This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Emily: Welcome back to Risen Motherhood. We are so excited to share this interview with you guys today with Sally Clarkson, someone who has influenced both Laura and I so much in motherhood. Sally is the author of many books including The Mission of Motherhood and The Ministry of Motherhood which are a couple of our favorites. She just released a new book called The Lifegiving Table, that’s all about discipleship and nourishing the faith of your children in the everyday rhythms of mealtime. Today she is joining us to discuss the impact that moms can have in the lives of their little ones. She provides lots of encouragement for utilizing mealtime to communicate the grace of Christ to our kids. If you want more details on this book, or any of her other ones that we’ve enjoyed, you can find those resources on our show notes at risenmotherhood.com. I will let you guys get started on the interview.
Laura: Hi Sally, thanks so much for being on the show today.
Sally: I am so excited. This is so much fun. I love being with kindred spirits. [laughter]
Emily: We have both personally benefited from your ministry and so we are really excited to pick your brain.
Laura: For our listeners who haven’t heard of you – I know many of them probably have read one or more of your books, and we promote them on Risen Motherhood because we have been so impacted by them – tell us just a little bit about yourself; maybe your heart for your ministry to moms and the concept behind your new book.
Sally: I have four children – Sarah, 33, Joel, 31, Nathan, 28 and Joy, 22. Somehow they turned out well, and they love the Lord [laughter].
Emily: By God’s grace, right?
Sally: That makes things easier. After college, I was in missions in Vienna, Austria and in Eastern Europe so I cut my teeth on discipleship and building into leaders in Eastern Europe – thinking if we left the country, what would we have to do to really leave a legacy of faith and encouragement? Eventually, after being there for six years, I married my husband that I’d known for years. Then we had children, and then we went back over to Vienna to work in a chapel there, we both talked about the fact that we wished that we could apply all that we were learning in our ministry, to our children, to pass on a legacy of faith and education and morality and vision, for their own lives’ story.
Many years ago, we moved out to this tiny little place in the middle of nowhere with my mother-in-law, which is a whole other story. We moved to the middle of Texas, into this tiny little town called Warner Springs, and we worked on some books, and started our ministry, went for almost five years without a salary. We thought, if we’re interested in mentoring our children, I bet a lot of other families are too. Eventually, we started getting hundreds and hundreds, then thousands of requests from people all over the world to say, “Will you pass on your materials to us? Will you come speak for us? We are interested in really having an impact on our children too.”
That was 21 years ago. We started mom’s conferences and did those for 21 years. I have written 14 books, together we’ve written 20 books. Our kids are all authors, it’s kind of genetic in our family. [laughter] That leads to this new book, The Lifegiving Table.
I had written The Lifegiving Home which was my daughter and I trying to give a vision, for what it looks like to have the organic life of love and faith in a mom’s home, how to create traditions and rhythms and all that. I had so much response to that, and I started praying about this book, which is The Lifegiving Table, because our children grew up in a home where the oxygen of our home was talking and learning and encouragement and feasting all the time. We’re like hobbits; we love to eat. [laughter] My daughter Sarah just graduated from Oxford. My daughter Joy just got her Masters atSt. Andrews and Joel is a composer, and also getting his Masters, Joy is getting her PhD this year. Nathan, my ADHD, ODD, OCD, out-of-the-box son also ended up being a writer. He's written books and he's also written movies. I realized that our family table was where we really discipled, and where our children learned ideas, and we talked about ideals and faith.
I really believed that in a generation where women are isolated, and they spend so much time in technology, and there's so much fast food, that when you ponder the idea that your children will probably consume almost 20,000 meals in their first 18 years, you begin to realize, “Oh my goodness, if 18/19,000 times, I was intentional about just speaking to them, encouraging them, loving them and giving them the messages of Christ and of my faith, then that would be an amazing way to lay one brick at a time, of developing the convictions in their hearts and minds, and developing a vocabulary, developing ideas, if I just did it one little day at a time. So that’s where the idea came from.
Emily: Laura and I are both newly postpartum - we have newborns – and even at the very beginning, the amount of time that you spend feeding your child, and preparing to feed, and then coming down off of that, and then getting ready to feed again is so much, right from the very beginning. That’s where soul nourishment can happen, or even just connecting with your newborn. Then they get into the toddler years and they want a snack [laughter] every two hours.
Sally: And that’s how you appease them.
Emily: Yes. Then you get to where, “Okay, wow, I maybe did five small meals with my child today”. It really does add up fast, and it’s totally relatable to say, “Wow, what if you did redeem that time and you're really intentional with it?” So I am really excited to hear more about that.
