No Language But A Cry

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

meditation in a clubhouse pool (“because water stings and heals, and I sting and heal, and we are all stinging and healing”)

The pool, empty. In the evening glow, the ceiling light reflects perfectly upon the still water, casting a mild iridescence to the chlorine blue, the gentle brown walls and stone floor. Outside the window, the night is soft, all firebug and cicada croak, but inside, the pool is softer, safer even.

When I sing in the hot tub, the water burning against my skin, it is my best and only defense against a world that terrifies. The words are insignificant, meaningless almost; what matters are the tiny melodies bouncing off the water and the walls like human perseverance in the midst of ghettos and gelato, all that sears with heaviness or insubstantiality, the notes doing their best not to touch the ground, lava, stay afloat in the water, keep your chin up, kid, you’ll be all right, it’ll be all right.

I pray in the pool as a small act of atonement for the easy words stretching themselves across impossible canvasses of grief and tragedies. See, praying in my room, on top my bed, on my knees in the forgiving carpet, I pray with only my lips. The prayers fall too casually from my mouth, while my limbs rest easy, glad they have not been asked to join in. But in the pool, when I swim laps, I feel the burn of weariness in all my muscles, the gasping need to breathe, oxygen, lungs straining, the water resistant, making me work for each movement—and it is here, in this labor, that I force myself not just to pray but to become a prayer. A for Amsterdam, with its costly freedom; B for Brett Foster’s family; I for ISIS, S for Sue and her loss; each lap becomes fifteen seconds of intercession, a confession of love, or wanting to love, or wanting to want to love, the names an oasis of flesh and blood I cannot touch except by the running stream of words in my mind while arms and legs pump for the distant wall. For the ones I miss. For the ones who miss. For the ones we keep missing. I swim a prayer for you. I swim human for you. Come, be baptized and new and human.

The pool, empty. Here I learn not so much how to be brave but how to be real, not how to pray but how to become a prayer, not how to believe but how to doubt well. There are such real fears outside this quiet room with its safe luminescence and loneliness that does not choke, so many splinters upon my skin that no amount of digging through words can remove, but here at least the slivers of trauma start to curve out, gain weight, ripen into something harvestable. You don’t have to stop being afraid. You don’t have to feel real, not yet. It is enough sometimes just to remember that you are more than what you perceive of your own existence. That you can also perceive others, in small strokes of suffering-with, and maybe the song you were singing somebody else knows, somebody else whispers, and you, too, are a letter in the alphabet of prayers, though you are not the alpha nor omega, not the beginning nor the end, and so let go, kid, let go and float on your back in the quiet of the pool and be comforted in your smallness, smallness so big as to hold in rent even one letter of the poem at all.

(is it just me, or is it you too?) pt.2: when reading the bible feels like killing the living word (if we want to find it true, maybe we have to find it beautiful)

Sometimes I think when we get to Heaven, God will look at us with affectionate exasperation and say something to the effect of, “You know, I didn’t think even you guys could make the Bible that boring.”

I recently told a friend that I had read through the book of Esther the day before because I knew that if I didn’t start finding the Bible beautiful again, I would never go back to finding it true. Reading the book of Esther, with all its elements of a good story, was enough to remind me why I missed the Bible, and so I’ve been reading through the Epistles lately.

This morning, as I read slowly through Philippians, I realized once again that the majority of the New Testament is letters. Sure, it contains theology and rules and admonitions, but first and foremost, we’re reading the letters of Paul to the people he loves. Sometimes I think our reverence for Scripture, while assuredly appropriate, actually detracts from our understanding of what we’re reading; a modern Bible would likely look less like our devotional materials and more like our private wrestlings in our journals or our letters to our friends. Does that amaze anyone else? Does it make anyone else wonder why we read the Bible the way we do?

