Faith in Hygge

3) My Faith in Hygga

I’ve always had an affinity for cold, dark winter days. While my friends bemoan the plummeting temperatures and pop vitamin-D like candy, I watch the sun descend midafternoon with contemptable glee. I light a candle, put on the kettle. I don’t even like tea! I’m just that giddy.

Life hasn’t always been so joyful. Winters in southwest Ohio -where I grew up- often felt like a cruel joke. For several childhood Christmases, temperatures jumped past 70 degrees. I sweat right through my flannel reindeer pajamas. January warm fronts prompted my sister to catch a tan on the front lawn. I could have kicked her.

My disposition isn’t entirely unique. Despite long, dark winters, Danes (and many of their Scandinavian neighbors) are some of the happiest people on the planet. The reason is hygge. Hygge is loosely defined as “a feeling of being warm, safe, comforted, and sheltered.” It is both a verb and a noun, an action and a feeling or atmosphere. Hygge sits at the core of Danish culture. It describes, as one author puts it, a way of being that “introduces humanity and warmth.”

While we were out walking on a recent blustery November’s eve, my wife turned to me, shivering, and said: “I don’t understand how you love being cold!”

“Say what? I hate being cold.”

“Then how can you possibly love winter?”

The summer after graduating from college, I worked and lived on the coast of Maine. No matter how warm the day, when the sun sets on the coast, cold air from the ocean moves ashore.

I was walking home one such evening, rather chilly without a jacket. I passed a house; lights were on in the windows, and I stopped for a moment. A lamp sat on a coffee table beside a book and a pair of glasses. I could hear talking, amicable in tone. I could smell fresh bread. Shadows fluttered along the wall from the light. It looked so very inviting, as if the home itself saying to me: “Oh! Well, do come in.” I felt a longing for something that I couldn’t quite name. I couldn’t, at the time, speak Danish (still can’t).

One of the key components to hygge is contrast. It’s the idea that there can be “a sense of distance between us and the outside world.”

When it comes to God, faith, for me, has always been a struggle. It’s hard to articulate why or what exactly I refer to when I say “doubt.” I question God’s goodness. I question God’s power, realness, and nearness. I question that God even cares. About me. (And everything else.)

Questions may be healthy, helpful even. But they are isolating. I find nihilism more convincing than cheery testimony to God’s faithfulness. My faith life often feels like standing outside on the dark street, looking in through a window. And I forgot my jacket.

But then there’s hygge, the reminder that darkness- and doubt- itself is not reality, but a contrast to the warmth and goodness of the light. The cold I feel is easily thwarted by an invitation to step into cozy peace. The light shines in the darkness, John writes, but the darkness can’t outdo it.

That’s why I love dark and frigid days, why I’ll always love summer nights on the coast of Maine. Not because I enjoy frostbite or wish to spend a Dickensian night shivering on the street. Rather, there’s some innate part of humanity that is awakened by the possibility of warmth. To truly be warm, you must be cold (“I believe! Help my unbelief!”). The coziness of faith exists when doubt is embraced as real yet powerless in the face of light. It’s that awakening, that contrast, the melody of emotion and sensation when you step inside on a freezing night, smell fire, hear laughter, and remember- all over again- the feeling of hygge.

Platitudes can’t buffer my faith any more than a single match can turn the nighttime into day. But hygge reminds me that only a small cabin with a modest fire is needed, not just to survive winter, but to downright enjoy it. It overcomes doubt and turns blizzardy nights into hope. And isn’t it a beautiful thing to embrace the darkness, not with fear or dread, but joy?

But for hygge to happen, you need darkness and sunshine, warmth and the cold.

Maybe that’s why lighting a candle in the middle of the afternoon and smiling into a black window is so uplifting. It reminds me that, no matter how long I am out there, wandering in the darkness of doubt, that there will always be a warm and inviting place for me in here.

And flannel reindeer pajamas? Those are just a perk.


My Curious Rebellion

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My brother and I once had matching police costumes. This was when we were about five and seven. An accessory to the outfits was a pair of plastic handcuffs which, when clasped around ones’ wrist, could only be undone with an accompanying key. One morning, I was sitting innocently at our kitchen table – painting pictures for orphans, as I recall- when my brother jumped me. A struggle ensued in which he managed to hook my left hand into one of the handcuffs and deftly attach the other cuff to the chair.

Well, I’m right-handed. And that hand raised to slap him… right when my mother entered the room. My brother whimpered like a puppy. I received a stern reprimand, the commandeering of all my painting materials, and a time-out confined to the chair. A moot punishment, of course, because I was handcuffed to it, a detail (among several) Mom failed to notice.

In an infamous scene from The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky records a conversation between two brothers regarding God. The first brother, Alyosha, is a novice monk. The second, Ivan, has renounced the faith.

Ivan’s objections to Christianity rest on the cruelest and most inexplicable sufferings: that of children. He tells of a child beaten, smeared with excrement, and left in an outhouse during winter. Another child is stripped naked, made to run, and set upon by a pack of hunting dogs.

Ivan believes in God. It is not God’s existence that he cannot accept. But it is the world God has created, the world that allows such atrocities. He cannot- will not- accept that the suffering of such a child might some way, somehow, be redeemed.

To this declaration, Alyosha replies, in a murmur, “That’s rebellion.”

I read this my senior year of college. I was sitting in an overstuffed chair of my apartment. Dishes piled in the sink; posters occupied an entire wall; late-autumn gray shone through our window; upstairs a door shut; a tap dripped; silence.

I’ve never seen a child tortured, never seen any great atrocities. I am not a witness to such unspeakable pain. But I can, from some of my first moments of cognitive memory, recall sensing the reality of pain of the world.

