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Posts Tagged ‘doubt’

Such as I pray

trail sunset summer sky

So, how do you pray? he’d asked her once.

She’d thought about it a long moment. She always listened, always took his questions seriously. Say what you believe, she said. Say what you’re thankful for. Say what you love.

—Julia Spencer-Fleming, I Shall Not Want

I don’t find myself doing a lot of praying these days.

For a person raised, as I was, in the Southern Baptist church, where we toss around phrases like a little talk with Jesus and you can ask God anything and prayer is a conversation, this is (nearly) tantamount to heresy.

I don’t know when it began to slow down, exactly: maybe somewhere between the heart-cracking headlines (which are still getting worse all the time) and the many smaller, quieter griefs of the last few years. I’d never really understood about prayer, anyway, never quite been sure what it did, what it was supposed to do. I was tired of asking and pleading, hearing only silence.

So I slowed down, until I almost stopped altogether.

It’s not that I have stopped believing, exactly. I can’t quite seem to quit God, even when I think life might be easier or at least make a little more sense if I could.

I have, however, stopped believing in many of the platitudes I used to hear about prayer, because who really knows how it works, anyway? Like most conversations, it does not have a guaranteed outcome. Like most things we do, it is not formulaic. Like most of our attempts to be honest and faithful, it does not always make a lot of sense.

I have (mostly) stopped saying I’m praying for you to people, because sometimes it is a lie anyway, and I also (see above) have lots of questions about what that means. I have (mostly) stopped asking my friends and family to pray for me, though I know and appreciate that some of them do. I have more faith in their prayers, sometimes, than my own.

The irony here is that I still, most Sundays, lead the public prayer at our tiny church, taking requests from the handful of souls in the pews and offering them up to God or whoever is listening. I am perhaps not the best person to do this, at the moment, but it is my job and I love this community, so I get up, pen and bulletin in hand, and stand in front of these faces, familiar and unknown.

I usually begin with a line borrowed from my friend Amy, who can often be found in the front pew with her husband and twelve-year-old twins: we are so grateful for all that we have been given. I continue with a paraphrase of an old song I sang as a child: we know that you see and love the whole world.

And then, usually when my voice starts to crack under the strain of it all, I invite everyone to join me in the Lord’s Prayer. I don’t have to think of the words for this part, and the community’s voices often help carry mine. Depending on the week, certain lines can make me break into tears: on earth as it is in heaven. Forgive us our trespasses. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory.

Such as I pray, then, it can look like that: coming together with my community to follow Clare Fergusson’s advice in the Spencer-Fleming quote above. We say what we believe, what we’re thankful for, what we love. And I suspect I have not stopped believing in prayer altogether, or those lines – from the Lord’s Prayer and elsewhere – would not move me the way they sometimes do.

Such as I pray outside of church, though, it looks different.

It can look like texting a friend who lost a loved one recently, or checking in on another friend who’s going through a lot. It can look like sharing joys with loved ones, via text or in person, because prayer isn’t only sadness and asking; it is praise, too, or at least it can be.

It can look like the tasks I do around the house that ground me: folding piles of laundry, standing at the kitchen sink washing stacks of dishes. Sometimes, as I stand there scrubbing and rinsing, I end up humming one of the hymns that have lived in my bones since I was a little girl.

Sometimes I pray one of Anne Lamott’s few essential prayers: help or thanks or simply wow. Often I run right out of words altogether. I don’t know when they will come back. But then I remember Clare’s simple, solid advice, and I think: I can usually find something I love.

I don’t know if prayer moves the world, or even tilts it forward. I don’t know much about it at all, these days. But maybe it, too, is a form of love.

Maybe that’s all it needs to be.

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texas sunset sky december pump jack

“I was going to ask if you believe praying can really help at a time like this.”

Clare folded her hands together and pressed them to her lips. She paused. […]

“I believe that God hears our prayers, and cherishes them. I believe He answers by sending His spirit, giving us strength, and peace, and insight. I don’t think He responds by turning away bullets and curing cancer. Though sometimes that does happen.”

Harlene frowned. “In other words, sometimes, the answer is no?”

“No. Sometimes the answer is ‘This is life, in all its variety. Make your way through it with grace, and never forget that I love you.’ ”

—Julia Spencer-Fleming, In the Bleak Midwinter

I don’t usually expect to find theology in mystery novels. Though perhaps I should have seen it coming in this book, the first in a series featuring Episcopal priest Clare Fergusson (flawed but faithful, like all the best human beings I know). I enjoyed the book – a solid mystery set in upstate New York, in which new-to-town Clare solves a murder case alongside longtime chief of police Russ Van Alstyne. But I found this exchange, between Clare and police dispatcher Harlene, particularly moving and deeply human.

