When My Words Fail

I had been planning to reboot my blog right about now. As I write this, I’m staring at a whole outline of things I had been planning to say. They seemed good. And then a pandemic arrived.

As if that is not enough, every week since I shut myself in my house, death has taken another bright, shining star from my community, near and far. These aren’t even people who have died from Covid-19. These are victims of murder, suicide, heart attack—all three were in their prime years.  We haven’t had many cases of Covid here on the West Coast yet, so, along with everyone else, I am bracing for even more bad news. With the news of the first and second deaths, the words I had been putting together for the blog disintegrated. Meaning became elusive, and I retreated with my creativity to the kitchen to cook myself some distraction, find a way to chew the impossible and swallow the unspeakable.

I heard about the third death yesterday, and I decided to come back to the blog to write grief for a bit.

When my Grandma passed away several years ago, I had the privilege of saying a few words at the funeral. My family tells me I said something articulate and meaningful, but I don’t remember a single word I spoke. I remember the weakness of my face and my gulping for air as I cried uncontrollably in front of a roomful of people who had come to honor her. I remember telling stories that were half-empty, stories that had been home for both her memory and mine, now empty of the presence that gave them life. With family you’ve known since birth, memories are like living in each other’s skin. The hours in the garden, the marmalade toast, the sun tea sipped on the patio, the hugs, the smiles, the way her favorite soap felt when she washed my face, the smell of her hair. It feels empty and silly to say that someone “lives on in your memory” when her presence with me in it was what made the memory alive to begin with. Words fail.

There are plenty of things being said about our current situation, words to use. How to avoid getting sick. How to avoid getting other people sick. What the economic impact will be.  There are the symptoms, the shock and grief of those of us left behind. There are people helping and people fighting, doctors, scientists, millions of people dusting off sewing machines to make masks. There are the refrigerator trucks for bodies, there are the funerals we cannot hold, the absence of anyone to hold us in our grief. But those are matters of the living, of life, of coping and continuing in the face of…

In the face of… nothing. Void.

No, no, spare me the afterlife for a minute. I’m talking about death itself. It is like staring into what I would imagine a black hole to be. Blackness so deep that your imagination cannot even create ghostly outlines. Darkness so dark that if you stare at it too long, you will go blind. Emptiness so vast that if you yell into it, it swallows the words as if they never existed.

Really, though, why should there be words for death? Words belong to the the life we know. They are our creation, our salvation, our day and night. To speak is to exist, to exist is to create, to hear is to be present. We have words for destruction—Plants die and return seasonally. Animals become food. Even fire produces heat as it consumes. The economy of mass and energy defy the reasoning of death, of total and utter disappearance. It is no wonder that, even in the absence of an afterlife mythology, our minds would probably spontaneously create one—We do not have words for oblivion.

It was a few years after my Grandma’s death that I had my first opportunity to sit with someone as she was dying. Grandma Sue was my ex-husband’s grandmother. We were close—I loved her stories, and we had spent hours one-on-one talking about her unique and intriguing personal history. I planned to write it all into a book one day. With my own Grandma, our shared experiences created memory. With Grandma Sue, remembering was our shared experience.

I will tell you now that someone who is dying looks very different from someone who is sick. Unable to digest food any longer, her already petite frame was getting smaller every day. But in the way that a personality can fill a room, who she was seemed to be growing even as her body shrank.

We’d chat for a few brief minutes, then I sat in the dark while she slept. She’d wake again and talk, and then we sat in silence for awhile. If grief after death guts words of the presence of meaning, in the moments before death, they positively burst with presence. Grandma Sue was THERE when she slept and when she struggled to say a few things, present in a way that she had never been in all of our conversations over tea and sour soup. There were so many stories left unshared, but they were set aside in the face of being with each other. The essence of Grandma Sue-ness so thick in the air of the room I could almost see it.

There was one moment I will never forget. Grandma Sue woke suddenly and gestured at something in front of her, at first I assumed at the drawings from her geat-grandchildren that were hanging where she could see them:

“Should I do what the paper says?”

