The other night I was ending a pastoral education group. We had spent three hours doing quality work together but part of the discussion was tense with grief, unsettled surprise, and familiar but contested aching.
Discussion took us from foundational theorists in Womanist theology to Black Psychology to striking encounters that hadn’t yet left the students’ minds. It was wonderful and, as before, reminded me of how much I enjoy this part of my life.
A part of the discussion was around ministry to families experiencing baby loss, and I always get very tender and spacious around those conversations. I have my own reasons. Most people in chaplaincy are moved for their own reasons.
As we finished, I asked everyone to consider a caring image of God that they were carrying with them. I invited them to spend a few intentional minutes with the image, to see what it had for them, to see how God was comforting them.
Personally, it wasn’t enough time for me to connect with my image. I was facilitating and that was fine. I wanted to ensure that my students were enabled to open their hearts. I was bracketing my own feelings from the night and rough day, and I knew I’d need more time. I always seem to need more time. I have a timing thing.
A few years ago I told a confidant that transitional moments are times when God wakes me at strange hours. I knew it when I said it but it was the kind of knowing that I needed to hear myself articulate. It’s really true then, when I say it. So, I’ve learned to wrestle less when the seasons emerge.
Early this year was a similar season. Right now seems to be as well. They are not entirely surprising because the air smells when the season shifts. A lifelong Chicagoan, I don’t always know when winter is finished, but I’ve learned to rely on some indicators. My eyes are growing sensitive to slight changes in light, my skin grateful for less abrasive winds. So, this season is, again, one of those which God startles me at dark quiet times and, usually, Spirit sits.
It used to be that Spirit spoke but I’ve witnessed that change over the last decade too. I remember when I used to sense God speaking in unique ways but, fortunately and unfortunately, that speech has turned into a different communication. Silence and sitting are much more common now. It’s strange to accept that God speaks while sitting, while being silent, and while stretching out into a stiffness that is uniquely God’s posture in my life. I don’t like it. It’s deeply disorienting because something in me reaches back for easier “conversations,” but the conversations just get more challenging.
It’s sad to my earlier self that was so used to hearing. He returns sometimes and cries with me that silence is the new speech. But he fades and lets the current me get used to what is. The earlier me waves at the current me who is learning to sit instead of speech, who is learning to watch a still God and not only listen for a speaking One.
The next morning, after the pastoral group, I woke at a time when I’m getting used to waking. I woke to my image and it was one from a months-plus moment that I cannot remember. It’s a part of premature birth story. I was alone for nearly two months in a NICU at Mercy. That’s what I usually say to myself. I was alone in the NICU. This time, though, God reminded me that I was not alone, that I was certainly not as alone as I tell myself.
I think God was sarcastic because it felt like I was being told, in a snarky tone, “You weren’t really there anyway. And how can you remember? Memory structures aren’t formed for years. My memory of those weeks is much better than yours.”
The image of God’s attendance helped because it is working on me now. For years, I’ve told myself something about a basic aloneness that was negatively lonely, a basic experience that was almost disabling, and in the course of my work and life, I woke to something different. I am still waking to it, becoming alert to the realness of Spirit being where I don’t hear God speaking. Whether in a hospital or in my home.
And it connected to learnings from years of therapy, spiritual direction, and clinical supervision. Basic aloneness is not unwelcome but is starkly and clearly human. It is the potential bridge to what humans need: divine proximity. Further, loneliness is not uninhabitable terrain but something, if we’re lucky, we get to have, remember, and have recalled by God’s loving re-memory. There are many who do not know this good, basic aloneness, many who run from it and don’t open empty hands to it.
It is true that my weaknesses and gaps from those early days haunt me sometimes. My best friend has heard me weep my fears around this as have mentors and servants in my life. The hauntings and the weaknesses from whence they come are not always welcome. But the hauntings are in question. They are, in other words, contestable, given the image of God who knows more.
The Spirit remembers better than I do, has a better recollection of my experiences than I do. And that same Spirit is.