In quietness and trust: Tell stories

This is the third in a series of posts on nurturing the inner life alongside young children. You may like to read this brief introduction to the series before continuing.

Tell stories!

Stories can start anywhere.

“Mummy – what does that sign say on that bench?”
“It says it’s there to remember someone who died”
“Who died?”
“I don’t know – just somebody who liked this place”
“Do we know somebody who died?”
“Yes. Grandma died, just before you were born…”

And so I tell Ben the story of his Grandma. I tell him what she was like, and how much she would have loved him. About how I promised to tell him all about her. I show him photos. We talk about Heaven and Jesus and how many cats Daddy and Grandma had when Daddy was a little boy. And what their names were. And are there cats in Heaven? (My answer is yes). And can Ben have a cat at home? (My answer is no).

Stories tell us who we are.
They tell us where we have come from.
They might hint at where we’re going.

Kids love stories. So do adults – we just forget that we like them so much.

Stories make great prayers for kids. Not just reading the Bible together, or retelling faith stories. We find God in all sorts of stories. God is there in Stick Man and Dear Zoo. God is found in Sarah and Duck, and Peppa Pig. Everywhere we hear stories of love and laughter, of loyalty and trust, of hope and generosity – there God is to be found.

Just as we know ourselves by our stories, so we know God by his stories. The stories we tell to make sense of the world, and to process life. These stories all tell us a little bit more about who God is, and why he is, and how and where and what he is. This stuff – identity, security, revelation, thanksgiving, hope – is the stuff of prayer.

I try to tell stories to my kids. We read picture books; watch films; make things up. I tell them where they have come from – and what is important and why?

And I try to listen. I listen to their own fantasies and dreams and anecdotes. We explore and adventure together through story, and offer it all to God as prayer.

When we lose our stories, we lose our lives. But wherever there are stories, there is God.

(And while we’re on it, check out the brilliant Storytime Service website!)

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In quietness and trust: Two simple questions

This is the second in a series of posts on nurturing the inner life alongside young children. You may like to read this brief introduction to the series before continuing.

Two simple questions: The Examen

When it comes to bedtime prayers, we have never knelt by the bed!
Bedtime can be fraught: everyone is tired. Jim and I are often on our way out to a meeting or service, or halfway through a piece of work, or counting the minutes until our own sleep time.
We’ve survived tea time and bath time and we’re onto the final hurdle: stories, songs, prayer, sleep.

Bedtime is a time for simple, reflective prayer. The Examen is an ancient way of praying that encourages us to review the past day, and to notice. To notice where God has been at work, to notice ourselves and our feelings – so often pushed down within us and unprocessed – and the feelings of others. There are many ways of praying The Examen, but it focuses on two main questions (and endless variations thereof):

For what moment today am I most grateful?
For what moment today am I least grateful?

And so this is what we do, as a family. We ask one another:

What was your best thing today?
What was your tricky and difficult thing today?

We ask.
We listen.
We share.
We notice.

And then we sum up with a really simple prayer, thanking God for all the good things of the day, and asking for his help the next day when things get tough.

This is both simple and profound. The kids love the ritual and the repetition. They love asking, and sometimes they stop to listen to the answer. But it goes much deeper too.

First, it asks each of us to be honest, with ourselves and each other. It encourages us not to turn away from the difficult bits of the day and the feelings they created, but to acknowledge them and own them. It encourages us to look for the unseen gifts of the day, and to be thankful for them. It helps the kids to see that their experiences and feelings are valuable and cherished. It gives us a moment to pause, to remember, and to tie up loose ends.

Second, it reminds us that there are four of us in this family. What one of us may have found difficult, the others barely noticed. What another is rejoicing in, the others failed to value. Practicing the Examen together draws our gaze to the other. It gives us glimpses into worlds and feelings beyond our own.

And third, over time, it helps us work out what is important to us. What draws us close to one another? What makes us happy? What unsettles us? How can we build stronger family relationships? How can we listen and hear one another more through the day? What do we each value? How do we decide what is important when we make big decisions together?

In these simple questions, we are noticing God at work, and we are teaching each other that everyone matters. No matter what has happened that day, the Examen draws us together and helps us end well, and not unthinkingly.

And all that from two simple questions.

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Five things that parenting is teaching me about leadership

Five unformed thoughts on being a parent, being a leader, and how the one informs the other…

1. It’s going to get messy!
My kids are messy: it’s how they learn.

They are most engaged with pretend play when I let them empty 8 boxes of toys all over the lounge, sit in the midst of it all, and act like I’m grateful for the plate of squashed plastic food I’m offered. But it teaches them social skills.

They are most likely to eat dinner when I turn a blind eye as they tip their food off their plates, rub their hands through it, and wave it around in the air. But it teaches them to be at ease with food.