“Which paper, Grandma Sue?” Words came out slowly, each carrying the fullness of presence I felt in the room.

“This one,” she shook her raised hand. I looked closer and saw she had her fingers pinched together as if she held a piece of paper pinched between them. I got goosebumps.

“What does it say?”

“It says I should say, ‘Lord Jesus, come take me.’” I was surprised—Grandma Sue had grown up in a cult and had little use for religion. She hadn’t really found she wanted to deny God’s existence, but she’d kept an arm’s length most of her life.

“Well… do you want to do what it says?”


“Then I think you should go for it.”

She nodded and went back to sleep.

That was so like God, I thought. The One whose constant presence is so near at hand that, if you embrace it, it can be like having someone sharing each moment of your life from the inside. The One who spoke life into existence, the Word made life, writing Life for Grandma Sue on a slip of paper she could hold in her hand. The One whose whisper into the void exploded into Life that continues to roll and expand across the universe and time. The One whose words are carried on the breath of life, who speaks dirt and water and sunshine into infinite flowers. The One whose Presence is awesome because its power does not obliterate, it makes us more ourselves. Love personified, offering presence, patiently, because, well, what is love if it’s not a choice?

If I ever write Grandma Sue’s life into a book, a hundred pages of words could raise projections of a life long gone by in the screen of our minds—a large immigrant family crowded into a small California bungalow, the shared neighborhood steam bath where they cleaned up by whacking their skin with eucalyptus branches, little Sue conspiring with the neighborhood kids to steal from a barrel of homemade pickles. But without her presence with me, my words stop at the void. I can only write the life I know, and my grief belongs in a void that swallows them before I can even speak them. Why seek her in my words? The life in my words is past.

The life written in a few words on a slip of paper that only Grandma Sue could see… I imagine those words igniting her. The Grandma Sue I knew and shared life with, the Grandma Sue who I could write, was potential energy stored in a little body. The glow of her presence in that dark room was the silent flash at the beginning of an explosion, one that would incinerate her frame in its outward expansion into… the void. Roaring into the unspeakable, rolling past paper words, expanding beyond what my memory can say. Life, recreated. Existence erupting. Not life here where we know it, life in the void where there was none.

Some day I hope to know, to speak those words of Life that fill the void. In the meantime, I will write shadows around it in the language of the living. I will chew the seeds of grief and swallow the unspeakable. I will store their energy, waiting, to erupt.

Just Ask

I’m at a writer’s conference in Homer, Alaska this week. I came here with no intention of going to all of the sessions. I’m getting enough conference to fuel my own writing time. The rest of the time I’m sitting in this very homey yurt writing, eating oatmeal and yogurt, and poking my head out every so often to enjoy the view from the oceanside bluff 15 feet away. This morning I skipped a breakfast cruise on a sunny day in one of the most beautiful bays on the planet to write. That’s how well writing is going. I don’t regret it.

This morning I looked at the day’s schedule and saw a panel discussion on how to get a literary agent. My first thought was, “I suspect that, when I’m ready, I’ll just ask for one.” I needed time off work to write, I asked for it, and I got it. I needed a reader, I asked for one, and I met a former Hollywood story analyst on Match. (Who even knew “story analysis” was even a thing? I didn’t.) The day I started writing, I wrote about humpback whales in nearby Turnagain Arm. When I’d finished writing about them, I went for a hike on a ridge overlooking Turnagain Arm and—guess what?—there were humpback whales. Humpbacks in Turnagain are an infrequent enough occurrence that there were news crews lining the side of the road to catch them on camera. The universe seems to care about my writing.

Now, it’s easy to point this things out flippantly, and I’m a bit ashamed to say that I’ve done that. Maybe even more than once… Need something? Just ask God. He cares about your desires and your needs more than you do, especially if you’re on His path. JUST ASK. Your words have power! I mean… whales, amiright? But as I thought through what it has taken for me to be prepared for those requests to be filled (or to be worthy of them when they are filled), I realize just how much work and change on my part these prayers have required. Before I ever asked my boss for time off work, I’d had a strange inkling two years earlier that I should learn to live on less. I worked toward that. For two years. Before I ever understood why I’d want to do it or even had a desire to ask for it. That’s a case of God preparing me to ask.

