In Spite of Our Grief

My mind has been on my students more than usual recently. Not any kid in particular, just all their half-grown faces. I frequently wonder if they know just how very much is written in their eyes, loud and legible. I see openness and stone walls, loneliness and love, innocence and disillusionment, cruelty and raw compassion, things that make me fear for them and things that make me hope—a dozen absolute contradictions bundled in every glance. They walk around bristling with them.

Recently I was reading the story of Jacob in Genesis and I was struck by the way he too is a whole sharp passel of things that should not be able to exist together: the desire to win, the desire to be loved, brazenness, fear, deceit, remorse, anger, wanderlust. And he was a very long time ago.

This tugging, ripping tension existed then and it exists now, in adults as well as adolescents. Really, I think we never grow out of it at all. And the fact of the matter is that the unwieldiness of these contradictions in ourselves and in others is too much at times, falls unevenly on shoulders which are—in their humanness—fundamentally too weak to bear it, pushing us down into the mud. When I think back over the last couple weeks I can see griefs of contradiction at church, at work, in my own sodden heart and in the hearts of those around me, contradictions which break our molds of understanding, which come near to breaking us.

No wonder my students’ swagger sometimes goes a little crooked like there’s a heavyweight boxing match happening in the space between their collarbones. We’re all left wading through the sludge.

But how? How do we get through?

Well, I’m only guessing, but I think what you do is read The Velveteen Rabbit to your sad freshmen, tear pages out of books to decorate a bulletin board, keep an eye out for the kids looking for a place to sit, cover your friends’ classes, make dinner plans for next week, teach when you’ve lost your voice, and go home with your hands in the pockets of your coat and take a nap in your big chair. You take a long walk with unwashed hair and then make shepherd’s pie and listen to Mark Heard sing about how Jesus “looks at their faces and loves them in spite of his grief.” 

Because we do not struggle through the mud alone. The Lord knows all about contradiction. He allows it, and he himself has lived it. We do not need to force ourselves to master grief and love together perfectly, because he already has. Instead, what we must do is mark each fight, each unknowable contradictory struggle, with an ebenezer monument which proclaims: Here I have wrestled. And here God promised to prevail, against even the flailing labyrinthine darkness of the human soul.

Christian Bookstores and the Joy That Keeps Me Awake

Last week one of my students asked me to lead a Bible study. There was one particular book which she wanted to go through, written by a local youth pastor’s wife. With play rehearsals on top of senior thesis grading on top of the rest of my job, it wasn’t until today that I got around to finding a copy to read. First I went to Barnes and Nobles, but they didn’t have it in stock, so I called my dad. I asked him what other big bookstores there were in town. He told me none. So then I asked him where that Christian bookstore was, and let him tell me, although I already knew. And then I went.

From the moment I pulled up, I was, as my pastor during college would have said, profoundly uncomfortable. I am a follower of Christ and I have spent my whole life in Christian community. I love walking into churches. I love books. Quite obviously, I think it is a good thing to read and write about Jesus, and I know full well that if the contents of this blog were ever to be really published, that is the sort of store that would sell them. And yet.

There were posters of smiling women all inside the display windows, and when I walked in it smelled like potpourri and both cashiers shouted hello.  But potpourri doesn’t bother me, and I am definitively in favor of smiles and people who give them to me.

I was probably inside for a total of three or four minutes. I can find books very fast when I want to, and they had the one I needed. It was just past the Christian board books section, in the women’s section, where most of the covers were pink or had pictures of rushing water on them.

When the lady rung me up she asked for my phone number, my full name, my mailing address. I wanted to say, Please don’t send me things. I don’t want your things. You have an entire wall devoted to Beth Moore, Karen Kingsbury is displayed with your “Best New Reads,” and your open sign is shaped like an ichthys. Why can’t it just be shaped like an open sign?!? But instead I told her my phone number, my full name, my mailing address. Then I walked out with a bag which said “Biblical Solutions to Life” on the side. I drove away and tried to figure out why that had been such an unpleasant experience.

Sometimes I lie awake at night because I have too many thoughts. They don’t  have time to be thought of during the day, so once I turn out my light they tumble around and around in my head, delighted to have my attention at long last. Sometimes they are angry and bitter thoughts. More than once this year I have decided with great certainty that whoever dreamed up the idea of teaching as an actual career is a sadist, on level with Rasputin or Iago, and ought to be taken out and shot.

