No Language But A Cry

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

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.

a short, non-political thought for a weary evening, because enough has been said, and too much has been said, and not enough can be said

“Now that I had a serious faith struggle before me, I became safe for others to share their doubts, fears, and disappointments. My lesbian neighbor (…) was dying of cancer. She approached me one day and said, ‘I didn’t give a damn about who God was to you in your happiness. But now that you are suffering, I want to know: who is your God? Where is he in your suffering?’” (Rosaria Butterfield, “Confessions of an Unlikely Convert,” 60)

I don’t agree with everything in this book, but there is something about this story and the words of this neighbor that buries itself deep inside me like a splinter every time I think about it. This feels fundamental. This feels absolutely crucial. Not a lot of people care about who God is to us when we’re happy, comfortable, and privileged. But strip away those things, leave us doubting and broken and vulnerable, and suddenly people are dying to know: Who is your God? Where is he in your suffering?

Tonight, this week, people are especially going to want to know, where is our God in the midst of all this? Where is he in the grief, fear, and division? And we are uniquely in a place to give an answer not just through words but through the way we choose to live. And I cannot change what has happened. I cannot explain away those 80% of evangelical votes. I cannot tell all the ones who are fearful that I understand because the reality of white privilege is that I can’t. But in these days of confusion, grief, and division, we have a rare chance to show just who God is, just where he is in this suffering: in our grief we know his. “Through our tears we see the tears of God.”

a song and a realization and a poem (or, i think it used to be easier than this) (or, perhaps wishing i could be both invincible and honest)

There’s this song we used to sing in my youth group that went like this: “My soul / longs for / You, Lord / in a / dry and / weary land.” We would repeat that one sentence over and over and over again, sometimes with a full band, other times with just an unplugged acoustic guitar. I have memories of singing that song in a dimly lit sanctuary right after the Haiti missions team came back and shared their testimonies; I have memories of singing it in my youth pastor’s home with the other student leaders a few months before several of us would go off to college and he himself would move to California; I have memories of singing it at countless student-led prayer meetings, sometimes in the early morning in a cold room while half asleep, other times on a Friday evening before small group. It remains one of the songs I most remember my church by.

Not once, in all those times of singing this song, did I ever think of myself as the dry and weary land. I did not always feel like I longed for God, and therefore the words did not always feel true of me, but that’s distinctly different from seeing myself as the dry and weary land itself. I was thinking about this song a couple weeks ago, however, and that realization just came quietly and undramatically to my mind: I’m the dry and weary land. I’m the dry and weary land from which my soul longs. I’m not sometimes the longing soul, sometimes the not-longing soul—I am the soul that is always longing for God, and I am the land that is always dry and weary. I am both the desire and the hindrance. I am both the yearning and the parched.

I don’t know why this realization feels so profound these days. Perhaps it’s because I’m more aware than before how deeply I long for God in and through the things that keep me from Him. My sin. My selfishness. My apathy. My sadness. When I pray, when I go to church, when I read my Bible, my effort to long and love must perpetually succumb—myself. This is humbling, sobering, but it is also comforting. Because the fact that I am the dry and weary land does not nullify the fact that I am also the soul that is longing for God. The two go together. I would not long if I were not parched; I would not be parched without the longing. I remain a contradiction, but an honest contradiction.

On an unrelated-but-related note, I wrote a poem a few days ago and only later recognized it is as taken from a Wallace Stevens quote that I’d read last month. Since it’s been so long since I’ve written or posted a poem, I’ll end with it.

“I wish that groves still were sacred—or, at least, that something was: that there was still something free from doubt, that day unto day still uttered speech and night unto night still showed wisdom. I grow tired of the want of faith—the instinct of faith. Self-consciousness convinces me of something, but whether it be something Past, Present or Future, I do not know.”

-Journal entry by Wallace Stevens, February 5, 1906

The ground is holy beneath our feet
But it takes more than faith to awaken our need
For treading on sacred things.

All our living seems bread, bled, or broke,
Beg a penny for some yeast or yarn, or yearning
Learn to thread the baking earth if it be holy.

The spangled deep cries out, dark and free
Free, unlike ourselves, to grieve the anonymity
of cleft and doubt, cleaving close, of us and them or else

For you and I, for we are sacred things—
Were or will, or will be in our dreams
As we lie dying, trying for safe genealogy, that by our blood
And by our treading upon those once sacred things,
We’ll make holy the ground beneath our feet.

A Christianity That Needs Forgiving (how the messengers have become the message)

I’m sorry for all the times you’ve felt like we as Christians only cared about making sure your “soul goes to Heaven,” instead of caring holistically for you as an authentic, holistic, dimensional person whose person-ality comes from the Trinitarian God in whose image you were formed.

