Tell It Like It Will Be: On the Only Word that Matters

Let’s Talk (Honestly) about Our Confusion and Loneliness and Hope

A friend and I ran into each other at the park recently and started talking, from a safe distance, about the weirdness of life right now. “Do you ever have a moment of shock where you just can’t believe this is all happening?” I asked her. She nodded, then said, “I wonder if people will start living differently — more honestly — after it’s over.”

I knew what she meant. We have been reduced to shadows of our former selves: grey hairs exposed, bellies thickening with inactivity, tempers shortened by homeschooling or loneliness, anxiety heightened by uncertain futures. Life as we knew it has been stripped away, one square of toilet paper at a time, to leave us in survival mode. We no longer have access to so many of the goods, services, distractions that occupied our time before. One might wonder, like my friend, if this paring back to the “essentials” will result in a kind of forced vulnerability, a “telling it like it is” form of living, accompanying a different set of priorities. 

Call me a cynic, but … that’s not going to happen, is it? 

I mean, are we even living honestly within the pandemic? I hear people admit, quietly, from a social distance or over private message, that this is hard. But more public proclamations seem to embody the kind of victorious living that would make Joel Osteen proud. We are grasping at reassurances, one meme or stat or scientific(ish) article at a time. On social media, we’re largely still living #ourbestlivesnow, Quarantine Edition. We are trying to optimize a time of forced (in-person) disconnection; to make use of this free time under the guise of finding new hobbies or bettering ourselves. Do not get me started on Martha Stewart and her salads.

Easter was a prime example of this. I found myself relating to the time between Good Friday and Sunday morning more than ever, that period of waiting in empty darkness for an uncertain future. I felt more acutely the desperation that the disciples must have experienced, the last three years of their lives an apparent waste. I identified with Mary at the tomb, in her grief and desolation. All of them had just felt the earth give way beneath their feet; as far as they knew, their world would never be the same. Would never be whole. Girl, SAME.

Alongside those thoughts, I watched memes skitter across Facebook and Instagram: the usual Easter-y ones that reminded us it was Friday but Sunday was coming; new ones likening our hard week to Jesus’ hard week pre-Crucifixion and how that had turned out fine. I wanted, more than ever, to remain in my pre-Sunday grief, to make space for it and feel it, but the triumphalists in my feed didn’t seem to want the same. 

I reached out to a friend who can be counted on not to give in to cheap displays of optimism, and she confirmed what I was feeling. I told her, this didn’t seem like the year for an f—ing pastel victory parade. She responded, more eloquently, that she thought all Christian holidays should have an ache to them, an element of the “now-but-not-yet” nature of the Gospel. And that some churches might do well to not stage an elaborate virtual service but take the opportunity to pare back to basics onscreen this year, given the circumstances.

I may publicly renounce cheap optimism, but I’ve found my own method of clawing toward certainty. It turns out that even free from the hard and fast schedules of regular life, I’ve enforced a routine that must be followed — exercise, devotion, homeschool, ten pages of one book and ten of another — all within a certain time frame or the screws will come off my life (like they haven’t already). I make a set of rules even at a time when little (besides educating my children) is required of me.

And I’ve suffered for it, having had two panic attacks (so far!) during this pandemic. Sure, the schedule-as-law doesn’t help, which I see all over my older son’s face each morning as he runs down his assignment list, printed out on our whiteboard. The law, so quick to flourish in me when I need certainty, indeed kills. But honestly, the fact that we’re living in the middle of a global pandemic is a GREAT reason for a panic attack! Within death, destruction, and uncertainty, it seems more fitting to panic than to provide pat answers and trite memes.

When Jesus heard of Lazarus’ death he (eventually) headed to the home of his friend and met Lazarus’ sisters Mary and Martha there. Martha met him at the gate, telling him what Mary would echo minutes later: “If you’d been here he wouldn’t have died. BUT …” she went on, and proceeded to rationalize and make the best of what happened. When Jesus got to Mary, she started the same way Martha did, but didn’t follow up with answers. She just broke down weeping. And what did Jesus do? He joined her there. (In my version, he gently whispers, “Same, girl.”)

This means more to me now than it ever has. When answers — or words we supply ourselves in the form of answers — are too readily available, I find no space for curiosity, for mystery. When we use all our available words to summarize, we are left with no room for the wordless: laughter, or weeping, or screaming into the void (one of my current favorite hobbies). Can we be word-less, meme-less, answer-less, rule-less long enough to be honest about our confusion? About our knowing nothing? About our loneliness? About our too-much-togetherness? About our belief, help our unbelief?

I’m reading Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion (TEN PAGES A DAY AT LEAST!), and it’s one of those I have to put down every other sentence and ponder so that my mind can catch up with its truth. She writes in a footnote about a conversation she had with a friend, who

suggests that the existence of radical evil, in his words, ‘blasts away’ optimism and clears the way for hope. He is more drawn to ‘hints and guesses’ — (T. S. Eliot: ‘the hint half guessed, the gift half understood’) — than to apologetics grounded in rational attempts to convince.

This space between optimism and hope — this is where I find myself, repelled by the former and inching toward the latter, with its raw realness. Hope is stripped down and vulnerable, like me, and I need it. Another place I find myself? In the even vaster space between words and The Word, inching toward the latter, as Rutledge describes it: the “performative” Word of God that “has the power to create that which it requires.” Something out of nothing. Visible out of invisible. This Word that contains all other words, and that does more than tell it like it is. It tells it like it will be, then speaks that into being.