Jay Gatsby’s Unforgettable Sermon

I love going to movies that make me cringe.

I love going to movies whose themes reveal something ugly in my heart, that challenge me to shuffle my paradigm of perspective, that pierce me with the sin in my own life by making me identify so closely with a character that it hurts.

Jay Gatsby is one of those characters.

For anyone who hasn’t read the book or seen the movie, Jay Gatsby’s life is dominated by his pursuit of Daisy, a girl whom he loved and lost five years prior. Gatsby obsessively pursues the now-married Daisy through the passive means of moving close to her then throwing an array of extravagantly lavish parties in hopes that she will meander in one night. If he obtains Daisy, he sincerely believes, his life will be complete, a paradise of love and fulfillment.

What Gatsby doesn’t realize is that he has elevated Daisy to a level that no human being can live up to. To him, she is a symbol of the nostalgic perfection of the past that must be reclaimed to escape the drab, mundane present. She has no flaws. She is the one thing needed. She is a god. She is memory embodied.

No specific spoilers, but the pursuit of this idealized version of Daisy and the past precipitates an Anna Karenina size train wreck for Gatsby and all those around him.

And as I sat in the dark theater watching chaos and death and broken lives all set in motion by a selfishness fueled by putting hope in a mirage, I could not bring myself to judge. No, I could only sit still, breathe slowly, and feel the weight of the destruction humanity loves to pursue.

I could not judge, because I saw myself in Jay Gatsby.

I idealize the past and those people who shared it with me, walking a precarious line between reminiscence and idolatry every time I open a photo album.

I romanticize the past, replaying over and over the feeling-charged beautiful clips while discarding the shots of relational strains and conflicted feelings.

I idealize the far away, swallowing the age-old lie of greener grass and manmade perfection.

I saw myself in Jay Gatsby, and I cringed. Caught once again in the act of pursuing an idol mirage. Convicted once again of obsessively pursuing the creation rather than the Creator.My eyes are accustomed to turning both back and inward, searching for something that is both forward and outward. But unlike the hopelessness I observed on the screen, I am an heir to a hope that doesn’t need to construct wobbly, ephemeral ideals. My cringing turned to praise and perspective, to thankfulness for the vivid jolt that shook me to realize my eyes were on myself and not on Jesus Christ.

Yep, Jay Gatsby preached one of the best sermons that I’ve heard all year.

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A Lyrical Life

I’ve never been able to understand why my dad listens to oldies. To me, they all sound like the same guitar-driven rock with scratchy-voiced singers, and I would much prefer silence to the voices of Bob Dylan and Thin Lizzy. My friends have never been able to understand why I listen to Russian techno-pop. To them, it all sounds like the same foreign blabber set to an overly excited electronic beat. Oldies mean nothing to me, and Russian music means nothing to my friends, but to my dad and me, our favorite songs consist of so much more than melodies and refrains.

It was the first time I was away from my parents on my mission trip to Russia. I watched wide-eyed out the car window as twenty-one year old Natasha whipped through the foreign city with three other Americans and me in tow. This unsupervised adventure led by my newfound Russian friend was the first time I discovered the freedom of being on my own. As we sped past wild drivers, poorly-fashioned carnival rides and broken beer bottles on the side of the road, the booming of syncopated Russian pop shot adrenaline into my thirteen year-old veins. When I returned to America with only a CD and a photo album as relics of my time there, I found myself clinging to Russian music to return to the raw freedom of speeding through that foreign city with the windows rolled down.

I loved those poorly written songs because they were keys to the past that I had full control over; with the push of a button or click of a mouse, I could transport myself to my first adventures in Russia.

But I have found that although songs wield the power to transplant us to a dimension outside the present, we cannot always trust that this dimension accurately reflects the reality of the past.  So often, in my desire for my story to be organized in a singable box, I conflate my actual experiences with the lyrics on the radio.

I don’t think Taylor Swift is so successful because her lyrics are unique; I believe she is successful because her lyrics appeal to the desire for a neatly wrapped understanding of both the joy and chaos of relationships. Without fail, her songs show only one perspective of the relationship, and as we belt out “I knew you were trouble,” and “You’re just another picture to burn,” it is easy to lose sight of the fact that in every relational breakdown, there are two sides to the story, two sides that are usually more complicated than three minutes can do justice to.  And as we get caught up in the grandiosity of the radio blaring a song that makes everything seem so clear-cut, we simplify our lives; we shave off the bumps and inconsistencies and paradoxes.

