We all have days when absolutely everything feels hard. Maybe because it IS hard, or perhaps because so many things have been challenging for so long that we hit a wall. And we feel like we just can’t do it, but we don’t have the choice not to (fill in the blank with whatever this is in your life). I’m fully in favor of mental health days and prioritizing self-care. This prayer is for the days when what is required of us far outweighs our ability to care for ourselves. We all have those days, and we live through them. I wrote this prayer on one of those days. Maybe you need this prayer today. I hope not. If not, tuck it away somewhere for the day when you just can’t.
God, I just can’t today. I am weary from chronic stress, exhausted from lack of sleep, run down from too much for too long. The mental load is crushing. I lack patience. Everything feels hard. I don’t have much to give. And yet, the day before me requires energy, the ability to be present with others, creative problem solving. I need to give, to be, to do. And I feel like I can’t. Not today.
I need a break. But today, other than this time in prayer, respite is unlikely.
By your Spirit, stretch this moment. Make minutes feel like hours. Enable me to have the energy do just what I need to do today, and no more. Show me the tasks that can wait, or that someone else can do, or that don’t need to be done at all. Help me to say no, and to ask for help. Enable me to focus only on what is mine to do. And through it all, remind me to breathe.
Open my eyes to moments of respite and delight in the midst of my day – a hot cup of coffee, flowers in bloom, the sunshine on my face, kind words, a loving embrace. May those small gifts be means of your grace this day, moments of provision and abundance to sustain me when I least expect it. And at the end of the day, enable me to rest – to quiet my mind, body and soul – in preparation for restorative sleep, so that tomorrow when I awake, I will know that by your grace, I can. Amen.
There was a time when I didn’t take walks alone very often. With children to keep up with, walks were usually an exercise in multitasking as much as they were actual exercise, and they were rarely peaceful. Now, I frequently take walks alone, just because. A need to get out of the house during the pandemic and an increasing focus on self-care are the reasons I began taking walks alone, but I have maintained the practice because walking has become a sustaining spiritual practice for me.
In the spring of 2020, as the time approached to leave the church where I had served for 9 years, it became clear that I no longer had a home base for my path in ministry, or my own discipleship. I was setting out into the wilderness. I would no longer be hanging around my campsite, with short forays into the woods and back to camp. I was packing up and walking away, with no plan or destination in mind, no timeframe or set distance to travel. I had provisions for my journey and skills for procuring more, but no specific plan.
That was when I began walking on a regular basis.
I realize now that walking was an intuitive spiritual practice, even if I didn’t know it at the time. I thought I was seeking movement, a little time alone – and I did achieve those things – but unexpectedly, my walks became important times of reflection and discernment. Walking nourished me, like a cool drink of water or a restful night of sleep.
I hadn’t truly considered my path, in my life or my ministry, in a long time. As a teenager and early twenty-something, I contemplated and considered my path often, making decisions strategically with the hope of following a certain path. As I settled into local church ministry and started a family, my sightline became shorter. Instead of focusing on the horizon, I became focused on the here and now, on avoiding tripping over the rocks in my path. But I had begun to look up again, farther in front of me, and what I saw in the distance did not align with where I felt called. I needed to change directions, to take another path. What followed was the decision to change my work situation, to pack up and leave the campsite, setting out into the wilderness.
As I walked the streets of my neighborhood and the trails of nearby parks, I found myself imagining a path through the woods as a metaphor for my ministry. Walking in the woods, a person can go a long time without seeing another human, or even a trail marker. For many months after leaving the church I was serving, that’s exactly what happened on my metaphorical path. I simply walked along the trail, enjoying the fresh air and exercise, appreciating what I noticed and learned along the way. It was invigorating to be in the wilderness. I just wanted to keep walking; I didn’t want to stop and set up camp, to encounter anyone, to approach a crossroads.
