POEM: My Dim Contours of Repentance

I’m sorry it had to come to this

That it took George Floyd suffocating beneath a knee

And a legion of protests

Long reams of raw, angry, repentant Facebook posts

For me to start paying attention

I’m sorry it took so long for me to listen

To name that all lives can’t matter until black lives matter

I’m sorry I let politics and religion

Those evil, constructed lines of left and right

Blur the face of your pain and trauma

Blur the sight of your dignity shoved into the pavement

Cut off from air — pinned like an animal

While I went on my way and said nothing

Did nothing

I’m sorry I was content with the neutrality of empty negatives

Content to comfortably try to not be bad

To not be racist

While your bodies were ravaged

Just around the corner, where I was afraid to look

I’m sorry.

_

It never should have had to come to this

The hard birth of healing held up, stuck in the throat

For decades — centuries for Christ’s sake

Your wounds, your fears, your cry left to fester

Beneath my pride and fragility

It should not have come to this.

_

I will lean in and keep my ears open

If I speak, it is for mourning — for lament

If my heart whispers, it is to give a greater thanks than I can know

Thanks to Malcolm X for writing his autobiography

Thanks to Ta-Nehisi Coats for singing his sad, ferocious song

Thanks to my black American history teacher at Bakersfield College who showed us Amistad

Who told us about men who, when they couldn’t keep it in their pants

Went out to the slave quarters

To the makers of 12 Years a Slave and Selma

To brave saint Isaac for sitting in front of my church

Then in front of my microphone

To say what it felt like when Trayvon Martin was killed

Thanks to the black brother whose name I can no longer recall

Who told a majority white room full of Baptists

That racism was still real

To vulnerable and strong David who said on Facebook

That he would rise in violence if not for Jesus

Such courage, my God, such courage

Courage you never should have had to muster

Burdens you never should have had to bear.

_

Where was I when your ancestors landed on these shores in shackles?

Where was I when that God damn fraction, three-fifths, was written down

Where was I when white hoods lynched your great-grandfather

When a deptuy marshal shot Clyde Perkins in an alley

And walked away without a charge

When the bank loan was declined over and over again

And the white man’s laws held your father on the other side of the tracks

When blue lights flashed in your mirror and your heart leaped in terror

When the tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets started flying

When Eric Garner gasped “I can’t breathe”?

Where was I?

_

So far away.

I am still so far away.

So I lay my hand on my mouth

I have spoken once, I will proceed no further

Except to utter this one impossible — but yet possible? — blessing:

May you breathe in

Deeper than you ever could

Before

Every Lament Is a Love Song

I’ll be honest, I woke up today hoping to write about joy. Or rather I was hoping to edit a children’s short story I wrote last year that’s chock full of whimsy and magical realism, and in which the protagonist is a young girl named Joy. 

But then I thought about the rising sense of panic and paralysis I felt last Sunday at the off-chance I could run into my ex-wife at a socially-distanced goodbye party in a park. I thought about her chipper text informing me she wouldn’t be there, and how I wondered where she was and felt sad because that’s not for me to know anymore. I felt sad, because with how things ended between us I can see no way for us to ever be friends again—it would be too painful for me. 

Over breakfast I read several chapters of Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” the part where he recalls the death of his sister in a trailer fire, and how at the wake everyone in his extended family got drunk in an ugly way. He ran into the forest only to find his best friend weeping—and subsequently blaming him for his sister’s death because if he hadn’t left the rez to go to a better school then she probably wouldn’t have eloped with a man in Montana either. I thought about the long shadow of loss that Native Americans have suffered, and how the grief turns so many to alcohol. Who can blame them?

I thought about the murders of Ahmaud Arbury and George Floyd and the countless killings that preceded them and felt sad, powerless, angry, and guilty. I prayed for justice and wept as I cried out “How long Lord?” But I worried that even my tearful prayer was little more than a copout for my white fragility.

Then I stepped outside to go for a walk and I thought about COVID-19. I looked at how the handful of people in my neighborhood spaced themselves out in a wordless contract of disconnection and distance. I felt the cautious, worried gaze of the old woman walking down her driveway toward the same point on the sidewalk that I was walking toward. I felt my gaze turn away and my steps shift to cross the street so she could walk outside her home in peace.

I thought about my mom, whom I had wept with on the phone several weeks earlier right before her mother—my grandmother—passed away. Walking out of my grandmother’s room for the last time, knowing she would never see her again in this life, was the hardest thing she had ever done, my mom said.

I thought about one of my best friends who just had his heart broken via text message—a goddamn text message—by a girl he’s been in love with the past two years. Even after he put his heart on the line a second time she didn’t even offer him the dignity of one last phone call. 

I thought about my friend who recently lost her older sister to cancer. I remembered how when I saw her two weeks ago and we stood on the dock at Green Lake and began to cry together I felt conflicted about hugging, because social distancing, and how I hated that ambiguity. I hated how the cause of public health could somehow come in between two friends grieving together and kill my embodied impulse to move toward empathy. 

I still hope to get around to editing the story about Joy, but today the movement, the deeper flow of life, if you will, is ushering me back into grief and loss. After more than a year of the greatest sorrow I have ever known—divorce and then a global pandemic—I am beginning to understand why grief hurts, but in a hurts-so-good sort of way. I am beginning to understand why, when I really start to open my heart to the world and the streams of life flowing all around me, I inevitably feel drawn back into grief. It’s because every lament is a love song.

Every lament is a love song. I stole this line from the bridge of a song that I’ve known since high school, but only in the past several years have begun to understand—like truly understand in the deep recesses of my body. 

Take a moment to sink down into this reality with me. We lament because we love. We grieve because we care, because we give a damn.

“I don’t see a way to live other than in a state of mourning, lament, and grief—at least to some degree—for as long as this pandemic lasts,” I told a friend last week. As of this week more than 100,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. More than 40 million of them have filed for unemployment. I’ve been letting this reality settle over me, like a heavy blanket that I can barely breathe through. I’m going to feel sad. A lot of time. Probably for at least another year or two.

For those of you who are also grieving, who find yourself feeling sad, exhausted, frustrated, angry, and even unmotivated, I think this is actually a sign of health—if we are able to hold it and acknowledge it as such. It means that we loved something about the life we are no longer able to live. So let us grieve the suspension of these good things. Let us name them, one by one, and mourn them. 

For me this goes something like this: It sucked to not be able to fly down to California to celebrate Lyle’s wedding. I’m sad that I won’t be able to sing my heart out to Colony House’s song Why Even Try at a concert this summer. I miss hearing the roar of the crowd at T-Mobile Park when a Mariner hits a home run at a baseball game. I wish I could have hugged my friend Max as he successfully defended his doctoral dissertation. I miss playing pickup ultimate Frisbee on Sunday mornings and needling Chris in response to his sarcastic banter. I miss hearing the words “body of Christ broken for you” as a smiling priest puts a wafer in my hand. I long to share a meal with a group of friends instead of eating alone every single day. My heart hurts when I wake up in the morning and no longer see her familiar, tattooed shoulder lying peacefully next to me.

That’s a lot of loss—and that’s just the beginning of it. I refuse to diminish it by comparing it to someone else’s.

A few days ago I got out my guitar and sang a worship song called “Not in a Hurry” by United Pursuit. The song patiently longs for communion with God. It waits to know his presence, to heart his voice, to feel the Spirit moving. The second chorus sings out one of the boldest prayers I’ve ever heard:

Lord I want to love like you. I want to feel what you feel. I want to see what you see.

