In the Midst of Chaos: Caring for Children as Spiritual Practice

In the Midst of Chaos: Caring for Children as Spiritual Practice

by Bonnie Miller-McLemore


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How the daily practices of life with children can shape our faith

In the Midst of Chaos explores parenting as spiritual practice, building on Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore's fresh conceptions of children from her book Let the Children Come.

She questions conventional perceptions that spiritual practices require silence, solitude, and uninterrupted prayer and that assume a life unburdened by care of others. She is both honest about the difficulties and attentive to the blessings present in everyday life and demonstrates that the life of faith encompasses children and the adults who care for them.

Miller-McLemore explores how parents might use seven daily practices, such as play, reading, chores, and saying goodbye or goodnight as rich opportunities to shape both parent and child morally and spiritually.

Through these experiences, she shows how the very care of children forms and reforms the faith of adults themselves, contrary to the belief that adults must form children. In the Midst of Chaos also goes beyond the typical focus on individual self-fulfillment by tackling difficult questions of social justice and mutuality in the ways families live together.

Readers will find in this book an invitation to love those around them in the midst of life's craziness and to live more deeply in grace.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781506454597
Publisher: Augsburg Fortress, Publishers
Publication date: 01/01/2019
Series: The Practices of Faith Series
Pages: 242
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore is E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of Religion, Psychology, and Culture at Vanderbilt University. A Henry Luce III Fellow in Theology and an author and editor of over sixteen books, she is widely recognized for her work on families, women, and children and her national and international leadership in pastoral and practical theologies.

Read an Excerpt



* * *

I have a vivid memory of a scene in Shadowlands, a film about the renowned theologian C. S. Lewis. He sits alone in his quiet study, thinking, praying, and perhaps developing the theology that has had such an impact on many Christians. Then his housekeeper arrives with tea and asks him if he needs anything.

This scene is not an especially important or memorable part of the film, which tells the poignant story of the love and bereavement Lewis experienced late in life. But it stayed with me because it planted a question I've lived with ever since: Do we know more about Christian faith as those like Lewis experienced it and wrote about it — in the quiet sanctum of a study, needs secured, free from the immediate demands of others — than about the faith experienced by parents and those who care for children?

Consider this scene next to the opening frames of the film Parenthood. Credits roll as a mom and dad inch their way from a baseball game to the family van, juggling, dropping, and picking up kids, souvenirs, bags, and other paraphernalia. The father, played by Steve Martin, is determined to be a better parent than his own father, who, as he has just reminisced, didn't even bother with things like baseball games. His father had simply dropped him off at the ballpark and paid an attendant to watch him.

In spite of this character's resolve to be a good parent, however, the scene also shows how hard it is, as the oldest son starts singing a ditty about diarrhea on the hot, sweaty ride home and the parents exchange a look of hopeful, despairing resignation. Parenthood depicts the entanglement of being a parent and being a child, having parents and having children, across several generations. Even the perks of middleclass suburban life cannot allay bedlam, comically yet honestly depicted.

When people think of the spiritual life, they typically picture silence, uninterrupted and serene — a pastor's study, a cloister walk, a monk's cell. Thinking of parenting, by contrast, they imagine noise and complication, dirty diapers, sleepless nights, phone calls from teachers, endless to-do lists, teen rooms strewn with stuff, and backseat pandemonium. By and large, these portraits are accurate. The life of faith requires focused attention that comes most easily when one is least distracted, while caring for children is one of the most intrusive, disorienting occupations around, requiring triage upon triage of decision and response. Can one pursue a "spiritual" life in the midst of such regular, nitty-gritty, on-the-alert demands?

Spirituality on the Inside

The Western world has a long history of saying no. One extreme example is Jerome, a fourth-century advocate for monastic life. Like many Latin authors of Roman antiquity, he deemed procreation and the love of children undesirable. He didn't have anything against children per se but rather shunned child rearing for one primary reason: children are a big roadblock on the highway to heaven.

