This post is best read while listening to “Sweet Hour of Prayer” by Anonymous 4. Their whole “American Angels” album is worth a listen for those to whom this post will resonate.
I always liked to joke that I am an “Born the first time around” Christian. I was a missionary baby born in the hospital my father helped run in the Congo. My earliest days were a compassionate example, as my mother visibly nursed me to show that this healthy & cheap option was good for any child. I was baptized by Pastor Kafiamba – fire-eater. My first memory of music were the songs of Maranatha when I was three. And I have never fallen away from church, from my faith, from my God. Even in college, the notorious time of not-going-to-church, I was one of a faithful handful who attended Sunday and Wednesday services, huddling in a tiny corner of the vast and magnificent Harkness Chapel.
My good-church-person resume is extensive. I’ve been a member of the Presbyterian Church in Burlington for nearly 20 years. I’m on session. I am a Sunday School teacher. I run the website. I have served on almost every committee a person can serve on. I show up on Sundays, and sometimes Tuesdays. I ran the process to listen to what mission God calls us to, and led the search for our new pastor. I run the Christmas pageant, play trumpet, serve communion, bring coffee hour treats, and can walk through the halls in total dark without stumbling.
But lately, it’s been harder and harder to reach that font of living water, and I have felt my soul getting parched. I suspect some of this has to do with age. Nothing feels quite as vivid or fresh or spooky-special at 40+ as it did when I was 19. Repeated experiences, like sitting in the pew on a Sunday morning, can either gradually add to or gradually wear away at meaning. Or sometimes, both. But in the last decade or so, as my labors have increased, my deep connection to the “why” of those labors has started to wear thin. Simply put – my heart has been growing hungrier, even as I do the things I’ve always done to feed it.
When I think of my mother’s parents, their deep faith and devotion are a huge part of what I remember. They had two chairs in the living room, with a big bookcase on one side. One for her, and one for him. And every day, often in the quiet cool of the morning, they would sit in those chairs with their well-loved Bibles and pray and read. Both those Bibles are still in their hands, in the cool quiet of their shared tomb – a fact I often reflect on. But this time of prayer was central to their lives, if always a little foreign to me (and hard to stay quiet for, when I was wee).
In this desert-time in my spiritual journey, I’m looking hard for things that fill my cup, and inspire me. I’m looking for things that make me feel big feelings, and have a heart overspilling with unnameable emotion. I’m looking to have mind and heart and soul be more expansive, and to see a world that is grander and more mysterious than the narrow boundaries of my life. And so, into the cracks of time my schedule permits, I’m trying plants expansive seeds of soul-dilation.
And that brings me back to the sweet hour of prayer. (OK ok, honestly, sweet fifteen minutes.) I’ve started creating my own sanctuary and litany. My quietest time is morning, after my boys are all already gone to school and work. (I am not a morning person.) I sit on the white chair by the window and look out at the morning and the sky and try the rusty skill of prayer. I’m really not very good at it for someone who’s working on their fifth decade of Being Christian.
Then I sing a hymn. Hymns are my emotional soft spot, especially the old ones (like Sweet Hour of Prayer). Grey accused me of “flexing” in church this morning because I knew all the words to “Praise to the Lord, The Almighty” by heart, and it includes the word “Ye”. The hymns sound strange in the acoustics of my bedroom, with just my voice. But the words connect me to the great cloud of witnesses who have come before me.
Then, if I have time, I read. My goal was to find things that would inspire me when I read them. I read the Book of Matthew first, a little because I had to start somewhere. I’ve probably read Matthew through 10 times? So I wasn’t expecting to find anything new, or surprising there. But that’s the great joy of a book like the Bible. There is so much to it, so much complexity, that you see different thing based on where you are in your own life. Different things stand proud and catch your notice. In this case, for me, it was the theme of being judged by the measure you judge others, and the phrase “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” which showed up several times. It is funny, reading the Bible, to know that there is so little to find that others have not already seen. I bet both of those have PhD theses, if not entire books written on them. But I’d never noticed before.
I’m working on my next book. I listened to “The Reason for God” on my commute, which was particularly fascinating when read alongside Steven Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now“. I tried Bonhoeffer, but despite his excellent quotability he was annoying instead of inspiring me. I’m reading Luke while I figure out what I want to do next.
I’m also mindful that books that have great spiritual resonance for me are not always actually Christian. There is no book more capable of evoking a spirit-response in me than Lois McMaster Bujold’s Curse of Chalion which is written about a religious Pantheon which is distinctly Not Christian. But yet, it makes me feel closer to the creator. I also have come to the conclusion that John Muir is a prophet to *me*, speaking to a very important part of my heart. I think poetry may come close to this soul-expansion I so deeply desire.
The last thing I’m doing is my one faith-fail-safe for my whole life. I feel closest to God when I am in nature. There is a meditative quality to an expansive hike which cracks open my hard shell and lets air and light and water in. It is as though altitude helps me get closer to heaven. The time I spent this summer and fall with hiking boots strapped to my feet was time I spent nurturing the soul-fire God has given me.
With time, prayer, song, poetry and nature – I have hope that embers of my joy in God will rekindle. There’s a heat to someone whose soul is well tended. I remember the soft warming glow of my grandparents, in their quiet devotion. I also know that there is a more blazing, inspiring fire that comes sometimes. I’ve rarely heard a story of someone who converted to Christianity without an encounter they have had with someone who seemed lit by an internal conflagration of joyful spirit. I wish to be such a beacon.