Five Hundred Miles: A Review by Kevin Pranoto

Blistering feet, hauling heavy bags, getting lost in the middle of nowhere are all terrible experiences that you might expect to encounter during the 500-mile trek on the Camino de Santiago in Spain. As uncomfortable as these experiences may be, Lauren Brewer Bass recognizes these pilgrimage experiences as metaphors for her spiritual journey into calling in her book, Five Hundred Miles: Reflections on Calling and Pilgrimage.

Reflecting on her own pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago, Lauren invites us to walk westward with her on this ancient path. Through personal stories and inner dialogues, she opens her life up for us to look into her mind and heart’s transformation during the long spiritual journey to Santiago, Spain. Lauren parallels stories from her pilgrimage with life lessons that she has learned to be true regarding her own journey into her calling. Having experienced seasons of dryness, confusion, and doubt pertaining to her calling, she beautifully conveys a strong message of perseverance and hope as she unfolds her understanding of becoming who God has called her to be. She lays the good and the bad out there for us to soak up and process as we reflect on our own call stories.

Lauren includes in the book a conversation that she had with a fellow pilgrim over tea. A lady gave a gift to Lauren: she shared words of wisdom she had heard from a monk at one of the monasteries while on the pilgrimage. The monk’s words were, “As pilgrims walk west, day after day, something in them dies too. . . . In the space of that death, something new will be born.” This quote is both bothersome and hopeful, in that our journey to calling is long and winding with some dead-end encounters, but, as Lauren reminds us, our death doesn’t necessarily mean we are doing it wrong. Instead, something very much alive may be awakening through our struggles and fears of walking into the “next” of our lives.

Through the sharing of her struggle into calling, we reap the benefits of being encouraged that we are not alone on this journey into calling. Lauren does not sugarcoat her struggles, but authentically shares what her journey has looked like in realizing the call of God in her life. Although the journey may be demanding, Lauren shows us that it is not without beauty and that every part of our journey has its worth.

If you or someone you know is in a season of discernment, I encourage you to get a copy of this book. It is full of practical wisdom, and will encourage you on your journey towards calling.

You can buy a copy of Five Hundred Miles: Reflections on Calling and Pilgrimage here, from Smyth and Helwys.

Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis by Lauren Winner: A Week of Reviews

The Beginnings of a Book Review by Lydia Pratt Tatum

A couple of us Church Daughters are still in school, so our reading outside of our syllabi is rare these days.  I say this mostly to place a disclaimer on this premature review.  You see, I am one of those Daughters still in school; and while I have the next week of classes off for “reading days,” I still work.  Break shmake.  These days are to be used primarily for catching up on all of the work of my course load, but I am intentionally taking some of the time to do a bit of selfish reading.  I will not finish an entire extracurricular book, but I will skim a good bit of something I love.

Lauren Winner’s new book, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, arrived on my doorstep with impeccable timing last Thursday.  While I was at school studying for midterms, my husband called to let me know that this unexpected surprise had arrived with a sweet form letter from the author.  The thing about Lauren (you know we are on a first name basis now, as I dream I am with all of my favorite authors) is that she writes with such beautiful honesty and vulnerability.  I fell in love with her writing and her story the first time I read Girl Meets God; and her letter, though only a form with my name inserted for a more personal feel, was characteristically Lauren – pure, honest, raw.

Lauren’s new book is not intended as a memoir but as a confession of where she has ended up after the newness of conversion has worn off and life has marched on with its inevitable ups and downs.  She suspects, and correctly so, that many Christians (if not all) have a point where they wind up in the middle of their journey – far enough from the beginning point that the warm fuzzy feelings have faded and the reality of disappointment and doubt distract the journeyer from truth.  Lauren tells her story unapologetically.  And, I respect the hutzpah (catch that Lauren?) that it takes to offer such honesty to a public that would be content reading Girl Meets God like they would watch a movie–assuming that happily ever after lasted after the last period.  Her sequel, however, tells us otherwise.  In Still, the happily ever after has worn off, and we get a picture of a life of an honest Christian in the middle of her journey.  She has days of doubt and loss, and she has days of seeming clarity.

