No Language But A Cry

"Nearby is the country they call life; you will know it by its seriousness." -Rainer Maria Rilke

because wounds were meant for communion (but we hide, and we hurt, and we stave off healing)

Here’s my confession, Lord. Do You want them all at once? Would You rather I gave them to You one at a time, gave You a coffee break in between? No, You’d rather have them all at once, as many as I can think of? Okay. I’ll try. It may take a while. I’ll just make You a list. Is that okay? Here’s my list, Lord.

  • I confess that I usually find You more beautiful than true.
  • I confess that I’m not sure You have a plan for me.
  • I confess that I look around me and I so profoundly glimpse the terrible back and it drains me with its darkness, and I look around me and I so profoundly glimpse the noble face and it smites me with its beauty, and I find such antithesis too great, too much… Too much for my smallness. I do not know, Lord, if I can hold the tension of both these realities in my hands and not be crushed by such seeming contradiction. I am so small, God… My hands are not big enough. I am not big enough. (But “Be comforted, small one, in your smallness,” and so I will try, Lord, You know that I am trying.)
  • I confess that I am afraid of Your sweetness. As much as I am compelled by the name of “Tender Pioneer,” so also I am afraid, because how can such tenderness not burn? How can it not cost me more than I know how to give? Worse, how can it not gift me with more than I know how to receive?
  • I confess that I am addicted to my own self-condemnation. It feels safe, Lord, safer than You. Safer than hope. It means You can whisper ‘belovedness’ to me over and over again and I do not have to struggle to believe what I have declared untrue.
  • I confess that intellectualism has become my mask. (I didn’t know what Mom meant that day, when she said the same thing about him, but I do now…I do now.) It’s not simply about pride though, about looking smart in front of other people. It’s not really about that at all. Most of the moments I’m most deeply immersed in intellectualism are private, are moments of loneliness. It isn’t pride so much as control – and barriers. There’s so much I don’t know. There’s so much. And the not knowing, sometimes it threatens to undo me, but more deeply, more honestly, it is less the fear of not knowing and more the fear of not being known. So I learn. I gather information like bread crumbs, like a horde of secrets that will establish worth in my hiding place, I horde knowledge because maybe, maybe then, when I know as much as I possibly can, I will not feel such a splintering need for someone else to know me.
  • I confess that I have never once in my entire life loved something without at least part of that love being an idol, or a mask, or a mirror, or a safety net. (But I want to… How I want to.)
  • I confess that I have never been as scared of confession as of loneliness, and the cost of honesty has never been as deep for me as the cost of isolation. (Is this only me? Do you, you reading this, not also feel that we wall ourselves in, hide under masks of shallowness, pretend that surface-level relationship is the longing of our hearts, when all the while we are dying of superficiality, isolation, constantly digging holes to hide the very things we have been given as entryways into each other’s stories – always staggeringly lonely, yearning for intimacy, and wondering how anyone else can stand it? He gave us us our wounds as communion and we sew it up with ribbon and wait till the day He returns so we can ask Him why He made it so easy to hurt alone.)
  • I confess that my wounds are nothing compared to Yours.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

a poem for the ones who doubt (in other words, self-preaching)

The jazz quintet is a lesson on apologetics.
Theirs are a decade of hands, a quarter-century of calloused fingers,
synchronizing their way to a bass-line theodicy.
In the glowing auditorium with acoustics like German syllables,
rows of senior citizens from the Alpine Home nod heavy heads and
a few even find themselves mumbling along to the articulable beat. 
The guitarist’s face is nearly animalistic in its intensity
while his fingers hike the pentatonic scale, feral in their hunger for beauty,
a private intimacy that we turn our eyes from.
Something alive moves through the strings and snare,
a raw and terrifying power manifested in the symbiotic affair
between instrument and musician,
and we color our doors scarlet so the spirit

of jazz passes over, leaves us alone, alone with our sins unplayed.
I am two weeks worth of muted nightmares, hazy chase scenes
and stray bullets, hours spent reading about reading about writing,
chasing Oedipus and Aristotle out of my pulsing prayers,
looking at anything and everything through the lens of tragedy or comedy
and knowing only that I am both, neither, rather I am the paraplegic
confession of the bass strings as they lower themselves down a Sunday roof.
Somewhere in the Middle East, Ashraf Fayadh faces execution for verse too perfectly executed, but here too, art does not always resolve.