At times it didn’t even feel like I was going anywhere. My path might have been circuitous; it was certainly meandering. There were days I was comforted by knowing it didn’t matter if I was going somewhere, as long as I remained in the wilderness. Other days, I felt anxious and directionless without a plan. I noticed that even when I passed by a familiar spot, it never looked exactly the same. The woods are not static – weather, wind, animals, and the changing of the seasons all influence the landscape – the context is different each time. Not only were the woods changing, so was I.
That was when I realized that my walks had become a form of prayer.
My walks had begun to resemble my experiences walking labyrinths. I deeply value the spiritual practice of walking labyrinths. I love that when I walk a labyrinth, I don’t go anywhere but I am always changed in the process. I enter and exit at the same point, wander around a small, fixed area and emerge different than when I entered the labyrinth. Similarly, each time I set out on a walk, I left from my house and returned to my house, not having “gone” anywhere, but changed still.
As I walked, all the thoughts floating around in my head began to converge in a way that enabled me to reflect and discern, to listen to my life and to God. As I walked, I reconnected with my call to ministry. I considered my gifts and passions, turning them over like a stone in my hand, feeling their weight and observing their particularities, those experiences that contributed to their present form. As I walked, I discerned God’s voice leading me in a clear direction, but still, there were no signs. Like a labyrinth, I knew I would find my way out eventually, that the path that leads inward always leads back out. I also knew that on a labyrinth, there is no point in trying to look too far ahead; it is best to keep walking, trusting the path with each step. As I walked, I trusted the path, and I kept walking.
One day, I began to see signposts in the distance. I didn’t know what the signs meant, but I could detect them ahead of me on the path. It seemed I was approaching a crossroads; nothing else would need that many signs. When I reached the first sign, I felt anxious, wondering if other people or perhaps a community lay ahead. I wasn’t sure, after so much time in the wilderness, if I was ready to encounter anyone else. It became clear that this was merely a turnoff, an opportunity to travel a different path for a considerable distance before arriving at a campsite. As I kept walking on my path, the signposts continued to appear. So did the people; I was clearly traveling in a more populated area. I struck up a few conversations, learning that those walking in this area had things in common with me. I stopped here and there and helped others, offering what I had to share. And still, I kept walking.
Soon, I discovered that I was near a community. This area was different than where I had camped before. Perhaps I should take a closer look. It was a smaller community than I was used to, but that might be a nice change; I could get to know people more easily. Everyone I met was kind and generous. As I approached and began to explore, I was welcomed with open arms. I was invited in and included. I learned that in this community all are welcome, and all are accepted. So, I set up my tent and decided to stay.
I still take walks in the woods because time alone is critical for self-reflection and spiritual formation, but I am no longer walking through the wilderness with no destination in mind. When I walk, I leave from and return to the same place. And just like when I walk a labyrinth, I am changed each time. I am glad to have a place to call home again and a church to serve, after wandering in the wilderness for so long. And, I am grateful for every meandering step that brought me here.
Waiting has been a significant aspect of my journey for the last four years. I’ve always had to wait for things to happen, for God to answer my prayers, but not like this. Never in my life have I waited for so many things, all at once, for such a long time. I did not choose to practice waiting, to learn patience in an entirely new way. But the process of engaging in the (involuntary) practice of waiting – as the days turned into months and years – changed me. It is still changing me. I wrote this prayer when the waiting had become too much for too long. Then, I prayed this prayer as I continued to wait. Now I am sharing it because we are all waiting for something. May this prayer be a companion while you wait.
Waiting is so very hard, God. As the minutes, hours, days, weeks, months pass by without response or resolution, it is easy to become impatient, irritable.
Sometimes, I want to demand an end to all this waiting, reprieve from the uncertainty, relief from living in-between here and there, respite from the space between already and not yet.
Some days, waiting is almost unbearable. It overwhelms and becomes too much, God.
But then I remember that you live in the space in-between. It is not uncertain and uncomfortable to you. You are the God of already and not yet. In-between is where you do your best work.
