Covid came calling, an unwelcome suitor, but some part of me said yes. (Isn’t that always the way? Be careful, I tell my daughters.)

He brought all manner of unpleasantness. I felt pretty low. A friend brought sprigs of mint and flowers in a jar, and I realized that Covid had taken away my sense of smell. That made me mad.

I’ve been showing him the door. Like most unwelcome visitors, he’s found a way to stay for a while.

A few good books have kept me company as I watch and wait… Lessons in Chemistry, by Bonnie Garmus, and Prayer in the Night, by Tish Harrison Warren.

Lessons in Chemistry is a funny, clever, girl-power cartoon of a book. It has a Scooby-Doo quality in the best kind of way, including a dog in a starring role. No character in the novel is particularly believable, from the heroine, Elizabeth Zott – a frustrated chemist-turned-cooking-show star – to her child prodigy daughter, to the various male villains who stand in Zott’s way. Believability isn’t the point, just as it wasn’t the point of “Wonder Woman”.

Lessons in Chemistry offers a superheroine in action, with joie de vivre and va-va-voom! The story is a mash-up of feel-good feminism, righteous anger, and hope, as Elizabeth Zott makes her way in 1950s America.

I’m in awe of the creativity, imagination, and intellect of the author.

That being said, religion and faith take a beating in the book. One of the worst of the bad guys runs a Catholic orphanage. A decent fellow who is a minister and becomes a friend of our heroine admits, in what (I think) is supposed to be a startling and radiant moment, that he does not actually believe in God. Here’s what Elizabeth Zott, a self-proclaimed atheist, has to say about religion, generally:

“I think it [religion] lets us off the hook. I think it teaches us that nothing is really our fault; that something or someone else is pulling the strings; that ultimately, we’re not to blame for the way things are; that to improve things, we should pray. But the truth is, we are very much responsible for the badness in the world. And we have the power to fix it.”

This doesn’t resonate with me.

Did it ruin Lessons in Chemistry for me? No. But it was kind-of like Wonder Woman making theological pronouncements. There’s a good reason Lynda Carter didn’t.

  *      *      *

In Prayer in the Night, author and priest Tish Harrison Warren offers a close reading of this evening prayer, which is in the Book of Common Prayer:

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch,
or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those
who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the
weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted,
shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

Warren explores each phrase in rich and meaningful ways. What does it mean, for instance, to ask God to “tend” the sick, versus to heal them? Why are angels vaguely embarrassing these days, and should they be? Why would the joyous need shielding? I could not stop underlining. Warren brings received scholarly wisdom to the subject as well as her own thinking and life experiences, and the result is a thoughtful and personal take on an old, old prayer.

I also appreciated her approach to prayer generally. For most of her life, she explains, “prayer meant one thing only: talking to God with words I came up with. Prayer was wordy, unscripted, self-expressive, spontaneous, and original.” She calls this “Free form” prayer. That’s how I’ve always prayed too!

“But I’ve come to believe that in order to sustain faith over a lifetime, we need to learn different ways of praying.”

Tell me more!

“I brought a friend to my Anglican Church and she objected to how our liturgy contained (in her words) “other people’s prayers.” She felt that prayer should be an original expression of one’s own thoughts, feelings, and needs. But over a lifetime the ardor of our belief will wax and wane. This is a normal part of the Christian life. Inherited prayers and practices of the church tether us to belief, far more securely than our own vacillating perspective or self-expression.”

“When we pray the prayers we’ve been given by the church – the prayers of the psalmist and the saints, the Lord’s Prayer, the Daily Office – we pray beyond what we can know, believe, or drum up in ourselves… We come to God with our little belief, however fleeting and feeble, and in prayer we are taught to walk more deeply into truth.”

“In our deepest moments of anxiety and darkness, we enter into this craft of prayer…. Most often, we take up prayer not out of triumphant victory or unimpeachable trust but because prayer shapes us; it works back on us to change who we are and what we believe. Patterns of prayer draw us out of ourselves, out of our own time-bound moment, into the long story of Christ’s work in and through his people over time.”

“Every prayer I have ever prayed, from the most faithful to the least, has been in part a confession uttered in the Gospel of Mark: ‘I believe; help my unbelief’ (Mark 9:24)… [T]he church, in the midst of my weakness, responded with her ancient voice: ‘Here are some words. Pray them. They are strong enough to hold you. These will help your unbelief.”

 *      *      *

“This little book is holy glow in your hands: read it, savor it, and most of all join Tish Harrison Warren in prayer in the quiet of the night,” says Scot McKnight, professor at Northern Seminary.

I have been.

 *      *      *

Spent time in 2 historic churches last week, pre-Covid… anybody recognize them? 🤗


*     *     *

Sincerest thanks to Caroline Shockley for the gift of Prayer in the Night.

*     *     *

“To be creatures is to face many nights: the darkness of the unknown, the uncertain, the unseen. God, in his grace, does not promise to expel the dark; he promises to be with us in the night. In prose that is both powerful and vulnerable, Tish Harrison Warren invites us to receive Compline as a gift to help us face the dark. Prayer is how we press our hands into the invisible and find the hand of Christ reaching back.” -James K.A. Smith, Calvin University, author of You Are What You Love


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