No Language But A Cry

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

“you, too, are tired” (of a world trying to undo us, this singing sadness)

So much has happened in the past month that I find myself at a loss for words.

It’s hard to believe that in the past four weeks, I’ve been to Minnesota, Iowa, Maryland, and Virginia; that I’ve given my first conference presentation and attended my first funeral for a family member in conscious memory; that I had the enormous grace to spend time with a good friend and my old youth pastor and his family and meet relatives I didn’t know I had; that I’ve gotten to know a devout Muslim from Dubai and have conversations of faith with extended family; that three years ago was terror, two years ago was grief, and this year is great change and the quiet, insistent need for trust. And it is November, and cold, and another twilight.

        Yet despair
          Touches me not, though pensive as a bird
         Whose vernal coverts winter hath laid bare.

Does despair touch me not? Honestly, I don’t know. The image of a bird left somber and anxious by the relentless winter that has made vulnerable its sanctuary feels deeply fitting. Death, change, absence, uncertainty… These things strip away the layers I hoard as insulation—the illusions of immortality, permanence, possession, control—and force me to confront the abundance of my own poverty. Even grace stings, because one can only receive a gift when one is aware of their own undeservedness. And there has been much grace. For all that wounds and weathers, there has been deep, abiding grace.

“Lord, suffer me to sing
these wounds by which I am made
and marred, savor this creature
whose aloneness you ease and are.”

Sometimes it feels like, in a world full of things trying its best to undo me, all I can do is keep finding things that make me human. Like the novels of Marilynne Robinson. Like the words of Christian Wiman and Frederick Buechner, Penny and Sparrow’s lyrics, sacred choral music, conversations with friends. Listening to an audio recording of The Screwtape Letters while driving through endless cornfields; playing with children who want to hold your hand and laugh at the simplest things; remembering gentle professors and the poignant pain of two year anniversaries marking the death of giants upon whose shoulders you stand, in whose footsteps you limp behind. Grace.

Even so, I confess that I am tired. (“You are tired, I think / of the always puzzle of living and doing.”) As the poet says, tired of things that break—including myself—and just…tired. Would that our weariness, our griefs, were taut enough to tightrope across, taut like Robert Frost’s harp-like flowers in morning dew, playing a tenderness that descends upon us in the night. Would that they were more outrightly beautiful, less in dire need of a redeemer.

I believe in a Christ worth the silence. Worth the absence that is so often the mark of his presence, and worth the tears that are so often the indication of his nearnesss. I believe in a Christ who declares that he, he himself, will search out his sheep and rescue them from days of darkness—will find the prodigal and heal the self-injured and feed the deepest hunger. I believe in a Christ who sprinkles clean water on us and replaces hearts of stones with hearts of flesh and will one day make “You shall love the Lord your God” a promise rather than a commandment. I believe; these are truths I find great hope in. But the truth is also that I’m tired.

“In courtesy I’d have her chiefly learned;
Hearts are not had as a gift but hearts are earned
By those that are not entirely beautiful”

In my own case, Yeat’s words are a truly spectacular use of understatement, but I take deep comfort in them all the same. Hearts are earned by those that are not entirely beautiful. If there is one thing that keeps me from despair, that gives me a home despite winter’s ruthless uncovering of the deepest places in me, it is the truth that I have earned hearts whose beauty I cannot put to words. There are people in my life who are so good….so broken and human and for those very reasons, so dear to my heart. And each time I fall prey to the darkness that so often makes me less than human, it is their care and prayer and love that make me more than who I could be alone.

I wrote in another post almost exactly two years ago about the privilege of an ache. The privilege of having people you miss, memories you are nostalgic for, blessings you wish you could repeat. Someone once said that the spiritual life is less linear and more spiral, more like descending a staircase and hitting the same few lessons over and over again, but in deeper and richer ways. I am still learning the privilege of this ache–this hollowness that is somehow painfully full, this longing that carves belief into my rib cage. I ache. “I thirst.” I am so deeply sad and uncertain, and yet it is such a privilege, this existence. Being here. Being. Here. Bless what there is for being, says Auden, says Roger Lundin. Bless what there is for being, for what else are we made for? Bless the burning, bruising, bottomless heart of it all, earned by those who are not entirely beautiful. 

