solitude is an OK thing to need

The Atlantic did not have to be the one to tell me.

I did not, necessarily, need to read it from the pen of artists who have already ‘made it,’ but I suppose I believed it more easily. I was quick to let the words resonate – to make my solitude-seeking legitimate and unselfish and regular. Maybe it was just that title, “What Great Artists Need: Solitude” that made me first click through to the lengthy article. I want to be a great artist someday (everyday) and I will gladly take all pieces of free, expert advice.

And so Dorthe Nors tells me she learned about needing solitude from the creative genius of Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman. In addition to having a very interesting name, Bergman is known for directing somewhere around sixty films and documentaries. But Nors points to his writing in The Atlantic article.

All of it resonated, but some little bits are still haunting me almost two weeks later. Because I do battle with solitude. Every time I plan a party or agree to a coffee date there are moments (and sometimes many) when I want to cancel. I want to turn inside myself because it is easier and because I’m out of energy and because there is no way I can attempt all the creative things on my to-do list if I am never alone. Let’s be honest – forget creative… I won’t get to the practical things either like cleaning out the fridge or fixing our bathroom door so it closes or worrying about the baby mouse I have seen scurry across our kitchen floor twice.

Alone time is good to get things like your kitchen and your bathroom and your soul in order. Solitude should not always get the leftovers because many times it is where we do serious business with the demons in our lives. Nors writes,

“Solitude, I think, heightens artistic receptivity in a way that can be challenging and painful. When you sit there, alone and working, you get thrown back on yourself. Your life and your emotions, what you think and what you feel, are constantly being thrown back on you. And then the “too much humanity” feeling is even stronger: you can’t run away from yourself. You can’t run away from your emotions and your memory and the material you’re working on. Artistic solitude is a decision to turn and face these feelings, to sit with them for long periods of time.

It takes the courage to be there. You run into your own pettiness. Your own cowardice. You run into all kinds of ugly sides of yourself. But the things that you’ve experienced in your life become the writing that you do. And there’s no easy way to get to it, if you want to write literary fiction.

And that’s what Bergman and other Swedish writers have taught me—to stay in that painful zone, discipline myself through it to get where I want.”

This is what Swedish authors are teaching Nors and what Nors is teaching me. It does take courage to be alone – and not just for the baby mouse that needs to be caught in my kitchen. I am a petty person and cowardly and all kinds of ugly. If I’m never alone, I never really feel the weight of those things I am. Nors talks about something Bergman wrote in one of his journals, compiled in a book called Images,

“Here, in my solitude, I have the feeling that I contain too much humanity.”

It’s not even about creating the kind of literary fiction that will be remembered like Bergman and Nors. It’s about having the imprint of eternity on our souls… and knowing that the eternal imprint is never contained by a body or inside a day.

It’s a too much feeling that not all the words in all the world could explain. But it is a tension that doesn’t need explanation as much as it needs space.

Rest. Tension. Time. Space. Struggle.

All this, my solitude-seeking, could also be related to my search for Sabbath rest. Artist or not, we all need that.

It was a jumble of reasons that landed me in the middle of reflections on solitude and Sabbath as I read the lessons Dorthe Nors learned from Ingmar Bergman. But, I guess I get it. It is good to be with people, but it is good to be alone – to fight against the too much pushing free of my chest. It is good to do battle with the space between my silent face and an empty ceiling. It is good to sit with the painful, weighty bits of humanity inside that remind me I am weak and poor and ill-equipped for everything I try.

It is good to make space enough for a full swing of the only sword fashioned to win against such a mighty weight, such a mighty too much.

love at the end

Remember all those days I thought commuting was beautiful? All those days I fought the NYC face and left early in defiance of minute crunching? Remember when I arrived to work in time to write a blog before the day began?

Well, anyway, I guess six months will do it. No more leaving early and no more new routes, but I don’t need another reason to talk about commuting. Train lines pretty much start and end every conversation – trains to live by, trains to get places, trains under construction, trains delayed, and trains full of “showtime, showtime, showtime.”

But it is okay to savor minutes in my apartment in the morning. It is okay to be quiet and sit still before the day begins. It is okay to declare Sabbath daily before chaos and maybe I should do it more often. Because, gosh, it is busy here.

When I first moved to NYC, I had two things on my mind: love this man and find beauty. I did not move to make it in this city as an actress or a business lady or to struggle up abstract creative ladders. Somehow, knowing that was like saying, “I’m not like the rest of this concrete madness. I value minutes and sunshine and neighboring.” I was different.

Six months later, I still value minutes and sunshine and neighboring, but I am desperate for Sabbath rest. I am like every other commuter in the morning, fighting crowds and sounds and shoulders. I am like every other apartment dweller, fighting for quiet minutes and then fighting to fill them. And now I am desperate for Sabbath rest.

