defining grace

If you’ve ever read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, you know how painful it is. It’s hard on the one hand because it’s big and uses big words; a thousand and seventy-nine pages of dense, small print and even smaller footnotes takes some serious work to get through. But much harder than its sheer size is the content. Every character has an addiction. They are all stuck in a cycle of death, becoming something repulsive, something less than human every time they give into the drug. If you’re like me, you see these characters in yourself. You start staring at all the sin and hatred and vileness in your own heart, and come away feeling sick because you are helpless and hopeless.

I read this book last semester. It took my Existentialism class nine weeks to make it through, reading for five-hour chunks every Thursday. The book cast a pale over my whole life; Thursdays became the day I dreaded. I cried more during that semester than I ever had before, feeling a weight of shame on my back, feeling disgusted at my own humanity. Rationally, I knew the only way out was the grace of God. The only way we’ll ever know good is to worship Him rather than our drugs, self-image, and work. But more than ever I began to ask, what is grace? How on earth do we learn to accept it and live into it, as flesh-and-blood humans in a flesh-in-blood world?

I found I didn’t really know.

It took months for me to begin to understand. It took finishing Infinite Jest, reading and listening to Marilynne Robinson, working through Romans in my Bible study group, and living with some of my favorite people in the world. It took a month in Spain seeing the incredible beauty of even the smallest, quietest places, it took talking to people wiser and kinder and deeper than I. The definition of grace never came to me concisely or simply; pieces of it have been falling into place one at a time, slowly filling out this gift—this hope—that God has given us. I’m still learning. But I have pieces now.

I’ve learned that

grace is seeing people with the knowledge that God made us in His image. It’s the knowledge that we are beautiful and unique and that He made us good. It’s the knowledge that nothing we’ve done to ourselves is unfixable.

Grace is looking back to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and forward in hope of the future.

Grace is acknowledging the sin you’ve done in the past but knowing that it is forgiven, and acknowledging that you will sin in the future but that will be forgiven, too. Grace is living right here, in the present, and choosing to love the people right next to you, right now, without fear of what comes before or after.

Grace is remembering that no instant of time is unbearable, that in every instant God is with us and will see us through to the other side.

Grace is freedom.

Yes, I sin and sin and sin, and yes, my addictions too often control me, to my shame. But God is so much bigger than my sin. If He is good—and everything in the Bible screams He is the greatest good—then He can fix all the harm I’ve done and work it into His plan. He has paid the price for it already. All we can do is live in this one instant of time that is the present, and it’s enough. If we fall, there’s another instant later; He can pick us back up.


Writing by Humans

If you’ve ever dabbled in creative writing, you’ve probably heard that you need to use specific images and show, don’t tell. I’ve been told this in classes, internet forums, books, writing groups—it’s pretty much the first advice you’re told in any writing situation. But it’s funny, because people never mention why. They say it helps us to picture things better or to see another character more concretely, and then they add, it’s counterintuitive, I know. It seems like a more general concept would be more relevant to more people, but that’s not the way it works. And after that they stop.

As a beginning writer I rebelled against this idea. Many other new writers I know have, too, asking why we would swap perfectly good abstracts that apply to everyone for these specific details that don’t. But I don’t think I would have been as obstinate if I had put together the actual reason why. Why do specific images work? Why is it so much more impactful to read about Jesus weeping than about Jesus being sad? The truth is, the answer is right under our noses. (You could say it is our noses.) The reason great writing is specific and concrete is because we are specific and concrete. We have bodies. Our writing has to have live through a body, too.

No human has ever experienced sadness in its purest, most abstract form; we experience it through our bodies, through specific places, specific times, specific actions. Abstract concepts may apply to all of us, but that doesn’t mean we really know what they mean outside of the specifics. What is the amorphous thing we call love? It’s kind words coming from a friend’s lips, money spent to get someone the exact thing they’ve wanted, skin pressed against the warmth of someone else. Yes, it’s also an emotion, but that emotion comes from chemicals in our brains, and without those chemicals we would feel nothing—so as far as we’re concerned, love doesn’t even exist without the specifics. Everything we know is known through sensing the physical world and processing that information in our physical brains. The reason great writers don’t primarily use abstracts is because truly abstract concepts are incomprehensible to us. Using them to make art is about as useful as babbling.

