And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new … It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment …” (Revelation 21:5-6).
My husband and I recently watched Station Eleven, a post-apocalyptic television series based on the 2014 novel by Emily St. John Mandel. In the show, most of humankind is wiped out from a deadly flu virus. The few survivors must find ways to cope in a world without technology, governing systems, or modern conveniences.
I know what you’re thinking: Why would anyone want to watch a show about a fictional pandemic when we’ve literally been living through the real thing?
For us and many others, the appeal of Station Eleven is that it’s ultimately a story of hope. The pollution-free landscapes are lush, the waters clear, the night skies crowded with stars. Lonely characters find community. Aimless characters find meaning.
In an article for YES! Media, Leigh Finke argues that part of our culture’s long-held fascination with apocalyptic stories is that, even amid death and destruction, they often offer hope for a reimagined future. Literature scholar Wes Burdine, quoted in Finke’s article, puts it this way: “End-of-the-world narratives allow us to imagine large scale rebirth and play into our utopian desires.”
In other words, the popularity of apocalyptic stories reveals an important truth about humanity: We yearn to see the world reborn into a better version of itself.
Christians know that our innate desire for utopia exists because God’s design for the world wasutopic. In the beginning, the world was perfect, untainted by sin. The landscapes were lush, the waters clear, the skies crowded with stars. Humans lived in harmony with each other and with God.
Then, of course, sin entered the world and brought with it disease, corruption, destruction, and death. But God made a promise—through the death and resurrection of his son Jesus, the world would one day be restored to perfection.
Scripture makes it clear that we cannot know when the world will end. But we do know that it won’t be anything like in the movies, where our only hope for restoration lays with feeble, fallible humans. As Christians, we rest in the assurance that when Christ comes again to make all things new, it will be more wonderful than even the most creative human minds can comprehend: “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9).
Prayer: Almighty Father, the Alpha and the Omega, forgive me when I place my hope for renewal in the things of this world instead of in you. During these especially strange and trying times, help me to surrender my anxieties to you and to trust in your perfect promises. Amen.
For the last year and a half, I have been pursuing an MFA degree in fiction writing. For as long as I can remember, I have loved stories—immersive settings, evocative prose, interesting characters in strange situations. But for how much I adore good literature, I’ve always been a little intimidated by poetry.
I don’t think I’m alone. In my experience, most people avoid reading poetry these days, either because they find it difficult to understand, too esoteric, and/or just plain boring.
Lately, I’ve been wondering if many of us struggle to read Scripture for the same reasons we struggle to read poetry. After all, around one third of the Bible is poetry (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Revelation), and much of the rest of Scripture relies heavily on poetic language—metaphor, allusion, symbolism, imagery, etc. For those of us who have a hard time with poetry, it isn’t any wonder that Scripture can sometimes feel a bit inaccessible, too.
This spring I decided to challenge myself as a writer and reader by enrolling in a poetry class. I’ve learned a ton from my classmates and professor about how to actually enjoy engaging with poetry, and I’ve started to use some of those same strategies when engaging with Scripture. Approaching Scripture with an eye for the poetic has made reading the Bible more pleasurable for me and has helped me feel closer to the Lord—after all, as the format of the Bible makes clear, God speaks to us through poetry!
So, I’ve decided to share some of what I’ve learned with you in hopes that it will help you, too, refresh your approach to Scripture and hear God speak.
1. Read slowly and more than once. Poetry is not meant to be guzzled like those best-selling paperback novels we see in airport bookshops. Poetry, like a fine wine, is meant to be savored. While I do think it’s admirable to read as much Scripture as possible in a single sitting, I have found it most beneficial to read small portions of Scripture at a time—perhaps just a handful of verses. This allows me space to meditate on the language, and to really consider what the text is saying. When it comes to good poetry, including Scripture, new meanings often emerge upon reading the text for a second, third, or fourth time that may not have been apparent on that first read.
2.Read with a pen in your hand. We live in a culture that favors passive consumption, but poetry and Scripture resist passivity. In fact, poetry and Scripture demand active engagement. One of the best ways to engage with any text is to annotate, annotate, annotate. Underline words and phrases that stand out to you, jot down questions and gut reactions, make note of connections you see between the text and other texts, or between the text and your life. Annotating your Bible, or taking notes in a notebook, puts you in direct dialogue with God’s Word and helps you avoid the temptation to consume Scripture passively.
