A Discipline of Darkness

candleWe turn the lights off during Lent.  As in, we don’t turn on the lights in our house for a month and a half.

Five years ago, my wife and I were talking about Lenten promises and this idea came up, so we decided to go for it.  Why not?  Sounds weird, let’s do it.

It was a game-changer for us.  Now it’s become a tradition, something we do every year.

BTW: for those who don’t know what Lent is, it’s a season of preparation for Easter.  Lent is 40 days (not counting Sundays, so the season is 46 days start-to-finish) during which many Christians focus on serious themes like sin, mortality, injustice, and the meaning of life, and in the process seek help from God re-organizing their priorities and trying to be more like Jesus.  It’s supposed to be an austere time, which culminates in the remembrance of Jesus’ death, and ends with joy, as Christians celebrate of Jesus’ resurrection and the new life made possible for all people, on Easter.  During Lent, many Christians “give something up,” letting go of a habit that may be undermining their growth in their faith, or trying to change something in their day-to-day lives for the better. 

Okay, so… lights out for Lent in our family.

We don’t give up electricity.  We just don’t turn on the lights.  When it gets dark, we use candles, or else it’s just dark.  We live in a city so it’s not rural-Montana-sea-of-blackness dark, but it’s dark. We agree to turn on lights in emergencies for safety, which has only happened once in 5 years (it was a false alarm so we turned the lights off again after 5 seconds).  We also don’t want to be doctrinaire about the whole thing, so we’ve had the lights on briefly for guests, but that only happens occasionally.  Most times, our guests are cool with the no-lights thing.  When my wife and I go to work or to the store, obviously there are lights on all over those places.  We don’t avoid all that, we just don’t turn on our own lights.

So now that I’ve told you the details, let me confirm what you’ve probably been thinking: This is not a lot of fun. It’s kind of a pain, really.  But it’s good for us, physically and spiritually.

I knew a guy who got his driver’s license suspended and suddenly had to walk long distances every day.  He was really pissed and self-pitying at first, but he soon realized the fresh air and exercise were doing him more good than his car had been doing him, all things considered (he was glad when he got his license back, but remembers those pedestrian days fondly).

Not using electric light for 46 days a year is like that for us.  It’s way more helpful than it is inconvenient.

 

Whether you acknowledge your limits or not, you have limits.

Deciding to not turn on the lights makes it difficult to do a bunch of stuff you would usually do in the evenings, like laundry, cleaning, cooking, paperwork, all sorts of stuff.

You can still any of those things, but because of the added challenge, you end up focusing on what you really need to do.

Which means, you do less stuff.

For a person like me, who generally tries to do too much stuff all the time, this is very helpful.

Having the lights off during Lent reminds me of how unrealistic and unhealthy my expectations generally are for how much I can and should do in a day.

Without on-demand light, I have to plan and prioritize. I have to pick up everything I don’t want to trip over or get stuck in my feet when it’s dark (we have a lot of Legos in our house). Because the sun is going down, and I can’t do everything, I have to make choices. Say yes to certain things and no to everything else. I mean, really. It’s getting dark, man.

This year, I’ve taken the whole thing to a new level because I’ve decided to go off of computer and smartphone stuff from 7pm to 7am. (It seemed like a natural fit for having the lights off, and has made evenings at home that much less crowded. This one’s not a family commitment, just something I’m doing.)

It is humbling and helpful to accept the fact that the day is coming to an end, and I can’t just keep doing more and more and more.

 

What you do within your limitations is as important as what you don’t do.

When the sun goes down, we stop doing all sorts of stuff, because we have to operate by candlelight. But we’ve discovered we do more of the important stuff we’d otherwise neglect.

Family dinners last longer because in a dark house people aren’t as rushed to get on to the next thing. We actually stay closer together because the candles are usually in one place, and we have fuller conversations. We listen more closely to one another speaking, because there are fewer distractions. We also make shadow puppets, which is crazy awesome fun. We read by candlelight, which you really should try if you’ve never done it. It’s amazingly calming.

And, here’s the real life-changer: WE GO TO BED.

Many parents are vigilante about their kids’ bedtimes (my wife and I are not; bedtime is a season of the day.), but don’t hit the pillow themselves until after midnight. Isn’t that crazy? If it’s good for the babes, it’s good for you.

I have utmost respect for the demands on working people. I’m a pastor juggling a million things. My wife works 90 hours a week sometimes, no kidding. We have four kids and their activities, appointments, homework, etc., jeez I’m getting stressed just thinking about it.

Last night, I had a youth basketball game, wrestling practice, a PTA fundraiser, and a school board meeting, all happening at the same time, and early in the day I actually had a plan to get to them all. What a delusion, right?  I did not attend all those functions. Life is crazy, and there is always more to do.

