Long Days of Small Things

52260122 "Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline" by Catherine McNiel

God entered the flesh-and-blood reality of human life, with all its mess and chaos, in the person of Jesus Christ, and God continues to be present in the mess and chaos of our daily lives. This truth pulses through the pages of Catherine McNiel’s book for weary parents, Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline.

Long Days of Small Things is not just another book for parents. First of all, it does not offer parenting advice or philosophies. Instead, it seeks to help parents be where they are and to see the ways God is already at work—in the midst of the noise and busy-ness of life with small children, and inside their own parched souls. (And this book is nothing if not realistic and honest about the challenges, frustrations, and failures of parenting.)

In certain Christian circles, much talk is made of “quiet time” with God and other spiritual disciplines. While McNiel is appreciative of these traditions, she points out the ways they can perpetuate a sidelining of family life and, especially, of moms (at least historically). They often unintentionally divide our spiritual lives from the mundane tasks we spend so much of our lives on: cooking, cleaning, yard work, wiping dirty bottoms (you get the picture). In response, McNiel masterfully weaves together Scripture, theological insights, and her personal stories to give us a sense of the sacred in the midst of the mundane. For example, one chapter brings together God’s work of creation and the miracles of pregnancy and nurturing little bodies. Another moves between the service aspects of Jesus’ ministry and the solitude and service of parenting—being woken in the middle of the night to calm fears (as Jesus was on the boat in the storm), being immersed in the grime of life (as Jesus when he washed the disciples’ feet). At the end of each chapter, McNiel offers helpful reflections on three practices we are already doing, and invites us to experience God in the midst of them: everything from breathing and walking to feeding children to menstruation and sex.

McNiel’s book is a healing balm and refreshing cup of water in the midst of a season of life that can often feel like a wilderness experience.

McNiel manages not only to give us a renewed perspective on God’s presence in the ordinariness of our days, but also to shed new light on the character of God and the beauty of the Gospel. The truth of the Incarnation unfolds in a new way as McNiel reflects on what it meant for Mary to raise Jesus: “She labored and pushed, pouring out water and blood and risking her life to give God his first breath…She placed tiny pieces of fish in his hands and taught God-made-boy to take and eat them. The wine she poured out for him, the bread she broke for him.” Here, in the midst of lifting up the holy task of motherhood, McNiel offers Protestants a new way to appreciate Mary, known from the earliest centuries of Christianity as the “mother of God.”

The stories of the Gospels come to life as McNiel paints a picture of the ancient Near East and the teacher named Jesus whose feet were “caked in layers of sweat, dust, and mud” and who told earthy stories of “sheep, fish, bread, and water” that the uneducated, working class crowds could understand—perhaps even better than the elite. We meet Jesus in a fresh way in this book, which is as much as we could ask of any book on spiritual formation.

The content of McNiel’s book would be compelling enough, even if it were written in fairly sterile prose. McNiel’s writing is anything but. There is an effortless lyricism to her writing, and at moments a particular turn of phrase took my breath away. This is a book to be savored, in small chunks—read here and there as you grab a few minutes in between soccer practices and homework help.

McNiel’s book is a healing balm and refreshing cup of water in the midst of a season of life that can often feel like a wilderness experience. It is also an invitation to women to hear God’s voice speaking to them, to own (and share) the wisdom gained through sacrifice and service, and to live boldly into the calling God has on their lives. That invitation is most welcome.

-Mandy Rodgers-Gates, Blacknall Member, Th.D. Candidate at Duke Divinity School


Good Dirt: Lent, Holy Week & Eastertide

Good Dirt: Lent, Holy Week & Eastertide, A Devotional for the Spiritual Formation of FamiliesA Devotional for the Spiritual Formation of Families by Lacy Finn Borgo and Ben Barczi The Good Dirt series of family devotionals is becoming one of my favorites as I continue a lifelong search for “just the right family devotional book.” I love the way Borgo and Barczi set the table for families to come together throughout the Christian calendar year (see Good Dirt: Advent, Christmastide, and Epiphany, and Good Dirt: Kingdomtide).