Lauren’s story is my story, and I suspect it is the story of every honest Christian in the middle.  There are days when I am completely clear on my calling to be a Christian and it seems that God and I are in sync with one another.  But, there are also days when I struggle to make out God’s voice, and I struggle to remember the joy and passion that I first felt as a new Christian.

In her form letter, Lauren suggests that her book be used as a guide through Lent.  She offers a reading guide and discussion questions relating to the book for mid-life Christians.  Though I have only read the preface and part one, I assure you that this book is real.  It is honest.  It is my story.  And, it is probably a bit of your story, too.  We are a week and a half into Lent, but do not let that be your excuse for not picking up this book and grappling with your own mid-faith crisis with Lauren and with me.

Lydia Pratt Tatum is student ministry associate at Trinity Baptist Church, Raleigh, North Carolina. She wrote this review in early March for Church Daughters, a blog she and six other women ministers created. 

Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis by Lauren Winner: A Week of Reviews

A Review of Still by Mandy England Cole

 

When Sue Monk Kidd was experiencing her own time of reshaping, she wrote that, “whenever I’ve managed to find new consciousness and renewals of my work, my relationships and myself, it has been by going down into what seemed like a holy dark.”  A holy dark–sacred space and time–seems exactly what Lauren Winner has invited us into through her latest work.

After the romantic notions of faith wear off and life deals out a portion of difficulty we often find ourselves, like Lauren, on pilgrimage.  And as she noted from the wise words of the Archbishop of Canterbury, “pilgrimage is always a travelling to where I am.”  At the heart of her story is the crisis we each find ourselves in, when we stand before a blank wall and find ourselves in a season where everything–our lives, our faith, ourselves–must be remade.  A time when we must look deeply into the core of our being, of our faith, and walk through the sacred steps through a holy dark.  By sharing her story, it is as if she has laid stone markers on the path for her fellow pilgrims.  And, as we walk with her we find that her story reminds us of moments of holy darkness in our own lives.  Her experience reminded me of the rhythmic process of being reformed, refined, and renewed that I have come to know as faith.

The stories of Still seem to fit the pattern of a labyrinth.  The labyrinth is a divine feminine symbol for the womb and the journey of the labyrinth is ancient metaphor for the process of life, death, and rebirth.

Walking the path toward center is the dying phase, when, you place all your burdens on the altar.  Some call this phase of the labyrinth’s journey releasing but I prefer to use Carolyn Hielbrun’s phrase, “marvelous dismantling” to describe the steps taken when we face the darkness of our lives and spirits, when we name our sins, when we lay down our burdens, when we let loose our doubt, fear, and anxiety.  In essence, we are walking through the shadow of the valley of death with every step.

The second movement of the labyrinth is resting in the center.  This is the core of where we are re-formed and fashioned by the hand of God.  It is where we are remade.  The third movement is when we journey on the path out from the center back into the world.  This is when we find ourselves reoriented with renewed purpose and meaning.

By sharing her “crisis” with us, she is sharing the sacred journey she took of walking through a marvelous dismantling, of being re-formed, and of being reoriented and renewed.

There are those of us who resist this kind of pilgrimage for we fear such holy darkness.  But, within the rhythms of our faith journey, like Lauren’s, lays abundant gifts of grace.  What gift of grace is awaiting you in the rhythm of your faith journey?

Mandy England Cole is associate pastor of Sardis Baptist Church, Charlotte, North Carolina.

 

Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis by Lauren Winner: A Week of Reviews

A Review of Still by Jennifer Harris Dault

There are some books whose stories have you racing through pages, on the back of a prized horse that is determined to beat his competitors. Lauren Winner’s Still is not one of those books. It requires soaking, steeping, simmering. It you are anything like me, it also requires facial tissues. Its short vignettes tell the story of a woman who has experienced heartbreak—or perhaps the knowledge of causing heartbreak. Somewhere in the aftermath of a divorce, God seems to be missing, silent, hidden.

During Lent—this slow, weary journey to the cross—Still whispers to me. I have often said that I am never ready for Lent. I feel and fight each difficult step, knowing and believing that grief is important, but wanting to jump ahead to the joyous celebration of Easter. Still embraces the pain of the middle place, while hoping, praying, yearning to see God revealed in the world. We see glimpses now and again—the woman who takes Communion on behalf of her husband whose illness makes it impossible for him to eat, the friend who blesses the rooms of her house to make it feel safe again after her divorce, the gifts of writers who encourage and inspire, God’s voice speaking—finally—in the midst of a particularly ungripping church service.

