Handle with Care
What are you doing to nourish your own walk with God? It's an essential part of being a children's worker, but one that's easy to neglect ...
It was Saturday, 14th December, and this was my plan for the day:
- Spend time with God
- Join church makeover morning (early spring-cleaning)
- Finalise preparation for tomorrow’s nativity service talk
- Visit a mum about to return to work after maternity leave
- Weekly food shop
At 9am I had the following conversation with myself:
‘Ro, there’s just enough time to do the food shopping before the makeover.’
‘But I want to start the day spending time with God. All week I’ve been telling the Christmas story in schools and at church. It’s been fantastic but I’m weary. I need some spiritual re-energising.’
‘But it’s close to Christmas. If you shop later in the day, the supermarket car park will be full.’
‘But once I get absorbed by everything I’ve got to do today, reflective talking with God will get sidelined. That’s happened far too often recently.’
‘How about fitting in the nativity service prep before the makeover? That counts as “talking with God”.’
‘All week you’ve haven’t known how to bring the nativity talk to an end in a way that’ll connect with children and adults. If you finish your preparation for that, it won’t bother you for the rest of the day.’
I really appreciated John Westerhoff’s article ‘How to make Christians’ in issue nine of Childrenswork magazine. Most interesting was this sentence: ‘Parents and teachers need not worry about how their children and students turn out, but they do need to worry about how they
(themselves) turn out, and so be self-critical and intentional about their lives and influence.’ By adding the bracket I understand this to mean that anyone nurturing children’s faith in Christ, whether a parent or children’s worker, needs to intentionally nurture their own faith. That’s more important than any technique or skill.
There are no short-cuts to building any relationship, least of all one with God. Short-cut spirituality leads to short-cut followers of Jesus who will not survive the course. That week I had been busy doing God’s work. Christmas was still ten days away and I just had not had much time with God. I knew what I needed (and wanted) to do but…
It’s an experience common to every follower of Jesus and even God-fearers who lived before Christ, as Elijah knew. He was physically, spiritually and emotionally shattered. In 1 Kings 18 and 19 we read how all on his own he threw down the gauntlet to the prophets of Baal. This culminated in the extraordinary demonstration of God’s power as Elijah successfully championed the cause of the one, true God. Immediately after this, God gave him strength to run 17 miles from Mount Carmel to Jezreel.
Anyone nurturing children’s faith in Christ, whether a parent or children ’s worker, needs to intentionally nurture their own faith
He went on running a further 100 miles, scared stiff by the death threats of wicked Queen Jezebel. From Beersheba he walked another whole day in the desert. Exhausted, depressed and alone (he had left his servant behind), he tried to talk to God in a one-way whinge. He wasn’t ready yet to hear from God. But he slept, woken twice by an angel who gave him food and drink. Eventually he arrived at Mount Sinai, a further 200 miles away. It was only here that God spoke with him, but not in a dramatic or supernatural way, just a voice wrapped up in a gentle breeze. Elijah was invigorated and accepted a fresh challenge.
Like Elijah, Christian children’s workers need time to listen to God. We have a demanding task, whether we lead a group once a month on a Sunday or one evening every week, whether we are volunteers or employed. The rewards are deeply satisfying since children’s faith can grow fast. We learn with them. But it can be hard, lonely and frustrating. Children demand constant attention. Finding time to prepare, let alone time with God for ourselves, is a challenge. We can miss out on the stimulus of adult conversations about God. Rotas for Sunday morning children’s groups mean that we often miss the sermon.
So how can we keep our relationship with God fresh so that the faith we pass on to children is authentic and real? Is our own faith ‘turning out’ ok? Over the years I have tried to put into practice the following six pieces of advice. Each depends on what is going on in my mind,
how committed I really am to keeping in touch with God.
As far as possible, take care of yourself physically and don’t get overtired.
Some years ago a preacher told me that when he was first in full-time church ministry he set aside one day a month to go to a country cottage to be with God. For the first few months he fell asleep for much of that day. He felt bad about this until he realised that being asleep was what he most needed. Literally resting in God’s presence was a treat. For many years afterwards the preacher maintained this practice but rarely fell asleep!
