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Consider your children, how they grow

I’ve always loved “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry. His poem powerfully communicates the restorative character of encountering God’s wonderful creation. But in all honesty, who has time for what he describes? The families I know, the friends I engage with, and the parishioners I shepherd all have lives filled to the brim with busyness. The call of “the wood drake” so often fails to cut through our lives, which are full of youth traveling to sports, violin lessons, board meetings, and screen-locked faces; somehow despair, anxiety, and sleepless nights do not suffer the same fate (if anything, their call is heard more forcefully). Berry writes:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Simply put: We need Sabbath; your children need Sabbath. Yet our relationships and especially our homes often fail to provide the nurturing environs necessary for cultivating Sabbath families. In terms of architecture, our homes are designed around screens, individuation, and sedentary lifestyles; in terms of diet, they are full of foods no longer recognizably dependent upon soil, water, and air; in terms of family, they are lived in by people who ostensively have no coherent aim other than allowing each other the space for self-realization, and a shared gaze toward a digital altar (in many cases, even this is no longer a shared experience). Contrast this with Peter Leithart’s vision of the home, drawing on Antonio Lopez:

A true home is not only the place that welcomes the child, but is also the setting within which the child continues to experience life as a gift. Parents who bring children into the world also feed, clothe, change diapers, do everything for children. Even as they grow to adulthood, the home is a mark of the person’s original dependency, the foundational giftedness of his existence. Thus, “the home, with the shared life it entails, is not only where one is born but also the place that continuously helps the person discover his own constitutive childlikeness [emphasis added]. The home is the continual, living reminder of one’s having been begotten, of the gift-ness of life, and of the task of existing.” (Peter Leithart, Become as Children,” First Things, Dec. 11, 2013)

How are our children to experience childlikeness, creatureliness, contingency, and the profundity of grace if their lives allow no space for contemplation and wonder and no relationships embodying the kind of care and investment that would actually be received as a gift in the long run? As mentioned by Dorothy C. Bass, we need to learn how to waste time in ways that are not wasteful. Do you ever feel truly good after “Netflixing” for hours? We need forms of wasting time that are restorative, fueling, and funding the rest of our week and our relationships:

After worship, what many of us need most is time with loved ones—not useful time, for planning next week’s schedules, but time “wasted” on the pleasure of being together, perhaps while sharing our enjoyment of art, nature, or athletics. For others, and for all of us at certain points of our lives, hours of solitude beckon, hours for sleep, reading, reflection, walking, and prayer.” (Dorothy C. Bass, Practicing Our Faith [Jossey-Bass, 2010], p. 87)

Again: we need Sabbath.

I serve as a chaplain at an Episcopal preschool, and all the teachers will tell you the most valuable time that fuels and funds the week is recess (as much as I wish it was chapel).  You see, time wasted on the playground is no waste of time whatsoever.

“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3). Sabbath is recess time for our souls, rooting us in a divinely ordered playfulness toward the end of worship and joy. God worked for six days and then rested, showing us that both work and rest are ingredient to the divine life, inasmuch as it is presented to as for imitation. As image-bearers, we possess and reflect the divine life to the extent that we reflect and are possessed by God’s paradigmatic rhythm of work and rest in the opening of Genesis. And this divine life expressed on the seventh day in rest might as well be understood as God on the playground of creation, taking joy in what he made and sustains. Indeed, Norman Wirzba speaks of God on the seventh day using this very image:

Here [on the seventh day] we see God in a most personal (and exuberant) image, like a parent frolicking with a child and in this joy and play demonstrating an abiding commitment to protect, sustain, encourage, and love into health and maturity the potential latent within the child. (Living the Sabbath [Brazos Press, 2006], p. 33)

Far from imposing strictures that hem us in, Sabbath rest provides structures that set us free to revel in the joy of being fully human once again, to be available to the gifts God has given us in our families, in our spouse, in our children, in our spiritual friendships, and more.

