But You Hope

hope

*This is a poem I wrote several years ago as a theological and emotional reaction to Holy Week, pain and resurrection, and the tension of the now-and-not-yet Kingdom of God.

That moment of agony when you realize
that nothing in the world

no amount of numbing
or screaming
or hiding
can make it feel okay again.

you are left with a void,
an absence of what should be
and nothing can be done about it.

you are left there, dying
holding onto the faint hope of a Being much greater than yourself
that is able to make these dead, broken, dry bones come back to life again

you do not know, but you hope that God can cling onto you
when you are not able to cling onto anything at all

you do not know, but you hope.

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Dark Night of the Soul

Fall 2009.

Darkness cloaked my soul. It had been that way for some time, but nothing like this. It was as if an impenetrable wall was separating me from the land of the living: the land of happiness, impending college graduation, and apple picking on crisp fall days.

An aura of despondence haunted my every footstep. I was descending deep into anorexia, spiraling faster and faster and out of control.

It is hard to put such depression and pain into words. I couldn’t feel God’s presence, even when I opened my Bible or prayed late at night. Church was repetitious. Prayers were mindless. There was nothing but a painful, vacant void of what had been.

Maybe I wasn’t spending enough time with God. Not enough devotionals. Not enough prayer. Not enough something, certainly, because why else would God be so silent?

I was convinced that my school’s annual silent retreat would change things. Like a good fireside chat with a friend, a weekend on Lake Michigan with Jesus would restore my relationship with the Almighty and lift the heavy cloud that was weighing me down, so I hoped.

30 hours of silence does wonders to people. Sometimes Jesus comes at hour 5. Sometimes Jesus comes after a period of prayer and fasting.

Sometimes Jesus does not come at all.

I marked the hours by sleeping and pacing up and down the Lake Michigan beach. That fall weekend was so cold, I remember that. My emaciated arms were shivering at the temperature of the current.

God.

Silence.

GOD.

Silence.

God, where are you?

Silence.

The lake water crashed against the shore.

I felt nothing.

I shivered my way back to the cabin, still expectant, waiting. But no Bible verses popped into my mind. No signs magically appeared. I was empty and spent. My body was weak, but I had enough strength to feel betrayed and abandoned by God.

For the first (and only) time in my life, I felt cosmically alone.

It is a horrible feeling, to feel utterly isolated, abandoned not only by your friends and family who are oblivious to your struggle, but abandoned by God; to feel his deafening silence; to feel so dark and tired that nothing matters anymore.

I realized, fully, at that moment: I need help. 

Five years later, I still remember that silent retreat on Lake Michigan. I remember the emptiness, the terror, and the aching thoughts:

Maybe God is not with me anymore. Maybe he has left. Maybe… he was never with me at all.

My heart still aches at times, left with whisper of ghosts that are still unaddressed. However, that dark night of the soul has long passed. God answered my repetitious prayers that meant nothing in my heart. God felt my tears and answered my cries. In time, I once again felt his presence.

I expected that God would have me memorize psalms or strike me with an insightful theological revelation. Penance or Bible memorization, perhaps. But that’s not how things happened.

God came to me in the things I feared– warmth, love, nourishment, and food. The things that terrified me were what stitched me up into a living, breathing human being once again. God could not penetrate my hardened, cold, aching heart as it was. It wasn’t until it was warmed and breathed into with love that Jesus could enter.

In my depression and darkness at the silent retreat years ago, I was convinced that God had left me. It is so ironic that while I was praying so fervently for God to come, the answer had been there all along, in the dining room.

God had been there, asking me to eat breakfast. God was as close as a muffin and peanut butter, or granola and yogurt. He was there the whole time, in my time of anguish, and I missed him.

Of course, I wouldn’t conceive of eating those things at the time. The log in my own eye was causing me to stumble into everything in my path, but I was blind to anorexia’s death grip over my life.

I did not know what I know now: I cannot experience anything– including love– if I am not nourished. I cannot be empty and pure, as much as my eating disorder tells me to be, because cutting myself off to life cuts me off to God, and that is a terrifying fate.

I do not experience God’s love all the time. In fact, it is still a daily struggle.

However, I have found that I can feel God’s presence much more if I have eaten breakfast.

Soon after this, God intervened in my beautiful, chaotic mess of a story and showed me:

No, you cannot subsist on coffee and vegetables alone and expect to have your body function normally.

No, I will not let you shrivel up and disappear.

No, you cannot worship anorexia over me. 

Yes, you must accept love.

Yes, you must eat cake. 

Yes, you must laugh.

Yes, I love you. 

It is so much easier to see things in retrospect. In my story, my period of darkness was followed by an experience of tremendous growth, hope, and love.

When I was going through deep depression, I did not know what was to come. All I saw was hopelessness and despair.

The answers did not come to me right away.

Sometimes they never do, not in this life.

God did not give up on me.

God has not given up on our world.

Dark nights of the soul pass away. I cling onto the promise that darkness will never be the final word.

Perhaps things don’t make sense now, but I believe with all my heart that someday they will.

Post-Easter Reflections: Waiting for Sunday

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If I am being totally and completely transparent, this Easter was a time of dissonance for me.

It sounds strange. I mean, Jesus’ resurrection is the pinnacle of the Christian faith, the formation of my hope, and God’s ultimate “good news.” How is one not happy to wear white clothes, devour chocolate bunnies or eggs, sit in the sunshine, and sing song lyrics like, Oh death! Where is your sting? Oh hell! Where is your victory? Oh Church! Come stand in the light!