Maybe, I think as the band baptizes the audience with Duke Ellington,
maybe the secret of the world is this: dialectic crafted in the moment.
Improvisational belief within a community of grace notes,
fearing not the creed but the crescendo of human isolation.
For jazz chords, like truths, are defined within a progression;
We identify by what surrounds. No theologian has perfect pitch.
We need leading tones, root notes, dominant sevenths,
poetry, metonymy – aesthetics for the Socratic skeptic.
The velcro timbre of the trumpet tosses out “Come Sunday,”
renews our failing faith in the chromatic,
remembers a time when belief had once been art.

learning to be authentic (or, “why does everything i write feel like a confession?”)

[Note: Italics weren’t working, so titles are underlined.]

I just finished, in nearly one sitting, Lewis’ A Grief Observed. Now I know a book like that isn’t really supposed to be read that quickly. But it was so disturbing I couldn’t stop reading.

My reading of the book is inevitably colored by Dr. Lundin’s death two months ago. I think a large part of why I was eager to read the book for class was because I was looking for some kind of consolation. I wanted, in a sense, for Lewis to share my grief with me, and to offer me – if not a way out – then a way through. And what I received instead was nothing like.

It didn’t feel like Lewis was explaining or sharing my grief so much as he was forcing me to re-open the casket of Dr. Lundin’s death and examine the horror of it again. It was like Lewis took any and all of the doubt and pain I was capable of feeling and resurrected it, redressed it with more calm logic and rationality than I could’ve done alone. He didn’t help me understand God better in the grief – He gave me more reasons for doubt. I wanted a guide toward deeper faith and received an accomplice to my inner atheist.

I guess the horror I felt while reading was twofold: first was the horror that perhaps some of Lewis’ thoughts were true. What if God is a sadist? What if He is a scientist testing his laboratory rats? What if Heaven isn’t the cessation of agony at all, and Dr. Lundin is still in physical or emotional pain, and everything we mean when we call God “good” is false, His lies His only promises? C.S. Lewis himself wrote these very fears. What if he was right?

And the second part was this: Maybe Lewis was wrong, and his latter conclusions the more accurate. Perhaps God is the loving surgeon paining us only as long as that pain is healing. But this hardly feels more comforting because then the horror lies in how much our grief, our pain, our emotions, can distort our conception of Truth. How are we ever supposed to rightly know God? The fear lies not in faith, but in my ability to trust that faith. How much can I trust my own belief? Even if God is unchangeable, I certainly am not. Only one party of the two has to be changeable to render trustworthy faith an impossibility. Even if I need not fear that God is false, I know that I am. How can I know God when I am a lie? Not the object but the source of my belief – my own consciousness – is perpetually tainted. C.S. Lewis, the great apologist, has shown me how great a divide grief can create between emotional processing and theological convictions.

And the conclusion that Lewis reached by the end of A Grief Observed was, frustratingly, really just what Orual concludes at the end of Till We Have Faces  – namely, that until we have a face, our asking is our own incrimination and the listening the gracious Answer. The Answer Lewis finds is in the very invalidation of the Question. Is all that I ask, think, and write just meaningless phonetics? Why do I even bother with my wrestling?

Lewis talked about how trust cannot be proved trustworthy until it is put to the test. Faith in rope is not valid until one is hanging from a precipice – then, and only then, can authenticity be judged. Perhaps no faith in God can ever be judged until one loses someone they loved. My grief is nothing like Lewis’ and yet it is real. Dr. Lundin is dead, but in some ways it is God who feels dead and Dr. Lundin who has never felt so real.

How do I myself become real? How do I become someone whose questions hold meaning and whose wrestling holds weight? How do I obtain a face?

And the ironic answer, I think, is that I become real precisely through the November 13ths in my life. By losing someone, experiencing grief, aching, swimming through shock, Stoicizing and venting in turns, weeping, writing, fellowship-ing. Perhaps the events that make me question my own authenticity are the very things that form it; perhaps the babbling facelessness I must acknowledge during pain is the very purpose of that pain. The experiences that unmask me do so for the purpose of creating room for a face.

