No Language But A Cry

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

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.

unanswered prayers and emptiness-turned-hospitality (because someone once said that acts of love are never wasted)

A few days ago, while skimming through old files on my laptop, I came across one that was simply titled with the name of a friend. Opening it, I realized it was a powerpoint I’d created several years ago in an effort to more intentionally pray for this non-Christian friend. Some sections had prayers written on a nearly daily basis, other sections skipped weeks between prayers, but by the time the powerpoint fully loaded, there were more than a hundred slides of prayers spanning the last four years. I don’t believe I’ve prayed for anybody as intentionally as I’ve prayed for this friend.

God has yet to answer any of these prayers. I’m not alone in this. He has yet to answer many people’s prayers—the ones for sick loved ones, wayward children, unfulfilling vocations—and it only takes a cursory glance at the news to see He has yet to answer all (or even most) of our prayers for our nation or for peace abroad. Sometimes the silence of God in the face of our pleading is more than we can take; there’s a reason my powerpoint has long gaps in between prayers. There is a peculiar and powerful kind of grief to praying for something over and over and over again and seeing no measurable answer.

I’ve been thinking a lot about hospitality after finding that powerpoint. It’s one of those words we’ve managed to sterilize, and what is left intact is a mildly pleasant and generally risk-free image of inviting someone over for dinner and offering them coffee and dessert afterward. While there’s nothing wrong with cooking dinner for someone—and a shared meal can be a powerful avenue through which true hospitality might occur—I think it’s far from encapsulating the actual meaning of the word. The Greek etymon for hospitality is xenia, and if you’ve read any Homer, you know that welcoming the stranger formed a vital part of ancient Greek culture. The epics are wrought with instances of hospitality, usually involving kings welcoming disguised characters into their homes for refreshment, story-telling, and song.

I think there’s something profound about this inclusion of story-telling and song—it shows that hospitality is not simply offering physical nourishment but allowing someone to bring their stranger-ness to the table, so to speak, and partake in it with them. That’s essentially what I understand hospitality to be: the host creating an intentional space in which the guest enters in and the two radically engage in a dialectic of equal participation—giving and receiving, speaking and listening, self and other. The goal is not domination nor assimilation but generous participation. Henri Nouwen says it like this in his book Reaching Out:

Our society seems to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion, always expecting an enemy to suddenly appear, intrude and do harm. But still—that is our vocationto convert the hostis into a hospes, the enemy into a guest and to create the free and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully experienced.

I’m beginning to think of prayer—as words themselves—as an act of hospitality. Each of those hundred slides on my computer is not simply a petition to God but an intentional space where the fullness of who I am can meet the fullness of my friend—even if I am meeting her in her absence. It is my attempt to play a host, offering words that close the physical distance between us, that hospitalize the wounds caused by our fragile humanness, that tenderize the sometimes-polarizing rhetoric that calls one of us the negation of the other (“non-Christian,” “un-believer”), and leaves us as simply human. It is not just filling the slide with words but emptying it as well. I leave a physical space open to remind myself of who God is and who God knows my friend to be, and of all He has done and can do with the emptiness we lay before Him.

What do I do with my own emptiness? Not just the kind I try to create in my prayers for a friend, but the kind I’d rather drown out or shut up, the kind that feels like too-loud silence and speaks vaguely of vulnerability and a fear of loneliness. God knows I have a lot of that kind of emptiness. There’s a song I listen to sometimes that asks, “If I open up my hands, will You fill them again?” It’s a question I struggle with, and one whose answer is more of an act of faith than a tangible assertion. And yet, my emptiness is a meaningful part of me. It is, in multiple senses, the creative part of me. And I believe that if I’ve ever written anything that has met anybody else where they were, it’s not my fullness that they heard.

I want hospitality—and the emptiness it requires—to be my vocation. I want the words I write to invite the guest in and break down the labels that separate us. If God ever brings me to a point where I have the privilege and responsibility of teaching writing, I want the classroom to be a space that invites every person—student or teacher—to bring their stranger-ness, their cultural narratives and diverse experiences and rhetorical preferences, and greet each other with a handshake and see the act of writing itself as a radical extension of the host-guest relationship. Most importantly, I want my beliefs and consequent prayers to be hospitable. I don’t want them to force assimilation or rigidly close gaps but instead to create open space for genuine conversation. You and me. Self and other. Host and guest. Come to the table.