3. Look up words or allusions you don’t understand. Maybe this seems obvious, but I think it’s worth emphasizing: Often, the key to unlocking an entire poem is simply looking up a term or reference that I don’t fully understand. This has proved true for me when reading the Bible, as well. Scripture is particularly complicated when you take into account the historical contexts in which the text was written (much of which is foreign to our postmodern sensibilities) and the fact that the Bible is translated from ancient languages. Taking a few minutes to look at alternative translations, look up difficult words, or Google historical information has made scripture feel much more accessible.
4. Find pleasure in the language. Even when a poem feels difficult to decipher, we can still enjoy it simply for the beauty of its language. The Bible is full of exquisite language, too.Take this portion of Psalm 104 for example:
Bless the Lord, O my soul!
O Lord my God, you are very great!
You are clothed with splendor and majesty,
covering yourself with light as with a garment,
stretching out the heavens like a tent.
He lays the beams of his chambers on the waters;
he makes the clouds his chariot;
he rides on the wings of the wind;
he makes his messengers winds,
his ministers a flaming fire.
He set the earth on its foundations,
so that it should never be moved.
You covered it with the deep as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.
At your rebuke they fled;
at the sound of your thunder they took to flight.
The mountains rose, the valleys sank down
to the place that you appointed for them.
You set a boundary that they may not pass,
so that they might not again cover the earth.
Without trying to understand what the Psalm means, let the imagery sink in: garments made of light, chariots made of clouds, mountains fleeing at the thundering sound of God’s voice. The images alone, even apart from the context of the verse, are like paintings in the mind. To describe God is beyond our ability as humans, but the Psalmist uses poetic language—metaphor, simile, and symbolism—to get as close as possible.
5. Find rest in ambiguity. I think one reason we often resist poetry is because we feel like poems are trying to trick us—like each poem has a single meaning, and it’s our job as readers to work through the language to decipher that meaning. But poems are not riddles. They are not locked containers designed for hiding ideas. Good poetry is often ambiguous because, well, life is ambiguous, and poetry is meant to reflect life. In an article for poets.org, Edward Hirsch puts it this way:
Too often we resist ambiguity. Perhaps our lives are changing so fast that we long for stability somewhere, and because most of the reading we do is for instruction or information, we prefer it without shades of gray. We want it to be predictable and easy to digest. And so difficult poetry is the ultimate torment … [To appreciate poetry], We have to cultivate a new mindset, a new practice of enjoying the inconclusive.
I tend to resist ambiguity when I read Scripture, too. I like easy answers, simple explanations. However, much of Scripture—like all great poetry—is paradoxical and mysterious, and it’s okay to rest in that. I like to think of it this way: If everything about God was always easy for us mere humans to understand, what would make him God and us human? Let us bask in the wonderment of God’s mysteries. Let us appreciate that God is God and we are human—some of him is simply beyond our comprehension. Let us find rest in that knowledge and praise him all the more for it!
You are almost here! Your dad and I cannot wait to hold you in our arms, to kiss your sweet cheeks, to count your fingers and toes. You, my love, are a miracle: Nine months ago you didn’t exist at all, and now you are flesh and bone and brain and heart and soul. We thank the Lord for you every day!
While you’ve been growing safe and secure inside my belly, the world out here has undergone some seismic shifts marked by much fear and tragedy. I want to tell you about the past few months while they are fresh in my mind because I believe that God is working through these events to do important work in our hearts. My prayer is that what He is teaching us now creates a wave of lasting change that will make your generation more loving and more thoughtful than mine.
In late January, when I was just beginning to feel your tiny flutters and kicks inside me, we started to hear news about people in China and other parts of Asia falling ill and dying from a mysterious respiratory virus with many different names: “The Coronavirus,” “COVID-19,” “SARS-CoV-2.” When the virus reached the United States, our President and several media outlets referred to it as the “Chinese Flu,” which may or may not have contributed a surge of hate crimes against Asian Americans in the weeks and months that followed.
This is something I need you to know, my sweet son: Words have power. We can wield them “like swords” (Prov. 12:18) or apply them like balm that brings “sweetness to the soul and health to the body” (Prov. 16:24).
By early March, as your eyes began to perceive light and your ears process sound, the virus had spread to almost every state, including Missouri. We worried for you. No one seemed to know anything about how COVID-19 might affect pregnant women or unborn babies or newborns. There was no research – how could there be? We heard conflicting information about the virus from the media, government, and health experts.
