No Language But A Cry

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

23 years and it comes down to this (or, if i could open a vein for you, it would look like this)

Let me say one last thing: a writer I love and respect says that sometimes we know God best in our missing him. That it’s in his absence that we most deeply experience his presence. I feel that. I don’t believe in God because it’s logical, because it makes sense, because I’ve experienced something life-changing that I can’t explain away—though I do and have. But I believe in God because I miss him. In both senses of the word: that there is an ache in myself and in the world, in existence, that is like a stitch in my side, and it is only by putting Jesus into that wound that life is worth living and finds any kind of wholeness. But in the other sense of the word too: I believe in God because I long for him. Because there is a beauty to the Gospel and to Jesus that has whet a yearning in me I cannot quiet with technology, friendship, aestheticism, or distraction. I find the Gospel beautiful. The parallel between the first Adam and the second Adam; the sacramental re-membering of the Eucharist; the many paradoxes of the Gospel; the consistent pattern in Scripture of God choosing the weak and overlooked over the powerful and wise… And the longing that this beauty stirs in me is so dense, and so intrinsically a part of my identity, that to disbelieve it would be to disbelieve in myself and everything I call real and true. Perhaps, in the deepest sense, God is real because we make him real—in our longing and our love for him, in the unique but communal ways he has touched each of us who claim to know him and left us irrevocably changed. So, at the very least, if I cannot and should not “make” you believe in Jesus, then I hope to God that I can at least make you miss him. There is something powerful to missing, to yearning for something and finding it beautiful, even if you cannot find it true. Beauty and longing may not offer traditional proof, but they tend to change how we live.

-excerpt from a letter to a friend

I logged onto Facebook late this afternoon and glanced over at the “Trending” news articles to see a headline about an eight-year-old boy who’d been brutally beaten to death as he protected his little sister from sexual assault. His name was Dante. I could not do anything for several minutes after I read the headline, which provided more detail than I have here. I felt it—I almost literally felt it—push belief away from me, like magnets repelling each other. What does it mean to believe in the face of this kind of horror? I think of Ivan Karamazov saying that Heaven is not worth the price of one child’s suffering. I think of Alyosha’s wordless response to Ivan’s rejection of God, a kiss mimetic of the one Christ bestows upon the Grand Inquisitor. I think that daily existence, the brutality and brilliance of it, has enough evidence to sustain a thousand years of atheism and Christendom. But what do I know?

In my room right now there sits a painting by Makoto Fujimaru. It is called “Charis-Kairos (The Tears of Christ)”. My friends, to my complete surprise, pooled together to buy me a canvas print of it for my birthday after several months ago I mentioned how beautiful I found it.

makoto

It does something to me, this painting. It doesn’t say that everything is okay. It doesn’t say that everything will be okay. I think it says that despite things not being okay, there is a grief-filled, glowing, gorgeous grace to it all, that washes over everything that is wrong and broken and weary. Upon the blackness we feel inside of ourselves, the temptation to despair, the beauty of Christ will not and cannot fail to illuminate.

Sing unto the autumn hours dripping divine meeting,
All those possibilities out of which your faith was born,
Germinated,
Took root beneath your rib cage. Sing unto
The cavernous nights, when your pain eroded
Like rock and left geologists proof
of your realness.
Learn to gasp your way into grace,
the cold shock of it as it soaks into your wetsuit
and build a childhood inside those Galilean branches—

Build a childhood
With planks you did not have to carry,
With nails you do not have to wear.

I want to say to you that I am a child of this age, a child of unfaith and skepticism, and probably (indeed I know it) shall remain so to the end of my life. How dreadfully has it tormented me (and torments me even now) this longing for faith, which is all the stronger for the proofs I have against it. And yet God gives me sometimes moments of perfect peace; in such moments I love and believe that I am loved; in such moments I have formulated my creed, wherein all is clear and holy to me. This creed is extremely simple; here it is: I believe that there is nothing lovelier, deeper, more sympathetic, more rational, more manly, and more perfect than the Saviour; I say to myself with jealous love that not only is there no one else like Him, but that there could be no one. I would even say more: If anyone could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, and if the truth really did exclude Christ, I should prefer to stay with Christ and not with truth.