The Bible is a collection of narrative histories, poetry and songs, stories, memoirs, and letters; in other words, it is a book of creativity and relationship. It is, when it comes down to it, the story of how God chose the most pathetic, humiliated, laughingstock of a nation and chose it for Himself, and how even though that nation spit back in His face over and over and over again, He condescended to establish covenants with them until the final covenant was to incarnate Himself into a person so that they really could spit in His face and He could feel it and die for them and kiss them in response. It is also the story of how God created the first Adam, and the first Adam screwed things up big time, but God sent another Adam to be effectively the person we know in the mirror, lifting arm for arm, leg for leg, but this time doing it right where Adam went wrong, so that while our lineage is in the first Adam of dust, our inheritance lies with the second Adam of Heaven. It is also the story of how, through relationship with the most beautiful man who ever existed, we get to adopt ourselves into both of these scandalous and gorgeous stories, creating one giant meta-story that will one day finally end with a beginning.

I believe in the Truth of Scripture, whatever exactly that’s supposed to mean, but I also believe passionately in the subjective truth of Scripture, or perhaps I can call it the  experiential nature of stories. The Bible has always seemed to me to be more about beauty than truth, more about plotline and paradox than creeds, and rather than being so grand as to exclude my sense of self, the way I so often feel when I listen to sermons or attend bible studies, it is so intimate that my very nature, my personality, my interests, and my memories, are entirely necessary for me to understand it. It’s a book that is indeed “living and active,” but that seems to me not just to mean application but relationship–that when I open the Bible, it takes a deep breath and asks to know me as much as it asks me to know it. Take Ecclesiastes, for instance. It’s a book basically telling me that everything is meaningless, that no matter how hard I try, I’ll never truly accomplish something lasting, and that I might as well do whatever I want with my life because by the time I die, I’ll be forgotten anyway. This is Scripture, and I absolutely love that it is because I think those same thoughts at least four times a day, and when I read through Ecclesiastes, I don’t feel that I know God so much as that He knows me, that his “living and active Word” has indeed re-membered me because it knows me so well. And sometimes I worry that our modern approach to the Bible is to try to exegete and apply and dissect all the life out of it (ex: the popular inductive bible study, where one finds the sole objective truth of the passage and applies it one’s life), so that what remains is some dull book with super thin pages and tons of little numbers that are supposed to somehow help me make it to the next day, except it’s so boring that the very reading of it feels like it might do me in.

Here’s the thing: when I wrote my previous blog post on why I’d rather go to the opera than church, I thought I’d anger a few people and maybe hear some thoughts on why people disagree. Instead, more people read the post and responded to it than anything I’ve previously written on this blog. It made me realize that other people feel the same way, ask the same questions about why we do Christianity the way we do, and I find that realization utterly life-giving. Because it is tiring to be tired of how we do faith these days, and it’s also lonely, and the fact that this is a shared feeling means something. And maybe if we can all be a little more lovingly critical, we can start making Christianity compelling again, not in an effort to make Christianity relevant to our culture but in an effort to make Christianity relevant to Christianity. I don’t believe in the Gospel, the Church, or Scripture because I find it true; I believe in the Gospel, the Church, and Scripture because despite the fact that I so often don’t find it true, I cannot help finding it staggeringly beautiful, in a way that claims my aesthetic nature before it claims my moral or rational nature. And not only do I think this is okay, but I think it’s a far cry more interesting to the world out there. The beauty helps me to believe, not the other way around. And if we want to show a hurting and broken and exploding world a true Christianity, maybe first we need to show them a beautiful Christianity, and from there let them navigate their way from appreciation to confession–as a lifelong journey, full of mystery and stories from the road, the way it was always supposed to be.

a lesson from starfish, or maybe just groping for words when it all feels like too much

 

Would that we were Phataria,
The one house divided upon itself that stands.
Then, when our arms soaked in plastic vests waterproof but not bulletproof
Melt from our overheating, grief-stricken and gardenless rib cage,
We could simply step away, abandon ship,

And watch as our severed limbs become our best sign
Of eschatology. Starfish, you are the envy of the theologian,
The only ones among us fit to take bread and cup; if you taught us
The meaning of regeneration, would we be humble enough to learn?
If, hypothetically speaking, a moment of soft-shelled epiphany
Crawled its way to our jettison and prodigal arms,
Mythological as the comets they were named for,
And we realized that we’ve amputated our most exposed wounds,
Skipping the healing phase in our haste to guarantee rebirth,
Could you help us regenerate the meaning of regeneration?