When you look at the advice show, don’t tell, through this lens, it begins to be clear that it’s really advice to admit you’re human and move on with it. Writing stories with concrete details is one of the most human things you can do, because you, too, were written into a specific place and time, and you feel love and hate and sadness and all these things through your human body and experience. The more you begin to think this way, the more the logic used at the beginning turns on its head. General concepts may apply to everyone in a way that specific details don’t, but the very fact that they are more general concepts means that, in fact, nobody can deeply understand them without examples. Writing in abstractions is pretending not to be human.

An interesting note on this is that the Bible (and, indeed, all of redemption history) was written with our humanity in mind. Discourse on abstracts is interspersed throughout, but never without narrative. Jesus doesn’t just tell us to be loving to our enemies; he tells us that if someone takes our coat, we should give them our tunic also. Further, most of the Bible is made up true stories of specific things happening to specific people in specific times. The flood was a concrete representation of God’s wrath on evildoers; the rainbow a tangible expression of his promises. Jesus himself was human: he had a body and knew physical pain to an extent that few others have known. Of course the Bible deals with abstracts, because ideas that are merely abstract to physical humans have great spiritual truth. But humans by nature experience everything concretely, and the Bible takes this into account by dealing with the abstract through the concrete. We know what love is because Jesus died in a human body on a physical wooden torture device. Without his sacrifice, the word love wouldn’t have the same meaning. Without concrete events in a story, abstract words just don’t have the same depth.

What it comes down to is that I wish someone had told me in the first place that using concrete imagery should not be a rule to be rebelled against, but the most intuitive and intrinsic element of writing. God made us with bodies, with senses, with chemicals in our brains; and living on earth we will never know anything different. Art is one of the most peculiarly human things we can do. So it can’t be great art if it denies what we are.

Living Sacrifice?

Donating blood is something that’s been on my mind since long before I did it first in the spring. I’ve heard many excuses for why people don’t donate. In high school, before I was heavy enough to donate myself, I helped operate a donation table where I tried to convince people to give. Now that I can donate too, I always beg friends to come along with me. In both cases, most of the people I talk to say no. I’ve heard excuse after excuse after excuse. But for all the many excuses I’ve heard (besides being ineligible for donation, which is a different matter), almost every one boils down to the same words: “I don’t do needles.”

Frankly, this makes me mad.

So yes, I understand that fearing needles is a real thing. I wasn’t too comfortable giving blood the first time either. In fact, I was terrified. And the second and third times, too. And I’ll probably be scared every other time for the rest of my life. But the fact is, if you live in the white middle-class world, you’ve put up with plenty of vaccination needles in your lifetime. You did it, and maybe you were scared, but you probably didn’t even think about it much. It was simply something that had to be done. So you did it.

Why is this different?

You may answer this question, They’re taking my BLOOD. That’s what makes me ALIVE. They’re taking it out of me and putting it in a bag. And yes, I get that it’s weird to know someone’s filling up a bag of your blood. But it’s not really an excuse. I think it’s a weird thought that we put plastic rods in our mouths and rub them all over our teeth every morning and night, or that we have dead cells growing off our heads that we braid elaborately when we want to impress people. We do weird things all the time without even questioning it.

Another excuse is the classic I’m busy. But this is also not an excuse worth making. An hour or two of your time, once every two months, is worth giving someone the rest of their life, period. The thing is, I get annoyed that normal agnostic/atheist people give these excuses. But with Christians I actually get angry, because Jesus literally had NAILS driven through his palms so he could save your life.

Yeah, I just said that. He didn’t do needles, he did nails.

