Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Do You Know How Much God Loves Me?!

Light of the World by William Holman Hunt


“I know that you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are looking for a way to kill me, because you have no room for my word.”  - John 8:37

“If the cross is the place where the worst thing that could happen happened, it is also the place where the best thing that could happen happened. Ultimate hatred and ultimate love met on those two crosspieces of wood. Suffering and love were brought into harmony.” – Elisabeth Elliott

“Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is… do you, Mr. Jones?” – Bob Dylan


The past year has been characterized by Things I Never Saw Coming. Among them:
1. I got a cat. And I love the cat. I love it so much.
2. My sister died.

Yes, one of these things is not like the other. My sister, the only sibling I had excepting my significantly older half-brother, the only sibling I grew up with, suddenly, shockingly dead. And much of the first few months after her death felt like fumbling insensate through a desolate, labyrinthine maze of death. (I’ve never been known for my understatement. Just ask my mom. Or Steven. Or anyone I’ve known for more than ten minutes). Death is at once the cruel definitive blot of a period and the interminably gravid expectancy of an ellipsis. So done, but so undone. So abrupt, but so resonant. Suddenly, death made its shocking entrance into my life as a reality – not something that happens out there, but which has happened in here, to someone I love, to someone with whom so much is left unfinished and unsaid. And its surreal denouement was riveted with aftershocks of guilt and questions and bafflement and haunted with flittering holographs of memories, imbued with even more meaning by her death.

But it was also saturated with an immediacy of God’s presence like I’ve never known before. So much receded into triviality. Life took on a dire urgency, a vividness that was both terrible and beautiful but so very real that I was almost afraid of it fading and life resuming its mundanity. The fragility of life was an immediate and inescapable truth instead of an abstract notion. At times that truth gave me a groundswell of fluttering panic and more often it felt like the freedom for which Christ set us free.

And I believe in truth it is. To live is Christ, to die is gain.  And sometimes, just sometimes, I could truthfully echo tearfully, and with delirious joy, the words of Paul: “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him…”

There was room: tragedy blew it wide open.

I was listening to sermon recently about space, and how the “Selah”s in the psalms were about pausing and creating space for God, about how God in the beginning created space and how we, as creators in His image also create space in the form of imagination. And I was reminded of that verse, John 8:37, that had dropped like a lead weight in my gut recently: you have no room for my word. The Pharisees had no room for his word – his grace - because they loved the self-justification of the law, the moral superiority, the power. The dead onus of the law that they wielded like a bludgeon produced a nacreous blindness to the real presence of God. They crowded it out. They had no room. And I’m struck by how often I have no room, what with screens and words and vapid thought trails and the constant procession of sensorial gluttony I feast upon, with my presumptions about how God will act, with my legalism masquerading (quite unconvincingly, might I add) as righteousness, with my fear and lack of faith and scorekeeping and vain striving. Oh, wretched (wo)man that I am! I echo with Paul? Who will save me from this body of death?!

Sometimes I look at the cross and I have urgent doubting questions. How can I believe what God is asking me to believe, something nearly impossible to believe – that this man, who was also God himself, being crucified was the dividing point of history, the point at which the universe collapsed in upon itself as the one in whom all things hold together bore the sins of the whole world (when mine alone must weigh a good three tons) and moreover this person is the lover of my soul, the only one who can give me rest and the one in whom I must believe to be saved? What does any of this even mean?! And why did it have to happen this way? Did God really turn away just before Jesus cried “Eloi, Eloi, sabachthani?” And what does that mean? What does that say about God? What does it mean for God to abandon God? Did Jesus become un-God in that moment, simply flesh, sin itself, absent spirit? But no: “For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.” (Psalm 22:24)

And yet: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor 5:21) How does the holy embrace the unholy? How does God become sin? A whole new cascade of questions is born and, bolstered only by the hopelessly jerry-rigged and tenuous scaffolding of my own understanding, my anxious mind finds no rest. It finds no space. And I leave no room for the Word, for Jesus himself. 

