There is a line from Samuel that has always troubled me… “And the word of the LORD was rare in those days” (1 Sam. 3:1). Was the Lord’s word rare because the people were hard of hearing? Or was the word rare because God’s unique presence was conspicuously absent? The text does solve the problem of the silence of God. It simply narrates it.
I recently finished Lauren Winner’s book Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis. It is a wonderful read for Lent. Although I am very envious of Lauren’s articulateness, it is delightful to read someone who writes so well and whose voice you can hear on every page.
Still is a quick but not an easy read. The challenge is not the vocabulary but the subject. Lauren wrestles honestly and vulnerably with the difficulties that come in the middle of a person’s spiritual journey.
If you have read Lauren’s earlier works about her conversion from Judaism to Christianity, you know her descriptions of coming to Christ and her early walk in Christian faith are delightful, beautiful, and honestly entertaining.
Still comes several years later after the death of her mother and the dissolving of her marriage. Where is God then?
One of my favorite quotes from the book actually comes in the introduction. Lauren writes, “Some days I am not sure if my faith is riddled with doubt, or whether graciously, my doubt is riddled with faith.” Who among those of us who have walked with the Lord for some time, have not also wondered, in the middle of our journey, whether or not our doubts might overwhelm the beauty of our faith?
Winner’s book doesn’t offer easy solutions, but it offers words of encouragement for those in the middle of their faith journey. In an especially beautiful section Lauren observes all of the significant middles, including parts of speech called “middle verbs” (English and language teachers will especially love this section). She writes,
These middle verbs, it seems to me, are religious; they are the very actions that constitute a religious life: to forgive, to imagine, to grow, to year, to lament, to meet, to kneel. To have one’s body doused in the waters of baptism. To ponder.
All of which suggest to me that the middle is the language of spirituality, of devotion, the language of religious choreography. It is the middle voice that captures the strange ways activity and passivity dance together in the religious life; it is the voice that tells you that I am changed when I do these things and that there is something about me that allows these happenings to happen; and yet it is the voice that insists that there is another agent at work, another agent always vivifying the action, even when unnamed (pp. 156-157).
One of the things that I found beautiful about the book is that she shapes it around the church calendar (the liturgical year). We have just entered into the season of Lent – those forty days when we journey beneath the shadow of the cross. Numbers are significant in the Bible. There are three persons in the Trinity. Seven is almost always the number signifying completion. Thus six is always somehow incomplete. I think forty is the Bible’s number for a long period of time… that eventually ends.
Today is the second day of Lent and the feeling of commitment to confession, repentance, and to fasting still seems fresh. Day two is not the problem. The problem is day nineteen… Or day twenty-three…. Those are the days that make Lent seem long. And yet you know that it will come to and end… eventually.
For most, our journey in faith is not a sprint but a marathon. The middle miles are the challenge. But the middle miles can also be beautiful. The middle miles are where most of the growth, most of the maturity, and most of our strength is developed.
Lauren writes about the significance of the middle tints in great works of art…
John Ruskin, the nineteenth-century art critic, said that the truly skilled painter devoted most of his canvas to middle tint. In a great landscape, there is “excessively small quantity, both of extreme light and extreme shade, all the mass of the picture being graduated and delicate middle tint… The middle tint is laid before the dark colors, and before the lights.”
…Perhaps middle tint is the palette of faithfulness. Middle tint is going to church each week, opening the prayer book each day. This is rote, unshowy behavior, and you would not notice it if you weren’t looking for it, but it is necessary; it is most of the canvas; it is the palette that makes possible the gashes of white, the outlines of black; it is indeed that by which the painting will succeed or fail…
Maybe now in the middle, after the conversion, after ten years, on into twenty years, faithfulness is about recognizing that most of my hours will be devoted to painting the middle tint, the sky, the hillside on which no one will comment, the hillside that no one, really, will see. Maybe this is prayer most of the time, for most of my life; I will barely notice it; you will barely notice it; against this landscape of subtle grays, occasionally I will speak in tongues, occasionally I will hear an annunciation (pp. 190-191).
May we journey diligently through the middle, living by faith and not sight, even when it seems that the word of the Lord may be rare in these days.