We evangelicals are always telling each other we need to be like Christ. Well, in upper-middle-class-white-suburbia, giving blood is the most physically Christ-like thing we can do. He gave up his life’s blood so we could be healed of our spiritual sickness. You can give up your life’s blood so someone else can be healed of their physical sickness. I’m not even going to rant about all the people out there who are dying because you didn’t give blood; this is not a guilt-trip. This is about living Christ. This is about being who we say we are and offering our bodies as living sacrifices.

Now think about that word, sacrifice. A sacrifice is a giving up. It’s giving up something valuable or doing something painful for someone else. Love is built on sacrifice; it’s not a feeling, it’s a choice, an action, as Jesus chose to follow God’s plan even when he knew it would be painful. Making a sacrifice, like facing a needle to save someone else, is an act of love. And to be honest, giving blood isn’t even a huge sacrifice: when you give blood, you feel a pinch for about a second and lie in a bed for fifteen minutes, and then you go on with your life, maybe a little lightheaded for an hour or so. This is not much when you think about it. When Christ gave blood, he was stuck with nails, hung on a torture device, and killed.

Too many white upper-class evangelicals have lost this kind of love. We forget that we need to live in a way that flows out of what we believe; we forget that God made us with bodies, with the ability to see and taste and dance and have sex and feel pain and work out and hold babies and sing praise. Physical acts of love are what change us. Playing music in praise of God changes us. Digging in a garden and feeling the dirt of his creation changes us. Giving blood can change us, can show us in a crazy tangible way how much Christ loved us when he spilled all that blood at Calvary.

The Protestant tradition is leery of this kind of spiritual discipline, due to the legalism and pride that it associates with Pharisees and convents. It’s right to be wary; I am absolutely not saying that giving blood is holier than not giving blood, and I am perfectly aware that legalism is a real danger when you’re going back to the donation center, year after year after year. But James says very clearly that “faith without works is dead” (in other words, isn’t real faith), and again, the things we do change us. It’s not about how much better you are than someone else because you’re saving lives. It’s about the chance you have to act like Christ, to mimic his suffering to some small extent so you can become like him. He is so wonderful and so loving and so good. Everything he did on earth was painful for him, but he did it anyway.

You can do that, too. You can literally offer your body as a living sacrifice, physically feel some semblance of the overwhelming love of God as you give up your own blood. So please, stop offering excuses about needles. This is not about needles or losing an hour of your time. This is about knowing Christ, who gave you all your blood in the first place.

Low Low Low-Low-Low

The last two weeks has been a series of extreme highs and lows.

Beginning with a low, my computer (on which were all the stories I’ve ever finished, my passwords to every website, thousands of pictures, all the recordings I’ve made of my poems, the many stages of my book cover file, and basically everything digital I’ve created in the last quarter of my life–not to mention its uses for things like college course work and Wednesday poems) died last week. The only upsides were 1) that my campus is well-stocked with computers so I can at least still access the internet–hence the update today–and 2) that I had the prescience to at least put the poems themselves into Dropbox. I only wish I’d done so to the rest of my files…

To follow, a high: I saw two very different sorts of celebrities performing in the last four days. The first was Andy Grammer, who I watched with some of my very best friends, and we had a great time singing and dancing as we watched him on the outdoor stage. The second was Tyehimba Jess, a poet I’ve already written about, who to my great excitement came to Wheaton today and did a reading of his poems. I still cannot recommend these highly enough. They are deeply rooted in the history of black America, of minstrel shows, and of thousands of years of poetry, but are at the same time relevant and moving in the context of today–besides being a pleasure to read for their sheer genius. Stuttering with admiration, I had him sign my copy of his book.

This high was, however, intertwined with a low, as I had expected to talk to him in person in a much smaller group setting with an English professor: and that group was canceled at the last minute. I have never felt like I needed to meet someone as much as I felt like I needed to meet him, and knowing, when it was canceled, that I couldn’t (at least not in the way I’d hoped) was a severe disappointment, to add to the frustrations of the week.