As Lauren Winner’s words pour forth from written page, I feel comforted of an ache I didn’t know I had. Churches often make it difficult to speak of the struggle of faith, but here in Still, the thoughts and emotions that sometimes haunt all of us are given voice. That voice offers hope and guidance to all of us who have experienced a “mid-faith crisis.” It gives evidence that we are not alone—not only are we not alone in our thoughts and feelings, but we have not been left by the Hidden God.

Jennifer Harris Dault is a soon-to-be graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri and is the leader of Baptist Women in Ministry of Missouri.

 

Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis by Lauren Winner: A Week of Reviews

 A Review of Still by Stacy Sergent

 

An almost-memoir from an almost-saint is the gift Lauren Winner offers us in Still. Those first pulled into Winner’s story through her conversion memoir, Girl Meets God, may be frustrated with the looser structure of Still. But she gives fair warning that memoir is not what she is doing here, and the book’s subtitle, Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, fits. These short chapters are like scribbled messages scattered by wind then gathered up again, or like photos snapped from a moving vehicle. “I am not a saint,” she writes. “I am, however, beginning to learn that I am a small character in a story that is always fundamentally about God.” (p. 194)

In the section titled “Wall,” Winner tells us, briefly, about her mother’s death and the end of her marriage, two events that most directly led to this time of spiritual dryness. Though the minutiae of her particular story may arouse curiosity, what is compelling is her very relatable crisis of faith. Many readers will be nodding emphatically at Winner’s descriptions of the seeming abstractness of God, of the crawling passage of time while waiting and hoping for things to get better, of well-meaning Christians offering hurtful words. The aching honesty and subtle humor that make Winner’s writing so engaging are still at work here.

“Movement” introduces people and rituals that help Winner out of inertia. Friends, church members, strangers pray for her, challenge her, share their own stories of “losing Jesus.” Winner reads psalms, gives up anxiety for Lent (at least for fifteen minutes at a time), finds loneliness to be a form of prayer, slips into synagogue on Purim and remembers God’s hiddenness. The choice she makes there–to believe that God is hidden rather than absent–is a crucial one. She infuses these chapters with pathos and vulnerability.

To her credit, Winner does not oversimplify reality in “Presence,” which would have felt like betrayal to this reader. Even the end of the book finds her in a spiritual middle place, where most of us spend the lion’s share of our Christian lives. Winner brings the reader to a point where “God is no longer an abstraction. But God is elusive. With this elusive God there is a certain kind of closeness, one I did not know before God became elusive, one I did not know when God was still nearby as friend.” (p. 162)

The ending feels abrupt, but works as a reminder that this is not an ending so much as another glimpse of the middle. I recommend Still for anyone who knows what it is to feel far from God and alone. Being an academic and theologian, it should come as no surprise that the author engages her experience well both intellectually and spiritually. Many of us have been on the journey Winner relates, but few could write such an eloquent travelogue.

Stacy Sergent is staff chaplain at MUSC Medical Center, Charleston, South Carolina.

Lottie Moon: A Southern Baptist Missionary in History and Legend by Regina D. Sullivan

“It is a small thing to be judged of a man’s judgement.  It is good to know that we are judged by God.”

As I began my graduate studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I stumbled across the quotation above and, when I did, it gave me pause.  The open defiance of authority expressed was notable in the writing of a female missionary, certainly.  But this was not any missionary.  This was Lottie Moon, the Southern Baptist icon and namesake of the annual Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, promoted vigorously each year to supply funds for the denomination’s mission efforts.  The woman I remembered from a childhood spent in Southern Baptist churches seemed at odds with this intriguing quotation so I began to focus my research on Moon.  Who was this woman who supposedly starved herself to death out of devotion to the Chinese and mission cause?  As I delved into the sources I discovered that the one-dimensional character I was familiar with from my youth deserved a more complex and comprehensive treatment of her life and work than had been created by denominational publications.

