The Spiritual Discipline of Apathetic Prayer

Finally, a spiritual discipline I can conquer in one easy step.

RDJ and Jimmy Fallon slouching

Apathy and discipline don’t normally go together — apathy meaning “lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern,” and discipline meaning “the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior.”

How could lack of enthusiasm or concern be a code of behavior? Let alone a beneficial code of behavior. Don’t they each repel the other?

Jimmy Fall ew

But think of the people you know who radiate peace.

Might they have a lack of concern about specific outcomes, or about plans? Aren’t they difficult to get riled up?

Many of my best parenting days were those when I didn’t have an agenda of any kind, and we let the day unspool as it did, so I tried to be agenda-free as often as I could (at least until I had to start making dinner).

mom trying to cook

Let’s go to my favorite word resource, the Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913 + 1828):

Want of feeling; an utter privation of passion, or insensibility to pain; applied either to the body or the mind. As applied to the mind, it is stoicism, a calmness of mind incapable of being ruffled by pleasure, pain or passion. In the first ages of the church, the christians adopted the term to express a contempt of earthly concerns.

Ew.

Okay, here’s where I have to confess that I misheard a friend. I heard apathetic prayer, but she’d said apophatic prayer, and the mishearing stuck in my head as kind of funny.

Truth is, I couldn’t be apathetic if you paid me.

Amy Poehler dancing

While I seek increased calmness and rootedness in my mind and in my life, I have no desire to be incapable of being ruffled by pleasure, plain, or passion. This earth is what I have — I am concerned about it and about its citizens. I’m glad I can easily laugh with people, cry with people, cheer them on, get bothered about things. My passionate nature keeps me connected to the people around me and to God.

So while there’s something that sounds good about coming to God in prayer and not being attached to the outcome, it really would have to be a discipline for me. In some ways, I do that already: I’ll often just lift people up in prayer, or ask for blessings, or for love to wrap around someone. That way, I’m not telling God how to do the job. But I’m always passionate about those people and those prayers, I always have my own hopes and desires for that person and that situation, and I’ll probably cry about it, whether it goes well or poorly.

So no apathetic prayer for me.

Apophatic prayer, though… “‘Apophatic’ prayer has no content. It means emptying the mind of words and ideas and simply resting in the presence of God.” 

That sounds appealingly experiential; I think I get there sometimes when I dance in church, or on those rare occasions when I’ve danced a prayer. That’s something I could try to practice (assuming that I will do it poorly for a good long time).

* * * * *

If you want to listen to the conversation in which my friend Lisa Delay does not say apathetic prayer, here it is. It’s in the second part of the podcast, in her interview with Ed Cyzewski.

Also, I had a lot of fun with http://giphy.com/ for this post.

 

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A family legacy of words

At my recent family reunion, my second-oldest uncle talked about the work he’d been doing to clear out his house in anticipation of downsizing. He said he had all his father’s letters and poems. And then he said the most glorious words:

Would you like them?

I don’t know what made him think of me for such a treasure, but I am so grateful that he did.

the poetry files
Opa’s poems, both original and translations

These are the files of poems and songs, both his own and his many, many translations of other Dutch poets and songwriters. And in the middle, a chapbook of his poems from the 1920s — all in Dutch.

There are some materials in English, though. So far, I’ve found benedictions, poems written for friends’ wedding anniversaries, a limerick, a rewriting of a hymn so it’s about a man watching hockey, a very silly poem (half in English and half in Dutch) written for his young daughter, and his copy of one of my favorite things: a poem he wrote for me when I was a baby.

For Nataly, by Klaas Hart, 1968
For Nataly, by Klaas Hart, 1968

He had stayed in our house in Toronto some night when we were all gone, and this was the gift he’d left. His poems often had elements of what was in the news, hence the reference to David Lewis, who was a politician at the time. The “cardboard cellar” was where I was sleeping at the time: in a refrigerator box with a mattress in the bottom. My dad had used it as a prototype for the beautiful mahogany crib he’d later build me, so the cardboard had stylish curved cutouts, but I rather love that my box bed is immortalized in verse.

But wait, there’s more.

Opa's letters and assorted documents
Opa’s letters and assorted documents

There are liturgies for church services, articles for religious publications, notes on Synod meetings. And letters. Oh, the letters! They start from before the war, and I’m sure there are some from during the war, when he worked in the Resistance, and was often separated from his young family. All in Dutch. Which I don’t understand. I’m hoping either to hit it big enough some day to pay for someone to translate them all, or to entice a Dutch professor to turn translating some of them into a class project. (Any leads, send them my way!)