The death toll climbed, the illness primarily affecting the most vulnerable among us: the elderly, the sick, the immunocompromised, and our Black brothers and sisters, who are dying of COVID-19 at three times the rate of white people due to poor access to healthcare and other preexisting conditions related to living in poverty. Hospitals became overcrowded, and doctors and nurses begged people to stay home to avoid further spread.
Restaurants and shops closed their doors, playgrounds were taped off, schools and churches moved online. We stopped seeing our friends and tried to keep a safe distance away from your Grammy and Grandpa to avoid getting them sick. Your Aunt Paige and Uncle Ryan pushed back their wedding, we moved your baby shower online, our friends and family members who’d planned to visit us canceled their flights, your dad was no longer allowed to come to our prenatal appointments.
The entire world was put on pause.
That’s when videos began to circulate that showed two white men gunning down Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was on an afternoon jog in a suburb in Georgia. Even though the local police had seen the video, no charges were filed against Ahmaud’s killers. A few weeks later, Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman, was shot and killed by police officers as she slept on her couch inside her home in Louisville, Kentucky. A few weeks after that, another video surfaced – this one showing a police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, for almost nine minutes while he repeatedly said, “I can’t breath” and twice called out for his mother.
In the wake of George Floyd’s death, protestors of all colors, faiths, and political leanings flooded streets all over our country (and the world) to demand justice for Ahmaud, Breonna, and George, but also to speak out against the systemic oppression that has plagued black Americans since they were brought to these shores as slaves. In some cases, protests have turned violent: businesses looted and burned, officers firing tear gas and rubber bullets into crowds.
It’s easy to get nostalgic about the time before COVID-19, to wish that we could all just “go back to the way things were” or “return to business as usual.”
But the reason I’m telling you all of this is because I truly don’t think God wants us to “go back to the way things were.” We know that it is through exactly these kinds of tragic circumstances – when life feel most confusing and painful and hopeless – that God so often does his most important work within us. Instead of wishing away the year 2020, maybe we should stop for a second and ask, “God: What are you trying to teach me here?”
For your dad and me, COVID-19 has led us to reflect upon what Jesus really means when he tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves.
By the time you’re old enough to read this, you will probably have heard the parable of The Good Samaritan countless times. The story is so good, though, that it bears repeating here:
The Parable of the Good Samaritan
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denariiand gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
The true neighbor in this parable, of course, is the one who stops – the one who presses pause on his busy life in order to see and serve the dying man in the road. This parable is often retold as a reminder that to love your neighbor means to care for the weak, sick, and the vulnerable.
But it’s important to note that this parable is also very much about race.
In Jesus’ time, Jews and Samaritans (two separate ethnic groups) despised one another. The lawyer who questions Jesus hopes that he can “love his neighbor” by caring solely for other Jews, but Jesus uses this story to flip the lawyer’s worldview entirely. Not only does Jesus command that love for our neighbors should transcend racial boundaries, but by making the Samaritan the hero of the story, he also challenges negative stereotypes about Samaritans.
When I read through this parable in light of the racial unrest embroiling our own nation, I can’t help but feel deeply convicted.
Because long before we knew the names Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, back during our pre-COVID state of “normal,” we did know the names Atatiana Jefferson, Botham Jean, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and so many others. Your dad and I have also known for a long time that racial disparities exist across nearly all systems in our society: criminal justice, healthcare, education, and economic.
Yet we’ve rarely stopped and paused our lives long enough actually do anything about any of it. Over and over again, we have been like the priest and the Levite: We see the man dying in the street, and over and over we choose to “pass by on the other side.” Because it’s so much easier and cleaner and more comfortable to avoid looking at the problem altogether than it is to stop and actually do something about it.
With COVID-19 has come much pain and suffering. The economy has grinded to a halt, people are out of work, and over 480,000 people have lost their lives. But even within these horrible circumstances, God is at work. Collectively as a nation, we’ve been forced to slow down, and it seems we are finally paying attention to the dying man in the street.
Because of global protests and vocal public outrage at the deaths of Ahmaud, Breonna, and George, police departments across the country have already begun reforming their policies and our President has signed an executive order to ban law enforcement from using chokeholds. More than ever before in the history of this country, white people are listeningto their Black brothers and sisters, educating themselves on the deep-rooted causes of systemic racism, and seeking solutions.
The other day, someone I know to be a strong Christian posted this image on his Facebook page (side note: I sincerely hope Facebook is a thing of the past by the time you’re able to read this):
The words on this image trouble me for several reasons, but I find the last line particularly disturbing coming from someone who I know to be a follower of Christ: “If you choose to see evil, then evil is all you will see.”
