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Monday, January 28, 2008

“Listening for God: A Minister’s Journey Through Silence and Doubt” by Renita Weems.

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 Weems writes: “Some years ago when, as a minister, I was feeling that God had withdrawn from me and I was going through what I can only describe now as a spiritual breakdown – questioning seriously my belief in God, prayer, religious texts, and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,
b. Ministry,
c. Marriage and Mothering,
d. Miracles?
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?


  1. This book only arrived on Friday -(thanks Amazon!) so I've not started it yet.

    but it looks good and I'll get onto it before mid Feb - then come back and look at the comments in case there are spoilers here :)

  2. lorna, I don't think you will find spoilers here, the book offers too many layers...hope you enjoy it!

  3. I've already mentioned that I was in a deep funk. How did I get through it? I blogged. yup. my blog became a place of prayer and pondering and a place where I found others who understood. And, then, I was referred to this book...

    I think I liked the opening section the best. It spoke most clearly to me because I have always been a person who found God in silence and now I could not enter the silence. No more meditative prayer for me...for two, though I think I may be able to re-enter that a new way.

    And, yes, I was compelled by that phrase of hearing a God again in a least expected way. Happened to me, too. Not the same, not about forgiveness, but about hope.

    I guess I think that when God speaks again God enters our lives where God is most needed, and we are finally able to open to that. I needed to know hope. Weems need forgiveness.

  4. I am reading this for the second time. The first time was the month before ordination. I had picked it up "accidentially" and wept my way through it. In the heightened emotions of that time I was terrified by the thought that God could go silent....yet again, even after I was going to take on ministry and all it's challenges. This time I am reading it in the depths of a January when there is such a time of silence and I am finding it comforting, not terrifying to read about the cycles. I think the thing that is standing out for me most right now as I am dealing with some pretty profound exhaustion, was her chapter on Sabbath. This whole issue of the stewardship of time is one that that I struggle with, and she has some improtant things to say about that. About Sunday: "It forced us to remember that we would never have everything we wanted and we would never finish the work of righting all the wrongs of the world. We had to accept out limitations and enjoy this one moment that was ours. We were forced to accept that the world really could survive witout our constant tinkering and fixing."

  5. So, so many great things in this book. The motherhood stuff spoke to me for obvious reasons.

    Here are two quotes I have come back to many times:

    "I looked down at my young daughter, who was looking gratefully and hungrily into my eyes, and I knew instinctively that gone were my days of being able to barricade myself in my study for hours on end… it struck panic into me to think that my ability to keep up the pace of my profession was bring slowly sucked out of me by the child on my breast."

    "I will never be the writer I would have been had I not become a mother. Nor will I be the minister or professor I could have been if I hadn’t had to suffer the interruptions of a sulking child or the vibes of a brooding husband transmitted under the door of my study. I give up writing the book I might have written or the sermon I might have preached every time I wander out of my study and follow the smell of popcorn wafting in the air, follow it to the family room, where the rest of the family is watching The Lion King for the forty-second time. I’ll never be able to recapture the fine sentences swirling in my head, or the fresh revelations that were about to lay hold of me. But for the joy of getting down on the cold hardwood floor and singing, Hakuna Matata, I’ll settle for bits and pieces of revelation God sends my way, and see what, if anything, I can make of them when I can. Because today is today, and that’s all I have."

  6. Alright, the two motherhood quotes solidified my purchase! I'm running to Amazon (through the blog, don't you worry!) to buy the book. I hadn't been active here consistently until the last couple of weeks so I didn't plan to be involved in this discussion.

    I read that quote about the baby at breast as I'm sitting here at my work computer hooked up to a breast-pump. They both hit home. She just said what I have wanted to articulate for so long. Sometimes the perfect sermon transition gets lost when I just have to run and see what everyone is giggling about in the other room. I just won't apologize for that. I won't be a parent-pastor who neglects the family at home for the family of faith, and I think that makes me a pastor who practices what I believe about who God calls us to be as Christian parents.

    OK. I'll keep watching you all discuss this book, waiting expectantly for it to come in the mail!

  7. I received this book for Christmas and I love, love, love it. Weems really speaks to me in so many ways.

    I don't connect so much with the motherhood passages because my boys were all grown up by the time I entered ministry. The part that felt as though she had written it for me personally was the entire section on God's silence.

