Keeping Sabbath with a Toddler

Without question, this semester’s schedule has challenged our family’s routine more than any other season since Emily and I have been married.  Our daughter, Madeleine, is now fully mobile.  Everyone around here is burning more calories because Madeleine is on the run.  But Emily is on the run quite a bit, too.  A full-time mom and student, she also works part-time and creates time and space for friends in our world.  This semester at Richmont Graduate University has taken her away from Madeleine and me so she can complete a few courses over a single weekend.  Which means dad and daughter have three days together beginning Thursday evening.  I pray two prayers when I have an entire weekend with Madeleine: “thank you, Jesus” and “help me, Jesus.”

Thursday evening in my world is the beginning of Sabbath time.  As a priest, I observe the Sabbath on a different day given the exertion that takes place on Sundays.  As soon as possible on Thursday evening (sometimes later than I wish), I try to disconnect from communication and ministry tasks to move into gentler rhythms.  The next morning, Sabbath Friday begins much sooner with a toddler.  Gone are the mornings of coffee and late breakfasts followed by morning prayer.  Especially when Emily is away.

The last weekend course Emily attended, it seemed like there was some weird conspiracy of our people being away, sick, or otherwise engaged.  We’re absurdly wealthy with help from family and friends, but   the last daddy/daughter weekend it seemed like no one was available.  I wasn’t desperate.  Madeleine was great.  I was just looking for a few moments’ rest, maybe an hour at most.  Two small windows for solitude and prayer are possible on my own, if our sweet daughter allows her body to take the rest she needs.  But the remainder of the day will seem like the opposite of rest.  Up and down.  “Where did you go?” “Don’t touch that.”  “Take that sock out of your mouth.”  “Don’t throw your food, eat it.”  How is this not work?  How in the world am I supposed to rest?

I’ve tried to intentionally observe the Sabbath for about 7 years now.  Even before Madeleine was born, I realized I was still a novice at this discipline.  It seems like it’s gotten even more complicated now that Madeleine is so active.  Losing the Sabbath was something I feared before Madeleine was born, but I also recognized something was amiss about that thought.  How could a child be an intrusion or an obstruction to the Sabbath?  “Easily,” most parents would say.  Stay-at-home moms might justly add, “that’s a convenient question, Mr. Once-a-Quarter-Full-Time-Daddy. Try that question out when you’re with your toddler 24-7.”  Fair retort.  But could there be an expanded vision of the Sabbath for all parents?

I’m beginning to think that something is wrong with me, not my presence with my family on the Sabbath, but my attitude.  Sure, I do need times of physical rest, and I think Emily deserves those moments more than me.  It’s a gift to have your spouse, your family, or friends give you a breather.  But if the Sabbath is a day of worship, celebration, and play, I think I’m missing the obvious.  “In the mouth of babes, praise is perfected.”

These weekends, physically tiring as they have been, have taught me that my little toddler might be an icon of the Sabbath.  Restoration of soul is offered to me in a way that I couldn’t attain in those 7 years of uninterrupted Fridays.  I’m an overly serious priest who longs for a childlike spirit (thank you, Doug Floyd, for reminding our church about this virtue).  Madeleine laughs most of the day, she loves the outdoors, taking walks, swinging on playground swings, and having her daddy read her stories.  Perhaps she’s teaching me the wonder of laughter, that laughing on the Sabbath is just as important as solitude.  I’ve heard her laugh hundreds of times, but the Sabbath may be the day that I resolve never to allow that sound to become familiar.  The Sabbath teaches me that laughter is not ordinary, but the stuff of wonder.  The familiar can become a curse of blindness, if I am not keeping watch over my soul.  The Sabbath refreshes me with those familiar sounds so that their newness, their resistance to the world’s sadness, gladdens my heart in its deepest places.

At the end of the day, my body may be tired (especially on daddy/daughter weekends when everyone else is away), but if I am attentive to the beauty and joy of God dwelling within the heart of my little girl, my soul will find rest.  He is with me when I am with her.  It only seems like the Sabbath isn’t happening.  But it’s offered to me in so many moments throughout the day.  I just haven’t been paying attention.  And my Sabbath mentor might be right in front of my eyes, 30 1/2″ tall, toddling her way around this little house of ours.  

I have to cut this post off now.  Madeleine is waking up.  The way she wakes up she begins laughing and singing.  What about that doesn’t bring the rest of God that my soul so desperately needs?

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