Tucked way in the back was a file labeled 1953. The year they emigrated to Canada.

ticket to Canada

This is my father’s ticket to his new life.

I don’t know whether I have any more words to describe the gift my uncle has given me.

Okay, I do have more words. Does anyone out there know how anything about how to archivally store a two-foot-high stack of papers? I want these to be around for a good long time, so I can root around and see what all there is to discover.

 

 

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O Lord, how long?

clock at the Heidelberg Project
God clock at the Heidelberg Project: When will it be their time? How long, O God?

With the Psalmist, we cry out,

I am sick at heart. How long, O Lord, until you restore me?

How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy have the upper hand?

We join with Habakkuk’s plea,

How long, O Lord, must I call for help? Violence is everywhere. Must I forever see these evil deeds?

We add our own call:

How long, O Lord, will white people be so consumed by their fears and prejudices that they kill African Americans? How long will the culture that feeds those fears and prejudices continue to thrive? How long will people deny that the virus of racism infects our country down into its roots?

Thank you, Lord, for bearing our grief and anger and frustration, for hearing our cries for help and rescue and action.

Thank you for being the source of the and yet.

Because of you, we can say, with the writer of Lamentations,

I have cried until the tears no longer come. My heart is broken, my spirit poured out … Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this: the unfailing love of the Lord never ends!

Help us dare to hope — that there will be unity among your children, that there will be a “mighty flood of justice, an endless river of righteous living.”

Help us to be the hands of feet of your unfailing love.

Help us to uproot racism wherever we see it, whether in ourselves, our loved ones, our church, our school, our workplace, our entertainment, our government.

Protect our hearts from bitterness and despair and hatred while we do this work. Protect us from walling in our hearts and our churches because of fear. Protect us.

May we delight in your Word so we are like that tree along the riverbank, with roots that grow way down deep into God’s love, deep enough to keep us strong — not for our own private sake, but for the sake of our brothers and sisters, for the sake of your kingdom.

May the roots of your love smother and destroy the roots of racism — and may we be a part of it.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

*****

Bible passages quoted, all from the New Living Translation:

  • Psalm 3:6
  • Psalm 13:1-2
  •  Habakkuk 1:2-4
  • Lamentations 2:11, 3:21
  • Amos 5:24
  • hints of Psalm 1:3, Ephesians 3:17
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Images That Haunt

The Heidelberg Project: pile of shoes
The Heidelberg Project: pile of shoes

This is one of the art displays at The Heidelberg Project in Detroit. On the face of it, it’s a pile of shoes topped by a doll riding a plastic horse on springs. It’s a pile of discarded goods. Some might call it garbage. Or silliness.

But after last summer’s trip to Washington, D.C., all I could think about were its parallels to this other pile of shoes.

4,000 pairs of shoes recovered from a single concentration camp in 1944
4,000 pairs of shoes recovered from a single concentration camp in 1944

This is a display at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Here is how the museum’s website describes it:

When Soviet troops liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek camps, they discovered huge mounds of shoes, hundreds of thousands of pairs, but very few living prisoners. At the sight of these inanimate witnesses, veteran CBS News correspondent Edward R. Murrow commented, “One shoe, two shoes, a dozen shoes, yes. But how can you describe several thousand shoes?”

The 4,000 shoes displayed in the Permanent Exhibition are on loan from the State Museum of Majdanek in Lublin, Poland, and represent a tiny fraction of those found at Majdanek in 1944. 

Each pair of those shoes had an owner. Each owner was murdered. But before they were murdered, the Nazis mined them for every item of monetary value: clothes, eyeglasses, hairbrushes, suitcases, shoes, even their hair. Depending on how long the Nazis had been in charge where the victim lived, the shoes would be worth barely anything, since the Nazis closed Jewish shops and then forbade Jews from shopping in non-Jew establishments, so some of those shoes might have been patched and patched again, or “resoled” with newspaper found on the street (since Jews often weren’t allowed to buy newspapers, either). And who got the task of taking apart the shoes for any usable leather? Concentration camp prisoners who hadn’t yet been killed. 

In a building full of sobering images, this was one of the most striking. 

