Meeting Dostoevsky

Every time I open that last book of his, he tells me that before I go any further, I must submit to the lens of the only beautiful type of suicide, the kind that brings life. The epigraph to The Brothers Karamazov  frames what’s to come in the words spoken and incarnated by Christ: that only when a seed sacrifices by burying itself to break and bloom will there ever be the longed-for fruit. However robust it is in its current form, the kernel cuts itself in half, confident that its death will bring a more glorious, more far-reaching new life.

It’s both the horror and the hope of these words that draw me back again and again. As a Christ-follower, I know that they apply to my few decades on earth. And Dostoevsky reaches out, telling me to un-tense my muscles and submit. Listen, Hope, and pray toward a better living of the truth. I read him again and again because his theology is a breath of fresh air to a mind grown in Western thought. This theology is lived in his characters: no 3 point application to take home and stick to my refrigerator, just the uncomfortable realization that I am the worst of these characters, and that in spite of it, there is the inexplicable presence of grace.

My relationship with Dostoevsky didn’t start with fireworks though, but with indifference and even a little dislike. One of the readings for my semester abroad was the Grand Inquisitor. I read it before I left the States without any context and hated it. Then, when we arrived in Petersburg, I strode right through Fyodor’s ghost in his apartment, passing by the roped off desk where some man wrote some novel about three brothers, then died in the next room over.

Our first true encounter is landmarked by a shady oak in a Russian quiet place, whose knobs massaged the back of a girl with a book in her hands. It was against that tree, away from my loud, bustling tribe of Americans, that I first met Dostoevsky.

For some reason, I had chosen the same book that had gotten my old professor reamed out by his uncle as he hid among the corn stalks of his Amish childhood, because what good could come from his reading about crime and punishment!?

But good would come from Dostoevsky’s words because they revealed the chilling truth of my human heart: hadn’t I thought, somewhere in my subconscious, that it was perfectly all right to crack someone’s head in half with a rusty axe?  That Raskolnikov, raskol’, schism, splitting-in-half man, the opposition of good and evil all bound up in one soul- he took shape while I wasn’t looking. But then, hadn’t he been there all along? Words had simply taken shape over a nebulous, but firm belief I already had. Dostoevsky put words and a face to this universal condition that I saw people striving, unknowingly, to ignore every day.

I wouldn’t say I continued to read him; it was he who read me, read my tangled thoughts and wordless angsts and translated them into a wild symmetry, a reckless precision. Explanations I’d never seen anyone dare approach he rushed with the passion of a bull at a matador. I learned that I was not the only one who groaned because to be too conscious is a disease, and that two plus two equals five sounds truer, most of the time, than Euclidian geometry.

But it wasn’t until I read about those brothers painted black that my voice was poured into more than words, but into flesh and blood. Ka-ra, two sounds signifying black, and ma-zov, denoting smear and paint, still taste like melted honey on my lips. The truth of the nations, poured into a name.

The raskol’ in Dmitri, heels up, having dove into depravity in the middle of a prayer, made me fall in ecstasy with him. (Ecstasy, one of Dostoevsky’s favorite words, is more intense than, but not as strong as love.)

Ivan, though, was love in the opposites attract way. I carried his heart around in my pocket; it beat to the drum of shuffling paper clippings about the suffering of children that un-deified God.

Alyosha and I had long conversations. He understood me. I found a filter to life in his eyes, which always seemed to say “brother, your mind has cannibalized your heart; my ideals have been shattered too, but Christ remains in love and certainty.”

Then he, that moon to the sun, told me if it was proven that Christ was apart from the truth, he would rather remain with Christ. I knew these words, written in a letter to his brother, weren’t empty, because he had lived and almost died through it all. Sentenced to death for revolutionary activities at age 28, he stood before a firing squad, awaiting the trigger and death.  At the last moment, he heard “stop!” The tsar had shown mercy.

That “stop” was Fyodor’s unexpected seed. Those syllables, os-tan-o-vi-tye in throaty Russian, burrowed in his skin and were watered by the pages of a tattered New Testament while he sat in shackles and exile.  From the fertile soil sprouted a pen that incarnated our schisms and His grace. And now, in books like letters strewn about my room, he continues to proclaim the truth, that I should prepare to die, because unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground in humble suicide, the longed for fruit will never be.

A version of this was originally published in Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature

On Living in Tents and Longing for Home

I had become tired of the constant movement, of the unsettledness that was paired with joy and adventure and trust, but at the same time, had been slowly wearing down body and soul. It struck acutely the night I drove through the eerie dark of a lonely road headed into the heart of Florida. Irma was coming, and after the evacuation order, I was the only one naïve enough to be heading south. An hour away from my parents, I cringed when the radio reported that the eye of the storm had shifted to my destination. There was denial and fear and a realization that I couldn’t go back. Gas everywhere had run dry, and I would have to keep heading toward the storm.