I stopped when I came to that line. I stopped to feel the gravity of what I was singing. I had to. I had to stop and search my heart to know if I that’s what I really wanted, because I know that the heart of God endures so. much. pain

I know this because one day last fall while I was at working at the lumber yard I heard a man walk by on the street. He stumbled around on the curb, cursing the betrayal of his friends and damning the abandonment of his family. I was alone in the south yard, just off a main thoroughfare where it is not uncommon to see prostitutes and addicts on the streets. The man continued cursing, boldly and obnoxiously and beautifully lifting up his complaint. I paused to listen and to feel his hurt. I did not know his story, but even in his substance-altered state I could sense that he had been wounded. 

Deeply wounded. 

There, on a cloudy afternoon between racks of pressure treated wood, I looked into the sky and sensed God’s heart for this man. I saw God seeing him, grieving with him and mourning the harm that had befallen him. I began to weep myself, because suddenly I saw that this is the heart of God for all people, constantly, at every moment and in every place. I saw God’s compassion spread out over the world in a great, endless tapestry of tears, the outpouring of a vast, aching heart forever weeping with those who weep. 

And here I was praying that I would see what God sees and feel what he feels. Did I really have any idea what I was asking for? Do I really want to move through life with that kind of heart? With that kind of heartache?

One of the most profound and mysterious moments in the Old Testament occurs in the book of Exodus, when Moses seeks the Lord in the tent of meeting and asks, “Please show me your glory.”

What a ballsy request. Here’s how God responds:

I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live… Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.

Growing up I understood this passage to be demonstrative of God’s great holiness and purity, in the light of which our sinfulness and mortal unworthiness is so great that we would be utterly incinerated by his presence. But now I wonder if there’s more to it. Could it be that God refused to show Moses his face because of the great weight of his mercy? The text actually suggests that. God declares his goodness, graciousness, and mercy before refusing to show Moses the full view of his glory. 

I have to imagine that God’s heart for the world, which he loves so much, is so heavy with grief and longing and passion for those made in his image that the weight of it, if truly beheld and felt, would have literally broken Moses’ heart. I have to imagine that Moses would have been so overwhelmed by God’s compassion and grace that he would have physically died of sorrow and love and longing and joy all at the same time.

I have decided to follow through with the United Pursuit song and sing to God: “I want to love like you. I want to feel what you feel. I want to see what you see.” But I do so knowing that entering into God’s heart for the world will usher me into a world of heartache. I do so knowing that it means aching with hurt to the point of shedding tears nearly every single day.

But I also do so with the growing knowledge that if every lament is a love song, then it must be closer to joy and gratitude than I ever thought possible. They must be within a razor’s edge of each other because both flow out of love.

Indeed, within the lingering agony of divorce, the stifling unwellness of the coronavirus pandemic, and the losses of my friends and family members, I somehow still find myself finding joy and wonder at hand. They show up at the most expected and unexpected of times, flickering through like an old porch light in the middle of the night. 

These feelings can turn on a dime, so quickly that when I first started noticing them last year I described it as a sort of spiritual bipolarity. I could be screaming at God one moment, asking what the hell is going on, and fifteen minutes later suddenly feel like I could sing of his love forever. 

I don’t think of this as a disorder, though. I just think it means I’m moving through life a little bit more like Jesus did.

I look for poetry to capture the experience, this sense of what it’s like to linger in suffering, then suddenly feel love surge up around me like a warm, joyfully fomenting sea, and I find Psalm 126. It’s a psalm of ascents that recklessly puts forward weeping and dancing together like two sides of the same coin. I think the psalmist knows something of this flickering, this propensity of agonizing loss to come blazing to life before it’s all said and done:

Restore our fortunes, O Lord,

like streams in the Negeb!

Those who sow in tears

shall reap with shouts of joy!

He who goes out weeping,

bearing the seed for sowing, 

shall come home with shouts of joy,

bringing his sheaves with him.

Considering the healing hope of judgment day

I’ve spent some time over the years pondering the biblical notion of judgment day. As I grow older and more mature and my imagination of what such an event will involve changes, I find myself longing for a sermon I’ve never heard. It goes something like this:

We are all both victims and victimizers. We’ve done things to harm others and grieve God, and others have done unwarranted things to us that have harmed us and grieved God. When Jesus Christ returns to judge the living and the dead, as the creed says, this should be cause not just for fear and wariness over what we’ll be judged for, but also hope and relief that God will plead our cause and right the wrongs that have been done to us. He will come heal our wounds by untangling the vexing mess of how we’ve been victimized by others and perpetrated injustice ourselves. How sweet that will be. 

To affirm one piece of my fundamentalist Christian upbringing, yes, I’ll think we’ll be surprised by the gravity of what we’ve done wrong. It won’t be a pleasant experience. 

I remember a moment in therapy last year. My wife at my time and I had just separated. I had been exposed in the most deep and shameful way I’d ever experienced. She was unspeakably hurt by what I’d done—and understandably so. It was a toxic collision of hearts. We had triggered each other’s past wounds. There would be forgiveness, but not marital reconcilliation. We ended up getting divorced. 

Even in the midst of this brokenness and undoing, however, my therapist observed something profound. He said I looked relieved, as if this big, oppressive thing had somehow come out of me, as if I’d just been dragged out into the light after years of hiding in a hole. It didn’t feel like it at the time. It hurt like fucking hell. But like the dragon Eustace in Prince Caspian, who was only able to shed his scales when cut to the core by Aslan’s claws, it turned out to be the beginning of a profound seasion of growth and movement towards health. 

My own movement from this moment towards healing, however would not have been possible without what I believe is the other equally (if not more) important facet of judgment day: the naming of our own wounds and hurts inflicted by others. Seeing our sins will be shocking, but I think we’ll be even more surprised by the sweet relief of our heavenly Father and Brother tending to our wounds and binding them up. Like Matt Damon’s character in the film Good Will Hunting, I think we’ll weep in the arms of God as he whispers with a sweet, tender firmness over and over again: “It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. 

It makes me sad that can’t remember ever hearing this in church. I’ve never encountered God this way until recently. I’ve never had this kind of hope and peace that all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. For most of my life I have not felt safe naming the ways that I’ve been mistreated and victimized, because I was warned so frequently that doing so was probably a way of justifing and downplaying my own sin that I alone was responsible for. 

This is a narrow truth. And a narrow truth is no truth at all. 

“You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” Jesus said to his followers. For most of my Christian life I understood this truth primarily as theological beliefs about salvation, the divinity of Christ, and so on. But I think it encompasses something much broader, deeper, and more personal and intimate. Knowing and naming the truth about ourselves is freedom. Contrary to what I’ve long believed and heard from certain church traditions, this does not begin and end with affirming our sinfulness and having faith in penal substitutionary atonement. It begins and ends with the deep bodily and heartfelt knowledge that I am loved. It continues with naming, in the safe and secure presence of another, how I’ve been wounded and hurt, the most shameful things I’ve done, and what I mostly deeply long for.

I like how Brennan Manning put it. When we arrive at the gates of heaven, he says, Jesus is only going to have one question for us: Did you believe that I loved you? If I can begin and end with that fundamental, heartfelt conviction, then by all means bring on judgment day. Come quickly Jesus, because I know your coming only ends with healing. It has to. It must. 

I find a profound biblical precedent for this at the end of the book of Revelation, where the Apostle John describes a great vision of “the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”

A river of life watering trees for the healing of the nations. The healing of the nations! We’re talking about not just individual wrongs here, but corporate, systemic wrongs that we as individuals feel so powerless against. I see here the exposure of unjust systems, the generational trauma of disenfranchisement and war and racism brought to light and healed one person at a time, one story at a time, complete with all their perplexing nuance and complexity. The macro and micro come together in this great healing crafted ever so personally by a God who reigns over multitudes yet calls each one out by name and does not let a single person go missing, as the prophet Isaiah so marvelously says. 

