“You must understand the whole of life, not just one little part of it. That is why you must read, that is why you must look at the skies, that is why you must sing and dance, and write poems and suffer and understand, for all that is life.”
“Does it break my heart, of course, every moment of every day, into more pieces than my heart was made of, I never thought of myself as quiet. I never thought about things at all. The distance that wedged itself between me and my happiness wasn’t the world, it wasn’t the bombs and burning buildings, it was me, my thinking, the cancer of never letting go, is ignorance bliss, I don’t know, but it’s so painful to think, and tell me, what did thinking ever do for me, to what great place did thinking ever bring me? I think and think and think, I’ve thought myself out of happiness one million times, but never once into it.”
I’ve been thinking about feeling. How I’m so afraid of it. How I can be overcome by it in one fleeting moment. I can feel it welling up inside me. It leaks from my eyes. I think it has passed but it hasn’t. I watched a life escape… I imagined the joy, but felt the sting. My brain tells me to go on. My heart continues to shut down. I think that must be the greatest miscommunication of all. "I’m much too alone in this world, yet not alone enough.” I have retreated inward and locked myself inside. There’s no shelter from your own heart. I guess I’ll be alright. "Seems to be a running theme of being fine."
No, no, there is no going back. Less and less you are that possibility you were. More and more you have become those lives and deaths that have belonged to you. You have become a sort of grave containing much that was and is no more in time, beloved then, now, and always. And so you have become a sort of tree standing over a grave. Now more than ever you can be generous toward each day that comes, young, to disappear forever, and yet remain unaging in the mind. Every day you have less reason not to give yourself away.
John Wesley, in a sermon on poverty and the rights of the poor, talks about the early church and says, “…neither said any of them that aught of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common…And great grace was upon them all; neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles’ feet; and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.” This was the way the New Testament church worked. But why? Love. Love drove them to love every other as their own souls. (“Love others as well as you love yourself”, Mark 12:31). Wesley’s turn to poverty was not based on service to the poor, but rather life with the poor. What radical love.
Jesus also explicitly commanded this, ”If you want to give it all you’ve got,” Jesus replied, “go sell your possessions; give everything to the poor. All your wealth will then be in heaven. Then come follow me.” (Matthew 19:21). Are we giving it all we’ve got? I’m not so sure. I’m currently re-reading Shane Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution, which depicts a beautiful (and true) story of a homeless community of family that lived in an abandoned cathedral in Philadelphia. They shared everything they owned with each other. Eventually, some college students joined them, poured into them, and stood beside them when they were faced with the threat of eviction. Shane says of himself and his friends, “We were not interested in Christianity that offered
these families only mansions and streets of gold in heaven when all they wanted was a bed for their kids now. And many Christians had an extra one.” And to be honest, neither am I. We hold on to all of our stuff like it’s what we survive on. But it’s just stuff. All across the world, people are being thrown aside as if they are disposable. They are worked until death, not given food to eat, and sleeping every night in fear. Why are we so passive in this aspect of Christ’s commands? We can be so legalistic about things that do no harm, yet throw to the wayside compassion and humility. Now obviously, I have not sold everything I own. I grew up in a great area, and am currently attending an extremely overpriced university. But the thing that I love is that Wesley doesn’t make these two things mutually exclusive. He says, “Let me have all things, let me have nothing.” There is no or in this statement.
You can have all things and have nothing simultaneously. You can have nothing and have all things, too. What a concept. Selling all you have isn’t a guarantee that you will become closer to Christ. Not if your heart isn’t in the right place. What matters is the change in your heart- not your change in social or economic status. These college kids didn’t have to sell all they had and drop out of college in order to enter into the lives of these families. There’s a popular quote that’s been circulating as of late, “Things are to be used; People are to be loved. The problem in today’s world is that people are used and things are loved.” Maybe we don’t need to
tangibly hold a garage sale of everything we’ve ever bought, and set up camp on the street, but we do need to sell all of our things in the sense that we release our ownership of our things. In turn, our hearts will be freed from our things’ ownership. When we truly start to love all other people as if they were our own soul, what would that look like? In Wesley’s sermon (based on Acts 2:44-47) he points out that none of these early Christians had possessions, yet none of them lacked anything. But we’re lacking-aren’t we? What if we began to use things, and love people? This way of love is radical. Wesley suggests that in visiting the marginalized, we invite them to transform us, to transform our hearts, to transform our understanding, to transform us into instruments of the divine mercy and grace. This is what it means to be following Jesus. What if we sold our heart and selves out to people and not things?
What would people say of us? Maybe…just maybe…they would say, “Look at them. They have nothing. But…they’ve got it all.” We would have love. We would have joy. We would not have envy. We would have grace. All of us. (The post-it-notes are written by teenagers when asked what they struggled with after attending a mission trip aiming to introduce suburban teens to poverty and racial prejudice in Chicago. I attended this two summers ago and will be forever grateful.)
