Into Great Silence

Consider the analogy of the sunbeam:

“Whoever feels its kindly light rejoices as if the sun existed for him alone, yet it illuminates land and sea and is master of the atmosphere. In the same way, the Spirit is given to each one who receives him as if he were the possession of that person alone”.

Just as the sun enlightens our path and remains our source of life, so too does the Spirit work by intimately abiding in our hearts. Into Great Silence portrays this theological truth through scenes that prompt the viewer on an inward search; those void depths of our heart and mind that we dare not venture. Tucked away in the French Alps lies an obscure monastery of the Carthusian order. The monastery’s seclusion cultivates comparably distant dispositions within its’ monks, guiding the viewer on a transformative journey of contemplation. Isolated from the outside world, these men enclose their minds from external influence through the practice of inner retreat. For it is only by dwelling in silence that we are able to attend to the voice of the Spirit who dwells within us.

Although the movie appears to fixate on the mundane nature of a contemplative life, Into Great Silence evokes the transcendental from simplicity. Walking alongside a cloister of French monks in their daily preoccupations, the viewer is prompted to find the eternal amidst the ephemeral. With an opening scene centered on an elderly man sitting solemnly in the darkness of the night, the viewer is compelled into his solitude. As our eyes roam the profile of his weathered expression, we see that his hands are loosely folded and hovering close to his lips; a prayerful posture. We cannot help but to wonder what it is that forbids his mind from sleep. As the camera concentrates on his stoic gaze, voyeuristic feelings are evoked within the viewer. With eyes encroaching on his privacy, the viewer in turn becomes increasingly aware of the pervading silence. Over the course of the film the viewer is immersed into this intimacy of inner retreat; as we watch these men go about their day to day, we are invited to explore this seemingly desolate monastery and begin to wonder how it is that these men can survive the silence. While at first glance this monastery and its monks seem lonely and lifeless, we slowly witness their hidden vitality and vigor. While an outside scene shows the monastery buried in a blanket of snow, the distinction between loneliness and aloneness is introduced. The frigid landscape characterizes the monastery as lifeless. However, even within the confines of a restrained monastery, truth loudly reverberates from within.

In similar scenes of silence the viewer begins to notice contrasting thematic elements. Although the elderly man in this initial scene sits enveloped by the night, sounds of burning wood puncture the reticence of the room. Although the fire is not in view, we hear the sound of light amidst the darkness. It is here that we are given a first glimpse at one of the major themes of the film: darkness as holding light. While darkness is present, the crackling fire in the background leads the viewer to realize that light is close by. This relationship between darkness and light is further explored as we analyze his detached expression. His exterior portrayal of aloofness cues the viewer to engage in contemplation. As he explores those abysmal alcoves of his mind, the viewer is lead into further reflection. Physically surrounded by darkness, he seems also to be venturing those dark landscapes of his heart. Through his silence the viewer is swayed to discover the practice of solitude. In observing the man’s stillness we are revealed the sanctity of the light within us. While those vacant places of our heart that we have not traversed seem lifeless, light may yet be found.

The notion that light may be found in darkness similarly presents itself in myriad scenes where days and nights are contrasted; guiding the viewer toward a realization that darkness and light are not mutually exclusive. In one particular scene, the film focuses solely on the night sky. At first hand we only see a blank canvas, but as time passes we begin to distinguish the faint light given by the stars. The point is further extrapolated when the camera intentionally hovers over beams of sunlight that cascade across the walls and floor of a particular room. Although the camera first focuses on the rays of sunlight, it eventually shifts to the shadows that the light has subsequently created, suggesting the interdependent relationship between the two. However, perhaps the most telling scene where we fully realize the filmmaker’s penchant for these contrasting elements is when night arrives and the monks congregate in a pitch-black room to sing. It is in this moment that the camera poignantly focuses on a piece of sheet music, the song chosen fittingly titled, Nocturno. The men have assembled around a single candle placed in the center of the room. As their voices penetrate the silence, the camera takes great lengths to focus on the candles’ flame. With the monastery’s devotion to contemplation and solitude, this scene seems to hint at a greater truth: the light of the Spirit dwelling within the void spaces of our hearts.

Another theme throughout the film that caters to this truth appears in moments where our ears are drawn to the rhythms of silence. While the film does not hold a musical score, the filmmaker strives to intensify certain sounds at precise moments. At the forefront of the film we watch as snow falls to the ground around the monastery. The picture appears blurry, prompting the viewer instead to listen. As soon as our eyes have noticed that the scene itself isn’t very intriguing, our ears can now attend to the sounds of the falling snow. Taking a “still life” perspective, our attention is drawn to the sounds of the moment rather than the actual picture itself. In another scene the viewer observes an empty corridor with faint footsteps heard in the background. In another, we observe a monk writing in a notebook, yet oddly only the sounds of a ticking clock can be heard. This scene transitions into a picturesque landscape of the French Alps, but surprisingly we hear only the sound of pages turning; what we can assume to be the pages of the Bible that the monk was studying earlier. In still another scene we witness leaves floating softly to the ground, yet hear the austere sound of bells piercing through the air. With sounds that appear incongruent with their associated pictures, one cannot help but to think that the filmmaker is purposely tuning our ears to something greater. Within these otherwise silent moments, the film has adjusted our ears to cryptic rhythms; perhaps the means by which we find the light within ourselves.

