During my sophomore year of college, one of my best friends and I came early to every theology class so we could score front-row seats to best take in our favorite professor’s every word. After class, a group of us would hurry over to the wooden booths of the cafeteria where we’d pore over our notes while drinking terrible coffee and ask the questions about God that most haunted and hallowed our hearts.
Katie and I were always the last ones at the table, lingering long over the wildness of things like perichoresis and union with Christ. As two cradle-conservative Christians, it was the first time in both of our lives that we were realizing our female perspective on God wasn’t fundamentally flawed. We had no idea that wonder was widening the space where we could later show up as our full selves. We had no idea that our collective awe was a bridge into a belonging that later pain could never topple. We just knew we were astonished by the mystery of a God who dwells with us.
Looking back, I know we were gathering courage as we gathered our notes and books and swallowed the dregs of our coffee, preparing ourselves for the day our thoughts about God would reach much, much farther than the confines of that wooden cafeteria booth.
One afternoon we decided that we weren’t satisfied with everyone’s normal way of ending conversations. Friend after friend had filed away from our booth with a “See you later!” or “Have fun!”, both of which we decided were not sufficiently deep enough parting words for us. (If you are not rolling your eyes yet, you have permission to do so now.)
That’s the phrase we landed on. We wanted to carry our theological imaginations with us from that table with an imperative. We wanted to lift our eyes to the hills and expect that God would help. We wanted to look up to the cloud-covered mountain of all we could not understand about God and grace and grief — where paradox is a peak rather than a problem.
We were (and are) such nerds. But the thing is: that phrase has now been lifting my head for sixteen years.
I didn’t know then how much I’d need our sophomore wisdom for the suffering that was to come. And I didn’t know then how those two simple words were actually a summons into wholeness right within my own soma — my body.
The next year of college, pain became a daily part of my life. Katie’s words echoed in my head when I was too sick to get out of my dorm bed. Look up. A sliver of sky, a cloud passing by — looking up became medicine.
Our parting words paved a path in my imagination, giving me a way through pain, through problems, and into the presence of the God who is already here. Sight made my life sacramental. What began as words to remember God became a way to watch for Goodness and Love everywhere I went — especially when I felt stuck.
Sight is one way we can get unstuck.
What I didn’t know as a college sophomore is that our eyes are part of our brains and offer the fastest path back into safety when we feel stuck, ashamed, or stressed. Our retinas are always responding to our environment to regulate how awake or activated we need to be. By looking up and out for beauty and goodness, we can work with our bodies to shift out of stress and into connection.
You need glimmers of goodness to remember God cares. Simple, straightforward, and free visual cues can remind you — on a physiological level — that Goodness is here.
You need to see the smile of a stranger to feel safe enough to show up in your life. You need to notice the colors of the books on your bedside table and the way the light gilds dust to gold to sense that your life is still enchanted by Love. Sight speaks a kind sermon for anyone willing to look up.
Last week I got to sit in another booth across from Katie. Over much better coffee, I listened as she shared that she got her dream job as a tenure-track psychology professor, a job she’s worked towards all these years in the midst of deep grief and massive challenges. I was there in Michigan to speak to a crowd about my newest book and told Katie how much my own vocation has surprised me with joy. We both looked up at each other with tears in our eyes.
We remembered (and laughed at) the college sophomores we were — who latched on to looking up. We honored the women we became — who both saw so much suffering in the years that followed. And we sat there in awe of the grace in each other that led us forward even when we couldn’t see past the season we were in.
When we hugged in the diner parking lot, Katie turned around with a twinkle in her eye and said, “Look up!”
“Your eye is a lamp, lighting up your whole body. If you live wide-eyed in wonder and belief, your body fills up with light. If you live squinty-eyed in greed and distrust, your body is a musty cellar. Keep your eyes open, your lamp burning, so you don’t get musty and murky. Keep your life as well-lighted as your best-lighted room.”
Luke 11:34–36 MSG
Light of the World,
You said wonder
will fill us with light.
May we look up
to watch for the wonder
that is already here.
Though some say
to keep heaven in mind,
the way to heaven
is straight through our eyes.
A prayer from KJ’s new book, The Book of Common Courage: Prayers and Poems to Find Strength in Small Moments.