For The Someday Book

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Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis by Lauren F. Winner, HarperOne, 2012, 244 pp.

*In the interest of full disclosure, I received this book as a gift from the author via an offer at RevGalBlogPals back in the spring.

When I read Mudhouse Sabbath a few months ago, part of what charmed me about the book was the freshness of Lauren Winner’s faith. She had the energy and glory of a new convert, even though she had been a Christian for years by that time. Like all those new to our faith, Winner was able to reveal for us an outsider’s perspective on what made Christianity so wonderful, along with suggestions for its continued improvement. Mudhouse Sabbath seemed full of a lover’s passion and free of cynical doubt.

With Still, Winner confronts her first crisis of faith in her Christian journey. The book itself is all about that difficult crisis, a narrative exploration of what happens when doubt and sorrow and cynicism threaten to undo one’s relationship with God altogether. In the preface, she writes, “In my case, as everything else was dying, my faith seemed to die, too. God had been there. God had been alive to me. And then, it seemed, nothing was alive—not even God.” (xv) I believe anyone who has led a life of faith has experienced these times when God feels absent, and I have come to understand them as simply a part of the marathon course of a faith journey. There is even language in our tradition to talk about these difficult stretches—wilderness, desert, dark night of the soul. For Winner, however—perhaps again displaying the insight and heart of a convert—this seems like a new and abject experience. Her response is to probe deeper and more passionately, and we receive the gift of that quest in Still.

Winner speaks of this difficult season as the middle of faith, with baptism or conversion at the beginning and eternity at the end. The book unfolds an awakening about this middle time. Initially, she is thrust there by the death of her mother and a divorce with her husband, so it feels like a place of affliction. By the book’s end, though, her wrestling has helped her make peace.

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 palette will succeed or fail. (190)

The middle of spiritual life is indeed that gray place of everyday faithful living, sometimes disrupted by despair and punctuated by occasional glimpses of glory. Somehow those moments of transcendence make sense of all the rest.

This book would be an ideal read for companionship and comfort for anyone navigating a crisis of faith. Like the Psalmist, Winner gives voice to our aching need and hurting heart when we feel “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and she keeps to the prayer of faith, “you are my strength, come quickly to help me.” (Psalm 22:1, 19) Winner brings that same passion to this difficult part of the journey as she does to the joyous parts, and that, along with her eloquence, makes this a helpful addition to the spiritual library.

When I read Still, it was out of season for my life. I was in a place of strong communion with God, and so I did not connect with it in a visceral way. I imagine I will return to this book when I again feel lost in the middle.

Photo of tornado that hit Henryville, from

Exactly ten days ago, deadly tornadoes rolled through our region. Since noon that Friday, when my son’s school announced an early closing, every plan, task and to-do list has been tossed aside. Our town is just a few miles from Henryville, Indiana, which took a direct hit from an EF4 tornado. Our congregation has families that live in Henryville, Pekin, Borden and New Washington. One family has lost their entire home, another family has sustained major damage. Two of our church’s youth attend Henryville High School, and they have lost their school building and the accompanying social events that give shape to their lives. Almost everyone has suffered emotional and spiritual trauma, as they feared for their own lives and worried over friends and loved ones in the hours after the storm.

Henryville High School, devastated by the tornado.

Last Sunday, less than 36 hours after the storm, our community gathered for the first time. For most of us, it was the first chance we had to talk about our experiences. I groped for something to say to my congregation in the wake of such devastation. In prayer, I realized we needed to do three things in that hour of worship: to acknowledge our feelings, to find our hope in God, and to organize our service.

We began the sermon by simply inviting people to share words that described what they had been feeling. Scared. Fear. Anger. Sadness. Helplessness. Anxiety. Grief. Questioning. Gratitude. Relief. Questioning “why?”. While one occasion of worship was not enough to process all these feelings, there was a palpable sense of connection in the room as we realized that we were all feeling the same way. We could acknowledge that we were not alone in our struggles, and giving voice to our shared experiences gave us encouragement.

The scripture that I had originally planned for that day was from the Lenten lectionary, Jesus’ admonition to “take up your cross and follow me.” I had planned to talk about Jesus’ confrontation with the evils of empire, and in my weekly video I had even asked people to ponder the question, “What would you be willing to die for?” After the storms, we all knew in a deeper way that we were not willing to die for our stuff. But many of our community also knew in a way that they never understood before how much they were willing to risk their own lives to protect family, friends and neighbors.

