Parent in training: a review of “Bless This Mess”

Amy Nee-Walker with her youngest child. Contributed photo.

My five-month-old just fell asleep. Now I have anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours to “get something done.” This phenomenon of sporadic, indefinite hands-free time is something that’s hard for folks who are not immersed in parenting young children to understand. Even those of us who’ve been through it often develop a gauzy memory around that time and wonder why others who are currently in the thick of it have become such poor managers of time. Of course, parents of older kids are navigating the increasingly tricky terrain of appropriate discipline, sibling conflicts, peer pressure, academics … the list goes on and on, ad infinitum! Add being a Christian parent trying to make sense of how to raise children to be in but not of the world in modern society and how to apply that vague but familiar Proverb, “Train up a child in the way they should go …” (Prov. 22:6).

Enter “Bless This Mess: A Modern Guide to Faith and Parenting in a Chaotic World.” As a frequently-floundering parent of young children and a former Catholic Worker (still pining for that fiery embrace of radical faith and community while muddling through mainstream living), theirs is a book that makes my heart quicken. Imagine Shane Claiborne’s “The Irresistible Revolution” meets Daniel Siegel’s “The Whole Brain Child.” Authors Ellen O’Donnell, Ph.D., a child psychologist, and Reverend Molly Baskette, a UCC minister, get it. They have been there as parents as well as professionals.

“Bless This Mess” cover photo by Amy Nee-Walker ( #PRHpartner @CrownPublishing)

My sister-in-law put it well: “This book fills a gap that I didn’t know existed.” Where else do you get such a marriage of Christian ideology and child psychology? In what other parenting books will you find the nonviolent principle of “The Myth of Redemptive Violence” paired with psychological concepts in moral and cognitive development in children? It’s a holy, welcome juxtaposition. “Bless This Mess” dives into questions not only of discipline and manners but vital issues of appropriate relationship to money vs. materialism, the transcendence and pitfalls of religious practice, the unavoidable reality of racism, sin and forgiveness and even the oh-so-difficult to discuss S-E-X.

All this wisdom is condensed into easily-digestible chapters with scientific studies, scriptural exegesis, and personal anecdotes to clarify the concepts and bring to life the applications. If this seems like a bit much for a parent on the go to absorb (or, in my case, a parent in the season of lactating on demand), every chapter ends with a recap of “Big Ideas” that gives bullet point reviews of the chapter. One of my favorite features embedded in each chapter is a breakdown of how to apply the information based on the developmental stage of your child. Whether you are parenting a preschooler, a high schooler or anything between, there is something to help you tie the information to the questions and challenges of your particular life phase.

Amy Nee-Walker’s eldest child. Contributed photo.

There is an element of the book that needled me throughout my reading. The authors vociferously name themselves as “progressives,” anticipating a reader who does the same. True as that may be, my life has been blessed; peopled with friends and family that span the political/religious spectrum. While many of them will feel attracted to a book custom-made for progressives, others will feel immediately excluded, especially because that terminology is the main feature of the introduction. Right from the beginning, there is political territory drawn to what could otherwise be a genuinely inclusive text. Rather than emphasize what camp they fall in, I would have preferred the authors keep their focus on what the content itself makes evident: here is a guide to parenting as scientifically informed and spiritually grounded beings, Christians who are aware of their place in a wide, varied and shared community. While the authors adeptly fill a gap in parenting literature, I can’t help but think they missed an opportunity to build a bridge. It’s hard to avoid the rhetorical shortcut that words like “progressive” and “conservative” offer to us as writers. Hopefully, creative solutions put forth by thoughtful people of faith directing their energy and insight into that problem can fill the gap.

Amy Nee-Walker’s second child. Contributed photo.

Of course, O’Donnell and Baskette are well aware that they are not perfect, either in book-writing (though it comes well-nigh!) or parenting. And they encourage each of us to recognize and accept our own imperfections, allowing ourselves AND our kids to be “good enough.” We cannot be perfect guides to our children, not only because we are imperfect beings, but also because we are walking different paths. Even though we precede our children in age and, hopefully, wisdom, our history does not provide an exact roadmap because each of us walks our own road. God has made each individual unique and set them on their own unique journey in the midst of this blessed, messy community of creation. Be that as it may, on this journey as a parent, I am grateful for the arrival of “Bless This Mess.” It stirred in me a latent spark to be not just a good parent and Christian and person, but one who is fully alive, embracing the mystery of each person with whom we are privileged to share life and responding to them with love.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I hear my baby crying!

