Compassion (v): to suffer with

If you take pen and paper, you can carve confession from in-between the glaciers of my doubt. When the ice melts enough, it’ll dilute the ink, make it run on the page, mar the repentance unholy and the forgiveness invalid. When the flood came, Noah’s ark rode the waves of my carefully constructed creed dripping wet on surfaces already rained through. The story you read on the thin pages thinly bound together has been white-outed first and rewritten by the ones who survived – the lucky ones, we call them, who ran more than they ached. If you want my beliefs straight-edged, see how your knife is sharpened on the sorrows of the world, the way the pain of refugee and college student bleeds onto the arms of a faith already diagnosed anemic. There is so much blood, so much sacrifice, so much selfishness, so much…so much, so much — silence where there should have been words, words where there should have been silence, repression where there should have been tears, creed where there should have been confession, liturgy where there should have been communion, handshakes where there should have been embraces, depression where there should have been covenant, memory where there should have been forgiveness, time where there should have been space, and need, longing, ache, grief, grieving, weep, weak, wet like genocide, like the fingerprint of mystery trying to leave its mark, trying to hold a presence, trying to fill, to cover, to make up for the lack thereof…

To the Syrian refugee who lost everything in order to gain nothing…
To the victims of school shootings and the victims of threats of school schootings…
To the woman who blinded herself because she thought she deserved to be disabled…
To the one afraid to sleep because of nightmares…
To the one afraid to wake because of real life…
To the ones who died, are dying, are afraid of death, or want to die…

Somebody’s faith stumbles for you. Somebody’s faith trembles in the face of what you have experienced. Somebody’s faith wants to plead the fifth, wants to trust but is afraid, feels your pain and the helplessness of its own belief to change another’s circumstance. Somebody else cares enough to allow their faith to falter. To the one who is suffering – I am suffering with.

The Crucified God (or, He stretched his arms wide enough)

I confess that in moments of distress, I often turn to Rilke before I turn to the Bible. There is something about the poet’s language – the way he wrestles through anguished questions without giving an easy answer, the way the words are fresh and new, the way his pen seems to weep the tears you wish you had inside you… Rilke’s poetry often seems to stand in stark contrast to so many Bible verses I have heard people quote over and over again (and usually out of context). This is what Rilke wrote in his fourth Duino Elegy: 

Above, beyond us,
the angel plays. If no one else, the dying
must notice how unreal, how full of pretense,
is all that we accomplish here, where nothing
is allowed to be itself. Oh hours of childhood,
when behind each shape more than the past appeared
and what streamed out before us was not the future

And later, in the tenth Elegy:

And gently she guides him through the vast landscape of Lament,
shows him the pillars of the temples, and the ruined walls
of those castles from which, long ago, the princes of Lament
wisely ruled the land. Shows him the tall
trees of tears and the fields of blossoming grief
(the living know it just as a mild green shrub);
shows him the herds of sorrow, grazing, — and sometimes
a startled bird, flying low through their upward gaze,
far away traces the image of its solitary cry. —

On this Saturday morning, I am reading Rilke and listening to Itzhak Perlman’s violin heartbreakingly soar its way through the Schindler’s List score. This morning, the poet and the musician are my intercessors, helping me to pray words I can’t find, helping me to wrestle through emotions I don’t want to think about.

This first month of my junior year (and what is likely to be my final year at Wheaton) seems quietly characterized by the theme of death. I don’t mean this morbidly, and I don’t necessarily mean death as strictly the cessation of living. I guess I mean that everywhere I turn, everywhere I look, there rests the soft, almost gentle presence of entropy in so many things and places. In a sick professor who has been in the hospital since my third day in the class – a professor who means so much to me. In more sick professors and people who step in front of trains and news’ headlines that make me feel sick. In my own brokenness, my infallible weakness and tendency for sin and selfishness.

Sometimes it is so difficult to believe that the garden did actually exist at one point – that it wasn’t simply some mythological invocation to start the epic, too transcendent to ever have been real, but that that level of beauty was once simple reality. It is difficult to believe that one day the garden will exist again, in even greater depth and magnitude, and that I – that we – will be in it. How does one, even with all the poetry and music and friendship that exists in the world, learn to walk the thin line between selflessness as a compassionate virtue and selflessness as the result of too much squandering? If I poured myself out and drank what cup I could and worked with my hands and my words and my heart to redeem some of the pain I see around me, would it mean anything?