Interestingly, John’s revelation goes on to describe those outside the city as “everyone who loves and practices falsehood.” This is a powerful way to sum up sin. The practice of dishonesty and disingenuousness binds us—and those we’ve hurt—in our wounds, like a father who abuses his daughter and several decades later shames her for her infidelity and relational woes while touting his own stable marriage. If we are to bear the great weight of glory, we must bear the awful, healing truth about ourselves and our stories. A family, church, or society with such wounds may be able to function at a superficial level, but until those abuses are named it will not be whole. It will not be well. 

In other words, I’m starting to realize that judgment day, as best I can imagine and anticpaite it, will basically be a big, intense therapy session that comes with an epic release—tears of relief and rest and longed-for healing. In this sense I think the Catholic church might be on to something with its idea of purgatory. It seems there must be some sort of process of personal growth and healing that must be undergone as we enter fully into relationship with God. I don’t imagine it as a punitive process. But it also doesn’t seem just for one person to spend decades laboring at the emotionally painful task of healing and reconciling their story and growing into their calling, while another proceeds through life in deadened ingnorance and suddenly—boom—dies of a heart attack and without any further friction immediately knows perfect love, joy, and peace. I can’t extrapolate anything from my human experience (or the the experience of Jesus, for that matter) from which that would make sense at an emotional and embodied level.

Yes, I know what the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians, that we will all be changed in “a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.” That sounds instantaneous. But could it be that with the Lord one moment is as a lifetime, and a lifetime as a moment? Could it be that what we do not address and heal from in this life will be—every so tenderly and lovingly—addressed by our Father in the next? Could it be that there are no shortcuts to redemption, but that in the end we will bless God that it is so because the long, agonizing process of our healing will be the very thing that makes us strong, solid, and whole enough to bear the eternal weight of glory?

I’m still pondering these things. But I’m pondering them less with fear and more with curiosity, anticipation, and wonder. The great final healing is still a mystery, one we glimpse only dimly, as if through a mirror. Yes, I am afraid of the pain and difficulty that will come with judgment day. I feel this every time I brace myself for a difficult, conflict-filled conversation with someone. But I am also not afraid of judgment day, because I’ve tasted of the healing that’s on the other side, and I want more. 

Wait Without Hope: Finding a Way Through Unwellness

As news reports about COVID-19 continue coming at the same torrential pace and shelter-in-place orders become something of a new normal, I’ve found myself returning often to a passage from East Coker, one of T.S. Eliot’s four quartets:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope

For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love

For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith

But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting

I don’t know how to put what Eliot is saying into plain speech, but something about those words rings profoundly true to me right now even though I can’t quite articulate why. I suppose that’s the beauty of poetry. Something here defies our formations of logic, it resists fitting into our clean categories of thought. 

All I know is that I feel these words as a prophetic call, a timely word in a moment of distress not unlike the global moment in 1940 when Eliot originally wrote this poem. The words stop me in my tracks. Everything superfluous falls out of focus. Wait without hope. Wait without love. Something in me wants to scream. What the hell man? How can you say that? How dare you say that? We’re hanging on by a thread here. 

The words settle, however, like a bar of gold dropped into a running stream, and I discern that not all hope is created equal. In the Apostle John’s account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, there’s a fascinating exchange between Jesus and Martha as soon as Jesus arrives on the scene. 

Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

Look at Martha’s response to Jesus’ claim that her brother would rise again. She holds a form of hope, that Lazarus will rise again in the resurrection on the last day. But something about it feels distant and abstract, much like the way Christians today talk about the heavenly hope they have. It’s a way of disconnecting from the present suffering, pain, and loss in this world in the here and now, perhaps even a way of hiding our own lack of faith. It can become an escape from one’s present reality, a way of dismissing the agony of death or loss of any kind. 

Not so with Jesus, who for his part clearly has something more present, immediate, and concrete in mind: the literal, embodied resurrection of Martha’s brother…today. 

I wonder if this dismissive, sentimental hope is what Eliot is telling his soul to cast aside. It’s an abandoning of hope to surrender to the true unknown of the situation, to the fact that people will suffer and die before this is over, to the knowledge that we have no knowledge about how, exactly, this will be brought to an end. It’s about looking to the horizon and seeing only war—or disease—in sight. 

Eliot continues:

Wait without thought, for you are not yet ready for thought:

So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning

The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,

The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy

Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony

Of death and birth.

Echoes of life and liveliness linger in the dark recesses of our hearts, no more than a whisper. Our memories have not lost the garden, the ecstatic changing of the seasons, Eliot says, but there is an agony that must be undergone, a death to die in the darkness, a place of stillness from which the dance begins.

This is the place of loss, before we see what comes with a new beginning. “In my beginning is my end,” says the first line of the poem. It concludes with an inversion of its opening: “In my end is my beginning.”

When I read East Coker I mumble these lines under my breath like a chant, turning them back and forth on my tongue until some sort of clarity begins to emerge. “In my beginning is my end. In my end is my beginning.” What does it mean? 

What does it mean? It means what my pastor told his daughter after the 9/11 attacks when she asked the same question: The world as you know it is gone. Let’s start there. And for now let’s end there, because right now there is nothing else to say. There is no concrete hope to offer. Scientists are working on a vaccine, yes. Some states are reopening their economies. The rate of new cases is on the decline in many areas. But we do not know if another wave of infection is ahead. We don’t know how long it will take to develop a vaccine. We don’t know why so many people who carry the disease are asymptomatic. We’re living the dark. 

What is the way forward? Again, the poetry says it best:

In order to arrive there,

To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not

You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.

In order to arrive at what you do not know.

You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance

In order to possess what you do not possess

You must go by the way dispossession.

In order to arrive at what you are not

You must go through the way in which you are not.

And what you do not know is the only thing you know

And what you own is what you do not own

And where you are is where you are not.

“It’s a hard thing to ask of someone, to wait without hope,” I told my therapist through tears last week. “It’s so much to ask.” But as this story continues, and as our weirdly passive and active battle against COVID-19 drags on with no end in sight, I find myself returning to this heavy feeling. We must find a way to wait without hope, to go by a way of unknowing, a way of lack, a dead way of no ecstasy.

It won’t do to give people false hope. Rumors and anecdotal reports of effective treatments that are not actually effective (such as the ones alluded to by our president) only make matters worse and threaten to cast us into depths of anger and despair that are even harder, nigh impossible, to recover from. 

There is a way, Eliot reminds us, that death leads to birth rather than nothingness and despair. But we must be willing to let the world turn upside down, where darkness can become light, and stillness become the dancing. In voicing my sorrow over the difficulty of waiting without hope, I found that what I need right now isn’t happiness or relief so much as a friend to listen to me share my unwellness, to be willing to not look on the bright side for a moment and simply attend to my loss (and trust me enough to do the same for him in his pain).

Curt Thompson, a psychiatrist who knows a thing or two about these feelings, explains how this process works on a relational level:

(W)e must be willing to name our sadnesses, both great and small. And we must name them to another who is able to validate our emotion. It is in this action that our minds realize they are not alone, and our grief is shared. In sensing that someone else also shares the load of our grief, we no longer have to burn the energy we have been consuming in our attempt to contain it. And with the lightening of our load, we are freed that much more to care for others, receiving their grief, and to begin the process of creating goodness and beauty around us.