    My favourite quote: "Rituals are routines that force us to live faithfully even when we no longer feel like being faithful." (p.36)

    Also: "Winter returns a thousand times. But so does spring." (p.37)

    2001 was my first, and my worst, episode of depression. My spiritual director/therapist asked me one day, "Where is God in this for you, Sue?"

    My response: "Gone."

    And I meant it. God was nowhere. Completely silent. and yet I still lay there in the dark sometimes praying. To whom? To what? I had no idea.

    But Weems tapped into that dark time for me with this book.

  8. I too am at a point where my children are nearly grown, so the parenting aspect brought up memories, but not current experience...nonetheless I thought she spoke to them in an honest and affirming way...I was in seminary while my kids were in grammer school, and I knew then that my family had to remain important. I use to say, If I can't nurture my family well I will never be able to pastor a flock of people.

    And like RDK, I have had those moments, weeks, months, of complete exhaustion and the need to be a better steward of time - so I appreciated her thoughts on that.

    And, I agree with the quote that Sue holds up - keeping the rituals to help hold me in the dark times.

    All in all it may sound like I loved every word of this book.

    But that's not exactly true. I did struggle with the places and ways she speaks of feeling inadequate. I mean - I really appreciate that she speaks of feeling inadequate - I think that is a reality...I just don't feel that in the ways and places she describes - so I had to work through those sections...does that make sense?

    I'm thinking of her inability to comfort the dying woman and her struggle with the woman's question, "Is today tomorrow?"...(page 147). I heard that as a spiritual question, but she launched into a reflection on being present to the moment...

  9. I had the somewhat typical years of doubt and estrangement from the church in college and grad school. "I'm doing fine, I don't need any of that," I thought. Then things fell apart, and when I looked for the God I used to know, God wasn't around to be findable.

    I came back to belief through a twelve-step program that had me believe simply in a Higher Power...of my own choosing. I participated in the rituals of the program for many months.

    And one day I was frantic and terrified, I got into a kerfuffle with someone at work, and I cried out! I said, "Oh God! What am I going to do about her!?" And God said, "I'll grant you serenity to accept the things you can't change."

    By speaking to me in words I had learned in the program, God made God's self evident to me once again. It wasn't a booming voice, but it was very definitely not my imagination, either. I call it the Miracle of the Copy Machine, because that's where I was when it happened.

    This book reminded, reinforced for me the fact that God is always waiting for me...even when I am not waiting for God. And God can wait all day. And then some.

  10. I know I didn't read the book, so I hope this isn't considered hijacking the thread.

    I thought of something a pastor told me in my youth group days. I was having a silent time with God. I don't know if God was silent or I was refusing to listen or some combination of the two, but my faith-o-meter was about at a 0. I told Elmer (yes, that was my pastor's name and he was under 40 years old in the 1990s) I couldn't pray, I didn't believe anything, none of it was right anymore. I didn't want to come to worship or youth group because I felt like a hypocrit being there.

    Elmer said the best thing ever. He said, "You come and just sit there. We'll believe for you."

    It was awesome. Such a testimony to the importance of the community of faith instead of the faith of the individual.

    Just had to throw that in.

  11. not being a mother, I confess that I've stalled right at the beginning of the motherhood section. However, so far two things have really stood out to me: one from the preface and one from...oh, not too far in.

    First is where she says that if God insists (as we often do) that in order to listen we have to sit and be still and silent, God will just have to put more hours in the day. Since that's not likely to happen, God's going to have to talk either over or through all the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Even though I'm single and childless (though not cat-less!), that resonates for me.

    Second is right at the end of chapter 1, when she talks about labor: "it takes its toll on the laborer. It dulls the soul. It saps our emotions. It drains the senses. It distorts our vision. Instead of giving us the security we long after, it makes us greedy and anxious that we still don't have enough. Above all, work and labor make us begin to measure life according to things.

    These two points may say more about my own need for Sabbath than anything else, but they really spoke to me right now.

    And, last but not least, I think my favorite line so far is "It is a frightening thing to be used by God." It reminds me of when I asked one of my friends who'd been a pastor many years by this point,--right before worship, of course--"are you nervous???" (me unbelieving that someone so seasoned could still have what looked like stage fright to me) and he said "It's the word of God--we should all be nervous." Yes indeed.

  12. Yes, exactly. "It is a frightening thing to be used by God." I'm experiencing a bit of that in my present ministry.

    One of the other aspects of the book that I enjoyed was her recounting of meeting young people who were in that "I'm so in love with Jesus" phase of their faith.