As a child, I owned a goldfish. It lived for several months, then died. The concept of death by that age made sense to me. Enough that when Dad flushed Guppy down the toilet, I was distraught. A trite example. But from that point on, I was aware of the fact that every good thing held the inverse possibility for pain.

I’m not alone. The oldest Biblical text is about a man wrestling with the question of God’s silence in the face of pain. Before anyone wrote an account of how God made the world, we were questioning the way it runs. (That’s got to be annoying.)

And I remember that moment in college so vividly because I knew, without a doubt, that I agreed with Ivan. He articulated the objection I’d always sensed. And I heard Alyosha’s judgement like he was in the room. “Rebellion.”

A child’s pain- or anyone else’s- on a linear perspective is redeemable because it has passed. The moment is (thankfully) lost. But if God is eternal, then that must mean that all points in time are accessible to God at all times. The child’s pain is in God’s purview for eternity. Which means that God’s inaction at that moment might- must– also be eternal. My primary encounter with injustice as a child resulted in a time-out. Still, I can’t believe it’s wrong to wrestle with the (albeit, abstract) reality of horrific evil.

Perhaps this is wanting to have my cake and eat it too. I want to have faith and question God. I want to object to God’s world and embrace it. A pastor recently reminded me that laments emerge from hope. Can’t we say the same for rebellion?

Maybe I can lead a curious rebellion. Maybe I can raise a hand against injustice and God, when she enters the room, will see it as such. Maybe God shares our objections. It’s a paradox. But so is the reality of a God who is all-good, all-powerful, and all-present in a world that also allows unspeakable evil.

I wasn’t a perfect child. More likely than not, my brother’s scheme was preempted by me stealing his football cards and/or dropping his toothbrush in the toilet. But my mother, upon consideration, found my indignation reasonable. Which is the hope, isn’t it? That God will not hold our own pleas for justice against us?

Perhaps we might see God joining our rebellion. If so, then maybe we can also ask her to find the key to these handcuffs.




The Hole In My Hope

Hole in my hope

It was during a family dinner, at six-years-old and around this time of year, that I glanced out our dining room window and was suddenly aghast. It was pitch dark outside. This made no sense. Dinner didn’t happen during the night.

I presented these findings to my parents, who replied, with disconcerting calm, that “…the hour moved backwards last night.”

The what did what?

“It happens each year. We get less sun in the winter so we adjust the time. It’s called ‘daylight savings.’”

Thus, the meal moved on, blithely unaware that I was on the verge of an existential crisis. Why did we ‘lose’ an hour? How does one save daylight? Can I save it?

This was, as best I can recall, my first tangible encounter with the elusive nature of time.

Several years ago, I committed myself to the practice writing 800-word essays, one every week. I was finishing my first year of graduate school and about to propose to a red-haired, green-eyed girl. Since then, much has changed. We did, in fact, marry. We graduated and found jobs. Several nieces and nephews were born. I was, for a time, rather sick. We bought a home. Friends moved away, and some family.

The poet Mary Oliver describes her vocation as “mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.” Writing those essays taught me the skill of astonishment. Which I needed. But, since that time- since I stopped writing those essays- what I’ve been needing- and learning- is hope.

Hope is futuristic, but it is also present. It is a painful balm. It embraces reality with defiance. It can only be experienced but must be taught. It is contradiction and synthesis. It is light that only shines in darkness. Its purpose fades as it fulfills. It is tears and laughter, chocolate and anti-depressants, children and funerals.

A future of hope holds plenty of space for what we seek: reunification with a loved one, physical healing, understanding, enlightenment. If life is a journey, then hope is the fuel that moves us forward.  But the loss that I’ve not been able to reconcile, the question that’s haunted me even after finding hope, is that of which we’ve already been given. It’s the loss of what we’ve already had, already lived or held. What of the past experiences, possessions and feelings? What of lost time? I’m not talking about our memories, but the actual things to which our memories point. These were taken not by violence, disaster, sin and death. But merely by time, which pulls the ground beneath us, and everything with it, so inconspicuously that weeks, months, let alone years, go by without us looking up to realize, “My God, everything is different.” “Life passes most people by,” the infamous George Jung wrote from prison, “while they’re busy making grand plans for it.”

Christian Wiman, a renowned poet and cancer survivor is familiar with this desire for that which has passed. “Lord,” he cites Ilya Kaminsky, “give us what you have already given.” And Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s poetry: “I demand my / own life back. My past. You!”

I saw my two-year-old niece this past spring. One evening, I sat with her parents in a warm kitchen and she received- delight of delights!- an ice cream cone. But, within moments of holding it, she tipped it. The ice cream slipped off the cone and plopped to the floor. She erupted in tears. The cone was replaced, her tears dried. But- oblige this existentialist- why the loss to begin with?

Why is it that we lose time with only memory- the second cone- as compensation? Memories themselves are easy to lose, or deceive. What little piece of the past we hold is fallible and mortal.

This is the hole in my hope. It’s the corner of my faith that is eerily void. It’s problematic; I don’t know how to fill it and I can’t ignore that it’s there.

I’ve always aimed to take the advice of the poet Rainier Rilke to heart: “live the questions now.” The question of this void is one that beckons me to live it.

All this brings me back to my discipline of essays. Palpable observance is clearly not the anecdote for mortality. The ocean will always kiss the shore, and they will again part ways. I’ve not read Marcel Proust, but the titles of his monumental work strike a chord with me: In Search of Lost Time and Remembrance of Things Past. The search totals 4,200 pages. I’m not the only one asking.

But if love might possibly be, as the poet Nayyirah Waheed described it “like everything I’ve ever lost come back to me” then maybe, toward that end, this is a start. Well, this…and daylight savings.