This journey to redemption takes time. It is exhausting. But it is no less than the way of the Christ. Before Jesus raises Lazarus from the grave, he sees Mary weeping, he goes to the grave and weeps. He knew he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, but first he mourned because he loved Lazarus and those who mourned over him. He felt their sadness with them. 

Near the end of his life Jesus would weep again in Gethsemane, begging the Father for some way—any way—other than the god-awful road of bearing our griefs, carrying our sorrows, and suffering the crushing blow of our iniquities. But through this road of death, the darkness in the tomb became light, the stillness turned to dancing, and the faint, ecstatic echoes of how life was meant to be found their full voice in humanity once again. 

There was—and is—no other way, “just death into life, over and over until all things are right.”

In Praise of Holy Imagination

Like many children, I grew up with a robust imagination. Our quarter-acre backyard, quite large by suburban standards, offered ample room for my imaginary commando missions and adventures with my Lego sets. Indoors I spent many an afternoon draped over the recliner in the living room, book in hand, losing myself within the walls of Redwall Abbey or escaping to another era through the Magic Treehouse. It was wonderful.

As I grew up in church and began to take my faith seriously, however, this imagination began to choke up as my interest in theology grew. I was presented with a stark picture: the Bible was the inspired Word of God, infallible in all it affirmed, and the only source of ultimate truth in the world. Everything and everyone else was suspect, including my own heart. I was told that my impulses and even most of my longings were expressons of fleshly desires that needed to be tamed and brought into alignment with God’s commands.

There was little room for imagination in this framework that felt like it prized theological correctness above everything. And good theology, by these standards, was strictly within the bounds of Scripture. Anything that deviated from that, that struck even a different tone than the particular biblical narrative I was taught, was—again—suspect. For several years I became an ardent critic of much purportedly “Christian” rehtoric, whether it be a lyric from a CCM song or an offhand comment from a friend, that ran counter to or fell outside the bounds of what I understood the Bible to teach.

It was not until an undergrad postmodernism class that my beliefs began to significantly evolve. I was still attending an institution that held and encouraged a more dogmatic reading of Scripture, but this particular professor had a reputation as a bit of a maverick. He argued that the Bible only offers us a narrative, not a metanarrative. It does not and is not intended to provide a comprehensive, systematic theology or a complete worldview, per se, he said. Instead God’s revelation comes to us through specific, particular stories—genres like historical records, poetry, personal letters, and accounts of visions. 

This seemed obvious enough to me, and over time I began to read Scripture more as a narrative than a textbook. This was both frightening and freeing. The Bible’s teachings, to the extent that it had them, did not seem nearly as clear to me as they once did. At times I felt adrift in a sea of doubt and uncertainty. I was afraid that God might judge me or cut me off if I strayed from the supposedly “clear” teachings of Scripture. 

But I also found my imagination begin to revive. I found profound truths in stories told through literature and music and film—even the ones told by so-called “secular” folks. I began encountering the firsthand, lived experience of myself and others and started genuinely grappling with how to reconcil their feelings and lives with my own theological assumptions. I began to open myself to insights and wisdom from other denominations and wisdom traditions. 

Several years ago I found a view that resonated with me in a paper by N.T. Wright exploring the question of how the Bible can be authoritative. He encourages the church to read the Bible more as a play in which we are given the first four acts and a glimpse of the ending of the story, and now face the joyful, creative task of working out the fifth act for ourselves. This is not a matter of simply contorting ourselves back into the shape of a 2,000-year-old text so as to be “biblically faithful.” It’s more about finding ourselves in its story and creatively living out the next act in relationship with a personal, dynamic God. Granted, this God never changes, but the Triune Godhead is nonetheless always in motion, always at work in some way creatively working out redemption in the world and wooing our hearts.

This involves a both/and posture. We look to the traditions and wisdom of the past to know where we came from, who we are, and where we are going. Yet at the same time we also need pastors, prophets, and artists who are capable of holy imagination—who can bear witness to the presence of a God who is real and alive and active right now, all around us, not just in the pages of Scripture. As T.S. Eliot said, every generation needs its own poets. I’ve come to see that we need our own contemporaries in the church to sing their songs in their own way, to reimagine the story of our faith afresh and attune to the ever-new mercies and whispers of the Spirit. 

To that end, here are three examples of holy imagination in music that have profoundly enriched my worship and devotional life over the past year:

Deliverer – Audrey Assad

In the ruins of my heart you preach to the poor

Turning over stones to show me there is more 

More than all I ask more than I’m looking for 

In the ruins of my heart

I don’t know the story behind this song or how Assad went about writing it, but I am convinced that when she composed the bridge she was directly tapped into the Spirit of the living God. In these anthemic lines my heart is imagined as a ruined wasteland in which God has come to speak to all the broken, downcast parts of me and dig through the rubble, unearthing the seeds of redemption and new life. In my mind’s eye I can see Jesus, much like he wandered through all the cities and villages of Galilee, “proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction.” I see him turning over stones and calling me to come and see that there’s more to the parts of my story that I’ve given up on—that where I see wreckage and despair he sees buried treasure.

There’s also a distinct echo of the Psalms here, of a God who offers refuge in the shadow of his wings and lifts up the broken hearts of the widow and the fatherless. If the Psalms were written today, I bet they would sound a lot like this.

Holy Ghost – Jessie Early

You hover over waters of my heart 

Skipping stones on the bank where the tides rises and depart 

You know I’ve got, I’ve got your sun reflecting off my skin 

I feel you hushing every storm again

The first line here is a reference to the opening of Genesis, which speaks of the Spirit of God hovering over the formless and void waters of the earth. But there’s something “extra-biblical” here in the lyric too: this picture of the Spirit at play, in a state of leisure and familiarity, skipping stones on the shores of our heart like a friend utterly comfortable in our presence. It feels like what I imagine it would be like to be with God, at peace and at home. It catches the divine vibe. It’s the kind of thing I’d expect from someone who has a track record of playing in the mud to heal a blind man or making breakfest for his friends after they were out fishing all night. 

I also love how this image of leisure and friendliness goes hand in hand with an experience of divine glory and power. The holiness of God lights up the singer, like Moses coming down from Mount Sinai, and the power of God hushes the storm, like Jesus at sea with his disciples. But these magnificent displays of glory and power come to us with a felt sense of life and peace, like a ray of sunshine on warm spring day, or a friend skipping stones on the banks of our most tender, vulnerable selves. 

Wood and Nails – The Porter’s Gate

The dead will rise and give you praise

Wood and nails will not hold them down

These wooden tombs, we’ll break them soon

And fashion them into flower beds

You won’t find this specific imagery in the accounts of the Hebrew prophets, but it rings profoundly true all the same because it poetically captures the heart of redemption itself. The very tombs that imprison us, the instruments and markers of death, will become the materials for our new homes and vocations in the kingdom. It’s the hope of swords being fashioned into plowshares contextualized for the present day: tombs to flower boxes. Either way the beating heart of redemption is the same: it is the concrete, tacticle things of everyday life in today’s broken world that will hold the beauty of new life in the coming kingdom.

I imagine (I use the term here intentionally) that if Isaiah were prophesying today, he just might receive a vision like this one. This is poetry for today’s generation, nothing less than a prophetic vision of a flourishing kingdom. This is language that moves a Seattle-dwelling millennial to tears. I long for home, to walk through uncursed gardens in a body that’s has become even more substantive and sensual than I already am.