In my recently published study of Moon, I have stripped away the layers of misinformation that had built up since her death in 1912.  As I looked closely at the primary sources, I found a woman whose life and work offers a view of nineteenth-century womanhood that corrects an understanding of them as passive and resigned to a domestic fate.  Moon’s decision to go abroad as a pioneering single woman missionary was notable, to be sure.  But her decision to advocate for the formation of the Woman’s Missionary Union and to argue for equal treatment of male and female missionaries moves her into the realm of activist and advocate.  Only by removing the artifice of legend was I able to reveal the story of Moon’s unusual upbringing in Albemarle County, Virginia, her willingness to challenge gender norms and to support female organization.

Yet to consider Moon’s biography alone would provide only part of her powerful story.  The legend of Moon’s death from starvation on the mission field has played a central role in how she has been remembered, especially since the myth of her Christ-like sacrifice is essential to Southern Baptist mission fundraising.  Through painstaking research I was able to locate the origins of this mythology and explain how it formed and bloomed into legend.  Moon did not starve herself to death nor did she give all of her money away to famine relief, as has been popularized in denominational publications since the early twentieth century.  It is, indeed, ironic that Moon’s active life, her call for female equality and her support for female organization have been overlooked in favor of the starvation myth.  Instead of being remembered for her forceful public call for female equality in mission work, Moon is made a self-sacrificing martyr each Christmas as the story of her death is retold to publicize the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering.  I invite you to a new consideration of the missionary in Lottie Moon: A Southern Baptist Missionary in History and Legend.

Regina D. Sullivan holds advanced degrees in religion and history from Yale Divinity School and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  She teaches U.S. and global history in New York City. Lottie Moon: A Southern Baptist Missionary in History and Legend is 264 pages and is available from Louisiana State University Press.

A Great Company of Women Preachers by Curtis W. Freeman

The Lord gives the command; great is the company of women who bore the tidings. Psalm 68:11 (NRSV)

Earlier this spring I was sitting with a congregation in Durham, North Carolina listening to a “call sermon” by a student. She began by telling the story of the woman at the well from the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel. The woman was just there to get a little water, the preacher explained, but then she met Jesus who gave her living water. The preacher shifted to her story of growing up in a Baptist church in the Deep South, her doctoral education and a teaching career, and her eventual matriculation in divinity school to explore and learn. She confessed to having no intention of becoming a preacher. Like the woman at the well, she was “just there to get a little water.” But Jesus interrupted her plans and told her to go and tell a thirsty world about living water.

Listening to her sermon I was reminded of another young woman named Sarah Wight, who in the spring of 1647 began a fast that lasted seventy-six days. Her family and members of their Baptist congregation gathered around her bedside as she lay weakened to the point of death, blind, and deaf. As she moved in and out of consciousness, she received a series of revelations that offered signs of grace. After calling for a drink of water, she sat up in her bed and began to prophesy. As she recounted her dreams and visions, her sick bed was transformed into a pulpit, and the friends and family at her beside became the gathered community with whom Christ promised to be present. She had no intention of becoming a preacher either. She was just there to get a little water. But preach she did.

The Psalmist envisions a great company of women preachers. In truth its witnesses stretch from the present through voices like Sarah Wight reaching all the way back to the Hebrew prophetesses Miriam (Ex 15:20-21) and Deborah (Judges 4:4, 5:1-31). Yet the historical narrative has some noticeable gaps, especially when it comes to telling the story of preaching women among the Baptists. We know all too well the lives and writings of our Baptist forefathers from John Smyth to John Bunyan, but what about our foremothers? Were there women preachers among the early Baptists? Who were they? Did they leave behind any record of their thoughts in their own words?

A Company of Women Preachers focuses on the writings (1640-1690) of seven Baptist women: Katherine Chidley, Sarah Wight, Elizabeth Poole, Anna Trapnel, Jane Turner, Katherine Sutton, and Anne Wentworth. They were known by their seventeenth century contemporaries as “prophetesses.” Yet the distinction between “preaching,” in which only men could engage, and “prophesying,” which permitted women to exercise their gifts, was difficult to maintain. Preaching and prophesying often came to much the same thing. These women believed their prophetic activity was the fulfillment of God’s promise for a great outpouring of the Spirit and a great overturning of the social order in which women as well as men would proclaim the gospel. It was a subversive hermeneutical vision in a social world where biblical warrants were used to reinforce the subjugation of women. As Sarah Wight put it, “This is but a taste now of what shall be.”

