“here i am” (or is it, come unto me?) (questions that injure and sustain, and the desire to believe well)
This afternoon, coming back from a run, I found myself sitting beside the fountain outside my house, murmuring the lyrics to an old song my church used to sing at the end of every service:
Here I am, here I am
Nothing much to give, Lord, to You
Here I am, here I am
I’m asking for the privilege
To be used by You, I want to be used by You
Use me, dear Lord, make my life a living sacrifice
Use me, Lord, to be a light in the darkest night
Lord, for Your Glory
And it stung. Partially because I miss that church in a deep way, but also for another reason. Some five years later, I no longer know what it means to say “Here I am”. To be fully and genuinely here, to offer my presence as givenness before the Lord—nor do I really know what that means either. What he is Lord over, what it means to proclaim him as the Lord of (more than, and yet even) myself—Lord of creation, of the whole narrative of existence. And to be used by him, to make my life a living sacrifice, to be a light in the darkest night… I want it, I ache with the longing of it, but I don’t know what it means. I’ve become so deeply aware of how little I know, how much I assume and how small my understanding is of what it means to love God—or more significantly, what it is God loves, and is love for. It is perhaps for this reason that I have not written something complete in months. What right do I have to say anything? Who is this “I” even privileged to speak? What is her place in this staggering world and sometimes overwhelming history?
I’m not trying to theorize; on the contrary, I’m trying to admit that I’m afraid of what it means to seek knowledge. I’ve always argued the necessity of questions and doubts, and yet I’m realizing more deeply than ever how every question is, by essence, a quest, and such a quest necessarily involves injury. It’s not an important question if it doesn’t, by nature, do injury to some part of you—some previously held notion, some stubborn humanness that desires to cling to old understandings, that shies away from revised social imaginaries, to use Charles Taylor’s phrase.
I’m in the midst of a transition—my entire family is in the midst of the biggest transition we’ve had in years—and transition is always a time for introspection. It makes me wonder what I’m doing, what I’ve been doing and what, following my current trajectory, I’m heading towards doing. I don’t believe we ever just arrive somewhere haphazardly. As much as it feels like it, I’m not moving to Princeton in a couple months because somewhere down the line the cue ball knocked into something else and now this is the route I’m heading. Specific experiences, decisions, conversations, even fears, have placed me on this trajectory. It’s a good trajectory, I think—at the least, I’m excited for it, which seems like a positive indication—and yet being in transition is scary. Landing, sometimes, is even scarier. Being aware of your own becoming is disconcerting; you realize that nothing about you is quite permanent, is guaranteed to last.
My Enneagram result tells me that I am shaped by my fear that nothing is quite steady enough to hold on to, that I fear life will require of me more than I can give. I suppose there is enough truth in that to hurt (and for me to start asking all my friends what they are on the Enneagram.) Someone told me once that I can trust myself more than I want to. I think I’ve come a long way since then, and yet moments like these remind me of how far I have still to go, how little I actually do trust myself. Perhaps some people go to seminary confident of all the ways they will grow, how much they will change the world for the kingdom; I’m going to seminary afraid of all the ways I might regress, all the things I might learn that might do more injury than I can stand, afraid of my own humanness.
Christian Wiman writes that if you believe at fifty what you believed at fifteen, you have not lived. Today, like any and every day, I am a year older from something, some person I was, some place I’ve been. In a sense, I can say that I believe less than I did a decade ago. I do not believe the bible is true the same way I used to, though I still find it true enough to live out and live with every day God chooses to let me wake up in the morning. I do not believe in the mechanics of prayer the same way I once did. I do not believe that the Gospel is primarily an invitation to individual salvation, nor do I believe that Christians are even half as “successful” at being joyful, or loving others, as many non-Christians. And yet, in another sense, I believe infinitely more than I did ten years ago. I believe that grace outgives our own selfish longings every time—that it outweighs our shame, outhosts our humanness, and outlasts our pride. I believe that pain of any and every kind can hold indefatigable joy in in its hands, and I believe the insatiable hunger to be loved can translate into love for the other if the intrinsically relational love of the Godhead flows into it. And for every inch of disillusion I have experienced in the past few years, like a cloak that keeps slipping off my shoulders, I have also known the beauty of Christ and his Gospel that, try as I might, I cannot disenchant. These are beliefs as esoteric as they are humble. They are beliefs as much wishful thinking as they are disabused reality. They are not so much beliefs as homeless doubts given a room for the night, a fire to warm by, warm into.
In the end, I do want to be used by God, whatever exactly that means or looks like. I do want my life to be a living sacrifice, and I’ve experienced, though surely not the darkest night, at least enough of my own darkness and quiet loneliness to ache to be a light to someone else’s perceived night. I’ve heard enough unhelpful responses to sadness to want to attempt to do better for someone else, heard enough clichés to want to offer silence. Maybe in the end, this is all I can really say. Here I am, oh Lord, though I don’t know who I am or what it means to be here, and I pray that you use me despite and through all the reasons why you shouldn’t. I fear being a living sacrifice, yet I long to be one. Use me, Lord, to bring to earth a kingdom I cannot understand, for a purpose beyond my grasp, with a love more terrible and wonderful than I can imagine.
“’Come unto me.’ ‘Come unto me,’ you say. All right then, dear my Lord. I will try in my own absurd way. In my own absurd way I will try to come unto you, a project which is in itself by no means unabsurd. Because I do not know the time or place where you are. And if by some glad accident my feet should stumble on it, I do not know that I would know that I had stumbled on it. And even if I did know, I do not know for sure that I would find you there. … And if you are there, I do not know that I would recognize you. And if I recognized you, I do not know what that would mean or even what I would like it to mean. I do not even well know who it is you summon, myself.
For who am I? I know only that heel and toe, memory and metatarsal, I am everything that turns, all of a piece, unthinking, at the sound of my name. … Come unto me, you say. I, all of me, unknowing and finally unknowable even to myself, turn. O Lord and lover, I come if I can to you down through the litter of any day, through sleeping and waking and eating and saying goodbye and going away and coming back again. Laboring and laden with endless histories heavy on my back.”
-Frederick Buechner, The Alphabet of Grace, 29