How I’m discovering that eternity is not a long time

Longing for the eternal

I tried in vain to find my journal entry for the day I first had this revelation. It must have been about four years ago. But I can still remember the moment. I was walking down the street in my Capitol Hill neighborhood in Washington, DC, heading to Sidamo Coffee and Tea for an afternoon of remote work, when I stopped to admire a flower growing in a neighboring yard. I don’t know what kind of flower it was, only that it was white and it was beautiful. I could have sat there for minutes admiring it, enjoying its glory, marveling in the simple fact of its existence. After that I could have moved on to the next flower—one of the yellow ones just a few feet away—and on and on from petal to leaf to bud for hours, all within this modest plot of land no larger than my wingspan. 

But I did not have that luxury. I could not give myself that freedom because I had things to do. I had a job to get to, articles to read, phone calls to make, op-eds and Facebook posts to write. Time constrained me. I left the flower, along with my sense of wonder, so that I could attend to my adult responsbilities.

While I walked the remaining two blocks to the coffee shop I pondered what had just happened. It was not merely time, but ultimately the fact of my own mortality that constrained me. I was limited by my lifespan, however long it may end up being, and I could not give boundlessly of my time and leisure to as small and simple a thing as a single flower, beautiful though it may be. I had other priorities—most of them good and legitimate—but it still grieved me to leave the flower. I longed to remain with it for as long as my wonder and joy over it lasted. 

Suddenly it ocurred to me: I was longing for the eternal; I was longing for heaven. Would this not, after all, be the great freedom, the great life-giving joy, of eternal life? Growing up I always imagined the eternal in light of how much there would be to look forward to, but now it occurred to me that this empahsis might be misplaced. The great glory of the Kingdom of God is that I am freed to enjoy the present moment to its fullest because I have plenty of time for everything else later. In eternity I would have all the time in the world to marvel at this flower. The coffee shop could wait, or rather I could wait for the coffee shop, because I was no longer bound the pressures and limitations of linear time. 

Heaven, I realized as I walked down the sidewalk, is being utterly, wholly present. It is experiencing the fullness of life that’s within me and about me right now. How could it be otherwise?

Chronos and kairos

Unlike modern English, the ancient Greeks had two words for time: chronos and kairos. While I’m sure this distinction exists in many faith and wisdom traditions, I happened across it through the Eastern Orthodox Church. It offers helpful language for my new understanding of eternity.

Chronos refers to time on the move, time as quanitifiable in days, hours, and minutes. It’s where we get words like chronology, chronic, and chronicle. 

The thing about this kind of time is that it is devilishly close to non-existence. We cannot hear it, taste it, or smell it. We can’t stand outside of it, hold up an hour, and study it as an individual entity. Put another way, the past and future do not exist in any conventional sense. As the Orthodox Priest Fr. Patrick Reardon points out, we can only measure the “dead time” of the past:

“(C)hronos is, in this respect, rather ghoulish,” Reardon writes. “Even dead, it continues to feed on us. We may speak of ‘killing time,’ but it invariably ends up killing us. Chronos is, therefore, an image of everlasting death, what the Bible calls the ‘bottomless pit,’ or hell. What is hell but the reign of death in ongoing, unending sequence?” 

Kairos, on the other hand, does not exist in the past or future but is rather “time as a moment, time as occasion, time as qualitative rather than quantitative, time as significant rather than dimensional.” It’s what the Apostle Paul is talking about in Ephesians 5 when he urges the church to “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” In English when we speak of the opportune moment, the time being ripe, or seizing the day, we are talking, in essence, about Kairos. We experience this kind of time in so many powerful ways: stopping to smell the roses, sleeping with someone we’re in love with, speaking truth to power at a pivotal moment of conflict, throwing up our hands when the beat drops on the dance floor. 

Kairos time, then, lies at the very heart of eternity. Reardon continues:

“Kairos, because it is present, is an icon of eternal life. To experience the now, after all, one must be alive. The dead know nothing of now. Therefore, the now, the kairos, is an icon of the life of heaven. Indeed, eternal life is an everlasting now, in which there is no sequence, no before and after. Eternity is not a long time. Strictly speaking, there is simply no length to it. Nothing elapses. The infinite is not measurable.”

I love that. Eternity is not a long time, because to conceive of it as a length of time is ultimately to despair. It is rather an everlasting now. It is being right where we are, with all of the present moment’s ecstatic joys…or piercing sorrows. 

We find a powerful example of living in kairos time, living in eternity through the here and now, in the life of Jesus. I like how Richard Rohr describes this in his book, The Naked Now:

Most of Jesus’ contemporaries missed the ‘Real Presence’ that was right in their midst… They were storing up treasures for the next world, and he was just living and talking about what was right in front of him—birds, lilies, tenants, and suffering. Eternity is going on all the time, and spiritual teachers gave us a way to dip into that stream now and therefore forever. Their assumption is invariably, ‘If you have it now, you will have it then.’ They see a perfect continuity between time and eternity.

I see this presence in the life of Jesus, this sense that there is indeed a perfect continuity between time and eternity. Yes, he spoke of storing up treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, but he was also remarkably present and at peace with himself and his own limitations as a human being. As Rohr said, he talked about things that were right in front of him. He lived into kairos moments, taking the time to welcome children to his side, heeding the cry of a castaway blind man, and letting a paralytic drop in from the roof to interrupt his teaching. He withdrew for hours and days at a time to pray, taking the time to be present with himself and his heavenly Father even though there were surely more “urgent” matters at hand. 

Jesus lived out the purity of heart that Kierkegaard describes in his devotional work, Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing:

The person, who in decisiveness wills to be and to remain loyal to the Good, can find time for all possible things. No, he cannot do that. But neither does he need to do that, for he wills only one thing. . . and so he finds ample time for the good.

Jesus did not find time for all possible things. What a remarkable thought. Raised in a small backwater town, he lived one life, and didn’t even really get started with it (at least not according to any of the success metrics we might be inclined to use) until he was thirty years old! Three years later the masses lynched him and his friends deserted him. It was finished. He was dead. 

Talk about a flash in the pan.

This, of course, was not the end of the story. Years, decades, centuries, and millennia have since passed since Jesus ascended to heaven. But here he is now, still alive in some mystical yet concrete way, still present with us in and through the Helper, still showing up in bread and wine, still with ample time for the good. Yes, my friend Jesus is alive, present in the eternal now, ever-ready to show up in kairos time because he holds eternity in his hands. He has time to delight in me, to show up at the foot of my bed in the morning ready to start the day with joy. He has time grieve with me, to hold me, weeping, through the lonely night when my heart is breaking and feels like I’ll never be happy again.

The shadow side of presence

This experience of the Christ’s presence in sorrow brings me to an important point. Our culture has become quite preoccupied with presence these days. We talk a big game about mindfulness and build a small economy around it. We light candles and meditate and give ourselves yoga retreats and relaxing getaways. I opened this essay with an anecdote about admiring a flower. Clearly it is easy to make presence into this romantic notion because, well, it is romantic. 

But it is also not romantic. Sometimes it is agony—it must be agony—and feels like death itself.

“I am not well right now,” I told my therapist the other day. “Most of the time I’m not doing well these days. I feel disconnected from others and my own emotions. I feel my desires deadened and split.” 

He encouraged me to sit with this moment, this act of naming my unwellness, and asked me what it felt like. 

“I feel like I can breath a little,” I said. “I can relax; I can rest. I feel more present with myself.” 

My eyes began to well with tears, a mingling of grief and sweet release.

The simple act of naming this, of sitting with my own unwellness during a painful, traumatic time, took an act of vulnerability that hurt me. It didn’t take me into nirvanna. It took me into pain, into a place I wish I wasn’t in amid a world were things aren’t as they should be, a place I would never wish on anyone. 

