Monday, January 28, 2008
“Listening for God: A Minister’s Journey Through Silence and Doubt” by Renita Weems.
The January Book Discussion centers on this phrase from the book, “Believing is not the hard part; waiting is.” (page 113).
The books we choose to read and discuss do not usually follow a theme nor do they necessarily have a direct connection. However, our December book discussion focused on L’Engle. The quote that follows is from a different L’Engle book, but nonetheless offers us a perfect segue from one discussion to another, as well as taking us right to the heart of this wonderful book by Weems.
“I have often been told that when one first turns to God, one is greeted with brilliant Yes answers to prayers. For a long time that was true for me. But then, when he has you hooked, he starts to say No. This has been, indeed, my experience. But is has been more than a No answer lately; after all, No is an answer. It is the silence, the withdrawal, which is so devastating. The world is difficult enough with God; without him it is a hideous joke.” (Madeleine L’Engle, The Irrational Season, quoted on page 11 of Listening for God)
“Listening for God” was referred to me last summer when I was going through a particularly dark time. After a few years of wondering where God was and trying to maintain hope, I had finally collapsed into doubt and despair. Yet, even as I did this I knew I was not alone, I understood that it was a common experience. As always, what one knows intellectually is often not a comfort emotionally. I felt alone and abandoned, and, I was even getting tired of myself.
So, one of our RevGal Pals suggested I read this book. It was the opening sentences that convicted me. Weems writes: “Some years ago when, as a minister, I was feeling that God had withdrawn from me and I was going through what I can only describe now as a spiritual breakdown – questioning seriously my belief in God, prayer, religious texts, and rituals to such a degree that I couldn’t bear to talk or read anything having to do with the sacred – it never dawned upon me to retire my clergy stole and leave ministry.” (page 15)
Yup. My sentiments exactly. Even as I faced the darkest time of my life I continued, day in and day out, to practice my ministry as a priest in the Episcopal Church. I cared for others, broke open the Word each Sunday, presided at the Eucharist, shared the Good News. I did all this even though I had no real sense of it, the Good News, in my own life. Here at last was a book that spoke of a grief I now knew intimately. I read this book as if it were the nourishment my starving soul most needed.
Many parts of this book provided me with spiritual comfort food. Here are few excerpts that stood out for me:
“It never occurred to me, because no one ever told me, that I would one day as a minister stop believing – stop believing in God as I once had…” (page 38). A few pages later Weems is having a conversation with a woman who is a religious skeptic. In the conversation Weems shares that she too has doubts. The woman says, “So, why the hell don’t you just walk away from it and stop being a hypocrite?”
Weems replies, “For the same reason I don’t walk away from a myriad of things I’ve committed myself to. I don’t want to live my life based solely on my feelings. Feelings change from one moment to the next...I continue to pray until the belief returns.” (page 44)
Reflecting on this conversation she later writes (page 46), “I remembered... that whatever spirituality is, it is not something to be discovered. It is something to be recovered – something you misplace and recover a thousand times in a lifetime. Nor is belief in God, mystery, or prayer something one either possesses or doesn’t. Rather, belief is something one tries continually to keep oneself open to, accessible to, or something one continually refuses to open oneself up to. The only difference between me….and the young corporate executive (skeptic)…is that I still wanted to remain open.”
Weems breaks the book into sections looking at the mystery of belief in God. Chapter One is The Mystery of Silence and Prayer. Other chapters focus on ministry, marriage and mothering, and miracles. In each of them she shares a very personal story. This is her journey through darkness and doubt, but through it she speaks of a universal experience.
So, some questions to get us going:
1. Have you ever had an extended time in your life of feeling like God was silent?
2. How did you manage to move through that time?
3. What sections of this book spoke to you most fully?
a. Silence and Prayer,
c. Marriage and Mothering,
e. And why?
4. Were you compelled by her experience of hearing God again in the voice of her father and the idea that God was now speaking in a new way? How did you respond to, “So, what exactly have I had in mind all these months and years when I’ve complained about God being silent? What exactly did I want God to talk with me about?...American slavery? The Holocaust? Why newborns die? It’s as though God pulled up a chair in my kitchen and said, ‘Why don’t we begin with forgiveness?’….I wanted God to speak to me, but I didn’t want God to confront me.”
5. After a long period of silence were you prepared for the way God began to speak to you, once you recognized that voice in your life?
6. What else stood out for you in this book?