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christ the homeland (a prayer for october and learning to love in the wilderness)

Oh dear Lord,
Giver of life and bread, lover of those who wander,
What does it mean to love You truly?
Not for love’s sake, for loving’s limping escape from lonely,
But for Your sake—God without contingency and yet
Holiest of mysteries, made himself weak and at our mercy.
Who, dear Lord, speaks rightly about You?
Merton in his meditation? Rilke in his audacity
To make You brother, needy neighbor, fearful child?
Christ who called You Father and faced Your abandonment
On that hollow tree?
If I shall love You even in the wilderness,
Even in the inconsistent chasings of my heart,
Reaching for that which would scald me, pleading
For that which would undo me,
How can I, so infinitesimally small, love so strange a Lord?
I hide my face from thy countenance
That burns and bleeds, cauterizes my sin-soaked wounds,
Like the stranger on the road who burned Being with his words.
I tremble at Your tenderness, more reverent
Than Your power, at the God who condescends to whisper
And meet me in my frailty;
Oh Lord, if I hear Your still small voice,
Shall I not flee all the more?

In October winds, latter half of Autumn nights
That howl and hold my prayers at bay,
Billow near, sweet Christ, billow close and close
The gap between who You are and who I wish
You’d be; so oft it seems there’s more me than You these days.
Prayer, I confess, feels like a boomerang, more fated
To return to me than stay in the spaces that I fling it—
Fearing (rightly so, perhaps) exposure to vulnerability,
Sun and wind and kenotic atmosphere
Demanding self-emptying before divine appointment.
You emptied Yourself of all You had the right to be,
While I grope for the semblance of control.
Storm-tossed, afflicted and comfortless,
In years repeated day to day, season after season,
Though You clothe my doubt with precious stones
And set a garland of grace upon my graceless prayers.

Pilgrim who has traversed all paths first,
You wander into the far country and find me
Heavy laden, with endless histories upon my back
You know them all. Are they not in Your book?
And the countless times I squandered love
And wept for grief each time, You pitched Your tent and warmed
The embers with Your hesed, and held my tears near the fire,
And asked “Do you love me?” and cooked me breakfast
And when I could not in truth say yes, Lord, having been humbled
Into knowing what I thought was love was not so after all,
Then You said, “Be my friend,” and Lord You know I’ll try.
I’ll try because there is no sorrow I can imagine
That You have not felt, and because You replant my tears
In due season, and where else can I go? Who else holds my tears?
What other crucified God hath shed his own?

Oh dear Lord,
I come to You in the recesses of my being.
My be-ing, which to You is lovely, somehow,
Despite the sin that rears within me.
Remember, oh my soul, the Lord your God, who brought you
Out of far places and ransomed you
From the gods of restlessness, who provided cisterns you did not dig
And vineyards you did not plant. Oh my God,
How that I should love You in this wilderness?
Only that in the wilderness I first heard Your voice,
Compassionate and tender, like a heart recoiling,
A God’s voice, far more sorrowful than man’s,
Calling softly, how that I could give you up?
Oh my Lord, how can I give You up?

You. Die Heimat, Christ, whose grief is grace,
Deep as chasms and whose shadows are covenant;
Who removes our hearts of stone and gives instead
A heart of flesh; Who cleanses us from all our ramblings
And answers the questions we’re really trying to ask;
I pray, oh my Lord, that all my life will hinge upon one question:
What does it mean to love You truly?