Because as soon as I try to own the mystery, to parse it out and diagram it and inspect it with the tentacles of logic and reason and tidy cause and effect, to apply the perverse and sterile taxonomy of my human understanding, it dims and wanes and recedes. And I realize anew that I don’t own it, and I didn’t invent it, and I can’t box it. I can’t look directly at it, only luxuriate in it. The most high does not dwell in houses made by human hands. The revolution will not be televised.

One thing that delivers me from the desolation of complete unbelief is that if there is a God, he must be love, and being love he must have been and he must be willing to make himself known and comprehensible to his children. And so other times, I look at the cross, and just look. And look. And the theological ruminating, the tidy delineations, the explanations predicated on our deeply flawed notions of what constitutes justice, just turn ashen and fritter away. And then I think it’s the only thing, the cross, that in this world, in this drove of molten churning chaos, in this vale of voluminous lachrymosity, makes any sense at all. The place where, yes, the worst thing happened – but more, much more: the best thing happened.

What is this love that comes so low? This love that showers mercy where there should be nothing but the cold, hollow clack of a gavel and a sentence of condemnation? The love that stands so near, unashamed, while my accusers- including the one inside myself – shamble away in shame? The love that draws an orphan, utterly unmoored and lost in a chaotic cosmos of guilt and shame and condemnation, to the still center where she is known and known by, as totally loved as once totally shunned, as totally found as once totally lost. What is this love? It’s not normal. It’s not quantifiable, it’s not commodifiable, it’s not logical, it’s not reasonable. It’s preposterously unfair and inequitable. It is not to be understood, but rather luxuriated in, relished, delighted in, marveled at through tears and incredulous laughter. Where is the wise man? Where is the philosopher? Paul, the great lover of both Christ and rhetorical questions, asks.

He is alive and well, oh so clever, ever pondering but never arriving, so close to the truth yet so far away. I found him in the strain of perverse curiosity that led me to check out from the library and read “Recovery” by Russell Brand: I remember so well the new age fatigue, the yogic malaise, the endless register of rulesy self-analyses and self-inventories and doggedly futile self-saving techniques. Religion is religion is religion. “We don’t bother with soteriology, because it’s too damn complicated,” he says. And it was. The rules. The eight limbs. The four agreements. The 21-day cleanse. The 108 sun salutations. One more hit of acid. And yet the glittering stairway to heaven I thought I was fastidiously building revealed itself as a rancid mound of bilge in the judicious light of day. I must be doing it wrong, I thought, and the cycle began anew.

Part of the beauty that drew me to Christianity was its simplicity. Just Jesus. Him and him crucified, saving me from my self-salvation schemes and the dizzying rollercoaster of bloated pride when I was doing ‘well’ and gutter despair when I more often failed and “fell through a trap door in the bottom of my soul,” as Denis Johnson says. But I still muck up the simplicity by thinking I’m smarter than I am, by pretending to seek Him when I’m really just seeking more knowledge. And Jesus recedes farther and farther away and I’m stuck in an impotent morass of frustration and doubt.

Because what is the point of knowing about love if you don’t know Love? What is the point of doctrine or soteriology or eschatology or missiology or really any -ology if it doesn’t lead you deeper into love?

My friend Marcia likes to approach people and ask “Do you know how much God loves me?!” She always leans in close, her eyes wide and glittering with awe, looking perhaps slightly unhinged, a giggle always poised at the edge of her breath. She says this and other things with a giddy, girlishly conspiratorial air as though she is just discovering profound truths about God for the first time. Like someone suddenly and radically born again. Like a child. Like a person once blind who now sees. Perhaps, even, like an effete self-styled intellectual disarmed and dumbfounded by the power of the cross.

May we all become slightly unhinged by the wonder of His love. May the cynical refrain of “how can it be?” be turned on its head by the cross and become the tearfully baffled worshipful rhetoricity of “how can it be?!” May we have room for His word. Amen.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Love leaves all kinds of traces.



Note: I wrote this two months ago, but it just didn't seem like the right time to share it until now.

