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Finding the Way through the Dark

A Conversation with K.J. Ramsey, Author of The Book of Common Courage

Published on:
January 30, 2023
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15 min.
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Rarely do I read a book that brings tears to my eyes chapter after chapter. But as I listened to the audiobook of The Lord Is My Courage, I heard a story all too familiar: a childhood steeped in religious legalism, a spiritually abusive pastor, abandonment by church family. 

I and so many of my friends have struggled through religious trauma in one form or another. And while it’s good to recognize the harm we’ve faced and to see the joy on the other side, we also need someone to meet us in the middle, in the pain and confusion. And that’s where K.J. Ramsey steps in. Ramsey shows us a God who leads us with compassion and love, who prepares good things for us, and who is our advocate all along the way. The Lord Is My Courage takes the reader through the twenty-third Psalm as Ramsey applies her background in trauma-informed therapy to spiritual trauma and layers in biblical research to provide a deeper understanding of Christ as the Good Shepherd. 

In January 2023, Zondervan released a companion book to The Lord Is My Courage called, The Book of Common Courage. In this beautiful hardcover, we find poetry, Scripture, and liturgy to follow along with Ramsey’s earlier work. Illustrating the pages are photographs of meaningful places in her life, each taken by Ramsey or her husband. The language is eloquent yet accessible, the artwork beautiful and calming. It’s the type of book you can flip through on good days to praise the Lord, but also the kind of book you can cling to for comfort in the midst of your own darkness. The Book of Common Courage is lament, praise, and prayer for everyday life and trauma.

I had the pleasure of reading Ramsey's newest work just before its release, and K.J. and I met over Zoom to talk about her experience writing this book. 

Hannah Comerford: So, what made you decide on this book? Did you decide right away that you wanted to do a companion book to The Lord Is My Courage?

K.J. Ramsey: That's a good question. I don't remember exactly when it was I decided to try to make this a book. I didn't think the publisher would actually go for it, because it's a kind of strange idea, at least in Christian publishing. There's not a lot of poetry books, and I didn't even at that point envision that it would be a book that would include photos. 

But I think I decided as I was wrapping up my first draft of The Lord Is My Courage, because while writing that book, I was writing poems and prayers to help myself process. It was like poetry gave me space to discern what was mine to keep private and what was mine to share. 

A long time ago I heard the poet and author John Blase talk about how he, as an editor, would take people's books and try to condense it down into, like, twenty words or less, into a poem, to really be able to say what you're saying in a condensed form. And I love the way we can pack so much into language. So I was just using poetry to help myself condense and clarify what I was trying to say and to really process. 

I always have this fear that I’m not competent enough, and so it took a long time for me to actually own that I am a poet.

Writing about your own trauma and recovery is really vulnerable and can be confusing as to what is personal and what is public. While I was working on that, for the sake of ease, I just decided to share some of the pieces that were personal on Instagram, because I was in the middle of writing a manuscript and didn't have energy to come up with more regular Instagram posts. So I just shared this little stuff. At that point I wasn't even calling what I was writing poetry yet; I wasn't ready to call it that. And when I started sharing these pieces, readers were really encouraged by them, and they resonated so deeply. And they started calling them poems, and I was like, “I guess it is poetry.” 

I think the academic in me always feels like I need to study something for a long time before I can claim a title as my own. I always have this fear that I’m not competent enough, and so it took a long time for me to actually own that I am a poet. My own readers named that before I did for myself, and when I saw how much it was resonating, I thought, “Well, why not? Why not try to put this into a book? I don't think anybody is going to go for it, publisher-wise. But why not? What do I have to lose?” 

And so I just pitched it, and they did go for it. And then it became more than I even could have dreamed of initially, in terms of the scope of the project and the beauty of it. But yeah, it was not a typical book process where you really set out with intention and have a plan; it was more like I kind of stumbled into writing poetry as just a way of processing for myself, and that became so much more.

Hannah Comerford: Well, that imposter syndrome doesn't go away if you have a degree in it, either.

K.J. Ramsey: My publisher asked that I would keep it a secret until we were really ready to announce pre-orders, and that ended up being such a grace to me in terms of getting private space to wrestle with the words on the page and the person that was writing them—with myself—and to quietly gain confidence in this part of my vocation that I was discovering. It felt really audacious to write, to know I was publishing a book of poetry before I was truly ready to call myself a poet. And I’m really glad that I had a good year and a half of working on the project in secret to get to work through my insecurity, and get to discover what is here, and hear the voice that matters the most—that private conversation with God that happens as we create. It was a really cool process that sometimes was very painful.