But somehow this was where I needed to go, choosing to be right where I was, and in doing so I experienced a taste of the kingdom of the heavens, of eternity itself. Rather than escaping from my present condition into a place of timeless bliss, I found a way of being and moving right here in the world, one where the path to resurrection life leads through a cross and a tomb. Here the deep, mystical knowledge of eternity takes me into the here and now, the kairos, the day of salvation, where in the present moment I possess all things and find ample time for the Good.

Resurrection Sunday

The house is still and quiet

No bells or flowers adorn the doors

No voice takes up the cry, “He is risen”

Granola patters in a plastic bowl

Hot water trickles through coffee grounds

Cracked fingertips turn wispy pages

Foggy eyes make out the words:

“But in fact Christ has been raised”

A sleepy mind ponders the great question:

“O death, where is your sting?”

 

The stinger is still lodged inside

Piercing every untracked hour and day

Toxins flow through the veins

Of a civilization in cardiac arrest

A swell of hearts gasping for air

Behind barred bedroom walls

Aimless fingers tapping in place

Behind masks that leave faces bruised

Obscuring all but the weary tears

Tears that know death’s sting

 

But there is yet breath, a beating pulse

A song that refuses to die

Outside the air smells like a flower in bloom

Birdsong skips above the quiet interstate

Cherry blossoms burst forth

In constellations on gnarled, mossy limbs

The tulips bear witness

Crying with shouts of red! yellow! magenta!

 

Frost recedes across the hoods

Of unmoving cars lined along still streets

It cannot hold out under the rising sun

It cannot hold out under the clear spring sky

It cannot hold out

Life during the pandemic: limitations, trauma, and dignity

We are now several weeks into a strange and bizarre new way of living as the novel coronavirus approaches what will hopefully be its apex. During this time my thoughts and prayers have returned often to the question of how I, Andrew Collins, can flourish during a time like this. As I’ve leaned into this question, I’ve noticed three streams of response emerge in my heart as I journey through this strange new world that has happened to us. 

LIMITATIONS

The first, and most obvious to me, is that of mortality, death, limitation. I think of the weighty, prescient timing of the outbreak in light of the church calendar observed by many Christian in liturgical traditions. On February 26 the season of Lent began. Those who attended Ash Wednesday services had ash marked on their foreheads and the following words spoken over their bodies: “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” 

I have no doubt that our society, and in fact the entire world, is collectively more in touch with this reality right now than we have been in a long time—perhaps not since World War II. We are facing a threat that is both seen and unseen. We know it exists and the harm that it causes, but it is invisible to the naked eye. Disease could catch us anywhere. It could lie within us, symptom free, and spread through us into the body of another. The world is suddenly a dangerous place.

But the world has always been a dangerous place. Our bodies have always been fragile and finite, vulnerable to the whims of a distracted bus driver, a cancer diagnosis, a stray bullet, a heart attack striking out of thin air. 

Beyond the short span of years we have on this earth, we are limited in other ways. Shelter in place orders have brought this truth to the forefront of our awareness. We cannot do many of the things that we love, that we once had the freedom to do. We cannot gather to pray together at the church down the street. We cannot get on an airplane, fly across an ocean, and feel the thrill of exploring strange new lands and cultures. We cannot step into our therapist’s office to weep. We cannot meet strangers in the park over a friendly pickup game of basketball. 

Yes, we are not so free and autonomous, the possibilities not so endless, as they once seemed. 

I do not think it is such a bad thing to see this and feel the check in our gut from this—the stifling lonliness as we sit alone in our apartment, the sense of being trapped in a handful of bedrooms with our family with no relief in the near future. In fact it can be, if we are willing to face it, the place where we begin to live life with greater fullness and sincerity.

I like how Annie Dillard puts it in An American Childhood:

Knowing you are alive is feeling the planet buck under you, rear, kick, and try to throw you; you hang on to the ring. It is riding the planet like a log downstream, whooping. Or, conversely, you step aside from the dreaming fast loud routine and feel time as a stillness about you, and hear the silent air asking in so thin a voice, Have you noticed yet that you will die? Do you remember, remember, remember? Then you feel your life as a weekend, a weekend you cannot extend, a weekend in the country.

We have been forced out of the “dreaming fast loud routine” that is the modern world. That much is true enough. Why not, then, pay attention to the stillness, and find ways to enter more deeply into this country weekend before the hours tick away?

TRAUMA

In the past I might have concluded this essay here and let the existential message of death and finiteness be the last word. But I think there’s room in this space for more movement, for a dance of feelings and experiences. I think there’s room for us to let the highs and lows show up and speak their piece. 

Have recognized that life is short, many of us feel that we now, thanks to shelter-in-place orders, have time to pursue things that we have long put off. Now, we tell ourselves, is the time to learn to play the piano, to get out our canvas and paints again, to become penpals with that friend from high school we lost touch with, to write the novel that’s been percolating for the last decade, to fan the fading embers of a once-vibrant marriage. 

But the harsh, awful fact is that this epidemic is a traumatic event. The planet has bucked under us. We’re not living on the same earth that we were on two months ago. We’ve lost our footing. The rythms and liturgies of life have cut out. I am not a psychologist or the son of a psychologist, but I know that trauma does not bring out the best in us. It tends to have a regressive effect, resurfacing old wounds and old survival tactics.

An acquaintance of mine expressed this well in a Facebook post last month:

Go easy on yourself today. You’re not supposed to know how to do this. You’re not supposed to have all the answers or be totally peaceful and calm. This is new and uncertain and scary…

Your old patterns are gonna flare up. The ones you don’t like. The ones you wish would just go away already. The ways you avoid and escape and abandon yourself.

It’s enough right now just to notice them.

I see my old patterns flare up these days. I feel my existence sucked back into the orbit of glowing smartphone screens and self-aware Facebook posts and I hate it. As I scroll aimlessly, frictionlessly through social media, I feel the same restless impulses that I used to feel in my early twenties, always itching for another red notification, another blue dot, another buzz heralding the arrival of a new text message. I stay up past midnight playing a computer version of Axis and Allies against crappy AIs until I can hardly keep my eyes open, and then go to bed with that dull feeling of nothingness inside that lingers after wasted time. All the while a vertiable treasure trove of unread books sits within arms reach. I berate myself for wasting precious quarantine time, yet still the cycle goes on.

I have worked hard the past four years to pull away from this digital orbit but now it feels like I don’t have a choice. Better to Facetime a good friend than not speak to him at all, right? Better to ramp up my freelance work a bit and remain in decent financial shape so I’ll be okay as the economy slumps into a recession for who-knows-how-long, right? 

Yes, I think so, but I still don’t like it.

I’ve often sung the refrain with Switchfoot: “I want to thrive, not just survive.” I sing it still, trying to stave off the old feelings of shame and self-loathing creeping up in my heart. In these moments I try to remember that sometimes our journey to thriving begins with naming that it’s okay to just survive, that our feelings and bodies are serving us and in some cases quite literally keeping us alive.

I recently rewatched Dunkirk, the World War II film about the miraculous evaculation of hundreds of thousands of British and French troops who would otherwise have been captured or killed by advancing Nazi armies. At the end of the film, as the soldiers return to the safe shores of England, an old blind man affirms them as he hands out blankets.

“Well done lads, well done,” he says as the soldiers pass by. “Well done lads.”

“All we did is survive,” one soldier replies, still reeling, no doubt, from memories of torpedoed navy vessels sinking into the sea, screaming dive bombers overhead, and body bags lining the beaches of Dunkirk. Surely he feels pathetic, impotent, cowardly. But the blind man’s response is as profound as it is simple.

“That’s enough,” he says. “Well done.”