Baptist prophetesses have been understudied by feminist scholarship, in part because they have been perceived to be less radical than the Quakers and some other Dissenters. But what could be more radical than Katherine Chidley, who conceived of herself as Jael the wife of Heber (Judges 4:21), stealthily assaulting the unsuspecting Presbyterian heresy hunter, Thomas Edwards, with the devastating blows of her theological hammer? Or Elizabeth Poole, whose reputation for mixing prophecy and politics earned her an invitation to address the council of the army as they deliberated on the fate of King Charles I? Or Anna Trapnel, whose millenarian visions and prophetic poetry made her a public enemy of Oliver Cromwell and the Protectorate? Or Anne Wentworth, whose spiritual marriage to Jesus and apocalyptic revelations drew the attention of royalty, politicians, and the Baptists?

These women are, to be sure, of more than just historical importance. There is much that they can teach us today about faith, the Spirit, and the church. Anyone seeking spiritual growth and guidance will greatly benefit from reading Jane Turner’s autobiographical account of “an experienced Christian.” Those exploring the depths of praise, worship, and hymn-singing stand to learn from the story of Katherine Sutton’s gift of spiritual singing. A Company of Women Preachers retrieves thirteen texts by seven early Baptist women as they were originally printed so that their voices long silenced may again be heard. Then perhaps of this great company of women it may be said, as it was of the great cloud of witnesses, that they “being dead yet speak” (Hebrews 11:4).

Curtis W. Freeman is research professor of theology and Baptist studies and Director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School. He is a member of the board of directors of Baptist Women in Ministry of North Carolina. A Company of Women Preachers: Baptist Prophetesses in Seventeenth-Century England is 824 pages and is available in hardback edition from Baylor University Press.

Baylor University Press has offered a 30% discount on the book from April 18 to May 15 to Baptist Women in Ministry readers. To get the discount, visit their website at www.baylorpress.com (and insert the code BCWP in the shopping cart) or call the Hopkins Fulfillment Service customer service team at 1-800-537-5487 (and mention the BCWP code).

Final Exam: A Surgeon’s Reflections on Mortality, A Book Review by Charles J. Scalise

Listening to the dialogues of other caring professions about ultimate matters is one of the best—yet frequently neglected—ways to grow in ministry. Pauline Chen’s Final Exam: A Surgeon’s Reflections on Mortality (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007) offers a candid portrait of one accomplished surgeon’s struggles both with the death of her patients and the acceptance of her own mortality.

Chen’s uneasiness with death first became clearly visible when, as a medical student, she encountered the dying and the dead on her earliest rotations on hospital wards. As she confesses,

But dying patients were a different matter. It seemed that to those about me . . . dying patients were clinical events. I tried desperately to be like the older residents—“Great! Another code! Another opportunity to learn!”—but seeing patients die bothered me.

I probably never would have admitted it to anyone back then, but I did not believe that death was merely clinical. In my mind dying had as much to do with fate as biology. I had even thought about my own death in these terms.

Try as I might, I could not act like my residents. That great passing of life was too sacred; it was nearly magical. Death was an immutable moment in time, locked up as much in our particular destiny as in the time and date of our birth (46-47).

Throughout two decades of medical training and clinical practice Chen finds herself entangled with medicine’s “essential paradox”: “a profession premised on caring for the ill also systematically depersonalizes dying” (xiv). As Chen straightforwardly declares, “we physicians have lost insight into our own dysfunctional anxiety and how that anxiety has in turn become immortalized within our medical system” (73).

In ministry the depersonalization of death occurs in both clinical experience and eschatological expectations. The outcomes for both medical and ministerial carers turn out to be strikingly similar. The initial self-protective strategy of self-distancing (ironically paralleling decathexis among terminally ill persons) results in the coldness of isolation, rather than the warmth of compassionate presence. It seems that the patient is not the only one who is “dying” emotionally here.