And I couldn’t help but see echoes in that more colorful pile of shoes at Detroit’s Heidelberg Project. In forgotten neighborhoods like so many in Detroit, people have been discarded by their elected leaders, used as lightning rods to ramp up racial fears and to perpetuate isolation. As we’ve seen in our newsfeeds in the last couple of years, people in these neighborhoods are more likely to be killed by police officers for offenses that might get a white person in a different neighborhood a stern warning. Violence is everywhere in many forgotten neighborhoods, whether due to drugs and gangs, domestic violence, sex trafficking.

It doesn’t escape my attention that the same word is used for the narrower and narrower neighborhoods European Jews were forced into and narrower and narrower inner-city neighborhoods that poor African-Americans live in (and some have argued, were forced into by government policies): ghetto.

Their lives are as valued as a pile of discarded shoes.

Which haunts me.

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A new metaphor for this stage

For years, when people have asked me how this writing/publishing thing was going, I’ve described it this way:

I’m doing everything I can to get hit by lightning. I’m out there in an open field carrying golf clubs and flying a kite with keys on it and anything else that might help me get published.

That was back in the day when I was still pursuing traditional publishing. I really liked that metaphor. It communicated both that I was working hard and that success was not guaranteed — after all, getting hit by lightning is fairly rare. Just as it’s fairly rare to get a traditional publishing deal, even with a well-written, engaging story.

But now that I’ve decided to become an indie publisher, I need a new metaphor. It took a friend asking me about my garden to get me there. My garden is usually a bit slower than other gardens in my neighborhood, so while everyone else’s peonies are in full and blowsy bloom, mine are like this.

fat peony bud in my garden

Fat buds.

That’s the stage I’m at in my publishing journey: the fat bud stage. Everything is there, ready to burst forth, but not just yet. The Giant Slayer is still with my Old Testament expert, but as soon as she’s done with it, I’m only three steps away from publishing it (edits, proofreader, book designer).* At the same time, I’ve got a picture book project brewing that we’re independently publishing through a Kickstarter campaign that will be live in mid-August. My words are all done, but I’m setting up the campaign and waiting for our illustrator for get me some art so I can get the website going and let everyone know about it. (There’s more information on my Books page.)

I’m SO CLOSE.

It could be driving me crazy, how close I am, but I spent too long wallowing in disappointment not to enjoy this stage of being on the verge. Fat buds aren’t as showy as full blooms, but they’ve got their own beauty.

Do you have a metaphor for an endeavor you’re in the midst of?

Edited to add: my expert is done! My bud just got fatter :-)

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What Time Is It?

My husband and I recently went to Detroit, and toured a powerful art installation called The Heidelberg Project.

In 1967, 12-year-old Tyree Guyton watched his city burn. In the aftermath of the Detroit riots, thriving communities rapidly became segregated urban ghettos characterized by poverty, neglect and despair.

In 1986, Guyton took a stand against the decay, crime and apathy in the neighborhood where he was raised. Using discarded objects from everyday life, he created a festival of color and meaning that has been described as a “Ghetto Guggenheim.” Using vacant lots and abandoned houses as his canvas, he transformed an entire block into a world-famous outdoor art environment and a thought-provoking statement on the plight of inner city communities.

As we walked around the couple of blocks, my attention kept being drawn by all the painted clock faces: different shapes and sizes, each with a different time painted on it, some alone, some in groups, nailed up to and painted on and leaning against every kind of surface, right-side-up and sideways and upside-down.

clocks against a wall at The Heidelberg Project
clocks against a wall at The Heidelberg Project

My husband walked up to the artist and asked him about it. Being an artist, Guyton answered in more questions.

What time is it? Where are you in time?

3 clocks at the Heidelberg Project
3 clocks at the Heidelberg Project

Guyton has been studying Plato and Albert Einstein and their writing about time.

Time is energy. It’s all about energy. What has time done to you?

clock at the Heidelberg Project
clock at the Heidelberg Project

As we walked, the same phrases played over and over in my mind:

It’s always time.

The time is now.

The time is now to do whatever it is that you so want to do. The time is now to seek change, whether personal or societal. It’s always time to do something that needs to be done.

And on a more personal level, the time is now to put in the work to realize my writing dreams. I need to put in the time.

God clock at the Heidelberg Project
God clock at the Heidelberg Project

And this one. This one cuts me to the quick.

Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever?
    How long will you look the other way?
How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul,
    with sorrow in my heart every day?
    How long will my enemy have the upper hand?
(Psalm 13:1-2, NLT)

Because this is/was a forgotten neighborhood, and represents all the other neighborhoods abandoned by the powers that be. When will it be their time?

