Nurturing our Spiritual Practices

Reclaiming Birth with Sacred Worth

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By Katey Zeh

file000450171216In most instances when U.S. media portrays the birth of a baby, the storyline typically goes something like this: The woman’s water breaks in the grocery store. Her awestruck partner starts panicking that they need to rush to the hospital immediately. When they arrive the woman screams obscenities as she is wheeled into the delivery room where a doctor shouts like a drill sergeant for her to push a few times before the baby is born. It’s loud, exciting, and kind of terrifying.

The birth of my daughter was nothing like this. In fact, as it turns out very few women I know have had experiences like the ones we see in movies and on TV. But our consumption of this Hollywood narrative of childbirth—excruciatingly painful, lightening fast, always with a happy ending—shapes our collective imagination about childbirth in powerful ways. If the only births we ever see are fictionalized, sensationalized, and sanitized representations of the experience, what else do we have to go on?

There are consequences to this. I spent a good portion of my pregnancy trying to unlearn the culture’s explicit and implicit messages about childbirth that taught me to be afraid of it, to discount my physical and mental stamina; that told me to entrust my birth experience to medical professionals without complaint or question. I was shocked when a friend of mine shared that her OB, who entered the delivery room groggy from a nap, answered her cell phone and talked casually as my friend begged to push her baby out. Even as her daughter was crowning, the doctor said to my friend, “Hold on another minute.”

As a person of faith, I hold to the sacred truth that as children of God, all women and girls have innate sacred worth. No woman should have to beg for compassionate, respectful maternal health care.

In my advocacy for global maternal health, I am passionate about lifting up and honoring the stories of women’s births that we find in our ancient scriptures and connecting them with what is happening in today’s world. Even though these women lived thousands of years ago, their experiences are not unlike those of many women today. I’ve written about Mary as a young, poor teenager with an unexpected, high-risk pregnancy. I’ve shared about the story of Rachel in Genesis who died in childbirth, not unlike the more than 800 women this very day who will lose their lives bringing new life into our world.

This year on April 11th organizations and advocates who care about maternal health are calling for the day to be recognized as the International Day for Maternal Health and Rights. Communities of faith have a real opportunity to reclaim our collective stories, both past and present, to ensure that the sacred worth and dignity of every woman–no matter where she lives, no matter the circumstances of her pregnancy, no matter what access to resources she has—are honored during pregnancy, childbirth, and throughout her life. If you are looking for a way to get started, I invite you to take a look at our resources for how to get your congregation involved in the Healthy Families, Healthy Planet project.

Birth is sacred. Let’s make sure it’s treated that way.

This was originally posted on the United Methodist Church’s Healthy Families, Healthy Planet website.  Reprinted with permission from the author.

Katey Zeh, M.Div is an advocate, organizer, and writer for global maternal health and family planning. A graduate of Yale Divinity School, she currently serves as the Director of the Healthy Families, Healthy Planet initiative of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society. Katey has written about maternal health for the Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches, and Feminist Studies in Religion. She lives in Cary, North Carolina with her husband Matt and their daughter Samantha.    

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Caring About The Other

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by Pamela J. Pettyjohn

I grew up in a church where only men could teach junior high age classes and above, because women were not allowed to teach men. What does it say to a girl, when a wise adult woman, a faithful Christian woman who leads an exemplary life for Jesus, is not qualified to teach a middle school boy? What it said to me is that, despite the statement of Galatians 3:28 that we are all equal in Christ, women were less equal than men in my church. Certainly, the women could cook the food, clean the church, care for the babies, teach young children, and sing in the choir, but they were not qualified to teach teens and adults, serve as a deacon, or ever be a minister. So what happens when a girl in this environment feels called by God to be a minister? In my experience, she is given a book about being a pastor’s wife. As an adult, I am now part of a denomination that does support the leadership of women in the church, and I am finally following the call to ministry which I first heard as a teenager.  However, I have not forgotten what it is like to be considered “less than” and unworthy; this experience continues to shape my thinking and choices on a daily basis.