Another low was the admission of a friend on my floor to the hospital last night. She was having abdominal pain and is still in pain now, but she is back on the floor, and we know for sure that she does not have appendicitis, which was the main worry. I visited her in the hospital today, an addition to the plethora of other things I did (class and babysitting and Jess and a sophomore career dinner). It was bizarre how surreal the whole thing seemed. How surreal the whole week has seemed.

Additionally, I’ve felt lately that my poetry has simply dried up. I don’t know why except that some kind of fear of my own self has set in and has prevented me from practicing piano, writing poems at random, and even harmonizing when I’m singing–all things I usually do automatically, things that are a part of me. Without those, and without my computer files, I feel lost. My art defined me. Without it, who am I? I don’t even know.

(To add insult to injury, one of my favorite tops just ripped as I’ve been writing. So I’m sitting in sterile-looking computer lab in the basement of my dorm with a huge tear in my shirt. I almost laughed at the awfulness when it happened.)

So yes, I’ve been pleading that God will give me some kind of mercy and rest from this relentless everything that has been flying at me. It looks like I will not become best friends with Tyehimba Jess and I will not always be able to write poems on a whim and I will not always have energy to do my homework when I need to (such as now–and look what I’m doing instead, venting on the internet). But at least I know one thing, and that is a huge one: I am a child of God. He made me. He loves me. He came to earth, became a human (how could He want to be one of us?), and died for me.

And because of that, I have eternity to figure out who I am. I have eternity to find my art again and to worship Him with it. I will have eternity to rest.

I guess when I look at it that way there’s nothing more I could want.

Hellos to a Home I’d Forgotten

In my last week of working, I wrote a post about how a transition involves leaving parts of yourself behind. I mourned the fact that there are endings, and that every relationship on earth fades too quickly.

But I guess I forgot, as I wrote, that an ending in one place means a beginning in another. Sophomore year has been a beginning. Moving in the new freshmen has been a beginning. Creating a space with my amazing roommate–a space filled with the things we love, with tea and books and comfy furniture–has been a beginning, a time of comfort, a time of joy. Our God is a God of love and beauty, a God who made relationships that last even through and despite the summers that separate us, a God who made a permanent and unending body for Himself: His Church.

It’s good, good, good to be back in Wheaton. It’s a little strange to be a sophomore, but at the same time perfectly natural; seeing the difference between me and the freshmen I realize I am exactly where God meant me to be and have had exactly the right experiences (beginnings and endings, classes and customers, lemons and lemonade) to get me here.

I love being able to help the girls across the hall, to meet those who are living in the room I made so many memories in last year, to speak without stuttering of things I used to barely know. Moving the freshmen into the dorms was a crazy experience because it was so different being on the other side of it. am the one in the orange (salmon?) Thunder Moving Company shirt. am the one who knows where the kitchen, the Beamer Center, Buswell Library, Goldstar Chapel and the Switz are. I’m a sophomore, and in some crazy way, I belong here.

I’m home.

I guess we have to have the right perspective on the endings in life. They remind us of the consequences of sin and the fact that ultimately everything we touch will die. But endings are not the ending. Even on earth we see new life. We see our old, stripped rooms getting their colors again. We see our old, uncomfortable selves suddenly at home. I’ll miss the people I met and even, in a way, the things I did this summer, but I guess whatever God has for me this semester is better.

To end on a cliche but still incredible note, here’s a verse from Jeremiah:

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

–Jeremiah 29:11

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So here we are in
hardly a wonderland
and how to get back to Narnia
there’s no telling

door’s locked
window’s blocked
etc etc etc

so we are here to explore the keys
and find our way perhaps
to the eternal home
which we were missing all along.

On this ring of Keys,
find Poetry & Keys for Writing,
meanderings of thought,
political harangues to the World in General,
traces of an old and vibrant Love.
I hope you will discover the one True Key,
The Love
and Life,
as I begin to discover Him more as well.