Guest post from…Hannah Heinzekehr is a student at Claremont School of Theology, pursuing a Master’s Degree in Community Development and Theology. She works as a Church Relations Associate for Mennonite Mission Network. I (Tripp) opened a package with a copy of Lauren’s new book in it. Hannah saw it and started a conversation which ended in me anticipating this guest post. Very glad I passed the book on. Here’s Hannah and her testimony!
Last winter, after a rather intense week-long bout with the flu that I was still struggling to overcome, I piled into a car with four friends and made the hour plus drive from Claremont to Malibu, where we were all registered to attend a two-day interfaith dialogue event that brought together students from Protestant, Catholic and Jewish schools throughout the Los Angeles area. In my current self-pitying state, still toting a box of Kleenex with me and feeling easily fatigued, traveling to this particular event was about the least fun way that I could envision spending my weekend. That evening, after the first set of dialogues and dinner had been completed, two friends and I bundled ourselves up and tromped down to a nearby beach.
We clambered over rocks until we reached the sand, where we took our shoes off and waded out into the clear, cold ocean water. In the darkness, as our feet slowly turned numb from the cold and we stood looking out, hypnotized by the horizon where the moon-lit sky bled into the water, my friend Nelda began to sing the first verse of the familiar hymn, “Amazing Grace.” Slowly, I found myself, unwittingly, perhaps mostly by habit, harmonizing alongside her. After we had finished singing, we fell silent, and Nelda began to pray, or rather to speak directly to God. “God, I have not felt you near in a damn long time. But just now, there you were again, creeping in.” She went on to pray a prayer of gratitude, but I was struck by her honesty with God, by the surroundings, and by the surprising places where an encounter with God becomes possible.
Too often, in these last few years at graduate school, where the academic “hermeneutic of suspicion” has grown stronger within me, I have found myself unable to attend church or read spiritual memoirs without feeling the inward desire to dissect the theological underpinnings and political correctness of each anecdote or example that is given. Is this feminist enough? Does it represent and acknowledge a diversity of opinions? And this list could go on. These are all good questions, but sometimes I have wondered whether or not it is time to begin cultivating my own hermeneutic of retrieval (as one of my professors so aptly named it) alongside all this deconstruction. So as I sat down to read Lauren Winner’s new book, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, I found within myself a fear that I would not be able to engage the material without feeling the need to turn this reading experience into an exegetical study.
But Winner’s writing proved a pleasant surprise. Throughout her book, I found that Winner offered small glimpses of grace, without moving too far beyond these glimpses into a neat and tidy resolution. In the wake of a marriage that did not proceed or end as planned, Winner confronts her own crisis of faith, and struggles to sort out who and what she believes in. In a style that holds traces of Anne Lamott, Winner interweaves personal anecdotes, church history, spiritual practice, poetry, and myriad literary references into a meandering book about the journey with faith: whether one is in the joyful throes of a new conversion or stuck in the middle somewhere having somehow grown apart from God.
In my own experience, the journey with faith is messy, and not cleanly or easily resolved, and I appreciated Winner’s willingness to live with this mess.
In her short recommendation for the book, Phyllis Tickle suggests that Winner’s writing is “as breathtaking as it is rugged and beautiful.” I resonated with the simplicity with which Winner approached conversations about faith, resisting the temptation to intellectualize away the emotional elements of stories, while also pulling in source material ranging from Emily Dickinson to the desert monastics to more recent theologians like N.T. Wright. Winner spends much time exploring and unpacking the significance of the “middle” or the “in-between.” This is perhaps not a full-on “dark night of the soul” but rather a time marked by reinvention, distance, and perhaps even what Winner calls boredom with God and church. Although her book does show a movement from depression and crisis towards a new awareness of God, Winner does not suggest that the new openness she reaches is in any way an end, but suggests that perhaps this new openness is another middle phase, which will be reinvented or reimagined again.
Mennonite theologian Gordon Kaufman writes that, “…true faith in God is not living with a conviction that everything is going to be okay in the end because we know that our heavenly father is taking care of us. It is, rather, acknowledging and accepting the ultimate mystery of things, and precisely in the face of that mystery, going out like Abraham, not really knowing where we are going, but nevertheless moving forward creatively and with confidence…” Perhaps the challenge inherent in Winner’s book, and Kaufman’s thought, is to embrace and move forward within the nebulous middle, and to embrace the encounters with surprising creativity and grace when they come, along the way.