My sweet son, if we choose to NOT see evil, then we are just like the priest and the Levite who “pass by on the other side.” Even more importantly, if we choose NOT to see evil, then we have no need for Jesus.
You are about to enter broken world full of poor and miserable sinners. None of us are immune, especially when it comes to the sin of racism, which has been with us since Biblical times and which, like all sins, will be with us until Jesus comes again. We all need the grace and pardon that only Christ gives through his death and resurrection.
My prayer for our nation is that when the pandemic and protests are over, when we all resume the hustle of “normal” life, that we keep working to love those who are unlike us and work to eradicate injustice. My prayer for the Church is that we help lead the charge.
And my prayer for you, my son, is that you refuse to look away from the brokenness of this world, that you refuse to be like the priest and the Levite who “pass by on the other side” because it’s more convenient and comfortable to do so. I pray that, like the Samaritan, you go out of your way to love and serve those who are crying out for help, especially those who are different from you – something that I fail at continuously.
I pray, too, that in the midst of this world’s worst trials and tribulations, you see God at work and know that “in all things [he] works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28).
I posted the above photograph to my Instagram account last October. My husband and I were in London at the time – our last stop on a two-week vacation across Europe. The shopfront shown in the photo, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, is a 350-year-old pub supposedly frequented by the likes of Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and Sir Author Conan Doyle, among other famous authors. I learned about the pub on a travel blog that listed “must see” places in London for literature enthusiasts, so, naturally, I dragged my husband there.
After I snapped the photo, I played around with Instagram filters. I chose one that brightened up the pink flowers and made St. Paul’s Cathedral pop against the gray sky. Instead of writing a caption, I chose three emojis: a storm cloud, an open book, and clinking beers. The photo got a decent number of “likes” and one person commented that it looked “so dreamy.”
The photo does look dreamy. After all, making the photo (and our brief stop in London) look dreamy was my goal when I posted it. But the photograph on its own cannot and does not accurately convey the reality of our 48 hours in London.
Here’s the truth: By the time we reached London, we had already spent three days in Paris, four days in Santorini, and four days in Amsterdam. We were exhausted, our clothes were all dirty, and we were out of money. London was colder than we expected – and rainy. We got lost trying to find our Airbnb; when we finally found it, we were drenched and freezing. So, instead of sightseeing, we spent our first day in London hulled up in our Airbnb binge-watching The Office. Our second day, we bought a cheap umbrella at a gift shop and ventured outside. That’s when I captured and posted the above photo of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. After a few hours, the wind blew our umbrella inside out, and we went back to our Airbnb and napped until it was time to go to the airport.
… Not exactly as “dreamy” of an experience as I would have liked people to think.
The other day, someone I follow on Instagram posted a vacation photo – a gorgeous cliffside landscape. Her caption was, “A picture is worth 1,000 words.” When I saw that, I wondered if it were really true. I thought about the reality behind my London photo, and of the realities behind all the other pictures I’ve posted on Instagram and Facebook over the years.
That old adage – a picture is worth 1,000 words – along with our social media culture have conditioned us to believe that images can speak certain truths about the world that words cannot. But do images really have that power? And, if so, do we actually use our images to convey the truth of our experiences?
The phrase “a picture is worth 1,000 words” is often attributed to the Chinese philosopher Confucius and, therefore, is accepted as an ancient piece of wisdom. However, the first person to use the phrase was actually a clever advertiser named Fred Barnard, who realized that photographs are much more effective than words when it comes to selling things. In the 1920s, the phrase appeared in advertising trade journals to promote the use of images in marketing campaigns.
Many of us use our Instagram and Facebook photos to advertise too, but instead of promoting products, we’re trying to promote ourselves – to persuade others (and perhaps to convince ourselves along the way) that our lives are significant and meaningful. More often than not, my photographs are attempts to seek this kind of validation – not images that really depict any sort of complex reality or truth. They say, look at my recent adventure, look at this amazing meal, look how healthy I am, look at all of my friends, look at my successes.
Pictures are not always meant for validation or self-promotion, of course. There are plenty of healthy, non-self-promotional reasons to post photos on social media: to connect with long-distance friends and family, to share art, to inspire others toward good. However, if I’m really honest with myself, I know that my photos (whatever my motivations may be) do not convey truth in the same way that words can.