(Although I’m often tempted to believe that this song was written just for me…)

Sometimes, though, this simplification of reality has its benefits. There is a mysterious unity in the singing of the National Anthem; Americans of all political persuasions and beliefs are connected by something larger than themselves. After the National Anthem is sung, fans at a baseball game will inevitably split into the rival groups of Red Sox versus Yankees, but for that one minute before the game, not one person will dispute that the ground on which they are standing is “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

My study abroad group sophomore year was full of  wonderful people, with whom many I am still close friends with. However, many of my groupmates found that their personalities mixed as well as matches and dynamite.  After a tense semester full of misunderstanding and hurt, most of us thought we would be glad to part ways when the trip came to an end.  On our way to the airport though, someone suggested that we sing “All-Star.” Home seemed closer than ever now, and it seemed fitting to celebrate with a good old American song that we all grew up with.  As we belted out, “Hey now, you’re an all-star,” a sense of mutual understanding took over our cramped little van and outshouted our differences, relieving the four-month long tension. And for just that moment, no one would deny that we were friends.

A well-loved song doesn’t only have the power to unify people, but to unify experiences, giving a sense of steadiness as life changes. On a bumpy Russian road as a slightly chubby twelve year-old, scared to death about the mission trip that lay ahead, I held a silver Walkman and listened to lyrics that would become one of those steady comforts. The gentle voice of Erin O’Donnell reassured me with the words, “And I know that someday soon, you’ll make sense of this despair, and your love, your love, will get me there.”

Since that night ten years ago, this song has been what I like to call a “Bethel.” In Genesis 28, Jacob lies down to sleep at an unknown place after fleeing his homeland, and he receives a vision from God. Upon awakening, Jacob falls down in worship and christens the place “Bethel,” meaning “house of God,” saying “God was in this place and I did not know it.” He pours oil on the rock he had used as his pillow, anointing the place as a reminder of the faithfulness of Yahweh.  Likewise, that Erin O’Donnell song is a milestone that I come back to again and again when I need to be reminded of God’s faithfulness in my own life.

C.S. Lewis describes the longing for transcendence, for intimacy beyond what this world allows, with the German word sehnsucht. Certain songs evoke this sehnsucht, and while on one hand they point us to the Creator, they also strike us with our state of loneliness in a fallen world. A favorite Russian song of mine goes, “Ask me to come with you. I will go through the evil night. I will send myself after you, so that the road doesn’t prophesy the way I should go.” These words sound brittle, awkward in my native tongue, but in Russian, their poetic cadence draws me to worship God, the melancholy melody reminding me both of life’s transience and the gift Christ has given us in overcoming it. But again, this song-induced sehnsucht doesn’t always bring that joyful hope in God; sometimes it calls out, “If only someone else could understand exactly how I do when I hear this song, then I would be filled.” To everyone I know, “Ask Me to Come with You” sounds like a typical over-sentimental ballad, and this hurts. And for now, I am alone in my song, alone in a fallen world where barriers to intimacy are rarely broken.

It is in these visceral responses of loneliness and discontent that songs prove that we are made in the image of God. One author mused that the human soul is too vast to fit in the present. One of the things that sets us apart from animals is our ability to remember the past and to imagine the future. In this sense, songs are a constant reminder of our humanity, propelling us to the awe of the first time abroad as a teenager or prompting us to picture what life might be like after we leave this earth. Songs are not life, and we shouldn’t try to constrain our lives into a ten song soundtrack. But songs do reflect life and vivify life and point to the Giver of life, and sometimes they are just what we need to realize that our souls are vaster than we have dared to hope.

Destination: Elabuga

After seven months of waiting to hear whether I had been accepted to the program and another month of waiting to hear about my destination, I have finally received word that I am being placed as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Elabuga, Tatarstan!

My dad commented that every time I head back to the Motherland I seem to be going east, and indeed, Elabuga is yet another step eastward from the more well-known cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

File:Tatarstan in Russia.svg

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Elabuga is a small city of about 70,000 located in Tatarstan, a republic within Russia whose primary religion is Islam. This will not be my first time in Tatarstan, as my study-abroad group in 2010 traveled to its capital, Kazan, on a weekend excursion.

Upon doing a little research on the city I’m going to be working in, my first reactions were be-yu-tee-full! With lush, wild countryside coupled with the charming architecture of a city not tainted with the monotony of modernization, I have a feeling this Maine girl is going to feel right at home. The description that hooked me, though, in one of the many online articles that I read was that it, “feels like one has walked into one of Chekhov’s short stories.” Tantalizing. Absolutely tantalizing.

‘Tis Time, My Friend, ‘Tis Time

‘Tis time, my friend, ‘tis time! For rest the heart is aching-

The first line of my favorite Pushkin poem has faithfully rhythmed in my mind day after day with increasing intensity as graduation has drawn near. I have savored these words like a piece of butterscotch candy through every brain-aching, burnt-out final paper. I have heard their hopeful serenade urging me forward to repeat and re-repeat the trekking down a familiar hill then across the geese-laden quad. Far into the woods, running in lonely, free New England beauty, they have ignited my veins with hopeful endurance.

