No Language But A Cry

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

lenten letter to a stranger (which i think means you, and also no one)

I wrote this several weeks ago in the beginning of Lent, as an intended anonymous letter for the mailbox of strangers, but also for myself. It was my way of asking myself some questions: What can I achieve, if anything, with pure honesty? How can I write as a Christian without explicitly sharing the Gospel? What would that look like, and what would be gained and lost? Can I communicate my love for Jesus without attempting to share exactly what I believe about who he is and was and what he did?  How can I close the gap between the confining, polarizing rhetoric of faith and the honest rhetoric of what it feels like to be human and alive and real? These questions were ultimately behind every word of this letter.

I did not intend to share this letter on my blog. It felt (ironically) too personal—it is far easier to write to a stranger than to a friend. And yet, as I meditate on Maundy Thursday and Christ’s utterly subversive act of foot-washing, it feels appropriate. What does foot-washing look like for me? What is my witness, my humility? While it looks like many things, for me at the deepest level, it has always been about language. That is my deepest source of humility, and even as I attend a service tonight in which there will be foot-washing, I will be thinking of this letter that is making its way to homes I do not know and strangers I wish I did, and I will pray that my words will always be a way of washing others into his love.

 


 

Dear Someone,

My name is Rachel. I am not trying to sell you something, ask for a donation, or remind you of an appointment. This is not an advertisement, scam, or bill. I am merely a 22-year-old woman living in Illinois who loves words and wants to write people letters.

As you may or may not know, we are in the season of Lent, the forty days before Easter. It is common practice for one to deny something in order to create a more intentional space for reflection in the days leading up to Easter. Rather than deny something, however, I wanted to add something. I wanted to put words together on a page—words that tell who I am, who I am not but wish I could be, words that tell a little of my experience in what I find a frightening and frighteningly beautiful world. I wanted to write something honest, thoughtful, and vulnerable. And I wanted to send it to people, to strangers. Because I find something beautiful about the fact that you—someone I do not know—are reading words written by someone you do not know, and even though this letter has said very little so far, it is still an act of communion between two human beings. Words I’m crafting as I sit on my bed are being read somewhere else, and though we are complete strangers, we are not complete strangers: if nothing else (and yet there is always something else), we are now bridged by an assortment of letters on a page.

You may think I’m crazy. You may think I’m some kind of mystic, some kind of devout Christian, or some lonely kid trying to find company in other human beings. I guess in one sense, I am a bit of all of those things. I do believe in mystery, though I am not a mystic; perhaps it is more accurate to say I believe in beauty, the kind that can breathe life into you. I do not think I’m very good at being devout, but I do find Christianity hauntingly beautiful, even if I often struggle to fully believe it. And I am lonely in the sense that we are all of us lonely, because “no one knows the troubles I’ve seen,” and we can never completely tell each other, “I understand.” But I wish we could. For the most part, however, I’m a recent college graduate who is working a mundane office job, enjoys reading literature, likes to listen to Penny and Sparrow, and has a twin sister. I’m an introvert to an extreme but am also extremely intentional in my friendships, I often find sadness a more faithful companion than any friend, and I would stake my life on the truth of paradox.

And you. I do not know you. You could be a mom, a dad, a daughter or son, a sister or brother. You could be middle-aged or in your twenties or your seventies. You could be Asian (like me), black, Latino, Caucasian. You could have a family or live on your own. You could be well-off or just scraping by. You could be a convicted felon or a former valedictorian. You could love your life or hate it. I have no idea. But I hope that whoever you are, wherever you are in life as you read this, I hope that you’ll give me a chance. I have absolutely no other desire in this letter than to simply be honest with you, and hope that in my honesty and courage, you will be a little more fully human by the end of reading this.