Laura: Can we come back to that in a minute? Sally, you have this really beautiful larger vision about why daily work of the home of a mother matters to God, and how it helps us communicate that message of the gospel to our children. I know mealtimes will be a part of that, so I wanted to take time, later, to talk about that specifically, but right now could you cast that vision? I know you’ve really inspired Emily and I many times to say, “Whoa, what we’re doing as moms is way more than just changing diapers and taking them to school and things like that.” We’d love to hear you talk a little bit about that.
Sally: I was raised in a family of all boys, and I was the youngest child. I was a preemie so I was a spoiled brat because [laughter] my parents treated me in a fragile sort of way. So really by the time I had children, I wasn’t prepared; I had only babysat a couple of times my whole life; I was almost 31 years old. But I remember when Sarah came out and I was holding her – Sarah’s my first child – it was almost as though I felt the impression of God saying to me, “Do you realize that this child that you're holding will have implications for eternity? I am trusting this child into your hands so that you can show this child what the love of God feels like, what the truth of God looks like, what the integrity of God is like in daily life. I am trusting you to be a picture to her, of what all of this, that it encompasses your faith, will be in your home so that she will believe in me. So that she can go into her world and have an impact. She will have a story to tell because of the way that you raise her, and I am trusting this to you as a gift.”
It was over a little bit of time, of course, that I developed that idea more, but I realized that children are these precious treasures that will go into the next generation. They are going to become either the leaders of the next generation, or those who will make immoral choices. In other words, we get this amazing opportunity in our home, to create a life so that they can grow strong, intellectually, spiritually, emotionally. Of course, I developed that over the years and it took me forever to figure out that it’s more about relationship than it is about – I think all mothers want a formula. [laughter] “Just tell me, what are the nine ways to build an excellent child? I realized that each of my children had a totally different personality – I have two boys and two girls, two introverts, two extroverts – and so it seems like everything that we started doing, after the years, was about the heart.
How do you reach that internal personality – the heart, the mind, the life? It’s been so much fun for me, to see my children go into their own worlds, and they're all excited, they're driven, they want to be intentional, they want to bring God’s light to their worlds, and all their very secular arenas – loving people, teaching people. I realized that nobody has ever said to me, “Sally, what were your SAT scores?” They’ve never said that to my children, but they have said, “Tell me about your life. Tell me who you are.” I realized as a culture, we focus so much on the performance and so little on the relationship, that I was inspired to write about it, and to speak about it.
Emily: That’s something we are trying to learn ourselves as moms of young children - to go back to the heart - because exactly like you said, it is easy to want to rely on a formula. The thing that seems to make the most difference is getting down on their level, speaking to their heart motivations and their heart attitudes, and helping them understand, as we understand, like, “This is what God really cares about – why I am doing this, and who I am worshiping? I want to help you think through that too”. Like, “Who are you worshiping? What's going to make you the most happy?” It’s just obeying God.
Sally: I was surprised at how much I realized, I love home. I was a professional working woman before I got married, and I begun to realize that my sweet, little ones; I tried to pour love into them at the beginning, just thinking, “I want them to feel the acceptance and the love that they need.” I had to learn that all babies don’t sleep, [laughter] that all babies start out immaturely, moving towards maturity, but I fell in love with them. Eventually over the years, I would read them a story, and I would think, “Oh my goodness, they learned from me.” I realized that it was really fulfilling for me to be raising my own best friends, right in my home. Were there messes? Yes. Did I struggle? Yes. Was I ever depressed? Of course. [laughs] I just slowly gained a vision of, “These little human beings are part of me and I want to do this work well because I care about what happens to them.”
Laura: Speaking about those responsibilities that we have and staying focused on the right order of things, how does the gospel free a mom of her guilt when she's sort of failing – or feels that she's failing – in motherhood? How would you encourage her to be able to serve diligently in her own unique way, through the gospel?
Sally: You have to be focused. If you have too many goals on your plate at the same time; if you think, “I can work, and I am going to get my Masters degree, and I am going to raise these four children under five, and I am going to have a perfect house, and they're going to speak Greek by four.” [laughter]
I feel like sometimes the pressure that moms feel, that they have to be perfect, is ridiculous. I was praying one day, and this is where the Lord said, “Don’t you know that I have understood toddlers since the beginning of time, and as a matter of fact, you're kind of like a toddler to me? [laughter] You aren’t quite as quick to learn these things as you think. You aren’t quite as mature as me, but I still love you.” It’s a long road and God is gracious. I love the story, in the Bible, about the little boy who brought his fish and loaves to Jesus and said, “Lord, but here’s my offering to feed the five thousand”. His sacrifice became enough, and I begun to realize that that’s how I was with my kids. I didn’t know all the answers, I wasn’t a perfect mom, but I would say, “God, would you reach their hearts and would you make what I give to you enough? Here’s my fish and loaves.” To understand that God never expected me to be perfect.
