“What is saving your life right now?” That question, routinely asked by Jen Hatmaker at the end each of her podcast interviews, comes from Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church: a Memoir of Faith. If I were to answer it today, I’d have to say “5:00 a.m.”
Five and I have been friends for a long time. Left to its own devices, my circadian rhythm always has me up at five o’clock–no matter what time zone I went to sleep in. When I was in my mid-20’s, working as an executive secretary at US Healthcare, I spent six weeks writing my master’s thesis from five to seven each morning, watching the sky lighten outside the big picture window that was our high-rise apartment’s only redeeming feature.
Now 5 a.m. is saving my life again, for the first time since those thesis-writing days.
The last few months have been my “summer of self-promotion,” as I searched for ways to get Finding God in Ordinary Time in front of the eyeballs of people who would read it, recommend it, and otherwise help me market it. Now the school year has started, and I’m just a few days away from book launch, and there are SO MANY THINGS I could be doing on any given day, both to promote Finding God and to prepare for the many speaking engagements on my horizon. And so, most days, 5 a.m. finds me in my rocking chair with coffee and laptop, doing whatever I can to move this work forward. (At 7:00–at the urging of my doctor–I strap on my Keens and go for a walk before heading to work. This backfired recently, as my beloved old Keens had worn down so unevenly that they actually threw my back out. But that’s a blog post for another day.)
As a multi-decade devotee of 5:00 a.m., I would have thought I knew everything there was to know about the hour. But last month, down the shore (as we say in Philly), I discovered something remarkable.
I have long been a fan of the complicated sunrise, especially over the ocean. I love watching the sky go through all its vibrant color changes as the sun lights the clouds from below before easing over the horizon; in my book I use it as a metaphor for college campus ministry–witnessing the effects of students’ dawning spiritual adulthood, being grateful each time I am awake to see it.
But in Wildwood, in early August, sunrise is just after six o’clock. Do you know what it is at five? Dark. Can’t-see-the-ocean dark. Why-am-I-sitting-on-the-deck-with-coffee dark.
You know what else it is? Fascinating.
It turns out that–and I am so sorry to know this–the sky is compellingly beautiful a whole hour before sunrise. The colors keep shifting, but instead of the red-orange-yellow end of the Crayola box, we get a black-navy-purple crayon sky. I couldn’t get enough of it this year. I didn’t want to look down–which was okay, because it was too dark to read or write. I didn’t even want to go inside to refill my coffee, because the sky changed so much from minute to minute.
View from the deck at 5:00 a.m., early August, Wildwood NJ
This is how God works, I used to say about the sunrise. And I still do. But this is also how God works, I now say about the well-pre-dawn sky.
So many people I know are waiting right now. Waiting for an employer to call with a job offer. Waiting for a safe time to break away from a bad relationship. Waiting for a child to go into recovery, this time for good. Waiting for discernment to become clear enough for action. Waiting for healing in body, mind, or spirit. It’s dark. Really dark. Can’t-see-the-ocean dark. And yet things are happening, well out of sight. God is at work in each of those situations, I do believe. The predawn sky has become for me a metaphor for all the spiritual movement that is happening within and around each of us, all the stars slowly aligning, all the things we cannot see that are nevertheless working together for our good.
I’m aware of this happening in my book-launch life. Much of it is through the behind-the-scenes efforts of Ben Tanzer, whom I’ve never met in person, but who from Chicago is connecting me to all sorts of creative outlets. (Check out this audio series where you can now hear me read a chapter of my book, or Spiritual Directors International, which featured another chapter as a guest blog post.) Ben’s going to interview me for his podcast next Friday; that should be a hoot.
And here’s a thing: I just found out that Amazon has named Finding God in Ordinary Time as their #1 New Release in Religious Humor. This absolutely cracks me up. I have no idea how Amazon knows the book is funny, given how many serious topics it includes. (Four chapters about mothers with cancer. Four!) I can’t imagine how it got to be #1 in that super-specific category, but I’m willing to bet that some people will pick it up on the strength of that odd accolade–people who wouldn’t have glanced at it otherwise. And maybe it will be just what they needed to read.
Herculean human efforts and baffling computer algorithms aside, my hours staring at the black-navy-purple sky in Wildwood reminded me that God is at work in me right now in ways I cannot yet see. This coming Monday, September 17, the sun is going to rise on Finding God in Ordinary Time. I will go from being a person who has a book coming out to being an author on book tour (or as much tour as a busy campus minister can muster). Instead of writing, writing, writing, I’m going to be speaking, speaking, speaking.
Just yesterday, while mentally rehearsing my talk for my first book event (at St. Monica in Berwyn), I felt God say, “So, are you going to talk about you, or are you going to talk about me?” (Whoops! YOU, Lord. Thanks for the reminder.) And that’s why the 5:00 hours will remain essential. No matter how busy this season gets, I have to stay grounded in prayer, to allow the message people most need to hear to flow through me, without making it about me.
The days ahead will be anything but ordinary. If you find yourself awake before sunrise, please pray that they will be extraordinarily blessed!