Last week UN Secretary General António Guterres said the coronavirus outbreak is the biggest challenge facing the world since World War II. To use biblical language, the world is entering a time of trials and tribulations. There will be many moments, more for some of us than others, where it feels like we’re just getting by, just surviving.

I’m with the old man handing out blankets: that’s enough.

DIGNITY

The third stream involves claiming and living into my own dignity, worth, and power as a human being. In the face of encroaching limitations and disruptive trauma, this takes me into a paradoxical space because I see myself and those around me being humbled and exalted at the same time. Yes, we are finite and limited, but that does not mean we need to throw up our hands in surrender and give up the power and volition that we do possess. Quite the opposite. Even though we’re isolated and separated from each other, our humanity is still on full display in profound, unique ways.

A remarkable thing happens when we name our own mortality. I like how Marilynne Robinson articulates this in her essay Proofs, where she considers a passage from 1 Peter:

All flesh is grass, and the beauty of it is like the flower of the field. In feeling the truth of such words we are seeing the world from a perspective like God’s. In feeling our unlikeness to the eternal we are experienceing the very height of our humanity—experiencing, that is, our ability to know far beyond our needs, our immediate circumstance, and to ponder existence itself. As we humble ourselves we are exalted.

Sit with that a moment. Read it again.

In the midst of much tragedy and death, this is a remarkable thing to consider. It underscores the reality that I can find new ways to seek out and experience life during this season, that I can choose to be in the world in a way that is both more human and somehow more divine even as the knawing anxiety betrays my vulnerability and the stay-at-home orders shock body and soul with the cold brevity of my finitness. 

In this hour of loss and disconnection I see my own indomitable human spirit rise up and surface despite the tumultuous sea of overwhelmed hospitals, global upheaval, and economic recession that surrounds me. It rises as I dance alone in the kitchen to the beat of an indie pop song while making scrambled eggs for lunch. It rises when I leave an 80% tip on a to-go order at my local coffee shop—something I would rarely, if ever, do under “normal” circumstances. It rises when I bring home firewood, chopped up from damaged framing lumber at the lumber yard where I work, so that my roommates can have fires in the living room on cold, cloudy days as they work from home. It rises when I pray aloud a liturgy for medical providers, weeping in the car as I beg Jesus to reach out hands of healing and comfort to those suffering in isolation from COVID-19, cut off from friends and family. 

In all of these moments I step into my own human dignity. Rather than shrink back in the face of a crisis that is outside of my control, I continue to make my own choices. I find new ways to live and move and have my being in the world. I exercise the power that I do have—power bestowed on me as an image bearer of God—to actually impact and change the universe, to play a part in someone else’s story, to catch the eye of God himself. 

The coronavirus may be bringing about the end of life as we know it in many ways, but it is far from the end of life. Like a seed that falls to the earth and dies before it sprouts, perhaps there is a time to die before we live. Wouldn’t that be something?

To despair and numb ourselves to the weight of the world’s brokenness is a very human response. To hope defiantly that “all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” is also human. We do both all the time. I for one intend to ride these waves as they come, trusting that I am, in fact, living out a story, for to be alive is to be in motion, a tender shoot unfurling and reaching recklessly up towards the sky.

Early reflections on life under COVID-19

With everyone retreating and self-quarantining to stem the outbreak of the novel Coronavirus, it seems the time has come for me to live more like a writer again. Here are some of my early reflections on life under COVID-19:

 

—Over the past several weeks I’ve seen well-meaing Christians post things like “God’s plan is going exactly according to plan.” 

To that I say, with all due respect, shut up. I do believe that providence is at work in the world is some mysterious, awful (in the traditional sense of the word—awe-filled) way. But people are hurting right now. They’re suffering. They’re afraid. And for good reason. People are going to die, perhaps on the scale of wartime numbers (God-forbid!). We don’t have to keep a stiff upper lip and project nice, theologically-correct statements. On the contrary, my prayers at their most desperate and sincere these days sound more like: God, where the hell are you right now? Why must we endure this?

Right now, I think that’s okay. And I’m going to keep shouting that lament for as long as I feel that way. God can take it. He won’t cast me away for it.

As I’ve sat in my room and sought the presence and voice of God over the past week, I’ve found myself returning to a great vision of the Lord holding our suffering. When my heart broke and my world fell apart last year, I learned firsthand, at an emotional, heart level, that God tends to show up in the most powerful and intimate ways amid two kinds of experiences: those of great love and of great suffering. Today the world is entering into a collective, once-in-a-generation suffering. So many things are upended. The elderly and immuno-compromised are at great risk. Graduations thrown into flux. Weddings celebrations canceled or delayed. Career changes and advancements halted in their tracks. Travel plans derailed. I do not fear for my own well-being, but I am afraid for the elderly in my local church. I’m afraid for my friend with asthma. I’m afraid for my friend’s sister battling cancer. I’m afraid for the child stuck in a broken home who no longer has access to the structure of a school day and lunch in the cafeteria. 

This is suffering. I do not know why the novel Coronavirus is happening. I’m not comfortable saying God has a plan for this or meant for this to happen because in so many ways I don’t see the goodness of this present moment. To do so would dishonor and be dishonest about the experiences of those who are currently suffering.

That said, I do believe God is real and actually gives a damn about us. In my heart I see the Spirit of God hovering over the world right now just as they hovered over the waters during creation. I imagine Jesus in my bedroom, sitting in the chair across from me, and find that he is not just a savior who will deliver us from this body of death but, more importantly in times like this, he is a wounded savior. He is a man who even now carries scars on his hands and feet and side because in some mysterious, profoundly human way he subjected himself to the violence, injustice, brokenness, and disease of this world and therefore has the embodied capacity to feel it with us. I believe that right now God is actively hurting with each and every one of us and longing to draw near to us, and that if we go to him we will find a friend. I believe we’ll find a friend ready to be with us wherever we’re at: to hold us when we’re shaking uncontrollably with fear and anxiety, to weep with us when a loved one is hospitalized or when our dreams have been shattered, to laugh with us in the funny and absurd moments of being quaratined, to rejoice with us in the beauty of music or the savory goodness of a home-cooked meal, to long for connection and reunifcation with the lover, parent, child, friend, or sibling from which we are now separated. 

 

—If I may venture to suggest one theory about what providence is up to, however, I do suspect that it is no coincidence the pandemic has swept across the world during the season of Lent, which is inaugurated with this exhortation: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We’re much more in touch with that reality now. We can feel it in our bones, our heartbeat, our breath.

 

—I’m excited about the great output of human creativity that will result from this. Already the world has seen a staggeringly vast and beautiful release of creative energy. Musicians are livestreaming concerts and writing songs. People are painting and writing poetry. They’re creating mini-golf courses in their homes and making epic Lego creations. Teachers are finding new ways to impart knowledge amid upended norms. Parents are finding ways to engage and educate their children. Neighbors are finding new ways to meet each other’s needs.

Spring is here, but we are only now just entering a strange, ill-timed social winter. I’m reminded of Annie Dillard’s reflections about winter in “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”: 

It is winter proper; the cold weather, such as it is, has come to stay. I bloom indoors in the winter like a forced forsythia; I come in to come out. At night I read and write, and things I have never understood become clear; I reap the harvest of the rest of the year’s planting.

As is so often the case in life, we are in a paradoxical space of both/and. This is a time to sow, to rest, to prepare for life on the other side of this pandemic. But it is also a time to reap the harvest of our creative passions, ingenuity, and inventiveness that we have otherwise neglected.

