My 1-year old daughter is finally starting to enjoy it when we read a story together. Or maybe it’s actually me who is starting to enjoy it. My husband and I have tried to read to her since the very beginning, just as all the child-rearing gurus urge parents to do. But I struggled with the activity. I wanted to start at the front of the book, tell her the title and author (just as my librarian father always did) and then read the story cover to cover. We would stop to look at pictures along the way, of course, but otherwise I wanted to move through the book in a forward, linear way.
Obviously, this strategy was not very successful. My baby would always want to look at the previous page, rather than the upcoming one. She would sit on my lap for 37 seconds in order to look at two pages before she was done. Most of all, she preferred eating the pages to looking at the animals and faces on them. I got stressed and frustrated, worried that our reading wasn’t successful. My struggle was that I was trying to do the reading thing right. They say you have to read to them, so that’s what I was seeking to do. But since it wasn’t working well, I wasn’t pulling out books as often as I probably should have. As with many parts of parenting, I am frequently worried that I’m not doing it the proper way.
This is my struggle with spiritual practices, too. There is not a lot of time in my life to be alone and quiet for extended periods, which seem to be the right conditions for prayer and Scripture reading. Being unable to do those practices in what I saw as the right way, I let those practices go for a while. But in the last months, I have been able to pick up them again. That is in large part because I have retrained myself about what it means to do these practices in the right way, just as I am learning what reading to a baby actually means.
The parenting blogs have helped me see that reading to my child means looking at one page at a time and then dropping the book to pick up another toy. Reading means studying one picture intently and then choosing another book entirely. It counts as reading whether she has the pages upside down or whether she sucks on the pages in between turning them, as long as we are there talking about it together. We are reading when we point to the cow and say, “moo,” just as much as when she now sucks her thumb, holds her blanket and listens to one story all the way through before bed. All of it counts as reading. All of it matters.
Spiritual practices are like that for me, right now, too. I have come to accept that they don’t have to be done in a way that feels perfect and holy. I don’t always feel like I can sink in and feast on the word. Instead, I feel like I am snacking or munching on it in bits and pieces, here and there. Instead of time spent in a book, I take a couple of minutes to open the Daily Prayer app on my phone and briefly ponder the snippet from the Gospel. My prayers for parishioners and loved ones are sometimes done at my desk to start my day. But often they are interspersed between phone calls and emails. Reading with my daughter is teaching me that all of this is OK. The act of doing these things is what is important. Letting go of my expectations of what is right and proper actually empowers my practice. Whether it’s concentrated time or moments of devotion interspersed here and there, all of it counts. All of it matters.
EMMA NICKEL serves as interim pastor at Beulah Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky. She is passionate about congregational ministry, trying new recipes and keeping her baby’s naps on schedule. She lives in Louisville with her husband, Matt, and their young daughter.