There's two verses I loved over the years. One of them was in Psalm 103, and it says, “He is mindful that you are but dust.” I thought, “Oh my goodness, so God knows I am already just dust to begin with?” [laughter] In other words, He knew my limitations, and He made my personality, and I have strengths and weaknesses. The other verse that I loved was, “Where there are no oxen, the stalls are clean.” I thought, “Oh my goodness, I have six oxen every day; [laughter] I am surprised there are that many oxen in my home. It’s okay for it to be in and out of mess and in and out of order.” I learned little by little and of course you get stronger, your mother muscle, I will say, gets stronger over the years and you can handle more and your capacity grows. But I realized that one of the most important things for me is that my children wanted a happy mom.
So many mothers give the legacy of their children, of guilt, of criticism – “Why do you always do this?” I thought, no matter what else, I want to choose to be joyful, practice over and over again, learning to be content. It takes a long time and I am still learning. But I realized that when I could just live in the grace of the moment, of that phase of life, and of that difficulty, if I didn’t react to everything, the happier I was at accepting my limitations, the happier everyone else was in the family.
Emily: I love that you give that statement of like, “We don’t want to pass on a legacy of guilt. When we believe in the gospel, it does produce authentic joy and happiness because we realize we’re free. Like you said, we’re dust, and we can expect our limitations. It’s when moms are trying to live up to this perfect standard that it is, that’s not believing what Christ did for us. Of course it’s going to pass on guilt because that’s what's still there in our hearts when we’re not rooting our identity in Christ. So I love that point.
Sally: I do too. I really feel that my whole life is based on pondering Christ. He loves children, He gave grace to Peter when he failed. He said, “Woe to the one who causes the least of these little ones to stumble.” He wanted us to be shepherds to them like He was the shepherd to us. I would just read a passage and I would ponder it and think, “If Christ did this, then I can love my children, I can shepherd them, I can walk in grace.” For me, the whole key to even who my kids have become, is that they learned early to live in the love and the grace of Christ. That He would be with them wherever they went, and that He had a story for them to tell because He created their personalities. Everything that I would learn became the foundation of what I passed on to them, in terms of His message and His love for us.
Laura: Going back to the idea of mealtimes and what we started diving into at the beginning of the interview, I know that, that is a great chance for communication as you said – 20,000 meals in the course of a child’s life [laugher].
Laura: That’s so many!
Sally: Yes, it makes me tired just thinking about it.
Emily: I know!
Laura: Like we’re saying, that’s not even counting snacks. Oh my goodness.
Sally: Tea times.
Laura: Yes, there you go. How do we use mealtimes as a gospel training ground? Or what can a mom do practically, at mealtime, to really invest well in her children?
Sally: There are several things that are important; first of all, when you have little ones, there are so many things you get to pass on at the table – consideration of other people, manners, for them to learn to sit still for five minutes. The beginning of what you're doing with them is gathering them together. Even when my kids were little, I would light a candle, put on music, and say, “This is such a special time because we belong to each other. We are a family.” Even if it was just for a few minutes, I would try to be sure to feed them before they were so starving that they fell apart. I would try to always say, “I am so honored to have you as my children. Tell me one of the most important thoughts you’ve been thinking today.” You start out with few expectations in the sense of knowing that they're young, but you are shaping them nonetheless. So you see it as a training ground, as a time to build community and love and relationships and stuff.
The second thing is, you can’t really be building into their lives unless you have a treasure chest of ideas and goodness in your life. I begun to realize that the more I would read, or the more people I would learn from, or the more books I would collect, or magazines or articles, then I would have something interesting for them to draw from. A lot of moms come to the table not realizing that it’s such a great place to mentor. I look at Jesus, in one of the very last stories in the Bible about Him, is Peter and his friends had fished all night and caught nothing, which was reminiscent of the first time that they’d met Christ. All of a sudden, they look on the shore, and they smell fish sizzling, and they see that somebody is there. They go, “Oh my goodness, it’s Christ!” So he jumps into the water, swims quickly over, and all the men come. But Christ had prepared this wonderful, smell-good meal for these men and then He said, “Peter, feed my sheep.” He basically put him back in charge of being the rock. In the Last Supper, it says that Jesus “prepared for them.” I am thinking He got a room that He prepared for them, that was based on looking towards the sunset, because He created the sunset. He created the Passover meal, and when they came in, He washed their feet and He spoke these wonderful words of love to them. Then He fed them and then He gave them the most profound message at the end of His life.