These contrasting themes are summed in a scripture presented at the beginning and end of the film:

“The Lord passed by, then a great wind tore the mountains apart, and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but He was not in the wind. After that there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After that came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire.After the fire came a gentle whisper” (1 Kings 19:11-13).

Through contrasting themes of darkness and light and silence and sound, the filmmaker invites us into inner retreat. For it is only by the practice of solitude and inner retreat that we are able to attend to the still small voice who dwells within us.

An Interpretation: A River Runs Through It

Part of the way we come to know a thing is through its’ death.

Norman Maclean’s cryptic words have left profound implications concerning the capacity for our hearts to forgive and be forgiven. With but few, restrained words, Maclean’s discreet statement has touched on a question that we will inevitably wrestle with for the entirety of life: whether or not we will ever truly know a person in this life, or whether we only come to know a person upon their death. In A River Runs Through It, Maclean depicts a relationship between a father and his two sons, Norman and Paul, as being tethered by a common reverence for the Big Blackfoot River, a place where silence pervades but all together binds the three in perfect unity. Maclean’s subtle proclivity to depict the lives of the father and his sons within a Trinitarian complex leads the reader to believe that the author has willed our hearts to become attune to death, specifically the memory for which we were not present but of which we have a recollection today; the crucifixion.

At the start of the novel, Maclean describes the poignant relationship between the father and his two sons as being formed and preserved by their fishing outings out on the Big Blackfoot River. The father’s commitment as a Presbyterian pastor and similar love for the river ultimately allows for the association of the river as level with their faith. For the three there was “no clear line between religion and fly fishing” (1); time spent within the walls of the church paralleled their time spent on the river. It was here on the river that Norman and Paul learned about God’s nature; through their father they “received as many hours of instruction in fly fishing as [they] did in all other spiritual matters” (2). The father describes the art of fly-fishing as a four-count rhythm compatible with the order of the universe. Their father believed God to be the ultimate timekeeper and was “very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe- To him, all good things- trout as well as eternal salvation- come by grace…” (4). Fly-fishing in this manner is described as an art form that does not come easy but of which inspires beauty. Learning the art of fly-fishing and walking along the banks of the river, Norman and Paul gain scriptural understanding of their Savior. The father recites sermons to his sons in an effort to refresh his mind and prepare for the upcoming church service, which similarly instills the boys with biblical knowledge. It is within these first few paragraphs that we are shown a discernment of the Trinity as understood through scriptural pursuit as well as experientially, which will subsequently foreshadow Norman’s own relationship with his brother. While Norman’s life seems to mold to the expectations of his family’s convictions, the life of his brother, Paul, takes a perilous route, a dance with death that raises walls between himself and others. Paul’s personal choices create a divide that defines the way in which his father and Norman connect with him, through silence.

Throughout the novel, the father and his sons appear to communicate by means of silence. In myriad moments, words are left unsaid in the face of pain. However, this silence is depicted in two contrasting forms, shame as well as beauty. In one harrowing scene, after Norman discovers that his brother has been thrown in jail for his drinking habits, Paul seemed to hold his “right hand over his eyes so that in some drunken way he thought [that Norman] could not see him and [that]… he could not see himself” (27). Paul is ashamed of his choices and in an effort to conceal his remorse, he hides his face, an act reminiscent of our own unworthiness in the presence of our heavenly Father. Similarly, Norman continues to remain silent in the face of his brother’s poor decisions; although he desires to talk with him, his fear prevents him from speaking up. In few words, Norman confesses how one of the strains that smother their relationship is his own unwillingness to “hear too much” about his brother (23), a hesitancy to face his brother’s malign nature. In this way, silence serves a shameful purpose, a means of sinking into and coping with one’s own cowardice. Norman further alludes to the ramifications associated with having lost one’s voice. Instead of confronting pain, we retreat inside ourselves, fabricating a life where we choose our words carefully; crafting our outward identity in a manner that masks our brokenness. We accept to dwell in the unknown because lack of understanding shields us from the experience of suffering. This may suggest an overlooked theological understanding of silence as being evoked through the cross, if we had been witness to His death, would we have turned our face, the sight to painful to bear? However, we are also shown glimpses of a silence that is inherently beautiful. In subtle moments, silence appears to serve a contemplative means of exaltation. In few scenes, Norman’s description of the river and the meditative quality of the back and forth stroke of the rod awakens an experience of peace. The art of fly-fishing appears to elicit a reverent silence, presenting itself in the form of devotion. Comparably, upon describing the flow of the water through the walls of the canyon, Norman proclaims that the canyon is “glorified by rhythms and colors” (22), eliciting the notion that silence can also serve a transcendental purpose, a means of glorifying and communing with God. While the father’s relationship with his sons carries a shameful silence in the everyday underpinnings of life, when they come together on the river, a transcendental silence is drawn from the waters.

