Standing in the Need of Prayer

Luke 18:9-14

“How is it with your soul?”

A trusted advisor asks this question
of Rozella Haydee White1 ,
a thirty-something Black woman in ministry.

The words catch White off-guard.
She takes a deep breath.

“How is it with my soul?”
She repeats back,
“I don’t know that anyone has ever asked me that question.
I don’t even know where to begin.”

“Well,” her advisor replies,
“now is the time for you to listen to your soul.”

Silence comes to the room.
After a while,
Rozella Haydee White discusses this question
with her confidant.
However, she doesn’t leave their conversation
that day
with an answer.

In fact,
she found herself seeking out support
that day
because her life was falling apart:
she and her husband are separating;
she is employed at a church
and is struggling with her supervisor;
White’s family is in Houston,
while she lives in Atlanta;
and amidst the chaos,
she tries to keep it all together.
Something is off,
and she can’t put her finger on it.

Her friend had suggested she ask for help,
which had led her to this encounter,
where she heard the question,
“How is it with your soul?”

The question unsettles White,
who realizes that
she hasn’t ever sat quietly with herself
and paid attention to her inner life.

Over the course of the next year,
as White begins to tend to her inner life,
she starts to realize
that she has been living a divided life.
Yes, she has a successful ministry career,
one that is outwardly praised,
and yet,
it is not internally reflective
of who God created her to be,
or her deepest desires.
She isn’t living a soulful life,
nor is her soul full.

White has been so busy
striving toward she thinks she should do,
she hasn’t thought to ask herself:
What do I want to do?
What is the holy desire
that sets my heart ablaze?

She pauses now
to listen her to her deepest holy longings;
she pauses now
to peer into the wilds of her own dear heart.

Dear ones of God,
the question now comes to you:
how is it with your soul?

I love that question,
just like I love White’s story,
because it challenges us
to observe the obstacles that prevent us
from truly listening
to ourselves, to others, to God.

Why is it so hard to sit with the question,
how is it with your soul?

Persian poet Rumi writes,
“Your task is not to seek for love,
but merely to seek and find all the barriers
within yourself
that you have built against it.”

What barriers exist in our life
that keep us from experiencing love?

We all have them.
This question invites us, gently, to:
notice, notice, notice.

A challenging endeavor.

For us. For White.
And for the people in today’s parable.

In the parable,
the religious leader,
has been focused on achievement,
tasks and accomplishment.
With a sense of smugness,
they give thanks to God
that they are good and
that they do good things.

And I imagine God thinking appreciatively,
I am so glad that you do things for others.
That is very good indeed,
but your soul, dear one,
how is it with your soul?

Like White,
I imagine this religious person stumped,
having been so focused on others,
that he had not taken the time
to pay attention to his own inner life.

Sure,
this person is comfortable
sharing with God places of altruism,
but would they also dare to offer to God
places of insecurity, emptiness,
struggle, loneliness or regret?

Would they risk offering to God
the true state of their inner landscape?

This question rivets me,
because for a long time,
I answered inquiry to my well-being,
with, “I’m fine.”

I can relate to the religious person’s struggle.
I don’t want to burden others
with my state of my troubles,
emotions or inner life.
I only want to offer God,
and others,
my shiniest veneer.

However,
over the years,
I have learned God doesn’t want
our superficial sheen;
God wants the realness of who we are.

I’ve learned this first-hand.

I’ve told this story before,
but I will tell it again.

The other year,
because of my spouse’s sporadic work schedule,
we had to spend a major holiday by ourselves,
and because he worked,
really I had to spend the holiday by myself.

It certainly brought me face to face
with emptiness
and missing dear ones,
dead and alive,
with whom I had celebrated
special occasions in years past.
It brought up friendship losses
and the ache of loneliness in my heart.

Around that same time,
I thought of and prayed for
everyone else who spent holidays alone,
those for whom holidays are hard,
those who grieve on holidays.

I found that comforting.

And by the time,
I saw my Spiritual Director,
a few weeks later,
and was recounting the story,
I told her what had happened and said,
yes, holidays are hard,
but, you see, I have so much to be grateful for,
so it’s fine. Everything is fine. I’m fine.

Fine. Fine. Fine. Fine.

Our conversation meandered along until, at last,
she turned to me and said,
“You know you have been saying
you are fine an awful lot.
Do you know that it is okay
to not be okay?”

Her words caught me off-guard.

Do you know that it is okay
to not be okay …

Suddenly,
I saw that the barrier that day
between myself and God’s love
was my own inability to trust God
with my actual state of being,
with the dramatic tundra of my heart.

I refused to be held by God
because it meant that
I would have to acknowledge
that I couldn’t always keep it together;
that I couldn’t always self-propel
my own way out of hard circumstances.

And yet,
I could not escape the embrace of God.
Even in that moment,
Love responded to my bravado by saying,
I am so glad that you think about others.
That is very good indeed,
but your soul, dear one,
how is it with your soul?

And suddenly,
the deep care of that moment
caught the soft parts of my soul by surprise
and a wetness sprung in my eyes,
that day as I sat with my director,
looking out onto the Hudson River.

Mercy.

God has mercy
even on those who resist being held.

This I have discovered.

This is the deep truth that
the tax collector has already discovered.
Somehow,
the tax collector has braved their inner forest.
Rather than shying from the untamed terrain,
they name it boldly before God:
O God, sometimes, I come up short.
O God, sometimes, life is more than
I can tame, contain or control.
O God, have mercy on me! I need your help!

They trust that love is already there,
all around them,
and that their only task is to ask.

Mercy, they cry.

In the Divine One’s infinite tenderness,
the Divine One brings the tax collector close,
caring for their bruises and gashes,
offering solace
in each place
of failure, and obsessiveness,
and insecurity, and shame,
and emptiness and fear.

Like the Connecticut River to our east,
the mercy of God always flows beside us,
waiting for us to take a dip and get wet.

Why is it so hard to accept this kind of grace?

A poem I read this week enlivens the question.
Written by Janet Morley,
it is called “Curiously Safe.”

It reads,
“Curiously safe
I weep unforbidden
finally not resisting your love
my words unready
my body unguarded
my heart no longer choosing restraint
I cry unknowing with the child in me
who unwept till now
would not be held.”

The miracle of the poem,
and of the tax-collector,
is that they at last allow themselves to be held,
swept away by the current of grace.

Like Rozella Haydee White,
who makes peace, at last, with all the ways
her life is not working in Atlanta.

She has listened to the question
“How is it with your soul?”
and has discerned her soul is neglected
and in need of nourishment.

Daringly,
she decides to quit her job,
and move back to be with her family in Houston.

She gives up her successful ministry at the church,
and surrenders her efforts at “keeping up appearances”.
Adrift at first,
she eventually creates a consulting start-up
called, “Love Big”.
which invites people to strip away the “shoulds” of life.
and listen to the voice within
that reveals who you are,
what you value,
and what brings you joy.

It’s hard work.
It’s the hardest work I have ever done,
White writes.
And yet,
it’s soul filling and fulfilling work.

It’s the work
of releasing expectations,
and veneers,
and shiny-ness,
and learn how to be brave
like the tax collector
and say,
“God, here I am
in all my messy glory.”
“God, my soul’s not okay;
I’m ready to accept help.”
“God, here are the true longings
of my heart.”

It’s the work
of allowing
God, at last, to grasp us.

This is, perhaps, the greatest,
most courageous act of our lives.

Pray for mercy. If you dare.

It will upend your life.

 

 

(1) This story comes from Love Big: The Power of Revolutionary Relationships to Heal the World by Rozella Haydee White.

 

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