When used wisely, our words – unlike our social media photo galleries – have the power to encourage and uplift others. Our words can make others feel loved, seen, and known. Our words, by the power of the Holy Spirit, can help others to know the perfect love of Jesus Christ – the only person who had cause to exalt Himself but who chose instead to humble Himself by becoming human and dying on the cross for our sins.
So, when it comes to advertising, maybe a picture is worth 1,000 words. But, when it comes to conveying truth, words seem pretty important.
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about what Jesus really meant when preached the words, “love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44).
I have read and heard the phrase “love your enemies” so often over the years that it has become a kind of cliché to me – just another platitude that sounds nice but has no true effect on the way I live my day-to-day life.
For starters, the term “enemy” is difficult to grapple with. I am generally a nice person. I smile at strangers, hold open doors, pick up my dog’s poop, refrain from honking in traffic (mostly). I don’t see myself as a person with enemies.
So, does Jesus’ command really even apply to me?
A few months ago, my husband and I drove up to Ohio State University to watch my sister-in-law graduate from her PhD program. The morning of commencement was cool and cloudy; the OSU stadium (a.k.a. “The Horseshoe”) hummed with the excited voices of a record-breaking 12,213 graduates and their families and friends.
The commencement speaker was Fareed Zakaria, an author and journalist for CNN and the Washington Post. In his speech, Zakaria challenged the graduates – and all of us watching – to consider an important question:
“What can we [as a nation] do to come together?”
He described an alarming truth about America today: We are a country that has become increasingly tribal. Without always consciously realizing it, we tend to surround ourselves with people who look like us, live like us, think like us, believe what we believe, vote like we vote.
There is a reason we humans stick to our tribes: They are comfortable. When we surround ourselves with people who are like us, we don’t have to question our views or ideas (which is nearly always an uncomfortable experience). Our tribes are safe and stable places to live. The problem with tribalism, of course, is that over time we lose the ability to listen and to empathize with those who do not “belong.” Instead, we judge and condemn and dehumanize people who we consider to be “other.”
I am so guilty of this.
I may not have enemies who I interact with in my day-to-day life, but I have certainly harbored hatred for people whose political and ideological beliefs differ from my own. In fact, I fume almost every time I listen to the news or scroll through the comments sections on politically-charged Facebook posts.
Anybody else? I know I’m not alone in this. None of us are immune.
This same kind of dehumanizing tribalism was happening in Jesus’ time when he preached his famous Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’”(Matt. 5:43). Yes – this is still what our culture tells us today: love your tribe and hate those with whom you disagree.
“But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44).
The Greek form of “love” used in this verse is philea love – the kind of affectionate “brotherly love” typically reserved for family members and best friends. Philea love requires familiarity, a sense of equality, and genuine friendship.
In other words, Jesus’ command in this verse is not an empty platitude that vaguely means we ought to be kind or polite, but a deeply radical, countercultural, and counterintuitive charge to be in relationship with people who look, think, live, vote, and believe differently than we do. He is calling us to love those who, to us, seem most unlovable.
Jesus’ words are the answer to Zakaria’s question. What can I, Johanna Lange, do to help heal our divided nation? Well, I can start by seeking out ways to be in loving relationship with people whose beliefs differ from my own.
Doing this will never feel comfortable, but Jesus’ commands rarely are.
When I was 11 years old – just on the precipice of young adulthood – I became fascinated by both the immense capacity and frustrating limitations of my own memory. I remember reflecting back on my childhood and wondering why some of my memories were vivid enough to smell and taste, while others were vague and pale like smoke – utterly irretrievable no matter how hard I grasped at them.
I remember feeling a sense of tragedy and despair about these lost memories and forgotten moments. They seemed to me like paintings stolen from a gallery: images that belonged to me but that I could never again gaze upon.
So, at 11 years old, I created my own little memory experiment. Inside my mind, I built an imaginary filing cabinet. Whenever I noticed something striking – something I wanted to remember forever – I would take a mental picture and consciously store it away in my mind’s filing cabinet where I could retrieve it again whenever I wanted.
I guess my experiment worked because I still have those
mental images today – nearly 20 years later.
One of them is of a crisp-orange October day:
It has been one month since two jets slammed into the twin towers, and I sit in the back seat of my mother’s car dressed in black. We are driving home from the funeral of a 16-year-old boy who was killed in car crash. We pause at a stop light. Wind gusts through a clump of nearby trees sending thousands of golden leaves into the intersection, where they dance around our car, floating and spinning, suspended in midair like thousands of glowing human souls. And I wonder at a God who creates such beautiful things in world so darkened by death.