-Fyodor Dostoevsky

“Behold, we know not anything
We can be trust that good shall fall
At last, far off, at last to all
And every winter change to spring

“So runs my dream, but what am I?
An infant, crying in the night
An infant, crying for the light
And with no language but a cry.”

 

 

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a letter to myself (with words like Christmas lights and fears like platelets)

Dear Rachel,

Dear 22-going-on-23 Rachel. You just read a segment of Buechner writing a letter to his grandson in which he began by explaining that that particular introduction is significant, because it tells you two things: who you are, and that you are dear. And so I will copy the man as I have so often before and begin by telling you that you, too, are somebody and are dear. If to nobody else, you are dear to me—or at least, you are learning to be, would like yourself to be. You ought to be dear to me, because whose other face do I have? And whose other left hand can I write, and whose other small fingers can I play guitar with, and whose other short legs can I swim and run with? I am learning, Rachel, to find you dear. And yet you are dear to others, and you know that. Dear to the twin who drives you up the wall and whom you drive up the wall—who is the only person in the world who can make you hang up on them on the phone and yet whom you also love enough to foreswear sharing your Hamilton ticket with anyone else should you win. And you are dear to your friends, who have loved you despite your selfishness, put up with you despite your sadness. Dear Rachel.

In the past week, you have noticed a reoccurring pattern in your behavior. You have noticed that every time you have the urge to love someone well, in a way that goes beyond the normative, you have double-checked yourself. You have found yourself saying, No. Don’t do it. Don’t love more intentionally than others seem to love you. Give to the same proportion that you receive. It’s not a thought you can recall ever really having had before. And a few times this week you have not listened, but a few times you have. So Rachel whom someone holds dear, I must tell you: do do it. Love extravagantly. Love prodigally, because you have been loved extravagantly and because in love there is no deficit, no valid fear of poverty. The moment you have the desire to love someone well and check yourself into not doing so, you squander some of your humanity. Certainly, you make it less Christ-like, less in the image of God. There are enough things in the world trying to make you less human for you not to be able to afford to help. Love extravagantly. It is okay to be afraid, to be wary. It is not okay to listen to the fear.

You have many fears. So many you wonder if you are made up of them—anxieties for platelets. You wonder if there is such thing as belonging—a place to hold your longing’s being, hold it gently, like a mother who knows the child in her arms is not hers but who will choose to soothe her anyway. Currently, your longing is orphaned. But one is coming who says he will not leave you orphaned forever. Cling to that. I know it’s hard. Sometimes it gets so damn lonely inside of yourself. I know. Cling to him.

A few nights ago you wrote something you did not understand. Among the mess of poetry, one line said, “Weary, does wheat ever grow weary of being separated from the chaff?” Last night you wrote more things you did not understand, and part of it said this: “If I strung words through my rib cage like fishhooks, like Christmas lights left out all night, will they steadily burn or flicker and fade? How many metaphors for being must I go through before I admit that living is anything but figurative?” I don’t have answers to your questions. I can’t tell you how to handle the weariness of being a good monster, as Jars of Clay aptly put it, or of struggling pretty, as another group calls it. I can’t tell you if the words will outlive you, if they have enough watts in them to sustain the darkness you fear and the darkness you feel. But I can tell you this: you would live as well as you possibly can, even if you knew the weight of those bushels of wheat would crush you in the end. And you would write as often and as persistently as you breathe even if you knew those words would eventually die and leave you robeless, naked and exposed and with feet cold upon tile floors. Keep living, dear Rachel, because living is anything but figurative and you are real, as much as you often feel otherwise. Keep living. Keep writing. PJ says that sometimes your body has to lead your heart, so even as you contemplate, even as you wonder if you want to, keep living and keep writing.

I know that you do not know that you do not know, and the things that you do know are either barbed with grief or laced with hope, and in neither case should the knowing be thought of as painless. Like the song goes, you are “nonplussed on the subject of what’s true.” But also as the song goes, you can have hope without knowledge: “And I hope like death, like love and like Jesus, / Will steal our breath if they come / I believe it / But I don’t know everything.”

