I hope you don’t mind if I call you Anne, being as I’ve never met you, and probably never will. The version of you that your writing has created in my head doesn’t mind, she quite likes being called Anne by complete strangers. However, in my experience, there can be quite a gap between the version I have of people in my head, and the version that really exists out there in the world. Anyway, if it does bother you for me to call you Anne, I suppose the offense has already been made, and all I can do is offer my sincere and perplexed apology.
The reason I am writing to you is because, in my opinion, when someone gives you a gift, you ought to thank them for it. Thus, I am writing to thank you for the gift that you have given me.
Let me explain.
For some time, my spirit has been in a woefully dry and barren place. I’ve lost the ability to feel God’s presence in my life, or even to want to feel God’s presence in my life, or even to want to want to feel God’s presence in my life. I actually get a little queasy even writing the phrase “God’s presence in my life.”
I’m not entirely sure how this happened. I know parts of the story. I know about the pain I’ve experienced seeing people I love abused by the church. I know of the weariness I feel being unfairly associated with the pettiness and rage of small-minded bigots. I know the anger and disillusionment I feel because of the fact that I grew up without a protector, which makes it hard to believe in God when I’m honest with myself. Then there is the crippling depression and insomnia I’ve dealt with throughout my life, which seems to have reached a fever-pitch over the last 18 months.
Yet, those realities are nothing new, and I used to know how to reconcile them to the thoughtful and honest pursuit of that oddly compelling and winsome nature of Jesus. After finding myself fed up with the church time and again, I still couldn’t quite get myself to walk away from Jesus. Even if most of the people who use his name so often are fucking angry, hurtful crazies. I found a home here in Seattle at a seminary called The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology (We used to be called Mars Hill Graduate School, but couldn’t stand the continual mistaken association with a Mars Hill Church here in Seattle. A church pastored by an angry little bully who is terrified of gays, strong women, and anything resembling humility or weakness. It makes it tough for him, since that last bit means he has to throw out just about everything Jesus ever said. But, I digress.)
My time at the Seattle School surrounded me with professors and classmates who were beautifully broken and earnest in their pursuit of truth and story, of community and goodness, of Jesus. I remember, in a class preparing us for pastoral ministry of some kind or another, when I read Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. I was overwhelmed by the realization that my weakness and brokenness were the greatest gifts I had to offer the people I loved and served in the world, regardless of what role I was loving and serving in: husband, friend, enemy, or maybe even pastor. It had been the first time in years I’d allowed myself to consider ever taking on the role of pastor, albeit in some remarkably untraditional sense of the word. I was finding something deeper than I’d ever known before.
I remember those times, they weren’t that long ago. Yet, I’ve been in a place for some time where I can’t begin to embrace those ideas. The darkness has just grown too dark, and the darkness begets darkness, and the light comes to seem like it was merely a figment of my imagination, just a dream I’d had and convinced myself was true.
And then, because I simply wasn’t ready to give up yet, I decided to read one of your books. Traveling Mercies. I flew through that one, barely pausing to catch my breath, before ordering Plan B and deciding that instead of flying through that one I would read a new chapter each day. It’s a few daily minutes of goodness in what has still been a pretty dark time.
Anne, you’re lovely. You’re honest and angry and imperfect and funny and strong and depressed and confused and wildly intelligent and, most of all, you believe. You believe in spite of everything life has thrown at you. I suppose in some ways you might believe because of everything life has thrown at you. I want to believe again. I want to believe that for all the world’s darkness, there is still light to be found. That, like Chesterton said, this massive shipwreck we call life also means there is treasure to be found that points to something beautiful that we cannot quite remember.
The worst thing I could have read would have been another Christian author who pretends that everything is fine, and all is well if we just believe hard enough, and pray fervently enough. Instead, I found you. A woman who has been kicked in the stomach by death, and knows the horrible toll it takes, but who still believes in resurrection.
When you write about forgiveness, and reconciliation, and faith, and prayer, and peace, I believe you. I understand you.
I’m not saying some magic switch flipped and my life went from 0-95mph in a heartbeat. I’m not implying that I’ve been saved and it’s onto smooth sailing from here on out. Just a few hours before writing this letter I had a crippling panic attack at the foot of my bed, overwhelmed by my own crushing failure and irrelevance, certain that I’ll never make it as a writer, or even as a person. That’s not going anywhere, regardless what my faith looks like. I suspect that no matter what, my life will always be three parts of shadow for every shot of light.
What I am saying is that your essays have cracked open the windows to my soul again. Where it was stagnant and stale, there is a breeze of fresh air again. There is at least the slim hope in me that my belief in beauty and magic and goodness and God can be resuscitated, that I can follow the scent of fresh air and find my way back towards home.
So, for opening your heart to the world in such a way that some fresh air snuck its way into my soul before it suffocated, I thank you. It may just help save my life.
Grace and Peace,