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2011-05-01 issue:

Parenting as spiritual discipline

Parenting provides daily opportunities to mature as a Christian.

by Debbi (Diener) DiGennaro

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One Saturday I made doughnuts. They were drying on the newspaper—five rows of perfectly round, crisp doughnuts—when my daughter grabbed one and fed it to our dog. I left the room to count to 10, for those were my special doughnuts. While I was out, she taught Little Brother her new game, and another two doughnuts disappeared. Ten was not a large enough number to hold my exasperation. It was like someone plugged me into a TV, and all the gunky immaturity inside me was broadcast on a wide screen. I hate that.

Exasperation of parenting: Daughter Prisca and the  author making doughnuts. Photo provided.

I’m not sure who decides what qualifies as a “legitimate” spiritual discipline. Popes, perhaps, or ancient monks who have written eloquently on the classic disciplines such as prayer and fasting. But I contend—admittedly, without the funny monk haircut—that they have overlooked one discipline, a spiritual exercise machine par excellence: parenting.

Not that we should blame the monks. They were, after all, monks, and the good ones had no children. But as a mother of two tiny ones, who prays and meditates when the kids are napping, if the kids are napping, I argue that it ought to qualify as a fully accredited spiritual discipline.

The call of spirituality, as well as the call of parenting, is this: to transcend self-centeredness and yield to love.

Prayer, confession, fasting and the like are at times uncomfortable. (It’s called discipline for a reason.) When I decide to fast, I expect to be miserable. And invariably, someone has a birthday party with spicy little fried things and fudge on that exact day. But I chose to suspend gratification because I know there is something worthwhile to gain by overriding my natural desires. I don’t look forward to doing the fast, but I look forward to it being done. Conclude the fast with a glass of green algae drink, and I just feel plain healthy. 

Unlike parenting, though, the fast is still somewhat under my control. If my blood sugar drops too low and I get dizzy, I grab a sandwich. It’s that simple. I don’t get carried away. But parenting is such a powerful discipline because you can’t just “break the fast” upon exhaustion and grab some food. In this discipline, I push myself a lot further into transcendence—partly for the sake of my kids, but mostly because I don’t have a choice.   

God invites us into this transcendence gently; our kids drive us there with a front loader. Either way, we usually resist the opportunity to transcend ourselves.

Self-centeredness is so delicious. And the posture of yieldedness is just plain uncomfortable in any form—even if I’m being “yielded” to a fairy. It’s like someone just suggested that a bunch of adults play Twister. Must we? I prefer my self-centered agenda over lofty ideals like transcendence every time.

God understands this. God is also much more pleasant to deal with than my children, which is why parenting is so frightfully formative. With God, or even with a human spouse, you can gasp out a plea for an extension on this learning assignment when the stretch is just too much. The baby, on the other hand, responds to your plea with a cute smile, then tries again to climb into the oven.

 Some days I catch myself debating which of us to lock in the utility closet, me or the toddler? Oh God, can it be me today? Can’t I please spend the afternoon locked in the closet? The demands are so heavy. Our kids force us far beyond our limits, far beyond our inclinations toward transcendence.

But this is the function of the disciplines—they offer us avenues to transcend ourselves. The main issue is me and my willingness to be transformed.

Being a mother has enabled me to transcend (some of) my self-centeredness. I would not have scraped together the wherewithal to do this for my own benefit; certainly not for my husband’s, and probably not even for God’s. But those little weasels—and my love for them—somehow helped me find some wherewithal deep in my toes.
I am now able to set my agenda aside, without visiting my therapist, for at least three hours.

Yesterday evening, I found myself washing my daughter’s muddy feet. This is a skill I learned long ago. In our (Fairview, Mich.) Mennonite church, we practiced “foot washing.” I remember as a child watching my mother bend over a dish basin in the church library to wash the panty-hosed feet of her peers. After Mom finished, she would hug the other lady and then trade places.

Squatting across from my daughter with a water basin between us, I noticed my technique. I spoon a few handfuls of water over her ankles, in that precise way I saw my mom do, and gently swoosh it toward her toes. My motions were peculiar in their softness, considering that my kid had been “cooking” with red clay mud all afternoon.

I serve my kids in many ways. But to actually wash their feet always touches a deep place inside me. In the church library of my childhood, it was a holy ritual. In rituals, we do with our hands what we desire to do with our attitudes. The feet did not actually need to be washed. In fact, I am quite sure every one of those ladies scrubbed their heels with a pumice stone beforehand. And the old grandmas always cooperated so sweetly, always giving sincere appreciation at the end.

Appreciation is not my reality. I am literally washing feet that are filthy, that wiggle and squirm and jump to escape in that half second when I reach for the soap. The kids shriek and bawl if this foot washing takes more than three seconds. But shrieks and all, I enjoy it. It is acting out a ritual that affirms what I’m doing in real life, every day. It is a witness to the changes taking place at a deeper level in this mother: to transcend myself and yield to love.

If you want to be nurtured in the spiritual disciplines, read Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. Perhaps a cup of tea or a CD of ocean waves and chirping birds will enhance your learning. However, if you are interested in the trench warfare version, consider parenting. It extracts maturity—without your permission.

And all this—the water basins for genuinely muddy feet, wishing to be locked in the closet, the misery of losing myself as the center of the universe—forms me in God’s image. And that is, after all, the fingerprint of the spiritual disciplines.

Debbi (Diener) DiGennaro lives with her husband and two toddlers in Nairobi, Kenya, on an assignment with Eastern Mennonite Missions. Debbi and Aram manage the Mennonite Guest House and collaborate with the Kenyan Anabaptist churches.

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