You don’t have to know everything as long as you know something, and I think that you do. That’s what I want to end with—remembering your belief. Rachel, you believe that Jesus is beautiful—if “knowing” can mean the kind of intuition a poet has when crafting a metaphor, or of choosing when to create a new stanza. You believe that even if Marilynne Robinson was wrong and there are only a hundred instead of a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, you would live it anyway. You believe that loneliness is real but not true. You believe that “words spoken in deep love or deep hate set things in motion within the human heart that can never be reversed.” You believe that when a six foot six professor said that Christ re-members you, piecing you together again in his mercy, he was telling the closest thing to truth you will find on this side of life. And you believe what the country priest learns at the end of Georges Bernanos’ exquisite novel: “grace is everywhere.”

Dear Rachel:

Grace is everywhere.

 

to the ones who know life to be unbearable (and yet we live anyway, because haunted means holy)

  • I have been thinking about life. How it has a quality of unbearableness sometimes. Or perhaps of being just minimally short of unbearable. I don’t mean in the sense of despair, but in the sheer abundance of its beauty and pain. Christian Wiman calls it the burn of being. I feel that—if not every single moment then more than perhaps the average person. The other night, I had dinner with two friends I haven’t seen in awhile, and afterward I sat on my bed and filtered through memory after memory of the past several years of my life, and I thought about Charlottesville and the book I’m reading, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, and how angry the author must feel that this is still happening, and I thought about friends I love and friends who are gone, or leaving, and the bittersweetness of relationship, and….Being burned. Seared, actually. Life felt unbearable. Sharp, like the high peal of a bell, and resonant, like a double bass—like the Schindler’s List theme, the way it pierces you. And I think that if you have never felt life to be unbearable, you must never have deeply loved. Because all missing begins with loving, and all grief begins with grace. And if life feels unbearable, than somehow even in the pain of it, thanks be to God because I have experienced things and people that were worth loving with everything I had. It hurts sometimes. Remembering hurts like hell. And yet, perhaps the promise is that it hurts like heaven.
  • I am thinking about Charlottesville. I am thinking about people who believe and behave in ways that are so fundamentally different from me that I wonder how we can fall into the same categories of existence—and yet we do. We are both human beings, both persons, both sinners. And if it is absolutely a violence upon human dignity to see skin color as superior or inferior, it would be also be a violence in the other direction to dehumanize white supremacists and label them as Other. It would be the utter act of hypocrisy.
  • To grow older is to grow ghosts. It is to grow ghosts like rings on the bark of a tree, to wonder how many names and faces and places are etched into you, ellipses that ache.
  • What does a ram know of substitutionary atonement? What does a ram know of a father’s sweat running down his face and into his beard as he lifts the knife, or of trembling hands that cover the tears of shock and relief as that terrible voice thunders his name? Does a ram feel his own death as the ultimate gesture of grace, a type of Christ and the symbol of God’s provision for centuries of Jews and Christians? Or does he know only that the knife that so desperately spared the boy is now poised above his own head?
  • Suppose God were to fling
    Salvation across my chest,
    Demanding I receive his love,
    And suppose the self could be bought
    At the price of certainty,
    Handcuffed into forced freedom,
    Brought bareback and bent to Egypt,
    Then would belief course like blood
    Into starved veins,
    Like free speech, like silence
    That pulses, pregnant,
    Ripe with overuse?
    No.
    But when they find my body
    Beside belonging, as if home
    Could be neighborliness,
    I pray they have the grace
    To leave my traumas unrestored.
  • A friend sent me an article awhile back, a wonderfully-written piece on grief and friendship. At one point in the article, the writer claims that love is the opposite of loneliness, and that the former makes you the center of a universe whereas the latter isolates you. While I loved the piece, I can’t agree with this claim. I think being the center of a universe is the loneliest thing in the world; I think that’s exactly what loneliness does to you, it puts you in the devastating self center. But what does love do? Love frees you from that center, tells you to take comfort in your smallness, and makes you the object without being the subject. And if love and loneliness are opposite, my life is an utter contradiction.