So I begun to realize God made us to love eating; He made lots of great food. When we can come to table where the atmosphere is acceptance, and where we’re thinking about, “When I go to the table, I can become an influencer of my precious children.” You have to reset your mindset when you come to the table, and it’s not perfect everyday of course. I have this opportunity to communicate, they have a place to belong, that we have a message as a family, that I want to hear their ideas, and that I will help them shape faith in their future stories. It’s just such a life-giving place. People have often said, “How did your kids get into these highbrow schools?” which was never my goal. I said, “It’s because of our table and because all we did was talk.” It’s talking every night, and that will accomplish a lot more than finding the perfect school, or the perfect teacher, or the perfect curriculum, if you’ve prepared your heart with ideas and things to share.
Laura: Yes, and even with our littlest children. I know a lot of our listeners, some of their kids are under age two, or under age four. In our home, during dinner; maybe it’s Mac and Cheese on the table. But we’re at dinner and I am just glad everybody has bottoms and chairs, right? [laughter]
Sally: Yes, exactly.
Laura: But we work through “high-lows,” and that’s something that is really like an easy take-away practical idea. We say, “What's the “high” from your day and what's the “low” from your day?” My daughter’s is always “Swinging” because she goes “high.” She’s still learning the concept of that, “No, that’s the best part of your day honey, but that’s okay.” But it’s really been fun because they’ll say, “Mom, let’s talk about ‘high-lows!’” and I’ll say, “What made you sad? Share your ‘low.’” Or, “What made your ‘high’ - something that you did that’s fun.” It’s been amazing how those conversations, even with a four-year-old and a two-year-old, have sort of led to, my four-year-old is sad today because he fought today with his sister, and that’s a good opportunity, like you were saying, for a training ground, of talking about, “Well, why does it hurt your feelings?” We all do bad things; we all sin and we can be grateful for Jesus.
I love how you said too, that you belong together, because that’s something that I talk with my kids about a lot too, is that, “We are Wiflers, we belong together, we have each other’s backs.” Just even using that time around the table to really build that, or ingrain it deeper. We also use it in discipline, when they are fighting together. I talk about, “You guys, we’re family; family is forever.” Wanting them to remember that we are a unit and we support one another, we always love one another. So I really like that phrase that you used, and you are so right about these mealtimes being critical to the future.
Sally: Sometimes a child can be rolling their eyes or playing with a truck or spilling the milk or whining or complaining, and you think, “Does this even matter? Am I making any inroads?” It’s funny because both our boys– one of them was overseas and the other one was actually living in Hollywood – called home, right before Christmas one year and they said, “I can’t wait to come home.” I said, “What's your favorite thing about home?” They both said, “It’s feasting at our table where we belong, and talking with each other and being friends because there is just nothing like this.”
It started out when they were wee little ones, and I think your “high-low” is excellent in just, “Tell daddy about the story your day, what you did,” because that creates an environment where children perceive themselves as communicators, and that what they have to say matters. I didn’t know that’s what I was developing, but I look back now and I realize that, when we engage their little brains, it’s building mental muscles, and they look forward to it.
You're just developing it little by little; you’re developing their habits. When you have total chaos, and you close the book on that day, and then you have another day, and it gets better and better. But if you don’t establish the expectation of table, and that this is who we are, this is what we do – you set the table, you do this, you do that – you have a harder time building those rhythms and those expectations of conversation that will build them into great friends.
Emily: Yes, and it’s definitely something that’s hard to do. As you're describing it, I have this ideal in my mind; I am like, “I would love for it to be this picturesque way, and our kids respond the way I want them to and all of that.” But the reality of it is that it’s very mundane, and it’s very like what you're describing - somebody spills milk and somebody brought their three stuffed animals to the table, and you're like, “Well, I don’t think those should sit near your syrup, I think we should put those over here.” [laughter] It looks a little sloppier than that in real life, and that’s okay with young children because as you're saying, that rhythm is still there and that’s something that the grace of God frees us, every day to say, “You know what, yesterday it did get crazy, we didn’t use mealtime intentionally, but hey, everyone is here today and we’re ready to talk through this thing, the ‘high-lows.’” I know we sometimes use it for training and catechisms, or telling stories or something like that. It’s like, “Mom can start over, again.” I have to remember that because when you feel like you’ve had a hard day, it sometimes feels like, “Oh no, this is what it is always going to be like.”