I don’t pretend to know what prayer does, or exactly how it works. The older I get, the less sure I am of what God is up to in this world, or how the presence of the divine intersects with our lives. But Clare’s final statement to Harlene rings true to me: when we are faced with life in all its variety, all we can do is try to make our way through it with grace. In spite of the darkness, I still believe this too: we are not alone, but deeply, wholly loved.

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night driving synchroblog graphic

It was my junior year of college when everything started to go dark.

I had just returned from a semester abroad in Oxford, a spectacular experience punctuated by weekend trips to Rome, Austria, Barcelona, Paris. I dove headfirst into English culture, picking up new slang words and acquiring a taste for Yorkshire tea. The world opened up for me during those months. I had never felt more alive.

I lived with 35 other American students in a pair of tall Victorian houses in North Oxford. We shared our deepest secrets on late-night train rides and over simple meals in our communal kitchens, and we explored every nook and cranny of our new city. We scattered to our respective homes back in the States for the summer, and we couldn’t wait to reunite in our West Texas college town for our junior year.

And then Cheryl died.

I had seen her just a day or two before, as our group started to gather in Abilene. She was heading back to San Antonio to pick up another carload of stuff for her new apartment. Her boyfriend, Chris, went with her to share the driving. And on the highway outside a tiny town in the Texas Hill Country, she lost control of the car and hit a tree.

That loss was the first sharp, sudden grief I’d ever experienced – the first time death came out of nowhere and tore a jagged hole in my life. I’d lost my beloved Papaw a few years before, but he had cancer and he had suffered deeply, and we knew it was coming for months beforehand. Cheryl’s death kicked me in the chest, and for months afterward, I couldn’t breathe.

I grew up in a church culture that placed a lot of faith in apologetics, in pulling up the right Bible verse, the right doctrine, to find an answer for everything. But Cheryl’s death knocked that framework sideways. I couldn’t believe it had happened for a reason; I didn’t believe God had anything to do with it at all. And I railed against people – even people I loved – who tried to tell me everything would be okay.

I couldn’t tell you how, exactly, I stumbled through those next months. I know there were a lot of tears, a lot of angry prayers thrown at the sky, a lot of hours grieving quietly with my friends, sitting together in our raw bewilderment. That spring, I was thrown backward again by another car accident: this one on a rural Missouri road, the cause of my six-year-old cousin Randen’s death. I didn’t – still don’t – believe God had anything to do with that, either.

More than a decade after those two deaths, I have weathered other storms: more loss, more grief, more disappointment. The challenges of a cross-country move and, recently, the constant, tearing uncertainty of the job hunt. If there’s one thing I know about faith, it’s this: there are no easy answers.

I am not always sure, on any given day, why I still believe in God, why the faith of my childhood (though it looks different these days) still tugs at me. I can’t explain why the story of Jesus strikes a chord within me, somewhere deep in my bones. I only know that I do believe, even with all kinds of doubts.

My friend Addie Zierman’s second book released yesterday. It’s called Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark, and it explores what happens when we reach the ends of our simple answers about how God works. I haven’t read it yet, but I loved Addie’s first book, When We Were on Fire, and I have no doubt this one will be powerful, too.

Addie has invited all of us to share our stories of faith in the dark, and this is mine, or the beginning of mine. Cheryl’s death changed the way I think about God, because it was the first all-consuming darkness I’d ever experienced. It has informed the way I think about loss and grief, and it forced me to make room for doubt and shadows in my journey. I wouldn’t have chosen it, but I can’t go back – even if I sometimes have to walk forward in the dark.

Please feel free to head over to Addie’s blog to share your story of faith in the dark, or to read others’ stories. These experiences can be tender and difficult to share, but they are so important, and I believe that sharing them can help us feel less alone.

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Lighting our candles

candle red berries penguin

Light your candles quietly, such candles as you possess, wherever you are.

—Alfred Delp

I am lighting a lot of candles these days.

We are into the short days of December, and while several of them (so far) have blazed with sunshine and brilliant blue skies, it’s still nearly pitch dark by five o’clock. The twinkling lights of our two Christmas trees (one big, one tiny) are helping to combat the darkness of the long evenings, but even so I find myself reaching for the lighter on a regular basis, hearing the click-click and smiling as the flame springs into life.

charles river clouds boston

Last week, I took a lunchtime walk along the Charles River, which glinted gray and silver under a sky chased with fitful clouds. I stumbled onto a small monastery whose existence I had only learned about recently. I slipped into its tiny chapel, set with jewel-like stained-glass windows, and I lit a candle, one in a row of flickering tealights set in a wrought-iron rack.

I wanted to murmur a prayer for our world, which is hurting so badly in so many ways, and in the end I couldn’t. I had no words. I let that tiny flame, joined with its fellows in that small stone chapel, express my plea: Lord, have mercy.

