Almost Holy comes into the world on June 3, less than a month from today! In honor of Mother’s Day and all moms everywhere, I wanted to share the first chapter of the book with you today.
From my heart to yours.
Happy Mother’s Day!
Almost Holy Mama:
Life-Giving Spiritual Practices for Weary Parents
Running on Empty, Longing for More
Peace must be dared.
“Why aren’t you cranky right now?” I asked my sister Caitlyn as she patiently wrestled her squirmy second-born into a fresh diaper. “You woke up before 5 a.m. and you’re up to your wrists in poop. I’d be cranky.”
“Coffee,” she said. She held her daughter down gently with one hand while pulling more wipes out of the box with the other. “Seriously, Cait, I am tired just watching you. Did you sleep at all last night?” I hadn’t yet learned that asking mothers of newborns this particular question was unhelpful at best. The answer is almost always no; better not to dwell on it. (I also obviously hadn’t learned that commentary is far less helpful than help. What kind of sister sits idly by without at least handing over a few wipes?) Cait fastened the snaps on Sophia’s flowered fleece pajamas and picked her up.
“Well, I’m not going to let her sit there in it,” she said, shrugging. “I love her, and she needed a fresh diaper.”
“Your sister is holier than we are,” my husband whispered to me. We didn’t have kids of our own yet, and we weren’t in any hurry. Parenting looked hard.
Now, nearly seven years later, we have two growing boys of our own—a toddler and a kindergartener—and we await the arrival of our youngest, a baby girl, in just a few weeks. This parenting thing? It is hard. So hard. Good and holy and beautiful? Yes. Sacred and meaningful and a privilege? Of course. But hard. I’ve run a marathon, walked for months on a broken ankle, and moaned my way through natural childbirth twice, and in comparison to the daily grind of parenting, all those were cake.
Every parent has come to the end of his or her rope more than once. Those of us who are honest will admit it’s more like once a day (or an hour…). We struggle mightily to get out of bed for another midnight feeding; we change a couple thousand diapers every year. We may think if we have to pack one more freaking snack we are going to lose it. We come to the end of ourselves regularly and often.
But here’s the thing: we pack the snack anyway. We get out of bed anyway. We change the diaper anyway. We’ve all been out of our depth, overwhelmed, and exhausted (probably even today), but somehow, some way, we keep going…because these small people depend on us, and God has entrusted them to our care. But it’s not easy. Oh boy, is it not easy.
Raising kids is relentless work. There’s joy, too—lots of it— but when the sink is piled high with dishes, the infant is teething, the grade schooler keeps singing the same five bars of “Home on the Range,” you’re fighting a stomach bug, and the whole household is running late again, joyful feelings can seem tauntingly elusive. My friend Beth calls parenting “the only job you’ll be consistently and completely terrible at, but can’t quit.”
Yet between the throes of exhaustion and the profound joys that come with parenting, many of us find ourselves longing for something deeper. Something more. You might remember the closeness you felt to Jesus in years past, back in high school or college or when you were first married or before you landed that full-time job that turned out to require eighty hours a week— back when you had time to give to God. Or maybe you’ve never really had a relationship with God before, not in any sort of established or consistent way, but you sense there’s something missing in your life. You long for depth, for connection, for your spirit to unite with something richer and more lasting than the ephemeral everyday.
As I searched for help, for ways to draw closer to Jesus in the intense crucible that is parenthood, I discovered two things:
First, there is a proven way to commune with Jesus and integrate the love of God into daily life. (The gospel really is good news, folks!) That way is time-tested and almost universally accepted throughout Christendom, whether you’re Roman Catholic, marginally Methodist, or decidedly nondenominational. This path is the journey of spiritual disciplines: soul-care practices like prayer and fasting, solitude and silence, worship and community. Each of these is a biblical, time-honored, ancient way to open our hearts to the things of God.
