On Value and Hope

 

St. Mary Redcliffe Church, Bristol, UK, August 2014

St. Mary Redcliffe Church, Bristol, UK, August 2014

Through years of art ventures I’ve learned that although I’ll never be as creative, daring, or talented as most of my peers, I can do value like nobody’s business. Sometimes that’s all I’ve got going for me—my compositions generally seem pretty bland and poorly-executed next to the canvases and sketch pads of others. But man is my shading fine. And I love doing it too. I love smudging charcoal all over a page, rubbing my fingertips around the contours of shapes my mind projects onto the paper. There’s something therapeutic about tapping the point of a Sharpie to a silent rhythm, stippling thousands of dots to make a face or a flower emerge from the shadows. Blending Prismacolors to fit the perfect shades in bright and dark patches is like pressing two puzzle pieces together and watching them lock into place. And don’t even get me started on crosshatch.

My love of value affects how I look at the world. – Or, perhaps the way I look at the world led to my love of value. I’m not really sure which came first. All I can say is there’s something special about the way Rock Canyon looks at around 5 PM in late August, or the way leaves turn translucent from indirect sunlight. Try watching a cloud’s shadow cross a field. Then try chasing it. It’s exciting to see how glow and shade interact, how two opposite forces collaborate to define the forms and textures of God’s handiwork.

That’s where I see beauty—in contrasts between light and darkness. I’m not sure why artists took to calling it value, but I think it’s a fitting title. In my eyes, sunrays glinting off the lake, or breaching a barrier of clouds, or marking ridges on the mountains—all of this adds meaning to the world and to life. It adds clarity to vision. It adds focus and understanding.

It adds value.

* * * * *

The things in my life that matter most—the things of the greatest value to me—exhibit both light and darkness. Take my family, for instance. Together we’ve gone through the best and the worst. Our love brings happiness, peace, support, hope, and excitement. But that love can also lead to pain as we suffer with and because of and on behalf of each other. Bright and dim. Joy and sorrow.

I’ve also observed this in the process of getting an education. Learning enlightens my mind and heightens my perception, and I cherish the memories of falling in love with linguistics during second grade, of my tenth-grade decision to pursue historical studies, of college lectures that have brought me to tears at the beauty and purpose of knowledge. But I’ll never forget the late nights, the anxiety, and the breakdowns that have punctuated my path toward greater understanding. They’re inseparable; the toil spawns the payoff, the work adds the meaning.

My eighteen-month mission was like that as well. Nothing’s more poignant than watching a spark in people’s faces the moment they feel God’s love for the very first time. There’s a beauty in seeing miracles unfold in the lives of post-Soviet atheists who’ve used vodka to deafen themselves to their fears, but who then come to realize there’s more to the world. But along with the joys of missionary service, I had to endure pains much deeper than any I’d felt up to that time. I saw poverty, drug addictions, rape victims, abuse. I heard gunshots and watched men brawling in the streets. I had to prevent a suicide once. I faced rejection dozens of times every day. My friends and family and companions suffered, and I suffered with them. And—perhaps hardest of all—I became more familiar with my faults and my need for some hard-core repentance. Then I walked through the pains of struggling to make changes stick.

In everything of value, shine and shadow collide.

* * * * *

I can handle dark spots when there’s light around too. I’ve always been tough—I can grit my way through disappointment and misunderstanding and pain, clenching my fists and setting my jaw and keeping watch for glints flashing out in the black. After all, that’s where beauty is, right? In the contrasts of shading.

But every now and again there are pretty big blotches of time when the paint smears together, no value in sight.

I remember one evening about thirteen months into my missionary service in Ukraine, and about six months into a deepening funk that had sapped me of energy and excitement and hope. Things had been pretty hard for me and my companion. It seemed that no one cared about us or our message, and we’d faced some fouler-than-usual rejection. I was shouldering the brunt of our responsibilities, since I’d been in the city the longest and my Russian was more advanced. Plus, things had been hard for my companion, and I didn’t want to compound that.

But I needed support. There were problems back home, and they got worse every time I read the once-a-week emails from my family. There were problems inside me, and those worsened too as I grappled with anger, despair, and shortcomings.

And there was no one I could talk to about any of it.