Hannah Comerford: And you were sick for a good portion of the time, right?

K.J. Ramsey: Yes, which was also really helpful, in a sense. 

So halfway through writing the book, I got COVID and didn't know it, which I wrote about in the introduction. And it's kind of apt that I’m talking to you from bed, because I spent so much of the book writing from the actual bed, just propped up with pillows and doing what I could, and then slumping over and lying back down because I was so sick. 

The beauty of writing something when you're in an intense season of suffering is that it strips away your pretenses. I didn't have the energy to strive to prove myself.

But the beauty of writing something when you're in an intense season of suffering is that it strips away your pretenses. I didn't have the energy to strive to prove myself. It was like a spiritual discipline of simplicity, because I could only create what my body would let me create. And I think that had I written it from a different place physically, I probably would have spent a lot more energy trying to prove my poeticism. And I’m really grateful that I didn't have that space. There's something really cool about how—I think for all art—limitations actually enlarge the space where we get to be creative. Having limits on our time or on the materials that are at hand focuses in on what we are capable of, and it ends up creating more room for the art itself to come alive. I wouldn't have chosen to have my circumstances be so hard while writing this book, but the constraint actually created more space for creativity and more room to bless what I did as good in a way that I wouldn't have probably trusted if I was in a stronger place.

Hannah Comerford: It makes me think of the story of how C.S. Lewis wrote A Grief Observed on slips of paper around the house.

K.J. Ramsey: I mean, I was not grieving someone's death, but I have never been sicker in my life. 

I've had an autoimmune disease for fourteen years now, but I've never been sicker in my life than when I was writing The Book of Common Courage, and it really was this process of jotting down notes here and there. Words would just well up inside me while lying down in bed or going to see a doctor, and I would jot them down here or I would jot them down in the app on my phone. And when I got to the point of holding the finished book, I looked at it and was astounded, because in a lot of ways I don't feel like I wrote a book. 

A part of the book is that I walk through Psalm 23 word by word and phrase by phrase, and Jesus embodied the Psalm when He fed the 5,000. So when this little boy gives Jesus his loaves and his fish, and Jesus breaks it, gives it out, He multiplies it to be more than enough for this whole massive crowd. And I felt like I got to the end of this process, and I held this book, and it was like God really did multiply my offering. And somehow it really is a whole book that I wrote with intention and I wrote with a goal. But it really was my little offering of, day by day, what I was capable of giving, and somehow that was blessed into being more than enough. So, I still look at it, and I’m kind of astounded that it exists, considering how sick I was.

Hannah Comerford: Can you tell me about something you learned from writing this book, as a writer?

K.J. Ramsey: As a writer, I learned to value the experience and needs of my readers more than the potential acceptance and applause of literary critics, of the vague, anonymous person in your mind that you want to be accepted by as an artist, as an author. Writing poetry, I was really afraid that it would not be enough, that it would not be seen as enough by people who really know poetry. I felt like I should have studied poetry for decades before letting myself have the audacity to publish the whole book, and I really had to get to this place of owning that what matters the most is the reader’s experience, and I wanted to give readers a soft place to sit and feel held and heard and seen. 

I felt like with my instincts as a trauma-informed therapist, this needs to be a book that has simplicity, that is understandable, with accessible language. I think poetry sometimes can feel too dense or complex for us to really feel comforted by when we are overwhelmed with our lives already. And so I learned how to trust and honor my instincts about what people who are struggling really need and to place their needs much, much higher than my lofty desire to be approved of by some anonymous critic out there. I wanted to love my readers, and this was a really good process as an author to have to focus on what they need more than anything else. And I’m so glad that I got to have that process of really repositioning the intent of the words that I’m putting on a page. 

Hannah Comerford: That’s convicting.

K.J. Ramsey: It’s hard, right? I think that's part of the gift. I think that for me to write this—perhaps a lot sooner than I would have ever dared to publish poetry had it not just happened this way—it forced me to reckon with my own insecurity and my actual intentions. And as an author, that was important spiritual work to really shed my own desire to be approved of by others and let love lead the way. Because, you know, while you're writing something, you have no idea: How is this going to land with people? Will people judge this as too simple? Did I use rhymes too much? And I really had to set down all of those imagined voices of contempt in my head and listen instead to the voice of love that says people need comfort, people need soothing, people need to feel seen. Write with enough simplicity so they can feel those things.

Hannah Comerford: Does it ever get tiring, knowing that a lot of your work that is out there centers on your trauma?