This awareness doesn’t make waiting any easier. Time does not begin to move more quickly. But I know that I am not alone. I have a companion on the journey.
Your presence comforts me. It provides respite, relief, reprieve. Space to breathe. It is pure grace.
And I realize that you are forming me, re-making me while I wait. Sanctifying me in this liminal space, shaping me into who I will become.
I don’t know when the waiting will end, or what is to come when the wait is over. But I know I will never be the same. I will not be able to return to what was.
I will simply take a step forward, and then another; one step at a time. And you will go with me, into what will be. I will not step into the unknown alone.
But for now…as I wait… calm and quiet my soul. Help me to experience the sacrament of this moment with you, when I can simply rest in your grace.
It happened unexpectedly. We had been gathering outside with friends for months – spacing our chairs at least 6 feet apart, constantly reminding our kids to keep their masks on. It wasn’t ideal, but it was the best we could do in terms of safe social interaction. It felt comfortable, much better than not seeing our friends or letting our children play with other kids. It was also emotionally and mentally taxing. But we found ourselves doing it more frequently because gathering with others felt necessary for our mental and emotional health, and, like baby steps toward eventually sending our children back to school in-person and returning to other “normal” activities.
That week was ordinary in many ways, exceedingly stressful in others. I didn’t plan or anticipate anything particularly notable happening. Perhaps that’s what made it extraordinary.
On Monday, I texted a friend I had been hoping to spend time with and she was available that evening. My husband and our daughters were meeting friends at the park, so my friend came to our house and brought dinner. We sat at our back patio table eating, drinking, and talking for hours. No masks. Zero interruptions. Perfect weather. Good food, and even better conversation about the real stuff of life: family, work, ministry, discernment about the future. It was a gift – a means of God’s grace – and it was so very good for my soul.
On Saturday, friends texted that they were in the area visiting grandparents and would love to meet us so the kids could play. We invited them to our backyard, and it was a delight to watch our girls and theirs playing together so naturally, so comfortably, as if COVID-19 didn’t exist. It was getting close to dinner time, so we ordered pizza. We found ourselves gathered around our patio table – eating, drinking, and talking. It was delightful. It has been so long since we have gathered like that, without the stress and worry of infection, the trappings of social distancing and masks. It was a gift – a means of God’s grace – and it was so very good for my soul.
Two gatherings in one week, doing ordinary things in our backyard with friends. And yet, they were not ordinary gatherings at all; they were much more than that. Unexpectedly, by God’s grace, these ordinary gatherings became extraordinary.
Gathering around our patio table to eat and drink with friends that week reminded me of communion, that holy meal that we share in worship. Communion mediates God’s grace to us and connects us with the community of believers, helping us grow in our relationship with God and others, as we partake of a shared meal and remember the gift of Jesus Christ. In communion, ordinary bread and wine (or grape juice) become extraordinary, by the grace of God manifest in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Though the food we shared with our friends was not bread and wine, and we did not explicitly remember Christ’s sacrifice or invoke the Holy Spirit, the practice of sharing food around the table in community with fellow Christians is reminiscent of the community we experience with God and one another when we share in the sacrament of communion. The community is gathered, God is there, and there is good food to share. There is nourishment for our souls. We experienced it in our backyard that week, and I am grateful. I hope it happens again someday soon.
Last week was my daughter’s last day of Kindergarten. To conclude the school year, each child was recognized for their unique contributions to the class and then they celebrated outside with sidewalk chalk and bubbles. It was a lot of fun!
I should clarify that this occurred within our home, because our daughter attended Kindergarten virtually this entire school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She and 19 of her friends logged on every day with their teacher, all from their own homes. They have never seen one another in person or played together, but they are friends. They are a community that encourages one another. I am amazed that friendships have been formed and such supportive community has developed among 5-and-6-year-olds, solely online. I had high hopes, but not high expectations, for virtual Kindergarten back in August. Virtual Kindergarten far exceeded my expectations. My daughter has learned and grown this year, but so have I. It has been a joy and a privilege to be a fly on the wall in her Kindergarten class.
