“A sacrifice to be real must cost, must hurt, and must empty ourselves. Give yourself fully to God. He will use you to accomplish great things on the condition that you believe much more in his love than in your weakness.” —Saint Teresa of Calcutta
After the tears finally stopped flowing, I scooped him up in my lap and looked him straight in the eyes. “You are wonderfully made,” I tell him. “You think mommy loves you? God loves you so much more. You are His masterpiece.”
It was only a small incident at school that set off my son’s meltdown. He was having trouble with personal space, as active five-year-old boys tend to do. But when he saw me, he melted into the tears of one grieved by a great failure, insisting he was bad. My heart broke as I saw shame in those heavily lashed chestnut eyes.
We talked a few minutes and he accepted the consequence of no technology with a, “yep, I deserved that” nod. He turned to go but I returned his gaze to me and said, “Now what are you to God?” He fidgeted and squirmed, suddenly uncomfortable in my arms. “No, I’m not a masterpiece,” he insisted. Finally, he conceded, repeated what he knew he should have said and ran off to play.
Left alone in the silence, I felt raw and exposed. I want to shelter him from the years I have spent shrouded in guilt and doubt. I want him to be firmly established in who God is and who he is as His child. Only a few years old, the world is already teaching him the same lessons it taught me: You are too weak to be good; You not enough; You’re not worthy. Were these tears that stung my eyes for him—or for me?
I devour the stories I read with my kids about God’s “never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always and forever love,” which are so different than the King James Bible I read as a child. I tell them about grace and love, trying to focus more on the motive than the behavior. But each time I tell them these things, I am telling myself. I have to preach grace to myself every day. Because my own weakness is all I have believed in for so very long ...
The concrete floor and exposed pipe ceiling are, at the same time, a welcome sight and a dagger of grief and sadness through my heart, one that is deep in transition. It’s just a Starbucks, you might say. No, it’s a symbol of all that I am grieving and losing in my life right now.
I’ve been waiting for nine years (or 25 years, depending on how far back you want to go into my story) for this coffee shop to open. As I walk in its doors, the familiar sounds of hissing espresso machines and whiney folk music mingling in my ears, my heart is heavy.
For years I have said we needed a coffee shop here. My family moved to what was once a sleepy Georgia town when I was only ten, from just one county over. I’ve hated this place and cried when I left it, too. I’ve moved to other towns and even countries, but Georgia has always been on my mind, the sweet scent of confederate jasmine and gardenia following me wherever I have gone.
Not much but pine and red clay marked this strip of roadside when we moved here. The big intersection in town consisted of a corner family gas station and a single grocery store. Ours was one of the first houses built in the new subdivision going up just a couple minutes from that red light. We could have been the first settlers in the Wild West for how it felt to a skinny freckled little girl moving into this unknown and barren land.
Over the years we watched our little intersection change as the growth of Atlanta pushed into our south metro town. Concrete replaced the undergrowth as the road widened and big stores pushed that little family one out into the distant memory of the few of us who lived here “back then”. The field that held the annual haunted hayride that every person I knew attended is now covered over with stores and medical offices.
You will still always run into someone you know at any of the multitude of grocery and drug stores that dot the intersection these days, reminding me that we were once a small town. But nothing looks the same and every inch of land that isn’t built on yet is under construction. I’ve returned back to this place again and again—after college and then grad school, finally 9 years ago after living in the Middle East. This is where I grew from child to woman and where my own family started. It has been the only home my two kids have ever known. They’ve watched it change like I did. But now we’re the ones who are changing. Everything is changing.
I’ve loved coffee shops since before I drank the sweet nectar I cannot live without now. The introverted people person that I am, I can be alone in a crowd here. I can be surrounded by conversation and relationships happening around me but still be alone with my thoughts. I do my best thinking and writing in these staples of hip culture, these meccas for caffeine lovers.
Every Saturday morning I venture to the nearest Starbucks to have my “office hours” in which I do my writing and editing. I am usually the first one in the parking lot and don’t leave until the sun is up and my joints are aching from hours of being lost in thought and staring at a screen. I think I literally screamed out loud while I was driving past the new construction that is common on my way home from work. They had put up a Starbucks sign just minutes from my childhood home (that is only 3 miles from my current one).