My pastor talked about Sabbath rest on Sunday, right after I wrote about it unfolding slowly. Gathered around the weekly spread of cheese, crackers, fruits, and sweets last night, we revisited the passage in Matthew 12 where Jesus heals the man with the shriveled hand on the Sabbath.

It’s funny, living here. Because there is nothing we don’t work for. The act of striving is kind of the moving gears of this city. Commuting is work, work is work, plans are work, friends are work, keeping up appearances is work. We work for everything; we strive hard to believe “everything” is important to work for.

But rest. 

We can not work for rest, regardless of the comp hours we accumulate or the vacation/sick/personal days we are allowed. We cannot gain rest for our souls by living better, though we believe with the Pharisees that somehow we can.

Christ accomplished our rest.

It’s a different kind of Sabbath because Christ fought for and won our rest on the cross. I do not know how to make this more of my rhythm, but I want to learn what it means to rest in the middle of moving gears. I want to learn how to rest while hosting, neighboring, friendshipping, loving, and being.

I need to learn better how to rest.

I don’t know what your Sabbath soundtrack would sound like, but mine has John Mark McMillan’s new song, “Love at the End.” If you have a minute to listen and read the lyrics, do it.

a study in abundance

Usually, when I talk about abundance I am talking about the kind of life Jesus came to bring.

I’m talking about overflowing cups and about grace that is more than enough. I’m talking about bust-at-the-seams joy and about delight that chases sunlight. Usually, when I talk about abundance, it sounds like things you want to have seeping out from the pores of your life.

Then I read these words from Francis Schaeffer in True Spirituality,

“We are surrounded by a world that says no to nothing. When we are surrounded with this sort of mentality, in which everything is judged by binges and by success, then suddenly to be told that in the Christian life there is to be this strong negative aspect of saying no to things and no to self, it must seem hard. And if it does not feel hard to us, we are not really letting it speak to us.” – Schaeffer, True Spirituality

This is a different, empty abundance, and it is everywhere. I can literally think of absolutely any desire and then indulge at some point on my commute home from work. Feeling sad? Eat cake. Feeling tired? Buy a latte. Feeling lonely? Arrange a meet up with friends. Feeling overcrowded? Pick up takeout and watch netflix. Feeling poor? Swipe your plastic to prove you can still splurge. Feeling bored at work? Job search on Linkedin while in transit. Feeling achy and sore? Swing by the corner store for medicines.

We don’t like to be limited.

We want an abundance we control – an abundance that serves us and gratifies our petty, momentary desires. We want an abundance that tastes like chocolate and comfort and success. We want an abundance that never hurts, never sweats, never needs anything but our desire for more of it. We want an abundance we can control.

Schaeffer is framing a concept in the second chapter that makes pretty much everyone uncomfortable. He doesn’t even try to ease into it… he titled the chapter The Centrality of Death. He pulls us into a conversation about the real issue at stake as we try to live out the Christian life. He writes,

“It is not, for example, a matter of waiting until we no longer have strong sexual desires, but rather that in the midst of the moving of life, surrounded by a world that grabs everything in rebellion, first against God and then against fellow men, we are to understand what Jesus means when he talks about denying ourselves and renouncing ourselves with regard to that which is not rightfully ours.” – Francis Scaeffer, True Spirituality

in the midst of the moving of life … we are to understand what Jesus means when he talks about denying ourselves and renouncing ourselves

Yes, it is in the midst of the moving of life that we get especially uncomfortable with denying ourselves. Because that is when we reach for quick fixes. We have a very real empty filling, but we would prefer to orchestrate our own abundance.

This really got stuck in my soul this week. I would like to think otherwise, but this is my story as much as it is any average New Yorker’s. I self medicate with coffees and chocolates and plans and hipster toys. “Death by choice,” as Schaeffer calls it, does not sound appealing. But, his encouragement is that there is no way around it. If we want the kind of abundance Christ offered, it will come by way of death.

“The order – rejected, slain, raised – is also the order of the Christian life of true spirituality; there is no other.” Schaeffer, True Spirituality

What power is there in being raised if we were never buried? What miracle is there in new birth if the old is still around? The Christian life is an everyday dying of self, an everyday denying of selfish desires. But the Christian life is also an everyday revival and an everyday raising.

My soul is looking like a seesaw over this truth.

I am learning what it means to die to self everyday so that I can live the miracle of being raised. That is when abundance starts to make sense – when you know what you have died to and what you have been raised for.

we are chance creators

There is this thing in soccer called “chances created.” It’s a statistic that tracks how many times a soccer player has created chances for plays. I heard about it yesterday at church because our pastor’s favorite soccer player is known for his “chances created” statistic.

And this matters because the friends of the paralyzed man in Matthew 9:1-8 were about creating chances. They knew that carrying their friend to the door of the home where Jesus was preaching was not enough. The crowd craned their necks from all windows and doorways to see and hear the teaching; there was no way to get their friend to the front where Jesus stood.