 

23 years and it comes down to this (or, if i could open a vein for you, it would look like this)

Let me say one last thing: a writer I love and respect says that sometimes we know God best in our missing him. That it’s in his absence that we most deeply experience his presence. I feel that. I don’t believe in God because it’s logical, because it makes sense, because I’ve experienced something life-changing that I can’t explain away—though I do and have. But I believe in God because I miss him. In both senses of the word: that there is an ache in myself and in the world, in existence, that is like a stitch in my side, and it is only by putting Jesus into that wound that life is worth living and finds any kind of wholeness. But in the other sense of the word too: I believe in God because I long for him. Because there is a beauty to the Gospel and to Jesus that has whet a yearning in me I cannot quiet with technology, friendship, aestheticism, or distraction. I find the Gospel beautiful. The parallel between the first Adam and the second Adam; the sacramental re-membering of the Eucharist; the many paradoxes of the Gospel; the consistent pattern in Scripture of God choosing the weak and overlooked over the powerful and wise… And the longing that this beauty stirs in me is so dense, and so intrinsically a part of my identity, that to disbelieve it would be to disbelieve in myself and everything I call real and true. Perhaps, in the deepest sense, God is real because we make him real—in our longing and our love for him, in the unique but communal ways he has touched each of us who claim to know him and left us irrevocably changed. So, at the very least, if I cannot and should not “make” you believe in Jesus, then I hope to God that I can at least make you miss him. There is something powerful to missing, to yearning for something and finding it beautiful, even if you cannot find it true. Beauty and longing may not offer traditional proof, but they tend to change how we live.

-excerpt from a letter to a friend

I logged onto Facebook late this afternoon and glanced over at the “Trending” news articles to see a headline about an eight-year-old boy who’d been brutally beaten to death as he protected his little sister from sexual assault. His name was Dante. I could not do anything for several minutes after I read the headline, which provided more detail than I have here. I felt it—I almost literally felt it—push belief away from me, like magnets repelling each other. What does it mean to believe in the face of this kind of horror? I think of Ivan Karamazov saying that Heaven is not worth the price of one child’s suffering. I think of Alyosha’s wordless response to Ivan’s rejection of God, a kiss mimetic of the one Christ bestows upon the Grand Inquisitor. I think that daily existence, the brutality and brilliance of it, has enough evidence to sustain a thousand years of atheism and Christendom. But what do I know?

In my room right now there sits a painting by Makoto Fujimaru. It is called “Charis-Kairos (The Tears of Christ)”. My friends, to my complete surprise, pooled together to buy me a canvas print of it for my birthday after several months ago I mentioned how beautiful I found it.

makoto

It does something to me, this painting. It doesn’t say that everything is okay. It doesn’t say that everything will be okay. I think it says that despite things not being okay, there is a grief-filled, glowing, gorgeous grace to it all, that washes over everything that is wrong and broken and weary. Upon the blackness we feel inside of ourselves, the temptation to despair, the beauty of Christ will not and cannot fail to illuminate.

Sing unto the autumn hours dripping divine meeting,
All those possibilities out of which your faith was born,
Germinated,
Took root beneath your rib cage. Sing unto
The cavernous nights, when your pain eroded
Like rock and left geologists proof
of your realness.
Learn to gasp your way into grace,
the cold shock of it as it soaks into your wetsuit
and build a childhood inside those Galilean branches—

Build a childhood
With planks you did not have to carry,
With nails you do not have to wear.

I want to say to you that I am a child of this age, a child of unfaith and skepticism, and probably (indeed I know it) shall remain so to the end of my life. How dreadfully has it tormented me (and torments me even now) this longing for faith, which is all the stronger for the proofs I have against it. And yet God gives me sometimes moments of perfect peace; in such moments I love and believe that I am loved; in such moments I have formulated my creed, wherein all is clear and holy to me. This creed is extremely simple; here it is: I believe that there is nothing lovelier, deeper, more sympathetic, more rational, more manly, and more perfect than the Saviour; I say to myself with jealous love that not only is there no one else like Him, but that there could be no one. I would even say more: If anyone could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, and if the truth really did exclude Christ, I should prefer to stay with Christ and not with truth.

-Fyodor Dostoevsky

“Behold, we know not anything
We can be trust that good shall fall
At last, far off, at last to all
And every winter change to spring

“So runs my dream, but what am I?
An infant, crying in the night
An infant, crying for the light
And with no language but a cry.”

