No Language But A Cry

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

“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

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The Beauty of This God (or, wholly inadequate words for a Gospel that astounds me)

I’ve been reading copious amounts of Walter Brueggemann lately—I seriously can’t get enough of him—and his scholarship has this way of making me fall in love with God in new and deeper ways. Today, as I meditate on the intentional joy of Easter, I started creating a list of some of the things I’m learning about who this God is. It’s impossible to explain the beauty I find in the Gospel and this Gospel-giving God, but I pray that these thoughts might increase your own sense of beauty in this God.

(Disclaimer: I’m not a theologian (yet), so please don’t take anything as intentionally heretical.) 

  • A God of relational fidelity, a God of covenant-partnership. One whose personable faithfulness overrides stoic notions of certitude. A God who is not “fair” but yet is astoundingly, graciously faithful. A God who carries relationship at the very core of his being.
  • A God who is so personable that he deigns to face-to-face encounter with his creation—perhaps not face-to-face in the traditional (or literal) sense, but to the degree that he offers us enough of a facial encounter to dialogue with, to engage in a I-Thou dialectic, to receive our critiques and frustrations and return them as renewable, shifting the shape of our encounter.
  • A God whose narrative of emancipation counters the anxious system of production and consumption that we live under, that the first Israelites lived under in Pharaoh’s regime, and frees us into the creative Sabbath rest of the God in whose image we are made—and from which we derive a politic of social justice that must go hand-in-hand with such narrative.
  • A God whose grace is generative and deeply creative, who invites us not simply into personal salvation, a safety harness for the next life, but who invites us into participation in the grand renewing of creation itself, the fabric of shalom that we have the privilege of helping weave upon this very earth. A God whose deliverance is not escapist but transformative.
  • A God who has the kindness to leave most of our prayers unanswered, or answered in ways contrary to our wishes, and who instead reaches in deeper, to our innermost selves, and redeems those parts of our hearts we don’t know, or have forgotten, we have, those best dreams and hopes and prayers we choose perhaps to forfeit because the best of us can demand more than we fear we can give.
  • A God who reveals himself in an incarnate person, in a specific point in history, into the particularities of time and place and culture, and gives us a face to examine, words to mull over, actions to marvel at. A God who anchored himself into history and thus made himself endlessly vulnerable to our scrutiny and debate, and who used the specifics of environment, society, politics, art, and relationship to fulfill long-held expectations in completely unexpected ways, inaugurating his kingdom in understated wonder. A God who has chosen to take the long, inarticulably fallible way of using his creation to unfold his mission in the world.
  • A God who persistently disrupts our lives (e.g. the call to Abram, Moses, Samuel, the fisherman disciples), yet whose disruption has “deep and abiding durability.”
  • A God subject to the flexibility and oscillation of relationship, whose covenant-making humility of entering into a pact with his creation, is also the very reason we can and must utilize artistic engagement to dialogue with him.
  • A God who does not leave us where we are, but is always inviting us deeper, into new layers of discovery, into new acts of creative collaboration, into more intimate partnership and more honest dialogue and more life-giving encounter.

learning to be afraid well (thoughts on change, dearly loved professors, and a gospel like spring)

It is March, and Sunday, and I am afraid. Truthfully, these day most Sundays I feel afraid, have learned to dread the slow onslaught of the inevitable Sabbath that I once used to count as my saving grace to get me through another week of school. Living in Wheaton, Illinois, Sundays are a weekly reminder of unbelonging. They carry with them the message that I do not wear my faith the same way as what (erroneously, I’m sure) it feels like everyone else does—that how I understand myself and the world in response to the narrative I call the Gospel is fundamentally different from how the people around me do, the people dressed so neatly, their best foot forward because church, like everything else in life, is a dance of false images.

And I know. Church is not always that, church is that and yet so much more, can be a place of abundant grace, a source of imperfect but genuine community. I know because I’ve experienced that, and sometimes I must remind myself that for all that my family has moved from church to church more times than some people change hair stylists, each new place has brought its own gift. That has been the case, that will be the case. Yet in this season of life, I still fear Sundays.

This morning, my stomach twists with all the many things I cannot learn to hold. I cannot hold them because they are not mine to hold on to, are not mine to covet, clasp, or cling to though they perhaps hold me in their own palms. My life, my future, the vast frames of who I am that, in humble actuality, are far, far smaller than I can ever know. Take comfort, oh small one, in your smallness. Your fear does not befit you, Rachel. You are not this big. Your God is not so implacable.

