Shhh!  Do You Taste This in Prayer?

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photo by Tessa Rampersand via Unsplash

I understand the desire to lift up our neighbors in their difficulties in prayer.  In fact, it’s what we’re told to do.  Paul tells the Philippian church to do just this at the close of his letter: ”Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (4:6)

Lately, though, I have come to feel that we do far too much talking in our prayers.  Our sharing of concerns in corporate worship sometimes feels like the old community news column in the paper where the comings and goings of neighbors were reported in great detail.  So much medical information is shared sometimes that the prayers of the people become one long HIPAA violation!  [The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which protects medical privacy, is very familiar to health care professionals.]

So much medical information is shared sometimes that the prayers of the people become one long HIPAA violation!

But it’s really not the content so much as the way we pray…the way I’ve prayed as a worship leader…that is getting my attention.

The 4th century desert mystic, Evagrios of Pontos, called prayer “the ongoing conversation of the human spirit with its God.”  No conversation worthy of its name contains so much one-sided talk as the kind of prayers we send up, both in public and private settings.  If we believe prayer is the kind of encounter that can change us, then there must be space for experiencing the silence that is God’s medium.

51m8Rds-bhL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_We’re uncomfortable with such disengagement.  How long do our silences last these days before we reach for our phones or some other form of distraction?  Evagrios, even out in the Palestinian desert, knew a similar struggle.  “The devils will surely suggest distracting matters, desiring that your mind will search them, and suspecting failure in prayer you will know chagrin, and lose confidence,” he said.

But silence is worth the risk.  Sure, I have run down my to-do list in the silence that was supposed to be prayer.  But God has also spoken powerfully through that silence.

“Practice genuine patience, and your prayer will always taste of joy,” Evagrios says (as translated by the great poet, Scott Cairns, in the book Love’s Immensity).  Unburden your busy mind to the God who listens…then…shhhh!  Can you taste it?

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Finding God in a Small Town: A Review of Can You See Anything Now?

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photo by Annie Spratt via Unsplash

You could hardly imagine two more different artists than the ones you meet in the opening pages of Katherine James’s debut novel, Can You See Anything Now? [Paraclete, 2017].

There’s Margie, who paints vivid canvases, attributing personal characteristics to still lifes, sketching nudes, and doing a grand scale work featuring ovens that make her daughter think of Sylvia Plath.  Margie, who explores and struggles with depth and negative space in her attic studio, her life, her family, and in Trinity, her small, upstate town.  Margie, who chooses drowning as the method for her latest suicide attempt because it is “metaphorically appropriate in light of the lungs filling with liquid and air bubbling upward like packets of life that pop at the surface” (5).

Then there’s Etta, her churchgoing neighbor, whose painting tends toward tomatoes and rooftops.  Her work is folky, adorned with rusty nails and wire, accessible, and easily reproducible.  She has a front porch with a Cracker Barrel rocker and she reads popular Christian books to help strengthen her marriage.  Her cooking tends to Crock Pot recipes and hot dog casseroles.

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Katherine James

The artist behind these artists is Katherine James, who has fashioned a richly-textured, sharply-observed book that deserves to be in the hands of everyone who grieves over the divides of our day, longs to feel God’s presence in the land of living, and who imagines unlikely friendships.

Margie and Etta are not the only characters in this book, but their friendship is emblematic of James’s vision.  It begins when Margie, fresh off an MS diagnosis, canoes out to a swimming platform in the lake on a crisp, fall morning, ties a rock to her leg, and slips into the waters only to find that the lake is more shallow than she expected.  After several hours of floating with her head above water, she is rescued from her humiliating predicament and returns home.  Etta drops by the house with a basket of bran muffins a few days later and over the course of time  Margie finds that she has many more chapters left, not only with Etta, but with her therapist husband, Nick, and college-aged daughter, Noel, as well.

James’s strangely hopeful book drops in at a difficult time in our American narrative.  It’s not that her many well-defined characters don’t have struggles.  They do.  Opioids, family dysfunction, cutting, and a horizon of lowered economic expectations—they’re all here.  The inescapable cultural and political divide of Trumpian America is always in the background.  And the threat of death returns in another incident in the waters, when Noel’s troubled roommate, Pixie, visiting during the Thanksgiving break, slips beneath the ice of the town’s river.

Even so, things are being restored in Trinity.  Noel and her on-again-off-again boyfriend, Owen, find their way past old divisions and emerge from a day (at the lake) as lovers.  Pixie’s odd father, Pete, comes to town to care for her, and finds a kind of faith.  When he shares with Nick and Margie his simple trust in God to raise his daughter, Nick resorts to his rationalist reservoir.  “There’s a lot to be said for religion,” Nick says, though he himself can’t say much for it.

Yet the whole exchange takes place in a warm kitchen over beer and fettuccini, hinting at a kind of communion all the characters are longing for.