 

 

a letter to myself (with words like Christmas lights and fears like platelets)

Dear Rachel,

Dear 22-going-on-23 Rachel. You just read a segment of Buechner writing a letter to his grandson in which he began by explaining that that particular introduction is significant, because it tells you two things: who you are, and that you are dear. And so I will copy the man as I have so often before and begin by telling you that you, too, are somebody and are dear. If to nobody else, you are dear to me—or at least, you are learning to be, would like yourself to be. You ought to be dear to me, because whose other face do I have? And whose other left hand can I write, and whose other small fingers can I play guitar with, and whose other short legs can I swim and run with? I am learning, Rachel, to find you dear. And yet you are dear to others, and you know that. Dear to the twin who drives you up the wall and whom you drive up the wall—who is the only person in the world who can make you hang up on them on the phone and yet whom you also love enough to foreswear sharing your Hamilton ticket with anyone else should you win. And you are dear to your friends, who have loved you despite your selfishness, put up with you despite your sadness. Dear Rachel.

In the past week, you have noticed a reoccurring pattern in your behavior. You have noticed that every time you have the urge to love someone well, in a way that goes beyond the normative, you have double-checked yourself. You have found yourself saying, No. Don’t do it. Don’t love more intentionally than others seem to love you. Give to the same proportion that you receive. It’s not a thought you can recall ever really having had before. And a few times this week you have not listened, but a few times you have. So Rachel whom someone holds dear, I must tell you: do do it. Love extravagantly. Love prodigally, because you have been loved extravagantly and because in love there is no deficit, no valid fear of poverty. The moment you have the desire to love someone well and check yourself into not doing so, you squander some of your humanity. Certainly, you make it less Christ-like, less in the image of God. There are enough things in the world trying to make you less human for you not to be able to afford to help. Love extravagantly. It is okay to be afraid, to be wary. It is not okay to listen to the fear.

You have many fears. So many you wonder if you are made up of them—anxieties for platelets. You wonder if there is such thing as belonging—a place to hold your longing’s being, hold it gently, like a mother who knows the child in her arms is not hers but who will choose to soothe her anyway. Currently, your longing is orphaned. But one is coming who says he will not leave you orphaned forever. Cling to that. I know it’s hard. Sometimes it gets so damn lonely inside of yourself. I know. Cling to him.

A few nights ago you wrote something you did not understand. Among the mess of poetry, one line said, “Weary, does wheat ever grow weary of being separated from the chaff?” Last night you wrote more things you did not understand, and part of it said this: “If I strung words through my rib cage like fishhooks, like Christmas lights left out all night, will they steadily burn or flicker and fade? How many metaphors for being must I go through before I admit that living is anything but figurative?” I don’t have answers to your questions. I can’t tell you how to handle the weariness of being a good monster, as Jars of Clay aptly put it, or of struggling pretty, as another group calls it. I can’t tell you if the words will outlive you, if they have enough watts in them to sustain the darkness you fear and the darkness you feel. But I can tell you this: you would live as well as you possibly can, even if you knew the weight of those bushels of wheat would crush you in the end. And you would write as often and as persistently as you breathe even if you knew those words would eventually die and leave you robeless, naked and exposed and with feet cold upon tile floors. Keep living, dear Rachel, because living is anything but figurative and you are real, as much as you often feel otherwise. Keep living. Keep writing. PJ says that sometimes your body has to lead your heart, so even as you contemplate, even as you wonder if you want to, keep living and keep writing.

I know that you do not know that you do not know, and the things that you do know are either barbed with grief or laced with hope, and in neither case should the knowing be thought of as painless. Like the song goes, you are “nonplussed on the subject of what’s true.” But also as the song goes, you can have hope without knowledge: “And I hope like death, like love and like Jesus, / Will steal our breath if they come / I believe it / But I don’t know everything.”