The depiction of silence as both shameful and beautiful also provides an alternate understanding of darkness and light. The shameful silence that pervades the novel depicts darkness as hovering over and preventing further growth within the father and son’s relationship. In one instance, Norman describes the sunrise on the river as a “time to feel that you will be able to find out how to help somebody close to you who you think needs help even if he doesn’t think so” (28). This statement portrays Norman as being overcome with an urge to break the silence and offer his brother help. However, he continues by explaining the luminous quality of a sunrise shedding light but ultimately not allowing for clarity. In explicit moments, Norman seems to better understand his brother, but never fully. These glimpses of revelation, of light, always seem to fade. Similarly, while fishing with his brother one afternoon, Paul describes how Norman isn’t catching any fish because he is searching out in open waters where the sunshine falls down on the water. Paul explains to his brother that he will only catch them if he turns to the shadows. It is within the shadows that the fish are congregated in darkness, finding rest in hiding (42). Paul later asks Norman the eerie question: “What’s more obvious on earth than sunshine and shadow…?” (93). This question presents the idea that darkness and light aren’t mutually exclusive. This connection of darkness as holding life is also determined biblically- in Genesis, darkness is described as having an eternal quality; before the universe was formed there was darkness, and it is in this darkness where the Word exists.

In their final fishing trip together, we are given additional illustrations that provoke a plea to realize the weight of the cross, both scripturally and experientially. As Norman lays beside his father on the bank of the river, the two look out at Paul, hypnotized by the rhythm of his rod undulating back and forth (100). In this moment Norman sees that his father is reading the Bible. His father then recounts a portion of scripture in Genesis that declares the existence and nature of the Word. He describes how in the beginning was God’s Word, but how he used to think that water was formed first. Now, with Norman at his side, he emphasizes how if one listens carefully, they will hear that “the words are underneath the water” (95). Norman then responds by telling his father that Paul would disagree with his statement, in favor of the notion that the words are formed out of the water. Norman’s father then corrects him stating that Norman isn’t listening carefully and that if he was he would understand that Paul would tell him the same thing. With the father’s declaration of the Word as paramount and everlasting, hidden beneath the water, and the source of our life, one can only wonder if we will ever truly experience this life-giving Word. Connecting this final moment with the father’s statement from the beginning of the book, we realize that in the end “man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever” (1). Just as Christ’ death has provided forgiveness, Paul’s death also provides clarity. In his final words, Norman declares: “It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us” (104). We see that it was only through Paul’s death that Norman came to an understanding of his brother, accepting that the love that he expressed and experienced with his brother was pure, even if falling short of the surpassing Love that God bestows. Upon Paul’s death Norman becomes united with his brother fully realizing that the silence that defined their relationship ultimately served a beautiful purpose. In this moment Norman accepts that his brother has forgiven him, just as Christ has forgiven us upon his death.

With overarching Trinitarian themes, A River Runs Through It subtly guides the reader to a deeper understanding of words and silence as coexisting; darkness and light as equally life-giving, and forgiveness as attainable in this present life. With theologically complex illustrations, Norman Maclean welcomes the reader into a life lived fully in the presence and promise of death.

The Void Is Always With You: A Depiction of Terry Tempest Williams’ “Refuge”

An intentional void dwells in the edifice of our hearts. This void is a barren landscape that we dare not venture; it is desolate, abandoned, and forgotten. With vast depths, we cannot seem to will ourselves to journey through it for fear that we might find ourselves lost. It presents itself in the hollowness we feel amidst moments of happiness and the similar impending intuition that this happiness will not withstand. It is the mystery that we have yet to appreciate. Our lives remain an effortful striving to conceal this void and for the most part it remains invisible, lurking just below the surface. But we have fallen victim to the misconception that this void can be filled by earthly determinations. In reality this void can never be filled in the present life, only transformed.

In her book Refuge, Terry Tempest Williams details the existence of this void as both the question and answer in life and a premeditated means of bringing us closer to our Creator. Detailing this void as part of our hearts original design, she illuminates the beauty of emptiness and fullness as interdependent. Williams depicts this void that resides within us as the result of change, manifest in abandonment, but innately hopeful, suggesting that our only way to fill this void is to abide in it.

At the start of her novel, Williams introduces the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge near Great Salt Lake as the central landscape of her life experiences. Upon hearing that her mother has been diagnosed with a terminal cancer, we see that her concern for the refuge and the lake symbolize an effort to actualize her mother’s death. Illustrating the lakes’ fluctuating water level in response to climatic shifts, Williams first introduces a “portrait of change” (Williams 6) that runs as a unifying theme throughout the novel. This portrait of change is depicted as the contributing factor that brings to life the latent void inside her heart. As she portrays the landscape of her childhood that she once regarded as bedrock as now being subject to change by her mother’s fatal prognosis (Williams 40), this void imprisons her heart.