‘Tis time, my friend, ‘tis time. Four years of deeper and wider and knowing more and knowing less, to knowing that it is finally time. Time to frame the pictures and pack the suitcases and let restful release and the ache of goodbye intermingle.

Days follow days in flight…

Time is not a big enough concept to hold the soul, the nuances of reality past, present, and future. Yet time is a sort of accelerator, propelling us to movement when change is the thing needed to keep us alive and purposefully being. These college days were and still are and will be, but with our human constraints we find it comforting to find closure in squishing them in a box labeled “past.”

Days follow days in flight, and every day is taking

Fragments of being, while together you and I

Make plans to live. Look, all is dust, and we shall die.

Time would take fragments of being if we were mortal, which we are so often inclined to believe. But we are not subjects to the tyrant of time. Four years and questions of “what’s next” and “where are you going” are actually the least relevant of utterances to a people not slaves to the rigid ticking of the clock. We make plans to live, plans to live, always planning, gathering, yearning for the next thing beyond and better, but all green grass turns to dust so it is better to fix our eyes on the stars than on the ground. It is better to not move forward into the future but into the Creator.

‘Tis time, my friend, ‘tis time. Tomorrow, we graduate. We are confident and full of fear, joying in newness while feeling the acute pinch of a backward look. We are elaborately equipped and nakedly unprepared. We are messy paradoxes made in the image of a paradoxical, faithful, untamed God, who beckons us to life with him and through him. Let us press this “now” hard into open palms. ‘Tis time, my friend, ‘tis time.”

Excerpt from “Tis Time,” by Alexander Pushkin

‘Tis time, my friend, ‘tis time! For rest the heart is aching;
Days follow days in flight, and every day is taking
Fragments of being, while together you and I
Make plans to live. Look, all is dust, and we shall die.

Пора, мой друг, пора! покоя сердце просит —
Летят за днями дни, и каждый час уносит
Частичку бытия, а мы с тобой вдвоем
Предполагаем жить, и глядь — как раз умрем.

 

Letters to a Striving Daughter

Romans 7:23

But I see another law at work in me, waging war

against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner

 of the law of sin at work within me.

Dear daughter, it wasn’t long ago that I watched you in the kitchen, raspberry mop top framing your distressed face as you strained to sound out the word on the page. You stopped and started a few times, flustered at your shameful failure. “Dad, can you please tape over this!” you pleaded to your earthly father. At four years old, the seeds of sin were already taking root inside you; fear was sprouting in your heart, the fear that you were not, and would never be “good enough.” You, my darling, have been a perfectionist for almost your whole life. This is your signature sin. This is the prominent filthy rag of all your supposed righteousness. It is the vice that makes me weep with compassion when I see your contorted face and hopeless sobs, for your mind is diseased, blind to the truth when the weeds choke your thoughts to death.

Isaiah 30:15a

In repentance and rest is your salvation,

in quietness and trust is your strength.

    

You are miserable because your eyes are on yourself. I was with when you spoke the lies, “I am worthless. I have nothing to offer.” These words snaked into your vulnerable mind as you read the frank comments that the program assistant had typed onto your essays for the Fulbright competition.

“A lot of work needs to be done! Lacks enthusiasm. Too dry. Work on style.” You took each of those comments as a harsh attack when they were merely meant as a push in the right direction. You were so easily wounded because your eyes were not on me; your ambitions and self-concept and self-esteem and every self-ish word in the English language was usurping the throne in your heart. You had quite the puppet government going, when you said with your lips that I was your King but muted my commands and affections for those of a crass, snorting dictator. My darling, you are miserable because this is not the purpose for which I made you. It does not matter if you are inarticulate or unintelligent in comparison to other human beings; such adjectives are not the measure of a man or a woman. In fact, I don’t measure you like you believe I do. You try so hard to tiptoe around failure, fearing that if you fail by the standards of “perfection,” I will be ashamed of you, embarrassed to have a daughter with such lazy tendencies. You expect with each “mistake” that I will angrily disown you.

I do not measure you like this. I know that you are dust. I know that you cannot exist without me. I accept you not because of an A on the paper or good reviews at work or your unfailing promptness; I accept you because my son was tortured and died in your place, and for me to ignore his passion in order to focus on your failings would be to spit on his sacrifice. I don’t call you to be “the best” at what you do. I don’t call you to please others. No, I call you to rest and to repent of trying to be me.