Hands of Children. Photo by Amy Nee-Walker

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Amy Nee-Walker grew up in the middle of a large and lovely family in Central Florida. Living into questions about truth and love has led her to the Catholic Worker, the Catholic Church, her incredible husband, three audacious, adorable children, and (for the time being) a home in the hills of Appalachia.

Franciscan Bookshelf: “One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are”

By Messy Jesus Business guest blogger K.P.

Eucharisteo always precedes the miracle.”– Ann Voskamp

51lWAOBT9rL._SX342_BO1,204,203,200_The concept of eucharisteo, as Ann Voskamp explains in One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are, is a practiced and disciplined form of perpetual adoration: a choice to thank God in every season, every action, every moment. As she describes in this interview with The High Calling, it is “the word that can change everything”: thanksgiving, which “envelopes the Greek word for grace, charis. But it also holds its derivative, the Greek word chara, meaning ‘joy.’ Charis. Grace. Eucharisteo. Thanksgiving. Chara. Joy.”

Last week, I made my covenant affiliation to the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration and participated in the program’s live-in for five days prior to that ceremony. On Wednesday morning we were visited by two sisters who spoke passionately about perpetual adoration. I confess that, prior to the live-in, I found perpetual adoration to be the most mystifying and distant aspect of my community’s charism. I have sat in the perpetual adoration chapel many, many times, and I’ve experienced peace; I’ve prayed and felt the effects of my prayers; I’ve left prayer requests for others. And I felt that I understood—intellectually—the significance of perpetual adoration and the way it has marked the history and experience of the FSPAs in La Crosse, Wisconsin. But I did not fully understand this ministry and its immediate application to my life. I was grateful that others dedicated their time to adoring the monstrance—not just FSPAs, but countless affiliates, prayer partners and occasional visitors. But I did not understand how or why I should make this a regular, meaningful part of my own spiritual journey.

One of the sisters that morning spoke fervently of perpetual adoration as a form of being prayerfully active in the world, and I recalled immediately Voskamp’s own word for such a practice, eucharisteo. Voskamp’s text is meaningful to me because I credit her book—and my dog-eared, much-loved copy—for introducing me to the power of the everyday spiritual practice. It was after I read One Thousand Gifts that I began to explore lay orders and other spiritual communities and disciplines; it was after I watched interview after interview with Voskamp that I began to recognize and appreciate mundane holiness and the need for loving presence in every moment. One Thousand Gifts helped me understand that I would be remembered for how I loved, how I brought peace—not for what I owned or accomplished. In this way, I would place Voskamp in powerful company: her book was as quietly revolutionary, for me, as was Shane Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical and the work of Richard Rohr. Her revolution is a whisper. A silent, persistent prayer of gratitude. A microaction, prompted by a profound call to her own version of perpetual adoration.

And so, even though Voskamp is not Catholic nor is she Franciscan (though I believe that, as we say, she has a “Franciscan heart”), her word eucharisteo remains with me as I begin my new journey as an affiliate of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.

Franciscan Bookshelf: A Simplified Life: A Contemporary Hermit’s Experience of Solitude and Silence

By day, guest blogger K.P.—a good friend of Sister Julia’s—reads, writes, and has conversations about literature for a living. By night, she devours theology, sits silently with God, and pursues her calling as a lay order Franciscan through affiliation with FSPA. Each month she will share a favorite selection from her “Franciscan Bookshelf.”

For 25 years, Verena Schiller spent a life cultivated from quiet at the edge of the world. She lived alone in a weather-beaten shed on the precipitous edge of Llŷn Peninsula in Wales, battling both the elements and overpowering roar of her own silence. A member of the Anglican Community of the Holy Name and a consecrated sister, she shares her story in A Simplified Life, a book that rewards its reader for the slow turning of every page with a deeply felt sense of the holy struggle of solitude.