It is March, and 2018, and last week I flew into a strange city by myself and navigated unfamiliar streets in the rain, and this week too I will go through the familiar litany of packing and arriving way too early at an airport, and in a couple months everything will change (or nothing will change, nothing substantial, eternal, just more hop-scotching across different squares that end up at the same place), and in a few hundred lifetimes maybe things will slowly, finally start to make the semblance of sense. Maybe it is grace that I do not have a few hundred lifetimes. Maybe mercy begins with that which cannot be understood.

Once, Roger Lundin sat atop the edge of a desk and recited Emily Dickinson’s poem about Christ the Tender Pioneer—only he didn’t recite it as much as he spoke it as a benediction over us. And once, for an hour three days a week, I believed in a remembering God and his steadfast love in a way I’m not sure I can ever go back to, simply because that belief was so wrapped up within the teacher, the pastor who raced around the classroom with Huck Finn balancing atop his head, who so marveled at the technology of the iPad and spoke of the day he met his wife with such loving tenderness. Faith, in that semester, felt synonymous with the professor who invited me into his office and told me that he saw me, and who, a summer break later with a perilous diagnosis quietly tucked under his belt, invited me back into his office on the first day of the new school year and told me that he remembered me, that he’d woken up that morning excited to see me and my God what did I do to deserve even those twenty minutes. Let alone the entire previous semester. Let alone the privilege of remembering for the rest of my life the six foot six man who in some ways still gives me the courage to live my life.

It is March, and 2018, and Sunday, and I have been given infinitely more than I deserve. And like spring, the Gospel returns and returns in each new season with hues I hadn’t previously noticed, and each time sustains me through the long winters and whets my sense of beauty at the newness of life unfolding around me. And I am still afraid; contrary to most sermons, fear does not usually dissipate that fast. But it is fear, I hope, that is learning to hold itself lightly. If the Christ is indeed the pioneer who has traversed all paths first, and if indeed he is tender, even the unknown is grace.

on hospitals and hunger, and words you’ve heard me say a hundred times (or, writing into the darkness, only half-believing)

I’ve been meaning to write for a few weeks, but lately it seems like I can never find words to say. Perhaps nothing is happening; perhaps too much is happening. While there are always things I’m learning, books I’m reading, questions I’m pondering, it all feels so mundane and repetitive—do you really want to hear me say yet again that I believe because of beauty?

It doesn’t make sense, but I think I feel both too comfortable and too challenged. I don’t know how that can be. In some ways, working a stable if mundane job, living in a safe town, with familiar people, it all feels too safe, too easy to be lulled into false confidences, a sense of self-sufficiency. At the same time, the past few months have felt like a whirlwind of events ever since my great-grandmother’s funeral, which looking back, I don’t think any of us would have anticipated as the sort of ushering in of a new season of…everything. Change is both necessary and horrible for people like me, who are a little cautious and wary by nature. And it’s amazing how things can feel so normal and yet so strange at the same time.

Last night, I lay in bed and under the hazy cover of darkness, snow falling steadily outside my window, felt immersed in old traumas, partially-healed wounds. It’s been a long time since I’ve thought about a lot of those things—a fact for which I’m thankful, that I know is only grace—but it felt more of a shock for that very reason. I almost felt surprised by the act of remembering: did that really happen? I find that when I look back upon painful things, one of two things tends to happen: either the sheer power of emotions feels impossible to conceive in the safety of the present, or else I wonder how in the world I survived such an event, such a season—in those moments, I think that remembrance can bring a sharper pain than the actual lived experience.

Four Novembers ago, I spent four days and three nights alone in a hospital. Thrust into a strange world with rules no one cared enough to explain to me, knowing no one, the youngest person by far, all my sensitivities exponentially heightened by the cold logistics of the place—I’ve never felt that kind of fear in my life. The utter lack of control was astounding, as was the impersonal callousness of the doctors, the feeling of being stripped away of all that was me and forbidden to rebuild myself except to the image they created for me. I learned that health and sickness were not so much states of being as labels of identity sculpted by other hands and handed out to you for keeping. I’ve never written directly on this blog about this experience in the hospital, and this morning as I lay in bed remembering the night of remembering, I forced myself to admit why: because the stereotypes are so strong, the desire to maintain my persona too deep. And then I remembered the terror, the loneliness of it not just during but after, and realized my silence would only contribute to the stigma for countless other individuals who’ve undergone the same thing. So here’s to the truth of it: I’ve been hospitalized. Maybe you have too; maybe your best friend has, or your coworker. Someday, maybe our society will progress enough to learn to baptize those wounds, nurse those traumas, with remarkable tenderness.