Then there’s the Reader… I asked for one, thinking I needed someone to help tell me if my writing was accomplishing what I wanted it to. Of course, he can do that well, but what he’s REALLY done for me is help me uncover my real purpose in writing. I thought I was going to get advice on craft, he’s helped me uncover the meaning I was going for. When you’re writing a memoir, that is a difficult and often painful process. It’s not just about figuring out the real subject of my book, it’s figuring out the meaning of events in my life. I didn’t know it when I asked for a Reader, but I needed someone to ask me pesky questions so I could understand myself. As he says sometimes, “You needed someone to read YOU.” It’s been nine months working with him of really brutal soul-searching (which includes a lot of writing things out that will never see the light of day) to get to where I can finally write the thing that was in my heart, I can finally SEE it for myself. After a year and a half total of writing, I’m finally writing things that may actually make it into a book. Maybe.

I’ve found that when God reveals or provides something, it is not usually a resolution to a problem. Or, it may resolve the obvious problem, but it is a gateway to uncovering the much more complex underlying problem that I didn’t even know was there. It’s not the end of the story, it’s the beginning. My pastor likes to say that God never does anything that will make us less dependent on Him. If I asked for a candy bar and He gave me one and I skipped off to do my own thing… It doesn’t accomplish anything besides me having a candy bar, and that’s just not usually the way He works. He’s never done that in my experience. Even my infamous red boots—the ones plastered all over this blog, the ones He turned red just for me—I had to PAY FOR THOSE with a couple hundred bucks I probably would have used for other things if He hadn’t done that. I literally bought into—invested in—His response to my prayer. And they weren’t the end of the story. They were the beginning of me asking more and more boldly, of learning to push toward the answer when it doesn’t come right away. They opened a whole vista of possibilities in prayer that I had no clue about.

Jesus said, “And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” (Luke 11:9) I think we read those words expecting God’s solutions to be simpler than our own. We figure out what we want or need and how to get there, and then we ask. We expect the heavy lifting to be in the completion rather than in the execution of the solution. We ask Him to do the task we think will put the last nail in what we want, assuming our job is to figure out everything else (Maybe that is what Jesus meant when he said we “ask amiss”?) I have found that His answers are much more complex and nuanced than I could imagine on my own, and they usually require a lot of learning and growing on my part. He doesn’t just put the roof on my need, he works with me to build the house from the foundation up.

It’s funny how that verse is followed by one that sounds repetitive if you’re not reading carefully: “And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” (Luke 11:9-10) The first verse is about the actions of asking, seeking, and finding. The second is about BEING someone who asks, who seeks, and who finds. Actions vs character traits. If I let Him, God uses my request to turn me into something new.

Those verses are preceded by a story about getting what you ask for if you are persistent (Luke 11:5-8). I’m starting to think that persistence pays off because it gives me opportunity to grow my heart and enlarge my mind to prepare me for God’s solution. Every time I repeat my request, I am a different person from the one who asked last time. They are milestones on my path to becoming an Asker, a Seeker, an Opener. Whenever I ask, I’ve rounded a bend in the path and I can see more. I’ve heard the C.S. Lewis quote all my  life, “It [prayer] doesn’t change God. It changes me.” I think I am finally starting to understand that.

So, I will ask for a literary agent. I will ask now, and I will keep asking. I will acknowledge that in asking for a “literary agent,” I may get more than I bargained for. My path to being ready for one might include panel discussions on literary agents, but it might not. I know that, when I ask God, the path is a whole lot less about strategy and a whole lot more about asking and letting His guidance change me. I expect that I will get an agent, and I also expect to be a different person by the time I do.