DSC09606Until March of 2013, I was not a coffee drinker and didn’t even like the smell of coffee. It was an increasing lack of sleep from a convergence of events, including beginning seminary, which turned me into a coffee drinker for the caffeine boost. Granted, it had to be “milked and sweetened up” to be tolerable, but nonetheless, I had to admit that it appeared I was going to be drinking coffee on a regular basis into the foreseeable future. I also had to admit that I had easy access to fair trade coffee, and if I was going to be drinking it regularly, I needed to buy fair trade. It was not an easy decision since my family lives on a very tight budget. Despite that, we spend an extra $3-$5 a bag more to buy fair trade coffee. This is a small price to pay for knowing that these dollars join with those of others to ensure more humane treatment of those who grow the coffee beans to give me my caffeine fix. Yes, we need to be frugal with our funds, but this is a time we can and should put “the other” above ourselves.

The “others” are not just coffee growers in other countries though. They are right here among us in the “land of plenty.” When the workers who hold down multiple minimum-wage jobs and still need government assistance to make ends meet are vilified, they are turned into “others,” marginalized and treated as unworthy of the concern of those of us who are not quite as bad off financially. Nick Hanauer makes a strong economic case, speaking from the perspective of a millionaire many times over, for increasing the minimum wage.  But for me, this is not just an economic issue, or even just a human rights issue. It is a theological issue. Each of us is created in the image of God and worthy of respect and deserving of being treated fairly. Yet, it is easy to lose sight of that in the quest to get the “best deal” for our family. Those we are tempted to treat as “others” are also our family, our brothers and sisters. They are our neighbors, both in the U.S. and outside of it. We need to do what we can to lift them up.

This is a continuing journey, and my family has certainly not arrived at the place of making every purchase based on ethics instead of economics.  But I take heart that my son is aware of how unfairly some workers are treated and the existence of fair trade items at a much younger age than I. He knows that, while we may not be able to avoid all products that come from unfair sources, there are two companies which our family purposely avoids because we do know about their mistreatment of workers, as well as the negative impact which one of these companies has on the environment. Just because we cannot be perfect consumers does not negate the small steps we can take to show that we want others to be treated humanely, a fair wage to be paid, and environmentally friendly practices to be employed. A little at a time, our purchasing practices will make a difference as we thoughtfully choose to care about “the other.” And together with other families, we will raise a generation who will grow up to make an even bigger difference, of that I am convinced.

Pamela Pettyjohn is a licensed minister and certified teacher with an M.Ed. in Elementary Education from the University of South Carolina. She currently serves as an Associate Minister for Children and Families in Louisville, KY, while also working towards an M.Div. at Lexington Theological Seminary.

Not Knowing

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by Pamela J. Pettyjohn

It is after 1am in the morning. I’m writing this as I sit on the balcony of my oceanfront hotel, listening to the sound of the waves crashing onto the beach, a sound I don’t think I will ever tire of hearing. We are at a family reunion and blessed by the generosity of a family member, who makes such opportunities a reality for our family.

My husband has been asleep for over an hour at least. My son, staying in another room with cousins, is hopefully asleep, but I do not know. This not knowing is good practice for me, as he will soon be heading off to college and I often will not know where he is or what he is doing. And it is okay; I do not need to know. When I was younger, I beach photoalways “had to know” – uncertainty, ambiguity, and being in limbo were to be avoided whenever possible. But I’ve had a lot of experience of not knowing in the last few years, as we’ve navigated multiple moves and job uncertainties, along with the need to provide a stable life for our son.  I’ve had to surrender the illusion that I ever really knew as much as I thought I did. I’ve learned that sometimes all I can do is to throw myself into the arms of God, and picture myself cradled in the peace of Christ, where I can find rest.  That is all. In that place, resting in the peace of my Savior, I can live with not knowing, and tonight I am reminded of that.

I am currently in the early years of a new career, serving as a minister. I think that all “working parents” face the tension between family and job; certainly women ministers, whose qualifications to follow our calling are still questioned by some, often hold ourselves to unreasonable expectations in both our ministerial and family arenas. The day we left for this family reunion, just a little over two days ago, I got a call about a near tragedy – a life hanging in the balance, with no way to know which way it would go…. Others went to the hospital and have kept me updated, and there is nothing I could or can do but wait… wait for each scrap of new information. Initially totally stunned by this bad news, I felt numb, and all I could do was pray, God of Mercy, hear my prayer when I do not even know what to pray.