They often need my best efforts at comfort when they’re at their dirtiest: blood and tears staining my clothes as I sit in the mud that they slipped on while I hold them and soothe their fall-induced sobbing.

Parenting is messy. But in the untidiness, my kids learn and thrive and grow. In the mess, they need my intimate involvement: sleeves rolled up and hair pushed back. I have to be in the mess with them.

We don’t lead from the margins. We can’t stay squeaky clean. The most effective leaders I know are the ones who jump down from the pedestal, roll up their sleeves, and get elbow-deep into the mess of their people. It’s not glamorous, there’s not much glory in it, but it’s where people grow.

Leadership: It’s going to get messy!

2. I learn as much from them as they do from me
Father never knows best. Neither does Mum. Sometimes I pick a battle with the kids and realise a split-second too late, actually, they’re right. Trumped by a three year old. Our relationship is at its best not in our head-to-head battles, but in our learning to listen, negotiate, understand, and see a different perspective.

The kids teach me something new every day. Simplicity, attentiveness, joy, kindness, acceptance and inquisitiveness are all gifts that I am growing into, because of their examples.

It takes courage for a leader to admit that their people have things to teach them. It’s one thing to say it – we all say it – but to live it and model it, especially when we have to admit that we’re wrong, requires gutsy humility. My leadership feels more genuine when I am both teacher and pupil. In this way leadership becomes a dynamic interaction that enables mutual flourishing, and we grow together through it.

Leadership: Leaders still have a lot to learn20160512_193707

3. They will not grow into a mini-me
How I am gripped by the temptation to sculpt my kids into small statues of my own self! They already look like me, talk like me, act like me. I want the best for them, and “the best” is everything that I didn’t quite acheive or experience. What is middle age when one can relive one’s youth through one’s offspring?

But they are not me. They will have their own hopes and dreams. Their own gifts and vocations. These things are not mine to snatch and sculpt. To speak into them, even when invited, is to tread on hallowed ground.

Leaders can be tempted to form our people into miniature versions of ourselves. Without great care, Christian leadership may turn into “helping people to become more like Jesus me”. The overwhelming urge to correct those who dare to voice an opposing opinion, or to belittle those whose faith story is alien to my own, is an all-present danger.

Good leadership is about providing safe space. Space in which people can explore, ask questions, and grow more deeply into their God-given self. It requires great trust from the leader: “Will my people be okay if it turns out that they are not like me after all?”

Leadership: Breaking the me-mould

4. Interruptions are hidden treasure
Parenting is one long interruption. From the positive pregnancy test, to the sleepless nights and the sick days away from school: kids go through crises on a daily basis. In a moment plans have to adapt and fit around this tiny person who wields such surprising power.

It’s frustrating, exhausting, and one of the greatest gifts of parenting. So there’s a full day of work planned and the toddler’s running a fever? Work has to adapt as home boundaries are drawn in. The central heating is turned up, blankets are pulled out of drawers, and pyjamas are worn. Jobs are done in-between cuddles. Phone calls are made to the soundtrack of cBeebies. Meetings are rearranged, and the space and stillness created for this little body to repair itself becomes like hidden treasure. The interruption becomes a golden moment for nurture, care, bonding and comfort.

We leaders have great plans for our people. The trouble is, the people keep interrupting the plans! And yet the inconvenient interruptions – the personal crises and pastoral fall outs and undiaried encounters – become golden moments in leadership. It these interruptions, unprepared and unscripted, which create space for God to be at work without me applying my own agenda and solution. The more experience I gain as a leader, the more I cherish and search for interruptions.

Leadership: The interruptions are everything

5. It’s all about the love
My kids are good kids. I think I’m a pretty good parent: the best, for these particular kids. We have good systems, boundaries, rules and strategies in place, and we all live within these.* But none of these are parenting at my most effective. At the heart of our family life is a self-giving, unconditional, honest love. Boundaries can be moved, rules broken and systems blown apart.  The time we spend together, and the attention we offer to one another, are the glue that holds us together. We create memories, share secrets, walk a long way together; we laugh and cry and gossip together.

*Sometimes.

But it’s not all idyllic. We bicker and argue. Sometimes we might be aggressive, verbally or physically (the kids are very good at fighting with their feet). We all have our selfish moments. Sometimes the kids make me so irrationally angry that by their bedtime I am reduced to stony, exhausted silence when I should be singing songs to soothe and comfort them. My oldest is only three: apparently it just gets harder from now. Every parent knows the heartache of loving their kids. Love hurts.

Strategies, boundaries and systems are great tools for leaders. But they are not leadership. When the fancy structures fall away, leadership is about building relationships, falling into steadfast love with our people, and committing to the flourishing of everyone in our care. It’s about offering a self-giving love so strong that it makes our hearts ache.

Leadership: It’s all about the love