As one of the RevGalBlogPals, I was fortunate to receive a copy of Lauren Winner’s new book Still to read during Lent. Because of the nature of my schedule and commitments during Lent, I didn’t get a lot of extra reading done. Just finishing my CPE papers and assignments kept me up many a late night! However, I did dive in to reading Still as Lent came to a close.
Lauren captured me with her comment in the Preface about being “in the middle” of your spiritual life, when the luster has faded and the questions outweigh the solid-as-a-Rock answers…
The assumptions and habits that sustained you in your faith life in earlier years no longer seem to hold you. A God who was once close seems somehow father away, maybe in hiding.
I started this fourth unit of CPE in a spiritually “dry” place. The previous unit of CPE was completed in a setting full of strife and legalism; the summer was full of family needs and obligations. I literally stepped off the plane from being out-of-state into the world of chaplaincy. And I had not had the mental re-set to do so. By Christmas, I was feeling more secure emotionally, professionally and spiritually, having planned and preached for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Rounding into the New Year, I discovered I had my “joy” back — life, while not perfect, was sweet. And then Still arrived as Lent began.
I confess that in mid-February, I only got through the Preface. But I was hooked. Lauren’s refreshing words and thoughts reminded me of the work of The Holy continuing in my life, and in the lives of my patients and their families as they struggled to see God in the hardest of days. An echo of the final verse of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” became my silent prayer:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.”
OK then. Studying and family filled my days and nights. Work and internship filled in the available corners. And I spent some time pondering where God is in the “silence” of our spiritual experience. Lauren calls it “stumbling into God’s absence, God’s silence” — which pretty much reflected where I had been. But in my CPE work, day in, day out, with people who were struggling to see and know God at work, I found something that made sense to me. As I re-read John 11 (part of my “read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year” discipline), I realized that Mary and Martha sat in that silence, waiting.
When he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed where he was. After two days, he said to his disciples, “Let’s return to Judea again.” (John 11:6-7, CEB)
“AFTER TWO DAYS…” The words jumped out at me. Yes. I had been there. Waiting. And hearing nothing. I found, as Lauren did, this space of rediscovery, of allowing the darkness and light to co-exist. And sitting in the place of The Eternal Promise that is yet-to-come. The reminder of my baptism. The beauty within the Eucharist, taken in faith and in grace. The challenge of staying in the “loneliness” of the harder places in my life. The trust that God has the “middles” of my life (I would note that “middle age” is not all it is cracked up to me, nor is “middle class” — but neither are a reason for crisis!) In the middling, Lauren ponders the work of the “threshing floor” and the work of God within us to sift, strain and stretch.
And as I read that, I wrote in my journal, ‘Please dear God, let me just get through this.’ Yes. I was definitely in the “middle.” Muddling through, I find that it is the act of praying (sometimes with words), of appreciating beauty (sometimes visualized), and of experiencing the Presence of God in unexpected places and in unusual ways.
In this “showing up” of God’s Presence, Lauren again triggered a memory… of struggling through Greek and middle voice (I still don’t always get it, either) and of the action of prayer which is, actually, just like that Koine Greek middle voice. Some day I will find a way to use that to explain the work of The Holy in our prayers without sounding like a Greek Geek (which I am most certainly NOT). But the reminder that it is God at work AS I pray, AS I wait, AS I try to follow — not me “doing” anything to change myself or grow in holiness. (In other words, the antithesis of most Christian “discipleship” books!) I spent the latter half of my last CPE unit contemplating my existence as a human BEing, not a human DOing, and of knowing with certainty that I am in ministry for reasons beyond my own. And that’s a good thing.
As the book ended, (rather abruptly, to my mind), I sat back and reflected on the work of The Holy in and through me (and many times in spite of me) over the last few years. Moving into chaplaincy as a vocation, the “unanswerable” questions are a part of the work. Because you can’t “answer” them, you can’t skew anyone else’s understanding of them, either.
And that, my friends is why the place of STILLness is so important.
Thanks, Lauren, for writing this book, for sharing your journey, and for being an honest reflection of the heart of God.
I haven’t read the book, yet. I will in time. Her thesis reminds of John Newton, the man who wrote “Amazing Grace” – he developed a spiritual practice that included a middle stage like Winner describes. I wrote about it here. Thanks for your review, I look forward to reading her book, soonish.