Paralleling the submersion of this void, Great Salt Lake has similarly immersed the surrounding land; water levels have risen steadily throughout the years altering the areas ecosystem. As the water permeates the neighboring land, many migratory birds that inhabit the area are displaced from their temporary refuge. Describing her concern for a specific species of burrowing owls that reside near the lake, she details the changes in water level as a death sentence: “the burrowing owl is defined as “threatened”, a political step away from endangered status” (Williams 9). Williams uses this image of the owl’s forthcoming death to represent the insidious nature of her mother’s cancer. Just as the water levels slowly drown the burrowing owls, the cancer gradually inundates her mother’s body. As her mother continues to bear myriad physical, emotional, and spiritual adjustments, she asserts: “the only thing we can expect [in life] is change” (Williams 146). With her mother’s time on earth rapidly drawing to a close, Williams uses the landscape of the lake to describes her hearts current state: “floating in salt water, completely at the mercy of currents” (Williams 176). Her inability to alter the course of her mother’s illness has left her to face life’s unpredictability. Her powerlessness in mastering death illustrates our own need for control amidst chaos. Our failure to direct life’s uncertainties creates in us a forlorn emptiness that cannot be filled. It is our hearts resistance to change that ultimately expands the intrinsic void within.

As William’s comes to grips with the decay of her mother’s life, she articulates this void as manifest in the form of abandonment. Just as the birds of the Bear River Refuge have been forgotten, so too does she feel deserted in the face of her mother’s death. In one moment Williams parallels the relationship between a group of swans and the Great Salt Lake as her own relationship with her mother: “…I imagined the shimmering Great Salt Lake calling the swans down like a mother, the suddenness of the storm, the anguish of its separation” (Williams 122). Here Williams details a “storm” (her mother’s battle with cancer) as bringing separation, she feels a void in her heart in the form of abandonment.

During a conversation with one of her Kenyan friends at the local Baptist Church, Williams offers a conception of this void and the loneliness it brings as evident in the form of darkness. Her friend describes how under an African sky darkness was never something that she had feared, it provided clarity and definition (Williams 137). The emptiness that the darkness provides is deemed purposeful in her eyes; she understands that there is beauty to be discovered within this blank canvas, within its mystery.

Later, Williams challenges our conception of darkness in describing how it is not necessarily the dark that we fear, but the “silences contained within the darkness”(Williams 146). In light of her mother’s impending death, perhaps she does not fear death itself, but the emptiness and estrangement that death brings. Upon describing her own battle with cancer, her mother states: “We must come to peace within our own isolation”. Whereas isolation is often what we fear the most, her mother presents abandonment as holding the potential to provide peace. Just as the black night sky brings our eyes to focus on the light of the stars, so too does our aloneness allow us to feel more connected. We see that her mother is learning to adapt with life’s irregularity and is remarkably finding fullness in the presence of emptiness. Although a void surfaces in the face of death that causes her to feel forsaken, she understands that peace can be obtained in its presence. With abandonment and peace depicted as coexisting, Williams prompts the reader to believe that the void we feel in our hearts is inherently hopeful.

In a letter her mother received from a close friend, Tamra, who is also battling cancer, Tamra poses the question: “How can we be so sad and so full at the same time?” (Williams 95). This question suggests a dichotomy in the way that we experience life’s trials, that although we experience remorse, we hold onto hope. This question also alludes to the void that we feel in our hearts as holding a dual nature, one of emptiness and one of fullness. It is those poignant moments of happiness that seem foul themselves with the knowledge that the happiness experienced will not last. However, it is also those moments of sadness that hold an inkling of joy, of knowledge that something greater is obtained through the sadness. In the time throughout her mother’s chemotherapy and radiation sessions, Williams often retreats into silent settings. These places remain her solace; they hold the memories of her family. Yet when she is there she becomes overwhelmed with emptiness, these once inspiring and rejuvenating places have been transformed in the wake of her mother’s cancer. In some moments she acknowledges her inability to approach these empty places, for her “interior is bare” (Williams 158). Just as her mother surrounds herself with lush greenery, flowing water, and vibrantly colored flowers to experience life amidst the battle within her own body, Williams also craves an experience of life that these landscapes cannot provide in the present moment. These seemingly desolate landscapes that Williams approaches represent those vacant places within our own hearts that we have yet to confront. However, her time spent enveloped in neglected environments allows her to understand that the confrontation of its emptiness ultimately lends fullness in time, illuminating our own need to confront those dark corners of our hearts. One day she escapes into the Wasatch Mountains in search of strength amid the trees and colorful canyons; she begins to feed the birds of the mountains with slices of oranges. As she sucks on an orange slice she savors the moment, she feels the mountains beginning to “work” on her (Williams 160). Her feelings of peace in the presence of solitude are what bring her back to this landscape time and time again. This landscape allows her to return home with renewed vigor (Williams 160). Likewise describing her solitary travels around the northern stretches of Great Salt Lake, Williams describes the lakes “forsakenness” as providing fullness. Standing in the “throbbing silence of the Great Basin….” she understands that this barren lands “mercy” can save her soul (Williams 148). Drawing a connection with religious pilgrimages, she believes that the desert is holy because it is “a forgotten place that allows us to remember the sacred” (Williams 148). The void we experience is a creative masterpiece, a means of bringing us back into communion with our Creator, over and over again. Although the void in our hearts will endure, it can be altered by awareness that suffering and sorrow have the ability to gift a sustainable hope.

The intrinsic void in our hearts may then begin to be filled upon its embrace.

