Rotas, rhythms, and “back to school”

This week – one of the hottest of the year – my head has been in Christmas: Christmas services, Christmas rotas, Christmas planning. Given the nature of my work, even in July Christmas is never far away – it’s a perk of the job.

It’s not just been Christmas. I have worked through rotas for September to December, so I have journeyed through Autumn, Harvest, Halloween and All Saints, Remembrance Day and Advent as I’ve headed towards the big C. My head has done 4 months of festivals and feasts in a week.

I love the Autumn. After the slower pace of Summer, Autumn brings refreshing rhythm and a renewed sense of purpose.

But we’re not there yet.

This week my oldest child finished his first year of Primary School. I bawled, and I wasn’t alone. His class said goodbye to the staff who had nurtured and encouraged them and formed them into a solid bunch of friends who would continue to do this school thing together. They spent their last day in an environment which had cocooned them so delicately: a stepping stone from mum’s arms to school’s bosom. They said goodbye, at least for a time, to the friends they had come to know and love and invest in their weekdays with.

And so this week was an ending, of sorts. A week of looking ahead to the Autumn, of looking back over the school year, and feeling a little bit out of kilter within it all.

I never stopped to imagine how the end of the school year would feel, as a mum. The strange combination of desolation and elation, of sadness and thankfulness, of disorientation and relief. The anxious, fearful, overwhelming, joyous sense that I will taste this strange cocktail of loss and reward again and again and again: the end of Reception, the end of primary school, the end of secondary school, graduation or new jobs, moving out, serious relationships being made and broken, grandchildren being born: trauma and celebration.

And what grounded me through this week was those Autumn rotas.

Right now we teeter on the precipice of summer. Life goes freestyle for a while, as we muddle through again as a family of 5 who’ve lost all routine. We might have to learn to tolerate each other a bit more. To adapt to the loss of a routine and sense of community that term time gives us. We will have to navigate the arguments and the tantrums and the meltdowns without the promise and sweet relief of childcare and school looming the next day.

And that’s okay. We’ve done this before. We’ll adapt and it will be awesome.

But right now I feel unanchored. It will be fine to float for a while, and we are all desperate for the rest. But I’m looking forward to those Autumn days. The restored routine. Fresh expectation. New friends and old mates. Early mornings and 3.25pm picks ups and solid bedtimes and grown up evenings. The slide towards Christmas, the nights drawing in and the frantic October morning search for that elusive pair of gloves.

We need rest. But then we need rhythm. And Autumn is packed full of it. We find rhythm in routines and systems and the promise of special times that happen over and over. From ‘Back to School’ to Harvest to Armistace to Advent to Christmas to New Year’s resolutions – we are carried by familiar stories and rituals that ground us and tell us more about who we are.

Rhythm keeps us sane. Rhythm tells our story.

And rhythm tells bigger stories too – it refreshes and reminds and resets us for the journey ahead.

So I’m grateful for summer, and for the rest it brings. But I’m looking ahead too, to a new rhythm and a new term. Old stories told in new ways. Feasts and festivals (and perhaps the odd famine) that will shape and mould and send me on my way.

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Drop a ball. Smash a plate. It’s okay to be just “good enough”.

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When I drew this sketch I had no intention of showing it to anyone. Ever.

That was the beginning of this year. I was recently back to work after maternity leave, and for 6 months I had sat on the sidelines of my ministry and tended to our third child. It had been tough. I thought that being a mum third time around would be something I could do with my eyes closed. It wasn’t and I couldn’t.

I had planned to continue an element of my priestly ministry while on maternity leave. And to an extent, I did. I know some people question the wisdom of that decision. It’s one I took seriously and for me it was the right thing to do. But balancing these commitments with a failure to thrive baby, expecting “easy” and getting “tough”, led to something of an identity crisis.

Was I a bad mum for even trying to keep a part of my ministry going through these precious months?

Was I a bad priest for having a third baby? (yep – those irrational postnatal hormones were rife!)

Here were two vocations – two ways of living – coming together and working out how to coexist. As a priest who is a parent, and a parent who is a priest, this is a  source of both agony and joy for me.

How can I give my all to being a good parent, as biology drives me to do?

How can I give my all to being a good priest, as I have been formed and trained to do since first sensing a call to this half a lifetime ago?

How can I do both these things that are not mere ‘jobs’, but calls to ‘be’, when they sometimes seem to be at odds, each demanding every small piece of me and taking everything I have?