  • I’ve been thinking about Graham Greene. Greene was an early twentieth century American novelist, known for what some have characterized as Catholic mystery novels. He’s also associated with the phrase “Christian despair.” I most recently finished The Power and the Glory (his most acclaimed novel) and have been thinking about the idea of Christian despair. I’m sure it’s an oxymoron to most, and perhaps it’s even an oxymoron to me. I don’t know. But I do think there is something to be said about Graham Greene, about his tired, trying, sinning, beautiful characters. They are some of the most human characters I’ve ever read and we as a Church could benefit from grappling with some of the questions and emotions Greene raises. It’s time for things like despair, depression, suicide—all prevalent in his novels—to stop being something over there, suffered only by the select few and far removed from those of real faith, and time for the Church to realize that those things are in its midst. If the Gospel has any real power or truth, it must be a power and truth that speaks into those very places.
  • “My belief is that when you’re telling the truth, you’re close to God. If you say to God, ‘I am exhausted and depressed beyond words, and I don’t like You at all right now, and I recoil from most people who believe in You,’ that might be the most honest thing you’ve ever said. If you told me you had said to God, ‘It is all hopeless, and I don’t have a clue if You exist, but I could use a hand,’ it would almost bring tears to my eyes, tears of pride in you, for the courage it takes to get real — really real. It would make me want to sit next to you at the dinner table.”I don’t know what’s next for me. I don’t know where God is leading me, if he’s leading me, or why he’s given me the gifts and weaknesses he has, or if I’ll ever be a blessing to anybody. Today I sat in the library during my break and looked out the window and thought about how I have no idea what to do with my life. But I read this quote and in another sense I know exactly what I want to do with my life: I want to be the person others want to sit next to at the dinner table. The person who will listen more than she will speak, who will not give answers to people’s pain or questions, who shows grace when others are unjust and loves the ones we forget to see. If ten years from now, fifty years from now, I can be the kind of person that somebody else, no matter their beliefs, would feel safe sitting next to, I’ll have done what I wanted with my life.
  • And with this thought comes this plea: Please. Be honest. Be so honest. About who you are, about the human experience. When I led a small group in high school, sometimes instead of going around and asking each person their highs and lows for the week, I would ask them to share one thing from the week that made believing in God easy, and one thing that made it hard. I could tell you some for me: friendship; classical guitar; being underwater; fireplaces; or else hospital rooms; news headlines; loneliness; my own selfishness. I believe with everything in me that there are people who need your vulnerability, people for whom your confessions will be bread and water, people starving to death in a superficial and shallow culture and who don’t even know it. Save a life. Be honest.
  •  “The tears of God are the meaning of history.” How many times have I written these words on this blog, or on a card, or quoted them to somebody else—and yet when have they ever been more needed? When else in history have we been so inundated with violence, so saturated with boredom, so sick of our own entertainment? And there is for me something almost unspeakably holy about these words. The idea that history—our “endless histories, heavy on our backs”—can be understood within the pool of God’s compassion. The idea that it is not the power or strength of God but his tenderness that gives meaning to our experiences. The idea that the narrative of the human experience finds its deepest reading in the crucified Christ, the God who suffers, and perhaps it is when we find something holy enough to weep over, precious enough to yearn for, that we are nearest to the heart of Christ.

hearths and heathens (“I believe because of beauty”)

When I imagine childhood, that crescent of time when we’re somehow more human than we’ll ever be again, I picture strips of asphalt and living room windows. For the first seven years of my life, my father pastored a church an hour’s drive away. Since the small group we attended always met in the houses of its more proximate members, it sometimes felt like we were eternally making our way home. Sitting in the backseat, drifting in and out of our parents’ conversation, my twin sister and I would gaze out our car seat windows in that hazy twilight between waking and sleeping. By the time we turned off the freeway and into our quiet neighborhood, the world outside was a dark blur broken only by the occasional lights left on in people’s houses. Drowsy, wrapped in my own tangle of arms and legs, the warm air from the vents billowing out the Chicago cold, I’d stare out the window into strangers’ homes. With the infection of night, they seemed infused with mystery—esoteric spaces that opened an ache inside my chest, glowing hearths that seemed to coax whole worlds from their calyxes. Though I knew in my head that these homes were made of walls, ceilings, and floors just like any other, they seemed illuminated into mystery, a grain of belief I did not have to fight to hold.