Just as the Great Salt Lake is deemed bereft of life that few traverse, those empty spaces in our heart that we dare not enter beckon to be explored. As Williams mother seeks a new understanding of suffering, so too must we. Learning to live with the trials of each day and being more “fully present”, she becomes more self-aware and more “alive” to every facet of life (Williams 116). Reflecting on the time she has left, she tells her daughter: “Until you go through this process of facing death, or the probability of it- no one can ever know that there is something that takes place. It goes beyond hope” (Williams 136). Her dance with death has allowed her to see that the suffering and pain that the void in her heart brings, ultimately provides hope. Her void is transformed little by little each day. Her whole being becomes “accelerated” and her curiosity for life intensifies (Williams136). She strives eagerly to appreciate each day and her gratitude toward life overflows. She desires to absorb everything that is fresh, natural, and alive and her understanding of life is magnified (Williams 136). As she delves further into an inner retreat, her hearts emptiness is “replaced by openness” (Williams 136).  With new eyes that see each day as a gift, her refuge “exists in [her] capacity to love…”. Because she has retreated into those lonely places of her heart, she is better able to authentically care and love for her family. With her heart awakened and attuned to its hollowness, she can now abide in the void. She confesses to her daughter that “the void is always with you”, but that we all continue on. She will continue on without her mother and become stronger each day because of it (Williams 133).

In one forbidding scene, as Williams and her mother sit on a grassy knoll, they break bread for a flock of geese around them. Reminiscent of the crucifixion, the two remain confident in hope of redemption. A holy intuition for atonement gives them the strength to move forward and face death.

The void can be welcomed once we understand that it can help to redeem us.

These barren landscapes of our heart can only be filled with life, upon death. Until then we must redefine this void, we must realize that this void can either ensnare us, or set us free.

In the end this void is our refuge, both the cause and answer to our ability to wait for, to endure without yielding, and to bear patiently; to abide. The only way to fill the void in our heart is to abide in it. For it is within our hearts where our Creator resides, luring us to retreat into an emptiness that lends fullness.

When we cannot see the way…

The Lord Surrounds His People

125 Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion,
    which cannot be moved, but abides forever.
As the mountains surround Jerusalem,
    so the Lord surrounds his people,
    from this time forth and forevermore.
For the scepter of wickedness shall not rest
    on the land allotted to the righteous,
lest the righteous stretch out
    their hands to do wrong.
Do good, O Lord, to those who are good,
    and to those who are upright in their hearts!
But those who turn aside to their crooked ways
    the Lord will lead away with evildoers!
    Peace be upon Israel!

September 11th, 2001.

A day all too near in memory, yet gradually our strength. No longer a thorn in the side of our country, but God’s hand- dealt for reasons we may never fully know in this life, but of which beckons us to draw near to Him. For there is Peace for those who trust in the Lord, shelter for all who are weary, and hope for today and tomorrow. 

Yesterday an article resurfaced in the news concerning the mysterious “Falling Man”- a man who knowing the hand dealt to him, was not afraid to trust.

The “Falling Man”, still unidentified today, was in one of the Twin Towers that fell. A thousand feet above the ground, plummeting toward the earth at a rate of 150 miles per hour, this man came face to face with God’s hand, and fell into it.

A photographer, Richard Drew, captured this man’s seemingly graceful and stoic descent into the unknown, trusting that death would not overcome him.

When “Falling Man” first appeared in the news media back in 2001, many condemned Drew’s decision to publish this raw photo, claiming that it glorified the act of suicide. But when I see these photos, I don’t see a man committing suicide, I see a man falling with his arms outstretched, gracefully sacrificing himself to the hand he had been dealt. Through the poignant photos that encroached on this man’s personal descent, we see that this man engages in a series of poses as he falls. With such a long plunge, the photographer was able to capture the length of his dive, revealing his intentional, deliberate plan to fully embrace life; quite contrary to the decision of suicide. Pose after pose, we see his humanity, his body literally embracing it’s final moments on this earth; almost as if he has found freedom amidst turmoil.

Pose after pose, he proclaims: Death has not conquered me, for my God has already conquered it. 

Oswald Chambers September 11th devotional reminded me of the great power that is bestowed upon us when we accept Christ. That although our physical bodies will fade away and while our earth continually perishes, He has already overcome the world.

God compels us to go where we cannot see the way. 

Just as Falling Man could not see what lay ahead, he placed his trust in Someone greater.

I pray that our country may be filled with the equivalent peace, trusting in the Only One who can save us from our peril.

The Weight of Water and Wine

When we think of the cross, what do we remember? Although we were not present, we have a recollection of Jesus’ sacrifice each time that we partake in communion. It is through communion that we are able to venture back in time; our hearts connected to the moment where everything ended and where everything began. His blood, saturated with grace, poured out so that ours never would.