Today as I sip my usual grande non-fat caramel macchiato I know I may only enjoy this long-awaited coffee shop a dozen times before I fly away from it for years. When I see it again, the shine will have worn off of the gleaming new espresso machines. Who knows how many stores will have closed down and new gone up? Will any of the tall Georgia pines still reach to the sky down this busy stretch of highway?
Just like this intersection, everything in my life is unfamiliar these days. I don’t recognize my own home anymore with most of our belongings packed and the new tile and paint that has readied it for selling. There is nothing routine about my schedule anymore as planning and packing crowd out enjoying the sunny spring days that are marked by the yellow pollen’s arrival on my front porch. We will move sometime this summer to a borrowed basement on the other side of town, right on the border between this county and the one of my birth. A few months after that, Highway 34 will be a just a recollection after our international move.
But it’s right now that I am living in the borderlands. Between wanting to go and longing to stay. Between roots and wings. Between a calling and a rootedness. Between everything I’ve always known and what is waiting out there to be learned.
It’s these places of push and pull that hurt the most. Transition is the feeling of not belonging anywhere. There’s pain in the knowledge of all we are leaving but joy in what I believe we will gain, too. There’s irony in the bittersweet knowledge that I’ve waited 25 years for a coffee shop to arrive in this part of town just to move away from it. There’s deep sorrow in the longing for my home while another home calls to me. This place is still firmly mine though I feel removed from it already.
In this borderland of goodbye I ache for the familiar but know if I let it get too familiar the separation will hurt too deeply. I know I shouldn't cling to Georgia as home more than anywhere else. I am trying to remember that nowhere in this world is ever truly going to be where I belong. "For this world is not our permanent home; we are looking forward to a home yet to come." (Hebrews 13.14, NLT)
You are home, Jesus. Anywhere in this world is a borderland between the now and the everlasting, between brokenness and wholeness. I ache for comfort you never promised me. Wherever I am, God, teach me how to live in this place that never changes—in the tension between holding on and letting go.
I sigh as I tug on the hem of the cleaning gloves for what feels like the hundredth time and wipe another fingerprint off the wall with the magic eraser that is all but torn to shreds. Now that we are getting our house ready to sell, I notice every smudge and imperfection made by little fingers. Each one represents another chunk of time, another task to do before the deadline we have set for getting ready to move. It seems all those little segments of time add up to more hours than I have available these days. The practical has been pushing the spiritual out of my life and my soul is parched. I ache for quiet moments to seek God like I used to, those precious days I get to retreat to the monastery or go to a writer's conference. I am fortunate to have those opportunities but then I return to "real" life and I long to be able to find quiet in my every day for the spiritual practices that feed my soul.
But I also know that time slips away so easily and I don't want to wish away the hours with these little ones that won't be little for much longer, my nearly eight-year-old already turning into a young woman in front of me. When I take a few minutes out of my dinner preparation to pour red and yellow paint onto a plate and brush it onto their eager hands, I notice how much more paint it requires these days. I have stacks of handprint pictures from their preschool years but we haven't done this in a while. Their fingers barely fit on the page and I'm startled at how sad it makes me. It's funny how I laminate and treasure these little fingerprints, evidence of how tiny they once were. But those same precious marks don't seem so precious when found on my clean walls.
As I working mom of two, I have found the noise of life to be overwhelming. Hence the desire for this place online I created two years ago (with a 5 and 3-year-old at the time) seeking to help myself and others find God's voice in all the real and virtual noise of life. I have explored new spiritual practices (like examen, silence, keeping the church calendar) and tried the same methods that I want to work but can't seem to make fit into my life anymore (waking early to read the Bible, journaling, online women's studies).
I remember the first time I heard about Brother Lawrence, the famed seventh-century monk who wrote The Practice of the Presence of God about finding God in the common daily tasks of the abbey. I thought this is what I need, wisdom in finding God in ordinary life. I read the small book eagerly, and while his words are an inspiration, I still found it difficult to relate the practices of a French monk to my schedule in which I am either taking care of someone or working most every waking hour of the day until the house is quiet and my mind is incapable of anything more substantial than a conversation or television show.
