Tuesday, January 20, 2015


I often find myself, lately, inspired by the words of Kay Warren.

For those of you who know me, you might find this quite surprising, since she and her husband, Rick Warren, are the founders of the Saddleback Church. Most of her words are theologically Christian in nature, and don't quite fit with all of my own ideas.

But then....those of you who know what Kay and Rick have experienced in the last year and a half will not find this entirely surprising at all. Their son, Matthew, committed suicide in 2013

Since then, Kay has been remarkably public about her grief, mostly on her Facebook page. I've been touched by many of her words, and while it's not exactly the same as our situation, her most recent post resonated with me so strongly.

She wrote:
But when Matthew died, church became a strange and unfamiliar place – not because of our congregation, but because of ME. The worship songs fell on my broken heart like sharp knives that cut me open even further – the words of healing and hope and victory contrasted with the bitter reality of Matthew’s violent death. The crowds were frightening and overwhelming – I could barely access comfort for myself, let alone come up with up one shred of energy to comfort anyone else. I felt like everyone was staring at me, watching my every move (whether they were or not), and on more than one occasion I climbed over friends and family in a frantic scramble to get outside before my sobs turned into wails.

Kay goes on to explain that eventually she figured out how to go back to regular services. She wrote about choosing not to sit in her former front row seat, but near the back. And eventually, she found her way back to the front of the church, mainly to support her husband, the preacher.

Her words resonated with me because, unlike Kay, I don't always have the luxury of sitting in the back. I've worked so hard over these last 400 days to be able to put myself in the front of a worship service, to read and lead the words that have been a part of me for as long as I can remember. I can lead a congregation through prayers of praise, words of blessing, and yes, even prayers of healing and remembrance. 

But I haven't found it easy to be a participant.

One of my teachers pointed out to me that these two sides of the prayer service require different muscles. And it's so true. My prayer-leading muscles still work. I can read the words and sing the melodies, and be a part of the community as I'm doing so. It's not an act. I can lead with intention and focus, even with joy.

Oh, but participating in my own right is a whole different story. Just as Kay explained about her worship songs, it's the same for me -- no matter what the prayer's meaning, I can find a way to lift it up in sharp, angry contrast with the Sam-shaped hole inside of me. I can sit in a prayer service, I can let the words of others wash over me. I can find the music to be lovely, heart-warming, a blessing. But the challenge....I find it so difficult to open my mouth. I find it so hard to have only the task of myself, my own prayer. The intention and focus drifts....leaving me sad, frustrated, angry, and empty.

Kay found her way back to her "regular" place in worship, returning to the front row because her husband asked her to be his supporter, his guiding light. Although she didn't frame it this way, I wonder if that is for the same reason that I am able to stand in front of the congregation and lead with intention. It's because my role in that moment of prayer isn't only about me. It's about guiding and leading and helping others to prayer, helping others to find their own way to God.

When my own children sit beside me, I can open my mouth and sing or say the words. I am their mother, but I am also their teacher. Even a sliver of the role helps me to find my own way in. 

But alone....

Perhaps I'm still really not on speaking terms with God, as I've often quipped to my friends.
I'm willing to help bring others along to have their own conversations. 
I'm willing to be present when those conversations are happening.

But as I said back in June, I'm still not particularly interested in inviting God back into my own conversation. And I'm continuously grateful for a tradition that defines us as "ones who wrestle with God," because I know that this internal struggle, this fight within me and this painful path of trying to find my place...this too is holy. 

This picture was taken when I was part of the Women of the Wall prayer service on Rosh Chodesh Tevet.


rbarenblat said...

I hear you. Yes - leading prayer is a different role. I find myself wondering whether the next time (pu pu pu) I experience severe depression I will be able to lead davenen, even though I know from experience that when I am in that pit I am unable to pray myself, and what you say here resonates for me and I imagine that the answer will be yes.

I don't have answers. But I'm listening.

Batya said...

There is a Jewish custom to change your makom kavua, regular spot for prayers during the time of mourning, to sit further away. I did it the year after my mother passed away, and it's very disorienting. Everything looks, sounds and seems different.