It is in that spirit of generosity, courage and self-sacrifice that God is made known in these storms. It is not in the suffering, injury and death. We find our hope in God in the love and compassion we see from those around us, and we offer to one another. From my sermon:

People may try to tell you that suffering is good for you, or that God sent these terrible tornadoes as a cross for us to bear, that this is some kind of a test or blessing or way of making our faith stronger, but I’ll tell you right now—that’s just bad theology. I don’t believe it for a second, and neither should you. God doesn’t work like that—choosing to preserve a woodpile or a mailbox while destroying a home, saving one family when their neighbors across the street lose everything. God doesn’t use the winds to rip apart homes and lives and frighten us into submission. God doesn’t pick husbands over wives, grandparents over grandchildren, cats over dogs, non-Christians over Christians. God doesn’t send little children flying through the air to teach us a lesson. Any God who could be so cruel and fickle is not worthy of our worship.

The God of Jesus Christ is the God of the cross, the one who is willing to suffer and even die right alongside us, so that we know that we are never alone in our most painful moments.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God is the one who refuses to flee in the face of the storm, who huddles under mattresses and climbs into bathtubs, holding us tight in our most terrifying moments.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God is the one who hears our most fervent and frightened prayers and whispers calm and peace into our ears.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God is the one who searches every house and every ruin until the lost are found.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God is the one who shows up in food trucks and water bottles and chainsaws and offers of “whatever you need, we’re here for you.”

The God of Jesus Christ and our God picks up a hammer, a bucket, and work gloves and starts cleaning up and rebuilding—and sticks around until every last family, every last person is restored to wholeness again.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God uses Facebook and phone calls, e-mail and text messages to rally the family of Christians across the country to pray for this church and our two afflicted families by name this Sunday morning.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God sends the resources of the One Great Hour of Sharing and UCC Disaster Response Ministries to our aid, and extends offers of support and supplies from every corner as we help our community start again.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God does not delight in how much we suffer, but in our willingness, like God’s own Son, to go to the places of suffering in this world to shine the light, and hope, and love for all people.

So that’s what we are to do: we who follow God, we take up our cross by following God into these places of suffering and grief, so that our friends and neighbors are not alone and they know God’s love is with them even in these terrible circumstances.

For us as Christians, we don’t merely take care of our own—we will reach out to all those in need. This storm will be an even more devastating loss on those who were already living on the edge, and they will need our compassion and aid.

We aren’t just acting from heart-felt compassion. We are people of faith, and service is a discipline for us, not just something we do because it makes us feel good.  That means we’re making a long-term commitment, until every last person is restored to wholeness. That process will take many months, after the fear and the emotion and the passion have died down. The work will get tedious and much patience will be required—but you and I, this church, we have an opportunity in this moment to be for our community the light and the hope of God, and I know we will.

I know we will. That felt like such a statement of faith that morning, but I knew it to be true—that our congregation would rally and work and give and serve in ways far beyond our imagined capacity. And we have, already.

Volunteers in Henryville (AP photo by Michael Conroy)

Since the winds died down, everyone in our community has been working non-stop to clean up and care for one another. Crews from our church organized to remove debris for two families in our congregation, but then reached out to help other neighbors. A Volunteer Reception Center opened just a few blocks from our church to handle the hundreds of volunteers arriving in the region (nearly 3,000 already registered). Over 20 members of our congregation have already signed up to work at the Volunteer Center itself. This is not the “glamorous” work in storm-ravaged areas—this is filing papers, answering phones, handing out work gloves. Our folks have signed up for multiple shifts over the next four weeks already.  A dozen more have also been deployed to the affected areas with chainsaws and pick-up trucks and debris removal equipment. Our youth group has organized a spaghetti supper this Thursday night as a fundraiser for long-term recovery. When the Volunteer Center needed chaplains, I simply stated the need at a local clergy meeting, and every afternoon was covered for the next month. As one of the volunteers said to me, “We are God’s people. This is what we do—we help people.”