So, here I am - busy mom, wanna-be contemplative, failing at the practice of God's presence - and a friend asked me to read her new book on motherhood and spiritual disciplines. Honestly, at first, I thought, oh, another thing I don't have time for. Another book to tell me what I should be doing and I'll try for a little bit but then just end up feeling guilty I am not doing better at it. I picked up the book at a retreat and read the back cover: "Rich, soul inspiring practices for moms who have neither quiet nor time." I was intrigued.
The more I talked to Catherine that weekend and connected with her humor, her wisdom - I knew I had to read it. I opened the book on the plane ride home that weekend and in just the first few pages I knew this wasn't the "do more" mom book I had been expecting. It was the how-to practice God's presence in the midst of the noise of motherhood book I never thought anyone would write. It was the Practice of the Presence of God for 21st-century women. It was more than soul-inspiring to me. It was life-giving.
So, I'll let Catherine tell you a bit more about her heart behind the book and hope you find it as rich a tool in your journey towards God as I did.
Thank you! I’m a mom with three kids (and a few part time jobs). I love to read and garden. I love to study theology and ancient cultures. I’m always trying to learn something new. I enjoy getting to know my neighbors and learning how different people see the world. I love to explore how theology impacts our real, physical lives…and how our real lives impact theology. I’m enamored by the creation of new life but find that working in the garden is less exhausting than pregnancy.
Now, introduce us to your book Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline.
Long Days of Small Things is a book that looks at the real life work we do in our everyday lives, and finds God right here in the midst of it. It’s a book for moms (or dads…or grandparents…or caregivers…) who know they don’t have any extra time or energy, but still want a way to connect with God and discover how to find Him.
How do you do that in Long Days of Small Things?
In each chapter I tell stories from our real lives—the seasons and stages of motherhood, pregnancy and delivery, infant days, sleepless nights, caring for children of all ages—and the tasks that fill them. I look at spiritual tools that already hide there—like sacrifice, surrender, service, perseverance, and celebration—and consider how we can open our eyes to the spiritual boot camp we walk through every day. Without adding anything extra to our live or to-do lists, we practice so many disciplines every moment of the day.
Why did you decide to write Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline?
A few years ago I was a work-from-home mom with a baby, a toddler, and a preschooler. These precious, demanding children took me all the way to the end of my rope…and left me there indefinitely! My life changed in every way, yet I heard only the same spiritual prescriptions I’d always heard: spend quite time each day with God. Find 30-60 minutes each day to be in silence and solitude before the Lord. As I considered the classic spiritual practices (which I love!)—prayer, worship, fasting, meditation, service, solitude, etc.—it became abundantly clear that the realities of motherhood meant I was likely to fail. Or opt out entirely.
But my spirit didn’t allow me to do that. I heard a lament rising in the hearts of the women around me—I have nothing left, nothing left to care for myself or give to God. But as I looked at the actual seasons and tasks of motherhood, I was convinced that there was no better “boot camp” for my soul. Each day we mothers create, we nurture. Each day we are pushed to the end of ourselves and must surrender, sacrifice, and persevere. Each day we serve, pouring ourselves out. We empty ourselves for those in our care—and isn’t this emptiness the very reliance on God that the spiritual disciplines are designed to produce?
I’m convinced that motherhood is doing an eternal work on my soul, even if I’m too exhausted and overwhelmed to notice just now.
What are the “Practices” that you describe in Long Days of Small Things?
At the end of each chapter, I list three things we are doing already—things like walking, eating, driving, changing diapers, going to work. And I explore how we can use these things, already in our daily routines and schedules, to awaken to God’s presence with us. Moms often don’t have time to add additional tasks and tools into our days, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use the tasks already there! In fact, in many cases, I think these natural things are the most effective.
How has motherhood impacted your understanding of spirituality?
We think of spirituality as something that happens in our minds, in silence. We are taught that our bodies, our mess and complications and noise hold us back from being with God. That doesn’t leave a lot of hope for moms, whose pregnant or post-partum bodies, newborns, toddlers, and van-full of carpool kids have no end of loud, messy, physical, chaotic needs.
