March Round-Up, Lenten Reads, pt 1: Lauren Winner’s “Still”

So, I made my March Round-Up Post WAY too long. I’m splitting up my “30 before 30” series for March.  I focused on spiritual books for the month of March, because this year, the bulk of Lent is in March.  Lent, in the Christian calendar, is the forty days leading up to Easter.  Lent is a time of fasting, where you hear many people give up chocolate and such. I’ll talk more about what I gave up in post 2. However, in addition to fasting, this year I’ve made a concerted effort to go to morning prayer at my church (averaged twice a week– I needed to try harder), and have tried to make more personal connections to people.

In a way, my readings have been a response of making connections. When I say “spiritual books,” a lot of things can come to mind. I could have read C.S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the psalms, church historians. I had different reasons for choosing each of my books, but I went with the “spiritual personal narrative” this month. (I may have just made up the genre name. Not certain.) If you’re not sure what I mean, try Blue like Jazz by Donald Miller.  I haven’t read it in a while, but his mix of humor and spirituality resonated with me when I was in college. 

Summary: 

I read my first book for March in February while procrastinating on Mansfield Park:  Lauren F. Winner’s Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis.  I read it in a day.   I heard her speak at a writing conference in 2006, and I met her when she spoke at my alma mater’s chapel service after I graduated. (I sat down beside her before anyone knew who she was and got her to sign my copy of Girl meets God.) She comes from a Jewish background, and eventually ended up becoming an Episcopalian. (You’ll have to read her book– I’m not going to tell her entire story.) Girl meets God is at the beginning of her faith journey. Still is in the middle.

Still is about when the euphoria goes away. When things fall apart. When it feels like you can’t see or hear God. When nothing seems right.  When you can’t bury yourself in books like you used to when you’re trying to make sense of things.

When her mother passed away and she got married, Lauren entered into a “rough patch”. Basically, God eluded her. She left her husband and felt all the stigma that goes with divorce, and felt herself bored with religion.  This is her coming to terms with the fact that the excitement over conversion doesn’t always last, and maybe you can’t feel God all the time, but maybe that’s not the point. It’s beautifully written and it’s honest. It’s open with the struggle that sometimes, Christianity doesn’t bring joy all the time. Sometimes, it’s a lot of frustration.

“Then a small light dots the hills. Then two.”

Lauren’s insights on a tough time in life are really interesting. Once again, temptation arises to quote large sections, so I’ll quote some favorites.

  • One of my favorite chapters was about a Purim celebration (Esther saving the Jews in Persia). Esther means “hidden.” It’s also the only book in the Bible that God’s name is not mentioned.
    • “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)
    • A rabbi teaches, “You can respond to God’s hiddenness in many different ways.” [You can respond like Lamentations– mourning, or like Ecclesiastes by asking what God’s like now.] “Or you can respond… by being like Esther: if God is hiding, then you must act on God’s behalf. If you look around the world and wonder where God has gone, why God isn’t intervening on behalf of just and righteous causes, your very wondering may be a nudge to work in God’s stead.”
  • A thought after reading Emily Dickinson: “God has become illegible.”
    • She mentions Dickinson a lot. Including:
      “Some of my beloved saints are not really saints– no feast days in the church, no special prayers written on their behalf– so I improvise. I like to mark their deaths. Today [May 15] is the death of the Belle of Amherst.” (I kind of want to do that now. )
  • “Here at what I think is the beginning of the  middle of my spiritual life, I begin to notice that middle rarely denotes something good…. Middles are often defined by what they are not: the space, the years in between which is no longer what became before and that which is not yet what will come later.”

Just an interesting comment: I checked this book out and the student worker at the library asked, “What does the title mean? Be still? I’m still here?”   Short answer: yes. She answers it more fully in her Q&A in the back of the book.

Personal Reflection/Reaction to Still (you can skip this, I don’t mind)

While I grew up in a wonderful church, sometimes things were too sunny. That level of “God will work things out for the best” was hard to handle all the time. It was a church that was hard to ask questions. My older sister often felt out of place for asking questions everyone asks, feeling like she was alone in her doubts. (I think it was mostly the personality of the youth minister.)   I’m all for optimism, but there are times, dude. Why did God do this? Why did he leave me in this middle? Maybe it’s just part of being in a big church, but yeah. Felt like I had to be shiny all the time.

My church I go to currently is in fact a happy church, but we’re also a church where it’s okay to be real. We know things aren’t hunky-dory constantly.  We’re a church in a college town with a lot of Bible majors– WE KNOW THERE ARE LOTS OF QUESTIONS.  I don’t feel like I need to put on a front with my church family.

I’m used to people giving me the shiny version. It was nice to hear honest struggles, and not as a retrospect of someone who’s going, “I went through this. I’ve got it together now.” These are the reflections of someone still trying to figure it out. And that’s refreshing.

(Is it pleasant? Not necessarily. Middles rarely are. But it’s nice to know we’re not alone in this middle.)

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Filed under 30 Before 30 (Themed Monthly Updates), Religious discussion

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