By Stephanie Sharpe
I am finally breathing deeply with the realization that we survived another holiday season. The family returned home. The tree came down. Ornaments that did not end up in the paws of a certain ornery boxer found their way back into storage bins, and only a few remnant red and green articles beckon to me from their perch on a tall shelf, reminding me that Christmas actually happened here. Of course, also reminding me will be the residual pine needles tucked into baseboard cracks and hiding in the folds of the carpeted stairs until mid-October – just about the time we begin pondering 2020’s Christmas tree.
The quiet pervading our house now makes it difficult to remember the chaos that tried to wreck us in December. It was busy, that I know for sure. The quick trip to that one store to find that one last thing; packages to wrap; another quick trip (how could I have forgotten the tape dispenser was empty?); cookies to bake; a party to attend; another quick trip to yet another store to find a hostess gift for tonight’s gathering. For all the magic of a holiday inviting us to stand back in awe at God’s greatest act – the gift of His Son - the whole season is a mix of doing and going and spending. You, like me, are perhaps feeling quite thankful that we have made the shift from hands-on, hurried holidays to a February that is at least a little quieter, a little less harried, a little more routine.
This shift in seasons has me thinking about some bigger shifts in life.
There are far more momentous shifts than the ones that take us from Christmas to Valentine’s Day – you know, the ones that Target clerks make look so easy as they refashion an entire section of a store from ghoulish goblins to candy canes in a day’s time. If only the big shifts in life could be as easy as dismantling and reassembling a few store shelves.
But life has demonstrated to this nearly empty-nester that the shifts from one phase of life to another are not as simple as a quick change in decor. Growing older comes with pains – plenty of them. Nothing makes this clearer than the role of a parent where just about the time we think we master one phase, we find ourselves in another where the paint is not dry and the learning curve a bit daunting. God does a really great job of moving us out of our comfort zones, you know. He never misses a chance to show us just how much more we need to learn. It reminds me a bit of those fun houses at the county fair (are they supposed to be fun?) where you just keep landing in a new room. First to orient ourselves, then to navigate the challenges – whether they be flashing lights or mirrored walls or tilting floors. This is how parents of infants become parents of toddling tantrum-throwers become parents of phone-owning, video-game-playing pre-teens become parents of almost-adults navigating life away from us but nowhere close to having figured out how to do it without us. And those are just the shifts under our own roofs. We change jobs, change houses, change locations. We suffer illness and heartache. We lose people we love and we make the hard transitions to life without them.
Friends, these shifts are not easy. And while they are also not comfortable, I know that God’s goal for us has never been comfort. He is after holy ends, and holy ends do not come from comfort-zone living. He wants us to seek His face in all seasons.
In the season when all three children abided under our roof, this time of year meant schedules and homework and practices. Being a mom meant loving these little people with hands on. Shoes needed tying, lunches needed packing, skinned elbows needed kissing. Holidays meant an assembly line of toy construction. Flu season was day upon day of non-stop laundry. Even bath nights were a far cry from warm water reverie. During those early years we fought illnesses with round-the-clock syrup doses and lice with prescription shampoos and boredom with playdates at the park.
When our children are little, we love them with all our might and with both hands. Most of the time, two is not enough. During those years, I prayed for my children (and my sanity) – mostly in popcorn prayers between helpings of macaroni and cheese and at night in the short minute between my head hitting the pillow and sheep crossing the horizon.
Jesus provides a model of hands-on loving His people; in fact, these are the stories that perked our little ears on a multi-colored rug so many Sunday mornings ago. Jesus came to serve. He loved His people by getting mired in the nitty gritty details of their lives: He turned water into wine to appease wedding guests; He calmed the storm when the waves threatened to sink the boat; He healed the sick and lame; He restored sight to the blind. He lived relentlessly among the people, putting miles on His holy sandals to cover vast territories and spread His message of hope. Jesus’ hands-on loving acts can inspire us in our most weak, fragile, tired states.
But equally as beautiful is the way Jesus demonstrates His love in Matthew 19. People (should we imagine exhausted, exasperated parents?) bring their children to Jesus so that He can place His hands on them to pray. Did you catch that?