At some point, I realized that we could give up all sleep, never play, never relax, never watch VEEP (my wife and I love VEEP), and we still wouldn’t get done all the things that need to be done.

So screw that. You can’t win if you play by those rules.

With the lights off, we eat dinner slowly, read to our kids by candlelight, everyone brushes their teeth in the dark, kids are in bed by 8, and my wife and I are free to do the same.

Asleep well before 10pm. As I type this, I am a remarkably well-rested person. (my wife gets less sleep than I do, because of immoveable demands of her job and work-schedule.  BUT she’ll tell you that’s even more reason to have the lights off, because it maximizes the sleep she’s able to get. She doesn’t have time to blog about it though.)

 

We don’t actually need everything we think we need. 

It’s true, people used to have to wait until vegetables were in season to be able buy and eat them, and we had to pass paper notes in school, and people went to the bathroom without a screen to look at.

If you ask me (you didn’t, I concede), not only were we all JUST FINE when it technology did less for us, it’s probably bad for us to have an app for everything. Not to be down on technology and the on-demand culture, and somebody else can argue where the line of old-fashioned sentimentality ought to be, but for my part let me just say that sometimes it’s good to remember that YOU CAN GET BY with less convenience and fewer creature comforts.

If you don’t turn the lights on, you can find things in your kitchen by memory.  You can move more slowly and pay more attention when you walk from room to room. You can have a conversation just by listening and speaking.  And yes, you can actually wait for certain things that require light.  Your house will be lit up again by the sun in a few hours, and you’ll be okay until then.

This Lenten reminder extends to my whole life, and resets my outlook during the rest of the year. How many times do I let myself get bent out of shape because I’m worried about stuff that’s not actually necessary for me to be healthy, happy, successful in my work, and honorable in my relationships? Proactively letting go of convenience can prepare us to make more consequential choices with greater wisdom.

 

More crazy makes more crazy.  More peace makes more peace. 

Ever notice that a room full of people gets noisier over time?  Folks start out whispering, but the whispering fills the room so people start talking louder and louder to be heard over the baseline. Pretty soon everyone’s shouting, right?  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just go to an elementary school cafeteria.

My home life is often over-crowded with laundry and media and cooking and app notifications and kids’ playing or fighting with each other, and I’m talking about work with my wife, while discussing the to-do list and taxes and youth sports, and Lord Jesus it’s too much.

In this environment it’s not strange to interrupt people, to take calls in the middle of conversations, to yell, and to jump from task to task in the most scatterbrained way, and if you’re me, to break a lot of dishes. The crazier things are, the more crazy things you do.

Crazy makes crazy makes crazy!  (feel free to tweet that.)

The first time we tried lights off during Lent, I thought I was gonna have all this craziness in the dark, and I’ll admit, I was kind of scared. Seemed like an invitation to catastrophe.

But I quickly realized that when you turn the lights off, you’re taking a huge amount of activity OUT of your time and space, because it’s not possible (or feasible) to do it in the dark.  With less stuff happening all at once, everything feels more relaxed. Like you’re trying to carry 7 things and you put down 4 of them.

candle light homework

Homework by candlelight.

Darkness also dials down the frenetic energy of my house – our family naturally speaks at a lower volume and in gentler tones whenever we’re talking by candlelight.  If the phone rings during dinner, it feels like an intrusion, and we send it to voicemail.

Peacefulness reproduces itself as surely as chaos does. It’s all about setting norms.

 

 

A new day is coming.

Around mid-afternoon every day, I start to feel the pressure of impending nightfall. Because I live in the northern hemisphere, I get a few extra minutes of light each day during Lent, and I’m attentive and thankful for that.

Awareness is another gift that comes with this Lenten discipline.

But by 4pm my awareness manifests in worry, because I have all this stuff I’m trying to get done before it’s too dark. Let me tell you, I have never, not even once, been ready for the sun to go down, during Lent. It always happens too soon, and I’m in the dark before I’ve finished doing a whole bunch of important things.

So each afternoon I race the sunset, watching the rooms in my house dim, and thinking about how I have less and less light to work with, every minute. By 6:30 or 7, it’s fully dark, and everything I do is shaped by this non-negotiable reality.

I have a peaceful evening with my family, which requires various feats of creative management, and go to bed.

When I awake the next morning, it’s still dark. I get up, and I don’t flip the light switch. I still proceed with caution as I walk around – can’t see much at this hour. But of course, everything has changed.   It’s no longer getting darker, I’m no longer descending deeper into the night. Instead, as I rouse my children and brew my coffee, I watch the rooms in my house become gradually, gently illuminated. I welcome the dawn as a friend, as the gift it truly is.

And that may the greatest benefit of this Lenten discipline. The sunset forces me to contend with what’s fading, and what’s gone. It also readies me for the new day, and all that is to come.

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