While reflecting on the crucifixion, a thought came to my mind: The memory of his bloodshed has all but become a faint memory, a story told at precisely 11:30am each Sunday morning; a ritual where we as a church body have come to take our fill and leave without a second thought of His pain, His suffering. Each week we come to the table desiccated and desperately thirsty. Why is it that our hearts have become so dry? Yes this celestial event took place over 2000 years ago, but that doesn’t excuse our indifference. We as a church body have become so accustomed to this event to the point where we can recite the story of His death in a Sunday sermon without falling on our knees; without tears in our eyes…

When the movie The Passion of the Christ arrived in theatres; it was at the forefront of every conversation but all together the least conversed about. Everyone desired to exchange opinions of the movie but no one ventured to voice what was felt when their eyes gazed upon His death. The movie was vastly popular but all together taboo. Public opinion held harshly contrasting sentiments, both advocating and protesting its viewing. Those who protested held claims that it was an excuse for sadism, too gory, and atrociously unacceptable for even young adult eyes. But even amongst those who advocated it, the majority remained speechless when burdened with the question of what their hearts truly felt watching that final scene.

At the time the movie came out my mother refused to watch it. Although a devout Christian, she asserted that she knew it would be too much to bare. At the time I hadn’t really given it a second thought because I was too young to comprehend what her answer implied. But it begs the questions:

Is the crucifixion too much for us to think about? If we had been present for His death, would we have turned our face? Would we have walked away; the sight too painful for our hearts to witness?

Now, I don’t believe that my mother was at fault in declaring her inability to face the cross; we continue to struggle with this each and every day. But I can’t help but to think that over the years we as a church body have downplayed the reality of the crucifixion, because in reality we are afraid that we don’t deserve His salvation.

The summer following my freshman year at Pepperdine (a challenging year of adjustment) I decided to refocus my devotion and seek His heart. My freshman year had finished in a whirlwind and I realized that I had lost precious time with my Saviour. During the first month of summer I woke each morning eager to read His word. This was finally “me” time in the sense that it was “me and Him”! And boy did we have loads to catch up on (despite the fact that he already knew my every move….). He lured me to retreat into vibrant sunsets and lush greenery, wooing me with simple sea breezes and landscapes that touched my heart. Everything was going exactly how I had planned. I regained my light and airy heart from the previously demanding year and was motivated to dive deeper in my faith.

All until He moved me to watch The Passion of the Christ. One night while my roommate was out of town, I finally pressed play. And from that point forward my heart was altered.

Maybe it was because I watched this movie nearing midnight. Maybe it was because I was all alone. I could blame it on my overly reflective disposition, or my egregious capacity for feeling, or even on the fact that I was a woman, because naturally women are expected to get emotional….(sarcasm intended). But truth be told, this movie retailored my heart because it was the first time where I was forced to come face to face with the reality of His death. Mind you – All on a tv screen! The scene allowed me to return to this moment in time, eliciting humbling visceral reactions. While my “better” judgement prompted me to pause, my heart told me to remain patient. I completed the movie in one sitting and in one sitting my heart was awakened to a depth of despair that I had not known prior.

I had grown so comfortable in my faith to the point where I had unknowingly safeguarded my heart against feeling any sort of sadness when thinking of the cross.

Seeing as my senior year at Pepperdine is right around the corner and me being my sentimental self, tonight I decided to flip through some of my old writings. Mostly just random thoughts, but I did however stumble on an entry about a personal reflection pertaining to the woman at the well. Upon reading this reflection I understood why I had felt so moved by The Passion of the Christ a few years back; I had been desperately thirsty.

Reading John 2, the passage of the Wedding at Cana reveals an inconsistency within our theological teachings. While our church body continues to preach obedience, we lack to educate one another on what it means to fall in Love with our Saviour. If we would spend more time teaching a foundation of Love and what Love looks like when translated into a relationship, we would have no need to demand obedience.

While many read this passage confused by the obvious contradiction to what most of scripture tells us in regard to alcohol consumption; I believe that this scripture serves a purpose far greater than our “interpretations” and obediences to law. Naturally, the Christian community generally gravitates toward the opinion that wine largely leads to sinful behavior. However, while it is easy to get wrapped up in the presence of alcohol within Christian communities, I think that this passage elicits a much more crucial teaching. A teaching that is often neglected from corporate worship: Joy found through loving Christ.

While Christian communities preach moderation, we see in this passage Jesus ordering another round for everyone at this wedding! Jesus is witness to the evident drunkenness, yet he turns their water into the most decadent wine to keep the party going. And it’s not just a small glass of wine he’s giving these people, these were 6 stone water jars that held 20-30 gallons each. Thats roughly 180 gallons of wine! Later in the passage we see that even the master of the banquet commented on how normally at banquet parties the best wine is always served first and the cheapest wine is given after everyone is already drunk so that they do not notice. Here we see that Jesus saved the best wine until the very end.

To summarize, growing up I understood wine as solely Jesus blood poured out for us, the wine was a symbol of our sins being washed away. During the last supper Jesus declares: this cup, this wine, is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for you. Without Jesus’ blood being shed on the cross, the whole core of our faith would be pointless. For this reason, we as a church have often understood salvation as obtainable if and only if we lead a perfect Christian lifestyle, prompting our churches to practice a set of laws rather than a doctrine of love. Our hearts have hardened in remembrance of the cross because our hearts are beating for God’s perfect law, rather than He himself.