But God made us, didn’t He? Genesis describes Him getting in the dirt and forming us from the dust by hand, then breathing His own breath into our mouths. That’s pretty physical and messy! Then He actually took on a body Himself. The King of Kings wiggled around in a woman’s womb, surrounded by amniotic fluid. He entered the world through her birth canal. God was born, you guys. That’s our Good News.
All this physical stuff that we feel keeps us from Him is the same stuff He used to meet with us, to speak to us, to save us.
So Long Days of Small Things is a book for moms “who have neither quiet nor time” as the cover says—or dads, grandparents, and other caregivers.
Describe an experience that first caused you to understand motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline.
I was shopping with my three kids. Can you imagine the scene? Lugging my infant in one of those terribly unwieldy baby-carriers. Holding my toddler by the hand, while my preschooler zoomed around the store. The diaper bag was falling off my shoulders, and I clenched the grocery bags with the same hand that grasped my toddler.
And then…the door. I couldn’t figure out how to get us all through. The baby was wailing for milk and a nap, the toddler and preschooler needed lunch (and a nap). I wanted lunch and a nap too, truth be told. But mostly I just wanted to get us out the door. No one held it open for me, but plenty of people watched me make a fool of myself trying to wiggle us all through without banging any heads or pinching any fingers. It felt like a hero-feat, an epic win.
When I finally got everyone home, fed, and sleeping, I sat down to read an article I’d been saving; a short biography of a favorite Christian teacher. The biographer described this hero of the faith as so spiritual, he radiated peace just by walking through the door.
This stopped me in my tracks. The memory of how I looked going through a door was so fresh in my mind. I realized that if spiritual growth entailed developing an aura of peace and radiance, I was never going to arrive—at least not without getting rid of these precious babies!
The contrast between this teacher and myself was so stark, and I realized he and I were simply on two separate paths. I was seeking God through the chaotic but life-giving seasons and tasks of motherhood, and this was going to look entirely different from the classic spiritual practices. “Results may vary” as they say.
How is this book different from all the other books and conversations out there regarding motherhood today?
There are so many books out there for moms on the topic of devotion and spirituality. Almost all of them have this in common: after admitting that moms are exhausted, stretched too thin, without any margin or time or energy, they look for a few extra minutes here or there which might be harvested for God; or offer a Bible study or prayer list that might fit in the tiny slots. Get up at 4:30am before the baby wakes at 5am! Read two minutes of the Bible each day!
I’m all for doing these things when it works, but I’m convinced that we don’t need to exit motherhood to have a spiritual life. Our children are what we create, and this is where our Creator God meets us. I’m certain of it. Without adding more “should’s” or “to-do’s” to our days, we can open our eyes to a unique spiritual journey, made just for us—and find him here. We’re already doing it. All that waits is for us to breathe deeply and being to drink.
What are your hopes for the moms reading Long Days of Small Things?
I told my publisher and editor so many times: I want the title, the cover, and every word to convey that I’m not saying you should do more. You are enough. You are seen. You are loved. You are doing so much already, and there is value here. God is here already. These long days of small things make us feel shunted to the side, second class, invisible.
But I’m certain of one thing: this is the very place God meets us. That’s why we practice spiritual disciplines—to arrive at this place. I’m confident that every flowing, bleeding, dripping, sticky, crying, dirty, wet, exhausted piece of motherhood is a piece that God made and loves, a place where He came, and place where He is.
If moms can hear me say that, and accept the invitation, and find Him there—I will be overjoyed.
Nicole again here. Guys, I truly recommend this book (and yes, Catherine is a fellow writer but I didn't think I had time to help promote the book but when I looked over the table of contents, realized I needed to read it so I bought it. And when I read it, I knew I needed to share it with you). Go buy and read Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline.
I would recommend reading this book with a small group of moms, too. If you are in MOPS, a homeschool co-op, a small group or any sort of gathering of moms, I have a special treat for you. As I was reading it, I was thinking how well the book would lend itself to reading together with others and discussing how you found the spiritual practices applicable in your own lives. Thankfully, Catherine has made a discussion guide available for just that reason and you can download it here!
And if you aren't a mom - I am sure you know one or two! I am going to stock up on this book as a baby shower gift for all new moms. Blessings friends as you seek to hear God's voice in the noise of mothering, fathering, and every other noisy season of life!
