. Churches are richer when there’s a kid or two or seventeen present. If Roar starts roaring, I do get up and go change her diaper in another room, but then I stand in the back and rock her. As I was rocking her on Sunday, I got smiles from those around me who heard her cooing, they know the value of seeing the face of God reflected in a child.

I am grateful for spaces where I feel welcome to be present with my small children. There seem to be far too many spaces in our culture where kids should be allowed, but aren’t welcomed. It’s kept me more isolated than I need to be. (So is the fact that simply leaving the house can be a production.)

Even in the midst of constantly caring for my two young children, I seek to grow spiritually. I’m going to turn 35 this week, and I don’t want to wait until after I’m 40 to grow deeper in my spiritual development. So I want a space for spiritual reflection and growth with babies welcome. I’m going to lead this retreat. We will create space for messy holiness. The Spirit can speak in many places including both in silence and the squeals of the littlest child.

We will partner together so each participant can have a time of silence and solitude each day (a minimum of half an hour a day), but most of the time we will gather together with our babies and learn together. If you don’t have children, you are also welcome, just know there will be kids there, too.

Spiritual growth doesn’t have to wait until you can be away from your kids for two days. You don’t have to spend an hour a day in your morning quiet time to grow spiritually. Children learn from their parents, a good way to teach them is to show you value their presence even while you retreat.

I’ve not encountered this idea before. Who wants to pilot it with me?

Promise

Promise is the sister of hope. She is given and creates a home for grace.

We have been given a promise of hope in the form of new life that we can live now. We need to live into it a little bit more each day. The promise extends past those who are consciously awaiting it, the promise shines into the darkness.

The promise that we celebrate this season is the pure embodiment of light eternal. It is a light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. The light does not go out.

Tonight is the darkest and longest night of the year. The Solstice comes tomorrow before the sun rises. We have less than ten hours of daylight where I live. And the daylight that I do have is heavily laden with clouds banked against the sunlight. Darkness cloaks the day early and remains far after I arise from bed.

But there is light.

Exciting things are in store.

Family is coming to celebrate, new presents are being purchased, and my favorite day of the year is only 4 days away. I know I’ve written about my favorite day before, but in case you missed it, my favorite day is Christmas Eve, and this year I get to do the whole thing with my closest family, a gift that we haven’t had in five years.

The days are dark and covered with shadows but light and promise peek through, illuminating times of joy and hope.

Five and a half years ago I promised to love and cherish the partner that has walked with me through valleys and over mountaintops. We keep learning from each other, encouraging each other, extending grace to each other. It’s not always simple or easy, but the promise that we made together those 66 months ago have found us a better and stronger team together. Remembering our promise.

Red Sea Prayer of Confession

Delivering God,

When we look at the wilderness around us

      and the turbulent waters before us

      we see danger and destruction.

We recognize the call of the Israelites

      as we desire the familiar

      rather than the unknown.

You call us forward on a path that we cannot see.

Cleanse us from the mud of our sins

      as we journey through the waters.

Shield us from distractions that pull us

      away from your path of dry ground.

Be the pillar of cloud and fire that protects us.

Soften out hearts to trust in you.

As we walk through your grace

      lead us into your way of life. Amen.

 

For those who are looking for last minute confessional liturgy for Exodus 15, the story of the Israelites passing through the Red Sea (or Reed Sea, if you are a hebrew linguist).

Scrub a Dub

Today Le Tour de France ended in a part of France in which I traveled when I visited my sister while she taught there. (Sis, you can keep going to cool places, and I’ll keep visiting you there.) It was cool to see parts of the country, the cobblestones I had walked on where now the competitors were racing. The thing about the stage today: it was raining. And so at the end of the stage, every single biker was covered in the mud kicked up from the road from their tyres and the tyres of all the men racing with them. The announcers said that they were showering or at least getting a “thorough toweling off” before they had any interviews.

I’ve not often been that dirty. I have a pretty clean job, where I do a lot of writing, and I might sweat, but it is only because I might be preaching outside or if the heat is turned higher than I find comfortable. On vacations, I take a shower after a day at the beach, but that’s to get salt and sand out of my hair. I don’t play sports very often in the rain, though I do enjoy a stroll in a summer downpour every so often.

I remember once, though, that I got pretty dirty.