I want to be at the hospital, keeping vigil, and yet I am all these miles away, and, truth be told, I want to be here too with my family. While I physically relax and re-connect with family members, some of whom I only see once a year, while I laugh, play games, swap funny stories, drink wine, eat food, and have meaningful conversations, I am also waiting. I wonder. I rehearse possible outcomes. And I acknowledge more and more that I just do not know. Tonight, I accept that I do not need to know. Somehow, I am able to manage these two parts of my life, the ordinary person-wife-mother-daughter-sister-aunt part, and the minister part, which both co-exist inside of me all of the time. Somehow, I let go of the ache from the impossibility of being in two places at once. I am able to let go of needing to know if this dear one will pull through, and if so, what the future holds for her. I can let go – again – of wondering what my own future holds, professionally and personally.

I am grateful for this opportunity to be in this place, recharging my internal batteries, even if I do not fully understand how or why it is so nourishing. I can listen to this ocean, this pulse of the globe that we call earth, and I can know that One bigger and greater than me is working to make all things new. And that is all I need to know for now. Tonight, knowing that is enough.

Pamela Pettyjohn is a licensed minister and certified teacher with an M.Ed. in Elementary Education from the University of South Carolina. She currently serves as an Associate Minister for Children and Families in Louisville, KY, while also working towards an M.Div. at Lexington Theological Seminary.

Mothering Matters – It’s your blog, too

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Hi friends,

We here at Mothering Matters are coming back from a summer hiatus.  Wait, that’s not the right word.  A hiatus would imply that we’ve been hanging out, reading magazines, going on vacation.  What we’ve really been up to is the business (or busy-ness) of motherhood.  We are sorry for our time away, but we are very excited to getIMG_2566 back to this blog and community, which continues to grow each day.  Thank you for joining us.

Since this is your blog too, we want to hear from you.  What do you hope to get out of this site?  What do you want to hear more about?  Who are the writers/moms/scholars/ministers on your Mothering Matters wish list?  We want to reach out to others in the religion/theology/ministry worlds (and beyond!) to write for the blog – so who are your dream contributors?  What would you like to hear them explore on the pages here?

If you are interested in writing for the blog, please send us some information about yourself and what you’d like to write about.  You can learn more about how to contribute, and what we are looking for, here.

So thanks for visiting our blog and joining this community.  We hope you continue to send us messages via Facebook or Twitter (@MotheringMatter), or you can feel free to email us at motheringmattersblog@gmail.com.

We are excited to continue this conversation about mothering, theology & religious practices with you.

Until next week,

Annie, Claire & Liz

 

Finding My Center in Community

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By Katey Zeh

file000441757195When my prenatal yoga teacher instructed our class to hold each other’s hands for a series of group poses, I felt my stomach drop a little. And no, it wasn’t pregnancy related.

Our class had been meeting for several weeks, and while the newness had worn off, I still wasn’t completely comfortable with my fellow moms-to-be. We exchanged brief “hellos” at the beginning of the session, but otherwise we mostly kept to ourselves. Yoga isn’t exactly a social practice.

We moved from our mats and formed a line by holding hands. I ended up in the middle with a woman on my right who appeared days away from delivering her baby and a woman on my left who seemed more uncomfortable with the exercise than I did. Standing in our line, our teacher told us to lean forward together as each of us balanced on a single leg. The main intention of the group posture was to experience the strength of community: with the support of our fellow classmates, it was easier to find and maintain balance than if we had performed the exercise as individuals.

Quivering limbs aside, the group pose was a beautiful embodiment of what community can be. When one falters, the others help to hold her up until she can reestablish her centeredness. But what I felt most acutely as we stood there was immense pressure to be an anchor of strength. As the center, I could not lose my balance or the others would tumble with me. In reflecting on that moment later, I realized while I’m often ready and willing to be in a position of being relied upon, I’m hesitant to accept the help of another.