K.J. Ramsey: I think that I have been surprised by how much the work of being an author asks of my personhood, and I feel sobered by the way my words connect to readers and asks me to keep giving more of myself. 

Also, we can place authors on a bit of a pedestal of inspiration, and I know, and my husband knows, and my friends know I’m just a nerdy weirdo who is very imperfect and struggles and is strangely amazed by her own life, at the beauty of what's here. But I'm just me. I'm a normal but strange person, and I think that I've been a bit surprised. 

I get tired because I think there's something about the way that publishing works that makes the person behind the words seem like a bigger thing than they really are. And we're just ordinary, mostly strange people, you know? When you do share your own experiences of trauma and of struggle, you hear from people about theirs. I so value people's stories and I can't possibly be present to take in all of those stories in the way that they all deserve. I find that to be difficult.

Hannah Comerford: And all the photographs are yours, right? 

K.J. Ramsey: Yeah. There's a couple that are of me that my husband took. But everything else is mine. 

The photos are of places that have held me. These are places I go on walks when I feel overwhelmed. They’re places where I've cried out in prayer to God, or—I’ll just open up one—this is where we went camping so many weekends in 2020, when it wasn't safe to see any friends that first summer of the pandemic. It's so meaningful to get to put these words along with the places that have held me. And I hope that translates into a feeling of presence as people read it, even though I don't have descriptions on every photo of why it's included there. But I hope that the feeling comes through of how nature can nourish, nature can hold us.

Hannah Comerford: I think that comes through. And I think it helps with the sense of it being like a coffee-table book that you can leave out and kind of trap your friends and into reading.

K.J. Ramsey: I hope so!

Hannah Comerford: Did you have any inspiration while you were writing this book, whether it was poets or theologians?

K.J. Ramsey: Yeah, my biggest inspiration while writing The Book of Common Courage was Pádraig Ó Tuama. Tuama's Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community really inspired me. In that book he includes collects for the community that he was part of—which was a community centered around peacemaking in Ireland after the Troubles—to pray together. 

I was finding so much solace in the collects of The Book of Common Prayer in having words to speak with God, to God, when I didn't feel like I had many words of my own in the season of coming out of spiritual abuse. Experiencing religious trauma ripped words away from me, and there was this process of being repositioned around: What does it mean to talk with God? What does it mean to pray now? 

And I loved Pádraig’s approach in daily prayer. He uses a more modern tone of voice and language than we find in The Book of Common Prayer. And I also love the way that he's played with line breaks. In The Book of Common Prayer you've got collects written in paragraph form, and I love the way that writing it more like free verse gives our eyes a chance to focus in on singular words and phrases, and to allow them to expand with more meaning in our minds than when we are reading a whole paragraph. So, the way that Pádraig formatted his collects really expanded my imagination of letting prayer be even more expansive as it slows us down. So that's why my collects are written with a more modern language and written in free verse style. He was a huge inspiration. 

A person who still finds themselves believing in Jesus but struggles to experience spirituality as safe and good today. That's who I wrote The Book of Common Courage for the most.

Hannah Comerford: You talked a lot about writing for your audience, how you try to put your readers first. Who do you think this book is for?

K.J. Ramsey: The person that I most had in mind and on my heart when writing The Book of Common Courage was someone who feels somewhat displaced around the practicing of their spirituality. People who have been shedding a spirituality of striving, who are shedding the toxicity of white Evangelicalism but no longer know what to say to God and of God now. A person who still finds themselves believing in Jesus but struggles to experience spirituality as safe and good today. That's who I wrote The Book of Common Courage for the most. 

And I've been really pleasantly surprised by the stretch of people who are finding it to be for them. The other day one of my earliest readers reached out and said her sixteen-year-old son saw the cover and thought it was cool. And so her son started reading, and I was like: A sixteen-year-old is finding these words to be accessible? That's wild to me. But there's a stretch of people reading it, some of whom find themselves positioned still in Evangelicalism, some who tell me, “I can't read anything Christian anymore, but I feel safe reading this,” and I’m really grateful that somehow there's space for that swath of diversity in here, and I hope that that continues to be true.

Hannah Comerford: Do you have a favorite of your poems? 

K.J. Ramsey: I think whatever day I’d be asked this question, my answer might change. This one does come to mind, though. Page 114: 

You Can Read the Entire Poem In This Issue.

Want more than the excerpt Ramsey quotes here? No problem.

Religion said sanctification
meant making myself small.
The church handed me scissors
and commanded, Get to work.