While I was volunteering with Peace Corps in Kenya, a group of us wanted to go over the border to Uganda to white water raft the headwaters of the Nile. There is probably a flight that goes from Nairobi to Kampala and a quick cab or charter flight that would take at most an hour or two to get the journey done. But, being volunteers and with limited spending money (I almost said we were poor, but that would be lying) we all took the local mass transit available. That means we all took Matatus. A Matatu is a unique vehicle, designed for fifteen passengers, with the diesel engine block directly under the driver and front passengers. They are everywhere in Kenya, probably in most of Africa. We saw a couple of the same vehicle bodies when were in Tokyo, but they were not the same, they were way too clean and didn’t have nearly enough people in them. Remember how I said they were designed for fifteen passengers? Sometimes, especially in the western side of Kenya, the conductors can fit in an extra five, ten, or fifteen people in, as well as live chickens, goats, children who sit in laps, and any assorted collected luggage. It can get a little cramped.

Our group came together, and managed to fill most of a Matatu, but not all of it, there were locals riding with us. I managed to sit in the very back, alongside a window that I cracked open to get some good air circulating through. There is no air conditioning in Matatus. You learn to make the best of imperfect circumstances. I was sitting pretty for the final leg of our trip. Window seat, got a seat nearly to myself, friends around me, doing pretty good, actually.

When we got to the base camp of the rafting company, I gave myself more than a once-over. My arm, where the sleeve met the skin, looked like I’d gotten a farmers tan. Not too bad, just a bit red and dark. On closer inspection, I realized it was dirt. That’s right, the dust of the road had layered on thickly enough so that I thought I had a tan. It was time for a bath.

Mom's feet, after a normal day of walking around in the dust of my village.
Mom’s feet, after a normal day of walking around in the dust of my village.

I went on to take the most amazing shower of my life. Showers are not all that common in Kenya. I didn’t live with running water in my home and took bucket baths to get clean most of the time. The base camp had showers set up along the ridge looking out over the river, one wall made of forest and river in the distance. As I soaped up my hair I could see rivers of dirt streaming down my body. I don’t always rinse and repeat, but this time it was incredibly necessary. It felt so good to be clean.

I wonder when else that is the case. Do you have to get really dirty to appreciate getting clean? The contrast makes the positive so much stronger.

I struggle with thinking sin is the same way. And in some ways it might be. When a woman comes to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears, the host at the table complains at her effusive display of gratefulness. Jesus goes on to tell a parable about a man whose debts as big as a mountain being forgiven who is more thankful than a man with a mole’s hill worth of debt forgiven (Luke 7).

Paul asks: so should we sin more, to make the forgiveness that much sweeter? Absolutely not (Romans 6).

The thing about God’s grace: it is sweet regardless of the journey we have taken to receive it. Whether we have raced through the cobblestones of Northern France in the pouring rain, ridden in the back of a Matatu down a pot-holed dusty road, or done what seems to be nothing of consequence, God offers us grace to cleanse us of all that has hindered us.

I forget this. I forget that grace can come to me and those around me, whether we have a squeaky clean past or a hundred different skeletons in our closet. Shouldn’t we get a little dirtier just to make the cleansing that much better? Not necessarily. And in the same vein, it doesn’t matter how dirty you get, whatever past you think you have that is going to make God cringe. The waters of God’s grace shower down in a never ending fountain that cleanses us of everything. Every doubt, every fear, every anger, every moment of jealousy, every single thing. Now. We still live in this world, even as we are working to bring the Kingdom of God to earth. Grace is not a one time thing. We still need grace to work in us every day. Just like you need a regular shower, you need a regular encounter with God, with the grace and Spirit of God to stay in the right direction.

God is not done with you yet. God is waiting to cleanse you with grace again. And guess what? It feels so good to be clean.

Confirmed and Commissioned

When I was twelve, the sixth grade Sunday school class lesson scheduled for the year was confirmation. Confirmation is an interesting practice that the United Methodist Church and other denominations use to shape and develop youth as they grow in Christian faith. We probably do it in part because our practice of baptism doesn’t revolve around believer’s baptism, and so we have created a way to celebrate a profession of faith in the midst of the life of the church for someone who grew up in the church. I think it is a good practice, mostly because it is a way to teach the foundations of faith and allow young learners to ask questions in spaces where it is safe to do so.

