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A Feature Review of
Ordinary Miracles: Awakening to the Holy Work of Parenting
Paperback: Herald Press, 2014
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Reviewed by Ellen Painter Dollar.
I belonged to a church of overcommitted world-changers when I first realized that God was calling me to have a baby, or as it turned out, several babies. God, it seems, was calling my fellow church members to start medical clinics and supportive housing for Washington, D.C.’s homeless population, or to give up comfortable suburban lives and move their families to violence-ridden urban neighborhoods. And here I was, called to wipe noses and bottoms, launder tiny outfits stained by blow-outs and spit-up, and figure out how to get adequate plant-based foods into growing bodies. This did not seem right, and I struggled for many years to understand how God might be present, and how I might connect with God, while caring for small children instead of doing Big Things for Jesus.
Rachel Gerber’s Ordinary Miracles: Awakening to the Holy Work of Parenting is a gentle invitation to mothers like me—firm in our faith but unsure how to nurture that faith while navigating the tedious, exhausting terrain of life with little ones—to notice and celebrate “the sacred mundane.” Her most natural audience is parents in progressive Christian traditions (Gerber is an ordained Mennonite pastor) that, like my D.C.-based church, more readily celebrate outward justice-oriented and pastoral work than domestic duties. Her message may also appeal to mothers in more conservative traditions, where a perception of motherhood as a woman’s highest calling can make it hard for women to confess that their days are more marked by fatigue, boredom, and even rage than joy and spiritual fulfillment.
I knew I was going to like Gerber’s perspective when, within the first few pages of the book, she dispensed this little nugget:
“To suggest that connecting with God can only be done by finding silent moments for quiet reflection before your family wakes up is simply absurd. Life in this stage rarely allows for silence, and to rise before anyone else means a certain future of never sleeping again.”
So if connecting with God by dedicating exceedingly rare moments when we are both awake and alone to prayer (a commitment that, in my experience, just makes God into yet another needy being that wants a piece of my disintegrating self) is not the answer, what is? Gerber reassures readers that we don’t actually have to go looking for God. (This should come as a relief to women who feel that we, and we alone, are always responsible for every single important thing.) God, Gerber reminds readers, is always looking for us, and God is right here, waiting for us to notice.
“What if [our spiritual quest] is really more about God finding us?” Gerber writes. “How are we being invited to take notice of where God already is? Could connection with God come even as we change diapers, fold laundry, help with homework, and haul kids to soccer practice, music lessons, and story hour?”
Defined as a devotional memoir, Ordinary Miracles is more reflection and inspiration than gripping story. We meet Gerber’s two sons (joined by a third whose arrival is described in an epilogue) and her hospital chaplain husband. We read vignettes that will ring familiar to nearly any American parent—pre-birth dreams of losing track of the baby, colic, endless bedtime shenanigans, irrational requests from little ones even before Mom has had her morning coffee. Each chapter ends with a short reflection on the disciples meeting the resurrected Jesus on the road to Emmaus, which Gerber plumbs to reflect on how we, like those disciples, don’t see God right in front of us, until we do. The double whammy of a potentially fatal car accident and the news of her mother-in-law’s stage 4 liver cancer two days later set the stage for Gerber to contemplate how brokenness—the breaking of bread, the breaking of our bodies and spirits—is often the place where we come to know God most intimately.
Gerber’s core revelation is that, while parents of young children might struggle to connect with God through quiet contemplation or private prayer, they can always give sacred attention to the philosophical little tyrants whose needs rule the day. One of Gerber’s most touching vignettes is of her younger son waking her around 5 a.m. with the insistent observation that, “I did it! I woke up!” That we should give thanks for simply waking up each morning to live another day is a cliché, but Gerber offers a fresh rendering of it. Ordinary Miracles provides similar lessons on nearly every page, as Gerber repeatedly illustrates how giving in to her sons’ insistent desire for her attention reminds her of what is really important—relationships, connection, love—and forces her to let go of what is not.