    In the first case, with the young woman who drove her to the airport (I think) who just talked and talked about her experience of Jesus - I almost thought Weems was making fun of the young woman.

    And then, later in the book, she talks about how she wishes she could go back to that innocence of faith when it all seemed so simple.

    I'll confess to having those moments myself. Sometimes I wish it were simpler and not so frought with "but I don't believe that anymore".

    Example: I cannot experience Easter morning without singing "Thine is the Glory" but in truth, I have real issues with the whole monarchy/empire language in that hymn. ANd then there are all the Christmas hymns about the virgin birth (which I don't believ in).

    There was a time in my own life when it was all easier. Sometimes I yearn for that. But most of the time I'm just thankful for the opportunities I've had to grow in faith.

  13. I am loving the chapter late in the book about change ("Behold, I Tell You a Mystery"), particularly the following:

    It's not a rational course, this road called change; rather, it comes as a result of a number of experiences that come together fortuitously at the right time, experiences that seem to suggest some kind of purposefulness working itself out in us, despite ourselves, and that when taken together seem to be pointing us in a new direction of thinking, living, and being it would be foolish not to follow.

    As I come to the end of my first year doing interim ministry, and begin to consider what's next, I am amazed at the number of things that came together over time, though I did not perceive the pattern until after they were well-woven together.

    When I read this book the first time, I was in a very dark phase of my relationship with God, not finding God silent but finding God a little more distant than I would have liked. I wasn't dry, but I was perplexed. Weems gave me not answers but resonances, and that helped a lot.

  14. Oooo...Songbird, could you give me a page reference on that quote: It will be just perfect for my sermon this week. Perfect. You have no idea what a gift that quote is to me today. Thank you Songbird, thank you Renita!!!

  15. p. 193 in the paperback, Sue. Glad it helped!

  16. my copy has only just arrived, I've devoured the first chapter, and your comments have fired me up to read on... this is just what I need right now...

  17. Stopping in briefly to see how the conversation is going - wow - so much here!

    I will be back to say more, but first I am off for a massage...and then dinner with husband, then back here...

  18. I'm going to take a look at that quote too.
    I've been away and I'm not done with the book yet.
    I'm liking it, but I'll be honest, and say I'm not thrilled about hearing about the motherhood section. since I'm not a mother, and it is also one of my sticking points, should I skip it for now?

    I do think the community believes for us when we can't. I can't understand how some christians can survive without community. I can't.

    and what she says about rituals is true too, although certain rituals have been more or less helpful to me at times.

  19. Wow, you all have inspired me, I just ordered this book! I can't wait to get it. One of my profs at seminary used to say that our faith would wax and wane like the moon, but not to let that shake us, because God would always be faithful. That has been a helpful image for me in those hard, holding on to a thin sliver times when God seems far off.

  20. Haven't read the book yet (blush, blush) but I've heard other good folks make that point about "letting the community do the believing" when we just ... can't ... sometimes we have to let our friends tote us up on the roof, in other words.

  21. She rev, your pastor Elmer did something similar to what someone shared with me when there seemed to be a God void in my life. The person said that I need others to pray for me during that time. Oh what a burden came off of my shoulders when they said that. And so I did just that... stopped praying knowing others were doing it for me. People who loved me and were carrying me during the dark periods of my life.

    I started this book, but have not finished it. I felt like I need to read this at another time, if that makes sense. I felt like I needed to read it when I was feeling a void. Did anyone else feel that way?

    I have really loved the discussions here we are having!

  22. Hi Again, I think if you are not a mom, you can skip the mom and ministry sections. This book does not build on itself in that linear of a way....

    and, I too really love the image of a praying community holding up the one who cannot...isn't that a big piece of who we are called to be?

  23. I finally posted about the preface and chapter 1; as usual I did so before reading what anyone else had to say and it'll probably be tuesday before I have time to read comments and ideas from y'all y'all, but even if I don't get to the rest of the book for a long time, this has been so helpful and worthwhile! Thanks, Renita and RevGals.

  24. Why did I never make that connection between being put through the roof on the map? I can very CLEARLY remember the night in youth group that we studied that passage, but only now with your comment have I considered the two together. I wonder if the Bible study happened at the time I was in the struggle. I would have been like Elmer to do that.