So much has changed in ten short days. Sabbatical seems like such a long time ago. My calendar has been filled with shifts at the Volunteer Center, clean-up days with church work groups, and pastoral care for our church families who are most affected. My e-mail inbox and Facebook news feed are full of storm-related communications coordinating needs and responses, including inquiries from church groups about summer mission trips. I find myself a part of a coalition for long-term recovery, and I anticipate dedicating many hours in the months ahead to organizing spiritual care for those who have suffered so much trauma.

And yet, so much remains the same. For our congregation, this response to disaster is no different than what we do every day. When someone dies, when accidents happen, when lives fall apart, we are there for each other and provide for one another. When people in our community are hungry or homeless or lost, we provide food and shelter and care. When trauma and spiritual crisis arise, we offer space for seekers, room for questions, and reassurances of God’s grace and love. The intensity and the need have multiplied around us, but we have been committed to these faith practices for a long time already. We will sustain and increase that effort in the days, months and even years to come, as our community recovers, because we know God is with us, beckoning us into the suffering places to be light, and hope, and love.

Photo by Kylene Lloyd, The Courier-Journal

Mindful Resilience: Navigating the Labyrinth of Change in Times of Challenge by Pamela Cotton, Mindful Resilience Press, 2010, 148 pp.

It is a pleasure to tell you about Mindful Resilience, since it is a book you might not have heard of before. Pamela Cotton is a member of my congregation, and this book represents a coming together of her professional skills as a therapist, her spiritual life in contemplative practices, and her personal journey through a tumultuous time of change and loss in her life. Mindful Resilience offers concrete strategies, personal storytelling and Spirit wisdom for anyone seeking to be present and open to growing through life’s most difficult challenges.

Mindful Resilience is grounded in the belief that our ability to remain resilient in tough situations is connected to and improved by the practice of giving sustained, “non-judgmental attention”  and presence to the situation. Pamela tells the story of her own journey through a major move to a new and unfamiliar location; the death of her father; her mother’s diagnosis of ALS and subsequent need for care, and eventually her mother’s death. She describes the techniques of mindfulness that she practiced during this time, and how they enabled her to relish the beauty of these holy moments, in spite of their pain and her own natural resistance to the events that were unfolding. It was my privilege to serve as Pamela’s pastor during much of the journey she describes in the book. I can testify to that she practiced what she preaches, and that those practices kept her present to the moment and gave her strength to not only endure but grow and even find joy in the midst of the struggle.

As a pastor, I connected most deeply with her descriptions of being present to the moment. We clergy journey alongside people in some of the most difficult moments of their lives—the death of a spouse or child, a medical crisis, a divorce, a job loss, family violence and more. Sometimes, we can help in concrete and meaningful ways. Most of the time, however, all we have to offer is our presence and a few words of prayer or scripture. Pastoral care literature has long taught us that clergy can help in crisis situations by serving as a “non-anxious presence” available to those involved, remaining calm and open and attentive as those around us are in crisis. This is both impossibly difficult and the easiest thing to do. It is impossible to be present and not to also feel the intensity of pain and grief in a situation. It is easy to differentiate and remain calm, because it is not your pain or your crisis or your family.

Mindful Resilience suggests that even those in the middle of the crisis themselves can practice the same non-anxious presence by learning to be present to the situation, to their emotions in it, and to the possibilities of the power of the Spirit within them. That mindfulness practice enables everyone to be more resilient in crisis, more open to life-affirming change, more able to support family members and more attuned to the workings of the Spirit. Using the metaphor of traveling a labyrinth, each chapter of the book recounts Pamela’s own story, and introduces a new turn on the path of mindfulness, such as Mindful Presence, Mindful Commitment-to Transformation, Mindful Embracing, Mindful Embodiment, and Mindful Awareness-to-Balance. She strikes just the right balance between allowing the concept of mindfulness to remain mystical and teaching concrete techniques about how to practice it.

I think this book could be helpful to anyone who feels overwhelmed by life, crisis, change or emotion. After all, this book is about resilience.  I would also recommend it for caregivers (professional and non-professional) seeking to help those in crisis. The techniques of mindfulness she describes can help sort through the chaos. Being mindfully present to the emotions and the events helps overcome the feeling of  being out of control, of being a victim of your life rather than centered in it. Practicing Mindful Resilience opens us to the Spirit within our lives, no matter how tumultuous, and builds our resilience.

About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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