Isaiah 55:2

Why spend money on what is not bread,

and your labor on what does not satisfy?

 Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,

and you will delight in the richest of fare.

 

 I know that for the past four years, you have lived in a place where you feel like a recovering alcoholic working at a bar. I know that the evaluative nature of your culture’s concept of school feels like iron chains to someone with your tendencies. When you have to write a paper, depression paralyzes you, because you are convinced that you have to prove yourself again. To your professors. To your peers. To yourself. It is from those around you that you draw your strength; I ache, for you are trying to breathe through a straw when to look to me would allow you to gulp full, fresh breaths. Sometimes their words are enough to sustain you, but like a ration in wartime, it is never enough; the scratchy lump of bread only whets your appetite. If you receive an A on the paper and a contemplative nod from the professor, then you go to bed superficially happy. If, though, you received the dreaded B or blank stare, you question that anything you have ever done is worthwhile. And this, daughter, is the wrong question to ask. Nothing that you do will ever be worthwhile unless it is done in me and through me and for me.

Psalm 127:1a

Unless the Lord builds the house,

the builders labor in vain.

 

On a sleepless night a few months ago, a disturbing caricature formed in your mind. You imagined that you were attending a woman’s funeral, a P.h.D who had achieved immense success. One by one, her boss, colleagues, and son came up to speak about her. Her boss was first. He looked mournfully out into the sea of onlookers.

“She had such a beautiful resume.” He choked up, but continued. “I-I just will never forget the article she wrote on hierarchical binary opposition in Freudian linguistics.” He began to sob and quickly took his seat. Her coworker was next.

“She never missed a day of work in her life.” The coworker sniffled.  “She was prompt, gregarious, and exceeded all our expectations as a member of the organization.” She blew her nose into a white handkerchief and left the podium. Finally, the deceased woman’s son, a young man in his twenties, walked to the microphone.

“My mother was…” his voice trailed off and he bit his lip, a hint of fire in his dark eyes. “My mother was responsible.” His voice held a bitter bite. “My mother was an enthusiastic member of her firm and did everything in her power to contribute to the success of the company. She graduated with honors in her Ph.D. program, received a prestigious research grant to India, and she is venerated as one of the top researchers in America. That, my friends, was my mother.” The son violently shoved the microphone back in its place and stormed out the back door of the funeral home.

This twisted vignette disturbed you, disgusted you, chilled you, all because it revealed how utterly selfish and evil you could become if you give in to the anxious itch to control your destiny and be your own god.

Genesis 11: 4a, 6-7

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city,

with a tower that reaches to the heavens,

so that we may make a name for ourselves…

The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same

 language they have begun to do this,

 then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.

Come, let us go down and confuse their language

 so they will not understand each other.”

 

When you begin to feel your eyes being darkened by the deadlines and responsibilities and self-interest, remember my revelation to you last summer, when I showed you the view from outside the prison of perfectionism. I put your nothingness in perspective in the same way I humbled the proud builders of the tower of Babel, those who strove to make their name known through proud words and relentless work ethic.

I freed you from the fate of idolaters through confusing your language. When you arrived in Russia last summer for your language program, I placed you in the advanced class, where I knew you would be the poorest speaker in your group of six. You stuttered your way through every conversation lesson, feeling like a kindergartener trying to converse with astrophysicists. To your surprise, though, this failure did not shatter your life. In fact, your “failure” freed you to speak boldly and to laugh at your mistakes and to admit that you were human. This was no real failure though; it was a victory, the shattering of your pride by the inability to even feign this slave-driving life-sucker that you call “perfection.” No, my daughter, this messy summer where you failed and leaned on me and laughed and admitted you were human, this was much closer to my standard of perfection than your small and stingy one.

Deuteronomy 33:12

Let the beloved of the Lord rest secure in him,

for he shields him all day long,

and the one the Lord loves rests between his shoulders.

 

My child, this is ultimately the crux of the matter: you will not stop grabbing at control like a starving prisoner grabs for bread until you believe in my unconditional love. My definition of the word “beloved” is foreign to you, for you have always thought that to receive love, you had to earn it. You accept the love you think you deserve, which is why you tense up and refuse my embrace. You are right in one thing: you don’t deserve my love. Yet in spite of this, I love you. Without condition. You don’t yet see the beauty in this, because you want to be worthy of love. You hate the idea of someone loving you because he has to; you picture a disgruntled husband wishing he could escape the ties that bind but begrudgingly sticking with the wife because of a piece of paper he signed. I am not like that husband. I do not love you for your utilitarian value. So rest in my, my daughter, and do nothing for a while. Do not achieve. Do not strive. Do not write. You are not beloved because of these things. You are simply beloved.