No Language But A Cry

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

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.

a poem for when they make you Other (or, my attempt to understand what happened the other night)

Last week at a dinner party, I listened to the people around me—all Christians—make racially insensitive comments about Asians. It was deeply humiliating and rather shocking, as I sat amongst them as the only minority in the room. I stared at my cup, devoid of words, wondering if I was invisible. I have never felt so instantaneously thrust apart as other. 

After the incident, I found myself writing endlessly—journaling prayers, putting together scraps of poetry, trying to understand my own anger and hurt. I’ve never been particularly involved in discussions about race, especially as someone who’s never identified strongly as a minority. But this semester after a number of incidents have left me feeling strangely hollow, and the latest incident utterly humiliated, I wrote the following poem. It is my attempt to understand and articulate what happened, but it is also a plea. It is a plea, as the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, to let “Christ play in ten thousand places / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces.” Ten thousand places implies—indeed prerequisites—diversity, and it seems that Christians have much to learn from poets. Please, and I ask this of myself as much as of you: let Christ play in ten thousand tender, wounded, and diverse places. Grant others that dignity; grant yourself that privilege. We have no idea the power of our words.

Speaking Myself (A Poem For When They Make You Other)

 

the boy with a face like moses (a memory for when i can’t find enough faith)

If you were to ask me about the closest I’ve come to seeing God, I would tell you about Nouwi.

I would tell you about the small, dark-skinned boy in the adaptive PE class I helped with in high school—limbs scrawny, eyes mistrusting, a mouth that, in rare moments, curled upward in a private smile. I would tell you about his strange gait, as if he was testing each step further into the world to see if it could hold the weight of his private pain, and about his voice, low and nasal and almost melodic in its slow cadence. His shyness was a fortress. It was implacable. Head always ducked, hands always finding pockets, and if he didn’t happen to be wearing any, he’d make some out of armpits and t-shirt sleeves, or else fold his arms across his chest to protect himself against-—something. Everything. A frightening world. The need for eternal, wearying suspicion.

I would tell you about Nouwi’s horrendous basketball skills—the way he flinched every time someone gently tossed him a ball, how he couldn’t dribble to save his life and didn’t believe in salvation anyway. But someone signed him up for Special Olympics that winter, and so I went from seeing Nouwi three times a week to four, each time trying like water to break against his impenetrable gates, wishing he played defense half as well as he lived it.

The closest I’ve ever come to seeing God was on a frigid December night in a rubbery middle school gym. Teams of specially gifted kids played basketball with each other, having so much fun that the scoreboard was more like a curious afterthought. Nouwi always came and never played, choosing instead to sit cautiously on the sideline, his dark eyes narrowed against a world hell-bent on hurting him. But one night Coach called Nouwi into the game and he reluctantly joined the bodies jogging back and forth across the court, trying his best to remain a ghost except somehow, unbelievably, the ball ended up in Nouwi’s hands—to no one’s greater surprise than Nouwi’s himself—and suddenly he was a ghost no longer, and in his shuffling gait he somehow ended up in front of the basket, and he pushed with all the desperation of his thin arms and thinner childhood—and the ball dropped gently into the cradle of the net.

For a split second, everything stopped—time, voices, the lonely trauma of being alive and human—and then sound broke like the crest of the ocean upon our heads and we were on our feet, shouting, shouting his name, and Nouwi was sprinting back toward the other end of the court with a smile splitting his face, and it was the opening of a gate, the lowering of a drawbridge, and his hands covered his face because, like Moses, surely so much joy had to be blinding and we were, oh we were. Blinded, blinking, for all the world unable to look at him without seeing sunspots.

If God was anywhere that freezing winter night, he was not only in the grief of the bereaved widow or the choir of the evening service, but he was also in that old gymnasium in an utterly forgettable suburb of Chicago. In the laughter; in the mothers watching the every movement of their child; in the fathers eagerly offering arms and legs for extra practice; and in the small, dark boy streaking across the polished court with a face too radiant, eyes too bright, and we all of us blinded by something too sacred to put into words.

That night meant something for me the moment Nouwi put the ball through the hoop, but like wine it has only ripened since. I carry that memory in my pocket and take it out every so often, on nights like tonight when I cannot find God in the bible or in church or in my too-dark self. I wonder about his relevance, when you believe and are still sick and I believe and am still lonely; I wonder how I ever thought faith could be real when I feel so false, if maybe the only true part of Scripture is the Preacher crying All is vanity. But that night remembers me better than I remember it. That night tells me that once God was present and alive, and like the Israelites, I squint into the staggering brightness, because as much as it pierces it also promises: that God has indeed been in our midst. That his presence is light and the darkness has not overcome it. That at least one among us has met with him and lived to tell the tale, and against all odds the tale is good, so good, and so stop fearing Nouwi, let down those walls, unfold those arms… For a moment you were more real than all of us, more real than we could bear, and we could not behold your face and live.