You don’t have to know everything as long as you know something, and I think that you do. That’s what I want to end with—remembering your belief. Rachel, you believe that Jesus is beautiful—if “knowing” can mean the kind of intuition a poet has when crafting a metaphor, or of choosing when to create a new stanza. You believe that even if Marilynne Robinson was wrong and there are only a hundred instead of a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, you would live it anyway. You believe that loneliness is real but not true. You believe that “words spoken in deep love or deep hate set things in motion within the human heart that can never be reversed.” You believe that when a six foot six professor said that Christ re-members you, piecing you together again in his mercy, he was telling the closest thing to truth you will find on this side of life. And you believe what the country priest learns at the end of Georges Bernanos’ exquisite novel: “grace is everywhere.”

Dear Rachel:

Grace is everywhere.

 

to the ones who know life to be unbearable (and yet we live anyway, because haunted means holy)

  • I have been thinking about life. How it has a quality of unbearableness sometimes. Or perhaps of being just minimally short of unbearable. I don’t mean in the sense of despair, but in the sheer abundance of its beauty and pain. Christian Wiman calls it the burn of being. I feel that—if not every single moment then more than perhaps the average person. The other night, I had dinner with two friends I haven’t seen in awhile, and afterward I sat on my bed and filtered through memory after memory of the past several years of my life, and I thought about Charlottesville and the book I’m reading, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, and how angry the author must feel that this is still happening, and I thought about friends I love and friends who are gone, or leaving, and the bittersweetness of relationship, and….Being burned. Seared, actually. Life felt unbearable. Sharp, like the high peal of a bell, and resonant, like a double bass—like the Schindler’s List theme, the way it pierces you. And I think that if you have never felt life to be unbearable, you must never have deeply loved. Because all missing begins with loving, and all grief begins with grace. And if life feels unbearable, than somehow even in the pain of it, thanks be to God because I have experienced things and people that were worth loving with everything I had. It hurts sometimes. Remembering hurts like hell. And yet, perhaps the promise is that it hurts like heaven.
  • I am thinking about Charlottesville. I am thinking about people who believe and behave in ways that are so fundamentally different from me that I wonder how we can fall into the same categories of existence—and yet we do. We are both human beings, both persons, both sinners. And if it is absolutely a violence upon human dignity to see skin color as superior or inferior, it would be also be a violence in the other direction to dehumanize white supremacists and label them as Other. It would be the utter act of hypocrisy.
  • To grow older is to grow ghosts. It is to grow ghosts like rings on the bark of a tree, to wonder how many names and faces and places are etched into you, ellipses that ache.
  • What does a ram know of substitutionary atonement? What does a ram know of a father’s sweat running down his face and into his beard as he lifts the knife, or of trembling hands that cover the tears of shock and relief as that terrible voice thunders his name? Does a ram feel his own death as the ultimate gesture of grace, a type of Christ and the symbol of God’s provision for centuries of Jews and Christians? Or does he know only that the knife that so desperately spared the boy is now poised above his own head?
  • Suppose God were to fling
    Salvation across my chest,
    Demanding I receive his love,
    And suppose the self could be bought
    At the price of certainty,
    Handcuffed into forced freedom,
    Brought bareback and bent to Egypt,
    Then would belief course like blood
    Into starved veins,
    Like free speech, like silence
    That pulses, pregnant,
    Ripe with overuse?
    No.
    But when they find my body
    Beside belonging, as if home
    Could be neighborliness,
    I pray they have the grace
    To leave my traumas unrestored.