I am here. And He is here. And death is here. These three statements are true, and as much as I can reconcile any two together, my small self cannot reconcile all three. But I admit, as I must continually force myself to say both aloud and in my heart – I admit that I am small. I admit that I am finite, and I cannot see all ends. I admit that there is a level of both suffering and beauty that my small self can only tremble to acknowledge. And for every glimpse of death I see as a college student making her way through formative years, there is an equal glimpse of beauty piercing through the tremulous membrane between what is now and what will be. I will wait. With tears and fear and perhaps even a small amount of faith. In every instance where I cannot reconcile the realities of what I see and what I believe, there Jesus will meet me – the crucified God, who reconciles all realities – painful and beautiful, by sight and by faith – to Himself.

“if i give it all to You, will You make me all new?” (true learning to be Truth)

Before I write anything, let me begin with what I know is true:

  • Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
  • He has transferred me out of the domain of darkness and into the kingdom of His beloved son, in whom I have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
  • Somehow, illogically, inconceivably, my weakness has some kind of a sharpening or refining effect on the power and strength of God. When Paul writes that “His power is made perfect in weakness,” he is not being metaphorical. In some incredible way that I can’t understand but have to trust, my weakness is valuable.
  • I am not defined by how others see me, by the classes I take, by my major, by my relationships, by my job experience, by what I do, by how well I can speak, by any object or person or idea or conviction that attaches itself to me. I am the one who is loved by Jesus. And his love is (and how freeing this is) entirely for the individual child of God that I am. I am not loved because I read the bible this morning, because I have good memory, because I have meaningful friendships, because I pay attention in classes, because I want to serve. His love is. It is not because of anything – it becomes my because through which everything else is a gift.
  • I will fail this year. I will fail academically – particularly in my advanced German course. I will fail relationally. I will not love people as I ought. I will love for reasons other than for love’s sake. I will fail at growing more and more into Christ’s likeness. I will fail in prayer. I will fail in forgiveness toward others and myself. I will always, always, always set standards too high for me to ever reach. And grace will always catch me. Grace will far outrun and outlast my failure – always, forever, eternally. Jesus doesn’t just accept my failure, but he in his re-membering nature takes what is corrupt and spoiled in me and remakes it into something new. There is no poverty in the kingdom.

These things are true. They are true. They have been promised to me in Scripture, and God’s character is His covenant with me. Before I process anything else, before I speak anything else or listen to any other voice, I must listen to the voice of the Gospel delivered to me in the human, physical, substantial body and personhood of Christ.

There are so many things I don’t know right now. The reality of no longer being a kid keeps hitting me over and over again. I have so many fears and insecurities running through me. A professor who means quite a lot to me quietly announced today that he has a serious medical condition. I just finished a summer I am only beginning to sift through and process. There is uncertainty around every doorstep, crawling through walls I have tried for years to insulate with unhealthy habits and intellectual discipline. And this is good. It doesn’t feel good but in many ways, the fear and uncertainty is forcing me to better construct myself, insulate walls with things that are godly, that feel less substantial but take far less of my humanity with them. I am learning what it means to be human. And that is both a terrible and beautiful thing. I am learning what it means for God to be God. And that is a terrible and beautiful thing.

There is a song I like that asks, “If I give it all to You, will You make me all new? If I open up these hands will You fill them again?” I don’t know much, but I believe deeply that the answer to both those questions is Yes. Yes, Jesus remakes and refills, and he does it most beautifully when I allow Him into the parts of me that feel empty with neglect and loneliness or too full with anxiety and fear. Jesus gives me a Yes I can trust. He is the Yes I can trust, in whom all the promises of God take on their affirmation in flesh. When I do not know, Jesus is still always the face of God I can trust.

Saugatuck (an alibi)

In Saugatuck, on long boardwalks and lakeside fronts,
sunlight filters down upon straw hats and sunglasses.
Around one shy corner sits an artist’s shop,
where hundreds of Michigan portraits display their curves and edges,
and a single painter leaves his fingerprints.
I have one painting against my bedroom windowsill – a landscape portrait
of a distant, milky lighthouse framed by charcoal and violet rocks.
The crests of ocean waves crash upon the rocks – but silently,
for in still life, all is calm, quiet. We know serenity by its capacity
for reproduction.
Somewhere in another place, breakers break upon ragged rock,
their violence stolen, no more the ability to speak.