Though it occurs to me, when it comes to regeneration,
Perhaps we have more to learn from your stomach than your limbs,
Starting with your honesty about where your hunger lies.
Our ability to swallow supersedes our ability to digest,
but your inverted stomachs make confession synonymous with creed
(Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.)
We have spoken too much, I fear, for our speech
And our appetites are not so symbiotic an affair as yours,

Not nearly so equal in our understanding of palettes.
For example, we have yet to figure out why, if we are predators,
We so deeply fear our prey, and why, if we are prey,
Our instinct for hunting is so great.
Meanwhile, limbless and fearful of arms strong enough for mutiny,
We continue to confuse regeneration with repentance;
Despite all our attempts at resurrection, the spineless, not the strong,
Have something to teach us about rebirth, and in our pews each Sunday,
It remains our backbones that make sinners of us all.

(is it just me, or is it you too?): why I’d rather go to the opera than church

Sometimes I think all living is the story of what we do with our wounds. When we ask each other, How are you? what we are really asking is, What are you doing with your wounds today? Maybe Jesus asks the same question, when it comes down to it.

The human narrative is the narrative of woundedness. How we felt the cut to be fatal; how we try to bandage it with technology and distraction, or else inflict the same injuries upon each other; how we do our best to escape it but also feel inexplicably that such woundedness is us, is us not just in our most honest but in our most beautiful, and all our attempts at sewing really just begs for surgery; how it all feels so very much like homesickness.

The Gospel narrative, as I understand it, is also the narrative of woundedness. It is the narrative of how the Word became the Wound, and in rising again, became the Way, not so that we’d learn the art of disguise but so we’d learn that this peculiar, paradoxical, and somehow eternal kingdom this Jesus is beginning is a kingdom in which what we do with our wounded, bruised, and tattered selves matters. “What do the preachers ever tell us except that what happens means something,” asks one of Marilynne Robinson’s characters, and I pray our own such preachers strive to say as much.

What continues to get me–assuming these things are true (and feel free to suggest differently)–is why we do Christianity the way we do. Why we step into churches once or twice a week, sing a couple songs that are usually oversung and possibly less substantial than some of the secular songs we hear on the radio, and then devote most of the rest of the service to sitting in sanctuaries aching for the pastor to open up a vein for us, show us his own wounds and how he is learning to live with them, how they mean something even if he isn’t sure exactly what they mean or how they can mean anything in such a convoluted and frightening and frighteningly beautiful world, and instead leave church with an inexplicable sense of guilt–either I should be better, or Why can’t I remember that I don’t have to be better? Why is it that what we learn at church rarely resonates or sticks with us and yet we can go to an opera or read a poem and feel tears in our eyes and leave thinking that maybe after all it is worth it to be human–which is really what we were aching to know during last Sunday’s sermon anyway. We design services and retreats and conferences around lectures and, at the end, ask each other how much we learned and how we have been changed when really what we wanted in the first place was a space carved out for bleeding into each other’s arms the wholeness of Christ in the midst of our profoundly fractured selves.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t go to church, or that we shouldn’t have sermons (I’ve heard sermons that have deeply impacted me, and also that would leave half my family unemployed.) But I am criticizing the Church because I love it, and because I believe we can be a whole lot more real and honest and compelling than we are. Because I believe if the Church is the body of Christ, we should be meeting people in their deepest needs and deepest selves, and I just don’t see that happening as much as it should. Because too many Christians I know are not bringing the Church their wounds but instead recovering from wounds caused by the Church–and I don’t just mean people experiencing radically messed up Christian culture, but those who have long since learned that expressing their doubts and fears usually just gets them an extra sermon. If basically all living, all life and trying to be human, is the story of what we do with our wounds, shouldn’t the body of Christ be emblematic of bruised and bruising and flayed and scarring and new and healing skin?