Among the many powerful stories Chen shares regarding her formation as a gifted and person-centered physician, the final years of her Aunt Grace vividly reveal the importance of relationships in any attempts—whether through medical or spiritual care—to relieve suffering. Chen had long realized that her Aunt Grace, beloved from childhood, was dying. As Chen was discussing with Grace a medical article Chen was writing that included her aunt’s story, Grace weakly gasps: “I only want one thing [in your article]. I want you to emphasize your uncle and cousin. . . . They have been here for me always; they have listened to me always” (138). Grace mediated through caring relationships of service is God’s gift to our human suffering of mortality.

Charles J. Scalise is professor of church history at Fuller Theological Seminary in Seattle, Washington.

New Friends and Laughter by Pam Durso

Seems like I have made lots of friends in the last year. Working for Baptist Women in Ministry, well, it has opened doors to wonderful new friendships, including a friendship with Susan Sparks. Susan is the pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York. It makes me proud to know that we have a Baptist woman pastor in the big city of New York! And I love knowing that we have a preacher among us who is brave enough to wear a colorful T-Shirt in the pulpit–while preaching!

But Susan is not only a gifted preacher and minister, she is a comedian. No, really! She does stand-up comedy! And not only is Susan a Baptist preacher and a comedian, she has a law degree and was a practicing attorney before she felt called to ministry and went off to seminary.

So Susan is now a pastor, and recently, she became a published author. I got my copy of her Laugh Your Way to Grace: Reclaiming the Spiritual Power of Humor a couple weeks ago.

But I was among the fortune few who had the opportunity to preview the book. I sat at my computer one evening and read the entire manuscript. If I had been reading it in book form, I would have said that it was one of those books that I could not put down, but since it was on a computer screen, I guess I would have to say that it was one of those books I could not turn off.

After reading the manuscript, I wrote this endorsement: “Laugh Your Way to Grace is more than a delightfully written book; it is a Saturday afternoon conversation with a favorite friend at the neighborhood coffee shop. Imagine sitting in a big comfortable chair; sharing moments of laughter, a few tears , and some honest questions about God and faith;  and wishing hard that the time didn’t have to come to an end—and that feeling is what you will experience  when reading Laugh Your Way to Grace.  I hope that this is just the first installment in an ongoing Saturday afternoon conversation with a new favorite friend, Susan Sparks.”

I thought you might enjoy reading a snippet of the book, and so here are a few paragraphs from the Introduction:

“Many of us have been lulled into believing that humor is inappropriate in spiritual realms. Sometimes it’s seen as disrespectful or even blasphemous. I can understand that. I was raised in a church where you would walk in, sit through the service, then walk out three inches shorter, bent over from all the guilt. Not exactly a wellspring of joy or laughter. Of course, the question we must ask is this: Inappropriate according to whom? (Hint: If this were multiple choice, God would not be included in the answer choices.)

I am not saying that laughter is the only face of God. However, if we are made in the image of the divine, and if a core element of human beings is joy, then one face of the holy surely must also be joy. Granted, it is one that is consistently ignored, but it is a core element nonetheless.

This book is not an attempt to teach people how to have a sense of humor or to train future standups (although I do teach a class on standup comedy for clergy, brave soul that I am). Nor is it an attempt to put a glib spin on every event of our daily lives. I wrote this book for one simple reason: to remind us of our inherent ability to laugh.

Look, not everyone feels like being funny. You may not even feel happy. But somewhere deep down, your humanity yearns for joy and, if allowed, your heart will respond. Laughter is the gift that you received at birth, the one thing you were able to do freely when your age was in the single digits, the gift that may fade but never fully disappears. Laugh Your Way to Grace is intended to give you permission to reconnect with your own sense of joy and hope—a deep life force that you were given a birth and still carry within.” (xv-xvi)

You can order the book from Skylight Paths Publishing!

How One Woman’s Memoir Changed My Definition of Prayer by Ashley Grizzle

I am not a minister per se. I am the daughter of one and sister to one; however, I never felt that same sense of calling. However, I believe we are all called to serve God in some capacity. I love God. I am a Christian. I love that Jesus Christ was the epitome of the ultimate model for social justice, human rights advocacy, and just overall, loving others more than yourself. And, in order for that service to be truly for God, and not for ourselves, regular prayer is the most effective tool you can offer–yourself, and mostly, for the benefit of those to whom you will minister.

