My teeth were clenched as I balanced our frantic toddler on my hip, discreetly stuffing animal crackers into his mouth. It was a desperate attempt to keep him focused and quiet, and it was failing. We had missed his nap-time window, and it was backfiring big-time.

Our 3-year-old stood next to my husband. He stared out into the crowd, tightly clutching his daddy’s hand. The sight of him caught me off guard, exceptionally handsome in his light blue button-up shirt and dark denim jeans. He looked much older than his 3 years.

It was a rare occasion when our family looked so put together, but it was all about to unravel at the whim of our 1-year-old, Ellison. He thrashed about in my arms, struggling to break free from my grasp. I repositioned him on my hip so that his kicks would be directed away from my midsection. Our third son was nestled deep within my abdomen—a secret shared between my husband and me.

We stood on a stage with a handful of other families from our church. It was Child Dedication Sunday, and we were there to vow, in front of our church family and God, to raise this unruly boy on my hip to know and love the Lord.

It was an important day for us. “Down!” Ellison yelled at the top of his little lungs as he pushed my hand away. Five more minutes. We only need to keep it together five more minutes, I silently prayed.

An unexpected gift

Our pastor introduced each family. He then turned to the parents onstage and reminded us all of the great responsibility we have to raise these children into godly men and women. He reassured us of the support we would have in our church family. The congregation then bowed in prayer for the children and for the mission before us to show them who Jesus is.

The bowing of heads seemed to be the clincher for my son’s waning patience. Any last scrap of civility he had was now gone. He wailed through the entire prayer. With our pastor’s “amen” came a few snickers from the crowd. The laughter was good natured; our church family understands the wildly unpredictable temperament of toddlers. But my face was still flush with embarrassment as we found our way offstage, my flailing toddler in one arm and a small gift in the other.

Gifts are often given at these child dedication services. At our former church, where I worked as the assistant to a children’s pastor and was responsible for putting together these gifts, we gave away children’s worship CDs and kids’ Bibles. But nothing would prepare me for the gift I was given on this day, at our own son’s dedication.

Get together with your friends and learn the Art of Parenting.

The gift of time

As our pastor spoke to us on the stage that morning, he had given each family a glass jar full of pennies. My hands dropped a bit as I took in the full weight of the jar; it was heavy with the weight of exactly 936 shiny copper pennies.

“In these jars is a penny for every week you will raise this child,” our pastor explained. And with his words, the jar felt exponentially more heavy in my grasp. “Every week, when you get home from church, remove one penny from the jar. It will be a reminder of the time you have left to raise your child before he or she goes out on their own.” I stared at the pennies, all shiny and glinting inside of the glass jar. They looked like so many … yet so very few.

Our pastor instructed us that upon bringing our jars home, we should begin by removing a penny for each week old our child was. Ellis was one and a half. He was the oldest child being dedicated that Sunday morning, and I had a lot of pennies to remove. So many, in fact, that weeks later I had not removed a single one of them. Maybe it was because I hadn’t carved out a spare moment to sit and count them out.

A heart of wisdom

But I suspect it was because my heart was afraid to feel the weight of 76 pennies being emptied from that jar, never to return. Perhaps I was afraid to begin removing pennies because I knew that with each penny I removed, that little glass jar would only grow heavier, more imminent, and more immediate.

It wasn’t only Ellison’s jar that was weighing heavy on my heart. When I looked at our firstborn, now 3 years old, my soul felt the weight of 172 pennies gone. I had to ask the inevitable question: How had we spent them?

In Ephesians 5:16, God’s Word tells us to make the best use of the time, because the days are evil. “Teach us to number our days,” Moses prays in Psalm 90:12, “that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Removing pennies from a jar is exactly this: time counting.

It is us numbering our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. Is that not what every one of us parents years for along this journey—a heart of wisdom in how to spend this time?

An unavoidable reality

Countless things have changed in the arena of motherhood since the very first birth story, when Eve welcomed baby Cain into the world. But two things have not changed. One is the reality of the limited time we as parents have with our children before they enter into adulthood. The other is the responsibility we have as parents to use that time well, to nurture and shape and guide our children into an abundant life.

We are given 936 weeks, and sometimes not even that many. Too many parents know the unspeakable grief of having those weeks cut short. We are never guaranteed the time we have with our kids. In light of that, our responsibility grows all the more imminent to spend that time fully. Our new jar of pennies was a stark reminder of this.

For weeks that jar sat on the floor in the backseat of our car. I could hear it clink-clinking as it rolled back and forth between tiny race cars and sippy cups when I would accelerate from or pause at a stop sign. I avoided it, along with the weighty task it challenged me to.

One day I could avoid it no longer. Leaving the jar untouched would not make time stand still. I reached underneath the driver’s seat and brought the jar inside. I set it on my desk and stared at it for a few minutes before walking to the kitchen in search of another.

Investing wisely

Rummaging through my canning equipment, I found a glass mason jar, this one empty, yet full of potential. I set it next to the jar of pennies. This new jar represented the investment of a lifetime—truly the investment of an eternity. Every morsel of the time that we have with our children we are called to grab hold of and use it for showing our children exactly who Jesus is. This is when I began to count.

I counted out 78 pennies. They represented the weeks we had spent with Ellison since first bringing him home from the maternity ward. As I counted them out, I placed them into the new jar, and this is when it hit me—we had not lost those weeks.

We had used them. We were using them for the creation of something beautiful. These pennies, and the weeks they represent, were not being cast to the wind. They were being invested. And we wanted to invest them wisely.

Adapted from 936 Pennies, copyright © 2018 by Eryn Lynum. Used with permission of Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group.