The bad news came second, as I quickly discovered that the bulk of the writings on spiritual practices comes from priests, monks, and nuns, each of whom lacks every parent’s primary personal concern: children. Other great guides came from men who primarily worked outside the home. Even modern classics like Richard Foster’s A Celebration of Discipline and Eugene Peterson’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (both of which have been quite formative in my own life) were written by men who served as pastors and academics, not primary caregivers to young kids.
Each of these people, to one degree or another, had what every caregiving parent is in extremely short supply of: time. George MacDonald could encourage me to pray for two hours every morning and Teresa of Avila could plead with me to retreat in solitude to be with Jesus, but I was all YOU DON’T KNOW MY LIFE.
If I spent two hours in prayer every morning, I’d have to get up at 3 a.m., and even then, it would be interrupted by at least one nursing session and seventeen requests for juice. If I retreated in solitude to be with Jesus, my kids would either starve to death or burn our house to the ground. (Look, Mommy! I can turn the oven on!)
Over and over again in Scripture we read of Jesus—our definitive model for what it is to be human and what it looks like to be in faithful relationship to the Father—withdrawing to a quiet place to pray. He goes up on a mountain. He takes a boat out away from the crowds. He sits in a garden. I rarely get to do any of that.
If I was going up a mountain, I’d have an alternately hungry and poopy baby in a carrier on my back. If I took a boat out, I’d spend all my time making sure everyone had a proper personal flotation device and no one hung too far out over the side. If I was sitting in a garden, I’d be answering a thousand of my older son’s questions about what that flower was, why the snail was hiding in its shell, and how come he couldn’t pour dirt down my shirt. Quiet places indeed.
There seemed to be only two real options for practicing spiritual disciplines as a parent:
1) It was impossible—at least until the kids either went to school full-time or graduated and moved out.
2) It was possible if I just tried harder.
The first option couldn’t be true. I don’t believe in a God who sets us up for failure or holds out spiritual gifts that will only be attainable if we head to a nunnery. God is intensely practical and interested in the ordinary, everyday, mundane elements of our lives. It’s why he chooses bread and wine to represent his body and blood in the sacrament of Communion, and plain old water for holy baptism. It’s why he came down from his heavenly throne to take on flesh—skin and bones and lungs and teeth—to live among us in the person of Jesus. God loves the ordinary, the everyday, the routine, and chooses to bless them, to make them divine.
So if the first option wasn’t true, then the second must be: these spiritual disciplines were possible for me as a parent of young kids if I simply tried harder. Right? But there seemed to be a trap there as well.
Often our churches—mine included—emphasize trying harder. Doing more. Being better. This focus strips the gospel of its central truth: Jesus came down to rescue us because we could not save ourselves.
If the spiritual disciplines modeled and taught in Scripture are given by God for our good and his glory, then they simply could not be about just trying harder, or they’d be the opposite of the good gifts God wants to give us through them. God is about grace, not works. Love, not exhausted striving. Our obedience, properly ordered, flows from a connection with the God of life; it’s not something we do for him as a way to earn his favor. As Hudson Taylor once put it, “God’s work done in God’s way never lacks God’s supplies.”
Plus, parenthood itself has enough exhausted striving. Who among us hasn’t been so tired our eyelashes hurt? Who hasn’t been woken up at an ungodly hour by a toddler speaking the most dreaded four words: “I just threw up…”? Who among us hasn’t done more heavy lifting in a single day of parenting than in four years of high school gym class?
Even if I wanted to, I simply couldn’t muscle more hours or willpower into my day. Sure, there were hours I could use better than I commonly did (social media addiction, anyone?), but there were also many days when surviving until that magical hour when both kids were finally asleep felt Herculean. If someone told me God was disappointed that I didn’t also fast, pray, and read sixteen chapters of Scripture that day, I’d wonder if that God really loved me at all.
But perhaps there is a third way. And maybe that third way has something to do with grace—that spiritual practices are possible for anyone at any time, even parents, because the God who created us and loves us wants us to draw near and has provided tools to help us do so. Perhaps that same God is already at work within us, sanctifying us through the constant daily grind of loving littles.
