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The Middle Voice


Have you ever felt that what you know about spiritual life turns out not to address the life you are actually living? Lauren Winner, author of Girl Meets God and Mudhouse Sabbath, writes about such a time in her new book Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis.

She describes standing at a wall, standing there for a long time. “God is absent; perhaps I am absent from myself. The conversion is over. Everything has changed, everything needs to change. But what is the change? How to change?” (xvii).

Moving back and forth between belief and disbelief, through her personal stories of failure and struggles, she scatters gems of ideas that she has gleaned from friends, mentors and life. “Loving God, it turns out, is hard precisely because it does not promise the reassuring logic of accomplishment and failure”—she quotes Ryan Netzley as she begins a chapter on failure (193). And perhaps that is why we all seem to find ourselves in mid-faith crisis at some point. Short of the second coming, one can never feel as though one has truly arrived as a Christian. There’s always something that can trip you up.

In the short sketch that follows Winner explains the difference between stories about heroes and stories about saints. Stories about heroes are meant to laud them; if the hero ultimately fails, all is lost. However, stories about saints can dwell on failures, because that is where forgiveness and new possibilities in God are revealed. Saints are just small characters in stories that really are about God. Her conclusion is “I am not a saint. I am however, beginning to learn that I am a small character in a story that is always fundamentally about God.”

As her story progresses Winner comes to see, moving back and forth between belief and disbelief, “this humming sense of seemingly knowing nothing” as a training in nimbleness and a way of inhabiting faith. Maybe this is a gift to the church, too, just as the steady faithfulness of others is a gift.

Certainly, there are plenty of people who can identify with her experience. The journey metaphor that is so frequently used to describe the Christian life doesn’t always entail a zigzag route, however it is about moving away from what we were by ourselves and on to something more with God. It is about change.

But does it always take a crisis to recognize that in the middle of the Christian life one wrestles with God, wrestles with one’s story, wrestles with one’s self? I guess maybe our expectation that accepting Christ will mean that all will be well sets us up for a crisis when we discover that is not so. Certainly Winner’s honesty about her life and faith are encouraging whether or not one is in crisis.

Perhaps this book resonated with me particularly because it talks a lot about being in the middle. As the middle child in my family, I identify with the middle voice, the voice with neither the assertiveness and authority of the first child nor the amusing charm of the baby of the family. I like to think of the middle voice as honesty, the objective assessment of reality.

The middle voice that Winner writes about is that of ancient Greek, Tamil, Sanskrit, Creek, and Old Norse. She says it stumps her students as it darts back and forth between the active and passive. “The middle is used when a subject is affected by the action of the verb; when the verb somehow transforms, reshapes the subject.” Her examples of the middle verbs (grow, become, change) lead her to the suggestion that the middle is “the language of spirituality, of devotion, the language of religious choreography” (156). The middle voice is one that she would use to speak of prayer.

That has me darting back to reassess my description of prayer as honesty. How objective is my assessment of reality when I pray? Does my middle voice allow for growth, change? Can what is become something more?  Variations on the questions that Winner says are the heart of the book: “How does a spiritual life change? How do you enter that change?” (212).

In her next to the last chapter, Winner writes, “I have heard that many of us sojourn in the middle for a long, long time; that we have many middles; that we keep meeting and making new middles.”

From my own observation, I would say that change happens to us while we are about other things. Sure, we can pursue change and open ourselves up to change, but sometimes the most significant change is not exactly what we had in mind.


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