In the end, what I wish I could say–what I wish we would learn to say, is this: The Gospel I believe in is a Gospel that is, at its simplest, the good news that our wounds mean something. And part of what they mean is that longing is a kind of having, and bruises are a kind of currency, and the people standing beside us have the power to make us more human by rolling up their sleeves and showing us that they are cut but the Wounded Word bleeds into them too and so there’s no need to be afraid, for God’s sake we don’t have to be afraid.

on evenings when light is too hollow (a poem)

When you open your lips to taste-test the validity
of your existence and swallow instead all the brightness

from the world. The philosophers have it wrong;
four p.m., not four a.m., is our loneliest hour,

before whatever light we’d once known checkmates our nightmares
but after we’ve ceased to believe in metaphysics.

On evenings when light is too hollow,
when Elgar plays his variations across your scapegoat ribs,

(fine-tuning your anguish just as you’d accustomed yourself
to its off-key tenor,) on those evenings,

remember the poets who traded turtledoves for metaphors
and whose verses brought atonement; they, too, were famished.

Yet despite your hunger, you are not Adam,
nor are you Eve, even on the eve of your resurrection.

On evenings when light is too hollow,
when confessions hang like canvases and threaten to apostatize you,

remember instead the edges of your hymnal,
the melodies that granted your exile a face,

and how even Nietzsche acknowledged the beauty of that far-off
phenomenon, in whose womb they finally knew you.

“gentle the peace he finds / for my beseeching” (a post-graduation-pre-everything reflection)

In Luke 16, Jesus tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. In this parable, Lazarus is despicably poor, so destitute and impoverished that he waits at the rich man’s table for scraps and even the dogs come and lick the sores on his skin. Eventually, both Lazarus and the rich man die, and while Lazarus is carried to Heaven, the rich man suffers in Hell for his lack of empathy. The parable ends, and I would not think twice about it except for the fact that it is the only time Jesus ever named someone in his parable. Jesus told parables as a kind of pedagogical tool, a way of holding his audience’s attention; the people in the parables weren’t real, and they were always given generic labels. And yet, in this passage, when describing the poorest, most destitute, forgettable and pitiable person he’d ever conjured in his imagination, Jesus went out of his way to give him the dignity of a name.

The past few months have not been easy for me. It would be foolish rather than merely pessimistic of me to deny that the next few months will not be easy either. I have wrestled with more discouragement, fear, and isolation in this time than I think I ever have before. It feels ironic to think back to high school and feel jealous of the fact that, however much I hated where I was at, I was confident of when and where my “freedom” would occur. And it did. Not without its own share of struggle, but it did. I don’t have that same assurance now. There is no built-in “coming up next,” no guarantee that hope will come at a certain time, wearing a certain outfit, promising me certain things. There is only the guarantee that hope exists in and through a person, and that intangible, elusive, and confusing as he is, somehow also he is present with me.

