I wrote this several weeks ago in the beginning of Lent, as an intended anonymous letter for the mailbox of strangers, but also for myself. It was my way of asking myself some questions: What can I achieve, if anything, with pure honesty? How can I write as a Christian without explicitly sharing the Gospel? What would that look like, and what would be gained and lost? Can I communicate my love for Jesus without attempting to share exactly what I believe about who he is and was and what he did? How can I close the gap between the confining, polarizing rhetoric of faith and the honest rhetoric of what it feels like to be human and alive and real? These questions were ultimately behind every word of this letter.
I did not intend to share this letter on my blog. It felt (ironically) too personal—it is far easier to write to a stranger than to a friend. And yet, as I meditate on Maundy Thursday and Christ’s utterly subversive act of foot-washing, it feels appropriate. What does foot-washing look like for me? What is my witness, my humility? While it looks like many things, for me at the deepest level, it has always been about language. That is my deepest source of humility, and even as I attend a service tonight in which there will be foot-washing, I will be thinking of this letter that is making its way to homes I do not know and strangers I wish I did, and I will pray that my words will always be a way of washing others into his love.
My name is Rachel. I am not trying to sell you something, ask for a donation, or remind you of an appointment. This is not an advertisement, scam, or bill. I am merely a 22-year-old woman living in Illinois who loves words and wants to write people letters.
As you may or may not know, we are in the season of Lent, the forty days before Easter. It is common practice for one to deny something in order to create a more intentional space for reflection in the days leading up to Easter. Rather than deny something, however, I wanted to add something. I wanted to put words together on a page—words that tell who I am, who I am not but wish I could be, words that tell a little of my experience in what I find a frightening and frighteningly beautiful world. I wanted to write something honest, thoughtful, and vulnerable. And I wanted to send it to people, to strangers. Because I find something beautiful about the fact that you—someone I do not know—are reading words written by someone you do not know, and even though this letter has said very little so far, it is still an act of communion between two human beings. Words I’m crafting as I sit on my bed are being read somewhere else, and though we are complete strangers, we are not complete strangers: if nothing else (and yet there is always something else), we are now bridged by an assortment of letters on a page.
You may think I’m crazy. You may think I’m some kind of mystic, some kind of devout Christian, or some lonely kid trying to find company in other human beings. I guess in one sense, I am a bit of all of those things. I do believe in mystery, though I am not a mystic; perhaps it is more accurate to say I believe in beauty, the kind that can breathe life into you. I do not think I’m very good at being devout, but I do find Christianity hauntingly beautiful, even if I often struggle to fully believe it. And I am lonely in the sense that we are all of us lonely, because “no one knows the troubles I’ve seen,” and we can never completely tell each other, “I understand.” But I wish we could. For the most part, however, I’m a recent college graduate who is working a mundane office job, enjoys reading literature, likes to listen to Penny and Sparrow, and has a twin sister. I’m an introvert to an extreme but am also extremely intentional in my friendships, I often find sadness a more faithful companion than any friend, and I would stake my life on the truth of paradox.
And you. I do not know you. You could be a mom, a dad, a daughter or son, a sister or brother. You could be middle-aged or in your twenties or your seventies. You could be Asian (like me), black, Latino, Caucasian. You could have a family or live on your own. You could be well-off or just scraping by. You could be a convicted felon or a former valedictorian. You could love your life or hate it. I have no idea. But I hope that whoever you are, wherever you are in life as you read this, I hope that you’ll give me a chance. I have absolutely no other desire in this letter than to simply be honest with you, and hope that in my honesty and courage, you will be a little more fully human by the end of reading this.
My dad is a philosophy professor, the kind of wise and rare academic you meet only once or twice in your life if you are fortunate. The irony is that, though his specialty is apologetics, the defense of faith, no one has done more to teach me that matters of belief are often not rational so much as they are experiential, even aesthetic. No one has taught me more about the nuances of belief, about ambiguity and subjectivity. I grew up with him saying things like, “When it comes to issues that have been gridlocked for centuries [like religion], there will always be enough evidence to allow you to believe what you want to believe and not enough to make you change your mind.” I grew up with him saying things like, “When you have two competing theological views and both seem plausible, go with the one that’s more beautiful. Because beauty is how we make decisions about art, and theology is art.” Suffice it to say that my twin sister and I grew up exposed to not just intellectual issues at a young age, but also to a kind of nuanced wisdom and “unorthodox” way of approaching faith that has deeply informed who I am. I believe in beauty more than I believe in truth—or I believe in the beauty of truth. I have never quite understood why we live and speak as though we are rational creatures before we are aesthetic creatures.
My aim here is not to tell you to believe in God or not believe in God. Whether you do or don’t, I could give you plenty of reasons for the other. I only want to suggest that how one approaches the question of deity should be perhaps just as similar to gauging an artwork or a symphony, or bird-watching or listening to jazz, as to simply balancing equations. And yet, even that metaphor breaks down: there is something profoundly beautiful about a balanced equation. Ask any chemistry teacher, any lover of science. There is something beautiful about the simplistic elegance of E = mc 2.
I am sorry for so many things. Sorry how we as the Church, the body of Christ, have many so many mistakes that have hurt you or others like you. I am sorry for the big things, the things that immediately come to mind, but I am sorry for so much more–sorry for my own pride and selfishness. While I believe there are some things Christians have done well over the centuries, and while I still love the Church for all its imperfections, I wish we were not quite so imperfect. I hope that you and the world can give us grace, to allow the messengers of forgiveness to in a sense be the message, the forgiven. We have made so many mistakes. We are, like you, only human.