Last time I seriously wrestled with this stuff, this sketch was my attempt to work through the pain of this. The chalice and paten at an abandoned table. The empty sanctuary. The messy house. The screaming baby. The kind, compassionate children. The hollow, torn apart mum-priest ready to leave the house but getting nowhere. The darkness and shadow and out-of-reach window. A sense of being trapped in one place, while the other place waits, empty.

In other moments the picture could probably function the other way around: the demands of ministry crowding out bewildered children who wait patiently for their mum to come home and play.

I’m in a better place at the moment. I know that being a parent and a priest are not incompatible roles, and that each nurtures, informs and gives energy to the other. I know that because, on the good days, that’s how it works. That’s why I’m still in ministry, and still loving it, with three kids under 5.

The reason I’m sharing this, is because recently I have heard others say that they, too, struggle with this constant juggling. Once or twice, I’ve shown them this picture. And so I’m showing you, in case it helps you.

What balls are you juggling?
What plates are you spinning?

List them.

Go on – even just mentally.

In how many directions are you being pulled?
How many roles are you holding in tension?
How close do you feel to it all coming crashing down?

And I want to say this.

It’s okay. It’s okay to feel like this.

It can be a dark place to be in.
I know – I go there often, and I’m a priest.
(Priests go to dark places more than most people realise)

But if you feel like this, don’t ignore it.
Draw it, sing it, write it, exercise it out – but don’t keep juggling.

Drop a ball.
Smash a plate.

And when you do, be kind to yourself.

For me, this means remembering that I am not perfect. The illusion that I am gives my ego a boost, but eventually it is only myself that I disappoint.

I’m not perfect. And that’s why I’m happy to show this picture and share this particular journey.

Good enough.
That is all I have to be.
That is all YOU have to be.

And sometimes not even that.

And that’s okay.

 

When God doesn’t get cross even though we mess up

One of my children has been quite bad tempered recently. I thought he was just tired. But yesterday evening, as we sat having dinner, he hinted at why. “I don’t like Mrs Jones…”

I let the comment go, but later, we sat quietly and I probed a bit further.

“Why don’t you like Mrs Jones then?”

“I don’t want to tell you”.

I took a punt:

“Did you get told off today?”

“No”. He replied. “Last week”.

And I realised that this child had been holding in all this anguish from being told off – holding it in for a whole week. He was in turmoil. He didn’t want to tell me, because he thought I would give him a second telling off for this major transgression he had committed. It was so bad that Mrs Jones had removed him from the playground, and sent him back to his classroom. It was so bad that mummy must never find out, and he must hold in all this guilt and shame and frustration.

So before I asked what he had done to be sent inside and told off, I took another punt:

I’m not going to be cross with you. Mrs Jones has already been cross. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, I don’t care, but if you want to tell me, you can”.

I was bracing myself to hear a story of infant violence or wanton destruction, and wondering how I would respond without being cross. The lip wobbled, and tears came into the eyes.

“I rode my bike outside the track”.

“Huh?”

“I was on the fast bike, and I wanted to overtake James who was on the slow bike, so I went around him off the track. And Mrs Jones told me to put the bike away and get inside because I had been naughty”.

So I laughed, and relief crossed his face (and mine, if I’m honest).

“Is that it?!” I said.

“Yes” he replied. Slightly bemused. Why wasn’t mummy going mad? He had thought, for a whole week, that he was going to get told off again if I found out. He didn’t realise that Mrs Jones was probably just having a bad day, or that she might not have meant to sound so cross or react so strongly.

We all have Mrs Jones moments – I have loads – but that’s not why I’m writing this.

After this conversation, I became my son’s advocate and accomplice. We had a few moments of ‘therapy’ to help him process some of his “I don’t like Mrs Jones” thoughts. I won’t tell you what we did, but it involved felt tips and a photograph – and a bin (and of course Mrs Jones is not her real name and we do like all of his school staff very much!!)

I was left wondering what this incident might show me about God. Are there times where we do stuff wrong, and suffer the consequences, and hold it all in, and become laden with shame and guilt and worthlessness – and God actually becomes our advocate? Does God become the one who says “I’m not going to be angry. You’ve already suffered. I’m not going to add to your guilt and shame. In fact, I’m going to help you deal with this guilt and be even happier than you were before all this went wrong”?

Today’s Morning Prayer reading (one of!) is from the prophet Ezekiel, writing to a people in exile: to a people who have really made a mess of things and who find themselves cast out away from their home. Ezekiel speaks the words of God:

“Thus says the Lord God: Though I removed them, far away among the nations, and through I scattered them among the countries, yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a little while in the countries where they have gone”.