  • A friend sent me an article awhile back, a wonderfully-written piece on grief and friendship. At one point in the article, the writer claims that love is the opposite of loneliness, and that the former makes you the center of a universe whereas the latter isolates you. While I loved the piece, I can’t agree with this claim. I think being the center of a universe is the loneliest thing in the world; I think that’s exactly what loneliness does to you, it puts you in the devastating self center. But what does love do? Love frees you from that center, tells you to take comfort in your smallness, and makes you the object without being the subject. And if love and loneliness are opposite, my life is an utter contradiction.
  • I’ve been thinking about Graham Greene. Greene was an early twentieth century American novelist, known for what some have characterized as Catholic mystery novels. He’s also associated with the phrase “Christian despair.” I most recently finished The Power and the Glory (his most acclaimed novel) and have been thinking about the idea of Christian despair. I’m sure it’s an oxymoron to most, and perhaps it’s even an oxymoron to me. I don’t know. But I do think there is something to be said about Graham Greene, about his tired, trying, sinning, beautiful characters. They are some of the most human characters I’ve ever read and we as a Church could benefit from grappling with some of the questions and emotions Greene raises. It’s time for things like despair, depression, suicide—all prevalent in his novels—to stop being something over there, suffered only by the select few and far removed from those of real faith, and time for the Church to realize that those things are in its midst. If the Gospel has any real power or truth, it must be a power and truth that speaks into those very places.
  • “My belief is that when you’re telling the truth, you’re close to God. If you say to God, ‘I am exhausted and depressed beyond words, and I don’t like You at all right now, and I recoil from most people who believe in You,’ that might be the most honest thing you’ve ever said. If you told me you had said to God, ‘It is all hopeless, and I don’t have a clue if You exist, but I could use a hand,’ it would almost bring tears to my eyes, tears of pride in you, for the courage it takes to get real — really real. It would make me want to sit next to you at the dinner table.”I don’t know what’s next for me. I don’t know where God is leading me, if he’s leading me, or why he’s given me the gifts and weaknesses he has, or if I’ll ever be a blessing to anybody. Today I sat in the library during my break and looked out the window and thought about how I have no idea what to do with my life. But I read this quote and in another sense I know exactly what I want to do with my life: I want to be the person others want to sit next to at the dinner table. The person who will listen more than she will speak, who will not give answers to people’s pain or questions, who shows grace when others are unjust and loves the ones we forget to see. If ten years from now, fifty years from now, I can be the kind of person that somebody else, no matter their beliefs, would feel safe sitting next to, I’ll have done what I wanted with my life.
  • And with this thought comes this plea: Please. Be honest. Be so honest. About who you are, about the human experience. When I led a small group in high school, sometimes instead of going around and asking each person their highs and lows for the week, I would ask them to share one thing from the week that made believing in God easy, and one thing that made it hard. I could tell you some for me: friendship; classical guitar; being underwater; fireplaces; or else hospital rooms; news headlines; loneliness; my own selfishness. I believe with everything in me that there are people who need your vulnerability, people for whom your confessions will be bread and water, people starving to death in a superficial and shallow culture and who don’t even know it. Save a life. Be honest.
  •  “The tears of God are the meaning of history.” How many times have I written these words on this blog, or on a card, or quoted them to somebody else—and yet when have they ever been more needed? When else in history have we been so inundated with violence, so saturated with boredom, so sick of our own entertainment? And there is for me something almost unspeakably holy about these words. The idea that history—our “endless histories, heavy on our backs”—can be understood within the pool of God’s compassion. The idea that it is not the power or strength of God but his tenderness that gives meaning to our experiences. The idea that the narrative of the human experience finds its deepest reading in the crucified Christ, the God who suffers, and perhaps it is when we find something holy enough to weep over, precious enough to yearn for, that we are nearest to the heart of Christ.