I have long since learned that any belief I have in the Gospel—good news—of Christianity, must be believed in and through the very things that make it difficult to believe: my doubt, my persistent sadness, the loneliness that feels unshakable, the suffering I feel in and around me. I will fight until my dying day to change the way we think and talk about doubt. My faith finds meaning in my doubt. It finds beauty. It tells me that the questions I am grappling with are worth asking, worth spending a lifetime pursuing, and that in the end, the question may be more valuable than the answer. I don’t know why God allows suffering, but by the same vein, I don’t know why God allows goodness. And though I can and do point to the Holocaust or Sandy Hook and demand how God could let these things happen, I also acknowledge that there is goodness here that I could not possibly frame into a question. Why am I loved? Why is language so beautiful? Why does listening to Tchaikovsky or Les Miserables bring tears to my eyes, and a powerful longing? If suffering is the question that demands an answer, goodness is the answer that deserves a question. And we live somewhere in the tension between the two. Somewhere between beauty and darkness, shame and joy, pain and hope. It is a tension that sometimes feels like it will undo me, but it a tension that simultaneously gives me life.
If nothing else, I wish I could impress upon you the beauty of Christianity—not primarily whether it’s true, whether the bible is true, whether prayer is real—but the beauty of it. I’m a lover of literature, and even if I thought the bible was entirely made up, I would still find it impossibly beautiful. The poetry of it, the parallels, the historical narrative, dysfunctional families, haunting prophecies, murders, kingdoms, wars, love songs. And more than that, the truths it claims—whether or not they are true—are so beautiful it’s a kind of longing. The first Adam and Jesus as the second Adam. All the parallels between Israel and Jesus, the twelve tribes and the twelve disciples, the forty days in the desert and the forty days in the wilderness. You are strong when you are weak. You find your life by dying to yourself. In the beginning was the Word. Jesus as the Jewish Passover Lamb. If you have not really read the bible, I would recommend it, not as a moralist recommends a rule book but as a lover of literature recommends a truly great book. If you really read the bible, whether or not you find it true (what do we even mean by that word?), oh that you would feel its deep beauty, that it would take up refuge inside of you as a kind of homesickness, a wound of love.
Do you find the world to be as frightening and frighteningly beautiful as I do? In some ways, I think it would be easier to bear if it was all frightening, but the fact that the world is so unspeakably broken (genocide, poverty, environmental crisis, racism) and so unspeakably good (poetry, the faithfulness of the sunrise every morning, plucking the strings of a guitar, the love of and for another person) is the tension that haunts me everyday of my life. A writer I like once wrote that goodness is so good it seems that all the evil can be explained, and evil is so evil it seems that all the goodness is a mistake. I feel that. I feel it not just in the polarities of global issues and universal goodness but most acutely in myself. I feel it in my innate selfishness—the fact that try as I might, I cannot consistently put others before myself; that no matter how much better I wish I could be, I simply cannot. I feel it in my quickly judgmental words, my stinginess with money, my jealousy over a friend’s good fortune. And yet the goodness in my own life is astounding. I have friends who love me, and that’s a fact I still marvel at. Friends who enjoy my company, who want to spend time with me. I have a dog who is beside himself with joy every time I walk in the door, though it’s been fourteen years of the same thing. I volunteer with special needs children and watch their joy and innocence as they play basketball with each other, and I push my wheelchair-bound friend around as he smiles and grasps my hand. He cannot speak, can barely walk, and must drink out of a tube, and yet the love in his parents’ eyes is bright enough to light up even my own dark heart. And once a month every Friday, dozens of people voluntarily give up their time to hang out with these special children so that their families can have a few hours of respite. They do it as an act of grace. They do it because they’ve experienced grace. The problem of suffering, yes. But also the problem of goodness.
I wish I could share everything with you. I wish I could tell you about my twin sister, remarkably selfless and yet rarely acknowledged for her selflessness. I wish I could tell you about high school, the agonizing months of loneliness and boredom. I wish I could tell you about the hospital freshman year of college, the talent show that my friends forced me to rap in (it was a complete and utter failure, but you’d never know from the cheering), about long walks with friends and honest conversations and the sudden death of a beloved professor and friendship that teaches me not to fear. I do not have the time nor space—you may not have the interest. But in these few pages, I have tried to give you something. A piece of who I am, a glimpse into my weary and holy narrative. I hope that it has given you a piece of yourself, a glimpse into your own weary and holy narrative. I hope at the very least, it was the strangest thing that’s happened to you this day.
Here’s the last thing I’ll say: there is a part at the end of Marilynne Robinson’s prolific novel Gilead where the narrator writes that “there are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, all of them sufficient.” I do not find this easy to believe. My innate sadness wrestles with my faith to make this statement an almost inconceivable thought. I wake up most mornings somewhere in between despair and joy, sadness and hope. But I am learning, slowly, slowly, infinitely slowly, I that she is right. There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, even if I cannot identify all of them. I have been given, for no reason I can possibly understand other than by grace, a taste of these reasons. I can name a handful of them—I have tried to in this letter. And the fact that I can name a few of them is in of itself a deep gratitude. And this letter, the crafting of it, the time for extended meditation, and my imagining of who you might be, where you are coming from—this is a profound one of those thousands of reasons to live this life. Thank you for letting me write to you, and for reading this letter. Thank you for letting me be human. I hope we as people can learn to better speak life and humanness into each other.
With sincere joy,
Note: If you’d like to help with this project, you can. Print out this letter. Find an envelope. Walk down a random street, find a house that sticks out to you, and leave it with them along with a prayer. Trust that “no act of love is ever wasted.”