I think I saw the sign for Palatka then, but I didn’t give it much thought.

~

In a whirlwind summer, I had graduated and gone abroad, moved out of my parents’ just-sold house, and set up camp with friends while the future was a blank page. When I was just about to run out of money, Georgia called. After a few idyllic days in upstate New York eating raspberry chocolate ice cream and exploring trails and laughing my heart out with a best friend, I was sucked into the deep South. My body was in Savannah. My belongings were in Maine. My heart was in another country.

Like so many times in my life, I was in many places at once. And it ached.

~

On the drive back to Savannah after the storm, I noticed sign after sign for Palatka. In Florida, it was the name of a town, but in Russia, it was the word for tent. And with each sign, I was reminded of the theme that God had been writing into my life since I was 12 years old. Just a few months before, with ecstatic joy, I stood in front of the people who spoke the language I loved and read to them from Hebrews 11. I read that Abraham left to follow the Lord, how he didn’t know where he was going, and that that was how my journey had started too, a journey that had led me to them. Those words had so often shot me with strength as a foreigner. But I was beginning to long for an end to the wandering, an end to the loneliness.

I longed for a place that would feel like home. And as the year went on, this feeling grew, and simultaneously, so did the taunts of guilt.

~

Being in this new place, this new culture, brought me again to the mountains I had climbed in Russia: loneliness that I struggled through daily and a job that drew on every last reserve. The difference here though was that this was permanent. I imagined year after year stretching out before me in this unsettled, exhausted state, fulfilling my calling, but wilting by the day.

~

The idea first came in February. My best friend and I were talking on the phone for the thousandth time about how things would be so much better if we were just in the same place. To encourage each other, to support each other in this often perplexing stage of life. And for the first time in years, it struck me as a real possibility.

But as soon as the hope took shape, the guilt that has subtly prodded me for years voiced its thoughts. One of my greatest fears as a Christ-follower is complacency, of becoming so comfortable that I turn inward, cozily ignoring those who need Him while enjoying a life of ease. And my black and white mind reasoned that since the reality I was currently living was anything but comfortable, that staying where I was must be the only way to fulfill my calling. In a mind that is so often uncomfortable with nuance, I had leaned into an almost ascetic viewpoint, the binary being that either I was miserable, lonely, and serving God, or complacent, superficially happy, and ignoring Him.

I longed for a place that felt like home, but I feared that having a home would blur my global vision.

I longed for a family of my own, but the words of Paul haunted me, making me fear that receiving this desire would numb my devotion to Christ.

On one of many nights processing all these thoughts with my Dad, something he said challenged my narrow perspective. “Hope,” he said, “I think you have more freedom in Christ than you realize.”

~

He was right. Absolutely right.

Following Jesus is so much bigger and freer than the way I was living.

As I prayed, discernment came as to what was self-imposed legalism and what was actually His calling on me in this season. And although I firmly believe that God often calls us to specific places at certain times (#russia!), I sensed from Him a beautiful freedom to take a step toward a place I never thought I’d be.

~

I recently was reading Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Jerusalem, and I noticed something early in chapter 29 that I never had before. Although the Israelites were in exile, God commanded them to settle down where they were and to live life in the midst of the imperfection: to plant gardens,  to seek the peace and prosperity of the place they were exiled, to get married and to have children. Far from telling them to live in sackcloth for 70 years while they awaited their freedom, God showed care for His people’s physical needs and compassion for their humanness.

Even in tents, even in a body and soul that groan for more, the Lord gives rest and friendship and the Holy Spirit within us. And I am convinced that as I look forward in joy toward this big move, that this joy is from God. This is the first time in longer than I can remember that I have been so full of hope and passion for the unknown callings ahead of me. So in less than a month, I’ll be packing up my tent in Savannah and pitching it in upstate New York. I suspect that this won’t be my last move. Knowing me, I’ll continue to end up in places I never imagined I would be 🙂 But for now, Burnt Hills sounds a lot like home.

Active Love is a Harsh and Fearful Thing

The love that springs from my natural heart is thin and sharp as a razor blade, outwardly glimmering, but ready to cut and run at the least sign of ingratitude or condescension. The love that I show, in my own strength, is stingy and calculating, the personal benefits that its actions might reap its motivating force.

This love, the love that comes from me and without Him, isn’t love at all.

This past week, my church family was challenged to pray the words of the psalmist, saying, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” Ps. 139: 23-24

And His answer, although not surprising, resonated in a new way.

The truth that “love,” when it comes solely from the human heart, is an unsustainable, cheap and brittle copy of the real thing, has been an ever-growing realization in my heart for years, but this week, this theme took center stage.