It’s been three weeks since the night I learned of my sister’s death through a text message. No one meant for it to happen that way, but that’s how it did.

“Lia’s gone,” it reads. “[Her roommate] came home and found her passed away on her bed. I’m so sorry.”

Gone, I think? She skipped town without telling anyone, then, I think. Not the first time. But ‘passed away’? What a odd choice of expression to use to talk about her leaving town.

Lia’s gone. Passed away. So sorry. My brain bandies these strange phrases about, hearing the terrible news but not receiving it. I’m so sorry. Why should he be ‘so sorry’ about her skipping town? I mean, it’s definitely not good, sure. Sorry, perhaps, but so sorry? So sorry. Passed away. Lia’s gone.

And then it hits. And I start shaking and crying and Steven runs in from where he’s rewiring the living room and he’s laced with ancient cobwebs and dusted with more ancient insulation from crawling through the attic and I scream “Lia’s dead, my sister’s dead.” And he doesn’t understand and I still don’t understand and the nightmare just keeps doing its ghastly unfurling from there.



She was always so private, so secretive, so protective of her world and her possessions. I worked for two months to borrow her Calvin Klein logo shirt when I was in the fifth grade. For two months, I begged, I pleaded, I cajoled, and was met with stonily persistent refusal until one day, some random, merciful whim utterly unrelated to my weeks of begging struck her and for one glorious school day, the shirt was mine. That was Lia: an impenetrable fortress from which fleeting moments of tenderness and acts of generosity emerged with no discernible pattern, all the more priceless and worthy of wonderment for their rarity. And though sometimes she came out, you were never really allowed in.

So now, here we are, left with fragments and pieces of that demolished fortress that I fool myself into thinking will bring peace if I can only piece them together. But they’re like one of those maddening grid puzzles. Move one square and another and you’re forced to move another even farther away from its apparent, logical position in the scheme of things in order to put that one there but then you can’t get the other back to its place without more movement and it never ends. And I’m standing like an obsessive, red-eyed detective in front of a corkboard feathered with this plumage of notes and clues and personalities and it’s an impossible labyrinth but I convince myself I’m on the precipice of discovery. But discovery of what? And for what purpose?

Maybe to know her at last. To finally know her, this person with whom I shared baths and snow days and endless My Little Pony vignettes. The one whom I trusted so much that when she told me there were prizes inside of buckeyes, I spent hours one afternoon trying to bust one open with a rock. The one to whom I submitted without question when she said it was time for a haircut and mom wouldn’t mind. The one with whom I decided to run away one afternoon when mom was being ‘mean’, with whom I tied handkerchiefs weighted with an hour’s supply of snacks to the end of sticks and set off, making it all the way to the bend in our gravel drive before our resolve dissolved and we trudged back.

But she was also the one I tiptoed around later, when the school calls and the real running away and then finally the arrests started, the police visits in the middle of the night. She was the one I avoided those months when she was homebound with a band around her ankle that intermittently pulsated with a red light, and she paced between her bedroom and what we still called our ‘playroom’, talking on the phone to friends I didn’t know or watching The Simpsons or Cops on the playroom TV, no matter how many times my parents asked her to turn it off. She was like a livid, volatile ganglion of pain and anger in those days, and honestly she scared me. All her life, she cut through pretense and deceit like a knife, and back then the knife was often unkind, though almost always truthful. So I avoided her, the prisoner in our home.

But that was a decade and a half ago. Time and two precious baby boys had changed her. A new era was dawning, I believed, in the months before she died. We are going to finally get close, I told myself. We’re going to be sisters like sisters are supposed to be. That was the narrative I was constructing, the one I was believing in, with the nights of volleyball and the jokey texts and especially that precious night in July when on the way home from volleyball she broke down and opened up to me in a way she hadn’t in years. Maybe ever. We even talked about God, a subject that had elicited nothing but apathy from her before. And she told me she loved me and I told her I loved her, too, and we hugged. So what if she was a little tipsy? I was exultant. My sister loved me. And I felt buoyant and hopeful after that night. Things were changing. We were changing. But now she’s gone, and we’re left with the pieces and fragments she’s not here to defend or explain.