Why I Appreciate Your Messages

I’ve had a number of readers message me something along the lines of, “I have no idea where you’re going with this, but I’m following you. I appreciate your story and your vulnerability.” As I’ve written, I honestly don’t know what my destination is, either. That’s half the fun, some days. Other days, it’s really hard.

I’m writing about things that have happened to me over the last few years. They’ve been good (amazing, really). Often, they’ve been subtle. But bit by beautiful bit, they’ve overturned my world as I know it. It’s like Alice following the White Rabbit. I’ve taken one step, then another, eaten a little cake and sipped some odd liquids, and suddenly I find myself well beyond known territory.

Some days it’s hard to put words to where I am and how I got here. The words of religion are so worn from being beaten into the shape of piety that I can barely get them to stand up under the weight of any real meaning. Words like righteousness and justified and helper. Friend and faithful.

I have company on the journey, thank God. But even together, it is hard work breaking ground.  And my story and my perspective are my own. I can count on one hand the number of people who really get what I’m doing with this blog, and I’d still have a few fingers left.

I’m not boohooing that no one recognizes my genius. It’s not genius, it’s just experience that I happen to have fallen into, if you believe in coincidence. Providence, if you don’t. What it is is hard work, with the hope that if I can narrate the path I’m on, I will find more companions for my journey. There are Jonah days, when I get tired of putting myself out there, when I can’t even remember why I do it. Days when the vision wavers like a mirage and even I think I might be a little crazy.

Several friends have written to me about how they’re reading my latest blog series on sex, how they’re trying to think through what to tell their kids about sex. Usually they’re saying something along the lines of, “I don’t want to tell them the same thing I learned growing up. I have some ideas what not to say, but no idea what TO say.” I will be more surprised than anyone if this blog series lands on a set of guidelines that are even an improvement over what I’ve spent most of my life living by. (You know, the guidelines that worked okay until they didn’t. Some people have followed them successfully, for what that’s worth.)

If I had a child I wanted to talk to about sex and relationships (about anything, really), I’d try to find a way to tell her:

What you do and experience matters less than what you take away from it. Bad things will happen. Relationships will fail in small and large ways. The most important thing is to know and hang on to your value no matter what happens. You are precious. You are priceless. The God who created the universe valued you so much that He died so Hecould be with you when He rose again. Any story about you that doesn’t reflect that value is a lie. Try to learn not to repeat lies to yourself. The lies will come from unexpected places–from people you think are friends. From people who are friends but who are just having a bad time. In the end, the story that matters isn’t the one your hear from your circumstances or from other people, it’s the one you tell yourself. Listen to God first–listen to Him sing joy over you. Learn to tell yourself the story that He sings, and you will be invincible.

And then I would tell her the stories that God sings over me. Over and over.

This blog is me learning to listen to God sing over me, then learning to join Him in it. You may not feel like you get what I’m doing. That’s okay. If what I write sticks in your head at all, if it causes you to ask questions you might not have asked otherwise, if you just think it’s an interesting read–above all if it makes you want to tell your own story–I love hearing about that. Thanks for reading. Thank you for telling me your own stories. You help me remember that my experience has meaning. You help me remember what story to tell myself.

Letters from Christ (Part 2): A Little Background

I’ve gotten a few messages from friends and family saying they wonder where I’m going with this blog series on sex. (Side note: it is a personal goal to get as many people as possible to feel comfortable enough talking about this topic to comment publicly. Right now, public commenters are the minority by a wide margin.) It occurred to me that I haven’t been all that clear about my perspective on this. The fact is that I don’t know where I’m going with it, either. I do not have an end point or goal in mind. Call it a performance piece. Call it an act of faith. I consider it both.