Suppose there was a time beyond time when God walked among the fig trees and onyx stone in the cool of the evening. Suppose his footsteps fell to a rhythm you could tap to, and his shadow lengthened in the very late of the day so that you could track the seasons by his humanity, his humble obedience to natural law. And suppose you and I were there in that garden, working the earth with our hands, the soil dark and rich in our fingertips and the dust birthing our souls. Would we have known ourselves as lonely and thus found communion with the other? Or would it have been our communion that taught us the possibility of loneliness? Did grief come first, or the longing for redemption and thus, the necessity of something to grieve for? Even now I wonder if original sin came about because some hidden part of humanity ached for all the worlds our sin would open—like the Sahara after a rain when all that hungering death births into life unimaginable.

Damascus Moment

On that gravel road
Riding north along the sea,
A light brighter than the sun blinds a man
Who, falling from his horse, finds himself

Struck by God, stricken into passion,
From zeal to zeal with a change of heart
No less terrifying for its grace
(And we who wrestle with unbelief
Cannot help but envy such a fall.)

In his letters left behind we find
A man brilliantly alive,
Speaking and writing and exhorting
With a wearying kind of zeal—
Yet also consuming love
For a man he never met.
I could see how a Damascus moment
Might inspire reverence, certainty,
Even loyalty and obedience,
But love, it seems, is rather much.

Love, I think, requires a countenance,
A face, or faces, to impress.
Perhaps the brothers forgave him
Too completely; perhaps there was
A little too much mercy in their eyes.
Or perhaps the hands upon his head
Were too tender for a shaken man
Who deserved a striking instead,
And such kindness was a wound
No less undoing for its tenderness,
And from that moment on,
He felt such ravishing a love
Even his name splintered beneath its weight.

Succulents, like sin, require very little watering.

I loved owning succulents until I realized that I hated owning succulents. Or rather, I realized that the very attribute that made them so ideal—their self-sufficiency—was also what made them so offensive. I wanted to care for my plants, to uphold them with my righteous right hand, my daily watering, and instead, they managed far better on their own. With this I learned two things: the first is that self-sufficiency has always been offensive, even if the appearance of self-sufficiency has always been applauded; the second is that immaturity is not simply needing others but needing others to need you.

Why do people read this blog? Even WordPress insists on telling me over and over again (to their utter exasperation at my refusal to modernize my approach, I’m sure) that I should use tags, join Twitter, add those bold, one-sentence paragraphs and “Seven Ways to Increase Your Readership”-type titles. I hardly ever incorporate pictures into my posts and tend to write in long, sweeping prose that tends to work if you’re Frederick Buechner and not work if you’re anybody else. I’ve had this blog for six years and have been tempted more times than I count, particularly lately, to get rid of all evidence of it. And yet I keep writing. Someone, supposedly, keeps reading. And I keep wondering why.

“I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo. And if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words—to march, to tell, to fight—to create a sense of hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to awaken in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human.”

Richard Wright wrote those words at the end of his remarkable memoir, and they’ve stayed with me ever since I first read them years ago. “To awaken in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human.” I suppose I write because I fear Christians of all people, perhaps, are most in danger of forgetting the inexpressibly human, the gnawing hunger, or at the very least are most in danger of being seen as forgetting it, and I would like to do my part to either refute that stigma or change that truth. And I write because I have hurled those words and heard those echoes. You are an echo. We are an echo. We are echoes together. Have no doubt that a world out there listens, ears peeled to stone, aching despite themselves for what might come reverberating back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (learning to shout the questions we tend to whisper; learning to whisper the answers we tend to shout)

Yesterday I sat in the basement of a small Korean church—the kind I spent most of my childhood and adolescence in—and exchanged hugs, laughter, and conversation with people I haven’t seen in years. And it was grace. There is really no other word for it—the gratitude I feel, the sudden welling up of joy I felt as I saw people who were family to me in many ways, whom I love in a way I can’t quite articulate. They represent a season of my life that is now over, and though that has been a cause of deep sadness for a long time, it doesn’t quite feel that way anymore. Maybe that time yesterday was the closure I’ve needed and have ached for, because now it doesn’t feel so sad, it feels more like peace. Or maybe that sadness has been superseded by gratitude. Either way, God is still working. That season is over, but that does not mean it never existed. There are still memories of experiences I will hold on to for the rest of my life, and there is still the quiet trust that God will continue to be faithful to our stories, that the best is indeed yet to come. And I am thankful. Thankful doesn’t quite say it.