When I went through confirmation, it was with the group I had been in Sunday School with for the last six years. It was the last time I was with any particular group of people for such an extended period of time besides my immediate family. Even our girl scout troop was only together for five years. And I wonder why I don’t have concrete ideas of permanency. I haven’t even been with my husband that long yet.

Anyway. As I was saying. Confirmation.

I learned about the church, worship formats, Wesleyan heritage, Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke, Welch’s Grape Juice, and other Methodist factoids. The class had a journal that I remember using for at least four months. We went on a Confirmation Retreat to St. Simons Island and Savannah, Georgia where we learned about John Wesley and the birthplace of Methodist in South Georgia. (Not exactly the way it happened… but South Georgia is pretty proud that Wesley walked under the Live Oaks and through the Spanish Moss there.)

All of our work and class-time culminated in a service of Confirmation during the Main Eleven O’clock Worship Service. We were all supposed to dress in white and sit together with our mentors on the very front row and then go up and kneel at the altar while we were confirmed before all the church. I didn’t have anything to wear, and my mother was still in her ‘make a dress for Kathy rather than go buy one’ phase. Good white dress material is hard to find. However, my very best friend growing up had lost her grandmother a year or two before then, and she still had some of the fabric from her collection. In the collection was a beautiful white fabric that hid a tint of purple depending on how you looked at it in the light. My mother took that fabric and made a beautiful dress out of it for me to wear when I was confirmed.

My Confirmation Celebration with Beth and Julie in 1995
My Confirmation Celebration with Beth and Julie in 1995

I still have that dress. It’s in the bottom of a drawer somewhere or in my collection of dress-up clothes, and I know it doesn’t fit anymore. It is still a really nice dress. I have been saving it for something. I don’t want to give it away. I want to keep it for my daughter, perhaps, or make a baptismal gown out of it for my children, or make a quilt out of it for my children. My children, of course, that I don’t have yet. I have moved that dress at least seven times since I grew out of it if not more.

I wore this dress for the first time that auspicious Sunday when I was confirmed. Kneeling at the altar, celebrating with my family, parents, sister, aunts and uncles, mentor Nancy, and fellow confirmands, I was celebrated as a full member of my church. As the Senior Minister and other teachers laid hands over me and prayed for me and my faith journey, I remember that moment as special, even if I don’t exactly remember all the details.

I would leave that church in a few short months because my father was being re-appointed. I went back a few times whenever we were visiting my grandparents, but my membership had moved on. The most recent time I went to worship at that church was for my Grandmother’s Memorial service. I read Isaiah 35 in the midst of the service which was a celebration of Janet’s life, love, ministry, and service in her church, community, and family. My membership began at that church, I was baptized at that church, confirmed when I returned, and now I could share a small part of my ministry with the gathered community present in worship.

Now I have been entered into a different membership. Friday, June 20th I was commissioned as a Provisional Elder in my conference of the United Methodist Church. Now, for those who are outside the process, this can get quite confusing, but, it provisionally places my membership in the conference, beyond the local church. In effect, it extends the mission of the church by naming me as a member of the gathered community rather than a specific church family.

Part of the commissioning service includes the Bishop laying hands on each individual being commissioned and praying over them by name. After examining us by asking us questions about our beliefs and willingness to serve the United Methodist Church, Bishop Goodpaster pressed his hands on my shoulders and invoked the Holy Spirit to be present and poured out over my ministry, sending me out to “proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, to announce the reign of God, and to equip the church for ministry, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

My commissioning continues my call from my confirmation. From the laying of hands and the invoking of the Trinity at my baptism, through the confirming presence of the Spirit in my youth, to my submission to the call of God for me to be a pastor, God has been working in my life through others so that I can fulfill my call as a servant to the Church in God’s world.

I didn’t necessarily feel any different after the Commissioning service was over, but I did feel a great sense of relief along with a continued sense of responsibility to the Church. I don’t have to appear before the Board again this coming March, but now I have begun a new journey of discernment and growth.

Part of me still wishes I could have it more simple: wear a white dress and celebrate my faith. But my faith begs to be lived, not merely celebrated. God calls me to wrestle with the Word and help to build the Body in faith. It is a weighty call. I shall be courageous.

 

PS. Turns out I found that dress… and can put it on… kinda. Don’t worry. It doesn’t actually fit. Thought I’d share anyway. Sorry for the wrinkles. Check out those puffy sleeves!

My Confirmation Dress and Commissioning Cross
My Confirmation Dress and Commissioning Cross