My dad is a philosophy professor, the kind of wise and rare academic you meet only once or twice in your life if you are fortunate. The irony is that, though his specialty is apologetics, the defense of faith, no one has done more to teach me that matters of belief are often not rational so much as they are experiential, even aesthetic. No one has taught me more about the nuances of belief, about ambiguity and subjectivity. I grew up with him saying things like, “When it comes to issues that have been gridlocked for centuries [like religion], there will always be enough evidence to allow you to believe what you want to believe and not enough to make you change your mind.” I grew up with him saying things like, “When you have two competing theological views and both seem plausible, go with the one that’s more beautiful. Because beauty is how we make decisions about art, and theology is art.” Suffice it to say that my twin sister and I grew up exposed to not just intellectual issues at a young age, but also to a kind of nuanced wisdom and “unorthodox” way of approaching faith that has deeply informed who I am. I believe in beauty more than I believe in truth—or I believe in the beauty of truth. I have never quite understood why we live and speak as though we are rational creatures before we are aesthetic creatures.

My aim here is not to tell you to believe in God or not believe in God. Whether you do or don’t, I could give you plenty of reasons for the other. I only want to suggest that how one approaches the question of deity should be perhaps just as similar to gauging an artwork or a symphony, or bird-watching or listening to jazz, as to simply balancing equations. And yet, even that metaphor breaks down: there is something profoundly beautiful about a balanced equation. Ask any chemistry teacher, any lover of science. There is something beautiful about the simplistic elegance of E = mc 2.

I am sorry for so many things. Sorry how we as the Church, the body of Christ, have many so many mistakes that have hurt you or others like you. I am sorry for the big things, the things that immediately come to mind, but I am sorry for so much more–sorry for my own pride and selfishness. While I believe there are some things Christians have done well over the centuries, and while I still love the Church for all its imperfections, I wish we were not quite so imperfect. I hope that you and the world can give us grace, to allow the messengers of forgiveness to in a sense be the message, the forgiven. We have made so many mistakes. We are, like you, only human.

I have long since learned that any belief I have in the Gospel—good news—of Christianity, must be believed in and through the very things that make it difficult to believe: my doubt, my persistent sadness, the loneliness that feels unshakable, the suffering I feel in and around me. I will fight until my dying day to change the way we think and talk about doubt. My faith finds meaning in my doubt. It finds beauty. It tells me that the questions I am grappling with are worth asking, worth spending a lifetime pursuing, and that in the end, the question may be more valuable than the answer. I don’t know why God allows suffering, but by the same vein, I don’t know why God allows goodness. And though I can and do point to the Holocaust or Sandy Hook and demand how God could let these things happen, I also acknowledge that there is goodness here that I could not possibly frame into a question. Why am I loved? Why is language so beautiful? Why does listening to Tchaikovsky or Les Miserables bring tears to my eyes, and a powerful longing? If suffering is the question that demands an answer, goodness is the answer that deserves a question. And we live somewhere in the tension between the two. Somewhere between beauty and darkness, shame and joy, pain and hope. It is a tension that sometimes feels like it will undo me, but it a tension that simultaneously gives me life.

If nothing else, I wish I could impress upon you the beauty of Christianity—not primarily whether it’s true, whether the bible is true, whether prayer is real—but the beauty of it. I’m a lover of literature, and even if I thought the bible was entirely made up, I would still find it impossibly beautiful. The poetry of it, the parallels, the historical narrative, dysfunctional families, haunting prophecies, murders, kingdoms, wars, love songs. And more than that, the truths it claims—whether or not they are true—are so beautiful it’s a kind of longing. The first Adam and Jesus as the second Adam. All the parallels between Israel and Jesus, the twelve tribes and the twelve disciples, the forty days in the desert and the forty days in the wilderness. You are strong when you are weak. You find your life by dying to yourself. In the beginning was the Word. Jesus as the Jewish Passover Lamb. If you have not really read the bible, I would recommend it, not as a moralist recommends a rule book but as a lover of literature recommends a truly great book. If you really read the bible, whether or not you find it true (what do we even mean by that word?), oh that you would feel its deep beauty, that it would take up refuge inside of you as a kind of homesickness, a wound of love.