Some fifteen years later, a diploma under my belt and the awning of adulthood now situated firmly above my head, I am envious of a time when anything—particularly faith—could be held with the gentle grace of childhood. I have felt things now—in hospital rooms and hushed theaters, in the still-life tragedy of an English office and in whispered Lord’s Prayers—that I simply cannot coalesce into one finite reality (is that where my mistake lies? That there is no reality that is not infinite?) The truth is that these days, I struggle to find even one thing that does not require inordinate strength to believe. Living rooms, it turns out, are just living rooms—draw close enough, and the hearth beyond the sill shrinks back into the mere luminescence of your longing, a reality language can contain.

“Lord, I can approach you only by means of my consciousness, but consciousness can only approach you as an object, which you are not. I have no hope of experiencing you as I experience the world—directly, immediately—yet I have no hunger greater. Indeed, so great is my hunger for you—or is this evidence of your hunger for me?—that I seem to see you in the black flower mourners make beside a grave I do not know, in the ember’s innards like a shining hive, in the bare abundance of a winter tree whose every limb is lit and fraught with snow. Lord, Lord, how bright the abyss inside that ‘seem.'”

-Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss

Once, sitting in the back of a different car making its way home from a different church, my sister and I asked our father why he believed in God. I remember his momentary quiet, how it fell like snow upon the dashboard, and then his simple answer: “Because of beauty.” I remember expecting a more dogmatic answer from a professor of philosophy.

At 22, I don’t know much. About the only thing I know with certainty is that I don’t know as much as I thought I did a few years ago. Sometimes—oftentimes—it seems like life got confusing before I got courageous, if I’ve ever gotten courageous, and this daughter of a philosopher who grew up exposed to more theology than the average adult can never quite seem to summon enough faith. Yet if you were to return my question back to me and wait for my own snowfall silence to melt into words, then like so many times before I would quote my father: I believe because of beauty. I believe—because of beauty. Because of Rilke’s poetry and the feel of nylon guitar strings; because of the miracle of friends and the paradox of the gospel; because of the strange amalgamation of darkness and childhood that takes strangers’ homes and flowers them into grace, and the insatiable ache for God that remains our deepest proof of him. If I had to venture a guess on any truth, it might be this: longing, like beauty, is inherently apologetic. Rilke puts it another way, in a prayer that seems to float out an old window and into the surrounding night: “You, the Great Homesickness we could never shake off.”

But the world is more often refuge
than evidence, comfort and covert
for the flinching will, rather than the sharp
particulate instants through which God’s being burns
into ours. I say God and mean more
than the bright abyss that opens in that word.
I say world and mean less
than the abstract oblivion of atoms
out of which every intact thing finally goes.
I do not know how to come closer to God
except by standing where a world is ending
for one man. It is still dark,
and for an hour I have listened
to the breathing of the woman I love beyond
my ability to love. Praise to the pain
scalding us toward each other, the grief
beyond which, please God, she will live
and thrive. And praise to the light that is not
yet, the dawn in which one bird believes
crying not as if there had been no night
but as if there was no night in which it had not been.

-Christian Wiman, “2047 Grace Street,” Every Riven Thing

coming of age in the age of trump (the bildungsroman of a millennial Christian)

I’ve never been interested in politics. I found AP Government one of the most boring classes of my high school career, and the most I learned was that I was a moderate who found herself aligning more with Democratic ideals than the generally-evangelical right. That was the first time I started thinking about Christianity and politics and trying to understand why the Republican party is (generally speaking) the favored among evangelical Christians—but I didn’t think too much about it. There were always more important things to think about, theological questions to pursue, poems to memorize.

