This is a contribution to the 2014 Queer Theology Synchroblog under the theme “Coming and Going.” Other contributions will be compiled on the QT site by October 22.
The article I contributed to last year’s synchroblog on creation was based on Genesis 1:2, and I reference it in this piece.
“I, though I saw and heard these things, refused to write for a long time through doubt and bad opinion and the diversity of human words… I spoke and wrote these things not by the invention of my heart or that of any other person, but as by the secret mysteries of God I heard and received them in the heavenly places. And again I heard a voice from Heaven saying to me, ‘Cry out therefore, and write thus!'” —Hildegard von Bingen, Scivias
A Sabbath in my childhood congregation began and ended with prayer: opening prayers and invocations, prayer for worldwide missions and local ministries, prayers for offerings, a prayer to end the children’s story, a prayer to calm the preacher and prime the congregation, appeal/invitation prayers, closing prayers and benedictions, member-led prayer and fasting, prayer to bless potluck, prayers to open and close bible studies and evening services, prayers to close the Sabbath. If there was a moment or a gathering or a need, it was subject to prayer.
We bathed in it.
Our congregation also hosted two main prayer services, one midweek, and the other on Sabbath afternoons.
The Wednesday night prayer meeting began at 7 p.m. and attracted senior citizens as well as a few working-age adults who slipped away from home or office for a pick-me-up. The church was never more empty than on these evenings, and whoever attended took refuge in pews that had room to breathe. The space and the silence enveloped praying parents and elders, and they left each Wednesday having released anxieties they’d started out with.
The second service was less structured than the midweek meeting. After the Saturday morning service, some members would gather to pray and fast, and my mother and I sometimes joined them. Some church members fasted from both food and drink. Others only fasted from food and took a little herbal tea in the early afternoon. It was earnest. It was solemn. I took it very, very seriously.
A handful of books and speakers set the stage for this prayer culture: the most popular items sold at local Adventist Book Centers included The ABCs of Prayer, published by an international Adventist tele-ministry, and Incredible Answers to Prayer, More Incredible Answers to Prayer, and The Incredible Power of Prayer by Roger Morneau.
“Don’t ever ask God only for a half favor; go all the way. He is mighty God and he is able to do anything.” —Roger Morneau in a 1998 interview with Amazing Facts’ Doug Batchelor
Morneau was a French-Canadian Adventist writer who converted to the church through Bible study in the mid-1940s and then launched an international prayer ministry. By the 1980s and 1990s, he’d begun drawing attention from long, detailed stories about having flirted with an occult group when he was 21 years old.
I remember that period: it was the heyday of the Chick tract and the Satanist-child-abuse scares. We were introduced to the “prayer warrior,” an ordinary believer trained by her prayer life to battle for the souls of others. And Morneau completely affirmed the fears of the age through his counsel and stories: we learned to be suspicious of rock music, evolutionary science, charismatic Christianity, and secular philosophy.
And Then The Prayer Culture Found New Targets
My whole congregational life was rooted in these beliefs: were it not for the experiences I had beyond that community, I might never have encountered anything else. The walls we threw up between The Truth and What Other People Believed loomed so high that when I eventually told a relative that I had a different concept of prayer than she did, she recoiled as if I had spat on her bible and then in her face.
I might have had an easier time had I said nothing at all. Instead I shared the truth of where I was, my prayer practices, and other aspects of my life as I understood them then. The relatives I spoke with were, like many evangelical Christians, certain that non-hetero sexualities, gender non-conformity, and independent thinking were marks of demonic deception. It shouldn’t have surprised me that the more I spoke, the more their sky caved in and the more they felt called to battle me.
But I was not in a battle, and I opted out of the ones they planned to start. I was simply mid-journey, somewhere between coming and going, and it would be years before I could start walking back to more familiar territory.
In the meantime, I was still speaking with people faithfully convinced that there was no more road to be walked and they had the maps I needed. We disagreed about that, and also about prayer and presence and sexuality and some consensus doctrines—and we still do. I’m at peace with that disagreement: I don’t judge my elders as “lost” for their beliefs (it would be nice if the courtesy were mutual). But as Toni Morrison teaches, I also choose not to bind myself with their wishes or build my journey around reacting to them. My period in “exile” beyond the walls of the church helped to shift my primary audience away from the mainstream and it also challenged me to revisit prayer for myself.
Raiding the Master’s Tools and Rediscovering Our Own
LGBTQ people are among those regularly targeted by weaponized prayers—prayers invoked against our personhood, prayers used to bargain for compliance and cover family embarrassment and fear, prayers of blessing withheld and prayers of disapproval published, prayers that stand in for in-group gossip, unnecessary concern, attempted conversions, and exorcisms. Our faith communities have drafted prayer into abuse, and, for some of us, abandoning all the tools they used is part of how we survive. But this can mean more spiritual isolation.
