When my son James was a little boy, our approach to potty training was to reward him with a point every time he had a ... well let's just say a 'successful excursion!' It was your classic parental reward system. Every time he was able to run upstairs to the potty before any mishaps, either Sarah or I would check on the evidence before giving him a sticker which he proudly put on his charts.
Once he amassed enough points, he would get a present - 'well done son, five poos to go!' For the record, the cost of said present was easily offset by the savings in nappies and cleaning products.
So the day came when the last 'number 2' arrived, which meant the week's chart was complete. We would jump in the car and speed off to the toy shop just a couple of miles from home. Amidst the prams, buggies and various other 'essential' baby and child paraphernalia there was a small area for Thomas the Tank Engine wooden engine sets - other wooden engine sets were available, but not as good - or at least that's what he told me!
The first time we arrived, he spent ages choosing which one to have, picking one up and putting it back, over and over. It was just too much for him to take in, an overload of opportunity. Eventually he settled on the right one. 'Thank you, Daddy,' he'd say, flinging his arms around me, and we would rush home. When he got home, he'd open his toy with great excitement. He laid out all his track, put out all his existing trains in a specific order, and then with tremendous precision added his new acquisition, perfectly in line with the other trains. He'd play for a while, enjoying the fruits of his labour, arranging and rearranging the trains.
The 'nappies for trains' programme was working beautifully, and we were now starting to get into a new rhythm. After each efficient toilet trip, he would put the sticker on his chart and eagerly await our toy shop adventure. He'd get so excited and so worked up it felt like he would explode with all the pent-up energy. On the journey, he'd start talking about the different engines he thought he was going to buy, his mind running fast with all the possibilities, his mouth running even faster.
We would get to the shop and he'd run round to the section that sold the engines, without hesitation grabbing the one that he wanted and sprinting to the till. Then of course straight home to play, no time for Mum and Dad to have a look around (I'll be honest I wasn't complaining).
Then an interesting thing happened. He went back to the packaging of his chosen engine, took out the small folded catalogue and started to decide which one he would get next. We started to notice that he spent more time pondering his next reward and thinking about his next engine choice, than he did on enjoying the rewards he had already received. Conversations at teatime were filled with his angst and deliberations about which one he should have next. The asking and anticipation were becoming more fun to him than the gift itself.
Over the course of a few weeks, the amount of time he played with the engines decreased and the amount of time spent pouring over the catalogue increased. Then the final day of the 'trains for poos' came. We were in the shop, the engine was grabbed and he ran straight to the till - no pleases, no thank yous, no loving embraces. We rushed home and James ran into the lounge, ripping open the train box. The engine he had bought fell out of the box and fell to one side - completely ignored. Instead, he went straight to the leaflet to decide what his next request was going to be.
The 'nappies for engines' campaign was brought to an abrupt halt. Enough was enough - James loved the excitement, the anticipation, the process, but in it all, not only had he promptly dismissed the gift, but more importantly he had also forgotten the giver.
In the whole process, our generosity towards him had been overshadowed, perhaps by the sense of him earning his own rewards, or more likely by the excitement of what was coming next. However we looked at it, we just felt he was taking the gifts for granted and actually enjoying the routine rather than the gift itself. And as has happened so many times in my life as I reflect on the actions of others, and begin to judge them, and hence elevate myself above them, I hear the familiar whisper of the Holy Spirit in my heart which says 'you do that too'.
I started asking myself: how often do I take time in my prayer life to thank him for the things he has done? To recall in detail the things God has done in my life? Or do I simply just move to the next prayer request. In short, I realised I had forgotten to remember.
Thus started a discovery of the tradition of remembrance, which now adopted I find gives me incredible strength when faced with the toughest storms of life. Indeed I find that meditating on the deeds of the Lord brings incredible peace and forces anxiety to shrivel away. In my book simply titled 'Remember' I investigate the why, what and how we should remember to not only provide personal resilience but also to inspire hope for those we meet. I never knew potty training would have such a deep spiritual impact on my life!
Richard Gamble is the founder of The Eternal Wall of Answered Prayer, a national landmark in the UK which opens in 2022. He is the former chaplain of Leicester City and has this year authored his first book 'Remember: Revealing the eternal power of answered prayer'. If you have a story of answered prayer please share it at www.eternalwall.org.uk