To the new year

At the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, white ladders lean against the mud-brick buildings. The tops of these ladders have been sharpened to a point, to tear holes in the sky and let the prayers through. The association between God and sky is one I understand. Wherever I’m living or staying, I choose a prayer spot near a window, where I can look up. I know that God is everywhere, but to me, it seems He is most “up there”—all-encompassing and awesome and wondrous, though never in the same way each morning.

It’s the beginning of a new year, and so that means it’s time for reflections and resolutions. Look at all I accomplished last year, we tell one another. Here’s what I hope to accomplish this year. Once upon a time, I made such declarations, too. My lists held tangible things like “I read x amount of books” and “I will lose x amount of weight.” Sometimes, I even had pictures to accompany them. But in these last years, my goals have stopped being easily summed up on Facebook, my achievements have ceased to be Instagram-worthy, and somewhere along the line, I gave up making lists altogether.

I have lamented often that life has never been so straightforward as it was when I was in school. Then, I had concrete goals and a clear path to reaching them. Study hard for the test, get an A. Do consistently well in classes, get into a good college, and then, a good graduate school. I confess I miss the mathematical ease of it, even though being a student was nothing close to easy. Life outside of academia is murky at best and disastrously unfair at worst. At times, it makes the case for a random and malevolent universe quite high and a sovereign and loving God quite not.

What I accomplished last year is nothing visible, save that I wrote a new book and heavily revised two others. I built a handful of websites. I edited various marketing materials. I was rejected or simply ignored by several dozen literary agents. I sank into debt. I questioned the validity of the promises God had spoken to me. I questioned the purpose of my existence. I surrendered more of myself to Jesus than I ever had before—handed over fears and dreams and deeply embedded brokenness, in a determined attempt to be rid of the tyranny of my autonomy. I realized how much I still did not trust God.

I understand the impulse to slice open the heavens—why, for humanity’s whole existence, we have gravitated toward systematic means of reaching our gods. Here’s an offering, we say on bended knees. Here’s a vow. Sometimes, our hearts are not in our gestures. Sometimes, we’re as desperate as they come. Always, we’re seeking to appease a power we do not and cannot completely understand. If we are Christians, we are told ours is a God of love. We have Jesus’s entire earthly existence to prove it. But in our own lives, that presence is not always apparent, and if you, like me, are prone to mistrust, you may find it difficult to cast your hopes onto a God whose answers you cannot be certain will be the ones you want.

God’s answers to me, last year, were not the ones I wanted. This is not a new theme, not in my life, nor in the lives of many others. I have always struggled with the axiom that “God will provide.” There are people all over the world for whom provision seems a hollow taunt—starving, suffering, dying, waiting for a justice that does not come. There are those of us who have the privilege of many creature comforts, and yet, our souls still writhe under the weight of unanswered, or perhaps more concerning, confusing answers to our prayers. We wonder if we’ve been forgotten. We wonder why we are even here.

This past year and a half, I have largely been alone. With the exception of the few things that pulled me into the world—church, yoga, the occasional client meeting or dinner with a friend—it’s been me and Jesus, running, writing, thinking, praying, yearning. It has been one of the more uncertain as well as one of the most grounded years of my life. I have let go of and been freed from a great many things I did not need to hold onto. I have become more firmly rooted both in who I am and in who Jesus is. I have learned that, even when things are terrible, He is still, somehow, miraculously worthy of my trust.

In “To the New Year,” W.S. Merwin writes, “so this is the sound of you / here and now whether or not / anyone hears it.” Whether or not anyone sees me, here I still am. Whether or not anyone reads this, I have written it just the same. Whether or not anyone hears me, though, is not a question to be asked. I still believe, as I have always believed, that God hears us—every prayer, every time. Why He does not often answer the way we want Him to can be explained by the fact that an infinite and wise Being is bound to know and to act differently than we finite mortals with our limited vantage points. But unless you are unlike most people I know, you will not find this particularly comforting.

What is comforting? That God gives us what we need, even if it isn’t what we want? Maybe, but let’s be honest: this is also irritating. That He records our every prayer and will fulfill the promises He’s made to us, in His own time? Perhaps, until you, like me, start to tie your brain into a knot over whether or not He actually made those promises or whether you are delusional and insane. Not so comforting. Or maybe it’s that each new day, He invites us to come to Him again, with all our rage and worn-out throats, with our pointed ladders and heavy prayers we heave into the heavens like jagged rocks, desperate for a reply—desperate to know we are seen, known, and loved by God.

One of my favorite verses is Matthew 28:20, and my favorite translation is found in the Living Bible: “And be sure of this—that I am with you always, even to the end of the world.” We tear holes in the sky with our sharpened cries, forgetting that Jesus is within us and among us—forgetting that, though trials will come and will almost always outstay their welcome, we are not and will never be alone. I struggle with the knowledge that God could lift us out our pain in an instant, but may choose not to. I cannot make sense of this paradox, and yet, I know we would not be here if He did not love us. If I have one hope for the new year, it is this: that I will forever be rid of the notion that God does not care.