Saturday night in a pastor’s house, especially when that pastor is also a mama, is guaranteed to be the worst night of sleep for said person of God. The last minute details of the sermon keep me awake sometimes, but more often it is the children who seem to need me most exactly when I most need to sleep. I have seen 4 a.m. Sunday morning far too many times and raged at the thought of how much work I have to do on how little rest. Somewhere between a scream and prayer, I wonder: How in Jesus’ name am I supposed to lead a congregation in worship and faith when I’m so tired I can barely function?!
This month I’ve had a revelation in answer to that scream-prayer (and many others hurled in to the early morning darkness), courtesy of Catherine McNeil’s inspired book Long Day of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline (NavPress, 2017). What I had thought were hours stolen from my productivity are spiritual discipline of another sort, deepening my dependence on God and teaching me about my wretchedness and belovedness at the same time.
“Through the moments I cherish and the moments that chafe” McNeil writes, “I wonder, Does this matter?… So many of us mothers, especially in these silent, isolated seasons, struggle to answer, Who am I now?“. It’s like she’s inside my own life, complaining as I do, yet she has given words to what I had barely dared hope was true. “We are not performing great spiritual deeds before a great audience, but we are performing them nonetheless…our efforts are so unseen and unappreciated that we ourselves do not realize what they are…or that they qualify as spiritual disciplines”.
It is so tempting to accept the traditional paradigms of practicing faith: quiet contemplation, hours spent in prayer and scripture study, serving the poor and sick. Yet, as parents, especially when our kids are small, these devotions seem like luxuries far out of reach. This book and its author offer the parched souls of parents a different perspective, helping us to see that the endless work of parenting places the things of God at our fingertips, if we can only learn to see them.
In each chapter, McNeil tells her own story, weaving in the stories of other mothers, and bears witness to the holiness God has wrought in and through her parenting. After the stories, and some pieces of beautifully encouraging theology, she offers spiritual practices to try. And here is the genius of her book: none of these practices are extra work, things to add to your never-ending to-do list. Every spiritual disciplines is simply an invitation to pay attention to the work you are already doing in a new way. “Motherhood may keep us from the traditional disciplines but only by offering a banquet table spread with spiritually formative adventures…We don’t need to put aside our creaturely existence to find [God] on some holy plane. [God] is waiting for us here.”
Already in the month it has taken me to read and review this book, I’ve experienced this truth anew. I take an extra moment to breathe as I lay Ceci down in her crib for (hopefully) the last time each night, my breath a literal inspiration of God’s own spirit. As I pick up the last tiny Lego piece from Ollie’s playmat in preparation for the Roomba, the bare floor speaks peace to my cluttered mind, and I give thanks for the little hands that scattered the pieces as he created his latest masterpiece. (Almost) every time resentment rears its head over the sacrifice of sleep, I open my hands and practice surrender, the discipline that has always been hardest for me.
This book has given me hope for my spiritual life at a moment where I desperately needed someone to tell me I’m not doing it all wrong. So, thank God for Catherine McNeil, and for this book she wrote, which you might just need as badly as I did.