It came as no surprise to me that living in a culture that reveres independence and self-reliance had shaped my experience of pregnancy. From my daily workouts to my relationships, I had internalized the message that I needed to maintain the intensity of my pre-pregnant life. Whether out of pride or sheer stubbornness, I was determined not to pull out the “pregnancy card” as an excuse to take a step back from my responsibilities and commitments. I will be the first to admit that I have a lot of personal responsibility in perpetuating this unhelpful way of thinking, but I also have to call out the culture on this one.

In the early weeks of my pregnancy, there were moments when I was desperate to share my first trimester suffering with others. For the most part I was met with sympathy and compassion, but there were times when I felt taken aback by the responses I got. One of the most common was the menacing retort to my complaints about feeling exhausted: “Oh, you think you’re tired now? Just you wait!” These off-the-cuff remarks not only left me feeling insecure about having complained about my symptoms, but also they fed into the self-doubt I already felt about my ability to handle the challenges of motherhood ahead.

I try not to harbor resentment toward these people because their behaviors point to a much larger cultural problem: we do not know how to care for women throughout the reproductive lifespan in ways that are respectful and affirming. So often we reduce women to their reproductive organs, either to be placed on a pedestal or to be condemned. Whether a woman is experiencing a planned or unexpected pregnancy, a struggle with infertility or pregnancy loss, or a question of whether or not she will have children at all, we do not know what to say. So we stumble over our words, often unintentionally speaking in ways that are hurtful and judgmental.

We can be better, but we must transform ourselves individually and culturally. First, we must be mindful of the truth that women have sacred worth, regardless of their ability or decision to raise children. This should shape our every word and action. Second, we must open our hands and hearts, so that we might be refuges where radical acceptance and hospitality are available to all who need to regain their centeredness.

In partnership with the divine, we can transform ourselves to become communities of healing and compassion. As I prepare to birth a new human life into this difficult, beautiful world, what else could I possibly hope for?

Katey Zeh, M.Div is an advocate, organizer, and writer for global maternal health and family planning. A graduate of Yale Divinity School, she currently serves as the Director of the Healthy Families, Healthy Planet initiative of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society. Katey has written about maternal health for the Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches, and Feminist Studies in Religion. Her essay “A Pregnant Silence” was published last year in the book Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith. She was recently named one of “14 Religious Leader to Watch in 2014” by the Center for American Progress. She lives in Cary, North Carolina with her husband Matt and their dog Lucy.  

Candy Crush Confession

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By Claire Bischoff

“Mom!” At the sound of my four-year-old’s voice, my eyes snapped open. “It’s your turn.” Turns out I had fallen asleep sitting up in the middle of our checker game, in the middle of the living room, in the middle of the day. With an internal promise to allow myself to take a nap once my son went down for his, we finished the checker game (with me struggling to keep my eyes open the whole way), I read him a few books, and then I tucked him in for his nap.

Then, rather thafile5901240433821n take the nap my almost 30-week pregnant body was craving, I started playing Candy Crush on my husband’s old iPhone, a phone with so many cracks in the face that you sometimes can’t get certain finger swipes to work. I told myself I would play “just one game” before lying down for a nap. Thirty minutes later, I admitted to myself that I would keep playing until the game locked me out for the day and that I would not have time for a nap before we had to pick my older son up from school. Even as I was playing, a line from the book of Romans kept cycling through my brain: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want…”(Romans 7:15).

I am a bit perplexed by my seeming addiction to Candy Crush, as I have never been a “gamer” in any sense of this term. In Romans, Paul goes on to write: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.  Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me” (Romans 7:19-20). Certainly, it might be going a bit far to call an innocuous game like Candy Crush “evil” and to relegate my playing of it to the realm of sin. And yet countless times over the past month, I have found myself, phone in hand, playing this game even though I was not really enjoying it or using it to avoid facing head on parts of my life (emotions, relationships, arduous tasks) that would have been better dealt with now instead of in that ever-receding future of “when I beat the next level.” Inasmuch as there are times when I am swiping away, yet not feeling in control, I wonder whether concepts like sin and evil, which have fallen out of favor in many Christian contexts, might be of use in understanding our complex relationships to the (addictive) media of our time.