LGBTQ people raised in conservative evangelical or fundamentalist religious groups like mine are already isolated. Two rows of fences cut us off from our traditions’ contemplative or mystic parts. The first row includes our groups’ general culture, the already-manifest that squeezes the possible out of our view: centralized authority structures, biases toward expository teaching and apologetics, preferences for surface or “plain” readings of scripture, evangelist-approved patterns of prayer, interpretation, or discernment, and suspicion of non-rational and emotionally expressive spirituality. These cultural fences can limit our ability to access and experience other parts of our tradition, but we may not notice them because they apply to most community members and not just to us.
Video: The music of Hildegard von Bingen
In addition, though, LGBTQ believers can face a second row of fences based on gender and sexuality that cisgender, gender-conforming, and heterosexual believers don’t. “There’s no such thing as a gay Christian!” is still used to shout down LGBTQ people’s ability to claim, confess, practice, and develop spirituality within our faith groups. Denominations like mine still write and vote policy that excludes affirming LGBTQ people from ministry and active membership. As a result, a would-pray-and-grow-if-allowed member could be welcome if only she were to reject her knit-together self and any voices that might support her.
Cajoling resistant faith groups is not the best use of our spiritual energy. My experience is that it makes far more sense to literally or metaphorically head to the wilderness with the Desert Mothers, seek the voice of God with Hildegard von Bingen and other female religious, or even move to another hemisphere to hear what the Spirit may show and teach us in the world beyond conventional life.
Continuing the Journey
Four years ago, I was stumbling through what I now call the 5 stations of prayer, but I didn’t have the language or experience to share them with my inquisitors. I’d had more than 13 years of practice teaching and arguing propositionally for church doctrines, but had much less training in describing my interior spirituality or what my practices helped me to perceive. Nor did I feel free to fully enter into meditative practice without fretting about Satan twisting the Spirit or diverting me.
My congregation—firmly steered by post-colonial Caribbean immigrants and a reserved British culture—was not open to the ecstatic experience, and we credited the intuitive only when it confirmed our doctrinal apologetics. Even though the denomination appeals to Joel 2:28 as evidence that Ellen White was authorized to prophesy, it has never recognized any other modern prophets or messengers. In the same way that mainstream Western Christianity restricts its perception of God-with-man to the 1st Century Jesus, Adventism restricts authoritative expressions of inspiration and insight to the 19th Century White and the Protestant scriptural canon.
These biases, resistance and narrow approval, train those of us in these traditions to value only a linear, logical, and institutionally authorized fragment of reality and experience. We’re only permitted a slice. In the case of LGBTQ people, these biases also train us to deny our reality and experiences outright. When I think of how my community has encouraged members to distrust their own intuitions and elevate in their place others’ intuitions, I also think of how young people coming to recognize their non-heterosexuality or non-conforming gender learn to dismiss their awareness as a phase, as an illusion, or as a satanic temptation to sin.
Not all of us are able to grow past these assumptions, and not all wish to, but those of us who do move beyond them gain space to listen, speak, write, and take action as ourselves and not as mere simulacra of a heterosexist Lord or Church. My process has included learning to value my latent nature just as much as I recognize the more obvious parts of me as the traits of a child of God: I learn to love the potential as much as what’s manifest to the mainstream, what it can perceive and understand and, in some cases, validate and approve.
Last week, I talked briefly about this with Hebrew theology researcher @awhooker. Hooker is part of a Christian tradition that affirms that the human body is divine because it is the pro-creation of God, and it partakes of God’s nature as like begets like. Ze has been reflecting on hir experiences of resisting the divinity in hir body—partly in reaction to a society that marginalizes select bodies, urges us to conform to the average, and sanctions us when we don’t.
A lot of my theology is built on premise of divinity of materiality, but when you struggle against your own body, you sometimes doubt that.
— nothing to ze hir (@awhooker) October 16, 2014
Over my last few years, through prayer, meditation, study, relationship, and experience, I’ve been learning to value myself as I am and define myself not just in terms of the outward expression that’s perceptible to others but also in terms of my latent, subtle nature. Along the way, I opened to practices like the Quaker unprogrammed meeting for worship that explicitly recognize latent reality. Spirit is present with us but not always casually or consensually perceived; Spirit teaches us but not necessarily in words; Spirit surrounds us through the group that discerns and quests with us as we thresh for truth in the field of our lives.