It’s July 2017. Donald Trump has been president for only a few weeks shy of half a year. And suddenly I cannot remain the same aloof person I was before. I read the news. I google terms I don’t understand. I read the same story from multiple sources to understand different slants. And while my interest in politics itself has substantially increased, that’s not the reason I’m suddenly reading the news and becoming somewhat politically literate: it’s because for the first time in my life, I am being confronted by a president and administration that deeply offends the core of who I am. This is true of Trump’s political decisions—his stance on many different issues—but this is primarily true of his character. Up till now, I have not written publicly about my opinions on Donald Trump. This is partially because I don’t want to spark inhospitable debate, partially because enough has already been said, and partially because I’m still learning what it looks like to be a Christian interested in politics. But it has reached a point where I cannot stay silent any longer. So, if you don’t want to hear about Trump, this is your cue to stop reading (I don’t blame you.) I’ll even start a new paragraph so you can close this post without accidentally reading more thoughts on Trump.

Five months into his presidency, I am still utterly confused by how Donald Trump is the elected leader of the free world. I am utterly confused by the evangelicals who supported—and still support—him, and I am amazed by the fact that children in elementary school this year must look to the president of the United States as an example of how not to behave. There’s a lot children can learn from Trump: how not to talk about woman; what it means to distort truth and then call it something other than a lie; how to take to social media when anything makes you uncomfortable; what a fallacy is (didn’t ad hominem used to be Latin for Donald Trump?) And in my opinion, there’s a lot Christians can learn from Trump: how not to love the neighbor and the other; how not to practice environmental stewardship; how not to care for the least of these among us—essentially, how not to have a Gospel-centered lens of the world. This is what children and Christians can and should learn from Donald Trump. I cringe when I think of what Donald Trump’s presidency may be teaching non-Christians about us.

For the first time in my life, I’m having to seriously ask myself what it means to be a thinking, feeling, authenticity-striving Christian when the top government official in the country—and therefore, the elected representative of the character and ideals of this country to the rest of the world—violates and offends core parts of me. What am I called to do with my offense and with the things that offend me? What does Christ call me to stand up for, and how does he call me to make that stance? What does it mean to submit to authority and respect government institutions without condoning what utterly offends me? And here’s another thing: I think many churches would be asking these same questions—if Hilary Clinton had been elected president. Because her political agenda traditionally offends Christian morals. I’m not trying to spark debate by saying this, but I am wondering why the politics of Donald Trump is not causing more churches to ask these same questions, and to ask them in community, in a way where people can come together and figure out what it looks like to live in the age of Trump. Are we only offended by “wrong” ethics and not by the lack of justice, hospitality, and character in political decisions as well as in personal character?

A deeper question for me is why so many Christians (particularly millennials) are forced to ponder these questions alone, in the frustration of their rooms and laptop screens, and not within the safe and sanctifying walls of their churches. It is lonely to be a news-reading, millennial evangelical these days. We care about systemic racism and black lives; we care about gay marriage, because as millennials growing up in a rapidly changing world, we don’t first see bible verses, we see faces; we care about Dakota pipelines, Trump tweets, climate change. We have opinions and doubts and questions, and we grow stagnant without communities that interact with those opinions and doubts and questions. What will you do with us, Church? Will you give us a refuge? Will you give us, even, a platform? Or will you let us keep hiding in your midst while older (white, married, male) congregants talk for far too long and far too repetitively of things we wanted to discuss rather than hear.

It’s July 2017. I’ve been out of school for a year, facing all the usual trials and questions that a recent graduate faces. I have doubts, and I have doubts about my doubts. I have friends, and I long for more community. I have a job, and I’m trying to figure out what to do with my life. I’m saving money, and I’m trying to learn what it means to love God with all that is mine. I’m a minority, and for the first time, trying to understand what that means and how it’s impacted me. If my life were a novel, it would be a Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story. The story of the millennial Christian is the story of coming of age in a radically-evolving culture, one in which this utterly unprecedented presidency plays a key role. And the truth is, it’s confusing and frustrating; it’s not like we know anyone else who’s had to come of age in the age of Trump. It’s difficult to know where to look. It’s difficult to know what to trust. And if the answer is the Church, then I think I must confess, it’s an answer that lacks conviction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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