While Robert Fulghum has already written a classic on how our learnings in kindergarten apply to the rest of our lives, I want to expand that concept in relation to virtual Kindergarten. The list below encompasses lessons from virtual Kindergarten that are important reminders for adults, here and now, in the 21st century.
We all need to know how to use the mute button. If 5 and 6-year-old children in Kindergarten can learn to mute/unmute themselves and wait their turn to speak, adults should be able to do the same. Yes, on Zoom, but also, on social media and during in-person conversations. In many arenas these days, it feels as if the mute button is broken. If adults simply employed the mute button appropriately, our social and political discourse, as well as our relationships, would all improve. We would all benefit from more listening and less talking.
Brain breaks, play, and moving our bodies is essential to being able to think and do our work well. Have you ever sat in Zoom (or in-person) meetings for hours on end, without taking a break? It’s miserable. Our daughter’s school was intentional about designing a schedule for kindergarten that incorporates plenty of screen-free time and brain breaks throughout the day. Even while on Zoom, her teacher plans activities that involve standing up and using their bodies. I’ve learned that taking regular breaks away from screens – to go outside, to move my body, to play – transforms my ability to work. It increases my productivity, even if my total work time decreases. Give it a try!
Paying attention to and naming our feelings is an essential life skill. Every day in Kindergarten, they talk about feelings. They read books and learn songs about feelings. They practice techniques for calming their bodies. They take turns naming their feelings. They identify the feelings of characters in books. Why all this effort toward identifying feelings? Probably because emotional intelligence is essential. We can probably all name an adult who would benefit from increased awareness of their own feelings and emotions. The last year has been a roller coaster of emotions due to the pandemic, the election, natural disasters, plus the specific events in our personal and family lives. Naming our feelings provides perspective and can help us move through difficult moments in a healthier way, for both children and adults. Virtual kindergarten has reminded me that being able to name my feelings in is vital to my own functioning and self-management and has a positive effect on relationships as well.
Perseverance and confidence are the keys to success. Dozens of times every day, I hear a child say “I don’t know how to…” or “I can’t…” and the teacher’s response is always “Try your best! Never give up!” The focus is not on perfection, but on perseverance and believing you can do it. Kindergarten today is what first grade was when I attended elementary school in the early 1990’s. Children are learning and integrating challenging tasks. Guiding our daughter through her assignments has taught me that doing things in small chunks is important, especially when trying something new or challenging. For example: write one sentence a day, and by the end of the week, you have a 5-sentence short story (when it seemed impossible on Monday). That’s what perseverance looks like.
There are multiple routes to an endpoint. Having permission to get the work done in whatever way works best for our child was a game-changer. If writing with your finger on an iPad is hard, write it on paper and then upload a picture of it. Having the ability to decide the best approach for our child’s strengths and learning style greatly reduced our daughter’s resistance to completing assignments. Also, I weas reminded that working more slowly or in a different manner than others is not necessarily an indication of intelligence or ability. If you’re beating your head against the wall trying to get something done in a certain way or timeframe, be creative and find another way to reach the end goal. A different approach might change everything.
Mistakes grow your brain. In Kindergarten, students are learning the basics: how to read and write, the foundations of math. It doesn’t all come naturally. It can be quite laborious to read a book out loud to someone, to write a sentence and sound out each individual word or to translate a math word problem into an equation. When the kids become upset or frustrated about making a mistake, our daughter’s teacher says: “Mistakes grow your brain!” YES. As adults, we would do well to remember this, to acknowledge and learn from our mistakes, so that we continue to grow.
If the plan doesn’t work, make a new one. Flexibility and adaptability are essential to doing anything with children (well, really, anything at all involving humans)! We have all learned in the last 15 months that plans are only figurative. We must be flexible and adaptable at all times. When my daughter’s teacher’s video or screen sharing doesn’t work as planned, she transitions seamlessly to something else, and even turns it into a lesson for the kids on being flexible. It’s never too early to learn these important skills!