“I simply get to work on ordinary things,” Sarah wrote in a blog post a few weeks ago. “This is all I know to do when I don’t know what to do.” I think about her words almost daily, as I go about my own ordinary work.

I make the bed every morning with my husband’s grandmother’s quilt. I wash last night’s dishes while the kettle is boiling for my first cup of tea. I sort and wash laundry, lug it downstairs to the basement, haul it back up when it’s dry, fold it and put it away. I make grocery lists, errand lists, to-do lists, and work through them, slowly.

I peel a clementine for an afternoon snack, buy Christmas gifts, answer emails. I drink chai and more chai from Darwin’s, scribbling a few lines in my journal if there’s time. I write – news stories, book reviews, social media posts – and edit and proofread till my eyes hurt.

I come home and I need to plunge my hands into a sink of soapy water, or a batch of scone dough or a tangle of yarn. Or I need to simply sit in front of our Christmas tree with yet another mug of tea or mulled cider. And a candle burning nearby.

There is a lot of joy in this ordinary work. And there is also – at times like this – a feeling of helplessness.

christmas tree living room

 

What can I do about the headlines, the scenes of terror and tragedy on every side, the constant shouting in the halls of power that drowns out the tears of those who mourn? Not much, honestly. I can’t change anything for the families who are grieving, for the refugees without a home, even for my friend whose baby has been sick or other friends who are walking through dark times. I’m not a doctor, or a magician. I can’t do much. But I can light a candle on my kitchen table while I scrub pots and pans and make a meal to nourish myself and my love.

We are deep into the season of Advent, and even if you are not Christian, or religious, the world seems to be waiting for something. We are aching for peace, for reconciliation, for an end to the violence and anger that threatens to overwhelm anyone who picks up a newspaper or turns on the TV. We are desperate for solutions to these seemingly intractable problems, and we yell at each other because we don’t know how to fix things, how to move forward in the wake of so much loss.

It seems a small thing, to make a pot of soup, or a cup of tea. To go to a friend’s house on a Tuesday night, share a meal, trade stories and laughter, and read aloud the words of Luke and Isaiah. To spend Saturday morning wrapping potted poinsettias in gold paper, hanging pine garlands around the doorways at church. To text a friend, to share something funny or joyous or exciting, or simply to say, I’m here.

It seems small. But it’s what I can do.

As we turn toward the solstice and the nights grow ever longer, as the headlines continue to shout reminders of how broken and raw the world is, as I deal with continuing struggles and uncertainty of my own, you can find me here. Reading the words of hope and expectation in my Advent book, listening to the carols that thrill me with their longing and joy, sitting in the silence and taking a deep breath.

And then going about my quiet, unglamorous, ordinary work. Lighting the candles I possess, while I wait for the Light of the world to come again.

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christian cds nichole nordeman

Until recently, I thought I had grown too cool for Christian music.

Don’t mistake me: I love a good old-fashioned hymn, especially the ones that periodically set up camp in my soul: Be Thou My Vision. Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing. I Love to Tell the Story (which I always hear my dad’s voice singing). Amazing Grace.

I’m also deeply attached to a few praise songs I learned as a university student: Holy is the Lord. In Christ Alone. Blessed Be Your Name. And oh, how I love the Magnificat.

But for a few years, the Christian contemporary music that filled my ears and my CD player during my high school and college years got pushed aside. I grew tired of the often formulaic melodies and refrains, the sometimes too-packaged theology. I’ve spent the past decade or so walking into a more complicated faith, one that leaves a lot of room for gray areas and messy edges. The bright, happy sounds of ’90s Christian pop didn’t seem to fit any more.

But earlier this year, Nichole Nordeman – whose music I have loved for nearly half my life – released her first new album in ten years, an EP called The Unmaking. I downloaded it a few weeks ago, and I cannot stop listening to the title track. The musical style is familiar, but the lyrics are wonderfully honest and fresh:

This is the unmaking / Beauty in the breaking / I had to lose myself to find out who You are. 

Even before that, during these last few difficult months, I’ve caught myself humming snatches of other songs I thought I’d forgotten, half-remembered lyrics that, to my surprise, still ring true.

Keep on looking ahead / Let your heart not forget / We are not home yet, from Steven Curtis Chapman (who headlined the first concert I ever went to). I believe that He loves you where you are, from Mark Schultz. Lines from Nichole’s older songs: Gratitude, Healed, Brave, We Build. On the night of the recent Paris attacks, sick with worry and fear, I finally soothed myself to sleep by singing an old Point of Grace line over and over in my head: God loves people more than anything.