Even those early church leaders who were relatively sympathetic to marriage and family accepted them as a concession to human weakness and sexual desire rather than as a valuable way to live a faithful life. In the Greek context of early Christianity, marriage and children, like other temporal concerns, were thought of as a potential trap for the soul, which ancients understood as yearning for the unchanging immaterial world of beauty and truth. Patristic treatises on the virtues of virginity offer detailed lists of the horrors and tribulations of domesticity — the risks and discomforts of infertility, pregnancy, and childbirth; the drudgery of domestic work; the conflict and violence of the homestead; and anxiety about infidelity, servants, and family members' deaths.

These early church theologians do not have a uniform outlook on marriage and procreation by any means. Although Jerome tended to see them as the baneful result of humankind's fall into sin, Augustine believed instead that the family was part of God's original, good creation and thus a part of God's plan for people from the beginning. Other leading thinkers, such as Gregory of Nyssa and Ambrose, fell somewhere in between. But they all agreed on one thing: family life is inferior to the celibate life of religious heroes and saints. Only lesser mortals (of whom there are many, to be sure) settle for it. If these folks could only learn its hardships prior to the experience, Gregory remarks, "then what a crowd of deserters would run from marriage into the virgin life."

Few people today would flock to celibacy as an alternative to family drudgery. But this legacy of what constitutes the authentic life of faith still seeps into our outlook more than we realize. Several years ago, at a consultation with a group of systematic theologians working on Christian practices and theology, one well-regarded scholar who is particularly interested in the contemplative tradition offhandedly remarked to the rest of us that after the birth of her first child her "discipline of prayer" became impossible. She gave it up.

Like many parents, this scholar gazes with envy over the shoulders of what seem to be our "more spiritual brethren," people refreshed by long retreats uninterrupted by the nagging demands of others. Are these not, many of us ask ourselves, the "true 'spiritual athletes' whose disciplined life of prayer brings them daily closer to God?" Guidance from priests and pastors often affirms this "received" or traditional view. When a young, exhausted Anglican mother found her devotional life in disarray after the birth of her child, Janet Martin Soskice reports, the mother received this advice from three priests: "The first told her that if the baby woke at 6:00 A.M., she should rise at 5:00 A.M. for a quiet hour of prayer. The second asked if her husband could not arrange to come home early from work three times a week so that she could get to a Mass. This advice proved threatening to life and marriage. The third told her, 'Relax and just look after your baby. The rest of the Church is praying for you.'"

Anyone who has had children knows how difficult the first suggestion really is (as if babies keep a regular schedule and parents have energy to get up an hour ahead of them). Most contemporary parents also know how much the second idea — negotiating for more childfree time, much less time for prayer — can disrupt and even tear apart relationships of those who jointly care for children. The third suggestion was clearly meant to comfort and uphold the importance of the church community's pledge in baptism or baby dedication to pray and care for children and parents. But the remark also implies that the faith life of a busy parent must simply be put on hold. They are "Christians on idle," taking some years off from their faith life while others seek God on their behalf.

Not too long after I joined the ranks of those encumbered with young children, a news article caught my eye. It proclaimed the benefits of a "new" technique called "centering prayer," revived by the Catholic monk Thomas Keating — one more development in a rejuvenated interest in spirituality and monastic practice over the last few decades. The article said in part that the "search for God starts by entering a room, the private inner room of the soul. ... There, a person finds God waiting, beyond the noise, beeps and defeats of life 'outside.'" Beyond the noise, beeps, and defeats of life outside? One finds God on the inside? So the common tradition of prayer and faith seem to assume.

Thomas Merton, a well-known twentieth-century Catholic monk and mystic, profoundly revitalized this view. His compelling journey from a tumultuous youth to life in one of the more austere monastic orders, the Trappists (a journey recounted in his books, published in many languages, reprinted frequently, and bought by millions) gave this kind of meditative spirituality new visibility and appeal. Even though Merton himself combined strict ascetic discipline with political action on race, peace, and civil rights, his writings often assumed a conflict between the internal and the external, as if one always needed to dig deeper within to find the real self before God. "Contemplation is not and cannot be a function of this external self," this "superficial 'I' ... that works in the world," says Merton in one of his most widely read books. It is the "work of the 'deep self,'" an awakening to God's mystery within the "depths."