More than anything else, I just wanted a change. I wanted something to be different—I wanted something to hope for. I wanted to feel happy again, to find something to look forward to, to get out of the rut. For weeks I hadn’t heard anyone comment on seeing a light in my face. And who could blame them? I knew full well that there wasn’t any light to be seen. Not in me. Not the way I was feeling.

All of these thoughts occupied my mind as my companion and I sat on the edge of an old dried-up fountain in an open-air market near our apartment. We had just bought Georgian khachapuri for dinner, but after tearing off a corner of the cheese-filled bread, I realized that I wasn’t hungry. There was too much weighing down on me—too much to do, and no drive to do it. I have to call Svetlana before it gets too late, and maybe Nina and Zhenya can meet out in Sevastopol. And I’ll call Olya to see if she can help out on Friday. And when can we meet with Inna and Gosha? If I call them today, then maybe—

My brain cut off right then as my throat tightened and water collected at the rims of my eyes. My companion was saying something, but I couldn’t process her words. I stared straight ahead, fixing my eyes on the buses and cars that crowded the street.

Otche, my mind whispered to Heaven. Then in English I prayed, Father, I’m sorry. I just can’t anymore.

God and I shared a silence. For several minutes I let my heart pound in mourning for the righteous desires that had dissolved over months of disappointment and strain. I faced the death of my hopes, the reality of the darkness that blocked out any light.

* * * * *

Don’t expect a nice wrap-up to this story. There wasn’t one. It panned out the way most things do in my life. I just had to keep going, despite the despair. Phone calls kept piling up, rejections kept dragging us down, and my personal and family concerns kept refusing to resolve. A month or so after that evening prayer by the fountain, changes did start to come—but the cure they brought wasn’t sudden or wholesale. In fact, there are entries in my mission journal that I still avoid reading, even two years later. I’ve moved on and healed, but the scar tissue still aches when I look back on some of those dark, hopeless days.

But I guess that’s the miracle: Life goes on. Healing comes. Light returns. No matter how dark things get, God’s world is governed by value, which means that there must be a contrast somewhere.

Because even at night there are usually pricks of light forming constellations, or streaking the sky with the galaxy’s arm. And even in winter, when snow clouds and inversions obscure the atmosphere, we know that someday April will come—longer days, warmer air, clearer skies, brighter stars. If not in April, then in May, June, July. Sometime things will be different. Sometime things will change. There’s still hope, even when nights are longest and darkest. There’s still hope that we’ll see the sun rise one more time.

And perhaps it will seem all the more glorious then. As we watch dark and light embrace at the golden-orange border between night and day, we understand why artists call it value. If only just for that moment, the darkness was worth it. If only right then, we remember the way God sustained us as we waited in the pitch of midnight, praying for something to hope for and live for again.

Paul reminds us: “For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for? But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it” (Romans 8:24-25).

So we keep waiting for light to come back, even when we can’t see in the darkness. It will come. It must come. After all, the Light of the World promised that He “will not leave [us] comfortless” (John 14:18), but He’ll come to restore hope and healing.

He will come to restore the value to our lives.

And the contrast will be beautiful.

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3 thoughts on “On Value and Hope

  1. WOW this was an awesome post! Thank you so much for writing! Thanks also for being so real about your mission… I feel that I often struggle to strike a balance between telling the far-from-ideal truth and being downright cynical about my mission. You did a wonderful job. It’s great to read the full, honest truth about your mission … sometimes in Church it seems like it’s only okay to talk about your mission as a never-ending string of miracles, and if it was hard, it was only because you deserve some difficulty after so many miracles. It seems dishonest when I feel like I have to talk about it that way, whitewashed, so it’s really great to read your post. It gives me courage to be more honest, yet without complaining. I think your point about “scar tissue” is a good one … as well as your whole analogy about value! Not to mention your narrative of your prayer on your mission. Wow. I’m just super impressed with this post. It was really a pleasure to read.

    A few months ago I read an op-ed in the New York Times about how the two lead singers in the Beatles had very different ideas of what music to write, and this tension and their arguments led to some great creativity. If you’re interested, here’s the link: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/08/opinion/david-brooks-the-creative-climate.html
    The concept of this blog post reminded me of that article.

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