These songs wouldn’t always pass muster in a theology class, nor would some of them win any awards for musical style or originality. But I don’t care about that as much as I used to. These familiar words and melodies (and the newer ones from The Unmaking) are bringing me comfort these days. They often say what I can’t articulate, or help succor me when I’m raw and hurting. These singer-songwriters are old friends, and their voices help me feel less alone.

I don’t plan to reconstruct my entire CD library from the early 2000s, but I’m keeping the songs that have come back to me. These are the good ones. And since tomorrow is Thanksgiving, I will definitely be humming Nichole’s song “Gratitude.”

I’m linking up with Sarah Bessey for her Out of Sorts book synchroblog. This post was partly inspired by the playlist she made to go along with the book.

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Every once in a while, usually when I’m not looking, a line from a hymn sneaks into my soul and lodges there, like a bird building a covert nest under the eaves of a house.

This happens with non-religious music too (I’m looking at you, Taylor Swift), but when a hymn lyric sets up camp in my consciousness, it becomes a kind of mantra, or a kind of prayer. Last December, during Advent, it was my favorite four-part version of the Magnificat. This winter, a Lenten hymn caught my attention, and I hummed it over and over as we plodded toward Easter.

memorial church interior

This fall, it’s a line from a hymn I’ve known for years: God of Grace and God of Glory.

I’ve sung the several verses of this song all my life, in the big Baptist church where I grew up and in various other churches since then. I know most of the words by heart, and I love them all, but one line in particular has burrowed into my mind and soul lately:

Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days.

I was laid off from my job a few months ago. I have not wanted to talk about it here on the blog, but that simple fact has informed every day of my life since I received the news. The job search has been longer and more difficult than I expected, and I miss the purpose and the camaraderie of my former workplace. I’ve had some interviews and a few promising leads, but it has been hard. And it continues to be hard.

After months of job hunting – the relentless cycle of applications and rejections, the constant worry about whether I’m doing it right or doing enough, the loneliness that comes from missing colleagues and community – I am finding it difficult to pray. There are a host of reasons for this, not all directly related to the job search, but I can’t always make the words come, or even bring myself to believe that it matters.

But this quiet hymn lyric keeps coming to mind, both on the hard days and the not-quite-so-hard days. I catch myself humming it at odd moments, or I find the words floating through my head. (We also sang this song at church yesterday, because my husband – who plans our worship services – is evidently a mind reader.)

Both halves of this line resonate with me. “The living of these days” speaks to a broad swath of struggles and worries, both personal and societal. When I’m wondering how to face these difficulties, I’m always hoping for more wisdom and more courage. And when I’m too tired or too dispirited to form a prayer, this seems to be a pretty good one.

Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days.

Amen.

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sunset charles river willow branches

This summer, I read Mary Oliver’s Winter Hours, which includes an essay on the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins: his work and life, and the ways they intertwined.

It was (in typical Oliver fashion) a thoughtful, lyrical piece, but one line in particular has stayed in my mind:

But Hopkins was also a man in turmoil. […] No doubt his daily faith was a deeply layered light.

As the light around here has shifted from summer to fall, I have kept thinking about that image.

I think about it as I watch the sunset from my front balcony, the sky ablaze with vivid colors that change from minute to minute, darkened by smoky clouds or lit from behind by the sinking sun’s fire.

I think about it when I walk through Harvard Yard, watching the play of dappled light on the buildings and sidewalks, the autumn sun sifting down through the leaves.

And I think about it every time I walk down by the Charles River, whose undulating waves reflect – and refract – the sunshine, making it, indeed, a deeply layered light.

In the context of faith, “a deeply layered light” is an ambiguous image. It lacks the clear-cut simplicity that defined many of the conversations I grew up hearing, about God and belief and what a virtuous life looks like. Those conversations included images of light and dark, but they didn’t always leave room for layers, for complexity.

I am not sure, honestly, whether Oliver meant that Hopkins’ faith was enriched or diminished by its complications. (The undeniable fact, which she acknowledges, is that Hopkins wrestled mightily with faith for much of his life.)

These days, my faith is also “a deeply layered light.” It still illuminates my life, but there’s much more room for shadow and questions, complexity and doubt, than there used to be. It is no longer the simple, cheerful sunbeam of an untested childhood faith.

I have wrestled with some dark things in the last ten or so years, and I’ve watched many people I love – and the world around me – engage in similar struggles. We often come out bruised and battered. Our faith does not exempt us from asking hard questions, or having to face the darkness.

I don’t know where Hopkins ultimately landed on the question of faith, and I don’t always know what I believe, or why, on any given day. But I also know this: for me, it’s worth it to keep asking those questions, keep participating in a community of fellow believers, keep searching for the light. I believe the layers – the shadows and questions, the complexity and doubts – make my faith richer, deeper, more beautiful.

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