Perhaps the God who created my family and yours gave us these children to help us on the road to holiness, not to get in the way. It is entirely possible that because God wants us to be holy, he can and will make us so, even in this particularly exhausting season, if we will only let him.
I had no idea, really, if I could become a holy or even almost holy person while raising young kids. But I knew I needed to try. If we wait until we have the time, we will wait much too long. Perhaps even forever.
What I really longed for was a guide to spiritual disciplines for this intense season of parenthood, these difficult years in which I am responsible to keep tiny human beings alive and myself sane at the same time. When I began parenting, this guide simply didn’t exist. Since then, Catherine McNiel published a lovely little book—Long Days of Small Things—that is well worth a read.
Yet we need many more resources in this area, not fewer; so here I am, offering this little guide. Because Jesus loves me and my small people, and because he loves you and your small people, he wants to draw near to us here and now, not someday in the far off distance when we can find the time.
Whether we’re married or not, parents or not, men or women, young or old, Jesus cares deeply about the development of our souls. There are no exemptions to the call to follow Jesus.
So then, how do we cultivate spiritual disciplines—practices like prayer and fasting, meditation and contemplation, celebration, worship, and service—in the midst of one of life’s more exhausting seasons? Is there a way that those spiritual disciplines can be practiced within the normal rhythms of parenthood so they are not just an addition to the never ending to-do list? Will these ancient disciplines even work outside a monastery or a pas- tor’s study? Can a normal mom like me actually become holy?
I was determined to find out.
For an entire year, I would attach spiritual disciplines to routine parenting tasks in the hope of becoming a better disciple of Jesus and drawing closer to God, myself, my husband, and my kids. I’d write as I went, developing a guide for how to naturally fold the work of the spirit into the daily tasks of parenthood. Instead of adding more tasks to my already maxed-out days, I’d integrate spiritual practices into things I was already doing as a parent, from getting ready for the day in the morning to tucking my kids into bed at night.
Rather than map out my own journey in advance—which disciplines I’d take on during particular months—I decided to take a more organic approach. I’d begin with a simple practice and allow the leading of the Holy Spirit, the rhythm of the seasons, and the needs of our family to dictate which practice I took up next. This turned out to be quite an adventure, drawn out over a much longer time period than I originally anticipated. More on that later.
A bit about me as we begin. I’m a displaced midwesterner who reads too much and has never met a piece of candy I don’t like. My husband Daryl and I have been married for eleven years, and we’re parents to two boys. Our boys were seven weeks and three and a half years old, respectively, when I embarked on this project. As I write the final sentences, they’re two and a half and six years old, and we are preparing to welcome a baby girl in just a few weeks. I’m also a co-pastor, serving alongside my husband at a Presbyterian church in southern California.
Stay with me here. Telling someone you’re sitting next to on an airplane that you’re a pastor is right up there with telling them you have irritable bowel syndrome. They look at me with pity or disgust or both and sometimes even try to find another seat. “Oh,” their faces say, “you’re one of those creepy holy people…”
Except, I’m not holy. I’m so not. I yell at my kids. I put off reading my Bible. I let swear words fly (sorry, Mom).
But I want to be holy. Or at least holier than I am. Not in a holier-than-thou sort of way, but in the same way any follower of Jesus knows they must be if they are going to keep being a follower of Jesus at all. I’m on this journey, too. Being a pastor doesn’t automatically make you holy any more than being a politician automatically makes you honest. Holiness must be sought.
As I’ve spoken to friends and congregants, at MOPS (mothers of preschoolers) gatherings and women’s retreats, to parents young and old, near and far, I’ve discovered that this longing runs deep for many of us. We want—we need—more of Jesus. But amid the intense, unrelenting throes of parenthood, we aren’t sure where to find him. The good news is we don’t have to look far. As the psalmist writes, “Is anyone crying for help? God is listening, ready to rescue.”
The ancient spiritual practices explored within the pages ahead can help open our eyes to this reality, connecting us more intimately to the Lord of life, teaching us to see him in the everyday moments, and preparing us to better hear his still, small voice.