Consider Van Gogh’s First Steps:Van Gogh First Steps The father turns intentionally and joyfully from his work to his beloved child; toward fruitfulness, toward his loving wife guiding his daughter whose potentiality is unfolding in front of his very eyes. Sabbath provides space for such familial development like no other rhythm. In other words, your children need Sabbath.  They are made in the image of God, and as with God, the fullness of this image is expressed in creation by both work andrest. One of the more significant challenges in achieving this type of togetherness is technology, and in particular screen entertainment (smartphones, tablets, video games, etc.). For the 21st century parent it seems unimaginable how parents ever did road trips or even trips to the grocery store before the advent of the iPad. In some cases, such a reliance on technology is understandable, necessary, and perhaps even formatively helpful. But I fear we mortgage off much if our engagement with technology is unfettered and unexamined. At some point, we must ask the question posed by Norma Wirzba:

Does the necessity [of screen entertainment] spring from family members’ basic unavailability to each other or from a failure to find in our interpersonal relations a deep fund of joy, inspiration, and contentment? (Living the Sabbath, p. 104)

To be sure, it is en vogue to rail against technology in many circles, and I do not intend to give up my iPhone anytime soon (although it is tempting). However, what price do we really pay for our omni-technologized lives, and will our kids foot the bill?  For instance, a recent article detailed the effects of the overuse of technology on the developing child:

So what is the impact of technology on the developing child? Children’s developing sensory, motor, and attachment systems have biologically not evolved to accommodate this sedentary, yet frenzied and chaotic nature of today’s technology. The impact of rapidly advancing technology on the developing child has seen an increase of physical, psychological and behavior disorders that the health and education systems are just beginning to detect, much less understand. Child obesity and diabetes are now national epidemics in both Canada and the U.S., causally related to technology overuse. Diagnoses of ADHD, autism, coordination disorder, developmental delays, unintelligible speech, learning difficulties, sensory processing disorder, anxiety, depression, and sleep disorders are associated with technology overuse, and are increasing at an alarming rate. …

Four critical factors necessary to achieve healthy child development are movement, touch, human connection, and exposure to nature. These types of sensory inputs ensure normal development of posture, bilateral coordination, optimal arousal states and self-regulation necessary for achieving foundation skills for eventual school entry. Young children require 2-3 hours per day of active rough and tumble play to achieve adequate sensory stimulation to their vestibular, proprioceptive and tactile systems. Tactile stimulation received through touching, hugging and play is critical for the development of praxis, or planned movement patterns. Touch also activates the parasympathetic system lowering cortisol, adrenalin and anxiety. Nature and “green space” has not only a calming influence on children, but also is attention restorative and promotes learning.

The day after I read this I was driving in Nashville near a Jewish Temple, where the faithful were making their way to worship. I noticed a family walking along the sidewalk together, laughing together, while two of the children chased one another toward worship. I am not suggesting Christians need to give up their cars, but it is not insignificant that the four critical factors for childhood development — movement, touch, human connection, and exposure to nature — were all present in that family’s Sabbath journey, just as they are present in Van Gogh’s First Steps in the turning of the father from his work to his family.

My wife and I are in the habit of walking at a nearby lake on the day we set aside as our Sabbath, and we likewise feel enriched as we experience these four factors, as we become attuned to the rhythms of creation, as we are confronted with our creatureliness and our utter contingency. Paradoxically, such rhythms tutor us in the patterns of life-giving domesticity and provide the space for us to become ever aware of the wild drainage pouring into the recesses of our lives. I can make this point no more eloquently than Wendell Berry, who writes:

The longer I have lived and worked here among the noncommercial creatures of the woods and fields, the less I have been able to conceive of them as “wild.” They plainly are going about their own domestic lives, finding or making shelter, gathering food, minding their health, raising their young, always well-adapted to their places. They are far better at domesticity than we industrial humans are. It became clear to me also that they think of us as wild, and that they are right. We are the ones who are undomesticated, barbarous, unrestrained, disorderly, extravagant, and out of control. They are our natural teachers, and we have learned too little from them. (This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems [Counterpoint, 2013], p. xxv)

“Consider the lilies, how they grow,” Jesus said, “how they neither toil nor spin” (Matt. 6:28). In our parenting, one hopes we could say the same of our children.

Other posts by Clint Wilson are here. The featured image is from a class the author offered at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Nashville.


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