Do you find the world to be as frightening and frighteningly beautiful as I do? In some ways, I think it would be easier to bear if it was all frightening, but the fact that the world is so unspeakably broken (genocide, poverty, environmental crisis, racism) and so unspeakably good (poetry, the faithfulness of the sunrise every morning, plucking the strings of a guitar, the love of and for another person) is the tension that haunts me everyday of my life. A writer I like once wrote that goodness is so good it seems that all the evil can be explained, and evil is so evil it seems that all the goodness is a mistake. I feel that. I feel it not just in the polarities of global issues and universal goodness but most acutely in myself. I feel it in my innate selfishness—the fact that try as I might, I cannot consistently put others before myself; that no matter how much better I wish I could be, I simply cannot. I feel it in my quickly judgmental words, my stinginess with money, my jealousy over a friend’s good fortune. And yet the goodness in my own life is astounding. I have friends who love me, and that’s a fact I still marvel at. Friends who enjoy my company, who want to spend time with me. I have a dog who is beside himself with joy every time I walk in the door, though it’s been fourteen years of the same thing. I volunteer with special needs children and watch their joy and innocence as they play basketball with each other, and I push my wheelchair-bound friend around as he smiles and grasps my hand. He cannot speak, can barely walk, and must drink out of a tube, and yet the love in his parents’ eyes is bright enough to light up even my own dark heart. And once a month every Friday, dozens of people voluntarily give up their time to hang out with these special children so that their families can have a few hours of respite. They do it as an act of grace. They do it because they’ve experienced grace. The problem of suffering, yes. But also the problem of goodness.

I wish I could share everything with you. I wish I could tell you about my twin sister, remarkably selfless and yet rarely acknowledged for her selflessness. I wish I could tell you about high school, the agonizing months of loneliness and boredom. I wish I could tell you about the hospital freshman year of college, the talent show that my friends forced me to rap in (it was a complete and utter failure, but you’d never know from the cheering), about long walks with friends and honest conversations and the sudden death of a beloved professor and friendship that teaches me not to fear. I do not have the time nor space—you may not have the interest. But in these few pages, I have tried to give you something. A piece of who I am, a glimpse into my weary and holy narrative. I hope that it has given you a piece of yourself, a glimpse into your own weary and holy narrative. I hope at the very least, it was the strangest thing that’s happened to you this day.

Here’s the last thing I’ll say: there is a part at the end of Marilynne Robinson’s prolific novel Gilead where the narrator writes that “there are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, all of them sufficient.” I do not find this easy to believe. My innate sadness wrestles with my faith to make this statement an almost inconceivable thought. I wake up most mornings somewhere in between despair and joy, sadness and hope. But I am learning, slowly, slowly, infinitely slowly, I that she is right. There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, even if I cannot identify all of them. I have been given, for no reason I can possibly understand other than by grace, a taste of these reasons. I can name a handful of them—I have tried to in this letter. And the fact that I can name a few of them is in of itself a deep gratitude. And this letter, the crafting of it, the time for extended meditation, and my imagining of who you might be, where you are coming from—this is a profound one of those thousands of reasons to live this life. Thank you for letting me write to you, and for reading this letter. Thank you for letting me be human. I hope we as people can learn to better speak life and humanness into each other.

With sincere joy,

                          Rachel

Note: If you’d like to help with this project, you can. Print out this letter. Find an envelope. Walk down a random street, find a house that sticks out to you, and leave it with them along with a prayer. Trust that “no act of love is ever wasted.” 

grace like ghosts (in other words, make my darkness yours)

“If God is a salve applied to unbearable wounds, or a dream figure conjured out of memory and mortal terror, or an escape from a life that has become either too appalling or too banal to bear, then I have to admit: it is not working for me. Just when I think I’ve finally found some balance between active devotion and honest modern consciousness, all of my old anxieties come pressuring up through the seams of me, and I am as volatile and paralyzed as ever. I can’t tell which is worse, standing numb and apart from the world wanting Being to burn me awake, or feeling that fire too acutely to crave anything other than escape. What I do know is that the turn toward God has not lessened my anxieties, and I find myself continually falling back into wounds, wishes, terrors I thought I had risen beyond.”

-Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss

There is a line in one of John Mark McMillan’s songs that goes like this: “I can’t help thinking / That the way that You want me / And the ghost that haunts me / Are one and the same.” I’ve been thinking about this. How difficult to believe and yet, how deep a comfort if this is true. That the ghosts that so faithfully haunt—Wiman’s wounds, wishes, and terrors—are another kind of Ghost. That the darkness I can’t seem to escape from for any real length of time is the same darkness out of which God called the world, and is still calling it, is calling you and me, the same darkness the Light shines into and is not overcome by. We are creatures of darkness, I think, and by this I do not mean sin so much as sadness, not depravity so much as deep and dire loneliness. We are haunted by ghosts of one form or another. But maybe the faithfulness of Christ is itself a kind of haunting. Maybe that’s why they mistook him for a demon. Maybe that’s why his love fills me with as much fear as comfort. Maybe that’s how incarnate he is. Surely goodness and mercy shall haunt us all the days of our lives.

when anchors are illusions, and control is never real, and the cleft rock is the only safe thing (or, for everyone else trying too hard)

The truth is that I’m tired. The truth is that there is a difficult, continually undulating tension between trying as a good thing—as character-building and an act of worship—and trying as a bad thing—as the opposite of worship, even an act of idolatry, because in the end my trying becomes an assertion of (ever false) control.

Control is always an illusion, my youth pastor liked to say, and even as I know intellectually that he’s right, I still grasp for the illusion, still attempt to sustain it, because grasping for the illusion of control still feels safer than admitting I can’t (have not, will never) have it together.

How does a person who needs to continually challenge herself in order to stay afloat her tendency toward sickness keep herself from becoming unhealthily focused on being healthy? I am trying. So hard. And in many ways, I haven’t had this healthy of a season in years. At the same time, the sheer amount of energy I’m pouring into maintaining this stability is threatening to destabilize me. For someone used to bad nights, weeks of aching sadness, the pressure to stay okay is overwhelming. And it is a constant temptation to take good things and, like Midas’ golden touch, corrupt them into things that no longer nourish, can only woo and ultimately taint. Exercise is good. Planning for the future (as much as is possible) is good. Proactivity is good. But when each of those things becomes a verb upon which I try to anchor my jettison self, when they become frantic attempts to sustain false illusions, then health becomes unhealthy and trying becomes failing.

Perhaps what it comes down to is this: my obsessive attempts at health are continually at risk of becoming ways of cleaving to something other than the cleft rock—Christ who was cleft for me. They are continually at risk of becoming ways of avoiding the discomfort of surrendering to Christ, learning to sit in the terror of stillness, accepting that who I am is more than (and is almost irrelevant to) who I try to build myself to be. I—we—are more than handicapped architects trying to build the best versions of ourselves that we can, trying to be both aesthetically pleasing and functional at the same time, trying to be more valuable real estate than the next person. So many times I let myself slip into the paradigm that I must create someone of worth (does it really always come down to our need to be lovable?) Control is always an illusion. All attempts to build are surplus scaffolds, and we are blind to our own blueprints, so why do we waste so much energy into designs that won’t hold?

A few nights ago, I found myself praying that Christ would show me that the cleft rock is a safe place. Because there are so few safe places, so few things that feel like they can hold the weight of my fear, my doubt, my longing, my sadness, my brilliant and incandescent hope. I need the cleft rock to be a safe place. But even as I prayed the words, I knew that I had answered myself by the adjective I’d selected. The cleft rock. Broken and cleaved for me. Cleft so I could cleave—could cling—to something safe and real and utterly sustainable. No amount of financial savings, academic degrees, resume-building, well-read intellectualism, or spiritual acts will ever save me. The fact that I feel like they need to save me is in fact just the indication that I’m not resting enough in what has already saved me—what has already ransomed me safe, and is not an illusion. The only control I can possibly have that is real is the control of having no control.