So, for me, the clock faces were rallying cry and lamentation, plea and accusation.

What is it time to do in your life? In your corner of the world?

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First Things First

You know how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself….I am the Lord your God, who rescued you from the land of Egypt, the place of your slavery. (Exodus 19:4, 20:2, NLT)

These are some of God’s words to Moses and the people, right before God gives them the Ten Commandments.

Before.

God does not give the people the Ten Commandments as a standard to help Him decide whether or not He will save them. God does not tell His people that they will only be worthy of being rescued if they perfectly follow the Ten Commandments.

No, God rescues them first.

They were slaves, and God sets them free. He takes care of their physical needs, leading them to safety and feeding them. He lets them put His care for them on trial, and gives them water gushing out of a stone. He empowers this ragtag group so they can beat the trained army of the Amaleks.

First, God demonstrates, in ways both practical and astonishing, how much He loves them. And then, God details how rescued people live. He shows them how grateful people respond.

This order is important. You do not have to prove that you are worthy of being rescued. In fact, you cannot prove your worthiness — both because you will never behave or think or feel or be perfectly enough, and because God has already declared you worthy of being rescued by rescuing you. Your own worthiness is beside the point. You’ve already been set free. Which is something to be grateful for.

Gratitude to God is the bedrock of all the Commandments. It has the power to push back against the bitterness, rage, self-righteousness, obsession with our own worthiness, laziness, greed, and fear that are the kindling that fuel the infernos of murder, adultery, idolatry, stealing, covetousness, fraud.

So live as a rescued person, with gratitude. Bitterness, rage, self-righteousness, obsession with your own worthiness, laziness, greed, fear  – they’re going to happen. Don’t let them ride unchecked. Fight back with gratitude that you don’t have to prove a thing: God has already carried you on eagle’s wings and brought you to Himself, just as you are.

 

 

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The good that I should do, yadda, yadda, yadda

There is a dance step that I love. It’s part of a dance we did for the entire season of Lent at a church I used to go to. We faced forward in a line, linked to each other, one hand on the shoulder of the person in front of you, the other hand on the hand that’s on your shoulder. And we walked together: three steps forward and one step back. It’s a simple yet effective mirror of the Christian life, which is never just unrelenting improvement.

Except that sometimes it feels like three steps back and one step forward is more accurate.

I’m having a three steps back moment, and I’m hoping that writing about it will give me the push I need to actually do the good I know I should do. 

late-riser-149016_1280

I am not what one would call “a good sleeper.” According to my mother, I didn’t sleep through the night until I was at least two and have many middle-of-the-night memories during my childhood and adolescence. I still wake in the middle of the night more nights than I don’t. On a good night, I fall back asleep right away, but if I hear a noise, or have something to worry about, or (apologies if this is TMI) it’s the few days before my period, or a dream left me unsettled, or I start thinking, or I’m on vacation and not in my own bed — any of these will mean at least an hour of wakefulness, if not the loss of sleep for the rest of the night.

Incidentally, this is how I survived my own daughter not sleeping through the night consistently until she was six — we had similar nighttime schedules.

It’s also how I avoided recognizing how much my depression was messing with my sleep: my wakefulness was worse than usual, but not terribly unusual.

All that is to say that the whole topic of sleep can make me anxious enough that it interrupts my ability to fall asleep, so I usually nod off by distracting myself. For years, it was late-night TV. Then we took the TV out of our bedroom, and it became youtube videos on my laptop or on the iPad. And then I went on my beautiful antidepressant, and staying asleep became more common, as did falling back asleep after I awoke in the middle of the night.

But still I kept with the laptop, even though I’d grown to kind of hate it. It doesn’t help me fall back asleep when I wake up in the middle of the night, because by then my husband is next to me, and I don’t want to wake him up with the light or the noise. And I began to wonder whether it was, in fact, a bad sleep habit that made it more likely that I’d wake in the night. So I fired up the Kindle and tried reading (I used the Kindle so I didn’t have to have the light on).

It was an immediate improvement. Immediate.

I fell asleep easily and stayed asleep. My sleep was more restful. I got more reading done. It was glorious. I raved about it, swearing that I’d never go back.

And then, one night, I didn’t have a new book lined up. So I went back to the laptop. I’ve flirted with the Kindle since then, but haven’t continued it as a habit. Even though I know it’s better for me. Even though I actually like it better than the laptop. The lazy laptop monkey on my back is hard to shake.

