Lauren Winner became something of an evangelical superstar with her memoir Girl Meets God that detailed her journey from secular Jew to orthodox Jew to Christianity. She followed that up with several books, including one on the Christian and sex that got a lot of attention. Along the way she became a professor at Duke Divinity and was ordained as an Episcopal priest. As Katelyn Beaty said in her Christianity Today review of Winner’s most recent book Still, she has become established “as one of those hip, young evangelicals who could write for both Focus on the Family’s singles channel and The New York Times Book Review.”
In the American church we have a long tradition of telling spiritual stories that culminate in conversion, in the narrator’s joining the church, getting dunked in the waters of baptism, getting saved…..the baptism, the conversion, is just the beginning, and what follows is a middle, and the middle may be long, and it may have little to do with whatever it was that got you to the font.
I have enjoyed all of Winner’s books and this was no exception. Perhaps it’s that she’s about 10 years younger than me or perhaps it’s just her writing style, but I’ve never read her books as being great sources of spiritual wisdom. I’ve always thought of Winner as being like a friend who you go out to coffee with who says some things that are really profound and some that just make you go “Huh?” and some that might even make you mad at her. But the friend is intelligent and witty and vulnerable and you like her so even when you don’t agree with her you still go out for coffee.
“Are you saying the marriage didn’t take?” I asked. “That in a sense I never really entered the marriage at all?” That I could just get an annulment and be done with it? “No,” said the priest, his tone tired. “I’m saying that perhaps you stood in a sacramental moment, before your priest and your community and lied. And that is a serious sin you have to deal with.”
Winner wrote this book after the death of her mother and after her own divorce. She doesn’t delve deeply into these events themselves, but rather into the spiritual crisis that they precipitated in her life. The divorce will likely be a stumbling point for many evangelical readers and in some ways it was for me as she is very open that she was the one who left her husband and that it appears it was primarily because she was “unhappy”. However, as I read I realized that Winner realizes that her spiritual struggle is at least in part on how to come to terms with what she openly sees as her own sin. She isn’t asking for absolution from the reader. There is a tendency in evangelical circles to place our heroes up on pedestals and then to desert them when they fall (Amy Grant as one example). We often don’t offer grace to those whose worst sin is disappointing us.
Here at what I think is the beginning of the middle of my spiritual life, I begin to notice that middle rarely denotes something good. Middle school- when girls turn mean, all kids turn miserable- is that “wasteland of our primary and secondary landscape:, the “crack” between grammar school and high school. And middles are often defined by what they are not: the space, the years in between that which is no longer what came before and that which is not yet what will come later.
As I read this book, I turned 40. In some ways this is a big deal. I can no longer say I’m “in my thirties” or check off the 30-39 box on forms. I’m decidedly in the middle. The morning of my 40th birthday as I took a shower I thought how silly it is that some people fear these “big birthdays”. I went to bed one night and woke up the next, 8 hours older, the same as any day. Yet birthdays, like New Year’s Day, provide a time for reflection, artificial though they might be. When I turned 30 I remember looking back at the difference a decade had brought. At 20 I was seriously dating a man who I thought I would marry (but who would have been wrong for me and I for him). I was still in college, still striving to get to medical school, still trying to prove myself. I was not living a life of faith. At 30 I was married to a completely different man, one who was right for me and I for him. I was working as a pediatrician, perhaps still trying to prove myself. And faith had become the center of my life. When I look back at my thirties, I would best define it as the decade that made me a mother. All three of my children were born in my 30’s and as anyone who is a parent can attest, becoming a parent changes you in ways you cannot imagine before.
When I look forward to my 40’s, I realize that on my 50th birthday I will have an 18 year old, a 15 year old and a 12 year old. Life will be very different than it is now. From where I am, I don’t see the middle as negative space but as a really good place to be. You couldn’t pay me money to go back and be 20 again. In thinking about what’s to come, these middle years seem precious to me, a time to be savored and appreciated.
Later that night, I find myself thinking, maybe this is a way of inhabiting faith that is, indeed, faithful; that is generative. Maybe God has given some people belief like a pier, to stand on (and God has given those people’s steadiness to the church, to me, as a reminder, as an aid), and maybe God has given others something else: maybe God has given to some this humming sense that we know nothing, this belief and disbelief a hundred times an hour, this training in nimbleness (and maybe that is a gift to the church, too).
I do realize that Winner is speaking more about the middle of one’s spiritual life than the middle of one’s physical life. However, I think in many ways they are intertwined. This isn’t a book that would be written by a 20 year old or a 75 year old. Nor to I mean to suggest that I’ve never experienced the doubt and struggle that Winner has. I have and I do and I’m sure I will again. I appreciated how open she is with her own struggle. I dogeared many pages of my copy with quotes that resonated with me. This review would be even longer than it already is if I shared them all.
O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.
As I read, these words from one of my favorite hymns kept going through my head. I think it’s one of my favorites because I know it to be true. I am prone to wonder, prone to leave the God I love. It is only by his grace that I remain bound to him.