I think, last night, I became a sanctuary for a little boy who had committed a minor transgression, turned it into a major thing in his mind, and then sat with the guilt. Someone who had been cast out – or in – to the classroom. And I suspect God does that for us. We tie ourselves in knots of guilt and shame, we get shut out of the life we really want to have, and then God says:

“You are far away, you are scattered, you are lost. You’ve got yourself into a mess. But still I will be your sanctuary in exile. And I will bring you home.”

 

 

In a mirror dimly: When Mother’s Day seems dark

It’s Mother’s Day, and social media timelines are full of people having a good time. Cooked breakfasts, home made cards, flowers, lunch out and glasses of prosecco. Of course, if you believe Facebook, then everyone else’s family is more sorted than yours. Other people’s kids took the initiative to do something special. Other people’s partners went that extra step further. Other families are happier, more chilled, wealthier, more innovative, and kinder to one another. Other families have more than your own family will ever have. If you believe Facebook.

But, away from the plastic smiles and the posed selfies, beyond the idealistic Facebook posts and the status updates capturing moments of perfection, there will be a million different stories. Stories of pain, grief, and disappointment. Of guilt, loss, and failure. Of hurt, regret, and anger. The pretty pink of the Mother’s Day displays cannot colour the bleakness we go through as we are faced with the stark reality of failed and lost relationships.

Mother’s Day seems bigger and more elaborate each year. For weeks beforehand, shops are stocked with the “perfect” present for mum (as if she wants more than your attention and time and a share in your story!) But this growth in celebration doesn’t reflect the reality that painful relationships, and the pain of good relationships now past, are as real as ever.

What hope is there, beyond the plastic and pink, for those of us who find today difficult? What can help us face up to and confront the day, without just bowing our heads and trudging through?

“Parenting is a mirror that forces you to look at yourself”, writes mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn. The child-parent relationship brings out our best and our worst. The naked vulnerability of giving birth and being born remains, for mum and child, in our psyche and our emotions for years after the event. We see our parents and our children at their lowest points, often unmasked and uninhibited, and in their feeble weakness we realise that we, too, are irrational, unreasonable, and scarred.

Two millennia earlier, St Paul had similar ideas. “We see in a mirror, dimly”, he wrote. Paul was writing about love, of all things. Our relationships are, at their best, just poor quality mirrors, dim and dark: offering a shadowy likeness of the pure and radiant love that we find in God who mothers us as Her cherished children.

If my love for my children is a dim reflection of God’s love, then I know that divine love to be wild and untamed, unceasingly lavish and intensely passionate; fiercely protective, always forgiving and endlessly patient.

Some of us have enjoyed the best of parent-child relationships. Most of us will have had a mixed experience, as joy and love blend bewilderingly with hurt and disappointment. Some of us will have had a deeply hurtful experience, or even none at all. Some of us will have known only loss, or emptiness.

In the frailty and failure of our broken relationships, there are always glimmers of hope. A reaching out; a card; a gift; a kind word. A smile from the stranger in the street. A fleeting moment of eye contact. A Facebook ‘like’. A urgent, intense rush of compassion for the person who is hurting. In these snatches of kindness, we see, for a second, a love that is greater than all our failures.

Through a glass darkly: that’s how we see now. But it won’t always be so. Today is a day to hold onto the glimmers, to look at the poor reflections, and to know that this is not “it”. There is more to come: more hope, more love, more fulfilment. It will not always hurt.

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.
Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

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The Parenting Retreat (or: how to be a good parent without wanting to hide in the loo)

I’ve hesitated about writing this post. I know I’m a good parent. I know our family life is fairly happy and secure. The danger of sharing good things about family life on social media is that we might give the false impression that all is perfect. My family life isn’t perfect. I’m not a perfect parent. Good, but not perfect. We have rows and slam doors and storm out and use bad words. “I’m sending you to the rubbish yard!” says my four year old to me when I upset him. I won’t share what I sometimes say to my husband when he, in turn, upsets me. It’s not pretty.

We’re not perfect. But this summer we got something right. This is our story.