Chesterton says of Gregory in The Man Who Was Thursday, that “[the] young man was not really a poet; but surely he was a poem.” Maybe grief feels so much like fear, as Lewis famously said, because it above all else takes away any semblance of control. We think we are the poet, but we are really the poem; we think we are the asker, but we are really the asking. Grief confronts us with our own reality not as nouns but as verbs, not as subjects but as objects. We write as poets of things like grief, loss, pain, and in turn we realize that we are the poem. We are not articulators; we are articulation. And the mouth who speaks us – that is what we must decide either to doubt or to trust.

a list for when each bullet point costs everything

  • The secret things belong to Yahweh – not to me.
  • The idea that I will be most happy, satisfied, and joyful when I understand the most clearly is only an illusion.
  • “Not to undermine the consequences, but you are not what you do.”
  • I am also not what I feel.
  • Even when I go hours without speaking and shut everything out under a mask of stoicism – He sees me. He knows me. He loves me.
  • It’s alright to not believe that He sees me, He knows me, and He loves me.
  • Being strong is not the same thing as being solo.
  • Staring at a blank page for half an hour, yearning for something to say and not finding the words, can be a form of prayer.
  • “How dear you will be to me then, you nights of anguish. Why didn’t I kneel more deeply to accept you?”
  • It is okay to not want to write and to not know how to write. It is okay as long as I write anyway.
  • In the end, I will look back and discover that there was always infinitely more beauty than there was loneliness, even when the beauty felt fleeting and the loneliness felt haunting.
  • “It’s okay to be afraid. You are not condemned for being afraid. You are not even condemned for the reasons that you are afraid.”
  • His wounded face heals each our wounds. 
  • “Am I all that I know of myself? Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage…”
  • It is okay (it is okay) to hope tremulously. Imperfection is not the same thing as failure.
  • Sometimes may be one of the most operative words in my life.
  • “I know You bore our sorrows / I know You feel our pain
    And I know it would not hurt any less / even if it could be explained”
  • There would be no ache if there were no faith.
  • There is something wrong when it feels absolutely necessary to hide the fact that grief still hurts, depression is real, and God feels fake.
  • There is a kind of starfish, Annie Dillard explains, that breaks itself apart and leaves part of itself behind. It is called Phataria, and I think it must be the envy of every truly self-reflective human being.
  • And like Tennyson knew to write in the midst of his deep grief: “Forgive these wild and wandering cries / Confusions of a wasted youth / Forgive them where they fail in truth / And in thy wisdom, make me wise.”

 

“But the king replied to Araunah, ‘I will not sacrifice to the LORD my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.'” – 2 Samuel 24:24

an excerpt from “The Lord of the Rings,” and some thoughts on the eve of Christmas eve

“Yes, that’s so,” said Sam. “And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually – their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on  – and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in. I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into? . . . Beren now, he never thought he was going to get that Silmaril from the Iron Crown in Thangorodrim, and yet he did . . . But that’s a long tale, of course, and goes on past the happiness and into grief and beyond it . . . Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales never end?”

“No, they never end as tales,” said Frodo. “But the people in them come, and go when their part’s ended. our part will end later – or sooner.”

“And then we can have some rest and some sleep,” said Sam. . . “Still, I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales. We’re in one, of course; but I mean: put into words, you know, told by the fireside, or read out of a great big book with red and black letters, years and years afterwards. . . ”

“. . . You and I, Sam, are still stuck in the worst places of the story, and it is all too likely that some will say at this point: ‘Shut the book now, dad; we don’t want to read any more.'”

“Maybe, said Sam, “but I wouldn’t be one to say that. Things done and over and made into part of the great tales are different. Why, even Gollum might be good in a tale, better than he is to have by you, anyway. And he used to like tales himself once, by his own account. I wonder if he thinks he’s the hero or the villain?”

-J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers, pp. 711-713

In the end, I think, it is Sam’s question of Smeagol that gets at the heart of the human experience. For sure, it is at the heart of my experience. I wonder if he thinks he’s the hero or the villain? We want to know what kind of a tale we’re in – comedy or tragedy – but we also, and perhaps more deeply, want to know what kind of a character we play within that tale, a hero or a villain. I want to be the first but feel more often stuck in the second. I’d love to have the wisdom of Gandalf, or the purity of Tom Bombadil, or the holiness of Aragorn, but at the end of the day I share more with Frodo’s weariness or Sam’s simplicity than I do with the other characters in Tolkien’s trilogy. 

Like Frodo and Sam, I have no real faith to offer. Any courage I have, any strength, is more likely to be born of naivety than intentionality. I usually feel like I’m just stumbling, half-blind, in a world that feels more like a wasteland than a garden. People come and go, enter into my life and, in some shape or form, leave, and yet I am still herealways walking
toward something, even if I don’t know toward what. I know that, inside the narrative of the Paschal triduum, the word ‘purpose’ takes on genuine meaning, but I am tired. I do not know the way to go. And, though factually I could tell you what kind of tale I am in, sometimes I still wonder.