I take a mental picture.
Another of my pictures is of wintertime:
I pull our old wooden sled up our street, heading home after a long day of sledding. The sun sits purple-gray on the horizon, and heaps of shoveled snow glisten like the inside of a purple geode. The street lamps flicker on, and I realize I am late for dinner. I know I’ll be scolded for being out after dark, so I slow my pace – putting off the inevitable – and I drink in the cold, quiet solitude of a winter’s walk.
I take a mental picture.
I have dozens of remembered snapshots from that year – tinsel in Christmas candlelight, pencil races down rain gutters, flower crowns in my best friend’s hair, warm mud between bare toes.
But somewhere along the path to grown-up land, I misplaced my mental camera, or it broke, or my filing cabinet got full – because I stopped paying attention to such details. I stopped noticing.
I stopped storing up my mental pictures.
Instead, I began hurrying (and worrying) through life’s
motions. After all, there were exams and papers and practice and obligations
and interviews and jobs and checklists and dates and appointments and schedules
How life passes us by.
A few months ago, some friends and I formed a women’s bible study. On a whim we started reading Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts together. In the book, Voskamp argues that living life in this distracted way – that is, always worrying about the next obligation or the next potential failure – leads to a life of discontentment and a kind of zombie-like existence. She writes,
It’s the life in between, the days of walking lifeless, the years calloused and simply going through the hollow motions, the self-protecting by self-distracting, the body never waking, that’s lost all capacity to fully feel – this is the life in between that makes us the wild walking dead.
Voskamp’s remedy? To start actively paying attention to the gifts God heaps up around us. In doing so, we grow in fellowship with God our Creator and experience both contentment and joy that lasts. She challenges herself (and her readers) to create a list of 1,000 gifts – to record a life of surplus instead of deficit. Her list begins like this:
Morning shadows across old floors
Jam piled high on the toast
Cry of blue jay from high in the spruce
Leafy life scent of the florist shop
The creak of her old knees
Wind flying cold wild in hair
At first, my friends and I chuckled and rolled our eyes at Voskamp’s list: How silly and little these gifts are! Who is thankful for creaky old knees? But then we challenged each other to make up our own collective gift-list using our five senses.
“The smell of spring rain,” one of us said.
“The taste of this wine,” said another.
“The sound of laughter.”
And on we went, actively fighting our discontentment with
gifts made tangible simply by our effort to notice them.
Slowly, I’m learning to notice again: The sound of fresh coffee dripping, the earthy-sweet smell behind my dog’s ears when he snuggles close, the way light glows soft through white curtains, the sound of thunder rolling. These snapshots remind me of a Creator who gives gifts heaped up like golden leaves, like mounds of glistening snow – if only we have the eyes to see.
I suppose lots of angsty high school seniors dream of moving far from home after graduation. I certainly did. I couldn’t wait to get out of St. Louis – not because I disliked the city where I grew up, but because I felt like it knew me too well. Like my entire history was imprinted on the city’s walls – a sort of visual prison that kept me from becoming the person I wanted to be.
So I chose to attend college in Southern California.
I fell in love with California – I loved the forever sunshine and beaches, of course, but also the feeling that I could be anyone I wanted to be in that fresh, clean canvas of a place. Most of my college friends couldn’t even point to St. Louis on a map, and there was something kind of liberating about that. I’ve heard it said that Californians are cliquey and self-absorbed, but I found the opposite to be true: I was welcomed into home after home, and the friends I made in college are the kinds that last a lifetime. California truly became home for me.
In one of my college creative writing classes I wrote an homage to St. Louis in the style of Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That.” I meant it as a kind of “goodbye forever” letter to my home city.
Because I never imagined that I would move back.
Unlike Didion’s essay, though, mine is corny and shallow. It covers all the St. Louis clichés: gooey butter cake and frozen custard and toasted ravioli, loyalty to Cardinals Baseball and St. Louis Bread Company, facts about the St. Louis Arch and how to fry eggs on the sidewalk in July. I tried to add complexity by describing broken windows in buildings downtown, and by including a story about how I witnessed a man pickpocket my mom at the grocery store. But, ultimately, the piece falls flat in more ways than one.
Over the years, I’ve tried again and again to revise that essay into something worth sharing, but I haven’t been able to make it work. I have never been able to articulate my relationship with St. Louis in a way that means anything to me or anyone else.