Because of my years of working with our children in worship and the particular method we’ve adapted, I am a big fan of the Calendar of the Church Year and I love the way the authors use it as a foundation for working through an entire year with your family. If you have children between the ages of 3 to 8, or if you’ve had children that age at Blacknall since 2006, they will be familiar with this method of thinking about the church year and so this devotional should click with their understanding of the language of our church life together. Borgo even gives instruction about creating a calendar of the church year with your children in the introduction to each of the books in the series. (There is one significant difference in her calendar and ours. See if your kids spot it!)

Rarely will I say about a family devotional “this book is something you must try,” but I’m saying it with these to myself and to anyone who asks!

What I like about the format of these devotionals is that there is no expectation that all the pieces be done in one sitting. The division of “till, plant, water, and weed” gives you some flexibility with how much to do when you’re together and also the rhythm of liturgy in your days. I love that and wish so much that I had been more liturgical with my own children in those foundational early years of bible reading and prayer. Another favorite aspect for me is how the authors give ideas for engagement and play that work with different ages—some great ones for little kids and sensible and provoking ones for older kids.

In the Lent, Holy Week and Eastertide books the authors do an excellent job of dealing with the seriousness and penitent spirit of Lent as well as the paradoxical wonder of Holy Week and Easter. Their emphasis on “the blessing of ritual” as we go through these seasons is a powerful reminder of how the Holy Spirit uses our life together as family and in the church to mature us in the faith.

Take some time to explore these books and consider them as a guide to praying and reading scripture with your children. Know that these books really do coincide with much of what we do with your children when they are in these four walls; the readings and prayer should provide wonderful connections with home and church.

I’m still working through these books myself, but I encourage you to take some time to consider how to incorporate them into your family life. Rarely will I say about a family devotional “this book is something you must try,” but I’m saying it with these to myself and to anyone who asks!

– Traci Hoover, Blacknall Director of Elementary Children’s Ministries

Joy of a Good Book

I am a book junkie. My bedroom floor is literally lined on four sides with rows of books. When we moved three years ago, my husband earnestly and thoroughly culled his collection. He insisted I do the same, but other than some obligatory tosses I was unable to reduce the volume of books I have. With the move, I opted out of bookshelves because I never have enough. Instead I line books along the baseboard of my bedroom and make piles of them throughout my house. I am always reading something and I always have a stack that I’m planning on getting to eventually.

Since my adult children were little I have been one to accumulate and treasure good children’s books. In more recent years, with my job here at Blacknall and perhaps in anticipation of grandparenthood, I have become a collector of young children’s books as well as some older children’s novels. I’m forever trolling my Amazon suggestion list as well as following other book trails from children’s ministry sites. Most of what I have is by no means super spiritual, but I do love something fun to read and especially fun to read with kids!

And then there are the other good books about faith and children, how we as parents, grandparents, teachers, and caregivers can come alongside our children, often with stories, and help form faith in them. I have a list of those and a longer list of those that I want to read!

All that said, the idea of keeping a book blog seemed absurd to me. How could I spend time writing a blog about reading when I could be spending that time reading?! The idea came to me that we could have a book blog for children and family ministry to which all of us could contribute. I hear so many good conversations around the church about excellent books people are reading either with their children or about their children that I feel the need for us to have a space where ongoing conversation and exchange of ideas can happen. I don’t want to be the primary contributor, after all that would take away from my time reading!

I do believe that each of you have things to contribute. You’ve read a good book to a child and you really want others to experience that same joy you felt with a story well told and a child’s mind illuminated. Or you’ve wrestled with some parenting issue and found a book that helps with just the thing you’ve struggled. And what about devotions with your children and family? Maybe you’ve found just the book or maybe not. Maybe you found one that only makes you feel guilty and ill-equipped or maybe you’ve found the one most of us have been searching for that gives guidance about how best to teach and remind our children of the faithfulness of God.

Space to talk about what we’re reading and how it brings us joy or frustration is what I’m hoping this blog will provide. Mostly, I hope we’ll hear about good books. I am convinced that Paul’s words to the Philippians can guide us as we choose what we read today:

. . . always think about what is true. Think about what is noble, right, and pure.  Think about what is lovely and worthy of respect. If anything is excellent or worthy of praise, think about those things.

So, read and then, write on. Join the blog! I would love to hear from you and something tells me that we’d all enjoy hearing from one another!

- Traci Hoover, Blacknall Director of Elementary Children’s Ministries