The Common Good

Spoonfed: Why We Need to Embrace the Messiness

I’m going to tell you something I do not do very well.  But, only if you will not tell the other mothers because I have listened to them talk, and apparently I am the only one not very good at this. Deal?

I'm not good at helping my children learn to feed themselves. I totally get in the way. Let me explain.

Well, actually, there isn’t much about it to explain.

I don't like messes. So, I feed my children … for too long. I sit a bowl full of spaghetti in front of them, and I get a little panicky.  I mean, have you ever found dried, crusted spaghetti noodles on the floor a week (or more) later when you're cleaning?  And what about the slimy, greasy residue left on the plastic tray attached to the high chair?  And then there's the highchair cover.  I did not realize you could take that thing off to clean it until my second child was two. Wow. That was amazing — what I found under it, I mean.

Never mind the fact that most of the food gets on the child and everything and everyone else … not in their mouths.

And, I mean, I'm also very concerned about my child’s dietary needs. Seriously, I think that is the biggest reason I insist on feeding them well into their third year. (Did I just write that?) They need me. They need me to spoon that mouthful of spaghetti straight into their teeny little mouth. That way I know where it goes — there is no guesswork.

Let’s all be honest here. Like I said before, I do not like the mess.

But there aren't just messes on my kid's high chair — they're in the Bible too. And, if we're all honest, our lives can be pretty messy too. But is that a bad thing?

Walter Brueggemann is an Old Testament scholar (some would argue the Old Testament scholar) who wrote a book entitled Spirituality of the Psalms.  Basically Brueggemann explores the three different types of psalms: psalms of orientation, psalms of disorientation, and psalms of reorientation.

In the psalms of orientation David reads like a brand new, just-came-back-from-the-alter Christian.  Everything is wonderful and so is his Lord.

In the psalms of disorientation we read of David in very, very dark times. In some places he almost sounds suicidal. He is depressed, has lost his hope, is beaten down, and wonders where God is.

Reorientation psalms are the psalms of a mature, been-there-and-lived-to-tell-about-it David. His faith is strong. Before he had heard that his Lord was worthy of praise.  Now he knows it.

David’s disorientation is messy. It is uncomfortable to read — unless you are in the state of disorientation yourself. Then reading these psalms can be very comforting. David, that guy who was "a man after God’s own heart," had rough times, too. Maybe I’ll be okay. Maybe there is something normal, something okay about this dark place. Maybe God is on the other side.

The truth is that God desires for us to have the reorientation faith — a faith that is strong and knows — not just because someone else told us so, but because we have learned for ourselves that God is.  He is there.  He is our Healer.  He is our Comforter.  He is our Savior.  He IS.  No longer are we fed milk.  We EAT. And what we eat is solid food (1 Corinthians 3:2).

Here’s the thing.  As a whole, our culture is not very good with this disorientation stage.  As a church we are not very good with this disorientation stage.

And, let’s be honest. We do not like the mess.

We do not like the questions, the doubt, the challenges.  We see that bowl full of slippery wonderings and pushing and pullings, and we pick up that spoon full of faith and do our best to deliver it straight into the mouth of our disoriented people.

I mean, they need us to spoon that mouthful of ideas straight into their teeny little mouths.  That way we know where it is going.  There is no guesswork.

The only problem is that when we don’t allow people to sit in that messy stage of disorientation, when we try to push them forward or pull them back into the safe, cozy, feel-good baby faith of orientation, they never learn to feed themselves.  They never grow the skills and spiritual muscles they need to make their faith their own.

Disorientation is dark and scary. It often takes place during the course of a normal life transition, such as the one from adolescence to adulthood. It can also take place when someone loses someone or something precious in their life through death, divorce, or some other loss.  And that’s when I’ll hear these words.  In fact, maybe I’ll even say them myself: “She is doing okay. She is being very strong.”  I’ll tell you what.  I understand when a person describes a grieving, disoriented person as strong about as much as I understand when a person says that a baby is “good.”

How is a baby “good”? Do they intentionally go to sleep when told? Do they nurse on command because they are such good little listeners? What? No! Babies are just babies. They just … are!

Likewise, people grieve. They question. They go through their disorientation. They just do. There is no strong or weak to it. 

In fact, if I see a person who looks like they are perfect in the midst of disorientation I am a little concerned. What does being strong look like here? Is it being strong enough to cry and throw yourself at the feet of your Savior with your questions and doubts and fears, which can and often does happen in secret, or is it smiling and assuring everyone that you are doing just great?

I’ll tell you what else. As a church we lose people in this disorientation phase. This is when we lose them. This is when they walk out our doors. Is it because they don’t want to believe in God anymore or commit to a faith community? I don’t think so. I think it is because we do not make adequate room for their questions, doubts, and their messy process of learning to feed themselves.

