Why I Write

For as long as I can remember, writing has been a vehicle for prayer which God has used to bring clarity and truth to a mind that tends to run in circles. With a pen in my hand, I’ve felt the realities of God’s Word penetrate my heart and the struggles I’m facing come into perspective in light of who He is.

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When I have been severely depressed, He has led me out of despair and into a fiery hope.

When I’ve been rejected, He has shown me that His acceptance makes man’s pale in comparison.

When I’ve failed to give grace to myself and others, He has overwhelmed me with compassion and a glimpse of how he sees those He has created.

When I’ve been lonely, He has placed me among kindred spirits.

When nothing makes human sense, He reminds me that Christ remains in love and certainty.

Through the ups and downs of this crazy journey following Christ, I always come back to the conviction that whatever the circumstances, there is hope.

He gives hope that transcends human understanding and transcends this life on earth. It’s a hope that will never disappoint us because it is promised by the One who cannot lie. (Rom. 5:5, Heb. 6:18)

Hope is the conclusion, but knowing this doesn’t always comfort in the sharpness of the pain we experience. But knowing that hope is the conclusion, I feel the freedom to wrestle through the difficulties and paradoxes and doubts that we all face as we walk with Jesus.

So I invite you to join me along in this journey of writing through the questions to capture the truth.

If there is a topic or question you would like me to explore, please let me know in the comments!

Know that I’m praying for you, your journey, and your walk with Him.

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Much Love,

Hope

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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 bookthat 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

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.

I Am (Not) My Writing

I am my writing. I have been told this is a lie, yet every tap on the keyboard feels like a needle invading my finger veins, draining drops of blood. I am my writing.It is not hard to understand why this statement seems so much more like truth than a lie. Since childhood, I have felt closest to God with a pen in my hand, outpouring my reflections and prayers in a cozy journal that never made me feel unsafe or misunderstood. When I pray out loud, my sloppy words waddle around in distracted circles, but when I write to God, it feels like he takes over my pen and guides my hand to record the truth that gets lost in the wind when I try to speak. For a glorious stretch of time between my first journal entry and the end of high school, I was not my writing. Writing was a joy, an escape to exotic locales and vivid characters. Writing was a gift, a bowl into which I could pour all my messy emotions and observe them to get a proper perspective. But when college began, something changed.

          As I was thrust into the world of discussion-based classes alongside students who seemed to know what they wanted to say and how to say it, I began to feel painfully incompetent. When I tried to contribute in class, my sentences seemed awkward and broken, filled with stops and starts and misused verbs. I would chastise myself for answering a question with “yeah, it’s pretty cool,” when the guy sitting across from me threw around words like “Aristotelian” with a yawn. I had thoughts, I had ideas, but when I opened my mouth, I was as articulate as a caveman, and as I compared myself to my classmates I wondered if I was somehow mentally deficient. Outside the classroom, I felt caricatured by those around me, carelessly squished into a box labeled “quiet, responsible, and a little boring.”  In this new school where I desperately wanted to find friends, I didn’t feel perceived as who I really was, the goofy girl who loved people and adventures and traveling to foreign countries.
          It was with a pen that I found the power to fight back against the one-dimensional identity that I thought was being forced upon me. When my TGC class was assigned a “This I Believe Essay,” I lit up when I realized that the assignment offered me the opportunity to share about my experiences in Russia, which were adventurous and daring and anything but quiet and responsible. I felt immense satisfaction as I passed in the finished product, knowing that whoever read it, even if it was only my professor, would see who I really was.
          But to my delight, it wasn’t only my professor who saw it; I was assigned to have a conference on the paper with my TGC fellow. It was an understatement to say that I had a crush on this senior T.A. I was convinced that he was everything I wanted in a man; with his intense gaze and depth of insights into suffering, love, and the good life*, it wasn’t just three flights of stairs that made my heart race on my way to class. But alas, I was cursed with the freshman-ness and inarticulateness that made me invisible to this intellectual demigod. I trembled in nervousness as I hiked my way up to the third floor of the chapel to meet him, and four years later, his words to me still resonate: “it was one of the most polished essays. It had an enthralling tone! And I know I shouldn’t say this…. But, it was my favorite.” I’m sure my eighteen year old face was glowing as if he had just asked for my hand in marriage.  I am my writing, I thought.
            My sophomore year, I stood before my creative writing class and read a poem that was my masterpiece: it perfectly articulated all that God had been teaching me, and the form and structure reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe. I will never forget the bewildered, confused look on my professor’s face after I finished reading. His wide eyes and open mouth seemed to betray that he absolutely hated it but was trying not to let it show. An awkward silence lingered for a few seconds and I took my seat, defeated. I am my writing. This summer, a friend read the same poem and he loved it, expressing amazement and appreciation for my thoughts and the way I had worded them. He “got” my writing, therefore, he “got” me.
My experiences in college have shown me that the belief that I equal my writing is a dangerous equation, a mode of measurement as capricious as New England weather.  Sometimes the words flow effortlessly, but most of the time, I feel like I can’t string together sentences worthy of a third grader. Nonetheless, writing has become a defense weapon, a shield against my fears that I do not measure up. It has become an advertisement for myself, trying to convince others that I am worth their time. And after four years of striving to prove myself through two dimensional black and white pages, I have begun to realize that my idolization of writing has squished me into a smaller box than the one I was trying to escape.
            Ephesians 2:10 says that we are God’s workmanship, a word that comes from the Greek “poiema,” where we get the term “poem.” We are God’s poems, masterfully sculpted works of art whose stories cannot be constrained to something as paltry as a page. To try to wrest the pen from my Creator in a small-minded attempt to make a name for myself blinds me to the breathtaking story he wants to write my life into. So as I graduate, I want to transform this pen, to use it not as a weapon, not as a billboard promoting Hope Johnson, but as a gift, remembering that though writing is a tool God has given me to process this life, it is not life itself. Taking my eyes off myself and fixing them on the author of a much greater story than could fit on a page frees me with truth that I am not my writing. No, I am His writing. 

*love, suffering and the good life are three things Gordon College’s first year seminar really likes to talk about. Alot.