It started in a meeting I had with my spiritual director in July. We talked about the birth of my youngest, a few weeks previously.  We talked about the exhaustion I had gone through in the months before her birth, and the ways in which our family resilience had been tested after. We talked about the past, and the future. My hopes for us, and for me. My ministry, my career, my parenting, my ambition. What was good and life-giving, and what was draining and stretching.  It was a good all-round emotional, spiritual and mental check up. And then, as we finished, she suggested the following:

That I seemed restless.
That I should try and notice that, and not respond to it.
That my maternity leave meant I had a great gift to offer my kids: my time and attention.
That perhaps I needed to put away my phone and my restlessness for the summer, and give myself entirely to my children.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love spending time with my kids. But I had usually managed to dilute it to a point where I could be half-present to them, with my mind half on something else: reading, or writing, or (if I’m honest) Facebook. What was being asked of me here was different. A commitment to be wholly present: not for a morning or even a week, but for two months. Two whole months of concentrated time with three under 5s who usually tested my mental and physical resilience on an hourly basis. I left that session of spiritual direction feeling like I’d been set up to fail.

But I made a start. The next morning I launched myself cheerfully into wooden train sets and playdough and snacks and outdoor games. By 11am I was on the verge of breakdown. There were tears – and not from the kids. Why was it so hard? It was something about their chaos and mess and noise. Or was it?

Parenting is a mirror says Jon Kabat-Zinn, that forces you to look at yourself. He argues that children provide the perfect opportunity for a prolonged and intense experience of mindful retreat that lasts about 18 years. If you’ve been on retreat, you know it’s tough. As the ‘stuff’ of life is stripped away, as you go deeper into silence and simplicity, you are forced to look inwards. To see yourself with all your props, your safety blankets and your masks taken away. And then you have to begin the tough inner work.

And that moment, as I sat on the sofa and trusted the DVD player to babysit the kids for half an hour, I realised that these two months would be a similar sort of retreat. In the simplicity of offering my kids my attention and my presence, I would have to deal with the complexity of my self that I had too easily run away from. Here was my crash course in mindful, meditative parenting. It wasn’t the kids and their chaos that was pushing me over the edge; it was that in the simplicity of time with them, I had to confront my own shadow side: my weakness, my anger, my failures, my intolerance and impatience. My imperfection. Here I was, forced to stare at myself reflected in the little shiny faces and dirty hands that were so eager for me. In the kids, I had found my mirror.

In the following days, I persevered in this parenting retreat. All the usual retreat experiences seemed to happen: I got angry, I got sad, I felt overwhelmed, bored, frustrated. And then I found peace. Peace in wooden train sets and nature walks. Peace in just being – living – alongside these joyfully simple little people.

And this is what I learned:

Just be present
The kids didn’t want great entertainment or expensive fun. They just wanted me. We played with paper and cardboard and leaves and stones and sand. Often, I just watched, asked questions, smiled. The simpler the better, and they surprised me with the breadth of their imagination and resourcefulness. We had days of fun with a cardboard box and a load of paint.

Don’t fight the inner work
Offering the kids my attentiveness and presence meant fewer distractions and more mindfulness. Breaking the habit of picking up my phone whenever they turned away from me, and instead staying focused on them, meant I had to confront some of my own inner bleakness. This is hard work, takes some getting used to, and gets worse before it gets better. But it left me feeling like I’d done some tough and rewarding inner work.

Make a list
The highlight of our days became the first task each day: making a list. I asked the kids what they wanted to do that day, we wrote it down, and we did it. It gave them space to think about what they really wanted to do (rather than spur-of-the-moment, tired decisions) and it meant I could steel myself for the messy stuff. It taught them about compromise, and about making space for each other. It also meant I could be honest with them about any jobs I had to do that would take me away from them, and often those jobs became a game in themselves.

Forget perfection
We still argued. There were still tantrums – sometimes the kids kicked off too. There was a lot of mess. A lot of things went unfinished. But letting go of perfection gave us a chance to talk about mess and anger and sadness. It gave us a chance to say sorry. It gave us permission to express ourselves, however badly, and avoid the daily build up of bad feeling that would otherwise lead to an ‘end of my tether’ moment.

Rest together
We did a lot, and I stopped using TV as a crutch or a childminder. But we also spent a lot of time under a blanket, watching Netflix together. It gave me space to breath, and it stopped the kids living at 100mph for the whole day. In fact, most days they chose a film to put on the ‘list’ of things to do that day. We rested together, and we built that time into the day.

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Now the summer is over. My oldest has started school. My middle one spends time at playgroup. And my youngest sleeps a lot. The house is eerily quiet, but echoing through it are the memories of a summer in which I found, surrendered and forgot myself, and became one human in a gang of four who, for a fleeting time, had no agenda but fun and laughter.