And yet even as I contemplate kicking the habit for good, or at least taking a good long fast from it, I do not want to be too hard on myself. If I have learned anything in my work this past year to heal from an eating disorder, it is that the behaviors that turn out to be maladaptive in the long-term often start as our well-meaning, albeit doomed, attempts to meet our very real needs. So while Candy Crush is currently getting in the way of writing projects that are past deadlines and actually connecting with my husband (instead of the parallel playing on our respective devices that marks many evenings in our house), at the beginning, I wanted to be playing it. I was attracted to it for some reason. So what needs did this downloadable phenomenon meet in my life?

I feel more than a bit sheepish admitting this, but the first thing I get out of this game is a sense of accomplishment. I actually feel proud when I get past a level that has been giving me a hard time. Conversely, in my work as a part-time stay-at-home mom and part-time adjunct professor, I very rarely feel accomplished. The endless cycle of clothes to be washed and folded, meals to be cooked and served, and surfaces to be cleared and cleaned leaves me exhausted and overwhelmed, not proud and satisfied. Just as I am ready to pat myself on the back for coming up with a creative solution to a recurring problem with my sons at home, a new developmental conundrum sneaks up to bite me in the you-know-what, leaving me with the sense that I am always behind the learning curve of parenting. And in my teaching I strive to be an engaging and relevant presence in class and on discussion boards, but I rarely get to see the growth that may result from the seeds that are planted in my courses. In this sense, my Candy Crush habit may be signaling that I need to find a leisure activity that would bring me true enjoyment (rather than mind-numbing, time-passing lethargy) and a much needed sense of getting something done well.

Second, playing this game gives me a much needed excuse to rest and do (next to) nothing. As I suppose is file0002105100289the case for many parents, I often feel as if my whole day is dominated by to do’s. If my sons unexpectedly decide to play cooperatively together, I pay a few bills. If I somehow finish grading student papers before the meter on the baby-sitter runs out, I catch up on laundry. And this sense of always having something to do is only reinforced by being part of the academy, where the ideal is that we constantly are researching, writing, and presenting (and maybe even improving our teaching). Both as a parent and an academic, I have not learned well how to rest or how to appreciate doing nothing as something positive rather than a sign of my lack of self worth. In this sense, what I need is not more time to play Candy Crush but rather a practice of keeping Sabbath to help me resist my tendency toward too much work. While it seems unimaginable to cease from work for one whole day a week (what would I do with my children?), it may be possible to practice a daily and abbreviated Sabbath with the purpose of more actively giving myself permission to just be.

I hold out hope that as I seek other ways to feel accomplished and attend more to the place of rest and true leisure in my life, the hold Candy Crush has on me will lessen and eventually fall be the wayside completely.

The Pain of Passing Beauty

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by Liz Gandolfo

harried mother As I write this post, I am 38+ weeks pregnant with my fourth child and am eagerly awaiting my scheduled C-section next week. I must confess that I have reached my breaking point, both physically and emotionally. As a mostly stay-at-home mother to children aged five-and-a-half, four, and two, I spend nearly every waking moment on my aching, swollen feet—prepping and cleaning up after meals and snacks, dressing and undressing small bodies, wiping bottoms, supervising teeth-brushing, cleaning up toys, doing laundry, getting kids in and out of the car (harder than it sounds), food shopping, “nesting” for the new baby’s arrival, and more. This is an awful lot to ask of a body that is already doing the 24/7 work of gestation! To be fair, my pregnancies all have been relatively “easy,” and this fourth one has actually been better than the last two, during which I experienced relentless insomnia and excruciating sciatic nerve pain respectively (both of these have returned this time around, just more sporadically and much later in the pregnancy). But my body is persevering through these final weeks in a way that I didn’t expect it to—its caring labors are necessary for the well-being of my children and somehow it just keeps coming through for me and for them. In all honesty, I am kind of impressed by my own strength and endurance. But I am also pretty miserable: physically exhausted, extremely uncomfortable, unable to sleep, and enormously slow and awkward. The physical strain has taken its toll psychologically and my nerves are pretty much shot; my patience and usual sunny disposition are gone. The scheduled date of my baby’s arrival is circled on the calendar like it is the second coming of Christ. There is a reason why the birth of a baby is referred to as “delivery.” This child’s delivery into the world will mark my own deliverance from the physical (and emotional) trials of pregnancy.