Oh, sure, they could have turned back and no one would have asked why. But they were about creating chances – they were determined to get their friend to the feet of Jesus because they thought something unbelievable could happen.

There was no guarantee, just a chance to witness something beautiful.

And that belief was big enough to motivate their deconstructing a roof and their Macgyvering a lowering system to interrupt Jesus’ teaching with the presence of a disabled man.

The presence of Jesus was that important.

They created a chance for their paralyzed friend to meet Jesus because they believed it could change his life forever. Even just the chance was worth the sweat and trouble and questioning stares. Worth it.

Do I think getting uncomfortable and awkward and tired is worth the chances it creates for others to meet Jesus?

Good question.

Sometimes I waste time weighing out my options. I wonder if the invitations will be received well and if the conversation will be offensive. I wonder about future conversations and wonder if I will keep or lose friendships. I wonder about looking silly and feeling ashamed. I wonder about how much the other person even wants a chance to meet Jesus.

But these guys, they were relentless. And when their paralyzed friend finally got lowered down with the Bible times version of duct tape and WD 40, Jesus surprised everyone.

He looked past the paralyzed man’s obvious and most debilitating physical need. He looked past the years of struggle and got inside his heart… and what He saw needed forgiving. Whatever it was, we can all relate. We are all the paralyzed man, inside. We all need to get to the foot of Jesus so He can expose what is dark apart from any physical anxieties that knot us up on the outside.

So, this was the man’s chance at the feet of Jesus – his chance to experience something that would transform everything else about his mat-constrained life. And then Jesus healed this paralyzed man of sin. He forgave him for all the darkness hiding out in his heart. That was the magic and that was the mystery – the play that happened as a result of the chance created.

After the crowd backlashed and questioned, Jesus also healed the man’s physical body so that “you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” He is Lord over the spiritual and the physical. All of it, everything.

“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” – Abraham Kuyper

This is why we are chance creators.

Because God is the best at unearned surprises – the eternal and physical, the now and future, the simple and complex kinds. He is the best at surprises and we must be about creating chances for friends and neighbors and strangers to sit at His feet.

We don’t know what will happen, but it will never be bad.
God will always be glorified and it will always be worth it.

Definitely love your local church, but if you want to be encouraged by mine, listen to this sermon from Sunday by Vito!

above, below, within

It feels good to be tucked inside my parents’ country farmhouse, away from apartment supers and monthly subway passes and all the financial details about adult life I would rather avoid. It feels good to be under someone else’s roof, especially two someone elses who somehow manage to make frugal feel abundant. We feast and play and laugh and revel in holiday spirit and there is always something in the cupboard to throw into the pot on the stove.

And it has me thinking about living above, below and within my means.

I remember having a phone conversation with my dad after his first mission trip to Kenya. He said, “Caroline, we have so much here. We just don’t have any idea. We can easily live on so much less than we do but we choose toys and vacations and excess instead.”

That was years ago.

I am typing out this post today while wearing a brand new pair of ice skates my dad found at a thrift store. It wasn’t even a Christmas gift. It’s just because he is a giver. He could do a lot of things with the money he makes in his second (or third?) career, but he and my mom choose to live like he is still milking 50 cows. Because they want to be givers.

My parents will always be one of my favorite studies as I try to figure out how to be a giver. It really doesn’t matter what I am making or the bills demanding payment. It’s about a heart condition. It’s about being ruled by anything or anyone other than the infant King.

So, how do I calculate intangible glorious riches into my budget? How do I prize what Jesus prized and value treasure that does not rust? How do I make my bank account better reflect those kind of priorities, without feeling like my bank account needs to have a giant cushion between it and negative numbers? (Or any sort of cushion at all).

I’m not sure, but I want to be a giver.

I always want to have enough to add another plate to the table. My Grandma Avonell was famous for that kind of abundance. She never turned away a stranger or a neighbor from the heavy oak table that now sits in my parents’ dining room.

Add a leaf to the table and water to the soup, because giving is always within our means.

Feeling poor is hard and it makes my generation uncomfortable. We don’t want to struggle… but if we have to, we don’t want anyone else to know about it. In NY, we don’t want our friends to see our sparsely furnished, cramped apartments or notice our hand-me-down trends. In Iowa, we don’t want our friends to know we are still renting or without a retirement fund. Everywhere, we fight hard to look like we get to enjoy the things of people with means.

We want the instagrammed vacations and the airport selfies. We want the newest version of the riding boot to pair with our pinterested ensemble. We don’t want to struggle and, I guess, who would?

I’m still in advent mode, still reflecting on the miracle of God planning from the beginning of time to send His only Son to earth as a baby… to later suffer and die.