In one of Madeline L’Engle’s books, a mother tells her daughter that “prayer was never meant to be magic.” When the daughter responds by asking what’s the point of prayer then, her mom answers that prayer is an act of love. I don’t know if my friend will ever accept the Gospel. I don’t know if any of your prayers will have the outcomes you hope for. I hope she does, and I hope they do. I ache with the hope of it. But I am reminded today that perhaps prayer is more about its shape than its results, more about what it gives than what it asks. If prayer, like so much else, should really be an invitation into a sacred and creative space, toward hospitalizing the stranger, whether that be a beloved person or a turbulent nation, then surely it is worth praying anyway. God knows we could use more acts of love in our midst.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

a list on a sunday evening (after long weeks and loud silence and by grace we endure because what else can we do?)

 

  • There are so many reasons not to trust God. When someone points to Job or Joseph as testaments to God’s faithfulness, I want to point to Achan’s family, stoned to death because of one man’s greed, or Uzzah, whom God smote because he tried to save the ark from falling after the oxen slipped. I confess honestly that the more I read the bible, the more I think that the matter of God’s goodness and faithfulness depend on who you are in the story. We tend to focus on the miraculous and redemptive stories of grace and turn those into household names, and we skip over the many individuals (and towns, and nations) who got lost along the way. Couldn’t only a minority of people in Scripture truly sing “Amazing Grace,” that God saved a wretch like them?
  • I was reading Frederick Buechner this evening, which is always a good use of time. One of his sermons asks what we should do with our pain. He uniquely defines “adolescence” as the experience of learning how to grow with our pain. He writes that we do not—indeed, should not—always speak about our pain, but that we should speak out of it. There is a tendency in our culture to put up a disclaimer whenever the topic of pain or suffering surfaces. I feel that now. But to speak of painful experience is not to speak of grandiose suffering so much as it’s to acknowledge the humanness of our lives. We suffer. The bullied kindergartener as much as the bereaved widow. We all have our basic orientations of the world, and for whatever unknowable reason, mine has always been one of fear. The world scares me. It makes me anxious and slightly uncomfortable without even trying. I find life painful—not merely because of its suffering but because of its beauty—and when Buechner writes of just that beauty and terror and says quietly, “Do not be afraid,” I feel it as if he is speaking to me. Do not be afraid. Trust Him. If anyone is trustworthy, it is not you but Him. 
  • But another part of me says, be a little afraid. You have learned invaluable things from fear. It has taught you to be wary, and though that wariness always has the temptation of becoming cynicism, it has also enabled you to listen, to be slow to speak because when it comes to other people’s pain, “there is nothing more offensive than intellectual understanding.” Fear has taught me to start listing those thousand thousand reasons to live, as Marilynne Robinson writes, because it is fear itself that creates those reasons. I would not find friendship beautiful if I did not also fear not having it. I would not find quiet walks or choral music or conversations beside fireplaces beautiful if I did not so deeply fear the general chaos and seeming meaninglessness of existence—the loneliness that haunts, the tragedy that strikes. If I did not love anything in life enough to fear it, I’m not sure I’d be alive.
  • What does it mean to believe that God does not make mistakes? It takes so much faith to believe that—more faith than I have. I think of people I have loved who are gone, or places that have meant so much to me that can never be regained. I think of the special needs girl in high school whose mother abandoned her at a road-side bar. What does it mean to believe that God’s hand is in all of these things, that nothing is wasted, that everything is redeemable? Thielicke claims over and over again that the cornerstone of the Christian faith is the assurance that behind every event in our lives is the heart of a Father. That we are not wandering alone in a dark wood, using science or art or religion as a whistle to keep the darkness at bay, but that instead we have a Father we can call to because through Jesus he first called us. But how does one live out the reality of this truth? It is so humanly natural to hate discomfort, uncertainty, loneliness—in short, to hate suffering. But the Christian holds claim to a deeper reality, that all suffering is ultimately creative suffering, and that it is in the depths that we learn who we truly are and who God truly is. There is no arbitrary in the Gospel.
  • In the past several weeks, I’ve reread the quartet of Chaim Potok novels I’ve loved since early high school: The Chosen and The Promise, My Name is Asher Lev and The Gift of Asher Lev. It’s difficult to articulate how much these books mean to me. Besides their structural, syntactical brilliance, their quiet grace, these books have stayed with me through some of my darkest nights and I resonate with them even more now than I did in high school. Their discussions of belief, aesthetics, friendship, family, and belonging always meet me where I am. It may sound strange, but I feel that I owe so much to these novels. They are deeply, powerfully a part of me.
  • I’ve been reading Psalm 119 the past few days. The “Resh” section is one of my favorite Scriptural passages, but this time reading it, the whole thing has been striking. What does it mean to love God’s law the way David does? Something about God’s statutes and testimonies give David the grace to say things like, “In faithfulness You have afflicted me,” and “The unfolding of Your words give light.” I want this kind of faith. I want to learn how to see things the way David sees them.