I believe the main message of this passage is not about the wine itself, but the transformation of the water to wine. In this moment, the transformation of the water to wine represents a major shift that we each must take in our own faith journey; the point at which Christ our “Sustenance”, also becomes our “Delight”.

Comparing the passage of the Woman at the Well and the Wedding at Cana, we see that Jesus is both our Sustenance and our Joy. But we cannot know Jesus as our Joy until we have filled ourselves with His Living Water.

Our faith isn’t just about following God’s command or being a good Christian; God does not call us solely to a life of duty. Yes he desires our obedience, but being obedient to God and being joyous aren’t mutually exclusive. At the Wedding, the very fact that Jesus took these stone jars that were specifically used for ceremonial washings required under Jewish Law, and basically said “so what”, I am going to turn this ceremonial water into wine; just makes me think that Jesus has a wonderful sense of humor. He doesn’t want us to fixate on abiding by His law or His commands; once we develop our relationship with Him, following His commands becomes second nature, an inherent response, and the result of our commitment. Once we know Him, we delight in His law.  Once we believe, once we have accepted Christ, and once we truly start loving Him, we don’t question His commands. We abide by His law simply because we Love Him.
Throughout my entire life I have understood Jesus as my Living Water, as my Sustenance; but as I have grown older I have begun to understand that Jesus isn’t just my sustenance and he isn’t just my redeemer; we can’t categorize him into distinct roles. Christ is multifaceted. The face of Jesus transforms according to the seasons of our life, but we must never forget that Jesus will always be our Delight.

I Haven’t Lost My Voice

“That’s not what a good woman does”. Joy Williams’ haunting words have led me to contemplate my voice. Recently, attention has allocated regarding the topic of women’s roles within the Church, a conversation that should always encompass myriad viewpoints and be ventured with discretion. The following is a conviction that has surfaced within my own heart that I thought I might share. While a “Proverbs 31” woman has been the quintessential model for Christian women throughout time, it saddens me to know that many women quite literally understand a Godly woman to be a perfect woman. An inaccuracy that often leads to our hearts demise. Further, a fault that translates into the ways we as women view ourselves as well as our relationship with Christ.

We have become consumed with harnessing these feminine virtues to the extent where we lose the Reason for these virtues. We search for His love in a multitude of ways. Whether our seeming effectiveness in staying busy because a “good woman” arises while it is still night 15, or our laundry lists for the day that hijacks the majority of our devotion because a “good woman” provides for her family 17, or the self-invoked anxiety that accumulates after years and years of stifling the truth because a “good woman” has no fear 21. Were we to ever reveal that truth, we would be “too much”. 

There is an unspoken misunderstanding that women must hide these “overly sensitive” facets of their hearts, which has convoluted the way we as women present ourselves to others and to God. We have led self-tormented lives. Lives where we choose our words carefully, where we have crafted and repainted our outward personality so that others will not see our brokenness…. Civil war in our hearts between who we want to become and who we want to leave behind. Contrasting sentiments: to speak or not to speak, to cry or not to cry, to feel or not to feel… have further led us to quiet ourselves. We have betrayed ourselves, constructing lies that will keep our hearts “safe”, or so it seems… What we deem to be “safe” morphs into our own retreat.  Instead of the strong feminine women we were meant to be, we safeguard our life in a way where we try to escape life’s trials and avoid obstacles. After all, a good God couldn’t possibly desire for us to hurt? We become timid, meek, afraid to laugh too loud, afraid to relax, afraid to fall in love; because the minute we let those walls down, our heart is vulnerable. Vulnerable to the trials of life that so ravenously tear at our will.

Our honest thoughts and desires are held hostage, and our voice is stifled.

One line in Joy’s composition especially struck a chord with me: “that’s not what a good woman does”…. While this song elicits deeper understanding surrounding the split of the Civil Wars, Joy poignantly details how she has concealed her emotions and quieted herself in the face of betrayal. Her song begs the question: What does it truly mean to be a “good woman”? Within my own life, I have known what it has meant to lose my voice. Throughout highschool I was ridiculed for my faith which had left me hesitant to voice my true thoughts. I understood that in order to be accepted, I needed to stick to the status quo; I needed to blend in. Speeches and conversations were crafted in a way where I didn’t have to reveal myself…. fortunately I became a great listener! But still, I desired to be known by my peers for who I really was, Christ’s disciple.

Similarly, after a serious relationship in highschool crumbled, I had felt betrayed and cheated of time. My partner’s unfaithfulness had stripped me of my value and I had lost a best friend. Even worse, I couldn’t voice to those closest, the reason for our split. I had cared for him too much, and could never speak ill of him, no matter how much I resented all the wrong. I have known what it has meant to stifle words that should have been spoken. I have known what it has meant to shut out every feeling, every ounce of anger, regret, resentment, disgust, and remorse for fear of embarrassment. To put on a front that I have it all together, that I am strong…all the while my heart is torn in two. We as women have deceived ourselves. We’ve bought into the lie; that we can’t hurt or express anger, resentment, fear, failure. That we aren’t allowed to show or even feel weakness. We’ve fooled ourselves into believing that our worth is found in outward appearances, in the approval and affection of others, and the amount of love that we receive from earthly relationships.

