Written by Heidi Jackson
A few weeks ago, my husband, children and I visited my sister-in-law in Baltimore. We enjoyed a parade, pizza, a movie night, and lots of adult conversation while the kids tried to play with the cat rather than terrorize it. On our last morning, my husband stood at our 6th floor window with the three children and played “I Spy”, finding ships and cranes and clouds shaped like lions. I listened to the laughter and curious questions and smiled at the thought that my tiny people, who normally look up at the world, were seeing a small part of it from a bird’s eye view. I folded laundry and threw toothbrushes into the bag and wished I could be out there with them.
I remembered the story of Martha and how she longed to sit at Jesus’ feet but felt she couldn’t. I remembered the delight of Mary as she sat, wholly absorbed in beauty and wisdom and the love of her Creator in a single moment. And I wondered why I must keep packing…why can’t I pause and make us 15 minutes later leaving town? I could…and I couldn’t.
I watched my babies on the trail
one running ahead, so big
the other shrieking from a wasp bite
but both exuberant to see the water
falling and churning over the falls
both pushing up against the rails
eager to get as close as possible
to beauty abandoned.
Just as I couldn’t stop packing, just like I listened to my children’s wonder from the other room, so I often feel cut off from deep communion with the Lord. Moments like Mary’s are few and far between; life with little ones is so busy and so tired. In past years the thought of participating in something that requires as much discipline as Lent has brought me to tears. “I just can’t. I’m like Tolkien’s butter spread over too much bread (that’s probably sitting stale behind the over ripe bananas, anyway), and what would I give up? Coffee? Chocolate? Those things are coping mechanisms, not idols, and meaningless before the Lord in the long run…” …such were my thoughts.
I only recently discovered that Lent is not just about “giving up” and solemnity and penitence, but also a season for hope filled preparation and prayer. It is about seeking the Lord’s invitation to participate in a season of denying yourself like Christ did for 40 days in order to draw closer to him. Lent requires self-sacrifice in the spirit of Christ.
I try to embrace the days
full of everyone who needs me
constantly filling my vision
while my soul searches for something
to hold, cling to, remind me of myself.
I know that they will not always
be there to hold and rock
and yell at and sing to
I try to embrace time with them
just as I embrace every
opportunity to leave
just for a little while.
Many religious and cultural traditions forbid nursing or pregnant mothers from fasting. In his writing on contemplative prayer, Richard Foster addresses mothers and young parents and tells them to rest easy…that the Lord sees and understands the hearts of the sleep-deprived and weary. In seasons of daily self-denial it is enough to pray for your children and ask the Lord for his breath of life through the day. Parenthood is a years-long season of saying “no” to yourself, and it is okay, during Lent, to embrace a season of saying “yes”.
Lenten participation for some parents simply cannot look like the standard “I gave up ______ for Lent.” A nursing mother may not fast from carbs for 40 days, but she may listen to the Psalms on audio while she plays with her toddler or end her day with music, rather than a smartphone. A sleep-deprived father maybe shouldn’t get up extra early to pray for an hour 40 times, but he could take over the morning coffee ritual or memorize a passage of Isaiah to pray over his children at night while they sleep. The Lenten season in which we get creative and say “yes” to our hearts and to Jesus is, I dare to say, necessary for parents. Otherwise we run the risk of laying down our lives in so many ways we find ourselves face down on the floor…with no will to get up again.
As Christians and parents, we must get up again.
I want them to see the word
made flesh in my flesh as I work
and grow and care for them.
Failure is constant.
Grace not always visible
still makes them say
“Mama, I like your nose!”
when what I feel for my failure is
the opposite of “like”:
unreachable by anything
but the spirit and his word.
If parenthood requires round-the-clock self-denial, so does caregiving. I would extend the invitation to those who spend their waking hours caring for others: be creative, and make Lent a season of saying “yes”. Let your soul rest.
In the middle of her own “trenches” when her children were young, Tish Harrison Warren (author of Liturgy of the Ordinary) was assigned “rest and joy” by her priest for a Lenten practice one year. Every week she exercised the discipline of finding a babysitter, grabbing a novel, and reading at a coffee shop by herself for a few hours. It was hard. It looked like luxury on the outside, but it was how she experienced rest and joy during Lent in a year she desperately needed it.
If you find yourself in a season of diaper changes, never-ending dishes, and scrubbing crayon off the wall at least once a week, consider that maybe you are already immersed in self-denial. Maybe embracing your need for rest and joy in small but important ways can help you meet with Christ. And take heart: the joy of the resurrection of our King is right around the corner.
“Be still, my soul! the Lord is on thy side;
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul! thy best, thy heavenly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.”
~Katharina von Schlegel
Heidi Jackson lives in Virginia and is a wife, mother of 3 children 6 and under, and a teacher. She homeschools her children, procrastinates housework, and reads voraciously. One of her favorite things are almost-daily walks around the neighborhood with her family.