I am especially thankful for that time because it has come at the end of a week that felt soaked in sorrow. Not my own so much as of people I care about, and in a way, of the whole world. Of the situation we are in politically, culturally, nationally and internationally, and of even our own individual lives, the sense of entropy that always seems to be corroding at the edges, pushing us a little deeper into disorder no matter how tightly we wrap our arms around the things we love and try to fix them. The Fall, I guess. That’s another way to say it. This week made the Fall feel real.

“Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

John the Baptist sent his disciples to ask this question to Jesus, when he himself was locked behind bars for no good reason at all. Perhaps though, perhaps even if he’d had his own two feet to walk on, he would’ve sent his disciples, because I cain’t quite imagine that John would have felt completely free and unabashed to ask this question of the man he himself had proclaimed to the whole Judean countryside—with waving arms and brutal honesty and cracking voice raised against the winds, no less—as the lamb of God who takes on the sins of the world. And, of course, to ask of it of his own kin, when his own existence was inseparable from the prophecy that heralded his cousin’s birth. No, I think that had he been free, John would very likely have sent his disciples anyway. I would have. In a way, I do. Every time I ache to hear someone else’s testimony, someone else’s story or answered prayer, or hear someone else’s tale of grief, I am in a sense asking the same question: so have you found him to be the one, or do you think I should start looking for another?

Looking seems to be a major theme of both this passage and our modern journeys. Jesus didn’t much look like the portrait of the Messiah painted by the prophets even to the first century Jewish communities he walked among and he doesn’t much look it now, to the 21st. The most powerful human being in the world sits at a desk and sends a “My dog is bigger than your dog” tweet into cyberspace, to be read by thousands, in a sort of mocking challenge to a man whose rule is responsible for the starvation and deprivation of some millions more. In the last year alone, scores of women came into the open about stories of sexual abuse, withstanding the criticism and shaming of many skeptics in their willingness to be honest, their hope to make a better world for the next generation. Meanwhile, forest fires, hurricanes, bomb cyclones, and tornadoes made for a year wrought with natural disasters, and Vegas shooters at music festivals and racially-charged protests made for a year wrought with the unnatural kind. Every time I read the news, I ask John’s same question. Every time I look at myself, for that matter, and the selfishness that constantly corrodes me, the anger that seems to come out of nowhere. If he is really the one, why am I so little changed? Once again, I wonder if I am my own best proof against the existence of God.

And yet I find hope in the rest of Matthew’s account, because what does Jesus say? Does he rebuke John for his lack of faith? Does he point out every prophecy he fulfills, including the one about John himself? He does neither. Rather, he gives a very strange answer, one rooted in looking:

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

Jesus’ reply is the opposite of theoretical and dogmatic. It is empirical in the truest sense of the world—appealing to the reality and truth of experience. Go and tell John what you have seen and heard (and have looked upon and touched with your hands), go and tell him… People are receiving their sight, people are receiving their hearing, those who cannot walk are walking, the dead are living… And good news has come in the form of hands and feet and eyes and a radical subversion of the traditionally hierarchical society. Do you want to see the truth, John? Look around. See by others’ new sight. Don’t you know that belief now has limbs? By all means, keep looking for another if you want to be safe—I’m the last person who’ll mind—but meanwhile, keep your eyes open for all the ways I am opening people’s eyes. And blessed are you, John, if you can hear this and not be offended, because God knows I know myself to be an offensive kind of truth. Like getting a shovel in answer to a request for water; like getting new eyes when all you asked was where to look.

This passage gives me so much hope, almost more than I want or can stand. It causes me to come alive in response to its beauty. It anoints me with this kind of quiet, burning desire to be the answer to John’s question to somebody else. And it awakens in me a sense of almost painful gratitude to all the people—friends and pastors, poets and novelists, theologians and musicians—who are the answer to John’s question for me. What is the Church? The body of Christ. Perhaps another way to say it is that the Church is the restored hands and feet and eyesight and hearing that Jesus resurrected during his ministry on earth, and we are to be those limbs and senses to a world aching from amputation and sensory deprivation. Come all ye who hunger and thirst, who yearn for meaning, who sting from suffering. Come all ye who are looking. There is good news here for you, and it is news that walks, laughs, weeps, sings.

this expensive dark (and the light, luminous, that both unmakes and reveals)

  • Once, I sat on a slide in the dusky California warmth and thought I would change the world. These days, I would find it more of a miracle if I could change myself, and the world frightens more often it inspires.
  • Listen! The soft belly of the world
    Murmurs its beholden hunger—a mother
    Bereft of its child, motherliness
    Peeling like paint, like skin,
    The inside of the empty tomb.