I think we do this with sexuality too. Liberals and conservatives are both great at this, this pushing people out of disorientation. Most conservatives are scared to death of anyone needing to ask questions and process about their sexuality, so they make a little box and make it clear that you can only stay in this box or, well, I guess all hell will break out. Most liberals are scared to death of anyone needing to ask questions and process about their sexuality and want a person to go ahead and “come out” and admit to being one way or another and force a person into a box, making it clear that they just need to go ahead and get in the box or else, well, I guess all hell will break out in that scenario, too. No room for a world without boxes. No room for questions, wonderings, processing, or disorientation.

I remember being in graduate school in California and spending time with a panel of LGBT folk who were sharing their stories. One girl was fifteen years old, and I listened as she told us how she finally figured out that she was bisexual. It was because she always wore cargo pants, and people told her that girls don’t wear cargo pants.

I wanted to pull my hair out.  I don’t know who told this precious girl that girls do not wear cargo pants, but somewhere in her journey — because they gave her a box that she had to be in — when she faced her disorientation they pretty much made up her mind for her. Here’s the box. Jump on in. 

That disorientation place is an uncomfortable place.  Whether we are conservative or liberal, once you jump into the box, then we know what to do with you. In the dark and scary place of not knowing we get a little panicky. So help us all out and just jump, good or bad.

We’re spoonfeeding, and sometimes what we are feeding is toxic.

The truth is that God is in the messiness.  He hovers over the darkness, the void, the formless (Genesis 1:2). It is out of this messiness, this void, this apparent nothingness that He creates. And, what a Creator He is.

I love working with young adults in their twenties. It is messy and wild with questions and doubts and the start-of-life anxieties. A young person will often get so anxious about their doubts and questions, and they typically go in one of two directions: they choose one of two boxes. They can become self-flagellating, believing their doubts and questions as a sign of their lack of faith, or they try the “throw it to the wind” approach and become a hellion. They don’t understand anything so why try?  It is just too much to figure it all out, and they want it figured out. It is too much to sit in that middle, wondering place.  More than likely they will vacillate between these two options. Both choices are the result of a lack of tolerance for the disorientation — the messiness of learning to feed yourself.

I will often share this Brueggemann idea with them. If they are Christians I will share the idea from the Psalms, too. I might also talk about James Fowler and his stages of faith and about how this stage four faith is messy. It is challenging. It is hard. It is full of questions, doubts, skepticism. And you have to go through it.  It is normal to go through it if you want deep faith, a faith that is strong and knows — not just because someone else told you so but because you have learned for yourself that God is. He is there. He is our Healer. He is our Comforter. He is our Savior. He IS. No longer will you be fed milk. You aren’t willing to tolerate that anymore. You want to eat solid food (1 Corinthians 3:2).

So, the other day my two-and a half year-old son was eating ravioli.  He usually sits by himself in his chair, but this day he wanted to sit in my lap, and I was just fine with that.  I love his soft, warm, little body and how he turns around every few minutes to laugh and giggle at me and say “mama!” just because he loves me so very much.  So, I was holding him, and I picked up his spoon because he wasn’t eating, and I wanted him to get a good meal in his belly before he took a nap. He took the spoon away from me and said: “I wanna feed myself, mama.”

As I watched him sloppily and awkwardly use his spoon to pick up a single ravioli noodle, I forced myself to watch and pray that he wouldn’t spill it on my shirt or let it slide down on the cloth placemat or down the chair legs onto the carpet. I smiled and prayed and watched, holding my sweet boy the whole time, and there it went, straight into his mouth.  No spillage. No mess.

But, you know what? Would it have been that big of a deal if it had fallen on his shirt or the placemat or the carpet? It would have been nothing that a little detergent and scrubbing could not have resolved. And we would have been together through the process, and he probably would have learned something, something about being careful, about what happens when you spill something.

So, if I ever have another child, maybe I will get better at this self-feeding thing.  Maybe I will make room for more messes, for more trying, for having more fun through it all.  It sure does make for some cute pictures and memories with those cheeks covered in sauce. And if there are no more babies in my future, perhaps I will get better at letting my children feed themselves in other ways. 

I hope and pray I can get out of God’s way, while still staying close through the process, so that He can be Creator in their lives — the Creator that creates out of darkness, out of disorientation.

And maybe as a church we will get better with this too, making room for the disorientation, for God’s work in the darkness.  Maybe we will stop getting so panicky.  Maybe we’ll trust that God is in control and not us.  Maybe out of that trust we can learn to sit and hold people when they are learning to self-feed. If they spill things along the way and make a big mess, we can help them clean that up, too.

Emily Stone, mother of four and a pastor's spouse, is a professor and licensed marriage and family therapist. She and her husband write about faith and life at www.stonewritten.com

Photo:  Marina Dyakonova / Shutterstock

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