No Language But A Cry

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

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.

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”