Some of my other favorite quotes from Lauren F. Winner, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis (New York: HarperOne, 2012):
- What happens in conversion – at least, what happened in mine – is that a person concludes that the truth is in Jesus… But then where does it take you? Or, more precisely, how does it take you? How do you continue to allow the truth that is in Jesus to be your rudder? Xiii
- The enthusiasms of my conversion have worn off. For whole stretches since the dream, since the baptism, my belief has faltered, my sense of God’s closeness has grown strained, my efforts at living in accord with what I take to be the call of the gospel have come undone. Xiii
- I was carried to the middle of my spiritual life by two particular events: my mother died, and I got married, and the marriage was an unhappy one. Xiv
- …this book is about the time when the things you thought you knew about the spiritual life turn out not to suffice for the life you are actually living. This book wants to know about that time, and then about the new ways you find, the new glory road that might not be a glory road after all but just an ordinary gravel byway, studded with the occasional bluet, the occasional mica chip. Xvi-xvii
- Jagged words; mean; it is silly and immature of me to hold on to them (it is only my own palms they are slicing) but I do because the jagged things afford me the only self-righteousness I have in this whole tedious story. 8
- Forgiveness is never a matter of persuading God of something but of discovering for myself that there is no distance to be crossed, except that longest journey to that which gives truth and reality to my very self. 19
- On Sunday mornings I get up from my twin bed and go to church and, at church, Sunday after Sunday, I join the other sick and sad and shuffling in line for healing prayer after the Eucharist. 21
- Perhaps to say this is to turn religion into therapy. But church is therapy, that is one of many things it is, and, as my friend Mike once told me, the real problem lies not in recognizing the therapeutic balm in the gospel; the real problem is going through life thinking that the health you need can be found anywhere else. 33-34
- “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” The voice is taken to be the answer to Epiphany’s question: this is who Jesus is – he is God’s well-beloved and pleasing son. But this year, hearing in church again about Jesus’ baptism, I wonder if, before the voice from heaven and the celestial dove, it is also Jesus’ standing in line by the river that tells us who he is. At Christmastime, the church called Jesus Emmanuel, which means God-with-us – and now he is with us in the baptismal queue. He is the One who stands with humanity in this line that is all about our sinning, our shame. 36
- And it is only later, after I ask the priest, that I learn something about the elderly couple who, near the end of the Communion train, come to the rail and kneel, fragile as mushrooms. What I learn later is that for a dozen years, he has been afflicted by a wasting disease, an intestinal disease that makes it almost impossible for him to eat – he lives on Ensure and lemonade. But at the altar I don't yet know that, I only know what I see: they each take a wafer from the priest; and when I come to them with the chalice, the wife dips as I say “The Blood of Christ keep you in everlasting life,” as she eats her wafer, and then her husband likewise intincts his round of Christ’s Body into the wine and then he hands the round of Body and Blood to his wife and she eats his wafer for him. There at the Communion rail, I don’t yet know what illness lies behind this gesture, I know only the couple’s hands and mouths, and that I am seeing one flesh. I have read about this, heard sermons about a man and woman becoming one flesh; and here at the altar, I see that perhaps this is the way I come to know such intimacy myself: as part of the body of Christ, the body that numbers among its cells and sinews an octogenarian husband and wife who are Communion. 38-39
- These desert people, Christians, left the cities after Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire. The desert people knew that the faith’s new fashionableness was every bit as dangerous as the persecuting emperors of old, so they fled the cities and the temptations of ease, to find God in the rigors of the desert. 55
- As Chekhov famously put it, “If you are afraid of loneliness, don’t marry.” Intimacy alienated – that is what my friend hates. 57
- I can participate in prayer (or not), show up to pray (or not), but I am not the author of my prayers; when they come, they come from God. 77
- As far back as I can remember, anxiety has been my close companion, having long ago taken up residence in the small, second-floor bedroom of the house that is my body. Sometimes my anxiety takes long naps. Sometimes it throws parties. But I don’t imagine it will ever tire of this neighborhood and move out for good. 82
- The insight that we can exercise some control over our thoughts and feelings is deep in Christianity, at least as deep as the desert. The desert fathers spoke of the eight logismoi; gluttony, lust, greed, anger, dejection, listlessness, vainglory, and pride. The logismoi tempt you to do destructive things – to fornicate, to overeat, to preen – and they teach you false stories about yourself; that you are dependent on food rather than on God, that you are deserving of kingdoms. The word logismoi doesn’t translate precisely – “passions,” some people say, or “tempting thoughts.” I think of the term this way: the logismoi are false distractions that threaten to colonize your imagination. They turn your head. They take over your brain and jerk you out of reality. The desert saints said that the beginning of renouncing a thought is simply noticing it. That is part of what I’m doing in my quarter hours – I am noticing, and naming, and then, for a few minutes, quarantining a distraction. 89
- But the desert fathers say something more: after noticing a thought, replace it with prayer. So that is what I try to do to my anxiety this Lent – not just ignore it for quarter-hour increments, but sidle up alongside it and pray. 90
- …”one of the God’s gifts to some of us is just not to be immediate, so that we have to undergo the kind of discipline necessary to have what others seem to have effortlessly.
