Monday, October 22, 2012

Kierkegaard, Mennonites, and Writing as a Work of Love

I’ve been back home in Durham for several months now, and I guess you could say I’ve recovered from my six weeks of travel around the midwest by bus and train, as well as the shock of returning to regular work after a blissful month of research and writing.

Six weeks is a long time to be away. The last time I left a place I thought of as “home” for that long was, I think, when I was 18 and going off to work at a camp the summer after I graduated from high school. From there I moved to Holland, Michigan for college, and alternated between there and camp, with short 2-3 week stints at home in Kalamazoo over holidays over the next four years. Then I moved to North Carolina for graduate school.

It took a long, long time for Durham to feel like home. My years as a student at Duke were lonely years. I didn't connect much to the city, I struggled with friendships, and I never quite felt like I fit into the academic community. Even after I had been here long enough to make friends I still felt like this was just the place I lived, not my home, not my community. I didn’t find a church that I could tolerate until I’d been here for a year and a half. A year after that I stumbled into RCWMS. Slowly, my life in Durham started to change.

After five years in a place, to go away for half the summer -- no matter how beautiful and fruitful and challenging my time away was -- was an emotional shock. A few days after I arrived in Northfield, Minnesota at St. Olaf College, I wrote in my journal, quite simply, “This is harder than I thought it would be.” Some of the difficulty was due to things I wrote about earlier in the summer while still in Minnesota; but those challenges were really secondary to the sense of uprootedness from the place that supports, loves, and challenges me in my creative and intellectual work. It was hard to be away from people that I love, and from people who love me, and this is helping me realize how love can free a person to live from their deepest desires and gifts from God.

What do I mean by that? I think I mean that my church community is a place that has, in loving me as I am, helped me grasp more fully God’s love for me, and subsequently learn to love myself more willingly, openly, honestly. In doing that, they have helped me see things about myself -- my personality, skills, gifts, knowledge, whatever -- that are worthwhile, that are my offering to the church and the world. As a writer, this means that my words come from a place of peace and are offered up as a work of love.

This makes me all the more aware, then, of the power or words for good and ill. I am human. I can as easily use language as a weapon as I can use it in love. A careful turn of phrase can be a knife in a person’s heart, can heap burning coals upon someone’s head. I am wary of a gift easily misused. In a world where words swirl around us constantly -- TV, internet, voices on the street, down the hall, across the room -- the need for care and kindness with words is ever present. The tension between violence and peacemaking takes many forms.

I’m wondering to myself, as I often do, if this has anything to do with Kierkegaard. Here is someone who wrote many, many words. Some of my favorites are from the beginning of Works of Love, in a prayer:

“How could one speak properly about love if you were forgotten, you God of love, source of all love in heaven and on earth; you who spared nothing but in love gave everything; you who are love, so that one who loves is what he is only by being in you!”

I read Works of Love as itself a work of love. And, aside from other things that I find intellectually interesting or ethically important about Kierkegaard’s work, the most important thing I have ever and I think will ever glean from him is to see writing -- and much of my other work -- in that way.