“Then little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them.” (Mt. 19:13)
Hands-on doing does not minimize the need for hands-on praying. Jesus did both. He understood the physical needs of His people; He also understood their need for grace. Jesus laying His hands on these children was an overt act reminding us that there is more to loving a person than doing good works for them. We also love through prayer.
A NEW SEASON
It is possible that you, like me, have shifted to a different, much quieter season where only a couple pairs of shoes now dot the mudroom floor. Or maybe you find yourself in a waiting season, waiting for new life or new love to inhabit your space. Whether our hearts are invested in treasures far from home or in those we dream of meeting, sometimes our hands are far less busy; our minds as vacant as the unoccupied bedrooms. These seasons of quiet are new opportunities for reflection, and mine is this: Where I cannot be the hands and feet of Jesus, whether because of distance, strength, or time, where can I be His heart?
Most of the time, we see Jesus surrounded by throngs of people who long to see, hear and touch Him. But Jesus also demonstrated a hands-off approach to loving His people. In Luke 5:15-16, He is the Main Attraction. Crowds have come to him. So many want His healing touch. And then this happens:
“But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”
In literature class, my students and I were always on the lookout for “but”s and colons in a text because they signaled shifts. Shifts are opportunities to construct meaning. What changed and why? How will this change things for the characters involved? How does this shift help us understand what the author is trying to say? The thing is, shifts matter – in literature and in life. So here is Jesus – surrounded, mobbed perhaps, his earthly energies certainly being depleted – “But [He]withdrew…and prayed.”
As much as it baffles me why Jesus, one with the Father, God in man form, needed to pray, pray He did. He prayed alone and with his disciples. He prayed for himself and for others. He prayed short and He prayed long. Always, He was a man of prayer. As God, He could do all things. As man, He had limits. It was this humanity that needed divine filling in order to go about the hard business of life on earth. If Jesus required time alone with God for His own strength and for the people among whom He lived, how much more should I be loving my people through prayer?
Loving through prayer means letting go of my control and unleashing God’s power on the people I love – and remembering that God loves them even more than I. When Jesus is instructing His disciples about the discipline of prayer, He tells them the story of the noisy neighbor (I am definitely thinking an Enneagram 7 here) who is so bold as to awaken his well-stocked family-man buddy in the middle of the night to get food to serve an unexpected guest. The sleeping father has no interest in helping the intruder, but he does. Why? Because of the man’s boldness and persistence. Jesus concludes the tale with this,
“If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him.” (Luke 11:13)
There is a day we pack our children a lunch. And then there comes one when we pack an even more powerful punch by praying God’s blessings on their lives.
Our love does not change, but the mode does. Sometimes we love less by doing, and more by praying.
I get the sense that if we asked Jesus today, “Just how do we love in all these phases in life?” He might say…
In a season of going and doing, pray.
In a season of stillness and quiet, pray.
In all seasons, pray.
THE CALL TO LOVE THROUGH PRAYER
Some thoughts on praying in a season of “doing”…
- Pray while mopping or washing dishes or doing laundry (try praying for each child whose garment you are folding)
- Pray for each child while packing his or her lunch
- Create a prayer corner in the play room or a prayer tent where your children can join you
- Pray through worship songs in the car
- Establish simple but regular prayer times at meals and before bed
Some thoughts on praying in a season of quiet…
- Designate a prayer closet where you will be uninterrupted by phone calls, texts or chores that may distract you
- Block time in the planner for focused prayer
- Devote an outside destination (a park, beach, trail, coffee shop patio) as a prayer spot
- Text your people; let them know you have prayed for them
THE GREATEST ACT OF LOVE
Last June we buried my mother-in-law. In August I kissed my own mom goodbye after a way-too-quick 8-month battle with cancer. Within the next 12 months, our youngest son will pursue his lifelong dream to serve as an enlisted infantryman in the US Army. The sands underneath my feet are shifting quickly. It is not comfortable. I have fears in my mind to match the love in my heart. There is so little I can do with my hands to provide for grown children as they navigate life, to comfort my grieving father when he misses my mom, to protect my son from whatever perils he will meet.
But I can pray. I am called to pray. It is the greatest act of love with the little power I have, and it unleashes a far greater power to comfort, protect and provide.
“Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Heb. 4:14-16 NIV)