Here’s a question, for you as well as for me: how long has it been since you heard the Gospel? I mean explicitly heard it, not just felt it implicitly referenced. It feels a very long time for me. So I remind myself, and I remind you if you want to the reminder: the Gospel is not just such (true) claims as God is good, as he answers prayers, as he knows the plans he has for you. The Gospel is the very specific good news that everything that needs to be done to save you, to make you safe, to give you something to cling to that can sustain the weight of your beauty and terror, has already been done. It has been done because the divine Word embedded himself into history, into time and culture, and sewed the wound we could never staunch and could only bleed homesickness out of. It is the very specific good news that God came as a person and brought his kingdom down with him, and died for the worst that we didn’t even know we were capable of being, and rose again on the third day so that we could keep rising in him, practicing dying and—perhaps even harder—practicing living, until he comes back and the tension of “already, not yet” finally becomes here. Completely, entirely here. The Gospel is the truth that we are lovable because he loves us, and when all of our illusions tear and all of our trying fails and we sink into the pain and loneliness we poured ourselves out trying to avoid, the cleft rock still cleaves to us. He is a safe place, he is the safe place. We are safe. We are utterly out of control. He is utterly trustworthy. Don’t be afraid.

 

two quotes and a chasm deep enough to drown in (but Christ spans that chasm) (or, in other words, “bless what there is for being”)

There is no love / There are only the various envies, all of them sad.”
(W.H. Auden, “In Praise of Limestone.”)

“There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, all of them sufficient.”
(Marilynne Robinson, Gilead)

For weeks now, these two sentences have anchored themselves in my mind and heart. When I walk to work in the morning, talk with a friend, swim in the pool—the words are still there. They do not demand my attention so much as they stand and face each other with their hands in their pockets—not enemies nor friends, but acquaintances nodding quietly in acknowledgment of their mutual existence.

When I play Auden’s and Robinson’s words in my mind, they seem syntactically synonymous while being semantically opposed. What I mean is that both make clear assertions that are remarkably parallel in structure (There are only the various envies…; There are a thousand reasons to live… ) and both make a sweeping evaluation: (all of them sad; all of them sufficient.) Yet despite their parallel structures, both reach completely different conclusions about existence. Auden’s narrator ultimately asserts that there is no such thing as love, that anything that looks like love is merely hiding its ultimate selfishness, (for love is other-centered), while Robinson’s narrator John Ames ultimately asserts the very opposite—that there are a thousand reasons to live, all of them sufficient in of themselves. Auden’s narrator doesn’t think love is real, and without love, what hope or meaning for living can there be? Robinson’s narrator, on the other hand, finds love in even the smallest, most seemingly insignificant thing, and that means there an infinite number of reasons to live. Two assertions. One subject matter. Two entirely different paradigms. And they continue to habitat my mind in seemingly irreparable juxtaposition.

The truth is that I want to believe Robinson more than I do, and I want to disassociate from Auden more than I can. I know enough of my own selfishness to resonate with the claim that “there is no love / only the various envies,” and I know that the rare moments when my love seems better than I am is because it actually is better than I am—because it’s not my love at all. And I wish I could tell you that I wake up each morning steadfastly confident in the thousand thousand reasons to live this life, each and every one sufficient in themselves, but that would be a lie. Most mornings I wake up somewhere between doubt and faith, despair and hope, grace and fear. Not a day of my twenty-two years has gone by that I have not oscillated between each of those things, and though I could not have put it to you in these terms, not a day has gone by that I have not both believed and disbelieved in these two assertions.

While I doubt that a day ever will go by where I will not oscillate and fluctuate between two ends of a beautiful and wearying spectrum, what I do know is this: I am learning to give myself grace. I am learning that much of the human experience comes out of this fluctuation, this disbelieving belief, and most of the narratives that resonate deeply within us are narratives embedded in this ambiguity. I am also learning to see myself as not just on a journey but a journey itself—growing, falling, maturing, gaining a face. A few years ago, I found myself in a hospital surrounded by some very concerned people. Now, while I continue to wrestle with the same things over and over again, I can point to a number of experiences of my life that I know without a doubt hold meaning. Sitting in a packed Arena Theater, watching faculty and students put to life the poems of a beloved English professor who’d died only that morning, and feeling the closest thing to Heaven and God’s mystical presence that I’ve ever felt; praying every week with a friend for the people we loved and a very hurting world, whispering in closing the Lord’s Prayer and finding a strange beauty to the awkwardness itself, the stumbling effort to synchronize, and realizing the prayer was never about the words so much as the remembrance; attending World Relief’s Refugee and Immigration Advocacy Night this week with a thousand other individuals longing to manifest God’s kingdom upon this earth… There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, even if I cannot always believe every one of them.