I reflected on a scene in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov that so bluntly, yet beautifully exposes human “love” for what it is. Madame Khoklakova, a woman in her thirties with a chronically ill teenage daughter, visits Father Zosima, a monk who functions as a source of godly wisdom throughout the novel. Khoklakova pours out a heart in tension, telling Zosima that sometimes she imagines dropping everything and becoming “a sister of mercy,” which, today, would be the equivalent of leaving home and country to become a missionary.

“I close my eyes,” she says. “I think and dream, and in such moments I feel an invincible strength in myself. No wounds, no festering sores could frighten me. I would bind them and cleanse them with my own hands…”

As soon as she has said this though, in dismay, she admits, “if there’s anything that would immediately cool my active love for mankind, that one thing is ingratitude. In short, I work for pay and demand my pay at one, that is, praise and a return of love for my love. Otherwise I’m unable to love anyone!”

It is important to note that Khoklakova had a dull existence where her acts of love were met with ingratitude: her ailing teenage daughter was capricious, whiny, and manipulative. And for a moment, it seemed to her that a new situation, a clean slate, would wash her clean of the resentment and fatigue built up by years of caring for her daughter, that she would be reborn into a selfless saint ready to sweeten the world with her love.

Her situation articulates a reality that I find in myself: in the midst of days where dullness is common and acts of love seem small and insignificant, I am prone to romanticizing situations in which I would have the chance to do something big, something that seems to matter by worldly standards. In essence, I desire to love others in order to prove that I am significant.

But Zosima’s answer, my favorite quote in this favorite novel of mine, challenges me to run away from this inclination and toward the love that only comes through Christ:

“…active love is a harsh and fearful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed, and with everyone watching. Indeed, it will go as far as the giving even of one’s life, provided it does not take long but is soon over, as on stage, and everyone is looking on and praising. Whereas active love is labor and perseverance, and for some people, perhaps, a whole science (p. 58).

This “love in dreams” is a human love, a love that is immediately satisfied with others’ recognition, whereas active love, the love of Christ in us, may never be seen or acknowledged. It may not always be accompanied by warm feelings, but is “labor and perseverance.” When I think of this active love, I think of my grandmother. For months, she cared for my grandfather during his slow and painful decline. Each night allowed only scattered sleep, as he called for her throughout the night out of fear and pain and loneliness. This went on for months, unseen, unrecognized, and she kept on, persevering in this active love until his death.

This is the type of love that Christ calls me to, a love that is only possible through his power within me, not by any strength of my own.

And this week, especially, I’ve thought about the motives behind my outwardly kind actions. About how I am tempted to seek the praise of man more than the praise of God. Of how I always feel the need to explain myself, to prove my worth and my point of view.

I realize that whatever I do, the sinful nature inside of me will attempt to twist it, even if the origin of the impulse is indeed from God.

In Belarus this summer, I was filled to the brim with the joyful thought, “I am doing exactly what I was made for!” At the same time, I found in myself deeply selfish motives for being there. As Paul writes in Romans 7:21-24a, “I [found] this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law: but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am!”

But this wretchedness is not the final word.

Paul continues, “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God-through Jesus Christ our Lord” (vs. 24b-25).

Zosima, too, mirrors the Scripture with the rest of his answer to Khoklakova:

But I predict that even in that very moment when you see with horror that despite all your efforts, you not only have not come nearer your goal but seem to have gotten farther from it, at that very moment-I predict this to you-you will suddenly reach your goal and will clearly behold over you the wonder-working power of the Lord, who all the while has been loving you, and all the while has been mysteriously guiding you” (p. 58).

The realization of how tainted my motives are can tempt me to stand immobile, not acting when I should because I know that what I do is accompanied by selfishness. If I give into this temptation though, I won’t do anything, much like the steward who buried his talent in the ground. Instead, I pray that the ever-increasing knowledge of my own sinfulness would grow a humility in me that would help me to do what He asks, regardless of how I feel in the moment. For Christ is greater than the sin inside me, and He has filled this body of death with His life.

Layers

The mystery of layers: it has haunted in that awkward place between thought and words since I became older than I ever imagined I could be, marinating in a mixture of memories and color.

The layers are becoming too thick to bear, scratchy as an old wool sweater. Year by year, the stories pile, nestle themselves on top of each other, enveloping me with heat.

Sometimes the layers make a kind of macrocosmic sense; the camera pans out, and my cord in the tapestry of God’s faithfulness is illuminated by a sunset cast in the right light or by a moment of starry clarity in a vivid, lonely contentment.

But lately, the layers climb higher and higher until I feel trapped in my own story and the stories that have built it; I grasp at photographs and memories of vivid, lonely contentment on a road that I loved and hated for 10 years, then 9 months.

Is there a limit to the stories we can bear? Is it possible for the memories to usurp the joy of the mundane, and if so, can they somehow still be held as dear without anchoring us to the past?