I’m sorry for all the cliché, overused, and sometimes downright ridiculous phrases you have heard Christians say.

I’m sorry for every time you’ve received a “God bless” instead of a helping hand, an “I will pray for you” instead of someone to simply listen.

I’m sorry for the truly boring literature, movies, and art we often produce—the movies that feel like Hallmark cards, the songs that repeat the same few phrases over and over again, without genuine substance. We who believe in a grand and holy meta-narrative somehow are capable of writing some of the dullest, most repetitious narratives in the world. I believe at the heart of Christianity is not just truth but deep, creative beauty, and many times we have substituted instead art that does not reflect an artistic God or an aesthetic Gospel.

I’m sorry that we are often the least proactive and the most complacent when it comes to caring about the environment—a true irony since it as a Christians that we believe in the intentionality with which God created the world and the necessity of environmental stewardship.

I’m sorry for all the times you’ve heard street preachers or protesting Christians shout messages of condemnation, leading others to conclude that Christianity must be a religion centrally about how one must constantly be better than one knows how to be.

I’m sorry for all the times you’ve walked into a church and felt as if you must hide your deepest self.

I’m sorry for all the times my love has been more selfish than selfless, more about making my life feel meaningful than about truly loving you in a way that reflects Christ’s unconditional love.

I’m sorry for the ways our faith has become a shield and a wall behind which we can hide, group together, and form clubs, ministries, churches, schools, friend groups—entire societies so impenetrable that it would be possible to live out our lifetimes from within the safety of our own walls. I’m sorry that we have used our communities to hem ourselves in more than to reach out in love and grace.

I’m sorry for how we are often the stingiest, least financially generous people on the planet.

I’m sorry that we have not stood up louder and longer for causes of injustice—racial division, police shootings, poverty, global disasters, mass incarceration, homelessness, political, ethnic, and religious strife in the Middle East, genocide, the desperation of the widow, the fear of the marginalized, the pain of the lonely.

I’m sorry that many of us, myself included, have been too content with our handful of Scripture passages and our weekly prayer meetings that we have not truly engaged our minds with the complexities of faith. We have not studied commentaries in order to discuss honestly with you the nuances of the bible; we have not challenged each other to think critically about issues of faith and theology; we have not taken your questions seriously enough to engage them with our whole selves, trusting instead that “the Word of God is living and active” and will do the work for us if it is.

I’m sorry for the ways in which we can take anything and Christianize it—thus creating Christian brands of absolutely everything—which is not so much wrong as it is misleading, as if “Christian” is simply a category we can create by sticking on a bible verse or a cross, when in actuality the Gospel is a subversive, paradoxical, and catalyzing truth that soaks into the depths of who we are, wrings us inside out, speaks life into dark places and grace into dead places, and leaves us not so much newly labelled as newly created.

I’m sorry for the ways we have not been intentional with our words, resulting either in falsity or mediocrity. We believe that God Himself is the Word, the first Word and the last Word, and by Him, language itself is a gift, capable of astounding beauty and astounding devastation. The words of Christians should be creative, flowing, meaningful, authentic, not predictable and merely (if even) adequate. We have not been responsible with our words. We have said things hastily. We have said things too easily.

I’m sorry for the way we think we have an iron-clad grasp on what is true. We dismiss the Muslim’s piety with far too little trembling; we denounce the agnostic as too much of a skeptic, when we could benefit with some skepticism ourselves. There is a necessary tension between truth that must, by definition, be exclusive, and therefore dismiss all other contrasting views as false, and truth that seeks to include everything as a reflection of itself; we are sorry for not leaning into that tension, for not admitting that we do not know, and for choosing instead to call wrong everything that does not sound and look just like us.

There is so much to ask forgiveness for. We have caused deep hurt and anger, and it is a reminder of the power of our beliefs—not just our beliefs as Christians, but belief itself—to wound as much as to woo. We are fragile, flawed, and fearful people, far more human that we sometimes want to be, and yet we believe also that we are forgiven, by God—and by God’s grace, by you. We hope that Yancey’s words are true, and that though we are not perfect by any means, we are indeed people who can be made truly alive. We hope that the messenger does not invalidate the message. Or perhaps we hope that we the messengers have become the message, not so much preaching forgiveness as being objects of it. Perhaps it is by the world’s grace toward us, we who have so often wounded in our effort to heal, that the message of Christianity is most astoundingly revealed.

a hundred things that i dont know (and about three that i do)

There are a lot of things I don’t understand right now. Faith feels strangely foreign, and all the knowledge and wisdom I’ve gleaned from people like my dad, professors, and my favorite writers—this knowledge I’ve stored up like grain over the years in order to keep me safe from famine—falls profoundly short inside this strange spiritual void.