When I wrote the line “I became / more scissors / than a self,” I think I wept just at the confession that welled up. It was like I didn't know that that's how I felt about my experience, and the words were like a discovery. And then to be able to name it—I did that, I felt like that was what I was, I was scissors—gave me room to set it down. I'm more than scissors, and to be a self is a good thing. 

Our selfhood gets so shamed in the Christian tradition. But even as Christ calls us to die to self, Christ is also calling us to become whole and wholly embraced by Him as ourselves. And I think there's a great paradox there that we tend to hit one side against the other, when we could experience the presence of Christ right in the middle of both dying to myself and becoming more fully myself at once because of the love of God in Christ. 

Hannah Comerford: My little writing group has a few people going through similar things. I know deconstruction is kind of a weird term right now. Reconstruction, how about that? We’re all going through some form of reconstruction.

K.J. Ramsey: I really hope that the overall experience of reading The Book of Common Courage gives us room to reconstruct. I struggle just like you right now to use that word. It's hard to find the right word for what we're trying to say. I think we need room to reposition ourselves around the Word of God as good, and the Word made flesh as actually for us and for the flourishing of all people. 

I don't know how I came across this, but this past week I have become super obsessed with Max Richter’s recomposition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. He put it out in 2012, but I came across it this week, and what I learned was Max Richter had felt like The Four Seasons had lost its beauty because of how commercialized it has become. The Four Seasons is one of the most played pieces of classical music in history, and you hear it on elevators. You hear it as the hold music when you're on the phone with your doctor's office. It's everywhere, and he felt like because it was overused and commercialized, he could no longer hear it as beautiful. And so, he recomposed it. And by recomposing it, he was able to play it in a way that we can hear as beautiful again and as piercing now. It's not just music for the moments in between when you're trying to get to somewhere else or waiting to get to the person on the other side of the phone that you actually want to talk to, and it's alive and stunning and moving. 

And I think that that's what we need with the Word of God. We need to be able to recompose our relationship to the Word and reposition ourselves around it, so that we can actually receive this as good and true and beautiful and alive in our lives today. And so in these prayers and poems, I've just tried to recompose around the life of Jesus as our Good Shepherd. There is a goodness here, but because of the way that Scripture and spirituality have been commodified by those who want to hoard power for themselves or have a different vision of what flourishing or goodness means than what Christ actually did—we get to and need to rediscover that there is beauty here. It just takes some recomposition.

Those of us who have needed to deconstruct and to shed a spirituality that was crushing us and others, now we are trying to help the next person find their way through the dark, too, because it turns out Jesus is actually in the dark with us.

Hannah Comerford: I wonder if that's why The Message suddenly seems to be a lot more popular these days.

K.J. Ramsey: When my husband and I left a spiritually abusive church community, I struggled to read Scripture at all because of how Scripture had been weaponized against us. And the first place that I started to feel safe to read Scripture again was The Message. Which is so interesting because growing up in the PCA, I definitely had ingested the ridiculous lie that The Message wasn't really Scripture, it wasn't really a translation. And because I’ve become obsessed with Eugene Peterson, I have seen this is not really a loose paraphrase. This is a translation, and it's rooted in so much scholarship. And it made the Word come back alive for me. 

I was able to receive Scripture as safe and good again because of The Message. And that's what I've heard from so many others too. And there's so many people who haven’t yet found ways to rediscover Christian spirituality as safe and good again, but they really long to and need to see modeled in others that we can claim this faith as our own and be about the flourishing of all. So we have to show one another the way, like being able to call back, “Come, this way.” As in the Joy Harjo poem, “For Calling the Spirit Back from Wandering the Earth in Its Human Feet,” we need to help each other find the way through the dark. 

Those of us who have needed to deconstruct and to shed a spirituality that was crushing us and others, now we are trying to help the next person find their way through the dark, too, because it turns out Jesus is actually in the dark with us. And even when we've left systems that were crushing us, we have not left Christ, and Christ hasn't left us. There is a way through.

Hannah Comerford
Hannah Comerford is a freelance editor and a writer of poetry, creative nonfiction, and fiction whose work has appeared in The Unmooring, EkstasisSaxifrage, and Soundings. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the Rainier Writing Workshop, where she currently serves as Program Assistant. In 2018, Hannah was a short-term Scholar-in-Residence at the C.S. Lewis Study Centre at the Kilns in Oxford, England. She currently lives with her husband, son, and dog in Tacoma, WA.

You can find more about K.J. Ramsey and order her book here

This interview has been slightly edited for length and readability. 

Cover image taken by K.J. Ramsey for her book The Book of Common Courage.

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