To repeat the same stories again and again shows how tightly I hold the experiences as markers of identity: getting stitched up by Konstantine the Dentist, escaping the kiss from the Russian soldier on the train, discovering Eden, falling in love with a place and people in a Narnia-like journey 12 years ago…I play these stories on repeat, identifying with the past, bathing in the past until I prune up, because maybe the future scares me a little more than I know.

Alyosha Karamazov once told a group of boys emerging into manhood that one of the most vital things they could do was to remember one good memory from childhood. I’ve always found this ending to The Brothers Karamazov to be anticlimactic, disappointing. But as the years write layers thicker and thicker and the road winds more unexpected than my child self could envision, I nod at Alyosha in understanding. When the future stands over you with a smirk, the past can be a warm hand to hold.

But with the looking back comes the human tendency to dis-member then re-member the past into one where He was not faithful. And if He was then, then His character has rapidly changed in light of the layers that I certainly did not choose.

Bluntness: when I don’t get my way, my heart is revealed as a muscle that pumps disbelief.

Question set number two: how can I re-member the memories that I so often dis-member? How can I love Him more than I love my own little story? How can I skydive trustfully into the future instead of pacing within the confines of a stale old temper tantrum?

The questions remain.

The answers are there, age old and simple, yet as hard to submit to as they were for Abraham, Sarah, Naomi, Job, David and the whole cloud of witnesses.

The answers are there, the Answer is there, waiting with open arms to be the constant I have sought in the files of my own identity. So in a conclusion of the heart, I say that I submit, but that I also know I will have to re-submit by hour, by minute. To unclench my fists and breathe in the next unexpected, beautiful layer.

Depression and the Compassion of Christ

And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse.

Unclean. Unclean am I, I am unclean, because of a bleeding that won’t stop, no matter how much I adhere to the doctors’ instructions, more outrageous and extravagant by the day. Weakness does not just fill me; it is me. I feel cold in the sun. I want to seek Him, Jehovah, the Lord, the One who saw and loved Hagar abandoned in the desert. But I am cut off. Shame and sin are mine, are me. An unrepentant woman. I hear the whispers: “It’s her sin. If only she would repent, she would be healed.” I am unclean, unclean am I. I used to have a name before the condemning blood.

~

Millennia later, the story is the same. The girl has a lump in her throat, a perpetual reminder of the sin of ungratefulness. The gifts she is supposed to be counting turn astringent on her tongue. Lying down, finally, the day has been waded through. She can now give way to the only relief, the tears. The girl crawls underneath the covers and cries out to Jehovah, the Lord, the one who saw and loved Hagar abandoned in the desert. She is cut off, can’t even open the book. Its words, once healing rain, now roll in droplets off hard soil. Three weeks ago she decided to cut the pill in half. 6 years was enough, she reasoned. 6 years of growth and changed thought patterns. New stability would make it a natural transition.

And with the cutting of the pink pill in half the wilting begins. A rapid descent into the old. Now she is weak. And voices accuse, “It’s her sin. If only she would repent, she would be healed.” Mornings begin with dread. The day stretches out as a desert. Her eyes are cloudy, her stomach clenched. And supposedly her name is hope.

~

When I heard about him from my mother, when she told me about what he did for the blind man that used to beg at the end of our street, all I could think of was how much he sounded like the One who saw and loved Hagar abandoned in the desert. Compassion was a word I had heard of, but knew that I was to be forever excluded from. For my uncleanness, my sin, they said, had cut me off from the people. Compassion should not be shown to one who willfully persists in iniquity. It might imply that misdeeds were acceptable in the eyes of Jehovah. But with mother’s story about this Jesus, I was filled with the conviction that this man did not play by the Pharisees’ rules. A rebel, a kind rebel.

~

The girl is weak and ashamed. She knows how it seems to the outside. And she’s read and heard that the pink pills are acceptable for a time, but a life-long reliance would be to put one’s trust in medicine rather than the Lord. “Jesus,” she mouths, wincing through the tears. Her mind is clouded; the only thoughts are oppressive, and her body splayed out exhausted at 5 pm cannot fight. “Jesus,” is all she can manage. There is compassion in his eyes, she knows, even though she cannot feel it.

~

When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering….. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”

His is a compassion that sees beyond what they see. His is a compassion that goes beyond what they cannot understand. I touched him, merely touched him, and I was healed, loved and seen! Known by the one who saw and loved Hagar, abandoned to die in the desert.

~

The girl will not cut the pill anymore. Instead, she will take it, giving thanks to the compassionate One who knows that she is dust. The judgment was not from him. Those speaking judgment were well-meaning, but lacked understanding. But He, He has been tempted in every way, a man of sorrows, well-acquainted with grief, compassion embodied. The girl will name this place Beer Lahai Roi, for she has seen the one who saw her, embraced her, and promised future healing by his infinite touch.

All Scripture has been taken from Mark 5:25-34, New International Version.