Truthfully, I’m unsure if Christianity has ever felt more confusing than it does now, as I live at home with ample time to think through all the painful and frustrating questions I did not have time to agonize over during my last semester of college. There is so much I do not understand, so many truths that feel weak and elusive, so many lies that feel tempting and real. There are a hundred reasons not to follow Christ that can easily float to the surface of my heart if only I give them rein, and far fewer reasons why to follow him that require substantial more digging to reach. And yet, there is this. This tiny passage in Luke 16, only a few verses long, with content that I truthfully care little about except for that one, small detail. And it is that detail, that idea of the Messiah going out of his way to give his most impoverished character a name, that reminds me of why I am in love with Jesus in the first place. Because he is beautiful. Because I can find that kind of tenderness and love and grace nowhere else. Because he subverts all that I think I understand and makes every truth into a paradox, and I find more beauty in those subversions and contradictions than I do anywhere else. Because whenever I realize that seeing myself in the rich, the holy, and the strong holds far less truth than seeing myself in the poor, the sinful, and the weak, he does something like this. He gives me a name, in the midst of my wounds and my poverty. He tells me that he sees me. He leaves a detail of love, a message of hope, in a tiny passage from a few thousand years ago, and just when I am most tempted to forget him, he remembers me.

 

Where Can I Turn for Peace?

“Where can I turn for peace,
Where is my solace when other sources cease to make me whole?
When with a wounded heart, anger, or malice,
I draw myself apart, searching my soul

Where, when my aching grows,
Where when I languish,
Where, in my need to know, where can I run?
Where is the quiet hand to calm my anguish?
Who, who can understand
He, only One.

He answers privately, reaches my reaching,
In my Gethsemane, Savior and Friend
Gentle the peace he finds for my beseeching.
Constant he is and kind
Love without end.”

 

a list because i’m trying

  • I used to think you could make a living off beauty. That if you heard, tasted, felt, saw, read enough of it, it could make up for the lack of anything else. That you could feast on it the way you’d feast on grace, or on hope. I’m realizing though that not only does beauty not work like that, but the metaphor itself breaks down. You can’t feast on grace. You can’t feast on hope, just as you can’t feast on beauty. It’s too rich, too real. We need new ears, mouths, lungs, hands, eyes, before we can truly digest beauty. We don’t have those yet. And while beautiful things – symphony orchestras and Welsh poetry and brilliant cathedrals – cultivate in us a hunger for remade bodies, we’re not there yet. There’s a certain level of aesthetic indigestion if you will, because we’re human beings trying to swallow grace too thick for our lungs.
  • “Maybe you’ve tumbled a world for me. And I don’t know what I can build in my world’s place.” Lee said softly, “Couldn’t a world be built around accepted truth? Couldn’t some pains and insanities be rooted out if the causes were known?” -Steinbeck, East of Eden
  • “Son of David, don’t pass me by / For I am naked, and I’m poor and I’m blind.”
  • I’ve never known a city trying so hard to both remember and forget. There is enough music, dancing, theatre, sporting, restaurants, poetry, and pubs to engage in a lifetime of forgetting, but the remembering is there also, in the esoteric Latin of the Evensongs, in every alabaster prayer.
  • In a strange sense, the tube is every person’s nightmare and longing. To be faceless in a crowd of people, without expectation, headed in a line with the only choices to make being off or on, none of left or right, stripped of ambiguity, a reminder that we exist in a kind of ephemeral, watery acknowledgement of each other’s need for space in order to define, and forty seconds of uniformity where everyone is impartially trapped underneath the same terrifying and terrifyingly beautiful world.
  • Longing and loneliness come easily here, in this city where the brick itself sings praise and lament over memories that have sunk like anchors over the alabaster years.
  • Perhaps beauty, not morality, will be the true impeachment of the world.
  • He holds the legs with one hand
    And a long, silver razor with the other;
    The frantic head he traps between his legs
    With calm detachment.
    I watch the thrashing,
    Listen to the cries of a wailing child
    While sheets of wool fall
    Like the years of time we’ve wasted,
    Pocketed like extra change
    And carried with us in and out
    of season, through shearing time,
    the original shame of nakedness
  • “His mind could get along without belief, but his heart could not get along without friendship.” -Victor Hugo, Les Miserables 
  • Even when everything feels wrong and nothing feels stable, even when words are slow and reality feels more fragmented than dreams of death and darkness, even when you are more real than you want to be, even when you have no language but a cry…”The tears of God are the meaning of history.”
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