Christ is risen. He is alive.

I know those phrases like the back of my hand, and I do believe them.

The rhythm of Holy Week– the story of Jesus’ betrayal, death, waiting in darkness, and resurrection– is the most beautiful narrative I know. It culminates with the story of Easter, which promises that the present state of affairs is temporary, that resurrection and redemption have replaced decay and death. The hope of new life, the hope of the restoration of all things, the scared women at Jesus’ tomb hearing the words: He is not here; He is risen, as he said.

And while I affirm that the tomb is empty, sometimes it is hard for me to feel joy in celebrating Jesus’ resurrection. I beat myself up over why celebrating God’s good news can feel so forced to me. Am I inoculated to the story? Too cynical? Is the idea of resurrection too distant? How awful of a Christian I must be if I can’t genuinely say WOOHOO JESUS on command!

If I’m being honest, does some part of me wonder if Sunday has really come yet?

Metaphorically, I resonate much more with the Saturday of Holy Week, the day before Easter. In an angsty stage of my life, I wrote a poem entitled, “Perpetual Saturday,” related to this point. I think about Jesus’ disciples on the Saturday of Holy Week– the day after they lost everything (or so they thought). Maybe they were hiding in shame, weeping bitter tears of agony, stunned that their God had been brutally murdered. Everything– their purpose in life, their vision– had been shattered. They could not imagine what would happen when the sun rose the next morning. 

I resonate with humanity’s ache for wholeness. This age-old groan is evidenced as early as the Book of Job and is so beautifully articulated in the psalms of lament. Millions of people have echoed the cries, the hurting, the longing for what has not yet come. There is the the waiting… the waiting for so, so long… for God’s redemption.

And yes, Easter commemorates that the tomb is empty. Yes, the sun has come up. Yes, a new order of things has been reinstated by Jesus’ death and resurrection.

But then so much of my life feels barren, as if Sunday’s radiance hasn’t come. The chasm between what is and what should be feels seismic, endless, insurmountable. The winter has been so long and brutal that my joy has frozen into an uncomfortable numbness, a hollow ache, a throbbing wound.

What happens when Saturday never seems to end?

My pastor preached a sermon this Easter aptly entitled, “Saturday is Always Followed by Sunday.” He concludes with this, “That day, when you see Jesus face to face in Heaven, you will look back at all the pain, all the frustration, all the despair, all the struggles of this world, and He calls you by name, you will look back, and think: it was all worth it.” I believe that his words are true: someday, somehow, all things will be reconciled to God. Winter will end. Jesus has risen from the dead. And so will I.

I don’t know how any of this makes sense. I don’t even want to begin to address the meaning of all of the present suffering– the tears, the blood, the anguish– that we (and God) have undergone. I don’t know how our present troubles will dissolve and melt into God’s overwhelming love. Yet, when despair chokes my throat as I try to say, He is alive, my knuckles will grip to the truth that in the end, all will be celebrated. All will make sense. All will be whole. I don’t know how. I don’t know when. But this I believe: “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well” (Julian of Norwich).

The story of Easter takes a lifetime– perhaps an eternity– to understand. In the darkness, in the seeds of new life, and in the confusion of Saturday, I will walk by faith that God is making all things new, even when it is not in my timing. I will trust that Saturday, although mind-numbing and seemingly perpetual, will always be followed by Sunday.

In the meantime, I can’t pretend that I’m some strangely caffeinated, joy-filled, president-of-the-optimist-club Christian. I struggle to internalize joy and hope. I have to be real about that, while holding in tension that I believe God and will wait on Him.

So: may you cry, challenge, love, and celebrate this Easter season and beyond. May you be empowered to be honest about what you are feeling because God can hold whatever it is.

May you bask in the reality that God makes dead people live. May you cling to that promise. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clinging to Hope

As Holy Week begins, I am reminded of the words Rachel Held Evans wrote the other day on Facebook, “Perhaps it’s time to be more deliberate about clinging to hope.” I agree completely. 

It is related to a piece I wrote a while ago entitled, “But You Hope”: 

 That moment of agony when you realize that nothing in the world, none of your sedation methods will make you feel better. None of the truth you know feels real, and the world spins upside down. No amount of numbing or screaming or hiding can make it feel okay again. You are left with a void, an absence of what should be, and there is nothing to be done about it. The painstaking efforts at denial do not prevent your insides from gushing out. You are left there, dying, holding onto the faint hope of a Being much greater than yourself that is able to make these dead, broken, dry bones come back to life again. You do not know, but you hope that God can cling onto you when you cannot cling onto anything at all. You do not know, but you hope.

It is so easy for me to cling to despair, hopelessness, and cynicism; to hold on to anger; to believe that redemption is too far away; to feel like resurrection is a distant dream. As this Easter season culminates with remembrance and celebration of God’s redemptive love, I think of the beauty, mystery, agony, and deliverance that Jesus’ death and resurrection brought to the world.  I am reminded that whenever I succumb to bitterness, hope is still springing all around me. While it may not feel like it, the current state of affairs is temporary.  

God WILL make these dead, broken, dry bones come back into life again.

God WILL cling onto me when I cannot cling to Him. 

So many things are waiting: a marriage supper with the Lamb, residence in the New Jerusalem, and most of all, the shalom of God

In the tension of the now-and-not-yet reality of the Kingdom of God, I will choose to rejoice and cling to the promise of resurrection– resurrection that has already happened and will yet happen.

Even when I can’t hold on anymore and everything within me denies this truth, I will grasp the darkness and find that God is still holding me.