Still by Lauren Winner and some thoughts on the middle.

Atticus has been sick constantly over the past month, fighting ear and sinus infections. I am not the first to note the desperation that comes with being the parent of a sick child, when you have tried everything you can do and still he cries out with pain and discomfort.

It was on one of these days that Still by Lauren Winner arrived in my mailbox (via my friend Kristen, through my friend Katey). It is a book about the middle life of Christianity, when things are no longer fresh and hopeful. What is it that keeps us still here, still tied to these ideas of faith? What do we do when all we hear is the stillness, and no voice answers us?

While Girl Meets God is one of my favorite books, I relate more to the middle than to Winner’s story of conversion. I don’t remember falling in love with Jesus. My story of faith has been about finding meaning here, in the difficult and ordinary part of the journey. Winner’s mid-faith crisis was brought about by her mother’s death and her unhappy marriage and subsequent divorce, but Christians in the middle of faith know that the ordinary wearing down of life can cause these same feelings of crisis. What I believed is not working, and I do not know where I have found myself.

Still is structured into three parts: the Wall, Movement, and Presence. At first, God seems absent, then there are heart stirrings, and finally, there is a reconciliation of sorts. It is those heart stirrings that have interested me lately. The people who would quote Exodus and say that the Lord will fight and that you need only to be still are not talking about the still void that Lauren Winner means here. How do you make the first move into that void? It would be nice to imagine that the movement will all be in your direction, but in my experience you must at least make space for God to move in your life. And sometimes that is quite a lot to ask. The heartbreak and joy of the middle is that things will have to change. For better or for worse, you will lose the faith you had. But there is the hope of something new and alive that could take its place.

In an interview in the back of the book, Lauren Winner points out that coming through this crisis doesn’t mean that she’s reached the end of her faith journey. Instead, these same cycles will likely play out again and again in similar ways. We live our lives in the middle, and it is an idea that I hope that more authors will wrestle with in the coming years.

I have started to wonder if I am drawn to something about the transition of the middle. What I like about working in a middle school is that these are such formative years. The students are staking claim to who they want to be. And the middle-of-the-middle, 7th grade, is by far the hardest on them. I love to see 8th graders who have come through it all with clear eyes and a sense of self. They are still in the middle, but they know they are going to make it. Middle school is an apt metaphor for the stages that Winner goes through in this book.

One night, Atticus could not be calmed, so Mike brought him in to me and I nursed him. For an hour, he tossed and turned, crying out with discomfort from his sinuses. I held his ankle and prayed, not that he would get better, but simply that his body would find some peace. Finally, he propped himself up on Mike and we all got a couple of hours of sleep. I was relieved by the eventual stillness of his body and the idea that if he would only stop fighting, we could offer him some comfort. It is too simplistic to spout stillness as a catch-all answer for the middle times. It is work to say prayers into a void when you are not sure anyone is listening. It is work to go to church when your heart is broken. And sometimes, it is work to still yourself in the silence.

I recommend Still to anyone who knows the dark and quiet time of the middle.

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