I love because God was my model of unconditional love. Conversation with God must be daily. Prayer must be honest. Prayer must be real. I have struggled with this discipline for quite some time.

A couple of years ago, a best-selling book entitled Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, was given to me and changed my life; specifically, its story challenged my current concept of what I thought prayer ought to be versus what it really is.

I wanted to learn how to pray. I mean, really pray! You’d think as a preacher’s daughter I would have this down to a fine art. Maybe in a church sanctuary somewhere, with “every head bowed, and every eye closed.” Try a cold bathroom floor in the middle of the night, crying out to God, not knowing the last time you prayed.

Early in the book, Gilbert found herself in a place of dire loneliness, which faced her one night as she laid on the cold tile of her bathroom floor. Elizabeth cried—for the gaping wounds of her heart, for the lonely places in her life, she was lonely – even though her husband of several years was soundly sleeping in the next room; she cried because she didn’t know what to cry for, and for the reality that something big was missing in her life.

What struck me greatly was this—it is odd when a writer is without words. Being a writer myself, it is powerful, actually.

She did not know what the right thing to say was. “God? Hi, I’m Elizabeth. I’m a big fan of your work.”

Gilbert’s story shook me. One night, I found myself pondering over the experiences she had over and over again. What if I was the 30-something-year-old writer, scorned by love—or what I thought was love; feeling lost, unfilled, and abandoned? Wait! I WAS those things! Then I thought, “No, that can’t be me. I’m a good girl. I pray to God more than just when I need something.” Wait. No. Not lately. Lately, I had not talked with God at all.

As I reflected, I knew I was in trouble. I thought that maybe I should go cry pathetically on my bathroom floor. Maybe God will pity me in this sad state and forgive me for being a bad person, for not praying, for not going to church.

Then, it was as if God chuckled. And some words Elizabeth wrote that she heard from God that infamous night came to mind:

I’m here. I love you. I don’t care if you need to stay up crying all night long, I will stay with you. There’s nothing you can ever do to lose my love. I will protect you until you die, and after your death I will still protect you. I am stronger than Depression and I am braver than Loneliness and nothing will ever exhaust me.” — Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything across Italy, India and Indonesia

Prayer should not be a chore. Prayer should be genuine. God knows when you’re praying just to cross it off of a list. When I do that, I am preventing God from communicating back with me. So, of course, it felt unfulfilling. Then there were times I did not pray at all. Church and anything related only made me feel out of place, upset, and lonelier than when I didn’t go at all.

Elizabeth got real with God that night, admitted she was not perfect, and that she didn’t know what she was doing. But, in the pages of that memoir, she recorded the act of opening herself up to God. I don’t want to spoil the book for those who have not read it, but she makes these discoveries in the most unique and unusual places, literally, all over the world. She genuinely found God.

There’s a crack (or cracks) in everyone…that’s how the light of God gets in.” — Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything across Italy, India and Indonesia

Over the last few months, I have wondered how to better communicate with God. My methods have not been traditional. My traditional Baptist preacher father admits to not understanding my love of yoga when he walks in and finds me in a twisted sage or a cobra pose. Yoga has become a meaningful state of prayer and balance for me. It forces me to let go of all things ME and focus on the Divine. I honor the divinity that lives within me. I breathe God in; I breathe God out. Thanks to Elizabeth Gilbert for introducing me to this wonderful practice.

I find God when I’m watering my gerbera daisies in the morning. I find Him in the car while maneuvering through traffic, listening to great music. Music awakens my soul. When I am at the gym feeling the endorphins flowing, God is flowing. When I am caring for my puppy and he kisses my cheek, God stirs my heart and says, “I love you!” When the wonderful man in my life hugs me and says, “I love you,” I inwardly say thank you to God. When I cheer on my baseball team over a hot dog with loved ones, there is God.

Unconventional? Maybe. But on my on-going journey of self-discovery, unconventional is where I find myself. This memoir inspired me to find my own path to God. I need to continue to put what I have learned into practice. I am not where I should be, but, for now, I am striving to make random acts of kindness small, meaningful ways to be God to others.

Soul search before you begin a life of serving souls. Make prayer your lifeline.

 

Ashley Grizzle is a freelance writer living in Atlanta, Georgia.