- I am too lazy to do what’s important, or hard, so I stay busy with everything else. 105
- The name Esther means “hidden.” …”Esther did not reveal her people or kindred,” that is, she did not reveal that she was a Jew. And God is hidden, too, in this book God is not mentioned once. See this as a fulfillment of a promise made in Deuteronomy, when God says to Israel, “I will surely hide my face.” Hear the hush of Esther’s name in the Hebrew of that promise: I will sure hide, hastir astir… Call it not the Book of Esther, but the Book of God’s Hiddenness, the Book of God’s Hidden Face. Though God is at work, God hides. Or perhaps not. Perhaps God is not hiding, but absent. Perhaps it is not God working to save the Jews of Persia, buy only Mordecai, only Esther; not God, but coincidence that a Jew wound up married to the king, in the perfect position to petition for her people. You have a choice: see God here or not; see salvation, or see only human courage; see the divine subtly at work, or see chance, luck of the draw on this day of lots. 113
- In the Sunday Washington Post is an article by a woman whose marriage had imploded, and who had just had a massive fight with her best friend. She doesn’t hold much truck with organized religion, but nonetheless, she says, “I was in dire need of people who would be nice to me for less than $125 an hour. So off I went to church.” 120
- Another theory holds that boredom is not a self-evident state, but a strategy that alienated studies use to define themselves against a task they can’t or don’t want to do… I feel a glimmer of recognition when I read these pedagogical studies, I remember that I started feeling bored in church at precisely the moment that various Christian voices were telling me to do something I felt I couldn’t do, that is stay married. Maybe I evaded their instructions and my discomfort by going to boredom. I couldn’t quite bring myself to say, to those Christian voices, “I reject your authority.” 124-125
- My friend Sarah had a run of a few months in which – because on principle she invites in anyone who knocks on her door – she hung out with Jehovah’s Witnesses every Saturday morning. Each Saturday, she told them that she wasn’t going to convert, but that they were welcome to come in for a cup of tea. They did, week after week. “I don’t think very many people let them come in,” Sarah says.
- Last week, Sarah opened her door to find a traveling salesman. She invited him in, told him she was not planning to buy a vacuum cleaner and that in fact, because her baby was asleep upstairs, he couldn’t turn on his demo model, and then she offered him a cup of coffee. He asked why she was offering him coffee, when she wasn’t even going to let him show her the vacuum cleaner, and she said it was because she worships a God who has said that he may be found in any person, any near or far neighbor, any prisoner or beggar on the street, any guest. “So I’m offering you coffee because you might be Jesus,” Sarah said. The vacuum cleaner salesman said it was the strangest house call he’d ever made, but he took the coffee. 127-128
- I think of a story my friend Julian told me. She was twelve, and she was preparing to be confirmed. A few days before the confirmation service, she told her father – the pastor of the church – that she wasn't sure she could go through with it. She didn’t know that she really believed everything she was supposed to believe, and she didn't’ know that she should proclaim in front of the church that she was ready to believe it forever. “What you promise when you are confirmed,” said Julians father, “is not that you will believe this forever. What you promise when you are confirmed is that that is the story you will wrestle with forever.” 172
- It turns out the Christian story is a good story in which to learn to fail. As the ethicist Samuel Wells has written, some stories feature heroes and some stories feature saints and the difference between them matters: “Stories… told with… heroes at the center of them… are told to laud the virtues of the heroes – for if the hero failed, all would be lost. By contrast, a saint can fail in a way that the hero can’t, Because the failure of the saint reveals the forgiveness and the new possibilities made in God, and the saint is just a small character in a story that’s always fundamentally about God.”
- I am not a saint. I am, however, beginning to learn that I am a small character in a story that is always fundamentally about God. 193-194