Be assertive! One of the things our daughter has had to learn in virtual kindergarten is to be assertive and ask for what she needs. With limited screen space, sometimes the teacher doesn’t see her when she’s asking to go to the bathroom or raising her hand to ask a question. She has had to learn to speak up for herself. I think I was much older before I learned this lesson. It is imperative to recognize what we need, name it, and ask for it (while keeping the mute button in mind). It is also important to do this on behalf of others who are unable to speak up for themselves.
4 on the floor. All 4 legs of the chair, that is. It can be very painful to fall out of your chair onto a hard tile floor. Just like we need to look both ways before crossing the street, stay alert for obstacles when riding our bikes, and refrain from looking at our phones while driving, we need to keep all 4 legs of our chair on the floor. It’s an early lesson with relatively minor consequences that can help us learn the skills we need later in life to keep ourselves and others safe.
If you make a mess, clean it up. Some days, it looks as if a tornado has passed through our dining room, where our daughter attends school. Markers, crayons, tiny pieces of paper, and dirty socks litter the floor. Her desk is covered in papers for various subjects. She gets frustrated that she can’t find anything. We have worked with her on re-setting her space at set times – putting everything where it belongs, whether in a folder, her school box, the recycling, or the hamper. She feels more calm and able to work when her space is clear and organized. What if adults cleaned up after themselves, especially in public spaces? If we all took responsibility for our corner of the world, things might be different.
Wonder. Ask questions. Explore the world. Five and six-year-old children are really good at this. Their curiosity is not easily sidetracked by agendas and to-do lists, as often happens with adults. In fact, when a child is in the midst of imaginative play or investigating something interesting, if asked to clean up, they may throw a fit! One example: our daughter had a science assignment to take pictures of different types of rocks and varying uses for rocks near our house. She made it her personal challenge to figure out how many different types of rocks were on our block and was engaged in it for almost an hour! I was simply along to keep her safe while she wandered and photographed with the iPad. We saw so many things I had never noticed before, on the streets we walk nearly every day. Try following a young child around for a while, letting their curiosity lead you both. See what you discover together, and what you learn about yourself!
While it may seem that Kindergarten is about academic basics, perhaps even more important is the foundation composed of self-responsibility, emotional intelligence, perseverance, self-confidence, flexibility, and learning from mistakes. Imagine what the world would be like if everyone (especially adults), knew these things – deep in their bones – and practiced them in their work and personal lives. Which of these life skills do you need to brush up on or pay particular attention to today?
This post was originally written in October 2020. While much has changed since then, a lot has also remained the same. The main difference is that the “someday” I refer to is much closer now than it was when I wrote these words, and for that, I am grateful.
A collection of plates hangs on the wall in our dining room. The plates were hand-painted by my maternal grandmother. Born in 1917, her early life was shaped by the 1918 flu pandemic, the Great Depression, and two World Wars. The plates are symbols of beauty born from resilience. They come from a home filled with good food, laughter, and love, where gathering around the table was as natural as breathing.
The plates that hang in in our dining room bear witness to a piece of our lives. Until this year, our dining room was used periodically for meals with extended family and close friends. Much of the time it was quiet and unused, the one room in our house that usually remained tidy. I have fond memories in our dining room, of the types of gatherings for which I chose our lovely table – on which we have eaten good food on family heirloom china, just like in my grandmother’s house.
In the last fourteen months, we have lived in our dining room in new ways. Last spring, I found myself filming videos at our dining room table when the COVID-19 pandemic forced us all to stay home from church. It served as an altar around which our family led the congregation in worship on Maundy Thursday and as the backdrop for story times and Sunday School lessons.
Our dining room functioned as a transitional space while we consolidated my church office into our home office, in preparation for leaving my position at the church I had served for 9 years. It served as a holding space for physical things on their way in and on their way out, and the people who have spent time around our table held emotional space for me in that time of transition.