Spirit is just as “real” in the unprogrammed meeting as in the manifest printed scripture; and latent reality is no less worth our respect for lacking perceptible form. Through the periods of silence, listening, and receptivity that I experience alone or with others who joined me, I learned to value the latency of our collective insight and the subtle aspects of my own embodied experience. I was more than the expressions and experiences that are accessible to others for their approval or disapproval, acceptance or rejection. And I did not have to wait for those others to perceive any more than they already had: my prayers were up to me.
Praying along Five Stations
I’ve identified five prayer stations, five points along the spiritual path that roughly correspond with very different kinds of prayer. I don’t see these stations as developmental stages at all: the first isn’t addition to the fifth’s calculus, and I don’t suggest that we’ll necessarily outgrow the first few. Each station restores me in its own way and teaches me something new each time I pass through it.
If these descriptions do not resonate with you, consider reflecting on them during your own meditative time. You may come to a different understanding than the one outlined here.
I. Seeking: Give Me What I Ask For.
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.*” —Matthew 7:7 (NIV)
With thousands of other raised-Christian children, I learned this verse in church. It didn’t come with a Discretion Advised disclaimer, but perhaps it should have! “Ask” was the start of the Adventists’ ABCs of Prayer book; from the Ask, we moved on to “Believe” and “Claim” whatever we had asked Heaven in faith for. Only rarely did we discuss what to do when what we’d asked for didn’t seem to come to pass.
Our basic assumption: that prayer linked us to a transcendent plane where an Othered God held absolute sway and His will could not be gainsayed. (Yes, it was always His.)
In its more limited forms, Seeking can become an adult version of the capitalist Christmas, a “Gimme!” posture that bursts from the seasonal grotto and into routine life. As Seekers, we itemize our wishes and ask the Divine to produce each item. Whether praying at home or in public worship, we draw close to our Parent-God and appeal for the benevolent universe to align itself in our favor: we stand, sit, or kneel at the center of the Divine’s attention, and God is, of course, listening to us.
When refined, Seeking marks a quest for the highest good of all concerned. We may not request a specific outcome, but if we do, we do so knowing that we lack enough information and vision to demand. The Seeker does not grasp for results, she does not presume that her goals are ideal, and she does not imagine her perspective is unlimited.
II. Instruction: Tell Me What To Do.
“The LORD came and stood there, calling as at the other times, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ Then Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.” —1 Samuel 3:10
When I was in Sabbath School, perhaps aged 11yo, I received an “award” for obedience. Obedience and compliance are twin marks of receptivity to authority and training, and are highly prized in hierarchical social groups. As I’ve shared, I was raised Black and female by immigrants in a majority White, colonizing culture. Everything about my early education in home, school, and church trained me to recognize authority and yield ground to it.
In its more limited forms, the desire for Instruction can mask disempowerment and apathy: we feel we can’t move forward unless anOther gives us permission and direction ahead of time. We don’t have permission to think thoughts our ancestors haven’t thought; nor can we re-view debates they believed to be settled.
In its more refined, reflective forms, however, the Instruction station can teach us humility: we are part of a chain of knowledge unfolding through time, and while the past cannot tell us how to choose, we can learn from the choices of others.
Instruction is not a syllogism. It is an analogy. And we become responsible for applying it in our own time and circumstances.
III. Silence: I Don’t Know.
At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’). When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.'” —Mark 15:33-35
“In silence, all disappears. From silence, all is born.” —Jay Michaelson, Everything is God
“The trouble with ‘spiritual’ truths such as these is that they are often banal when conveyed secondhand.” —Jay Michaelson, after five months at a silent retreat
The darkness, the silence—this is where projection and misunderstanding can rush in.
In my last meditation on the first verses of the creation story, I reflected on the idea that the “empty” Void of Genesis 1:2 is full of possibility and presence, not the thick dark zero that we usually imagine as we rush to fill the Earth with visible stuff. This third station, Silence, invites me into that fullness.
I first experienced Silence as I began to grow away from institutional religion and some of my beliefs began to break down in the face of questions, research, or experience. I couldn’t reason my way out of my next chapter and I didn’t know enough to guess at what it would include. Watching my old belief structures disassemble often looked like me confessing that I simply didn’t know; that I had a hunch about so-and-so; that this explanation didn’t seem to fit but neither did that; that I saw no point in replacing one fixed and limited brick of dogma with another. It was, for someone trained by her faith to equate certainty and security, deeply uncomfortable.
My not-knowing during this period included not knowing how to articulate not-knowing when others used to positive affirmations asked me to justify myself, my constant sense of God’s presence, and my queries about whether it made any sense to invoke the Already Here. This made the Quaker silent meeting a boon and sanctuary: the unprogrammed meeting challenges participants to focus their attention in the present and on being present with other Friends; to release prior conclusions, language and imagery; to adopt an orientation of open-spirited listening; and to sit in expectant silence.