Paul got it so right:

 I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate (Romans 7:15, NLT).

I’ve got no nifty solution, and there has been, as of yet, no overcoming. I’m in the midst of this fight. But I vow that, tonight, I’m going to keep the laptop downstairs, and I’m going to read the book on legal issues for self-publishers. Maybe this time I’ll be able to keep the better habit going.

Do you have any good habits you’re avoiding?
Feel free to confess them here so we can do the self-recriminating together.

 

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Still, they stood there doubting: a Devotional

tangled mass

“Why are you frightened?” [Jesus] asked. “Why do you doubt who I am? Look at my hands. Look at my feet. You can see that it’s really me.” . . . Still they stood there doubting, filled with joy and wonder. (Luke 24: 38-39,41, NLT)

Doubt is often viewed as an enemy, as something to be afraid of, as a sign that one’s faith is almost finished.

Here, the disciples were sure their faith was finished. Jesus was dead. Judas, one of their own, had betrayed them all. They’d been in the middle of the torch-carrying mob that came to take him away. They’d seen the veins popping on people’s faces as they screamed for him to be killed. So they huddled together in a locked room, terrified the Jewish leaders would go after them next.

And, given their history, probably arguing about the things Jesus had said that they didn’t get at the time, and understood even less now that he was dead.

When the verses above occur, the disciples had already heard from Mary Magdalene and the other women that Jesus was alive, “but the story sounded like nonsense, so they didn’t believe it” (Luke 24:11, NLT). Peter and John had rushed to the tomb and seen the empty linen wrappings, but didn’t know what to make of it. They were in the middle of hearing from the two men from Emmaus about Jesus walking and talking and eating with them, when Jesus appeared.

In the locked room.

Yet he wasn’t a ghost.

Touch me and make sure that I am not a ghost, because ghosts don’t have bodies, as you see that I do! (Luke 24:39, NLT)

This was beyond what they could have imagined, even after spending three years with Jesus and watching him do the unimaginable. So they doubted that it was really him, that he was really alive — even while they knew it was really him, so they were filled with joy and wonder.

Doubt. Disbelief. Joy. Wonder.

All mixed up in one tangled mess.

These people knew Jesus best. They had the advantage of having him with them, answering their questions, explaining his stories. They were often confused. They got it wrong all the time. But Jesus blessed them, loved them, empowered them. So why do we beat ourselves (or others) up for having the same experiences?

 

 

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A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats — I Hope

forthcoming October 6, 2015
forthcoming October 6, 2015

Last week, I found out something that gave me both hope and dread: Geraldine Brooks, a bestselling and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, is publishing a novel about Israel’s second king, David, this year. So am I.

Oh, the stew of reactions I had.

Dread. She will suck all the potential attention my book(s) could potentially get.

Vindication. I was right that the time is ripe for fictional treatments of biblical people.

Curiosity. Her retelling will be different from mine. Here’s the blurb:

The Secret Chord provides new context for some of the best-known episodes of David’s life while also focusing on others, even more remarkable and emotionally intense, that have been neglected.  We see David through the eyes of those who love him or fear him—from the prophet Natan, voice of his conscience, to his wives Mikal, Avigail, and Batsheva, and finally to Solomon, the late-born son who redeems his Lear-like old age. Brooks has an uncanny ability to hear and transform characters from history, and this beautifully written, unvarnished saga of faith, desire, family, ambition, betrayal, and power will enthrall her many fans.

I am aiming my book at young adults and she’s aiming hers at adults, which is my way of saying that she writes gorgeously, for a literary fiction audience; I don’t. I am using fewer points of view, just David and Saul, to her possible six. I am using Western English spellings. But I loved her novel, People of the Book, and I kind of can’t wait to see what she does with David and all those people in his life. Will her characterizations be similar to any of mine? Will any be polar opposite?

Hope. If people are interested in her book and they look it up on Amazon, maybe they will sometimes find mine, as well. Discoverability is a big issue when independently publishing, so this might bring a few more eyes to my project than it would otherwise have gotten.

Which brings me to:

Determination. Brooks’s publication is as good a reason as any to try to get all three of the books in my series published this year. Which would be crazy. But I’m going to try. So it will be crazy.

Right now, The Giant Slayer (Book One) is with an Old Testament expert to make sure I get matters of culture at least plausible. Then it goes to the final proofreader, and then to the book and cover designer. The Giant Slayer could be out by summer. Contact me to be put on the list of those who will find out first!

 

 

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