Psychologists writing during Merton's lifetime, such as Carl Rogers and Carl Jung, proposed the same idea from another angle. One must peel off the outer layers of the "false self" or the "persona," like an onion, to reach the authentic core at the center. Some truth does lie in this advice to question our external attachments and strip the mask that hides our flawed motivations. But this spatial perception of inner over outer, higher over lower, which is woven through so much spiritual and psychological advice, also ends up demeaning the external, the bodily, the earthy, and the material and obscuring their actual connection to our real self and our authentic spirituality. "Certain active types," Merton even argues, "are not disposed to contemplation and never come to it except with great difficulty." Well, this would seem to exclude many parents and children.

Before my husband, Mark, and I became parents, we co-led an adult class on prayer in a small, mostly working-class congregation. We used a classic text by Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Meaning of Prayer. The slender volume is designed around daily readings and, like many books, suggests setting aside time to pray at regular intervals. This might require getting up earlier, starting work later, or cutting lunch short.

Such instruction seems simple enough. Yet most of the adults in the class balked. They had kids and jobs. Repeatedly, they had tried and failed. They were too tired in the morning, too tired at night, and too overwhelmed in the hours between. They were already cutting corners. At that time Mark and I were without kids; we pressed these good church folk to persist. Now we look back and laugh at our slightly pretentious naïveté and confidence that we at least knew how to make space for prayer in our busy lives.

These folks were simply trying to adapt a pattern of faith that is deeply embedded in Western society to the incompatible pattern of their physical, material life with children, partner, and domicile. The embedded pattern simply does not fit the contour of most people's lives today.

"Few of the great remembered pray-ers of our tradition were married. Few had children," notes church historian Wendy Wright. But this is not all. Many of the esteemed champions of the faith tradition modeled an entire way of life at odds with the life of these church members. They pursued God through the "silence and solitude of a hermit's cell or the mobility of unattached apostolic life." They sought to extend love "to all dispassionately" rather than to particular persons. Indeed, they "radically cut ties with families" and forbade pursuit and satisfaction of sexual desire and bodily need. Ardent devotion to God required transcending the body, voluntary poverty, and pilgrimage far beyond the bond and boundary of home.

Here lies a wholly distinct pattern for the Christian life — whom and how to love, how to work, where to live, how to care for the body, how to spend one's money. Has anyone ever outlined so clearly and carefully an alternative to this traditional view that has comparable weight, integrity, and cohesiveness? A huge gulf lies between this pattern and daily life for most of us — marriage, children, and passionate attachment to specific people; immersion in bodily, sexual activity; commitment to one location; ownership and care of material possessions; and the daily grind of making a living and maintaining a home.

Ambivalence about the family as a place of faith goes as far back as Christian scripture itself. In all three Synoptic Gospels, Jesus himself disclaims his own biological family and proclaims a new family of believers, not related by birth but by commitment to doing God's will (Matthew 13:55; Mark 3:31–35; Luke 8:19–21; all scriptural citations are NRSV unless otherwise specified). Certainly these passages are meant to challenge the extended family clan and the authority it wielded rather than dismiss marriage and procreation themselves. Other passages, such as Elizabeth and Mary greeting motherhood with joy, or Jesus blessing wedding wine, forbidding divorce, and welcoming children, indicate high regard for the bonds of marriage and the love of children.