At the same time, there are some things I do know, some things I would stake my life upon again and again because without these things, without them standing true, I could not wake up each morning. These are some of those things:

I know that I will always admit to not knowing. The other day, a friend told me that the thing she’s learned the most from our friendship is how to be okay with not knowing. Whether it’s the spiritual environment I grew up in or the poet in me or some combination of both, I have never felt the need to pretend to understand what I know I cannot. More significantly, I have never felt that questions exist primarily to be answered, and I will always fight against an evangelical culture that promotes doubt as something primarily to be stifled. I know of few ways better to alienate people from faith than by doing them the indignity of trying to answer all their questions.

I came across a news headline two nights ago that was so horrific I still freeze up when I think about it. As I tried to process through what I’d read, I thought about how for a while now, I’ve recognized that the deepest gift it feels like I can give to these victims of horrific and unjust narratives is my doubt. I want them to know that my faith stumbles over them, because it does and it should. Too often, these accounts of suffering have been presented to me as things for which I must pray for—God, heal their pain—and then leapfrog over, so that my faith still comes out in front, unscathed and unchanged. I refuse to do this. What am I telling these people about the validity of their pain, and even I would venture to say about the status of their own humanity, if I refuse to let my faith grapple with their suffering? I don’t mean lament in the sense of compassion for these stories, as necessary as that is—I’m talking about engaging spiritually with these stories that we instinctively want to shy away from, close the internet browser, drown out the taste with some passages like Romans 8 or Philippians. That doesn’t do anyone anything good. I’m not saying we should let ourselves drown in the tragedies that occur all around us, but I also don’t think our faith should be a lifeboat for us to stay out of the waves. I’d rather give you the dignity of my bruised and aching doubt than offer a gift—wrapped faith that has not taken your story into account.

I know that we cannot have truth without ambiguity. Language is ambiguous and we cannot have truth without the lens of language to frame it in. A pastor (and someone I genuinely respect) recently asked me who my favorite spiritual writer is, and when I named Frederick Buechner, asked me who that was. That’s a bit of a point in of itself, but I went on to explain how Buechner wrote poetically about matters of faith in an extremely human way. I said something about not liking writers who tried to give me answers. The pastor gave me a strange look and said he didn’t like poetry, he liked books that were straight-edged, hard-angled, and had I ever read John Piper? He then mentioned that he’d tried to read Gilead and couldn’t get halfway through it. I came away with two thoughts: the first was profound re-appreciation for the youth pastor who quoted Tolkien’s appendix to me when I was struggling and is now writing a dissertation involving Marilyn Robinson; the second was the question of how we as a Church are ever going to be relevant to anybody if we can’t resonate with truth as something deeply ambiguous, as more like poetry than prose.

I know that I would rather be recognized as a Christian by the way I live justly than the way I believe ethically. My dad told me once that he had three words when I said I didn’t understand how Christians could possibly support Trump, or blindly vote Republican even when they didn’t support the candidate: “ethics over justice.” When I look at the gospels though, I see a God who found great joy in proclaiming salvation through the acts of healing, love, and justice that foregrounded the kingdom coming down to earth. My boss at work asked me to write an article for the weekly church newsletter on abortion and suggested a book that taught how to defend the pro-life argument in five minutes (and if you had only one minute, they had a paragraph you could memorize and recite.) Abortion is one of the last topics I would ever want to write on, but with little choice, I took the article the only way I could, which was a very different direction: I said that I cringe when I hear the word “abortion,” less because of the idea of killing an unborn child and more because of my enormous reluctance to be associated with a kind of typecasted Christianity; essentially, the kind more known for standing for ethics than living out justice. I then wrote an article exploring how it is much easier to stand clearly for a certain ethic than it is to show that we care for the individual, that we love ministry as much as morality. Thankfully the article went over well and I didn’t get fired for writing an article that looked nothing like what my boss had suggested.

I mention this incident because I’ve been realizing how deeply my faith feels at odds with the culture surrounding me—not the secular culture but the Christian one. I’ve written previous posts with more detailed thoughts on this, and my desire is not to rehash all the problems I find with modern Christian culture. But I want to be honest, here of all places, because I’ve always strived for honesty on this platform: I don’t know if my faith can survive modern evangelical culture—or at least not the culture I feel trapped in at the moment. I’m not talking about thriving either. I think that a large part of why I feel so spiritually confused is because so little of who I am, the questions and experiences I’m wrestling with, and the life stage that I’m at, resonate with the services I sit in or the Christian dialogue around me. It’s growing increasingly difficult to distinguish my faith from my surroundings, and that feels like a kind of dying when my faith feels like it’s made of a very different thread than the web it’s caught in. I don’t know if I’m alone in feeling like this. Assuredly, I need to spend more time appreciating the plentiful number of things about evangelical culture that do exist. But for right now, I feel like my environment is contributing to, not helping to resolve, this spiritual lostness that I’m in. And if I feel like this even with the friends surrounding me and my upbringing, how much more so must others be struggling, those without the blessing of deep friendships or a spiritual upbringing to at least remember?