    Outside the wasted womb, rain turns to sleet,
    Turns to snow, turns to return
    The frail earth to its fingertips,
    Its flower bed sprouting forgiveness
    In slumbering cycles. Sing, O barren one!
    Let the lilies teach you
    Love without labor,
    Blessedness without toil.

    So Solomon composes his platitudes
    In fine Israeli splendor;
    So the earth sings, a broken-hearted maestro;
    So I, for one, am no closer to wisdom
    For having listened. 

  • There’s a Crossway ESV bible sitting on my desk right now, given to me last week by a deeply kind and generous woman. On the cover of the bible and in four of its inside pages are reproductions of Makoto Fujimura’s artwork, the Four Gospels. They are hauntingly beautiful works of art, even as small reproductions on a page, and below the work entitled “Charis Kairos (The Tears of Christ),” which coincidentally enough hangs on my bedroom wall at this very minute, is Fujimura’s signature. I have three ESV bibles, each unique to me for different reasons—the first is one I’ve had since high school and that has been at nearly every Sunday service, retreat, conference, and bible study I’ve attended since high school; the other omits chapter headings and verses so that the text reads more cohesively as a narrative. But this bible, with Makoto’s artwork, has already come to mean something deep to me, something almost symbolic of my faith. By placing abstract expressionist art side by side—literally, inside—the bible, it reminds me that my apologetic is aesthetic, that time and time again it is beauty that sees me back at the foot of the cross, and that the mystery of the Gospel is inarticulate and wild and moving just as those paintings are. In a strange, inexplicable way, Makoto’s artwork in this bible makes me trust it more. It makes me feel safe
  • Some Words from Walter Brueggemann:
    • “Elie Wiesel was once asked whether he believed in God, and he said something to the effect of ‘Sometimes I believe against God.’ It seems to me that that’s one way of taking [biblical texts] seriously: to engage enough with the God in the text to be against what God is up to. That’s taking God seriously.”
    • “The tenured West tends to think, ‘It couldn’t be any better than this, so why would we want to change anything?’ I suppose that’s why a good theology of hope always wells up among the disinherited who can’t hope otherwise.”
    • “He said ‘I want to protect the faith.’ And what I want to say is ‘It doesn’t need protecting. It just needs elucidating in imaginative ways. Being evangelical can’t be reduced to a fixed package of truths.'”
  • Milk-soft white
    On roofs and bare branches.
    Merely a sheen

    Seen in the robes
    And branches that line Jerusalem
    Every Sunday. Inside,

    Blue-green pines, upon
    Whose needles yellow bulbs

    Drip. Call them floating islands,
    Blurry North stars.

    See how our imprecision
    Keeps at bay

    A darkness
    We could not afford.

  • I wish, oh Lord, that I were stronger. That I were braver, that I had more to offer to such a Lord. It is difficult to describe how powerfully confused I am—about who You are, about the role I am supposed to play in this staggering world—and yet also how desperately I love you, like the leper before he is healed, like the woman who touches your robe. That this love can coexist alongside such confusion simultaneously unnerves me and serves as a reason for deep joy. That You hold such tension in Your scarred hands and are more fully known when I approach you with both of them, the confusion and the love, the sorrow and the hope. Oh Lord, You know. All that I am is Yours; for what other reason am I here? Here at all, who had no reason to be, and here still, who has no right to be? Oh Lord, Your Gospel is beautiful. Of all the things I can say, and of all the words I could hurl in accusation or sadness, this too I can and must say: Your Gospel is beautiful. I felt it on Friday when the Stars performed their Christmas program, full of a joy the world has never seen, and I who sat there and felt for one split second the curtain between heaven and earth lift and saw Your smile, not hidden but full, and felt Your unambiguous, unadulterated love for these Stars, Your joy so raw it was nearly frightening. And You know I felt it again today as the whole congregation, the young and the old, sang “Christ is Lord / Oh praise his name forever / His pow’r and glory evermore proclaim,” and the room reverberated with the sound of the voices and the instruments, and I felt again that rare, mystic grace that makes me think one could very well feed on worship alone, even on this side of things. Your Gospel is beautiful. The Word who took on flesh and made his dwelling among us, who came and keeps coming through the layers of cynicism and altruism we hold up against him like shields, through our unbelief and belief and sheer apathy. Oh Lord, Your good news infiltrates a starving world like water irrigates a field, and there is hope in this Advent season that calls even this stone heart to life.

