The Blessing of a Skinned Knee

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This book came recommended to me by my friend Tiffany Robinson, and it has in turn become one of my top suggestions to mums and dads looking for parenting books and for colleagues looking for resources for parenting small groups.

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The author, Dr. Wendy Mogel, is an American clinical psychologist and internationally renowned writer and speaker on parenting. She also has an interesting story of faith.

Although Mogel’s parents were Jewish, they did not raise her in the tradition. Mogel discovered Judaism later in adulthood, when a friend invited her to a children’s Rosh Hashanah service. She went to the service thinking of herself as a cultural anthropologist, but left with “something stirred inside me.” That brief outing marked the first step in a journey that eventually led to her embrace of the Jewish faith.

The book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, is the product of her experience as a clinical psychologist and her discovery of the wisdom of the Jewish tradition, with much of the content drawn from years of teaching a Jewish parenting class at her Temple.

Mogel believes that the Torah speaks powerfully into a milieu where parents wrestle against a consumeristic and individualistic culture,  and where children are reared in a performance-oriented and anxiety-producing environment. She writes:

Judaism provides a very different kind of perspective on parenting. By sanctifying the most mundane aspects of the here and now, it teaches us that there is greatness not just in grand and glorious achievements but in our small, everyday efforts and deeds. Judaism shows us that we don’t have to be swallowed up by our frenzied, materialistic world – we can take what is valuable from it without being wholly consumed.

Three cornerstone principles of Jewish living are moderation, celebration and sanctification Through these principles we can achieve a balanced life, no matter what culture we happen to inhabit…By applying them to our family life, my husband, my children, and I have found some mooring and meaning in an unsteady world. In my professional life, I’ve seen families transformed by this new perspective on their problem in living. (34)

That quote is from the opening chapter, and in the rest of the book she delivers on her promise of a parenting approach that is both liberating and commonsense.

The table of contents offers a good picture of the kind of topics she tackles:

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She touches on everything from picky-eaters to chores to discipline problems to the futility of pious lectures, to teaching children to manage boring or frightening conversations with adults, to helping your child manage their yetzer hara.  [I know.  I had never heard of yetzer hara, either. You’ll have to read the book to find out.]

As a parent, I loved this book. (I say this as the kind of person who reads a book every time she faces a parenting dilemma she has no idea how to handle. So, I’ve read a lot of parenting books.) This is one of the few parenting resources I’ve read that didn’t make me feel more inadequate or more burdened than when I started it. Hopeful, is how I would describe my mood when I finished the final chapter.

As a pastor, you can see the possibilities.  Mogel not only offers excellent clinical advice, she ties it with the Torah, modeling a way of applying the wisdom of holy scriptures to daily living. For pastors wanting a resource for a parenting small group, this book helps lay people connect their parenting with their faith.

The other bonus: the book comes with a parents’ discussion guide.  As a pastor, you don’t even have to build the questions.

My only caveat, as a pastor: not everyone loves to read.  In a large church, this is no big-deal, since if you advertise a book study, people will self select. But in a small or mid-size church, you may not have tons of families. Your small group may well be all the families in your church!  Odds are, not all those parents will love to read, or have time to read.

I have gotten around this in the past by going through a summary each week of the content of the chapter, so that people get the nuts and bolts of what Mogel discussed. The discussion questions are broad enough that everyone can still participate, but…it’s imperfect.

I had summary notes on my old laptop that died; sometime in the next year I will take time to dig around for them, and if I find them, I will post them here.

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

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About eight years ago, I began seeing a Franciscan monk for spiritual direction.

At the time I was stretched in every direction by the demands of ministry and family life and feeling increasingly spiritually beige. My former go-to tools for spiritual care, learned in the days when I was single and silence was as abundant as oxygen, now felt oppressive.

“I need to meet Jesus in my daily life,” I told my director. “I need to have my spiritual life grounded in the life I’m living – my work, my parenting,  my marriage.” I was looking for a kind of spirituality that was at home with deafening noise and dirty dishware. And Brother David helped me find it.

If you resonate with my struggles (but do not have a Franciscan monk handy), do I have just the book for you:

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(Look at that tidy shoe rack!)

The author, Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, is professor of religion, psychology and culture at Vanderbilt University. She and her husband raised three boys, both while working full-time. This book is the product of Miller-McLemore’s own dissatisfaction with traditional modes of spirituality where retreat, leisurely times of prayer and a non-screaming environment were deemed key for drawing near to God.

Miller-McLemore argues that parents do not have to wait until their children are gone and the house is quiet to tend to their spiritual lives. She argues for parenting itself to be seen as spiritual practice. “What I am trying to describe, instead, is a wisdom that somehow emerges in the chaos itself, stops us dead in our tracks and heightens our awareness. I am talking about a way of life that embraces the whole of family living in all its beauty and misery rather than individual acts of devotion, as important as they are to sustaining the whole. In other words, I am not trying to recommend a better way to pray. I am suggesting that faith takes shape in the concrete activities of the day-to-day.” (20) She calls this approach the sanctifying of “ordinary family drudgery.” (24)

The rest of the book is spent working out the how of such a spirituality. Miller-McLemore talks about how parents’ faith is shaped and grown through the discipline of parenting. She talks about “ordinary awe” as a kind of attentiveness to one’s children, as a way of helping us recognize the holy in the mundane. In later chapters, she looks at what spiritual practices might be, in mothering and fathering: reading, playing, blessing, dealing with chores, and engaging with faith practices.

In addition to the insights, I appreciate the way Miller-McLemore writes with compassion for parents, a compassion that comes from “I’ve been there” experience. Nor is the writing dense or academic, which is a mercy for sleep-deprived parents.

Since reading this book, I have recommended it to two new parents – one a newly-minted father, and another a-soon-to-be mum. And I’m recommending it now to you, with confidence that you will find at least a handful of gems to enrich your spiritual life.

Reading this book has been, in so many ways, a re-affirmation of many of the conclusions I reached during my time under Father David’s spiritual care. I only wish I had discovered it sooner.