If I am alive today, it is because in another time and place,
I stole the breath from somebody else’s lungs.
The secret to human existence is this: we cannot hold
without having taken; we have never kept what belonged to us.
If you unscramble the letters that form me,
they will rearrange to write somebody else’s survival,
in Times New Roman we seal our fate
and make headlines hide our hubris from the heavens.
I never tried to live. When I inhale, I feel my ribcage contract where
I stole my beloved’s rib,
every breath framed in a space I had to tear to own.

If you are alive tomorrow, it is because in another time and place,
a promise of paleontological redemption fed your sleeping skin.
They found your crumbling bones in the sand.
In the museums they reconstructed you and discovered
poetry in your hands, moistening your dehydrated soul, baptism by verse.
When they fit your lungs back in your chest, they said there
was something of the slave spiritual in your breath.
Tomorrow, when they wake you, sing Go Down Moses as a prophecy.

Yesterday, I walked alone along the turquoise shore.
The coastline lost its voice a long time ago, but I swear I could hear singing in the shale.

two poems of waiting (one for heaven, one for earth)


You come like wistfulness through our smokescreen speaking.
It’s not by Your footsteps that I know You. It’s not by Your breath
or the cadence of Your song. I know You instead
by the consistency of my need, by my longing most recognized in Your absence,
and by the way my best prayers are the letters I write when I miss You.
Perhaps I have always known myself by the lisp in my faith,
this wanting that is always found wanting,
and terrified of how much it hurts – I am terrified
that one day my wanting will be found no longer wanting.
In starved ribcages is fullness molded in Your likeness,
and my bones bend (but can they break?) as faith ripens backward into need.
I have never heard Your voice but I have always longed for it.
When the Gospel bursts with sweetness,
it will seed the wine we already crushed into grapes.

I take the cup, “drink and remember,” but I remember what I never knew.
Somehow it follows that I love where I never wooed,
and reap where I never sowed.
Faith is the promise that the process runs in reverse –
that we act in remembrance now for what we will one day
finally experience; every memory is a foretaste.
When You return, I will know You by the coattails of Your presence,
the faded truth of a ‘will-be’ I never stopped remembering.

II.  To wait with my hands limply at my sides is the hardest
form of obedience.
My fingers want to dig, to sift through the question marks,
search for security that is not guaranteed —
there is so much that needs to ripen first.

You who are tired of waiting,
whose feet are sore from imagined steps,
and even starvation feels a truer thing than feasting on the future…
You must sit in cafes with music that does not rush you,
and write long letters to the silence of your self.
Do not ask yourself who will read them; do not squeeze forth
their premature cries with a postage stamp and envelope.
Listen to the stillness of your hands. Let them unlearn their trembling.
Hands are for giving first – giving up, giving away
even when the ink still stains your palms,
says that love is cursive and ballpoint and illegible.
Even when it will take a few thousand years for writing
to mean something other than waiting for what is unripe.

the kingdom on a thursday morning (an autobiographical story)

They sit in St Bavo cathedral in Harlaam, The Netherlands, upon whose enormous organ the fingers of Mozart and Handel had once played, and hold midday service. In a small corner of the imposing church, with a hundred tiny, flickering candles in the back and rows of wooden chairs, a scrawny little man plays a hymn on a scrawny little organ, an old woman with the voice of a squirrel reads from Lukas 4, Mary’s Prayer, and the two American girls do their best to follow along with the Onzevater. The words sound like jibberish, less coherent than a nursery rhyme told from the lips of Tweety Bird himself, while the old man with knee high socks and feet that can’t touch the ground stammers his way through the meditation and the cold gravestones underneath the chairs look away in embarrassment. One felt that it was a child’s game, this midday service – that it is play acting, glue and tongue compressors trying to build a castle. One wonders if when Paul wrote about the church being like sheep on their way to slaughter, he was referring less to a slaughter by swords and more to a slaughter by laughter, of the sheer ridiculousness of it all and the mocking laughter of the first century passerbys, echoed twenty centuries later in this ancient cathedral. The very image of blundering sheep almost asks to be conjured in the mind – bleating Mass in the language of lock jaw and double “oo” and random “j”s thrown in everywhere, while the sun shines brightly through the stained glass windows and the holy but pathetic flame of the candles realizes its glow is utterly useless next to the impossibly luminous world outside it.