  25. Like RevDrKate I am reading this book in process and not yet IN ministry and I too cried. There were too many places and times as I struggle to write papers I really don't care about or classes that seem so far from "the point" that I wondered if I had no passion or Call. Her book reminded me that it was not in the 'doing' that God called me to prepare for some place of ministry somewhere but in the 'being' - my standing with God does not change based on my perception of my 'hearing' God (whether or not there was a response is not the issue.)

    This book is helping me where I am now, which is the land of "WAIT".

    I can't answer many of the questions because I don't know how to formulate something that comes from a place that is still a bit tender.


  26. Deb, I understand that tender was a number of years ago for me...but I remember...((deb))

  27. I have not read the book but will get it now that we have talked about it. It is funny, but I know Renita from many years ago. We were in the same diocese, I think and I probably knew her at one of those unfertile times in her life. I was most likely in a time of comfort and was not too sympathetic toward her.

    When I was in the novitiate, the older sisters told us that there would be times when we would loose our faith--they didn't say it that way. The referred to it as "periods of desolation." And while I knew that there would be times when I would be dusty and dry, I was never prepared for the emensity of the withdrawal of God that came at points in my life.

    The interesting thing was that I never lost my vocation. I was clear that I was called to be God's priest. I wasn't too sure that there WAS a God, but I was sure I was supposed to be a priest. Go figure!

    When the Period of Consolation came again, my quest and thirst for God took on a whole new meaning. My faith is much stronger, my preaching more focused, my search for meaning sweeter. I am not content for answers from denominations or even Christianity--I am willing to find God outside of traditional faith context.

    But I still know myself and my call to be pastor to my people. I am careful to treat others' faith with kid gloves, now. I can never assume that what is good for me is good for them. I am quite content to preach from the perspective of the denomination, but allow myself to reach more fully into that cloud of unknowing that God is. For those in the parish who are willing to embrace the relationship with the Divine, I invite them. For those who find this approach fearful, I comfort them. What I believe doesn't get in the way of Who I know. This sounds awfully gnostic, but I think that there is a little of the gnostic in all of us.

  28. Muthah, I think that times of desolation, while providing the opportunity to paradoxically increase our faith, also provide us the opportunity to grow in wisdom...which is what I hear in your reflection here...thank you for sharing...

  29. Thank you - thank you! I have been slowly sinking for a couple of months - and can't pull myself out of it. I have been wondering if I should hang up my stole. I think about other jobs. I don't been blog much, because some parishoner's read it and I don't want the parish to know I'm going through this darkness -

    I'm ordering the book now.

  30. rebbe deb-
    No advice, but lots of prayers going up for you.

    I find it so lonely in dark periods when I feel like I need to hide that darkness from the parish. I know that I do it, but it doesn't always seem right. It's hard to find our spiritual support. I felt blessed in my last call to find a group in the parish I could count on for that, but I think that was partly because it was a larger church and I was an associate pastor. I worry about where I will turn when that happens in my new call.

    On the one hand I feel like I shouldn't have to hide it from the church since we should all be the body of Christ for one another, even the pastor.

    On the other hand I wonder about how to lead from that position.

    I haven't read much of his stuff, but is this Henri Nouwen's area with "The Wounded Healer" and such?

    Anyone with advice or wisdom about reaching out for spiritual support when you are the/a spiritual leader in your immediate body of Christ? I guess in some of our denominations our various judicatories are "supposed" to aid in this area, but I'll be honest that I did not find that support in my last presbytery.


  31. I got quite a bit from some parts of the book, not much from others. Oddly enough I didn't resonate much to the Mothering section -- of course that time is long ago for me but I don't recall any angst during it. Of course I'm very lazy and unambitious and thus was able to enjoy being home with a baby or toddler rather than thinking of other things I should be doing. I also felt that Weems' growing up in the Pentecostal tradition perhaps led her to expect a lot more than my Congregational tradition did in terms of God speaking, religious ecstasy, or whatever. Nevertheless it's true that there have been times where going to church,prayer, hymns, seemed more like going through the motions. I kept going because of, and helped by, the community of the church, until a day came that the insights returned, and it all felt real again. But I can see that would be harder if you are the pastor! I really liked the benediction from the professor, I think it's at the end of the first or second chapter.

  32. My copy --ordered weeks ago-- finally arrived a few minutes ago. I know tomorrow's February and everyone else will move on to An Infinity of Little Hours, but I'm still excited!


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