Let me take a step back and tell you how I see God work. That crazy book called the Bible is hands-down the most masterful knitting together of images and themes across historical occurrences over centuries that ever… oh wait, it’s the only one. There’s nothing like it. When I studied literary theory in school, I heard about (and from) Christians who were skeptical of the discipline because theorists loved to point out how many different authors there were in the Bible. People got all worked up because someone said that maybe Moses hadn’t actually written the books that centuries of tradition attributed to him. For my part, I’m always amazed that, with so many writers, the Bible is so unified. If you don’t believe me, find a Bible with footnotes for the cross-references. Every page has like a half dozen or more. And that’s the basics. Pick up a study Bible or commentary and you’ll begin to see more and more. There aren’t too many authors with that kind of complex cohesiveness (Shakespeare and James Joyce come to mind). But to do that with (at minimum) dozens of authors over centuries, and to have an Author personality that shines through all of the writers’ voices… If you study literature like I do, it really beggars belief. It is truly an amazing book.

But not only did God author the Bible, He’s the master storyteller of my life. I quoted this passage in an earlier post: “And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” (2 Corinthians 3:3) There are many, many verses about people being “God’s workmanship” (Ephesians 2:1), about God being our “author and finisher” (Hebrews 12:2). The way He ties images and events together in the Bible? He does that in my life, too.

I believe in that so wholeheartedly that I don’t feel like I need to know my endpoint to start writing about this. My Author knows where it’s going. If I give the process to Him, He’ll carry it to its goal (Philippians 1:6). I believe that God can speak to me and those around me through my circumstances. I believe my testimony of His work of grace in my life is the most powerful thing I can narrate, and I believe He uses my failings as well as my successes. I’m not afraid of me being wrong, because I have seen Him work more powerfully through my weakness than through my strength (2 Corinthians 12:9). So I narrate and leave the conclusion to Him. As Oswald Chambers says in today’s reading, “The well of your incompleteness is deep, but make the effort and look away to Him.” When I make room for Him, He shows up. Every time.

The questions I’m asking in this blog series? They’re questions I’m exploring as I write these posts. I started this blog series because I was dating someone I was really fond of (we’ve since broken up), and struggling to find a path that honored God with my body AND my heart. I had also started writing some parts of my life into my divorce memoir where it was glaringly clear that sometimes the things you do to avoid sexual immorality can be worse. You know, like pushing a boyfriend who wasn’t ready (and, in retrospect, probably wasn’t REALLY interested) into marriage so we’d have an acceptable outlet for sex. I don’t see anything God-honoring about that.

The Bible says that God doesn’t tempt us. But my pastor and another wise friend pointed out that He does TEST us. God does reveal when something in me heart or head is off as an opportunity for me to stretch and grow. Temptation uses my desires to stretch me toward disobedience. Testing uses my desires to stretch me toward obedience. Either way, there is tension there as I’m shaped to a new mold. If I look back on how God has worked in my life, He is usually very slow, careful, and deliberate when it comes to unveiling sin. It is almost never an overnight process, because body, heart, and soul have to step out of it together. When I feel inclined to do something I know is wrong, my first reaction is no longer to panic and try to pull the emergency break. I pull out the desire in front of me, prayerfully examine my heart with God, and try to figure out how I got there to begin with, how to get all the parts of me dancing to a different rhythm.

So, this blog series is me doing that. It’s me taking step after faltering step, nudging my foot forward and around with each one, waiting to put my weight on it until I can feel the rock of Truth under it. And sometimes getting it wrong. It’s my working the Truth into my life as it happens, with God alongside. (Philippians 2:12) Lucky you, dear Reader. You get a front-row seat. Better grab the popcorn.



Letters from Christ

There is one area of my sex life where I feel like I’ve had real, unqualified joy and personal growth with God, and that is celibacy. I also spent years wanting sex with my spouse and not getting it. I will tell you up front that choosing celibacy from a place filled with love and having celibacy forced on you are not at all the same thing. I hope I would never push someone into celibacy who doesn’t understand the potential for growth and intimacy and beauty that can come with it. That said, I want my first personal story in this blog series to be about the sexual experience I’ve found the most value in so far. So, celibacy it is.

Shocked yet? Angry? Good. I probably would be, too.

But first, a quick word about my approach to this month o’ sex blogging.