And yet… One felt also that within the absurdity of the whole thing, somehow this moment in this scene in this church on this street is somehow the closest thing to the Church, to the body of Christ, as anyone will ever experience it. That in the absurdity is somehow solemnity, and reverence, and in the tiny man something of Luther, in the squeaky woman’s words of Mary’s prayer something of that original exultation, and in the Americans’ naive and infantile attempts to phonetically sound out “Onze vader die in de hemel zijt, uw naam worde geheiligd,” Jesus’s command to receive the Kingdom like a child is ery nearly obeyed. That maybe, in all the prayer meetings, theology courses, mega conferences, and church services these people have attended throughout the course of their lives, none has ever been as near to touching the heart of God than this.

One feels all this and is tired. The beauty still resonates but so also does the ache, and the questions weary of their own asking, and the loneliness that fears its own forgetting and thus repeats itself over and over again. The grace repeats itself also – for every “I am alone” is a “Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you.” One hears both these voices and is tired. Somehow each morning finds the strength to be a child again, though the heart feels old, disenchanted, disillusioned. But the Gospel enters into this also. It re-enchants and re-woos and says that all will not end with disillusionment. The heart will feel whole again. The farce of faith will be the feast of the eyes. It says that yes you are tired, and you are afraid, and you are wounded, but there will come a day when, thanks be to God, the wound will be the inaugurating kiss of Kingdom on a sore and longing earth.

Amsterdam (faith, with fear and tears, but faith nevertheless)

There is a Frederick Buechner quote that many of you have probably heard before – in fact, I think I’ve said it or written it several times. It goes like this:

“The place where God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

I’ve always appreciated this quote. There are certain spheres of life that I feel gifted in, and many that I do not. There are certain tasks that bring me deep joy and many that do not. I believe and agree that God has crafted each of us in unique ways, given us talents that are not simply for pleasure’s sake but for kingdom’s sake – and that those are the places we are called to give and to serve.

I’m realizing something else though these days, as I work in a kitchen for hours everyday: The place where God calls you is also very simple – it is the place where you are. Where you are is where God is calling you. And sometimes it isn’t work that brings you deep gladness. Sometimes it’s work that is unfamiliar and outside of your comfort zone. Sometimes it is work that leaves you exhausted at the end of the day, work that does not bring you life and that the world does not seem hungry for. Right now, the place that God is calling me is the place where a 4 ft 11 English major tries to navigate an extremely tall, Dutch kitchen, grimacing through the math that will enable her to convert between liters and cups, refilling water pitchers for the eighth time, putting down the pitcher in time to give a gentleman his coffee and unload the dish washer, calling out Dutch and German and French and Turkish names and butchering them in the process, and doing exactly the kind of repetitious and multi-tasking work that she is neither gifted in nor finds deep gladness in. But she is called here. Because this is the place where she is. And the place where we are is the place where we are called.

My youth pastor once “gave” me this quote from a movie: “You can love completely without complete understanding.” He meant it in a different context back then, but I find this quote coming to mind as I live and work in Amsterdam. I can love completely without complete understanding. I can serve completely, give of myself completely, without understanding why I am here, why God brought me here, what exact purpose I am supposed to be fulfilling. I don’t know why I am here – what I do know is that I am here. And of the very little sense of God’s presence I can glean these days, the strongest sense I can get is that the Why is not mine to try to answer. All that is mine to answer is if I lived faithfully in where God has placed me.