Currently, the dining room is a home for virtual Kindergarten. It holds a laptop, crayons, scissors, pencils, paper, early reader books, and learning game supplies. It is a perpetual mess, the floor strewn with crayons, dirty socks, and tiny pieces of paper. It is where our daughter overcame her anxiety of going to a new school and where she learned to read.
Though it is rarely used for meals in this season, our dining room has been used more often, and for more purposes, than I could possibly have imagined. It may not look like it used to, but it is well-used. It is a space in which our family has learned, grown, and adapted to new circumstances. It is a room in which we have experienced love, joy, and grace in unexpected ways. It is a holy space.
Someday, we will set our table again with my grandmother’s china and gather with loved ones in close proximity. Someday. But until then, we will use the dining room for whatever purpose seems right, expanding its uses as we expand our definition of what life looks like in this season. And the plates on the wall will continue to hang there as concrete signs that we will we get through this, and eventually, beauty will emerge from the ways that we are being formed in this season.
It was Spring Break 2016. Whatever you imagine when you think of Spring Break, let me clarify that I was spending it with a sick toddler. Our 16-month-old daughter had a UTI, which caused her to run a fever of 103-104 degrees for several days. She was miserable and only wanted to be held, so we spent most of our time sitting by the window and looking outside or sitting on our back patio. That week, our only other activity was our daily drive to and from the doctor’s office. There was little that I could do beyond comfort her and watch her symptoms for signs that we needed to go to the ER. So, we sat quietly and cuddled while we observed our yard, day after day.
I had planned to catch up on a lot of work that week while our church preschool and other programming was on a break. At first, I was frustrated that I was missing my opportunity to be productive.
As the week went on, I settled into the realization that my “work” was to be present with my daughter. Everything else could wait. That’s when something amazing happened: I witnessed the transition from winter to spring in our backyard. I don’t mean that I noticed that it began to look like spring outside; I mean that I literally watched the transition occur.
An observant toddler, our daughter was attentive to everything and wanted a closer look at each thing she noticed. As we observed our backyard that week, the trees underwent a transformation. Where at the beginning of the week stood bare silhouettes, buds burst forth into bloom and then leaves appeared. Migrating butterflies visited our yard, feasting on flowers that only the week before were absent. I saw my backyard for the first time. In the four years we had lived in our house, I had never slowed down enough to observe and truly see it, to notice the transformation in each individual tree and plant, the various creatures that call our yard home, whether briefly or permanently.
This “interruption” to my work became a spiritual exercise in slowing down and noticing the work of God in the world around me. Time stood still for me that week. While it was not peaceful or restful to care for a sick toddler, I found that I was able to rest in God in a very profound way. My daughter’s rhythmic breathing while she leaned on my chest and her inquisitive interest in the world around her were my teachers. I was changed, transformed alongside the natural world around me, as I spent time in stillness and observed. This work turned out to be far more important than the work I had planned to do that week.
That Spring Break, I learned that I needed to practice slowing down more often, not only at points of crisis, but regularly, as an act of resistance to the never-ending demands on my time.
That was 5 years ago. A lot of life has happened since then: most notably, the birth of our second child, a global pandemic, and a career transition. Sometimes, the tasks of life overwhelm me, and I lose sight of what I learned that week. But I always return eventually to the practice of stillness, quiet, and calm, leaning into the rhythms of the natural world and my own body. When I practice slowing down, I am nourished and sustained; I feel whole and connected to the Holy.
These days, I am spending more time playing and less time working and worrying. I am learning to be led by the weather and the seasons in ways that I never have before, intuitively spending time outside as the natural world beckons me to do so. I continue to observe, watch, and learn as I spend time in God’s creation. And I am continuing to learn this from my children as we practice it together. I pray that no matter how busy life becomes as the world re-opens, we hold onto the stillness, the necessity of slowing down, the gifts of respite and rest. Those are the moments when time stands still.