This was never the way it was supposed to be and never the way I wanted it. And she would be horrified that her life is now laid out like a tableau for perusal. And me desperately trying to right things, to undo things, to resolve my guilt at not trying harder to be close to her, is helping nothing. I had to lodge my foot in my mouth after I fired off a nasty note to someone I believed had wronged her, only to be proven otherwise. “Stop digging up dirt,” my dad beseeched me. I balked and started to cry and nearly screamed “I’m not trying to dig up dirt, I’m trying to make things right, can’t you see that?!” and unceremoniously hung up on him.

It is real – this burning, this desperate wish to make things right, to untangle the knotted story, to enact a justice that isn’t mine to seek. To reconcile the paradoxes of who she was. Distant, undemonstrative – but she had every school picture of mine through my senior year in high school in a folder in her room. Stoic, reticent – yet with a mysterious tenderness that drove Arrow to cling to Lia like an adorable barnacle every time she was around her.

But I can’t make it right, and my efforts come to nothing and seem to do more damage in their profitless pursuit and I have to apologize to my dad for doing things like angrily hanging up on him when he’s dealing with the loss of his child.

I walked through the first week feeling at once detached – like I was enveloped by some kind of insulation that muffled the sensory world – and dreadfully awake, senses heightened. I lay awake in the middle of the night, staring but not seeing the walls, the ceiling. And now I can tell I’m entering the long haul, the valley trudge, of grief. And it’s hard to see beyond the gray tundra. It’s hard to see where resurrection could possibly bloom. And I’m still finding it hard to pray. But I wait, because there’s really no other option.

Early in the morning, hours after I found out she died, I was hurriedly packing and preparing to leave for Kansas City, and in a trance I ran to feed the chickens and went to lunge up on the porch to get their grain and missed and shredded the skin on the lower part of my shin. It’s still healing, and I’ve been thinking about that Leonard Cohen song “True Love Leaves No Traces” and how completely inane its titular claim is. True love leaves all kinds of traces; the truer the love, the more and deeper the traces, the wounds, the scars. But pain leaves traces, too. Pain like spending most of the first two years of your life in an orphanage. Pain like knowing your biological mother gave you up but never really knowing why, or whether she cared now or thought of you or was looking for you at all.

“Unwanted babies should never be born. People should just get abortions,” she flatly spat out once before a volleyball game this past winter. I don’t remember how the subject came up, but her declaration was bitter and definitive, and I think I can guess why.

Probably the most comforting thing that has been spoken over me since her death – something which, when spoken, made me weep tears of joy and sorrow and relief all running together in one symphonic deluge – was that God is meeting her in the place of her original wounding. He is meeting her there in the orphanage, undoing the bonds that were broken or never formed, weaving the synaptic connections that tell a child you’re safe, you’re loved, you’re cared for. She knows now she is not alone; she doesn’t have to claw and fight for survival and maintain hypervigilance over her emotions and heart. His perfect love is filling the voids where human love failed, making her heart a spacious place, a heart that can finally receive and receive fully the love for which and by which it was made. He is good. And he made and makes a way for us. But it still feels a little shallow when I say that, a little contrived; like I’m forcefully gluing down a neat little bow on what’s messy and unhealed. But I think of David and one of my favorite of his psalms, Psalm 13. I used to wonder if he went back and tacked on the final two verse months after he wrote the original few because it just sounded bad to leave them standing alone.

“How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
    How long will my enemy triumph over me?
3 Look on me and answer, LORD my God.
    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
4 and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
5 But I trust in your unfailing love;
    my heart rejoices in your salvation.
6 I will sing the LORD’s praise,
    for he has been good to me.”

But now I think he was just speaking truth to himself even when and where he didn’t feel it. And so will I. God is good. He made and makes and is making a way. And resurrection will spring up in the wastelands, even though I can’t see it yet.