It was the most extreme case of living below his means. He was a king with the deepest trust fund, royalty with the most lucrative inheritance, but he was a helpless baby in a crude manger born in the middle of nowhere. And this was God’s plan.

God intended struggle and suffering when He emptied His Son of everything royal in order to pour out royalty onto an undeserving creation.

I’m trying to understand how to joyfully choose struggle and suffering with the small sum in my bank account. God was not stingy with the greatest treasure and He was not arm twisted into giving. It was God’s delight to send love through His Son. He sent Love out of His great love … and then Jesus struggled and suffered “for the joy set before Him.”

I’m not good with numbers, but this means conversation is a heart condition that I want to figure out. I want to be a giver when it hurts and when it is easy. I want to be a giver when it doesn’t make sense and when it is obvious. I want to be a giver when what I really want is to be everything else.

The heart condition of a giver is really about belief. Do I believe God is a Provider – in Iowa and NYC and in harder to reach places? Do I believe God gives good gifts to His children and do I believe He has already given the best and most valuable gift?

I’m praying my heart into belief – belief that above, below, and within is a conversation that is not too big or complicated for the Lord.

getting comfortable with being ordinary

The oatmeal wheat dough is raising in the oven and I’m on my 13th cup of tea.

It feels like someone just boxed my ears and if I knew who it was, I might just let loose some Scrooge on them. But, I don’t and that’s probably better. The upside of this whole sick thing (because there is always an upside) is that there is bread dough in the warm oven and I’m on my 13th cup of tea.

Making bread is a big commitment and probably why bread machines and bakeries and sliced situations are so popular. Who has hours to linger around a warming oven and who has patience to knead a ball of dough for 6-8 minutes? Few people.

And it might be easy to make assumptions about those few people with that kind of time on their hands – that they are smaller or less important or less interesting. Those ordinary folks with rugged hands and simple lives.

I’d like to be that kind of simple folk – just ordinary, you know.

I’m not saying I don’t want to be great or that I don’t want to pursue the passions buried in my gut or that I don’t want to marvel and chase dreams. I’m not saying that.

I just never want to make life more complicated than it was when God sent a celestial choir to a group of simple folks hanging out in the fields. These were the kinds of folks who spent long hours doing ordinary things and these were the kinds of folks God wanted to tell about the Savior’s birth. These were the folks who heard it first, in a glorious arrangement of God’s best choir.

Anyway, there are a lot of lights here – buildings and shops and trees lit up for the holidays. But the lights are always on and people are always working, always getting ahead and afraid of falling behind. The lights are always on and people are always looking for something other than ordinary.

I know I get sucked in just like everyone else. I want people to know me and like me and appreciate my creativity. But there is wisdom inside this slow day. And wisdom in an ordinary life, the most ordinary there is, that can point more easily to a Savior who makes all things glorious.

It was not the shepherds – their stature or accomplishments or reputation – that made that middle of the night song so superb. It was the Lord who sent the host of angels, the Lord who made the starry night display, the Lord who wrote the music and the Lord who directed the song.

Maybe if we can get comfortable with being ordinary, we’ll be more prepared to hear and listen and participate in what God is orchestrating in these days.

I’m going to go pour another cup of tea and see if I need to punch down the dough.

and the darkness will not overcome it

One cannot overdue the season of Advent.

It’s not like the seasonal aisles at the supermarket or the display in the center of town. And that’s why each of these winter city days inside the Advent season seems to burst with joy and sadness and meaning and hope. This Christ child, coming to earth and stepping into humanity, is not a lesson learned or a party theme.

Every messy government would rest on this baby’s shoulders and he would hold every messy heart in his hands.

Unbelievable. This marvelous mystery has a way of reordering my heart. And as I struggle through Christmas lists and life inside a culture of excess, a season full of reordering is not even enough. I need daily, supernatural reminders that Christ is the light that pierces darkness, the good news to a world in despair, the hope in a city of drawn faces on crowded subway cars.

His is the light that cannot be overcome.

No matter how many times I choose selfish gain over sacrifice or silence over truth-telling… No matter how many times we get distracted by shiny things and new gadgets and passing pleasures… Christ is the light that cannot be overcome.

And this light came cloaked in the humble darkness of a barnhouse to speak our salvation into human words and die our salvation nailed to a rugged tree. Christ is the light that was not overcome by the grave, but rose above it and Christ is the light that will come again.

Some days, it is okay to admit that the world is dark. Some days it is okay to admit that our hearts are dark, too. But one cannot overdue the season of Advent, because every day is a day to declare that Christ is the light that darkness cannot overcome.

This, from the Book of Common Prayer, reminds my dark heart and this dark world about light.

ALMIGHTY GOD, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Book of Common Prayer, Collect for the First Sunday of Advent

Continue following along with The Advent Project, a devotional from Biola University.