I live in the “Sunshine State.” This is no mere tourist slogan, I assure you. This is the truth. And, after ten years in Chicago, I was utterly unprepared for it.
Do you know what it is to long for darkness?
Recently, our skies were heavy and dark for four days. This is unheard of here. Oh, we get plenty of rain: towering, fierce clouds and thunder to rattle your bones, but it rarely lasts long. But this was a nor’easter. For four days it rained, and the leaden clouds never dispersed. Until … they did. The sun came back, the blue sky that is our constant Florida refrain finally returned, and I could have wept. I wanted those clouds back.
Foolish? Perhaps. But here is what I love about darkness: it is the fitting backdrop to hot tea, hot coffee, and hot cocoa (I do like my drinks hot). It is “cozy” weather, as my kids say. Poor things. Here, in Florida, when a summer thunderstorm begins they out-shout the thunder: “Let’s get cozy!” We burrow beneath pillows and blankets on the sofa, but we’re lucky if the sun isn’t shining again by the time we open our storybook.
They’ve inherited my darkness-loving gene, I suppose. Or maybe it comes by birth. I may have been raised in Texas, but I was born in Rapid City, South Dakota, and my children were born into Chicago’s urban darkness, where winter means clouds and tall buildings cast deep shadows on even the brightest days.
In addition to hot drinks and storybooks read by the light of a flashlight, we love dinner by candlelight, Christmas books by the twinkling light of the tree, moonlight on snow (oh, how I miss this, though moonlight on ocean waves is lovely, too). In other words, we love the little lights, like fireflies on a summer evening. Like boats at night on Lake Michigan or the St. Johns River. Like warm lamplight on the pages of a book.
We love the light that shows up best against a backdrop of darkness.
When the light of the world came to us, our world was very dark. And His light was small. Cradle-sized. Today, his face may look “like the sun shining in all its brilliance,” but when he was born to us, it was with a delicate, fragile light (Revelation 1:16).
His birth was like the moon.
His return will be like the sun.
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I recently bought a chair.
To be more precise, I bought an arm-chair.
This is no hard-backed dining chair. This is a reading chair, a tuck-in-by-the-window-with-a-stack-of-books-and-a-cup-of-tea-chair.
Full confession: I already had a good reading chair. With its faded green-velvet slipcover, it is soft and welcoming. It even has a small hole on the right arm, an x-marks-the-spot for the exact right place to rest my book. In our Chicago apartment, this chair sat between our third-floor window and a built-in bookcase. The ideal spot for reading; the ideal spot for thinking.
This chair still sits in the living room, but in our Florida house it has no window (the window, in this case, consisting of a sliding-glass door to the screened-in patio). A reading chair with no window is simply no good, in my opinion.
And so, I’ve been on the lookout for a new reading chair.
I’ve long kept its intended spot in mind. Because our Florida home is younger than our Chicago home (oh, by eighty years or so), the only consistently quiet spot in this house is in my bedroom (darn these contemporary “open” floor plans). If the quiet weren’t enough, the windows in this room would confirm it as the ideal place for reading: they are a tall, three-sided embrace for my writing desk with just enough room left over for an arm-chair.
And the view, you ask? Fruit trees, a spreading oak, water, and all kinds of birds.
Of course, as with any big purchase, there was no small amount of hand-wringing and budget-worrying. I want to live simply, but I recognize that my usual standards of comparison have become a bit skewed in a place where every other person appears to own a boat.
I might justify my purchase by saying, “Well, it isn’t as if I’m buying a boat.” And yet, I’ve learned that these two objects may not be all that different.
I know this because I sat next to a boat-owning businessman on my recent flight to Chicago. When he started talking to me about how much he loved living in Florida, I just smiled and nodded. I’ve learned that around here conversations tend to shut down once you admit to being more of a “cold-weather person.” It’s not hostility. Just bewilderment.
As I listened to him describe his weekends on the boat, the slow putt-putting to just the right quiet cove, I realized, with surprise, just how much we actually had in common. I understood that for some boat-lovers at least (and I’m afraid I must entirely exclude jet-ski lovers from this observation) a boat is like an arm-chair you can enjoy out on the water. It’s a place to sit, to hold a nice drink, to observe the glory of our world.
The biggest difference, as far as I can tell, is the cost of maintenance (in time and money). So, I am more than content to be an arm-chair kind of girl.
Still, it’s nice to know that I’m not quite the Florida-coast oddball I thought I was. I may not be a hot-weather person. I may not be a beach-person. I may not be a boat-person, but I know what it is to long for one inspiring, beautiful place.
I know what it is to sit in that place, quietly grateful.
I didn’t discover the poetry of George Herbert until graduate school (my undergraduate education in literature had more than a few gaps, I’m afraid. This due, mostly, to my own indiosyncratic course selection criteria: what time is the class and who is the professor?).
Thankfully, I did find Herbert, and I still remember my shock that we could actually discuss such Christ-centered poetry around a University of Chicago seminar table. Who says there’s no Jesus in higher education? Though, to be honest, there’s a lot more of Freud in my dissertation than Jesus. A lot more. I blame Virginia Woolf for leading me astray.
However, with the job market in the humanities being what it is, I have a good deal of time for Herbert these days. And, my love for the modernists notwithstanding, that’s a very good thing.