At the end of C.S. Lewis’ novel Perelandra, the god-like creature tells the protagonist Ransom to “take comfort, small one, in your smallness.” I have learned to take these words to heart, not as a rebuke but as encouragement. I indeed take comfort in them. I am small, far smaller than I can fathom, and the rise and fall, the interwoven fabric of my faith and doubt, belief and disbelief, is merely one tiny piece of a vast and hurting and beautiful world. My belief will not save the world nor will my doubt condemn it. God is sovereign over my life when I agree with Auden’s narrator in the same way that he is sovereign over my life when I agree with John Ames, and I cling to the intangible and brilliant hope that one day Christ will reconcile what seems so profoundly irreconcilable. These two parallel, juxtaposed quotes. A frightening and frighteningly beautiful world. Perhaps—dare I hope it?—even me.

 

“That singular command I do not understand,
Bless what there is for being,
Which has to be obeyed, for
What else am I made for,
Agreeing or disagreeing?”
-Auden, “Precious Five”

on the comfort of struggling with the same things as six years ago (or, my 319th post, and more honesty than i care to think about)

It’s the first month of 2017, and I’ve had this blog since a few weeks before I turned seventeen. That means there are six years of posts on here—and though I know here is not really anywhere, in another sense here is one of the most consistent spaces I’ve ever known. Indeed, here has been in my life more regularly and for more years than any church or school I’ve been a part of, and there are few friends from six years ago that I still keep up with. In a very real sense, this blog holds some of the truest parts of me, the most honest I know how to be. If I’ve strived for anything here—if I believe in anything—it’s honesty.

It’s the first month of 2017, the first January in my life that I’m not in school, and therefore the first January in my life that I have absolutely no idea what is waiting for me at the end of this year. A year ago, the shocking loss of Dr. Lundin still burned like a flame; a year ago, I prepared to live and teach in Morocco, spent a month studying the arts in London, and wrestled through a painfully uncertain summer to finally land a job and—as it turns out—continue to wrestle through a painfully uncertain fall and winter.

And it is still uncertain. My God, it is uncertain. Despite my prayers for guidance and calling (the latter being a word I’m growing to distrust), I still feel utterly directionless in terms of the future. I have no idea where I’ll be six months from now, or at the end of this new-and-already-growing-old year, no idea what God is preparing me for.

And yet, for whatever unspeakable reason, I believe God is preparing me for something. For whatever unspeakable reason, anxiety and sadness are not my deepest emotions. Someone told me once that you can be at peace without feeling peaceful, and I think that’s where I’m at. Externally, I struggle regularly with the discomfort of being just graduated from college, in my early twenties, without a clue of what life has in store for me. And yet, deep down below the turmoil and confusion, it feels as though there is a reservoir of grace–miles below me, perhaps, where sometimes I doubt its existence, and yet still there. I encounter that reservoir when I read through chapters of Genesis at a time and realize how raw and turbulent and beautiful a story it is. I encounter it when I read Thielicke’s sermons on the Lord’s Prayer and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, and in the moments when I’m frustrated with someone and a quiet tenderness infiltrates my bitter spirit. Grace truly is the only way I can say it. Even as I feel it blessing me, like the mild but utterly holy sprinkling of water on a child, I know that I have only just dipped into this reservoir. I know that it is deep, infinite, and—this I believe with all of me: if (when) I fall into despair, anxiety, and hopelessness, it will not be because the grace ran out but because I am not being still enough to receive it.