I know that there is beauty to longing. And if I know this, then I also know that absence can be more beautiful than presence. With absence comes the possibility of remembrance. I remember when prayer felt real (and I, as the pray-er, felt real, rather than feeling like “a person being a person praying.) I remember when the Bible felt true. I remember when church was the only reason I survived each week, when it was the place I felt most alive and something to be deeply trusted. I haven’t felt those things in a long time, but I remember them, piece them back together each day into a mosaic that means something.

Last night, I volunteered with a special needs ministry where I interacted with special children as well as their siblings, and it was the most life-giving thing I could have done (particularly having just read the terrible news article the night before.) It was the first time I’d interacted with special needs kids since high school and it brought me viscerally back to those years teaching adaptive P.E. and special olympics to the most beautiful people I’ve met to this day. It made me realize that, though I can look back to the season of high school as something I would never want to repeat, I can look back to the specific memories of working with those kids as some of the best times of my life. It made me profoundly thankful that that season existed in my life.

I dislike where I’m currently at. I dislike feeling more like confusion than substance, dislike emotionally recoiling every time I try to be honest with God or another person about where I’m at. For the first time I can remember, I’ve wondered if I could actually be at risk for losing my faith—still finding it beautiful, aesthetically beautiful, but not true. At the same time, like in high school, a part of me quietly knows that this is not the end. This is not abandonment, as much as it feels like it. There is the potential for remembrance, and for looking back later and recognizing the beauty of where I’m at because it’s played a fundamental part of who I am then. It is okay to to not be okay. It is okay to feel lost. I believe—by grace I believe—that sometime down the line, maybe tomorrow and maybe not for another ten years, these wounds will re-member me.

a poem for the weary ones (it takes a lot of faith to doubt like this)

Sight deceives:
Childhood taught me this.
Dusky drives home from church
Spent peering out the backseat window
Into the lamp-lit homes of strangers, strangely illuminated,
Warm and esoteric,
Like God,
Like I always knew God was.

But draw close, and the world beyond the sill
Shrinks to signify
The mere luminescence of my longing:
Living rooms are just living rooms.
The flickering world beyond the window
Dissolves again into something language can contain,
Drape itself around the aching middle, like apostasy,
Like hearths are heathens too.

 

words about not believing in words, and maybe not believing in belief, and maybe just not knowing

I am so tired I don’t know why I’m writing. I don’t mean just a physical weariness, an end-of-a-long-week kind of exhausted. I mean that I am so, so tired of how faith has become a game I’ve gotten too good at playing. I mean that I’m tired of how God has become the best way I know of keeping God at bay, of keeping myself safe, and obedience really just a means of propagating my love for self and control, and godly acts leave me feeling so ungodly, and what do any of the words even mean? I want to pray–I want so badly to pray the prayers I know I need, prayers like Help me to be rooted in You; Help me to find my identity in the Gospel and not in all that seems to make me me–but the words, they feel almost excruciatingly hollow for a person who has spent a lifetime digging through words like panning for gold, and I reach for them too easily, reflexively rather than earnestly, and this too is a game, don’t you know that this too is a game that I am playing in this very attempt to call it for what it is?

I can’t find the line between the wrongness of obedience only when I feel like it and obedience only because it keeps God at a distance and allows me to continue to orbit around myself. How do I rescue the Gospel from my own obsessive tendency to make it do something for me? I cannot touch without contaminating; I cannot hold without breaking; I cannot appreciate without squandering. I feel that I am my own most devastating proof against God’s existence: in believing in Him, and all that that belief selfishly attempts to do rather than simply be, I disown Him and replace Him with myself.

I want to love God for God’s sake–not for my sake, not for love’s sake. I want to be real, but it so staggeringly difficult to be real. I’m the daughter of a theologian, the graduate of a Christian institution, and I’ve never felt less like a Christian in my life. I’ve never felt so utterly confused. I spent a summer wrestling with how much I dislike various facets of Christian culture and I am ending the summer by realizing that I am Midas, thinking that I can touch and bestow worth, meaning, truth–touch, touch, touch–and instead, in the end, I am left starved and squandered and sick.