Nonetheless, Jesus' own model of discipleship and that of his first followers planted seeds of unrest. He was, after all, single and without children, and he asked those who followed him to leave their family. The Apostle Paul never married or had children and thought the imminence of God's kingdom advised accepting whatever situation one found oneself in. Even Paul's identification of the early Christian community as the new "household of God" subtly shifted the locus of faith from the hearth and family as the center of religious practice to new extrafamilial relationships within the church. In many cases, the early church did precisely what Jesus predicted: set brother against brother, father against child, and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law (Matthew 10:21, 35–36; Luke 12:52–53). These characteristics, mixed with the otherworldly leanings of Greek philosophy, made development of a Christian theology of family faith difficult, right up to our time.

Christian perception of faith as something that happens outside ordinary time and within formal religious institutions, or within the private confines of one's individual soul, still pervades Western society. This is true despite recent popular movements and publications affirming everyday spirituality, and despite long-standing movements within Christian history that have encouraged integration of faith into daily life. Some of these movements are receiving renewed attention today, as growing interest in Ignatian and Benedictine spirituality demonstrates. Ignatius of Loyola was the sixteenth-century founder of the Jesuits, a religious society that combines contemplation with action designed to change the world, and Benedict of Nyssa was a fifth-century monastic who created an order that balanced prayer and daily work. Today thousands still belong to these religious orders and many more benefit from retreats, books, and other instruction in these distinctive spiritual paths. Efforts to disseminate these traditions more widely are an important corrective to the understanding of faith that continues to shape many church members, texts on spirituality, and my colleague who thought having kids disrupted her faith.

By and large, however, twentieth-century theologians continue to look past the sheer messiness of daily family life. Similarly, disregard for the material basis of life continues to frustrate contemporary believers' efforts to embrace their faith daily. Bias against "outward" forms of spirituality, as enacted by the body in the midst of family and community, marginalizes many Christians. Limiting spirituality to the "inner" life and restricting theology to the life of the mind ends up excluding a huge portion of life from both faith and theology.

Spirituality on the Outside

I now recognize a moment of awakening, when I began to have serious doubts about this way of understanding the life of faith. In a quintessential act of multitasking over a decade ago, I sat in the bathroom, watching two of my young sons in the tub and reading The Way of the Heart, Catholic priest Henri Nouwen's book about spirituality. I was reading his meditation on the Sayings of the Desert Fathers because I'd assigned it in a ministry class and wanted to enliven my own practice of faith.

Drawing on one of the Desert Fathers, Abba Arsenius, Nouwen (a twentieth-century priest and spiritual leader) names solitude, silence, and prayer as the three means to love of God. Flee, be silent, and pray. "The words flee, be silent and pray summarize the spirituality of the desert ... 'these are the sources of sinlessness,' says Arsenius." Solitude with God frees us from compulsive conformity to the world's standards and propels us toward compassion. Silence reorients the heart. Silence and solitude are paths to God.

No doubt there were many times when I wanted to flee motherhood, or at least some of its daily duties, over the months and years. But I couldn't — at least not to the extent Nouwen implied. There were also times when I yearned for silence, most often when I had other work to do, or as the day waned, infants turned inconsolable, and I tired. When silence came, I appreciated it but was far too spent to use it to fulfill what felt like more obligations of pious devotion. With three children under six and a full-time teaching job, silence and solitude were rare. But without solitude or silence, could I ever experience God?

My youngest son's babbling drew me from my reading to babble back, and another thought crystallized. Why were silence and solitude so absolutely crucial to spiritual growth? Although helpful and important, were they sufficient unto themselves? I looked up from Nouwen's lines about the danger of wordiness to witness one of my sons, not much over a year old, playing with words.


Excerpted from "In the Midst of Chaos"
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Copyright © 2019 Fortress Press, an imprint of 1517 Media.
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Table of Contents

Editor's Foreword
1. Contemplating in Chaos
2. Sanctifying the Ordinary
3. Pondering All These Things
4. Taking Kids Seriously
5. Giving unto Others... But What About Myself?
6. Doing Justice and Walking Humbly with Kids
7. Playing the Field: Xbox, Soccer, and Other Fun Family Games
8. Take, Read: From Seuss to Scripture
9. Blessing and Letting Go
The Author

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