Sally: The other thing you can is – Okay, it’s 19,658 meals – I actually multiplied it out one day. [laughter] You can also say, “Oh, I have that many chances to have do-overs.”
Emily: Chances; I like that.
Sally: I wrote a book called Different. I have a different child who loves to argue, still loves to argue, [laughter] and did argue yesterday. What I mean is, it doesn’t mean that it is stress-free, but it does mean that we recognize it as a place where life, and good life, can take place. But it doesn’t happen unless there's somebody who conducts the beauty and the life of the table. I've even said, “What if you did it once a week,” for people who generally aren’t together. “What if you start doing it three times a week?” But it’s more that you see the value of it, and a lot of people think that I am talking about china and crystal because I've older kids now. So some of the pictures, of course you'll see of me because they’re videos, might be these fancy dishes or whatever, but it’s not about that. It’s about, it might be paper plates and some cheerios, or some little crackers or some little vegetables or apples. It’s more about saying, “We all love to eat, so let’s use this moment.”
Everybody has different tastes. It’s really not about the performance, it’s about the love and the friendships and the life that if you do that 19,000 times, and maybe in the direction and the foundation of love, at the end of the day, no matter what, we will love each other and forgive each other. Then they will be prepared to say that and do that in their adult lives.
Laura: Yes. I love that. I want to go home and make dinner right now! [laughter]
Emily: I want to get out my paper plates and display the apples really pretty and talk about how we love each other.
Sally: Light a candles with those apples. [laughter]
Laura: I love that; it’s a rhythm in everyone’s day. We all eat, and as you said, for us to be able to just reorient and say, “Hey, this is my goal and my mission as a mom, and this is a great chance for me to slow down and be intentional with my kids.” Like you said, building that culture - as a family – of communication. Mealtimes just serve as that vehicle.
Sally, as we close here, is there anything that you would want to encourage a young mom? From the perspective of an older, wiser woman, what would you say to some of us young moms who are still really battling what they call “the trenches?” [laughter]
Sally: One of my loves in the ministry, that I've been doing all these years, is to start small groups. A small group can be two people - read a book together, have that encouragement that you can have from another mom who's in the same place. She can listen to your complaints, she can love you, she can pray for you. So I would first say, a woman in her own home who's alone with sinful children and messes all day long will be discouraged.
We were created for friendship and community, so I was always having to start my groups. I would always have to have my antennae out and look for somebody, either a little bit older than me that I thought could teach me something if I liked her family, or what she looked like. Or, I would look for somebody who's kids, my kids could play with, that I had some similar values, and I would have them over for a play date or for a group or whatever. For me, as I look back, having a handful of friends – and they live all over the United States – but we have walked with each other through miscarriages, and difficulties, and rebellious children and toddler days, and I-don’t-think-I-can-make-it- another-day, can-you-take-my-children days. So first of all, real fellowship.
Second, staying in the Word, and if you don’t know what that means, I would say, read a couple of my books because I tried to write Bible verses in the back of each book, so that women could start having anchors for things that they would remember, and that would be there for them.
The third thing that I would say is, cultivate a sustainable life. If you are an introvert, you have to really create, in your own life, a time – it seems impossible but it is possible – where you can be by yourself, and where you can have a cup of tea or a cup of coffee, whatever you want. Or have one time a week; I know eventually my husband said, “You just need to get away from here.” So, a couple of days a week, he would stay home until 8:00 o’clock in the morning before he went to the office, and I would go to this French restaurant at 6.30 in the morning and I would have my own piece of quiche that no-one else tasted. [laughter]
Laura: A dream; and you probably had it warm! [laughter]
Sally: He would get the kids up, and he would give them whatever they were eating, and then I would have an hour and a half, twice a week at a particular time. That’s when I wrote my first book actually. But whatever you need - if you need a friend, if you need more sleep – you need to plan your life to be sustainable so that you’ll continually be able to have something your children can draw from. If you become empty, you'll have nothing to give. I would say that those are some things to think about it.
Also to remember that God loves you, He’s on your side, He's cheering you on. He's saying, “You are amazing. I made women and moms to be the civilizers of the whole world, and I believe in you.” Living in grace and not in condemnation is so important.
Laura: Thank you Sally. I feel this has been such a truth-filled interview. I am sure it’s going to be so encouraging to many of our listeners. We really truly appreciate you being on Risen Motherhood today.
Sally: I just love being with you all, and I love what you do, so thank you for encouraging all of us out there.
Emily: Thank you.