“I’m homesick,” Noel says as she watches her mother paint through her pain.  “Even when I’m home I’m homesick.” (282)

Katherine James,  the painter, uses her artist’s eye to give her work shifting perspectives, moving deftly between characters in each of the short chapters.  She brings us up close to sensual details, which we pass each day.  The sad, “gray plastic fountain [in the nursing home] that had a stream of water over a shelf of yellow-stained plastic and them emptied into a little pond with a rock in the middle, and then pumped back up to do it again” (285)?  I’ve seen that fountain.

416HGA6nSHL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgJames can also soar into the heavens to see the world with the eyes of God, nowhere more effectively than in the climactic vigil that ends the book.  When the skeptics and the true believers gather in a nursing home parking lot, they bring their coolers and pick food from aluminum trays that sit atop folding tables.  Even their greatest attempts at spiritual connection are surrounded by the trappings of American consumer culture.

And yet “view the town like an eagle,” and you see a great river of people on a quest.  “The trees are pine near the water and into the air they emit a nostalgic smell, a backwards whisper reminding people that they can’t get at something they know is important…The day is still and hot and the people are waiting.  The people are like grasshoppers and they wait.” (305-6)  Like God, you can’t help but love these troubled, searching people.

Don’t come to Can You See Anything Now? with the expectation of composed piety.  Katherine James has seen hard times and her writing displays the searing quality of those experiences.  There is beauty, but whether you can see it now is always an open question.  God and faith are here, but they appear in the way they do in real life, in quiet, unexpected ways and always on the provisional ground of the present day.

This is a deeply Christian book, and it is excellent Christian fiction.  It’s also just plain, unqualified, excellent fiction approached with real heart.  Go, see what you can see.

My interview with Katherine James will be posted soon.

Taking Hospitality Out of the House (& Keeping Worship Weird)

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Photo by Julio Casado via Unsplash

Preachers are fond of quoting Annie Dillard’s devastating critique of worship as she experienced it in a traditional church:

On the whole, I do not find Christians outside of the catacombs sufficiently sensible of conditions.  Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?  Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?  The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.  It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.  Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.  For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense or the waking god may draw us out to whence we can never return.  —“An Expedition to the Pole” in Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982)

To me the better line is her under-the-breath horror as a make-shift folk band comes to the front to lead the Sanctus:

“I would rather, I think, undergo the famous dark night of the soul than encounter in church the dread hootenanny.”

But no matter.  Either quote will do and Dillard’s withering words are good medicine, even 35 years hence.  Though Dillard herself recognizes that, even if we had more appropriate worship wear and the most excellent of music, we would still be unprepared to meet the living God.

21w56ZraclL._BO1,204,203,200_I’ve been thinking about Dillard as I consider what it is that we are asking people to do in worship.  At best practice churches, we hand visitors coffee and feed them doughnuts.  We put friendly faces at the door and make sure that they are greeted by at least five different people.  We make our bulletins visitor-friendly and we are sure to highlight entry points to the congregational life in our announcements.  We don’t assume they know what the acronyms mean and we print the Lord’s Prayer in case it is unfamiliar.  We have good lighting and clean sanctuaries, free of dustbunnies and spiderwebs.

The truth of the matter is that most churches, as much as they try, will never match the expectations of hospitality that have been set by the commercial spaces we inhabit.  We’re not going to out-hip the coffee shop or exceed the bright, cleanliness of Whole Foods.  And the sanctuary is not going to mimic the comforts of home.

I’m not making an argument for abandoning the practices of radical hospitality.  The habit of welcoming is essential to a body that believes that it may be thereby “entertaining angels unawares” as Hebrews says.

But the culture that surrounds the church has diverged so sharply from the culture of the church, that a more effective hospitality is embodied in going into those other, non-church spaces to be a real human person there.  To be a real-live Christian in the wild.  It’s an old saw now, but the days of setting a shingle out in front of the church and saying, ‘Y’all come,’ are long gone.  It’s more about going out and saying, “I’m here.”

Which means that worship is freed from its anxious superficiality to be an encounter with the fire that tells who we are.  Why pretend that the worship space is as non-threatening as an aisle of Wal-mart when it summons us into the presence of a fierce and holy God?  We are immersed in the idolatrous identities offered to us by our screens and other inputs.  Where can we practice being something different and where can we learn what it means to be splayed out before an all-consuming Presence?

41G1+De1i8L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In her magisterial book, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, The Doctrine of God [Fortress, 2015], the theologian Katherine Sonderegger ponders Moses’s burning bush encounter with God and highlights its earth-shattering implications:

“It is a wonder that Scripture does not end here, at this blinding fire.  It is a wonder that Moses is not annihilated—consumed—by the Name uttered to him in the wilderness.  For all the other apocalypses in Holy Scripture can only pale before this Naming, the annihilating Speech of God as Subject.  This is the end, the finality of all creatures, of all reality.” (222)

I don’t want to seduce the world to church by promising that we are all a few tweaks and life hacks away from perfection.  I want to be in a place that reminds me of the “end” Sonderegger talks about.  A place where I am told that the distance between what is and what should be is a chasm that can’t be crossed short of total surrender.  And yet that salvation is closer to me than I am to myself.

I want to keep worship weird.