Photo credit: http://www.amazon.com/Simplified-Life-Contemporary-Experience-Solitude/dp/1848250258
Photo credit: http://www.amazon.com/Simplified-Life-Contemporary-Experience-Solitude/dp/1848250258

In prose that is as difficult and as raw as her salt-grimed cove, Schiller nudges her reader towards gentle insights about the interconnectedness of our inner and outer landscapes. The book winds together three complementary narratives: the rich spiritual history of the peninsula itself, overlooking Bardsey Island; the natural history of Schiller’s new habitat; her discovery of companion plants, animals, and tides; and the personal history of her journey from consecrated sister to solitary hermit. For readers interested in the ecological obligations of the Christian, the possibilities of practiced silence, or the structure of a life that is voluntarily secluded and driven by prayer and survival, Schiller’s story will be achingly beautiful, meditative in its rhythms and depths.

Two words that have drawn me, slowly but surely, onto my Franciscan path are the following—simplicity and solitude—and Schiller delivers a thought-provoking account of both. Silence … what a bonus that would be! But sadly, I think even at the edge of the world, I’d be pouring forth in conversation with the wildflowers, the gulls and the seaweed—as Schiller occasionally finds herself doing, actually.

This is not a journey white-washed for those (like me) who occasionally luxuriate in the idea of becoming a hermit: Schiller’s story makes clear that this is a life of struggle, but also of incredible purpose and beauty. I left these pages feeling extremely grateful for the sacrifice of these sisters and brothers whose quiet prayers animate the abandoned corners of our world.

closets of conversion and compassion

Last summer I was invited to join a group of Christian bloggers who occasionally review Christian media.  After I agreed, opportunities came!  The first book that intrigued me is a story of radical solidarity, compassion and good ol’ fashioned Christian conversion, The Cross in the Closet by Timothy Kurek.

The following video nicely introduces you to the writer and the book’s premise. Prior to the start of his year-long experiment, Kurek was a self-named Christian bigot. He was upraised in a very conservative community- so conservative that he wasn’t even allowed to watch movies such as Free Willy, because it was considered “environmentalist propaganda.” He becomes troubled by his background and then pretends to be someone he isn’t for an entire year (in order to free himself from who he calls his Inner Pharisee). The outcomes are many, and profound. Ultimately, he learns universal Truths about love and dignity that we can all heed.

A modern rendition of St. Francis and the leper, The Cross in the Closet is a Christian story of encountering Christ in unexpected places, and then being changed by the experience. I was inspired by Kurek’s raw honesty and public vulnerability. The book is a touching story of how a genuine Christian faith is a journey through questions and doubts, spiritual poverty, conversion and gradual enlightenment toward Truth and freedom. Yes, all people, no matter their diversity, are children of God with equal value and worth. This Truth of Christ must be the foundation of all of our Christian behavior. For some of us, though, we must truly risk boldly in order to understand it, in order to believe it. That’s what makes this true story so compelling.

I believe that all readers will relate to The Cross in the Closet. Its meaning and message are both broader than communion with a marginalized population; its value is greater than education about diversity. Rather, The Cross in the Closet speaks volumes about the freedom that is gifted us when we seek God on the margins, when we strip ourselves of pride, anger, hate, fear and all that can block us from union with God as we step into the unknown.

Really, I think that the strength of the book is its universal messages. Following God can flip everything in our lives upside down. Kurek explained: “…the [new label] has forced me to think more deeply about things I probably never would have otherwise. . . But at least I am finally open to the idea that I may have been wrong all along…” (82). Actually, even if it’s not an outcome of intentional discipleship, enculturation causes one to consider what they never had to before.

Although I enjoyed reading this book and found its messages profound, The Cross in the Closet wasn’t an example of great writing for me to aspire. Apparently, the book was written while Kurek went through the experiment. His personal growth is paralleled with his development as a writer. In the beginning, some details were too random and insignificant to be included (so what if so-and-so just came out of the bathroom!?), many of the metaphors were confusing, and much of the writing lacked creativity or beauty. Even toward the end of the book, occasional grammar mistakes and bizarre typing errors provoked a feeling similar to reading essays written by my high school students. For example, I had an urge to mark the text with my colored pens when I read “she walks passed our table” instead of “past our table” (p. 267). I was left wondering whether the fact that books can be published with such mistakes should be reassuring or appalling to me, another imperfect writer.

Even so, The Cross in the Closet is an engaging and important book, thick with relatable threads for both Christians and secular seekers. Kurek’s story inspires us all to remember that we are all on a journey together, and we all must be willing to risk boldly in order to truly know who we are and how we are to be in this world of beautiful diversity. His story and its colorful strands of authenticity, friendship, love, faith, conversion, solidarity, and compassion is a blessing to us all.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.