Today I realized why. I need it. I need the sun. I need it right where it is-at its exact angle-to keep me alive. I need it to shine to bring me peace. I need it to hide behind the clouds to remind me that I shouldn’t always be comfortable. I need sunrises and sunsets to remind me that both beginnings and ends can be beautiful. I need the wind. I need the breeze to envelop me and remind me that I’m real. And human. And full of substance. It can softly touch me and lift my hair, but not pass through me. I need full-force winds to remind me that I’m fragile. To knock me over when I need it. To chill me to the my core. I need the flowers and the trees. For when I fail to find beauty in people, I can look to the fields. I need the rain. I need it to remind me that I’m not in control. I need the hills to remind me to appreciate the ups and downs. I need the mountains to remind me that the climb is worth it. I need the plains to remind me that life can happen even when I feel like I’m going nowhere. I need the rivers, lakes, and oceans to remind me that below the surface, so much happens that I’m unaware of. I need nature. And I love it.
“But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremist we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime-the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth, and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation, and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.” -Martin Luther King Jr., Letter From Birmingham Jail
“And how often I’ve wanted to escape to a wilderness where a human hand has not been in everything. But those were only dreams of peace, of comfort, of a nest inside stone or woods, a sanctuary where a dream or life wouldn’t be invaded”—Linda Hogan, Dwellings
I haven’t been doing a lot of writing in the past month, but I’ve been doing a lot of running. And I’m tired of running. Running from being empty. Running on empty. I’ve had trouble joining John Wesley in saying this line. “Let me be full”-I can ask God to let me be that any day of the week, but “Let me be empty”? I’m not so sure. Empty (adj.): lacking reality, substance, meaning, or value, having no purpose// Full (adj.): containing all that can be held, well-supplied, filled to utmost capacity. So who wants to ask to be empty? Not this girl. In preparing to tackle this short, but daunting statement, I decided to type “Empty” into my iTunes library. Various things popped up such as Erin McCarley’s “Love, Save the Empty”, Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty”, and Ray LaMontagne’s “Empty”. A lot of people struggle with feeling empty. Ray LaMontagne writes, “Will I always feel this way-so empty? So estranged?” In the same way as the psalmist cries out in Psalm 13, “O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever?
How long will you look the other way? How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart every day?” Psalm 119 contains cry after cry out to God to “Please let this misery end.” (“I lie in the dust…I weep with sorrow…Now let your unfailing love comfort me…I am worn out waiting for your rescue…When will you comfort me?…How long must I wait…I have suffered much, O Lord…My eyes strain to see your resuce…Look upon my suffering and rescue me…) I could go on and on throughout the Psalms. And those are just from two. No one wants to feel empty. But we all do, don’t we? It’s inevitable that we will encounter feelings of emptiness.But the important thing to grasp from this is that Wesley is asking God to let his emptiness
remain. God doesn’t cause us to feel empty. John Wesley realizes something that poet Rainer Rilke also realizes, and passes on in “Letters to a Young Poet”. He writes to this young poet, who upon experiencing the emptiness of life has drifted away from God, and says, ”Don’t think that the great love which was once granted to you, when you were a boy, has been lost; how can you know whether vast and generous wishes didn’t ripen in you at that time, and purposes by which you are still living today? I believe that that love remains so strong and intense in your memory because it was your first deep aloneness and the first inner work that you did on your life.” God’s love has never and will never leave you. And even when we perceive our lives to lack purpose or meaning, God offers us meaning- and that is simply to love. As humans we view our feelings of loneliness, depression, and helplessness with contempt. We long to feel that connection to something beyond ourselves. Yet, as humans it is also crucial to take moments of isolation and work on ourselves. Oscar Wilde writes, “I think it’s very healthy to spend time alone and not be defined by another person.” Also in his song “Empty,”
Ray LaMontagne writes “I never learned to count my blessings, I chose instead to dwell in my disasters.” I can’t speak for anyone else, but this is where I’m caught at the moment. I’m caught in my own loneliness and confusion. But in dwelling in misery, I cannot learn to love my emptiness. And that’s the funny thing- once we start to love our emptiness-love anything- we are no longer empty. We have again realized our purpose to love and can begin to be filled to the utmost capacity with love.
I feel as though all these things in my life are just waves. I’m standing on the shore, not sure what to make of this vastness in front of me. Waves keep swelling, and rising, and crashing where I am-hitting me hard, out of the blue. And then just as quickly, the wave rushes back out to sea- each time taking a little part of me with it. They are outside of me, and I feel empty. Then something unexpected happens. I take a step back and admire the ocean. I see all the pieces of me in different places, with different people. And I remember that I am not empty. My love is out there. And it is waiting to rush back to me. And all of a sudden, without me realizing it, I am full. So why not ask God to let me be empty? It is crucial that I learn to love in every circumstance.
"All this pain, I wonder if I’ll ever find my way. I wonder if my life could really change at all…You make beautiful things out of us… All around hope is springing up from this old ground. Out of chaos, life is being found in You. You are making me new.”