  • “Turn to me and be gracious to me, as is your way with those who love your name.” I read this and found myself suddenly pleading silently: Just because I’m confused does not mean I don’t love You. I do, Lord. You know I do. I am so confused about so many things, but it does not mean I do not love You. I am so confused about Your church and my place in it, if there is a place, but it does not mean I do not love Your church. How can I not? It’s Your body, broken for me and trying to restore a broken world, and broken itself but still trying, trying because that’s what You said to do, and every once in awhile it still gets something right, every once in awhile it actually looks a little like You.
  • “Redeem me from man’s oppression.” I read this and did not think I needed any redeeming from man’s oppression. But then I thought some more and realized how much liberation I need from the voice of the world. The one telling me I need to have a career to be worth something, that I need to be powerful to be influential, that success is measured by degrees and resumes and bank accounts. The one telling me that my ultimate efforts should not be applied toward striving to trust God but instead in getting as far as I can on my own, being the best at something, whatever that something is, even if that something will ultimately pass away with the world and all of its desires. Free me, Lord, from man’s oppression, from the fear of man and failure. Show me what it means to be Your servant in the economy of Your kingdom.
  • Every morning I wake up, the Gospel is asking me something about the kind of person I am going to be that day. It asks me how I will use my words. It asks me what thoughts I will allow to ripen in my mind. It asks me how whole-heartedly I will love the people around me and if I will use my time well at work. It asks me what I will do with my money and whether the news stories I read will define God or if God will define everything else. It asks me who I want to be when I go to sleep that night. And all these questions are asked of me each morning, and also each Sunday evening as I face into another week that will carry both laughter and sadness, both grace and failure. And it is exhausting. It is wearying sometimes, to be so responsible for oneself. Perhaps that is the mindset of immaturity, but perhaps also it is the mindset of someone who tries with every ounce of her being to be authentic and to be intentional, and who knows that authenticity and intentionality mean finding things harder than they could be otherwise. I am 22 years old, a year out of college. I have experienced far more and far less than I sometimes want. I miss deeply, but I am also deeply thankful. I am so, so afraid. Who will you be this week, Rachel?
  • While searching through my old files a few minutes ago, I found a document I hadn’t opened in months. When I opened it, I found prayers I had typed out for this friend, dating back to February 2014—and that was only after I’d decided to shift over to typing my prayers instead of handwriting them. It was a humbling, nostalgic sort of moment. It made me think of this friend and the people who come and go in our lives. But it also made me think of how, just like my friend, I must be wholly unaware of so many people who have prayed, are praying, or will pray for me. Who knows who I would be without these prayers? Who knows where I would be. It is truly by grace that I am where I am—and I am humbled to remember that those words apply to everywhere I am, no matter how it feels to be there. By the grace of God I am here, right here, and you are here, and what are the chances that on this inconspicuous, mundane day whose holiness we cannot even begin to conceive, we would both be alive and real and human? Sometimes a little less than human, but sometimes a little more. Who would have thought? Who could dare to imagine such grace as this existence?
  • “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide
    The darkness deepens, Lord with me abide
    When other helpers fail and comforts flee
    Help of the helpless, abide with me”

    Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
    Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
    Change and decay in all around I see—
    O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

    I need Thy presence every passing hour;
    What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s pow’r?
    Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
    Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.

    I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
    Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness;
    Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
    I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.

    Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
    Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies;
    Heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
    In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

  • If it feels sometimes, when reading my posts, that I swing moods by the time you reach the end, that’s probably because it’s true. I say it again because it’s always true: I write to believe. I write to work out my salvation with fear and trembling. I write to move myself into a deeper place, a truer reality, a more gracious be-ing. If even in a handful of honest, human words, I can move just a little further from who I was at the start of the writing, then how much more can the true Word do the same? Even so, I doubt. Even so, I am afraid. Yet he is tender. Yet he has pioneered first this aching world—this suffering priest who went into the far country and offered us a face to trample in our weakness, because he himself knew our weakness, and his compassion was great, and he could not give us up, he cannot give us up, how can I give him up?

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.