hearths and heathens (“I believe because of beauty”)

When I imagine childhood, that crescent of time when we’re somehow more human than we’ll ever be again, I picture strips of asphalt and living room windows. For the first seven years of my life, my father pastored a church an hour’s drive away. Since the small group we attended always met in the houses of its more proximate members, it sometimes felt like we were eternally making our way home. Sitting in the backseat, drifting in and out of our parents’ conversation, my twin sister and I would gaze out our car seat windows in that hazy twilight between waking and sleeping. By the time we turned off the freeway and into our quiet neighborhood, the world outside was a dark blur broken only by the occasional lights left on in people’s houses. Drowsy, wrapped in my own tangle of arms and legs, the warm air from the vents billowing out the Chicago cold, I’d stare out the window into strangers’ homes. With the infection of night, they seemed infused with mystery—esoteric spaces that opened an ache inside my chest, glowing hearths that seemed to coax whole worlds from their calyxes. Though I knew in my head that these homes were made of walls, ceilings, and floors just like any other, they seemed illuminated into mystery, a grain of belief I did not have to fight to hold.

Some fifteen years later, a diploma under my belt and the awning of adulthood now situated firmly above my head, I am envious of a time when anything—particularly faith—could be held with the gentle grace of childhood. I have felt things now—in hospital rooms and hushed theaters, in the still-life tragedy of an English office and in whispered Lord’s Prayers—that I simply cannot coalesce into one finite reality (is that where my mistake lies? That there is no reality that is not infinite?) The truth is that these days, I struggle to find even one thing that does not require inordinate strength to believe. Living rooms, it turns out, are just living rooms—draw close enough, and the hearth beyond the sill shrinks back into the mere luminescence of your longing, a reality language can contain.

“Lord, I can approach you only by means of my consciousness, but consciousness can only approach you as an object, which you are not. I have no hope of experiencing you as I experience the world—directly, immediately—yet I have no hunger greater. Indeed, so great is my hunger for you—or is this evidence of your hunger for me?—that I seem to see you in the black flower mourners make beside a grave I do not know, in the ember’s innards like a shining hive, in the bare abundance of a winter tree whose every limb is lit and fraught with snow. Lord, Lord, how bright the abyss inside that ‘seem.'”

-Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss

Once, sitting in the back of a different car making its way home from a different church, my sister and I asked our father why he believed in God. I remember his momentary quiet, how it fell like snow upon the dashboard, and then his simple answer: “Because of beauty.” I remember expecting a more dogmatic answer from a professor of philosophy.

At 22, I don’t know much. About the only thing I know with certainty is that I don’t know as much as I thought I did a few years ago. Sometimes—oftentimes—it seems like life got confusing before I got courageous, if I’ve ever gotten courageous, and this daughter of a philosopher who grew up exposed to more theology than the average adult can never quite seem to summon enough faith. Yet if you were to return my question back to me and wait for my own snowfall silence to melt into words, then like so many times before I would quote my father: I believe because of beauty. I believe—because of beauty. Because of Rilke’s poetry and the feel of nylon guitar strings; because of the miracle of friends and the paradox of the gospel; because of the strange amalgamation of darkness and childhood that takes strangers’ homes and flowers them into grace, and the insatiable ache for God that remains our deepest proof of him. If I had to venture a guess on any truth, it might be this: longing, like beauty, is inherently apologetic. Rilke puts it another way, in a prayer that seems to float out an old window and into the surrounding night: “You, the Great Homesickness we could never shake off.”

But the world is more often refuge
than evidence, comfort and covert
for the flinching will, rather than the sharp
particulate instants through which God’s being burns
into ours. I say God and mean more
than the bright abyss that opens in that word.
I say world and mean less
than the abstract oblivion of atoms
out of which every intact thing finally goes.
I do not know how to come closer to God
except by standing where a world is ending
for one man. It is still dark,
and for an hour I have listened
to the breathing of the woman I love beyond
my ability to love. Praise to the pain
scalding us toward each other, the grief
beyond which, please God, she will live
and thrive. And praise to the light that is not
yet, the dawn in which one bird believes
crying not as if there had been no night
but as if there was no night in which it had not been.

-Christian Wiman, “2047 Grace Street,” Every Riven Thing

coming of age in the age of trump (the bildungsroman of a millennial Christian)

I’ve never been interested in politics. I found AP Government one of the most boring classes of my high school career, and the most I learned was that I was a moderate who found herself aligning more with Democratic ideals than the generally-evangelical right. That was the first time I started thinking about Christianity and politics and trying to understand why the Republican party is (generally speaking) the favored among evangelical Christians—but I didn’t think too much about it. There were always more important things to think about, theological questions to pursue, poems to memorize.

