“…the LORD became my support
and brought me out to a wide-open space,
set me free, for His pleasure I was”
(Psalm 18:19b-20, Robert Alter. The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary.)
My confessor prayed over me with these words from Psalm 18 months before I knew I would move to Montana. After our meeting, on a summer afternoon, twenty minutes before my house was to be shown to prospective buyers, I – a newly single parent – discovered my 18-month-old son elbow deep in the kitchen cupboard. He was engrossed, spreading fistfuls of flour from a large sack onto the floor. Flour powdered every surface of that tile floor. It coated the cupboard doors. There was flour in the dog’s coat, flour dancing through the sunbeams that slanted across the kitchen. As I hurriedly vacuumed, clouds of flour puffed out of the vacuum cleaner nozzle. I prodded my two sons out the door with dusty knees while the realtor pulled into our driveway.
That afternoon I drove to a park, searching out an open place where the boys could explore without consequence. They sifted mulch and climbed ladders while I caught my breath. Months later, we found ourselves in the cramped aisle of an airplane. Again I struggled to coerce their brimming energy into books and puzzles and snacks, away from seat kicking and singing.
These past few years, much of my experience of parenthood is taken up with an effort (misplaced or not) to guide my kids’ crashing tidal waves of energy. At the breakfast table, urging them to stay in their chairs, in the church pew, pushing their endless questions toward an openness to prayer, turning children who are furiously building a “library on wheels” to the car so that we can drive to school.
Like so many kids, their enthusiasm is wild and overwhelming. They are physically strong, riding their bikes, jumping from swings and tree branches and furniture, propelling their bodies through water and over mountains. Yet, it is their mental and emotional energy that flattens me.
The urgent questions tumble out and build on one another: “Why isn’t foosball called ‘mini soccer’?” “Is the sky part of the earth?” “Why can’t I put carbon dioxide into my water to make it sparkle?” “Why, mom, why?”
They hoard the recycling under their bed in case the possibility of reuse arises, they tape protest signs to the dryer reminding me that my laundry habits contribute to global warming, they spirit away marshmallows from the pantry to use as ammunition in their popsicle stick catapult. One child feverishly insists on documenting his every activity in a loose leaf notebook before moving on to the next. (“Fed dog. Ate breakfast. Read six pages.”)
New plans are being hatched by the minute and in the midst of this pulsing activity, I muster the strength to hold out for some of my own agenda: dinner must be prepared, swim lessons must be attended, I must go to work. Exhausted one afternoon, I asked my son’s teacher how to direct their staggering energy toward courtesy, restraint, self-awareness. She told me, instead, to “lean in.” She said to embrace–or at least to make space for–their wild ideas and overwhelming projects and insistent questions.
Weathering these diffuse bursts of energy over the last 6 years, I’ve adopted a private and half-hearted practice of keeping Sabbath. While the kids are at school, I take a regular quiet day at the direction of my Bishop but have thrown up my hands at anything more involved. How could I possibly force my children to rest? Wouldn’t that endless negotiation create work and conflict? How could I make rest for myself in their whirlwind presence?
On a road trip last spring, a debate sprung up between my kids about the sensibility of Sabbath in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods. I realized as they talked that they should have been invited into a conversation about “keeping the Sabbath holy” years ago. (In Little House, my kids wondered that the girls are allowed to play with paper dolls on Sundays, but must not cut them out.)
We haven’t finally settled our household’s guidelines for keeping Sabbath, but recognize that we honor the Sabbath not primarily to prepare for the future or care for ourselves, but in obedience to and in imitation of God. Cribbing from Abraham Joshua Heschel, we remind one another that Sabbath is a time ‘not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord” (from The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man, p. 3). On the Sabbath, I resist the impulse to control my kids’ wild energy and excitement.
Instead, I search out Sabbath settings where their enthusiasm doesn’t need to be contained, coerced, or directed. For $11 and some time in the car, we reserve a campsite where I read as they tumble down a hillside, skip rocks, and stride against a stream’s current. Some days their ranging is closer to home, along a ridge across the street from our house, or in a swimming pool, or through the pages of a book. While camping, they whoop and holler as they gather firewood from a slope. The work of gathering wood should take ten minutes, but it spreads out to fill an hour or more as they find snails and line them up side by side, as they compare walking sticks and wands fashioned from downed limbs. I smile, free from the need to nag them to hurry, to clean their room or set the table, free to let their energy diffuse without concern for efficiency.
What a gift it is, on these Sabbath days, to let loose of judgment and control, if only for a few hours. The rhythm of setting them free in wide open places is becoming a delight; it draws me to remember that my pleasure they are.
[This is the first part of a three-part series on Sabbath. The second and third posts will be published on the next two days. – Ed.]
How do you find space simply to be with God?