Weariness makes us irritable (and irritating!). It affects our desire to serve and our ability to see things from God’s perspective. Of course, people who are exhausted, unwell or stressed do meet with God, for he makes himself known and sustains us in those times. In Elijah’s case, his exhaustion simply made him feel sorry for himself. Only when he was rested and well fed was he ready to embark on the journey to Sinai where eventually God met him.
On this occasion Elijah needed food and rest but I have also found that there are times when fasting has kept me spiritually alert, and not just as an intermittent way to lose weight! Abstinence from a meal, certain food or drink or some other pleasure is a regular reminder for me that I want to hear from God.
Remember God’s desire to build a relationship with you is greater than your desire to know him .
He is always with us, even though there may be weeks, months, even years when he seems far away. In such times of ‘desolation’ our faith can be strengthened. God is committed to making himself known to us. He wants us to enjoy his company. Elijah must have
wondered where God had gone as he journeyed from Beersheba to Sinai. But God was still there.
Make sure there are those around who support you, pray for and with you and can be relied upon to be honest .
I have a mentor, who is not part of my church, who gives me wise, objective advice. I feel supported by the team of children’s workers in church and those I work with in the community. In the Bible Elijah appears as a solitary figure, like many people who are introverts, not wanting or needing the company of others. Yet loneliness can be spiritually energy-sapping. It is significant that on Sinai God told Elijah to find Elisha to accompany him and then succeed him.
Find a spiritual director , to whom you can be spiritually accountable .
This is different from a mentor. My spiritual director has walked with me on my journey of faith for several years. I see her every two months. She listens to an account of where I am with God, how I am praying, why I am feeling fed up, identifying where I may have gone wrong. She helps me discern what God is saying to me. There is no point in hiding the truth from her! Elijah had lost the plot when it came to knowing what God was doing through him or saying to him. He needed some wise spiritual counsel.
Develop the practice of talking with God throughout the day – note , ‘with ’ God not ‘to ’ him !
(This is very different from the internal conversations I have with myself!) I am engaging with ‘someone’ beyond me, the source of all wisdom. Listening to music sometimes helps me focus on him and calls me to praise. Intercessory prayer for my wider world has an important place too in this ongoing conversation. Last year some children asked me how often I pray each day. No one has ever asked me that before! I realised I could not answer precisely because on some days I chat to God on and off all day.
Identify regular times in my day / week / month to be with God – and keep those ‘appointments ’.
It is important for them to be regular and frequent. Our body clocks are all different. For me, earlier in the day is better. Reading
the Bible regularly is essential, and not just because we need to prepare a talk or children’s session. There are plenty of resources to help – such as wordlive.org, Bible reading guides, devotional commentaries or the lectionary. Recently I have ‘inhabited’ a Bible story for weeks on end, returning to it in my imagination again and again to explore what is going on. What would I do if I had been there? God speaks to me through these stories.
Finding time to prepare, let alone time with God for ourselves, is a challenge. We can miss out on the stimulus of adult conversations about God
I lead a children’s group almost every Sunday so I rarely hear a live sermon in my church. The children teach me lots but I need to hear from adults too. The rota system for children’s workers is not perfect because children need continuity, but it does mean that on the Sundays when they are free, leaders can be part of the adult congregation’s worship and teaching. I download the occasional sermon, sometimes go to a midweek or Sunday evening service and read books recommended by those whom I respect. It’s an effort but one worth making.
That Saturday morning in December I knew I had not conversed properly with God for several days. In my mind I wanted to keep this ‘appointment’ but I was open to distraction! As it happened, in my Bible reading that morning just after 9 o’clock, I read about Elijah’s experiences with God. I knew the story well, but there were details I had never noticed before. God spoke to me and just before I joined the church makeover later in the morning, I had come up with the punch line for the nativity talk. I was glad to visit the young mother and in the supermarket I had several unexpected conversations. It was a God-led day. The time I spent with him at the start had made a difference.
John Westerhoff’s advice is for us is to make a decision to allow God to influence and shape us in who we are and what we say and do. Mercifully God, by his Spirit, is committed to turning that intention into reality, for his sake, for our own sake, and for the sake of the children we serve.