I recently got the lyrics “live it like a song” tattooed on my arm. If we think of life as a song, then certainly the melody right now has taken a sudden and unexpected modulation into a minor key. But that doesn’t mean it still can’t have the aching, awful beauty that is relentless creativity in the face of pain and tragedy. 

 

—It’s time to appreciate the essential workers in our neighborhoods and in the world at large who keep us alive and safe every day. Truckers and delivery drivers are the new calvary in our war against the virus, transporting all manner of life-sustaining goods ranging from hospital supplies to fresh produce to toilet paper. Mail carriers, powerplant workers, garbage collectors, farmers, all of these oft-neglected individuals are soldiering on to preserve life and keep the world from descending into anarchy. Let’s bless these workers. Let’s honor them. Let’s love them (from afar). My heart aches with joy and love to see that for once we are not only declaring that everyone matters, but knowing it and feeling it deep in our hearts. The elderly and immunocompromised matter. Children in school matter. Therapists matter. Priests and artists, computer programmers and medical researchers, politicians and janitors—they all matter so much right now! This reality, I am increasingly convinced, pulses at the very heartbeat of God, and it is echoing loudly throughout the world because we all bear the imago dei. 

 

—I’m hopeful that we’ll come out of this with a healthier relationship to technology. I do not like that my average time spent on Facebook and on my smartphone has spiked dramatically in recent weeks. I loathe it, in fact, all this screen time. But right now I’m thankful that these technologies exist. I’m thankful for the communication and connection to other human beings that they provide at a time like this. I’m glad that I can still hear the voices and see images of my friends and family at a moment’s notice. At the end of this, however, I hope we see that these mediated methods of communicating and connecting with each other are no substitute for embodied face-to-face encounters. I hope we realize that we cannot live in a cocoon of tech-mediated reality and expect to flourish as humans. I think we will feel a gap, a longing for embodied connection that social media or Zoom cannot fill. Already, at this early stage in the quarantine, I long for the day when I can hug someone—anyone. How sweet, how real, how precious will that moment be, the simple act of hugging someone? And how much more will we appreciate how essential touch is to life itself?

 

—If I could offer one exhortation amid the digital noise of the pandemic, I’d encourage everyone to take some time to practice silence and solitude. Consider Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s warning in “Life Together”:

Let him who cannot be alone beware of community… Let him who is not in community beware of being alone… Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.

I’m an introvert, yet I am struggling to live well and make good life choices in conditions where I can’t meet friends for coffee, play pickup ultimate Frisbee, go to the gym, attend a concert, or go out on a date. It may come more easily to some of us than to others, but I propose that the time to get alone with ourselves is now.

Several years ago, over a nine-month span, I had the privilege of experiencing six separate days of silence and solitude. They were the best days of my year. They ushered me into new depths of being. They freed me to find the glory of an entire world in a single flower. They helped me start to taste and see the joy in literally, physically walking with God. They gave my mind space to wander, to compose poetry, to rest and process my life. 

At a time when videoconferencing, phone calls, and social media are the only ways to safely connect with most people, I suspect that the practice of silence and solitude will be the key to avoid being flooded by digital noise. I’m not sure if there’s any other way, in fact, to walk through this into a healthy emotional state on the other side. 

It doesn’t have to be for a full day. Block out a chunk of time from nine to five. Or just a morning. An hour even. Close the laptop. Put away your phone. Turn off Alexa. Go into a still, quiet place, and see what the silence has to say. Brew a cup of coffee and savor its flavor. Light a candle and breathe in its aroma. Tend to a houseplant. Feel the sun shine on your skin. Write a letter, in longhand, to a friend. See what voices begin to speak, where your mind wanders, what feelings rise up. Write about it. Talk to God about it.

We have so much to teach ourselves, if only we will take the time to notice.

Advent in a Land of Darkness

 

Note: I wrote this essay a year ago. A lot has happened since then. This year the season of Advent feels darker in many ways than it did last year, but the core sentiment of what I wrote then remains the same, so I’m sharing it now.

 

December 2018

 

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.

Winters in the north are not easy. 

I discovered this shortly after moving to Seattle. As a native Californian and a newlywed, that December was a dark month. The sun came out less and less. The world grew cold and damp. I was four months into marriage and experiencing the agony of early growing pains. Hope dwindled to a thread.

We got a tree and decorated it. I queued up all my favorite Christmas songs. But the good ol’ holiday spirit was hard to come by. I remember walking through my neighborhood at night during those weeks, wondering what familial abuses and wounds were being inflicted behind all those dark windows and closed doors.

I didn’t have clear language for it at the time, but this year, as liturgical churches begin to walk through the church calendar, I now know what I was experiencing: Advent.

Growing up in a nondenominational church, I used to think of Advent and the contemporary American Christmas season as almost interchangeable. The former just sounded a little more spiritual, baby in a manger and all that. This year, however, I’m finding that Advent comes with a radically different felt sense—a much darker experience of the season that seeps into my bones and threatens to overwhelm me. 

Advent is not the time for the “Christmas spirit,” skipping through city streets singing cheerful songs and feeling nostalgic for good times with friends and family. And it runs deeper than the evangelical cliches reminding us that Jesus is the true “reason for the season” or “the greatest gift of all.”

It’s the difference between Andy Williams’ “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and the somber, minor chords of “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” It’s the difference between “all is merry and bright” and “the light shines in the darkness.” It’s the difference between an Advent candle flickering in the basement where my little Anglican church meets and the glitzy corridors of the Northgate shopping mall up the road.

For we dwell in a land of deep darkness. I’m reminded of this as I take my daily walk around my North Seattle neighborhood. The clock indicates that it is late afternoon, but outside it might as well be the midnight—the sun’s been down for an hour. I see people bustling about, wrapping up their work days, and the so-called “Seattle freeze” begins to make a lot of sense. How can one not be deeply tempted to despair when their daily commute begins and ends in darkness?

How, then, does one cope? I begin to find a path out the despair by looking to Christmas lights, one of those vestiges of the sacred that remain in our secularizing culture (though admittedly sentimentalized and commercialized). It makes me think of what Marilynne Robinson says when she suggests that Christmas really does remind everyone of the joy of giving:

Families tend to provide, but Christmas reminds everyone that there is joy in it. A small gift to or from an acquaintance is expressive, a kind of courteous language. If we wanted to, we could find a considerable liveliness in all this, but that is prohibited by the conventions of social critique. We would rather think darkly about those materialists who have emptied the shelves of things we had on our lists, who stand with their carts full of loot between ourselves and the cash register.

I’d say the same about Christmas lights—social critiques be damned. In a season of dreary, shrinking days, these gaudy displays around the neighborhood remind me what light does: it defies the darkness. Against all odds, against the wide, encroaching power of night, each one of the glowing light bulbs that I pass walking down the street casts its small glow up to the cloudy sky, bringing a glimmer of hope. 

It’s a small gesture to be sure, and frankly there’s an absurdity to it. What can one little lightbulb do against the vast, shadowy expanse of the earth? I mean, what are the festive little displays in our front yards really accomplishing anyway? Who do we think we are? Why do we imagine the little lights of our lives, doomed to flame out within the century, could mean anything against the decaying sands of time, enmeshed and overwhelmed as they are by the evils that afflict our age?

Sometimes I don’t feel like I have a good answer, just a glimmer of outlandish faith, a 50-count string of tiny lights held forth against against the long, dark winter of the north. All I know is that you could have asked the same questions about a baby that once showed up in a manger in a little backwater village called Bethlehem. 

The light shines in the darkness. It defies death, the great End of the encroaching darkness, against all worldly odds and appearances. And as the arrival of the Word Made Flesh dares me to believe, the darkness has not overcome it.