Without further ado, a poem on rest (one I’ve recently been feeling the truth of deep in my bones):
When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by,
“Let us” (said He) “pour on him all we can;
Let the world’s riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.”
So strength first made a way;
Then beauty flow’d, then wisdom, honor, pleasure;
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone of all his treasure
Rest in the bottom lay.
“For if I should” (said He)
“Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in nature, not the God of nature:
So both should losers be.
“Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness;
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.”
– George Herbert
I believe in stories more than advice. In other words, I believe that a light is shined on our way forward, not when we finally hear the exact, right piece of advice, but when someone shares their story with us.
True stories contain all of the messy, untranslateable details of a life. Somehow, they also point us toward the maker of life.
I wish I could tell you how to live without the kind of community I described earlier this week. I wish I could tell you how to get it back. I even wish I could tell you that developing that kind of community in your own setting is the most important use of your time. But I can’t tell you these things.
If this whole Jesus-following-way-of-life is truly a relationship (as I’ve been hearing all my life) then we need to stop comparing our circumstances with everyone else’s. My marriage to Jonathan is fifteen-years-old (or fifteen-years-good), and it makes no sense for me to look at those still-awkward newlyweds and wonder why our lives are so different. Other than the fruits of the spirit, I’m not sure there are many things we can point to in order to say “that is a good Christian life” and “that is not.” At times Jesus walks us through joy and other times he walks us through trouble, but we can be confident in both that he has not and will not abandon us.
I lived in community for ten years, and it was good and it was painful, and I hope I haven’t said goodbye to that way of life forever. I could beat my head against my Bible wondering why my life no longer looks like that and how to get it back, or I can accept that when God empties our lives he also fills them up again. Not with the things we are missing, necessarily, but with himself.
In this world, we are wanderers. And that is not always a bad thing, not always a sin thing. We can wander quite a distance pursuing the good things of God’s kingdom on earth. Still, there’s little rest in wandering, and God knows we need rest. But where to find it?
God’s people “wandered over mountain and hill and forgot their own resting place” (Jeremiah 50:6).
Sometimes we need silence and emptiness, loneliness and barrenness in order to remember. We need winter.
The four walls of my suburban existence can feel like a prison, but they have been just the thing for feeling the heavy, holy pressure of God’s hand on me.
“You hem me in – behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.”
Psalm 139: 5-6
Taken by Yours Truly at Chicago's Art Institute. This painting, with its people like stone columns, always reminds me that living in a crowd is not the same thing as living in community.
Our airplane tilts away over city rooftops, and I feel as if I am leaving home in order to return to a house. It is not an altogether blue feeling (it is a house inhabited by my favorite people, after all), but it is disorienting. An emotional confusion to match a physical one; as the plane banks, I can no longer tell if I am pointed toward ground or sky.
I’ve spent four days trying to understand what I left behind when I moved away from Chicago. It seems important to do this, because I do not yet know if my life is a straight line heading always away from it or a curve that will one day return. I think the only word for what has been lost is community, but that word seems beyond inadequate.
In Florida, when my husband leaves for a business trip, I lie awake wondering who I would call if one of the children had an accident or became suddenly ill. I know that there are people in our neighborhood and people in our church who would graciously, even eagerly, help out, but it would involve some tracking down of phone numbers and many apologies for having “bothered” them in the middle of the night.
Living in community meant that there were no apologies.
We frequently woke to midnight phone calls, whispered midnight prayers for friends in crisis, made beds on the floor for small children whose parents were racing to hospitals. I have rushed behind a curtain in the emergency room to find a friend sitting at my son’s bedside: the friend who held him down for the epi-pen, the friend who drove him to the hospital.
But community is so much more than a safety net.
It is a web of interdependence that is often uncomfortable, even painful. It is the downstairs neighbor who calls (again) because my children are pounding on her ceiling (again). It is the woman pushing the stroller down my street who asks me (again) for bus money. Walking near my old building this week, I saw her, remembered her, and was not at all surprised when she stopped me to ask for money. I passed her again on my last evening in Chicago, and she asked (again) for money. I hand over my bus pass knowing that she will always need, and I hope, for Jesus’ sake, that someone will always be there to give.
Community is trying to keep the kids quiet in the kitchen in order that the group of church ministry leaders meeting in the living room won’t be disturbed. Community is making the bed in the spare room for friends of friends. Community is waking up early to make them breakfast, too.
Community is being inconvenienced.
It is straightening up the living room in order to host a weekly gathering for a church small group when all you want to do is climb into bed. Community is when the unmarried, male graduate student from that same small group surprises you with home-cooked Indian food two weeks after your baby is born.
Community is life in abundance.
This is the gift of the one who made us (the one who said it is not good to be alone): to be poured out again and again in order to be filled again and again. Of course, I am not talking about martyring oneself so that bitterness and resentment destroy all hope of relationship. But I have seen that when I open my hands to give until it hurts I receive … oh, I receive so much in return.
On Sunday, I sat once again in my former church. I was joined by a friend, and we both had tears in our eyes just for the joy of sitting next to one another. She turned to me and whispered, “This is our life,” and I knew just what she meant.
This is our life: it is real, it is now, it is beautiful and difficult, and, above all else, it is shared.