So for those who find parenting impossible, who sit and cry on the sofa while the kids watch DVDs, who collapse among the mess and are too exhausted to laugh anymore. To those who hide in the loo, and regret their shouting, and feel haunted by the guilt of parenting failures. To those who are bored, frustrated, and annoyed by their kids. That’s me too. But it can be different. It was for us.

“I will weep”: Leaders as pain-bearers

Apparently babies cry a lot. You’d think I would know this by now, having had three. But there is a biological switch that flicks off between one baby and the next: the same switch that helps women forget the pain of labour. You forget just how much a newborn baby cries. Babies cry for all sorts of reasons.

But mostly, they cry for no reason at all.

This is the toughest crying to deal with. Nothing can make it better. And in these moments the reality of parenting a newborn; the exhaustion and the pain and the frustration; seem so far removed from the fantasy world of happy families. Every scream says to new parents “You can’t help me! You’re not good enough!” Every intake of infant breath brings new hope that the sobbing might subside, and then a fresh bawl that splits the ears and crushes the spirit just a little more.

Emily is 10 weeks old. She’s a crier. She starts at about 6pm, and will keep it up all evening. She cries so hard that she won’t take her bottle. The only thing that soothes her is movement. And so we switch from bouncy chair, to swaying, to walking around, and then back to bouncy chair. Each transition triggered after a few moments of calm, as her face crumples again and her little body becomes racked once more with sobs.

And we ride the storm.

The other night it got a bit much. Nothing I could do for her was right. Everything I tried brought a fresh round of tears. Holding her hot, sobbing body – staying on the move to try and calm her – was just exhausting. I had to put her down and walk away. Gut wrenching.

A little later, as I held her again, I came across this article. It says:

However, there’s another major purpose crying serves. Babies also cry to heal and recover from stressful experiences. When babies come into the world they have often had a difficult journey. Even the gentlest of births leaves a baby with feelings to process as they get used to being in a new and stimulating world.

Crying, often every evening (for what appears to be no reason), is natural for babies, and providing we have triple-checked that all their needs are met, we don’t need to do anything to stop them. We can simply listen, pay warm attention, and allow them to release their feelings.

When a baby is supported to cry in a parent’s loving arms, they will release feelings of stress, then naturally sleep well.

And it got me thinking:

When babies are at their hardest to love – that’s when they need love most of all.
When babies seem to struggle and resist any form of affection – that’s when they need the security of being held.
When babies are inconsolable – that’s when they need the consolation they refuse so determinedly.

Are any of us any different?

We might learn to express some of our basic needs – hunger, or clothing, or security. But do we really? Which of our unreasonable or irrational behaviours are actually a cry for help? What do we still have to learn about expressing our need for affection, or security, or love, or healing? What trauma have we experienced, that we are yet to process?

These seem like really important questions for those of us who are in leadership and ministry roles. A few weeks ago I facilitated a session for colleagues in Chester Diocese on Resilience. As part of that morning, I said this:

A focus on our self is about developing a healthy foundation from which to listen and respond to others. If we can deal with and transform our own pain, we are better able to meet others in theirs, even when their expression of that pain is a threat to us, or is hurtful.

Managing ourselves gives us a better perspective when it comes to dealing with others. It allows us to stand back from the hurtful comment, the unfair criticism, the attempt at conflict, and to ask “What is behind these words? What is going on for this person, at this time, that is causing them to lash out in such a way?”

And I quoted Richard Rohr:

If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it. If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably give up on life and humanity.

And Notker Wolf:

We must be aware that we are never dealing with angels of light. People are more or less strong or weak, and we are all subject to envy, dislike, wilfulness and even deceit. This awareness preserves us from disappointment. It makes us compassionate and also alert to the uniqueness of people and situations. We must meet the challenge of taking human shortcomings into account without also passing judgement on them.

I wonder whether an effective model for leadership might be that of the pain-bearer?

The pain-bearer is the one who hears the cries of the world around them.
The one who holds those cries, as a parent holds their sobbing newborn, until they subside.
The one who is simply present: calm, reassuring and comforting.
The one who doesn’t turn their back and walk away from the pain, but who sits through it and suffers alongside.
The one who knows that they themselves are hard to love.
The one who listens, who pays warm attention, who is unafraid of feelings.

Pain-bearers are self-aware, secure, and committed to confronting and working through their own pain. They recognise their own inability to express their basic needs, and are ready to work through that inability. Pain-bearers are able to face the pain of another – their anger, frustration and fears – and sit with that pain. They hear past the cries of “You can’t help me!”, “You’re not good enough!” and they stay anyway.