Last week, I finished my fifth and second-to-last semester at Wheaton. It was not an easy semester, and it was one that, in retrospect, felt shaped around Dr. Lundin from the very beginning. When I read through previous posts I wrote in August, I recognize how much of it was influenced by the knowledge of Dr. Lundin’s sickness, the seeming eucatastrophe of his improving health and return to Wheaton, and then the shocking news of his death. The shock has still worn off but the grief has yet to do the same, and even as I enjoy these few weeks of break, I feel the need to brace myself for this next semester without the professor who meant so much to me. I am tired even as I rest.

And yet, rereading The Lord of the Rings over break has been profoundly life-giving. It’s more than just Tolkien’s marvelous imagination or the beauty of his prose that had me finish two out of the three books in as many days. It is the feeling of being caught up once more in a grand narrative, one not wearingly trite in its portrayal of good and evil, but one that enrichens my present reality everytime I glance up from the page. It is being immersed in a story that does what all the best stories do: remind me of the fact that I myself am in a story, and I myself am a story. And as long as that is true, as long as my dreams, my fears, my actions, my interactions, are not just abstract and meaningless entities but part of an ordered narrative, then like Frodo and Sam, I can keep walking toward, without know exactly where I am going. At least I know I can never wander so deeply that I am not within the confines of Christ’s story – one where the Word became flesh and wandered among us, and we have seen His glory.

a list of things that are real (prescribed for those who are afraid)

As a way of keeping myself sane, I’m making a list. (Lists are good for preserving sanity.) It’s not a list of things to do, though, because it’s pre-finals week and that would be depressing. It’s a list of things that are still real in a world that sometimes feels unreal in its sorrow. Maybe together we can keep writing and keep drawing breath, one by one, and whistle quietly against the terror of it all.

  • Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto in D major, Opus 35. Let the vibrato settle underneath your skin, calm the nerves always on edge. It’s famous for a reason. Melody can’t take back or create memories, but it does seem to preserve meaning in a way we haven’t entirely succeeded in destroying.
  • You have friends. I have friends. More and more, that simple fact has been quietly amazing me. How is it possible that there are people who love me for who I am? I have no idea. If I really stop and think about it, the beauty of friendship is something almost painfully exquisite. I’m not sure I felt the depth of this gift until college, and as I’m a semester away from graduating, I’m realizing how often I still take this gift for granted. The friends who laugh with me, who drink hot chocolate and “study” with me, who sit at dinner and talk for two hours about the things that matter most while our food gets cold, who read the Bible with me and keep me accountable, who marvel over the tiny but lasting moments of beauty and quietly encourage me to do the same… I have amazing friends. I would not be here without them. You have amazing friends. You would not be without them.
  • There is a book that arrived in my school mailbox today. It is called Beginning with the Word and it is by one of the most profoundly good human beings I have ever met. And the reality of death completely sucks, and grief is still grief and I miss him intensely, but when I open up the pages to this book, the victory of death is rendered incomplete. Because I can still interact with this dear professor. I can still hear his voice, learn from him, laugh with him, remember. And that is no small thing.
  • Robert Frost once famously said (though I’m realizing there is very little ‘famous’ when it comes to poetry), that a good poem, like ice on a hot stove, rides upon its own melting. There’s something glorious about that. It rides upon its own melting. Maybe we too ride upon our own melting. We are always in the process of diminishing, but there’s still space enough for beauty in the evanescence of our lives.
  • Another gift from Frost: “She put out her hand among the harp-like morning glory strings / taut with the dew from garden bed to eaves / As if she played unheard some tenderness / that wrought on him beside her in the night.” The delicacy and perfectly-crafted tension of this extended metaphor astounds me every time I read it.
  • Dickinson wrote of falling through the ground in the midst of deep grief, and as every “plank of reason” broke she hit a world, and a new world, and another one – that just as she thought she was at the end, a new sphere opened up, a beginning. That’s the Gospel, Roger Lundin said, and I’m inclined to believe him.
  • Somewhere in the-middle-of-nowhere, Illinois, a group of kids are practicing for Special Olympics Basketball. I can picture their faces, can tell you their names, their quirks, their gifts. They are not competing, not harming, not hiding, not doubting, not deceiving, not wishing, not taking. They are simply being, and loving, and laughing.  They are inheriting the Kingdom. And if we can take it upon our world-weary selves to be a little bit like them, so will we.
  • “The tears of God are the meaning of history.” -Nicholas Wolterstorff
  • And this. Always, entirely, this:

 

“It was thousands of years ago and thousands of miles away, but it is a visit that for all our madness and cynicism and indifference and despair we have never quite forgotten. The oxen in their stalls. The smell of hay. The shepherds standing around. That child and that place are somehow the closest of all close encounters, the one we are closest to, the one that brings us closest to something that cannot be told in any other way. This story that faith tells in the fairytale language of faith is not just that God is, which God knows is a lot to swallow in itself much of the time, but that God comes. Comes here. “In great humility.” There is nothing much humbler than being born: naked, totally helpless, not much bigger than a loaf of bread. But with righteousness and faithfulness the girdle of his loins. And to us came. For us came. Is it true—not just the way fairytales are true but as the truest of all truths? Almighty God, are you true?

When you are standing up to your neck in darkness, how do you say yes to that question? You say yes, I suppose, the only way faith can ever say it if it is honest with itself. You say yes with your fingers crossed. You say it with your heart in your mouth. Maybe that way we can say yes. He visited us.

The world has never been quite the same since. It is still a very dark world, in some ways darker than ever before, but the darkness is different because he keeps getting born into it. The threat of holocaust. The threat of poisoning the earth and sea and air. The threat of our own deaths. The broken marriage. The child in pain. The lost chance. Anyone who has ever known him has known him perhaps better in the dark than anywhere else because it is in the dark where he seems to visit most often.”

-Frederick Buechner, The Clown in the Belfry

faces, and places, and the privilege of an ache

A few nights ago, as I lay in bed and tried to fall asleep instead of seeing Dr. Lundin’s face in my mind, I remembered something about that freakish Friday only one week ago: it was also the same day that I’d been hospitalized two years ago as a freshman in college. I’m not a mystic, but I found myself silently stunned in the semi-darkness as I reabsorbed a day where a beloved professor had unexpectedly died, (a mere three days after a different English professor had died), my sister was in a city blowing up on media and seemingly in real life, and two years ago I’d experienced something that continues to haunt me in its trauma. How can one day hold so much? – both the weight of painful memories from the past, and a loss that I knew would render that day deeply significant for a very long time.

I attended a funeral today for a professor who was more than a professor to me, the first funeral I’ve ever consciously attended for somebody that I loved. And I am weary now. Weary of seeing headlines on the news that make me flinch in horror. Weary of terrorist attacks and refugee crises and people blaming people for blaming people for blaming more people. Weary of trying to be better than I know how to be, and of memories that reincarnate more viscerally than I can imagine Christ’s incarnation. I am even weary of the beautiful. Can you be weary of the beautiful? I don’t know. But I know that there is beauty, and it is like that light out of the corner of your eye that you glimpse for only a second before it flits away, always a step out of reach, always a second too late. . .

I believe in voltas. Turns. The tragic comedy of the Gospel. But sometimes I feel too human, more human than I know what to do with. I wish there was more hope in me, less skin. Sometimes I feel things too much, I think. Events and people and stories and past lonelinesses clinging to my body like rain drops with too much adhesion, not enough gravity. I am a part of all I have met. Tennyson knew. I have met so much. And it is such a privilege. I am honored to have known so many beautiful people. I think of the special needs students I got to work with in high school, or the friends surrounding me now in college, or the professor whose funeral I just attended. I am so privileged to be a part of all I have met. But the meeting.. Sometimes it feels like I’ll never be able to untangle the web of corded interactions and experiences – many not even mine – from my own, quiet self. I have tasted goodness so good I do not even deserve to believe in its existence. I am privileged. I am aching, and yet I know I do not deserve the privilege of this ache.

History may be freedom. See, now they vanish,
The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved them,
To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.

-T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding

The faces and places. I have my own – faces of unrepeatable anguish and faces of unspeakable beauty; places of death and resurrection. And I know you, you have yours. Your own faces and places, Edens and Gethsemanes. We are weary but we can be Christ-bearers for each other, showing each other our face when we forget we have one. I am a part of all I have met, but I am not the sum of them. And you are not the sum of yours. Jesus meets us in the failing of our bodies to hold communion with all the faces and places that we wish we could. We are weary, we wear so much. We are privileged to wear so much. He was already worn them all. The masks and the faces and the places. Come, all you weary, and I will give you rest.

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