Becoming a member of the church I spent roughly ages 11-18 going to involved, among other and more bureaucratically complicated things, choosing a “life verse.” I never made it to membership, which turned out to be dodging a bullet, but had come down to two choices for a life verse. My new testament pick was Philippians 1:6 – For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. It had been the focal point of a lesson at my evangelical middle school and I kind of liked it. Over time I cooled on this verse in line with my diminishing confidence that anything, let alone a “good work,” had indeed begun. My alternate choice stuck with me.
Jeremiah 29:11 goes “For I know the plans that I have for you,” declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. I like the New American Standard translation here. I think it’s the drama of the word calamity. Some versions go with “not for evil” but that’s much less of a mood. The past few years have meant throwing out most of my preconceived notions about how my life would go and what kinds of experiences would be viable for me. There are times when words like calamity don’t seem too far off. Jeremiah 29:11 is appealing on a visceral level because the thought that something, somewhere knows my plan is superstitiously calming. Jeremiah’s “I know” is more reassuring, more solid than Phillippians’ “confident in this.” It’s a verse that is at once soothing and stern, in the way being told to snap out of it can sometimes be a balm.
It’s also just comforting to have a verse, a thought, a shred of something that has survived the countless reforgings of my sense of self. In times of upheaval and confusion, we want most desperately to see clear threads stretching from the foundational, pre-adult versions of ourselves to the present. Sometimes I think if I can at least keep track of these threads, they will someday come together again to prop me up as a narratively coherent, defragged person.
Maybe it’s in service of this that I’ve become something closer to religious in the past six months and change than I have been since high school. For most of that time period, I dealt with my religious wounds by either lashing out or stuffing it and pretending that the transition out of a Christian worldview was clean and easy. Neither of these reactions were honest to my actual state of mind, but seeking outlets for that was at best tiring and at worst emotionally compromising. It was a then-and-still illogical and solitary impulse that led me some night in July or August to pray, a habit I’ve more or less kept up with since.
“My religion” is still among the topics I’m most hesitant to speak transparently about, even within my own family. I can crack jokes about the social politics of youth groups for hours, but approaching my spiritual truth is weird, uncool, and fraught. It’s embarrassing to write down that I pray, and it’s usually embarrassing to tell anyone. One of my biggest problems as a kid going to church is that I didn’t feel the emotional and spiritual connection that everyone seemed to be feeling or faking very well. My parent’s friends or even fellow teens were always “called to pray” for someone. Placid-faced middle-aged women would sometimes inform me, their voices dropping softly, that “God just put you on my heart.”
The sense that I had more emotional distance than most religious people is another thing that hasn’t changed since childhood. My sheepishness about praying may not be so much about my anomalous religiosity than a bizarre fear that the minute my habit is public knowledge, everyone will see that I obviously also suck at it. I fumble my words when I pray because I’m not sure if I buy it, because I feel like a fraud. I dwell on being unsure of what I’m doing while also apologizing into the air for being unsure. I am not confident in this, nor do I start sentences with “I know” unless followed immediately by a negative disclaimer about myself.
So what does praying do, for a person who may never step foot in a church regularly again, for who things that “feel like grace” inspire more faith than the actual, spiritual concept? Sometimes I cynically think it’s just a Pascal’s Wager situation and I’m going to keep doing it because I might as well. Once I wondered out loud if praying was just reaffirming your own thoughts to yourself over and over. Not so cynically, I decided perhaps that’s ok. It’s a little like (ugh, forgive me) the concept of “setting an intention” in yoga. You can make your intention something you want for yourself – contentment, focus, whatever. I do pray for myself, mostly through aggressively remembering Jeremiah 29:11 and begging for some of that “I know” to feel knowable to me, personally.
In yoga, you can also set your intention for someone else. “Send your energy to someone who needs it more than you,” is the way an old instructor put it. Is your breath reaching out across space to bolster them up? Probably not, but you may end your session with a gentler orientation towards that person and their needs. So I mostly pray for a few other people, and mostly about kindness. This is where I believe that even if it’s just talking to yourself, there’s value in a ritualistic confirmation of your less selfish impulses. By reaffirming our best thoughts about others in the privacy of a moment when you aren’t asking anything of them or trying to prove something, it can take the edge off our most uncharitable reactions when tensions arise. If we want desperately for some force to know our plans will work out, we can hope the same for others.
I was a selfish and uncertain child and that has persisted. But my weird habit, this vestige of a religion I may never return to, has reminded me of obligations to at least try to be better. Maybe that’s all it could be, in the end – a best case scenario of self-fulfilling prophecy. If I talk to myself and to myself about others as if I were a person who didn’t de facto deserve calamity, I might accidentally start acting like one.
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