God has felt frighteningly absent the majority of my time working in Amsterdam. Though I pray before every shift, though I have read 63 psalms in less than a month, though I am living in a Christian community, God has been – at least He has felt – staggeringly silent. And this has hurt. To be in an unfamiliar place, doing work that feels chosen for the wrong person, and to also be begging for God’s presence and feel incredibly alone – this has been the hardest thing so far. But in and through these moments, I’m finding that the Gospel can and must be believed most deeply in the moments when it feels the least true. And that the Gospel is not for when I feel safe, it is for when I feel the most terrified – it is for when I read about a horrific shooting in my country, read the explosion of posts on Facebook, and feel a world away and utterly helpless to do anything, wondering what good it is to be working in a kitchen while the world keeps breaking around me. I wrote this in my journal a few days ago:

“Jesus doesn’t just bring beauty. He became the ugly. He’s not just in the suffering and redeeming the suffering; he became the God who suffers. I’m sitting in my room, trying to hold in the tears, begging God to feel a little closer than a universe of weakness away, and yet I know he doesn’t just see my tears but he wept them himself. And it doesn’t feel like enough – it doesn’t feel even an iota enough, because I’m still aching with a kind of loneliness I can’t describe – but I know it is enough. It is enough. I’m dying to see him, to feel him, to touch him, but I believe he died to make me touchable.”

I guess I’ll end this post by saying this: It has been hard. This has been the hardest week. And yet, I feel clearly that God is giving me grace. It’s ironic, since I just attempted to describe how utterly far he feels, and yet I mean it. In and maybe even because of his seeming absence, I feel his grace giving me a better attitude and more strength than I could possibly have on my own. The only reason I am able to pour myself out each day is because he is pouring out his grace upon me – I believe that with all of my heart. And he’s meeting me in quiet ways – especially through my friends at home, who amaze me with their support, who consistently arrange their day in order to Facetime with me, or who write me letters ,or send me relevant quotes, and who pray for me when I cannot pray for myself. I am so thankful for the community of friends at home who have been continually encouraging me. It is through their love that I am pushed to remember his. To you who are reading this – thank you. And to You who are reading this – the fact that You are reading this is enough.

Amsterdam in bullet points

It’s been nearly a month since I’ve written on this blog, making it one of the longest stretches of time I’ve gone without writing in almost four years. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the main reason is that I am currently living in Amsterdam without a computer, and typing lengthy paragraphs on my phone is a continually discouraging thought. Nevertheless, I will try because I feel a bit like a handicapped person yearning to use her legs. I’ve talked semi-consistently with a few people via technology while in Europe, and I’ve written two email updates, but for the most part I haven’t said much specifically about YHM or how the past two weeks have been. It is surprisingly difficult for me to process so far. I want to – I feel the yearning to sort through my thoughts and emotions and find the right string of letters to articulate it all – but I don’t know how. I can answer fact-based questions but that’s about it. For this reason, the rest of this post will just be a list. I was telling someone yesterday that lists are a great way to write when you don’t know how to organize your thoughts. This won’t be a list about anything specific, simply bullet point sentences that flow out of my mind in the moment. I know they won’t really tell you how I’m doing (when I find out the answer to that question, I’ll try to let you know), but perhaps they can give you a taste of what life has been like. Whether or not the remainder of words on this post are at all beneficial to you, I write them in the hopes that poets are true and echoes really do exist.

  • Denise and I, after being trained for morning shift in the cafe only once each, were assigned to run the cafe together this morning. A few words to shed light on this experience: language barrier, French toast, Saturday morning rush hour, grill, dish washer, burn, complaining customer, refund, “Paulos, how do you __?”
  • Apparently English people say “plaster” instead of Band Aid.
  • No one uses the word “college” in Europe.
  • The first night in the community house, the other girls on my team sat on my bed and we read Rilke’s “The Prodigal Son” aloud together.
  • When I think about how excited I am for school to start again in the fall, I realize how truly blessed I am to be at Wheaton. Only a few years ago, I dreaded every waning summer day that meant less time between me and the start of another year of high school.
  • Sometimes movies can be an amazing bridge. The hostel has a thing called film discussions where they will invite travelers to watch a movie – not The Passion, mind you, but a normal movie – and then later discuss it. I attended a discussion where three German guys, a British couple, and four hostel workers – one Dutch, one Hispanic, and two American – watched “Into The Wild” together. Afterward, people who’d never spoken together before had a thought-provoking, profound discussion about loneliness, family, freedom, and religion. Even though Christianity was not overtly mentioned, I have no doubt that all of us went home that night deeply challenged
  • Friendship is important – friendship in a foreign country is vital. I’m thankful for the friends who visit castles with me and put up with my endless obsession with bridges, chocolate, and books.
  • You can be too tired to read poetry. (Yes, I just wrote that.)
  • Introversion may be personality and extroversion can be worked on for the sake of character, but personality is also personality and I feel like the world’s most burned-out introvert.
  • Writing postcards is the equivalent of taking a nap.
  • Singing “Ten Thousand Reasons” with my new German friends (or trying to) remains one of my favorite moments so far.
  • Sometimes you have to remind yourself that home is still home even when you are not there – that the people you love are still there, that the familiarity exists even when you are gone, that there is a place where you are understood without explanation.
  • Sometimes you have to remind yourself that just because someone doesn’t know you, just because someone does need explanation, does not mean that they are not people worth getting to know or that they care any less.
  • “I love You – the Great Homesickness we could never shake off.”
  • There is nothing I can feel that the psalmist did not.
  • Jesus is in the effort.