“you, too, are tired” (of a world trying to undo us, this singing sadness)

So much has happened in the past month that I find myself at a loss for words.

It’s hard to believe that in the past four weeks, I’ve been to Minnesota, Iowa, Maryland, and Virginia; that I’ve given my first conference presentation and attended my first funeral for a family member in conscious memory; that I had the enormous grace to spend time with a good friend and my old youth pastor and his family and meet relatives I didn’t know I had; that I’ve gotten to know a devout Muslim from Dubai and have conversations of faith with extended family; that three years ago was terror, two years ago was grief, and this year is great change and the quiet, insistent need for trust. And it is November, and cold, and another twilight.

        Yet despair
          Touches me not, though pensive as a bird
         Whose vernal coverts winter hath laid bare.

Does despair touch me not? Honestly, I don’t know. The image of a bird left somber and anxious by the relentless winter that has made vulnerable its sanctuary feels deeply fitting. Death, change, absence, uncertainty… These things strip away the layers I hoard as insulation—the illusions of immortality, permanence, possession, control—and force me to confront the abundance of my own poverty. Even grace stings, because one can only receive a gift when one is aware of their own undeservedness. And there has been much grace. For all that wounds and weathers, there has been deep, abiding grace.

“Lord, suffer me to sing
these wounds by which I am made
and marred, savor this creature
whose aloneness you ease and are.”

Sometimes it feels like, in a world full of things trying its best to undo me, all I can do is keep finding things that make me human. Like the novels of Marilynne Robinson. Like the words of Christian Wiman and Frederick Buechner, Penny and Sparrow’s lyrics, sacred choral music, conversations with friends. Listening to an audio recording of The Screwtape Letters while driving through endless cornfields; playing with children who want to hold your hand and laugh at the simplest things; remembering gentle professors and the poignant pain of two year anniversaries marking the death of giants upon whose shoulders you stand, in whose footsteps you limp behind. Grace.

Even so, I confess that I am tired. (“You are tired, I think / of the always puzzle of living and doing.”) As the poet says, tired of things that break—including myself—and just…tired. Would that our weariness, our griefs, were taut enough to tightrope across, taut like Robert Frost’s harp-like flowers in morning dew, playing a tenderness that descends upon us in the night. Would that they were more outrightly beautiful, less in dire need of a redeemer.

I believe in a Christ worth the silence. Worth the absence that is so often the mark of his presence, and worth the tears that are so often the indication of his nearnesss. I believe in a Christ who declares that he, he himself, will search out his sheep and rescue them from days of darkness—will find the prodigal and heal the self-injured and feed the deepest hunger. I believe in a Christ who sprinkles clean water on us and replaces hearts of stones with hearts of flesh and will one day make “You shall love the Lord your God” a promise rather than a commandment. I believe; these are truths I find great hope in. But the truth is also that I’m tired.

“In courtesy I’d have her chiefly learned;
Hearts are not had as a gift but hearts are earned
By those that are not entirely beautiful”

In my own case, Yeat’s words are a truly spectacular use of understatement, but I take deep comfort in them all the same. Hearts are earned by those that are not entirely beautiful. If there is one thing that keeps me from despair, that gives me a home despite winter’s ruthless uncovering of the deepest places in me, it is the truth that I have earned hearts whose beauty I cannot put to words. There are people in my life who are so good….so broken and human and for those very reasons, so dear to my heart. And each time I fall prey to the darkness that so often makes me less than human, it is their care and prayer and love that make me more than who I could be alone.

I wrote in another post almost exactly two years ago about the privilege of an ache. The privilege of having people you miss, memories you are nostalgic for, blessings you wish you could repeat. Someone once said that the spiritual life is less linear and more spiral, more like descending a staircase and hitting the same few lessons over and over again, but in deeper and richer ways. I am still learning the privilege of this ache–this hollowness that is somehow painfully full, this longing that carves belief into my rib cage. I ache. “I thirst.” I am so deeply sad and uncertain, and yet it is such a privilege, this existence. Being here. Being. Here. Bless what there is for being, says Auden, says Roger Lundin. Bless what there is for being, for what else are we made for? Bless the burning, bruising, bottomless heart of it all, earned by those who are not entirely beautiful.