Eight years after that creative writing class, I had fully established the life I always wanted in Southern California. I was teaching writing at my alma mater university; my husband and I had a cute little apartment with tons of windows; we could walk to the beach and to Trader Joe’s; we had a garden that bloomed all year long; we had finally settled into a church that we loved; our California friends had become our second family.
We were exceedingly content.
And then my husband got a call about a job opportunity in St. Louis.
He prayed about the decision and encouraged me to pray too. He sought advice from friends and family. Meanwhile, I did absolutely everything I could to avoid thinking about the decision altogether. I was afraid to open up a line of communication to God because I knew that if I did He might tell me it was time to leave my comfortable, sunny life – a life I had worked so hardto establish. But I didn’t have to hear the audible voice of God to know in my heart that He was calling us back to my home city.
In retrospect, I can see that I struggled over that old college essay because my St. Louis story is not yet over. Since we moved here three months ago, I have already seen how partial and naïve my childhood perception of the city was. St. Louis is certainly gooey butter cake and frozen custard and Cardinals Baseball, but it’s also a city with deep, open wounds: systemic poverty, racism, violence, and despair. Yet, in spite of these issues – or more likely because of them – St. Louis is also a place where God’s work among people is incredibly visible. We have witnessed God moving in the Church, especially, to bring healing to the lives of hurting people, which has been both encouraging and faith-sustaining.
At our church here in St. Louis the pastor ends every service with the words, “You are loved by God, and you are sent by Him.” Those words are a such comfort to me. I cannot know precisely why we were sent to St. Louis, but I do know that the Spirit has been stirring in our hearts since we arrived. I know that we have been sent here for a reason. I know that we are home.
I am a perfectionist. I want to be a perfect writer, a perfect teacher, a perfect wife, and a perfect friend. I want a perfect personality and sense of humor and complexion and wardrobe.
Sometimes, my desire for perfection paralyzes me from taking action: If I can’t do something perfectly, why bother doing it at all?
Recently, I’ve felt this way about my writing. When I sit down to write, my perfectionism sits heavy on my shoulders and whispers into my ear: You’re not smart enough, talented enough, prepared enough, [fill in the blank] enough … Just give up already and go watch HGTV.
Maybe you know what I mean. Maybe you’ve heard that voice too.
I never really saw my perfectionism as a problem until I got married and my husband, Christopher, pointed it out to me. Marriage is humbling in that way – how all those deep issues we hid from ourselves and from the world come bubbling up to the surface in our most vulnerable moments.
The first time I became really aware of my perfection problem was when Christopher tried to teach me how to surf.
Having grown up in the Midwest, I have always romanticized the notion of surfing – endless thrill and speed and smiles, golden skin and salty, wind-blown hair. So, naturally, I asked my California-raised husband to teach me.
We were less than two months into our marriage, and, per usual, I desired absolute perfection out of these lessons: I wanted Christopher to give me a perfectly articulated set of instructions. I wanted to know the perfect strategy for paddling out past the break, the perfect motions and timing I needed to master in order to catch a wave, the perfectway to “fall off” at the end so as to avoid complete embarrassment.
The problem, of course, is that learning to surf – like so many other things in life – doesn’t at all work that way. There is no “perfect formula” to follow. When it comes to surfing, there is no possible way to avoid failure.
But I didn’t know that at the time.
So, we packed up our truck with camping gear and two borrowed surf boards, and we drove down to San Onofre State Beach – a legendary surf spot north of San Diego. San Onofre (nicknamed ’Ofreby the locals) has some of the bluest, most consistent waves in Southern California, waves surfers have been riding since the 1920’s when surfing first arrived on California’s shores.
It seemed like the perfect place to learn.
Our first morning in ‘Ofre we woke just as the sun bloomed behind the horizon, blanketing our campsite in smoky pinks and oranges. We made campfire coffee and avocado toast (like perfect little millennials), and Christopher showed me how to wax a surfboard: Circular motions. More wax than you think you need. Thick and textured for grip.
We had to hike down a steep trail to get to the beach. The board was heavy and awkward under my armpit, which made it difficult to balance, and I slipped and stumbled nearly the whole way down.
“I’d offer to hold the board for you,” said Christopher, who is normally chivalrous to the extreme, “but if you can’t carry your own board, you shouldn’t be surfing.”
Down at the beach, we sat on a piece of driftwood and watched the waves. There were a handful of other surfers out, all on shortboards cutting in and out of waves as graceful as ballerinas. I wanted to know how to get that good.