“the tombstone for loneliness is mother-of-pearl and September”

 “The strongest guard is placed at the gateway to nothing. Maybe because the condition of emptiness is too shameful to be divulged.” 

-F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night

1. The tombstone for loneliness is mother-of-pearl and September
2. Vaulted ignorance, feigned mortality held by the hands of introverts
3. Tender spaces brimming with our man-made constellations
4. And we never found the word to encapsulate the thing

6. Wo ist die Heimat? Die Heimat ist immer hier[1]
7. The homeland can never be found in contained places
8. Within the limits of language distancing us from the concept
9. The quiet of childhood, of uncertainty that is beautiful
10. Keat’s negative capability — that is all the gateway holds

12. We believed in time once. In past redeemed and future hope
13. Eliot’s Four Quartets wasn’t a poem then but an unabstracted truth
14. Written as an epitaph for our solicited graves
15. It takes more than metaphors now to move us
16. Remember, re-member, walk down lanes, cobblestone
17. The pitter patter of shoes on extroverted surfaces

19. In walks along abandoned coasts the sea never quite looks the same
20. In mirrors along forsaken homes our bodies never quite look the same
21. It takes more than the truth to convince us of something – it takes
22. Imagination, wearing a crown of thorns, reinventing what it means to live
23. While outside you, someone flips a page and you go back to being dust.

[1] “Where is the homeland? The homeland is always here”

“these fragments i have shored against my ruins”

In Libya on a south Mediterranean coast
they took the heads of twenty-one made imago Dei.
And somewhere between the salt and the sea I strive to believe
Your blood can somehow make theirs beautiful.

In Nairobi, Kenya, the twilight glow of candles burns in an attempt
to hold back the violent deluge of darkness, 147 bodies strong.
Prayer, made naked in its grief, illuminated by flicker and flame,
blindly pushes its way out of the swollen belly of loss.

“The tears of God are the meaning of history.” We have heard it said before,
but it is something else to have the courage to hold the words in our hands,
trust in their gentleness as an epitaph, their firmness as an epigraph.
Somehow in Jesus are held safe the martyrs of the Egyptian church,
the students of a Kenyan university, my own fear, the taste of my unbelief.

Somewhere in a respectable, affluent suburb of Illinois,
I sit in an English lecture and try to make these faces real to me.
But I am here, not there, and the reality of those places is fragmented,
comes in broken images through the pixels of my laptop. I am god.
The power to “minimize,” to skim, to close one window and open a new “browser” –
My gift as a middle-class American is to browse,
to window-shop which tragedy I want to care about….
Two Novembers ago as a freshman in a prestigious Christian college,
the daughter of beloved Dr. Rim found herself in the psychiatric ward of a hospital.
Laceless shoes, lockless doors, plastic knives that had to be approved before tossed;
faceless doctors, speaking to she who was also faceless, face-stolen;
fear like grapes bursting in our lungs as sour wine,
overripe, conversations full to flooding, the communion of the dammed, damned —
and Quentin’s suicide more than a fictional scene in a novel.

Out there, out there is martyrdom, the cold, fogged glass of a world
I cannot see clearly into, but in here is only a troubled mind, a healing heart,
memories like food too rich for digestion.
They call me a poet, but my words are always absence before they are presence.
Somehow I have to believe up there (and in here) (and so close) is another Poet,
one whose words are eucatastrophe, hope without deconstruction,
the true poetry beneath my need.