One piece of this grace feels strange and a little ironic: I am almost comforted by my struggles—the fact that they are the same struggles I had six months ago when I first started this blog. I sometimes write that loneliness feels like my most faithful companion, but I think there’s another way of saying that: loneliness, reoccurring as it is, teaches me the faithfulness of Christ. It gives him almost….almost a handwriting, a personality. When I write letters to people, it essentially becomes prayer, and this used to bother me. But the more I thought through it, the more I realized it made sense. It feels natural to express myself in a letter to someone who has a distinct personality, mannerisms, a face, and when I receive a letter, there is comfort in the familiar handwriting and syntax. I don’t think I’m saying this coherently, but the consistency of my struggles, the persistent loneliness and sadness, almost gives Christ that intimacy, because I know that he will meet me, and I know how he will meet me—in the same passages of Scripture I’ve read countless times and that nevertheless speak so tenderly; in the same poems by Rilke and Eliot; in hymns like “Rock of Ages” and “Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken.” I know that if I sit on my bed and pluck “Mighty is the Power of the Cross” over and over and over again, I will not be able to resist the grace that trickles in through the notes, and I know that even when I fail to turn first to him and instead turn to friends, still God will meet me in my friends’ love and let me pour myself out to him when I realize for whom I am truly longing. As wearying as it is to struggle with the same things, there is also a way in which it gives God a handwriting, a way for me to recognize the shape and texture and fragrance of his healing.

In the end, as always, I’m speaking more to myself than to you, self-convincing more than sharing. I don’t even know entirely why I continue to write, except that there is something unspeakably holy about stringing these different shapes together on a page, ordering them and reordering them, in a way that communicates something to you—holds meaning, tells a story, confesses a secret. And this too is grace, is healing. The ability to write itself, to write from a self, and to other selves, and to Christ who also has a self… In the words of dear John Ames, “There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, all of them sufficient.” Maybe the simplest and truest paraphrase of everything I’ve been trying to say is this: I am learning to slowly believe him.

 

 

a list for when you’re one-third hopeful, two-thirds homesick (and sad, and thankful, and wondering how no one else is scared of a new year)

  • What is this life that consists so fragmentally of coming and going, entering and leaving? We rub against each other for just a split second, sometimes with such exquisite tenderness, such poignant grief, and we are forever haunted by what we once knew. This is life, these infinitesimal moments, ambushing us with their weight even as they stun us with their evanescence. Oh dear Lord, I am tired. It is a new year, and where I should be saying “Thy mercies are new every morning,” I confess I feel only dread.
  • What is the rage of the Lord? Is it merely his justifiable anger? But what is rage as opposed to wrath? Is it a verb instead—the rage of his love, perhaps? Or is it something else, some deep consuming that is neither anger nor love as we know it, but instead a kind of fierce pursuing that blurs the line between both. I do not claim to know.
  • “I came here from whatever unspeakable distance and from whatever unimaginable otherness just to oblige your prayers. Now say something with a little meaning in it.” (Gilead, 23)
  • Before God said, Let there be light,
    There was water, and God made his face
    To shine upon it.
    In the empty pool, prisms gather
    Across window panes and spearhead the
    Still surface. It is still. Still here,
    Transforming my body into praying planes
    That keel the water with a will to live,
    Or a will to want to will,
    Wanting willing to be enough.
  • And here is the mystery the atheist must answer: how is it that man misses what he has never known?
  • Why is it that our own pain feels so stubbornly hollow, offensive in its right to exist, but the pain of those we love naturally lends itself into a narrative? Why is that true not just of pain but of our lives in general? I look at my life and see Eliot’s displaced fragments, random events without order, though I know that order exists if only because one struggles to disbelieve what has been preached a hundred times if it has been preached at all. But when I look at your life—when I witness your family, your struggles, your dreams, the experiences that make you into you—I cannot not see a story. Intrinsically, your pain holds meaning, holds scenes, not just events.
  • I want to take this world that uses the word “despite” with far too much comfort and flip it over on its head, replace those “despites” with “because,” and I want to do it tenderly, because there are far too many bruises already, and we’ve turned hospitals into seminar halls and lectured the hurting to their graves.
  • Aaron have you ever had / a burning in your chest 
    That made you just want to be free?
    “Kelly, I don’t think / I’ve ever wanted as much
    To be free as I’ve longed to be known…” (“The Worst is My Being Alone”)
  • The decision is not whether or not to agree with Ivan—I do. The decision is whether to allow my agreeing to paralyze my faith, or, in an ironic but profound subversion, see that agreeing as a whetting of the beauty of belief that does not fully understand.
  • And then there’s this:

