I lay my head on the pillow, close my eyes, breathe in through my nose. My thoughts wander over my day, stopping when I remember a moment that brought me joy, or a word I wish was unspoken, and I sit with it, that moment; I cup it, stretch it, hold it up to the light. Where were you in that moment, God? I ask. What do you have to teach to me?Thank you, I say. Or sometimes: I’m sorry.
This has been my nightly practice for a month now, and it’s my version of the Examen prayer, an ancient practice traced back to St. Ignatius. It’s a method of prayer in which I learn to look at things as a sum of many parts, and reawakens me to the presence of God in my everyday life, in the moments I’m tempted to call mundane or ordinary. It’s where my social media pillow prayers originated from: bite-sized prayers, lines of poetry, sacred conversations that come to me during this time that I then share with my Instagram followers. I don’t know why I started posting them, to be honest. I guess because I wanted to remember. I wanted something tangible to look back on, to find God in, to say, “Ahh, yes; that’s what the Spirit said to me!” or “Oh… yeah, still working on learning that one.”
It was recommended to me from my spiritual director Nish — the Examen, that is; not the pilow prayers. I came to her a little over a month ago because honestly, I was burned out on religion, yet something inside me still ached to connect with the holy but didn’t know how to do that in my new context. I’ve written about my journey many, many times here, about all the unconventional places I have found God over the years, about the deconstruction and rebuilding of my faith, about my problems with the institution of Church and all the damage it’s done — it’s all part of it. But deep still cries out to deep, doesn’t it? Time and time again, I can only walk away so far before I hear the call to come back home. And so with each new season of my faith-journey, I’ve had to relearn God all over again, and rediscover how to flesh out the truth I believe in. I’ve had to wrestle with all those hard questions, and often, to accept the smallness of my understanding. I’ve had to look back and build my altars of remembrance, to stake out claim and become acquainted with the wilderness, to remind my soul that these desert places are good because they birth an intimacy and maturity that’s simply just not possible to achieve on the mountain-top. There is always goodness because there is always God, and sometimes we maybe don’t see it because we’re still wrapped up in going through the grit. But the goodness remains all the same.
Once upon a time, I was naive, and I was unsure. But mostly? I was ignorant. Back then, the world was very much black and white for me; I hadn’t yet been introduced to the beautiful in-between, the sacred space that exists in the gray.
And then, in a moment, it all changed. Everything I’d built my neat and tidy little life upon crumbled into nothing but dust. I suffered loss after loss, became fearful of holding onto anything too tightly lest it slip through my fingers. I went to Liberia, a place both so tragic and so beautiful that I still scarcely know what to do with everything it showed me, all the hard lessons I had to learn because of it.
Yet wasn’t God there, too? Isn’t that the chorus my soul cries out, over and over again? God is in this place; he just doesn’t look or smell or feel like he used to. In Liberia, he was sweat and mud and sea breezes rolling in from the Atlantic. He was hot sun and dust under my fingernails, and he was a gulp of cool water, a blessed reprieve. He was a handshake with snapping fingers, hugs with a kiss on both cheeks; he was toothy smiles and weathered skin and little fingers that claw my legs, stroke my hair. He was hunger, and he was need. He was unmarked graves and children who leave this world much too soon. He was the wailing of a widow in black robes, he was war, he was disease, he was hope. He was my daughter that came home ten years after I first met her.
God was there, has always been there, and because of that, everything is different for me now. God was there, is there even after I’ve left, and at the same time, he’s in my marriage, an ocean away. God is the dinners my husband cooks for the family, the morning cups of coffee I bring him, the way we’re always learning new steps in the dance of “you first”. God was in my pregnancy, in the miracle of cells multiplying. I came to know God as mother in that season, and she was the swell of my belly as my son stretched his legs. She was morning sickness, the swooshing sound of a heartbeat during a sonogram, the exhaustion, the pain of labor. She was the breaking of my body, the splitting open, the blood, the birth, the scar. She was tears and laughter; she was leaking breastmilk, and she was soft lullabies sung against my son’s silky curls. God is my daughter–the miracle and courage and strength. God is leaning into one another instead of pulling away. God is laughter in the living room and tickling toes and jokes about robots and the confidence to speak English aloud to the room. God is both my comfort and my discomfort, my joy and my pain. God is my excess and my lack, my fulfillment but also the not-quite-yet. God is a father who carries his baby on his back and also a mother who prepares daily bread with love. God is the land of my Canaan but also is my wilderness. God is the hard places, the uncomfortable and the mess, where I’m stretched thin and my heart feels heavy yet full.
There is always goodness because there is always God.
That is what praying the Examen has taught me. That is what I’ve learned from coming to the end of all the rules and regulations, of the pride and self-sufficiency, of religious social clubs that sit around and talk about who’s in and who’s out, who’s doing it right and who’s doing it wrong. God is not as complicated, not as demanding, not as angry, not as unrelatable and unreachable as we make her seem. We are never so far gone that we’re unable to find our way home. We are never broken beyond repair, never too much or not enough, never so messy that we can’t still be glorious.
So we watch, and we look for what the Spirit is doing in our own little pocket of this messy-beautiful world, in the tension of God’s kingdom here and yet to come, the now and not yet. We watch, and we join in. We listen for what he is calling for us to do, and we do it, and we know full well that our calling might not look the same as someone else’s. The way we are walking out our faith might look differently and sound differently than the way someone else is. And that’s okay, too. God is big enough to be doing a work in both. We can be secure in who we are and how God is living and moving in each of us right now. And we live with our arms wide open, to God, and to our neighbors, because it’s never been either/or. Both/and, remember. Both/and.
I don’t know what kind of Christian I am these days. Some of you might be uncomfortable with that, and it’s okay. I understand. But it’s true. I am deeply connected to my Pentecostal roots; the things of the Spirit will always feel like home. I still raise my hands and cry while I sing. I still tremble when I pray–and I always like to pray while I lay my hands on someone. And I am moving with God in the Presbyterian tradition, too, in how I can feel the divinity of the words in our liturgy roll over my tongue as we recite them in unison, in the knowledge I am taking part in something holy and ancient, a foundation of our faith. I find God in sunshine that warms my shoulders and the way my son’s hair curls up around his ear and the dimples in my daughter’s cheek when she smiles. He’s in how he uses Kyle to ground me, and uses me to challenge Kyle, and how we grow so beautifully together. God’s in my tears over war and racism, our broken planet, the loss of life. He’s in the dark and the silence, and he’s in the light and the noise; the order and the chaos; who I was and who I am becoming.
It is my prayer that wherever you, the one reading these very words, find yourself on the journey, you still believe in the goodness. Maybe you need to take a few minutes at the end of each day to look back and find it, but oh, how I hope you do.Because here’s the thing about the goodness, you see; it’s a bit like yeast in a batch of dough, moving with you, growing, in the tension of the way your fingers dig into the wet, messy dough and shape it. We have the power to shape our messes, remember–it’s not always the other way around.
And there, in the mess, in what started as all those disconnected ingredients, all those separate parts, the goodness grows. It binds them together. It makes something new, something beautiful. And that something beautiful is for you.