Interview and discussion guide courtesy of Catherine McNiel, author of Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline (NavPress, 2017). Catherine McNiel survived her children's preschool years by learning to find beauty in the mayhem. Now, she writes to open the eyes to God's creative, redemptive work in each day. The author of Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline (NavPress, 2017), Catherine cares for three kids, works two jobs, and grows one enormous garden.
Watch what God does, and then you do it, like children who learn proper behavior from their parents. Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love. Observe how Christ loved us. His love was not cautious but extravagant. He didn’t love in order to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us. Love like that. – Ephesians 5.1-2, The Message
She’s got my bent towards anxiety. I can see it in her already, even in her early years. My little one frets over her art, erasing and erasing when it isn’t up to her standards of perfection. Tears threaten and she moans in frustration, throwing down her pencil in defeat.
She also has my fierce belief in hope; that I can see, too. In her innocence, she believes she can change the world. She hasn’t seen the opposition that is coming nor felt the weight that can crush a hopeful heart. I want to protect her from those hurts, but I also know they will make her stronger if she can endure them.
When the calendar pages turned to 2017, she went back to school, the last half of second grade awaiting her. My little bundle of light and dark warring against each other—worry and wonder shining in her bright blue eyes—bounded in the house, excited to tell me about her day at school.
She asked me what that “R” word is that means you make a promise you have to keep. A little confused, I pressed on and she said, “You know, you make them at the beginning of the year?”
“Oh, resolutions,” I said and she nodded furiously. “Yeah, we made resolutions today and I have two.”
Crawling up in my lap, her eyes brimmed with excitement and I asked her to tell me about them. She recited them like the lines of a play she had committed to heart.
“First, I am going to be grateful for each day I have because God made that day and we have no idea how many days we get. Each might be our last and I’d rather spend my last day happy than with a bad attitude,” she said proudly. Wow, she has been listening in our quiet times of bedtime prayer when she fidgets and squirms, when I think her thoughts are anywhere but on praying.
“Second, I promise to do something kind each day for at least one person,” she said between swings of her legs and shifting, her way of moving every second she is awake.
I stopped her for a moment, holding her face to mine so that she had to look in my eyes. Be still a moment. Just a moment. Hear me, little one...
The lie is ingrained so deeply in my heart that I have to make conscious efforts to untangle my life from its clutches. This lie clutters my home, my very soul—the one that says comfort and contentment are one.
Life in the Middle East was anything but comfortable, any sense of ease in life gone. Tasks I did mindlessly in America took a new effort that made everyday errands mentally exhausting.
Walking through the dusty streets, careful to retrace my steps so I didn’t lose my way back home, I made my way to the internet café. Our internet was supposed to be set up in our flat weeks ago but learned that “tomorrow” often meant “whenever we get around to it” there. Connecting to loved ones became a calculation of time zones and schedules, balancing dropped internet calls and dicey sound.
At the fruit stand my broken Arabic brought smiles and raised eyebrows but I succeeded in getting the bananas I needed, though I still wasn’t really sure how many kilos to ask for when my mind thought in pounds. The smell of baking bread drew me a few streets over to where aish, small wheat flatbreads we bought fresh daily, were being taken out of the scorching oven with a wooden paddle and placed into the bags waiting to be taken home.
I climbed to our fourth-story flat, dodging the cats nestled up in the corners of the stairwell and jiggling the big metal lock on the heavy wooden door. I turned on the oven since it took so long to heat up as I flipped the switch on the electric kettle. As I waited for the water to heat for my afternoon tea, I opened the window at the end of the narrow kitchen.
The sounds of children playing and pots banging echoed as I removed the clothes from the washer nestled between the stove and the refrigerator and balanced my body half way out the window to hang them from the clothesline that hung precariously over the courtyard. I sighed into my tea and thought of how comfortable life had been before, how I had taken for granted how much work normal tasks would take in this place.
It was in that uncomfortable place, where everything from the language to how to cook rice was foreign to me, that I learned that comfort and contentment aren’t one and the same. They so easily masquerade as synonymous, especially in Western culture...
Do you find yourself living like comfort and contentment are the same? Are you ready to find contentment in God instead of a life of ease? Untangle the lie with me.
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