“Imagine a Carthage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone, and the seeds lain however long in the earth, till there rose finally in vegetable profusion leaves and trees of rime and brine. What flowering would there be in such a garden? Light would force each salt calyx to open in prisms, and to fruit heavily with bright globes of water–peaches and grapes are little more than that, and where the world was salt there would be greater need of slaking. For need can blossom into all the compensation it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing–the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.”-Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping, 152

 

“the troughs and crests of faith” (because there’s too much loneliness for dishonesty)

A few months ago, I can’t say I really believed much in anything. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that whatever hairline faith I did possess, rooted in beauty I could not stop loving even as I yearned to stop believing, burned so painfully against the pulsing ache I felt all around me that I wished I did not have any such sliver of faith at all. I went days without laughing. In the Sunday evening prayer times with my roommates, tears found me as soon as we bowed our heads and the safety of the darkness, the voluntary blindness, gentled me into honesty. It was the most genuine experience of depression I’ve known.

What brought me through that despair? I wonder less at the what then the why: why did—why does—Christ keep pursuing me, riding with me each trough and crest, both equally terrifying if for different reasons—the trough for its abyss, the crest for its ever-possible plunge back into the abyss? Why am I here, when I am often the last person to want to be here, and why has God been so grievously tender to my wounded and wounding self?

I don’t know. God seems so absent, yet his immanent absence is somehow so deeply presence. The best I can say it is that I am here and alive because I have been, am being, continuously re-membered by a God who enabled such remembrance through the sacrifice of absolute abandonment, a paradox whose tension I find too beautiful to want to resolve. And ultimately, this is why I’m a Christian—this is where I’m a Christian. In the place of paradoxical contradictions that Christ embodies and somehow resolves, resolves by the very life that flows within the tension. I unbelieve and I believe; I am poor and I am rich; he who wants to find his life must lose it; I am leaving you and I will be with you always.

Paradoxical truth. Is that really it? The invisible, stabilizing horizon amidst my plunging troughs and crests of faith? And yet in those very troughs and crests, in the timbres of my fear and beauty soaked life, I keep finding that belief is not a rational decision so much as a response—all that is human in me crying out and clinging to that which makes me most deeply alive. You and I, we never create belief out of nothing; there is no ex nihilo faith. We always choose the soil from which we cultivate belief, and sometimes I think we forget that we are faithful creatures of aesthetics as much as we are aesthetic creatures of faith. The pangs of reality are the soil from which we both disbelieve and believe, because it is the only soil we have, and the deepest and greatest paradox of all is perhaps the paradox that faith despite is not really despite but because: for the true beauty of Christ wounds, even as Christ’s truth sears most beautifully in our wounded selves.

Each Sunday this Advent, my roommates and I light our Advent candles, gather around the tiny, flickering flame, and sing every verse of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” into the glowing darkness. Sometimes the wax of the candle drips and more often than not, one of us will stumble on the words, but there is still something almost terribly holy about these moments. Each time we sing, “Disperse the gloomy clouds of night / And death’s dark shadow put to flight,” something pulses in me, the part of me that has felt intensely the dark shadows, the nights of sadness that often feel more real than any flickering candle and the faith it meagerly illuminates. I am not the only one who has felt this. Not the only one who feels either stuck in an abyss or stuck in fearing an abyss. Yet the words of this hymn are a reminder that I am a Christian because of these very parts of me, because faith gives those tender spaces meaning, a home, a place to pitch their tent. The soil is fertile here, for many tears have watered it. It is soil worth rooting in, worth cultivating belief from, because the Word became flesh and pitched his own tent within it.