“‘As someone who talks a lot and isn’t nervous about talking, I think it’s good for me to—shut up…’ ‘So that we can rid ourselves of the distractions, so that we can open ourselves to the possibility of experiencing the word of God.” —Guli Fager and Christine Snyder on settling into unprogrammed worship, Quaker Silence
The prayer of Silence may also mean sensing no God at all, at least in terms of the images we’ve always used to imagine God. I was in my mid-teens when I realized I didn’t see a giant being on a rainbow-encircled throne when I closed my eyes to pray: that was John the Revelator’s vision of the Divine, not mine. It took another decade or so before I also felt the abandonment or isolation that some feel at this station.
In the context of the universe, we are tiny, tiny creatures, and yet we’re also connected to every other thing in some material way. What we do with this realization is our call. The prayer of Silence invites me to stop resisting, to adopt beginner’s mind,” and to grow into acceptance rather than wrap the silence with words and explain it away.
“Evagrius [of Pontus] promoted the notion of apophatic, or non-discursive, and imageless prayer, stressing that God transcends the human intellect and can only be approached through pure prayer, in which the mind or nous is naked, or free of thoughts and passions.” —Christopher D.L. Johnson, The Globalization of Hesychasm and the Jesus Prayer: Contesting Contemplation
IV. Experience: Show Me How To Be.
“Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God… Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” —1 Corinthians 11
As I move out of Silence, I open to Experience, the practice of life as prayer and the perception of and communion with God through the routines of life. Protestants rediscovered spiritual disciplines from the 1990s through the first decade of the new millennium, and and authors are still writing about them (e.g. Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy and David Benner’s Opening to God.
Through these writers, and through the practice of prayer as experience, more and more Christians were introduced to two linked ideas: not only are work, relationships, and service in the world not fundamentally connected to faith and devotion, but also our experiences in the world may be yet one more way how we can learn more about reality and the God of the Real.
At its most limited, Experience can become grasping, thrill-seeking, bouncing from moment to moment, yet never fully immersed. The Western cultural drive toward new experiences co-appears with a dearth of reflection or a lack of grounding, and it’s this unrootedness that can make high-traffic life so shallow and diversionary
Forestalling the high-traffic life is one of reasons that devotional writers often encourage readers to carve out quiet moments before the rush and tug of the conventional day. Even as an introvert and one inclined to regular rest and quiet, I wasn’t able to make progress until I’d completed my doctoral qualifying exams and gained an independent schedule. All of a sudden, and for the first time in my life, I suddenly had gaps in my day to think, to reflect, to read and research, to breathe and be and become.
That quantity of time is a life luxury not everyone has—even I no longer have it. But I still need to intentionally allow for the balance of activity and recovery that quality Experience is.
I now see Prayer as Experience as a token of the flourishing of Life without end; it is an inductive teacher, and it can be the root that allows further insight to bloom.
“To [Jesus’s] eyes, this is a God-bathed and God-permeated world… Until our thoughts of God have found every visible thing and event glorious with his presence, the word of Jesus has not yet fully seized us.” —Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy
V. Acceptance: Thank You For What Is.
“Most of us have figured out that we have to do what’s in front of us and keep doing it… Every time we choose the good action or response, the decent, the valuable, it builds, incrementally, to renewal, resurrection, the place of newness, freedom, justice.” —Anne Lamott
This fifth station, Acceptance, could be the meditation of a lifetime. The challenge is that pop culture is happy to give us checklists for gratitude, thankfulness, affirmations, and happiness: they’re all easy to talk about and even easier to trivialize, especially for those of us whose daily lives are relatively calm and violence-free.
But regardless of our circumstances, there are reasons that the Serenity Prayer opens and closes the 12-step recovery meeting. The prayer reads: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Acceptance requires us to reckon with reality, whatever that reality may be and whomever it might involve. Acceptance doesn’t allow us to deny the abuses we suffer nor addictions to substances or approval. The prayer of acceptance challenges us to step into deeper awareness of What Is and responsibility for our work as we release with care whatever work rightfully belongs to others.
I found I could not pray in integrity without fully accepting myself. Others pray in hopes of escaping parts of themselves that they deem unworthy. But as the Desert Mothers once wrote, “We carry ourselves wherever we go.” Whatever we fail to accept looms over our lives, but there’s incredible clarity that comes from receiving What Is with an open hand.
With that quality of Acceptance in my heart, I can then walk again to the first station, Seeking: What will support the highest good for me and those I love? And how can I contribute to it?
These are the prayers that now fill and shape my life.
Can you share some of yours?