It’s July 2017. Donald Trump has been president for only a few weeks shy of half a year. And suddenly I cannot remain the same aloof person I was before. I read the news. I google terms I don’t understand. I read the same story from multiple sources to understand different slants. And while my interest in politics itself has substantially increased, that’s not the reason I’m suddenly reading the news and becoming somewhat politically literate: it’s because for the first time in my life, I am being confronted by a president and administration that deeply offends the core of who I am. This is true of Trump’s political decisions—his stance on many different issues—but this is primarily true of his character. Up till now, I have not written publicly about my opinions on Donald Trump. This is partially because I don’t want to spark inhospitable debate, partially because enough has already been said, and partially because I’m still learning what it looks like to be a Christian interested in politics. But it has reached a point where I cannot stay silent any longer. So, if you don’t want to hear about Trump, this is your cue to stop reading (I don’t blame you.) I’ll even start a new paragraph so you can close this post without accidentally reading more thoughts on Trump.

Five months into his presidency, I am still utterly confused by how Donald Trump is the elected leader of the free world. I am utterly confused by the evangelicals who supported—and still support—him, and I am amazed by the fact that children in elementary school this year must look to the president of the United States as an example of how not to behave. There’s a lot children can learn from Trump: how not to talk about woman; what it means to distort truth and then call it something other than a lie; how to take to social media when anything makes you uncomfortable; what a fallacy is (didn’t ad hominem used to be Latin for Donald Trump?) And in my opinion, there’s a lot Christians can learn from Trump: how not to love the neighbor and the other; how not to practice environmental stewardship; how not to care for the least of these among us—essentially, how not to have a Gospel-centered lens of the world. This is what children and Christians can and should learn from Donald Trump. I cringe when I think of what Donald Trump’s presidency may be teaching non-Christians about us.

For the first time in my life, I’m having to seriously ask myself what it means to be a thinking, feeling, authenticity-striving Christian when the top government official in the country—and therefore, the elected representative of the character and ideals of this country to the rest of the world—violates and offends core parts of me. What am I called to do with my offense and with the things that offend me? What does Christ call me to stand up for, and how does he call me to make that stance? What does it mean to submit to authority and respect government institutions without condoning what utterly offends me? And here’s another thing: I think many churches would be asking these same questions—if Hilary Clinton had been elected president. Because her political agenda traditionally offends Christian morals. I’m not trying to spark debate by saying this, but I am wondering why the politics of Donald Trump is not causing more churches to ask these same questions, and to ask them in community, in a way where people can come together and figure out what it looks like to live in the age of Trump. Are we only offended by “wrong” ethics and not by the lack of justice, hospitality, and character in political decisions as well as in personal character?

A deeper question for me is why so many Christians (particularly millennials) are forced to ponder these questions alone, in the frustration of their rooms and laptop screens, and not within the safe and sanctifying walls of their churches. It is lonely to be a news-reading, millennial evangelical these days. We care about systemic racism and black lives; we care about gay marriage, because as millennials growing up in a rapidly changing world, we don’t first see bible verses, we see faces; we care about Dakota pipelines, Trump tweets, climate change. We have opinions and doubts and questions, and we grow stagnant without communities that interact with those opinions and doubts and questions. What will you do with us, Church? Will you give us a refuge? Will you give us, even, a platform? Or will you let us keep hiding in your midst while older (white, married, male) congregants talk for far too long and far too repetitively of things we wanted to discuss rather than hear.

It’s July 2017. I’ve been out of school for a year, facing all the usual trials and questions that a recent graduate faces. I have doubts, and I have doubts about my doubts. I have friends, and I long for more community. I have a job, and I’m trying to figure out what to do with my life. I’m saving money, and I’m trying to learn what it means to love God with all that is mine. I’m a minority, and for the first time, trying to understand what that means and how it’s impacted me. If my life were a novel, it would be a Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story. The story of the millennial Christian is the story of coming of age in a radically-evolving culture, one in which this utterly unprecedented presidency plays a key role. And the truth is, it’s confusing and frustrating; it’s not like we know anyone else who’s had to come of age in the age of Trump. It’s difficult to know where to look. It’s difficult to know what to trust. And if the answer is the Church, then I think I must confess, it’s an answer that lacks conviction.