But other nights are different. Other nights joy keeps me awake. Joy that I bought stickers at Target to put on a rough batch of tests, joy that high schoolers like to laugh and like to laugh at themselves, joy that I have people I love enough to miss, joy, to be honest, that students want me to lead a Bible study. This is the sort of joy that makes me feel very small. Small and loved and promised and clean. The greatest lesson I have learned in teaching is the hugeness of my own inadequacy and and the irrelevance of that inadequacy in the face of God’s abundant grace.

I think that there are fair and wise criticisms to be made of the idea of a Christian bookstore or of a Christian culture in general. But I don’t think I am the person to make them. I walked into that place this evening as a female teacher at a Christian school with plans to lead a Bible study for teenage girls. I knew I was their ideal demographic and I resented it. I did not want to think they might have anything to teach me. I wanted Jesus to reassure me that no, of course, he would never have come to a place like this. I was prepared to remind myself that he was my God and not theirs.

But the God of small joys, who pries open my fingers and teaches me to hold my palms out empty before him, is far wiser than I. If he can change me through cheap princess stickers and flubbed blocking in a high school drama rehearsal, it is faithless of me to claim he cannot be present in books that cry out his name on every page. Perhaps I will lie awake tonight thinking about that.

You will show me the path of life; in your presence is fullness of joy.

Things to Do, Things Did, and All Saints

I’ve been keeping a journal for a while now—two years on Saturday, actually. It’s a bound notebook that my friend Heidi decorated for me sophomore year and every day I write two lines in it about what I did, what I saw, what happened. I do it, I suppose, so that I can read and remember. For example, the entry for October 27, 2011 reads, “Am Lit midterm – sweater over flannel – Bible Study – felt better about tenure.” I don’t usually write about what I wear, but apparently it felt important to me that day, and not that this will clear things up much, but one of the entries the day before had been “cried about tenure.” Whatever that means. The next October 27th was a bit more even-keeled: “cleaned at JB’s – lazy afternoon – Lunch w/ Lu – did no homework whatsoever.” That was a Saturday and this year the 27th was a Sunday: “Quiet morning – coding w/ John in early aft. – early church – All Saints Vespers – just a Sunday : ).”

I’ve never been successful at keeping a journal before, but this seems to be sticking. I like lists, and keeping track, and knowing what happened when and how, and reading over and watching old worries grow and then fade back into oblivion. I’m a record-keeper.

I’m not alone. Here’s a favorite to-do list by Johnny Cash himself:


I’m willing to bet he did real good on all those things, except that last one. I think we keep these lists because we figure if we know all these little things, if we have it all stored up, when the time comes we’ll be able to see the big important things better somehow.

I’d been thinking about that and then Sunday night I went to the All Saints Vespers and thought about it some more. I thought about keeping track for not just two years of college, but through long centuries, through so many lives and deaths and prayers and graces. Christina Rossetti promises her hesitant audience, “Yea, beds for all who come,” and that’s a lot of beds. Really, though, beds for Christina herself, Jonathan Edwards, Eric Liddell, my Grandpa, Flannery O’Conner, Joan of Arc, Aunt Jean from camp, Paul, Corrie Ten Boom, Tolkien, Rahab, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gerard Manley Hopkins…“all saints” is a lot of saints. Why do we keep track?

Well, because on Sunday evening I kneel with brothers and sisters of mine and pray aloud to Him “whose nature is always to have mercy.” We’re all members of the marvelously sprawling society of the previously lost and we must stick together, so as to remember what it means to be found. We know the taste of grace, and when we forget it those around us and before us will remember. “But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and His righteousness to children’s children…” (Psalm 103:17) The work of the cross stretches farther than you or I can see.

So all the scribbles and notes and records of practicing and cleaning and lunches had and walks taken are an anchor till the “yet more glorious day.” I will keep marking things down in homage to those who did so before me. Around the turn of the fifteenth century a woman named Julian of Norwich wrote in the midst of illness, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” Everyone from T.S. Eliot to my own mother has read and believed her words. I don’t know if they’ll get nearly as much from me, but I’m trying. I’m making lists, keeping track.