I am lucky to know one or two pain-bearers. They are shy people, but they are leaders nevertheless. Theirs is a leadership that is wholly and completely for the other, so that those whose pain they bear may flourish and shine.

There’s a lot of pain around at the moment. Perhaps we need just a few more pain-bearers to help us navigate these times?

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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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In quietness and trust: Stop and see

This is the first 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.

Stop and see: Attentiveness

Attentiveness is an essential skill for the nurture of our inner lives.
It is in stopping – and seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling, feeling – that we begin to sense God at work around us.
How much passes us by when we are caught up with worry and busyness and self-interest?

We might think that kids are always on the go.
We might say that they are the least attentive among humans.
But it’s not true.

Kids love to focus on the tiny detail of one particular thing, even if only for a moment.
Kids love attentiveness, because when we practice it with them, they have the whole of us for themselves: undistracted, focused, together.
Kids love to be with us more than anything, and a focus on something simple keeps us from wandering from them.

There are a million ways to practice attentiveness with children. These are things that work for us:

  • Nature walks:
    Counting how many insects we can see on one area of pavement
    Collecting different shades of green leaves
    Looking for butterflies and bees
    Learning about different flower names and colours – and then looking for similar ones and/or seeing what they smell like
    Looking for different types of trees (confession from this country girl: I had to buy a book to learn)
    Watching the squirrels scamper
    Splashing in puddles and watching the ripples
    Squelching through mud
    Collecting stones/sticks/pinecones of different shapes
    Looking for creatures in a pond
    Looking at seeds, at young plants, at old plants. Talking about how things grow and flourish and fade.
  • Lying in a dark room with a small torch, watching the shadows. Or with a small lamp that projects rainbows onto the ceiling. Or just in the dark. Listening to our breathing, whispering nothing of importance, singing.
  • Handing over my phone and letting the kids take photos. Noticing what they choose to photograph – where their attention is drawn – and asking about it (and ending up with 200 burst shots of our feet).
  • Listening to music, eyes closed, and sharing what pictures we can see in our minds.
  • Lighting a candle, sitting close, and watching the flame dance.
  • Stroking the dog together, talking about how we care for him and how we feel about him.
  • Building a wooden train track. Watching the trains weave around different formations.
  • Looking at pictures the kids have painted, talking about the colours and shapes and what they might be.

Attentiveness is prayer beyond words.
As we become attentive, we begin to notice that we are surrounded by God’s presence.
As we become attentive, we become more mindful of God’s hand on everything.
Attentiveness increases our gratitude and gives us glimpses of what God must be like, as we see the tiniest details of life are so intricate and endless.

Kids are highly skilled in attentiveness, if only we could notice it and learn from them.

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In quietness and trust: The spirituality of children

The spirituality of young children is phenomenal. They know simplicity, attentiveness, freedom and trust better than any adult. When I pray or meditate with my kids, it’s them leading me in practice. They teach me about about connectedness, self-awareness and God. They seem free of the baggage that I have gathered on my own journey – the stuff that stops me from really knowing and loving God and myself and others and the world.

I planned this series of posts thinking about how I am helping my kids to nurture their spiritual lives. But what I give here now, I offer as gifts that the kids have given me.

A couple of disclaimers:

First, my spirituality is Ignatian, Contemplative.
This is how I know God and understand life.
It’s deep.
It means that I value stillness and quiet (even though I’m not much good at either!)
I try and see a spiritual dimension to every person, place and experience.
I use my imagination in my spiritual life.
For me, words are not usually great currency in prayer.
This is not the only way to pray, but it’s mostly how I pray with my kids.

Secondly, let’s be realistic. My kids are one and three. No three year old is going to sit in still contemplation for more than a moment or so. No toddler is going to be completely immersed just because I ask her to be. Prayer and meditation with kids needs to be flexible and fluid. My kids are no saints. The following is what works for us on a good day, when we’re not tired, or hungry, or grumpy, or ill. There are four of us in this house – usually at least one of us is at least one of those things. Please don’t think we are the Von Trapp equivalent of the spiritual world. And yet I am constantly amazed by what does engage these little souls, and how deeply, when I let them take the lead and simply give them my attention.

With all of that in mind, here are some explorations of stuff we’ve tried:

In quietness and trust 1: Stop and see
In quietness and trust 2: Two simple questions
In quietness and trust 3: Storytelling
In quietness and trust 4: Sitting still (coming soon)

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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