Clearly, I am ready for this pregnancy to be over. And I am comforted by the fact that that it will be my last; of this my husband and I are 1000% sure. Strangely, though, I am facing the end of this pregnancy, and the end of my childbearing years, with a mixture of profound relief and nostalgic grief. While four pregnancies have taken a physical and psychological toll on me, the process of creating and nurturing a new life inside my own body has been one of if not the most meaningful and transformative experiences of my life. To feel the first flutters of a fetal kick, and even to groan in pain at the discomfort of little toes (or knees, or a butt?) underneath my ribcage, are experiences of relationality and interdependence that have been utterly amazing and spiritually empowering for me. Having babies has been such a huge part of who I am for the past six years now. Knowing with 1000% certainty that I will never experience this particular kind of embodied creativity and intimacy with another human being again has begun to sink in as the date of my deliverance approaches. There is a strange tug of regret at knowing that, in the moments before my C-section, I will feel the movement of a child within me for the last time. I suspect that each of the “last moments” with this new baby in the weeks and months ahead will be accompanied by a great deal of mixed emotions. I know that moving on to the next phase of familial and professional life is the right thing for me, my husband, and our family. But it will be hard to let go of each little phase of this baby’s life, knowing that it will be the last time . . . for everything. Clinical psychologist Daphne de Marneffe articulates this paradoxical experience of fulfilment and regret beautifully as she reflects back on the time when she was leaving her own childbearing years behind: “I could not have been more full; life could not have been more sweet. And at the same time, there was also that ache, at ‘the rustling of the grains of sand as they slid lightly away,’ that ache of beauty and longing and time and the unbearable fragility and surpassing preciousness of this moment.”[1]

prengancyDespite my profound relief at never having to endure the trials of pregnancy again, and despite the demands and sweetness of caring for the children that I do have, there is a certain quality of grief to what I am experiencing in this process of moving on to the next phase of life. This grief is by no means tragic, and there is no comparing it to the depth of sorrow experienced in situations of trauma and loss. With a slightly different focus on coping with the process of change in the lives of children as they grow and develop towards adolescence and adulthood, Bonnie Miller-McLemore refers to the kind of grief that I am experiencing as “mundane grief.” Caring for children and helplessly witnessing their flight into the world requires spiritual practices of what Miller-McLemore calls “blessing and letting go.”[2] I already foresee the necessity of blessing and letting go of my children (kindergarten looms large on my horizon for this year), but I can see that I will also need to bless and let go of this particular stage in my own life. While there is much to be celebrated in moving on from pregnancy and the rigors of caring for babies and small children, these experiences have also been incredibly transformative and fulfilling. The beauty of these years has not come without its anxieties and frustrations, but it has been beautiful. And, however transformative, fulfilling and beautiful the future will be, it is still painful to witness the passing of this particular beauty. Alfred North Whitehead calls this phenomenon “perishing.” On a mundane, day to day level, we often experience the passing of beauty as rather painful, even when the beauty involved negativity and even when what replaces a particular beauty is also beautiful. The co-existence of two goods is often impossible—e.g., my own physical/psychological/professional well-being and the prospect of more children. Some forms of beauty and goodness must pass away in order to make way for new possibilities. This is not only my experience of motherhood, it is life.

I have already warned my husband that there will be many tears in the days and months ahead. I can’t even bear the thought of the last time I will nurse this final baby. But there is a luxurious quality to the mundane grief that I am experiencing. I will mourn the passing of this beautiful time because it has been so beautiful. What a blessing that has been and continues to be. So I will do my best to bless the beauty, and to bless my own sorrow, and even to savor the sorrow as I let it go and move forward with my family into new forms of possibility, freedom, and grace.

 

[1] Daphne de Marneffe, Maternal Desire: On Children, Love, and the Inner Life (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2004), 313.

[2] Bonnie Miller-McLemore, In the Midst of Chaos: Care of Children as a Spiritual Practice (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006), 176 ff.