We’ve taken for granted a Love so pure and effortless, and have searched in vain for satisfaction when it has been at arm’s length throughout time. We as women have deceived ourselves. We’ve defined ourselves in terms of our relationships with others. We are daughters, sisters, mothers, grandmothers, friends and so we carry ourselves as society teaches us is appropriate for these designated roles. And if you find that you don’t fit into any of these roles, you are broken…. When in reality, the only way that we must define ourselves is as His Beloved.

This is not to say that we must voice every thought that comes to mind (if that were the case, we would all be mad!). God desires us to carry ourselves in a way pleasing to Him which point blank means not lying to ourselves, not hiding who we are or what we are feeling.

As a speaker for a Pepperdine worship event put it: to share what your heart is really feeling is the only way to truly effect someone else. Honesty and disclosure lead to growth in both your own heart and those you are in community with. 

Throughout my time at Pepperdine, I have found my voice again. It was only when I sought His Love with all that I had, did I find it. There is no “good woman” in the sense of earthly determination and a “good woman” is certainly not fabricated by any striving or effortful action. We as women are “good” simply because He has declared we are good, in fact very good! (Gen. 1:31).

We need not chase after His love for capture; for His love has already captured us. And once we let His love take hold of every ounce of our heart, then we will truly know freedom. Once we know freedom, we find our voice.

God’s Love as a Beautiful Mosaic

For those of you who may not know me, my name is Brianna and I am now a rising senior at Pepperdine University. Earlier this last week, my pastor asked if I might be able to speak on the topic of love. Naturally I was excited, but then the excitement fell to the wayside as I realized the weight of the topic. Over the centuries, we as a people have sought to understand God’s love in myriad ways, and still we have yet to come close to understanding God’s love for us. But while we may not have the capability to fully understand His love, we are able to experience it.

The stain glassed windows in Stauffer chapel are probably my favorite thing about Pepperdine’s campus. As the sun sets, the glass catches the light so perfectly casting colorful rainbows every direction. But the beauty that I see when I look at the glass, isn’t just my fascination with the colors. The intricate design of the stained glass itself I think perfectly describes my experience of God’s Love; a beautiful mosaic.

Similar to the jagged pieces of glass, so too has my life been both broken and pieced back together. Just as no single piece of glass is identical to another, so too are the moments of my life deeply fragmented but all pieced together to comprise one beautiful story.

And as I stare at the glass, I can see both my own reflection as well as the light that shines through.

Before coming to Pepperdine; I hadn’t fully felt God’s love. Growing up I knew that Christ was my Savior, but it wasn’t until my time at Pepperdine that I finally understood Christ as my Beloved.

I have since experienced God’s love in all the beauty that is His creation. Vibrant sunsets have left my heart warm, the waves of the ocean have left me both humbled and eager to better understand just how vast His love is.

My sophomore year for Spring Break I went on a trip with Project Lead where we were able to visit 10 national parks within a week. My favorite park that we visited was Bryce Canyon in Utah; some of you may have heard of it or may have hiked here. Our group went on a night hike through Bryce; and this night has since embedded itself as one of my fondest memories.

The canyon that night was covered in snow; walking down steep slopes, one wrong step on a patch of ice could send you over the side of the cliff, definitely a test of trust. Once we had reached the bottom of the canyon, our leaders told us all to turn off our flashlights. The first few minutes my heart went racing; enveloped in complete darkness we couldn’t even see the person’s face who was a foot in front of us. Everyone screamed and held tightly onto the person next to them for fear that a wild animal would jump out and drag us away.

But as time moved forward, our eyes began to adjust and you could just see the wide smiles stretched across everyones face. One of our leaders led us to a patch of snow on the side of the trail and we all laid down. Gazing up at the night sky, I had never seen the stars shine so bright; it was the first time I had seen the Milky Way plain as day. Against a blank black canvas, God had painted a beautiful picture, billions of stars shining just for me. He placed these stars here, as a wonderful reminder of just how much he loves me.

In my time at Pepperdine I have also experienced God’s love in the form of sacrifice. Here at Pepperdine, time is always of the essence. As a student I sometimes wish that time would halt, if only for a moment so I could catch my breath. But amidst this feeling that time is running out, that I’m in a never ending race, I have experienced moments where time has stood still. Thoughtful conversations with lifelong friends; mentors and professors that have so graciously carved out time for me, who have poured into me and guided me through the trials of life; it is through their wisdom that I have found constancy in a world that is always changing.

These moments of sacrifice are the moments that I will always be thankful for.

Lastly, I have experienced God’s love in all His beautiful stories and letters. My favorite book is the book of Ruth; Ruth’s life has become an example for myself, a life of sacrifice and devotion that I hope will define my life. But so often I find that I am not Ruth, but the women at the well who is in desperate need of God’s grace.

My favorite verse in the book of Ruth is where Ruth says: “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.” For Ruth to risk it all, to care so deeply and so radically, to forfeit everything and follow Naomi; I believe resembles God’s love.

The life of Jesus is the best love story ever written; Christ who offered himself as a sacrifice to save you and me, is Love. How he loves us despite our flawed nature, is the truest form of Love I can imagine.