But Christopher’s only instructions to me all morning (aside from “hold your own board”) were “paddle as hard as you can” and “when you get slammed by a wave, don’t fight the current.”
I battered him with dozens more questions about how I should handle big versus small waves, white water versus blue, and when to bail and when to hang tight. But all he said was, “You just have to feel it out as you go” and “You’ll figure it out.”
“How do I not get slammed?” I asked.
“You will get slammed,” he said. “That’s the only way to learn how to not get slammed the next time.”
What a stupid, horrible philosophy, I remember thinking.
“You ready?” Christopher asked me.
I was most definitely not ready. But I figured if I died out there, at least Christopher would have to live the rest of his life feeling guilty for failing to educate me on the nuances of surfing.
We attached the board’s strap to my ankle, and I walked uneasily into the rocky surf. The waves sucked and crashed powerfully against my lower legs, bringing golfball-sized rocks with them, which pummeled my ankles and shins.
“You gotta jump in fast between sets of waves,” Chris said, “otherwise you’ll miss your window.” He took a running dive into the cold, blue water and started swimming. Shivering and already a bit frustrated, I leapt onto my board and started paddling after him.
The board felt bulky and clumsy beneath my body, completely powerless against the cobalt waves that rolled toward me like speeding trucks. I could hear Christopher screaming at me to PADDLE HARDER, but his voice was muddled and distant beneath crashing water. My board made it over the first wave in the set, but the second wave looked way too menacing for me to handle, so I bailed as soon as I saw it.
The wave crashed directly on top of me, spinning me around like a load of laundry and spitting me back out near the rocky shore.
I stood up disoriented but unhurt. I could see Christopher treading water out past the break, waiting for me to get back on and try again. I hoisted myself back onto my board and paddled on. My arms already burned with exhaustion. I paddled over a few smaller waves, and then, like clockwork, the big waves came.
I refused to bail this time. Instead, I stopped paddling and held on for dear life as the wave flipped my board backwards with me on top of it, stuffing me beneath the churning Pacific all the way to the ocean floor.
When I surfaced, I heard Christopher yelling at me: “I said don’t stop paddling!”
I kept trying different strategies for getting over the waves, and each time, the ocean’s powerful arms shoved me off and pushed me back towards the shore. I started to get angry – at the ocean for its indomitable strength, at Christopher for his unhelpful demands to “paddle harder,” and at myself for failing to even get out past the break (let alone catch an actual wave).
After several more failed attempts, I started to notice something I hadn’t seen before: There were gaps at the edges of some of the larger waves. I found that if I paddled hard and fast enough, I could reach these gaps before the waves folded, and my board would float over them like a little duck floating over ripples in a pond. I used this strategy until I got all the way out past the break, where Christopher was waiting with a smile.
“You made it,” he said. “Now we wait for the right wave to come along for you to catch.”
I never really successfully surfed that day. I did catch a wave and managed a partial kneel on the board as it soared toward the shoreline. When I fell off, the board flew into the air and slammed hard into my left foot, splitting open my flesh.
But the adrenaline rush of catching a wave was so exhilarating that I barely even felt any pain. I still have a scar on that foot that I’m rather fond of. It’s shaped exactly like single quotation mark.
Lately, I’ve been conjuring up this memory whenever my desire for perfection threatens to take control. I think learning to surf serves as a good metaphor for the fundamental paradox of perfectionism: growth and learning happen because of failure – not in spite of it.
One of the most powerful and comforting things about scripture is that, again and again, God uses imperfect, unprepared, unexceptional sinners to do His work and participate in His story.
He chose Rahab, a prostitute, to rescue two Hebrew spies from the king of Jericho (and to save her entire family in the process). He chose a poor widow, who was on the verge of starvation herself, to feed the prophet Elijah. He chose Ruth, a poor and widowed immigrant, to become grandmother to King David and, thus, a direct ancestor to Jesus. He chose the orphan Esther to save the Jewish people from death. He chose a group of uneducated, voiceless women to witness and spread the news of Christ’s resurrection.
And He chooses us to be part of His story too. With all our imperfections and insecurities and failures.
Indeed, He chooses us becauseof our shortcomings – not in spite of them.
Have you been avoiding “diving” into something because you feel too imperfect, too unprepared, or too unexceptional? Maybe you’ve been called to start a bible study, write a devotional, start a blog, witness to a friend, invite a stranger to dinner, host a celebration, volunteer.
What might it look like to shun the voice of perfectionism and just dive in?