I spent the morning yesterday responding to comments and private messages about my last post. I’m grateful to everyone who has shared their stories and their hearts in really vulnerable ways. That kind of connection is Facebook at its best, if you ask me. Several people recommended books, and I spent yesterday afternoon combing through them, hoping I might come across some new insight before I launch myself into what feels like a scary and shocking gap. I was reminded of some good and helpful points, but I didn’t find anything new.

That got me thinking… what is my real beef with how people are approaching this topic publicly (books, blogs, etc)? I think I may be able to articulate it now thanks to your stories and these books you recommended: regardless of the perspective people are coming from about how sex should be done, most of the writing is prescriptive. It’s so much more “you should…” than “I have… and here’s what happened and what I learned from it.” The author of one of the books I read yesterday throws a “quick confession” into the introduction: “Unfortunately, Lauren and I didn’t follow quite a bit of what we’re about to walk through in this book.” Wait… what? I want to hear that story. If you’re going to recommend a course of action you didn’t follow (or even one you did), I want to hear about what you did and what you learned in the moment. If God spoke to you through your circumstances (good or bad, right or wrong), I REALLY want to hear about that. I want to hear it way more than I want to hear your opinion on what I should be doing. I sped through half the book hoping the author would get back to it, and so far he has not. It’s too bad.

As someone who loves Jesus, there are a few core things I believe about God that are relevant here. I’ll explain them briefly. The first is that, while His law is perfect and beautiful and right and unchanging, He cares more about people than He cares about the law. How else could the gospel be true? “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:28. I don’t think it’s that big a stretch to replace “Sabbath” with “Law” in that context. If you’re unfamiliar with that story, it is well worth checking out.) Humanity is the crown of God’s creation (Genesis 1:26), the reflection of Him on earth (2 Corinthians 3:18), His special handiwork (Ephesians 2:10), not the law.

The second is that I believe God’s grace made possible through Jesus’ death means that He can take every moment of our lives and use them for His glory, our joy, and other people’s edification (Romans 5:20). Every. Moment. Not just the peaks but the valleys. If His “grace is sufficient”, if His “power is made perfect” in my weakness (2 Cor. 12:9), why would I hide my weakness? Why would I be hesitant to show where I’m struggling? If God is working in me through my strengths AND weaknesses, why would I only speak to you about His work in you from a place the shows only my strength? I feel like a lot of authors (Christian or otherwise) only write when they can do it from a place of strength, especially when it comes to sex. I’m not going to. Or I’m going to try not to. It’s an easy trap to fall into, so please let me know if you see me doing that.

The third core thing I know about God is that He knows the power of personal testimony. One of my favorite verses is in I John 1:

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.” (I John 1:1-4)

In other words, this is the apostle John, speaking on behalf of himself and the other apostles, saying, “We’re telling you what we know first hand, what we have experienced—the presence of Christ and the amazing, unending life of joy that comes with it. And we’re going to tell you that without holding back about the stupid things we did as we learned. Because it is the presence of Emmanuel—God with us—that gives the stories meaning.” Seriously, writing the gospels must have been a very humbling experience for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They look like bumbling dorks a lot of the time. Jesus looks amazing.

Sure, there’s law in the Bible. There’s prescriptive writing. And it’s important. But there’s also a ton of personal history, stories about people’s encounters with God. Those people don’t usually come out looking super shiny and amazing, but it would be hard to argue with the effect of the presence of God in their lives. I want more of that in writing about sex. Right now, prescriptive writing is way out of proportion with testimony. Yes, tell me law, tell me why it works. But also tell me how God worked through your sex successes and your sex failures. Where is He in your life?

There are, of course, novels. There are memoirs. There are stories out there about people’s love lives and sex—I love reading the Modern Love column in the New York Times. But I want to hear these stories in the context of God’s truth and His work. The Bible says, “You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” (2 Corinthians 3:3) I want to BE a letter from Christ, and I want to show you the stories of other people who ARE his letters. I hope that’s what you get from my blog over the next 29 days.

Oops, too much ink spilled writing about God. Still angry about celibacy? Save it for tomorrow. I’ll show up in my celibacy cheerleading outfit.