I spent the last week of 2016 in the middle of nowhere, sleeping in a chicken coop with my dog.
My New Year’s Eves of the past have typically included bar hopping, consoling random crying girls in bathrooms, and reminding everyone that I do in fact know how to count down from 10 to 1. Sometimes a ball drops, sometimes a pickle drops, sometimes an acorn drops…I think one year a giant cup dropped. My new year begins with 5,000 of my closest strangers, and usually a headache. I decided to try something new this year…that’s how I ended up sleeping in a chicken coop.
When I rolled up to Snaggy Mountain, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew it was a farm in Burnsville, North Carolina…and that’s about it. My host led me to my one room cabin, and told me that it used to be a chicken coop. What? Of course, it has since been converted into a cozy cabin with a desk, bed, and a wood stove (but it’s more fun to call it a chicken coop). I was given freshly chopped firewood, a quick tour of the farm, and then I was alone.
I have never really been alone. Sure, I have been by myself (I am as I write this, in fact), but I have never really allowed myself to experience a solitude that wasn’t easily distracted by Netflix, Facebook, or Netflix. We live in a society that does not make much room for solitude. Even if you are physically alone, a shared experience is just a text message away. I mean, if you’re alone and do something cool and don’t post a picture of it on Instagram, did it even happen. All jokes aside, finding solitude can be both challenging and terrifying (for me, anyway).
This trip was so very important to me. In a world that offers instant connection to everyone, everywhere, all the time, I have never really had to be alone. I can find validation anywhere. I can share a photo online, tweet about what I’m doing, go on Facebook Live, etc., etc., etc. Even when I genuinely want to be alone (a rarity), constant dings and buzzes and notifications are part of an addiction that refuses to let you enjoy a moment to yourself. There is no rest until you know who caused the red number to pop up next to the Instagram icon on your iPhone. Not everyone needs to travel approximately 223 miles to find that quiet space, but I did.
For five days and four nights, I made the chicken coop my home. I avoided my phone as much as possible. Armed with theology books and instant coffee (ew), I was ready to be blown away by the Creator. After another unsuccessful year of finding and sustaining perfect peace with God, I was ready to let the presence of God sink into my soul and rejuvenate me as 2017 began.
It took approximately 15 seconds for me to become obsessed with the dairy farm-turned-communal living-homesteading-farm I had found on airbnb. The first night, I spent several hours drawing out my plans in my journal for the farm I was obviously going to buy once all of this was over. I didn’t even crack open my Bible. My phone was on airplane mode, yet I kept checking it just to be sure that a text hadn’t gone through. I woke up around 2AM during a torrential downpour only to discover that the fire in my wood stove had gone out, and I had no idea how to rebuild it. I ended up ripping out 90% of the remaining blank pages in my journal to use as a makeshift fire-starter (which surprisingly worked).
This trip was not going as planned. At all. Here is a journal excerpt from day 3:
God, I do not feel any healing. This is day 3. I need you to fix me. What does that even mean? Psalm 34 says I would be blessed to take refuge in you. How do I even do that? How do you know which chicken eggs actually have chickens? How do I tangibly take refuge in Him? How do I tangibly and literally do that? I’m in the freaking woods in a freaking chicken coop, where you at?
I know, I know, it’s not the most eloquent. I genuinely am curious about the chicken eggs, by the way (I’m just too lazy to google it).
The first book I read on my trip was “The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Henri Nouwen. Obviously, this book was written about the parable of the prodigal son, which I have read many times before. In the book, Henri takes us on his journey of comparing himself to the prodigal son, the angry brother, and the father in the parable. He slowly realizes, through many hours of self-reflection, that he has characteristics of all three. Perhaps his greatest realization (in my opinion) is that God is looking for us. God seeks us out when we are seeking everything else to satisfy our longings. God does not #clapback with an “I told you so,” but instead throws the biggest celebration for us when we return. God is looking for us when we are caught up in the sin of worship of other people and things. He does not deny us when we confess this. He simply says, “I loved you first. I love you still.”
In many different cultures, when a son demands his inheritance the way that the prodigal son does, it is considered one of the greatest disrespects. Essentially, the son is essentially saying, “I wish you were dead.” Is this how I handle my blessings from God? The son took his blessings, and wasted them on fleeting, worldly pleasures. He bought what he thought he needed to feel good about himself. He squandered away everything he had. Where do I spend my blessings? What do I worship? What do I believe is going to bring eternal satisfaction? Like the prodigal son, I definitely have the wrong idea. The story continues to show that the prodigal son realized his grave mistake and began making plans to return home. However, he does not believe in ultimate forgiveness. He knows there will be repercussions. He is prepared to return to his father as a son, but a son that must earn his way back into his father’s house by working hard and being punished.
There is something in us humans that keeps us clinging to our sins and prevents us from letting God erase our past and offer us a completely new beginning. Sometimes it even seems as though I want to prove to God that my darkness is too great to overcome. While God wants to restore me to the full dignity of sonship, I keep insisting that I will settle for being a hired servant…do I trust myself and such a radical reclamation? Do I want to break away from my deep-rooted rebellion against God and surrender myself so absolutely to God’s love that a new person can emerge? Receiving forgiveness requires a total willingness to let God be God and do all the healing, restoring, and renewing. As long as I want to do even a part of that myself, I end up with partial solutions, such as becoming a hired servant. As a hired servant, I can still keep my distance, still revolt, reject, strike, run away, or complain about my pay. As the beloved son, I have to claim my full dignity and begin preparing myself to become the father. [Return of the Prodigal Son; Henri Nouwen]
Accepting God’s forgiveness means giving God actual control over my life. God cannot cleanse me of darkness if I am not willing to give up that darkness. God wants to rescue, but do I want to be rescued? Do I want to submit to that?
Becoming the beloved would involve looking at God as the Ultimate, the Creator, and the Divine. It would involve having a “fear” of God, the Biblical reverence that says “God, you are glory, you are almighty, and you are Truth.” It would involve no longer regarding man (or woman) as anything other than just another beloved child of God. I can’t speak for everyone else, but I struggle to leave other people out of my worship. This, I’ve discovered, is a big piece of why I am so afraid to be alone. You see, when you regard people as anything other than human, you will fall into a trap of comparison, jealousy, anxiety, and fear, of man (or woman). They become the ultimate, the glorious, and the almighty. They control my happiness, sadness, pleasure, and anguish. I give this control away so easily to humans, but tremble at the idea of the One who created me having that same power. Why is that?
In a world that constantly compares people, ranking them as more or less intelligent, more or less attractive, more or less successful, it is not easy to really believe in a love (God’s love) that does not do the same…When I hear someone praised, it is hard not to think of myself as less praiseworthy; when i head about the goodness and kindness of other people, it is hard not to wonder whether I myself am as good and kind as they; wand when I see trophies, rewards, and prizes being handed out to special people, I cannot avoid asking myself why that didn’t happen to me….much sadness and gladness in my life flows directly from my comparing, and most, if not all, of this comparing is useless and a terrible waste of time and energy. [Return of the Prodigal Son; Henri Nouwen]
When I am scrolling through my Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter feeds, I wonder if people think I am as cool as my social media portrays me. I wonder if other people are as cool as they seem online. I feel no validation in the middle of the woods in my chicken coop. I am officially alone, and kind of bitter that I’m not getting any praise from anyone. I have become the older brother in the parable. I do not believe or understand that God can fully redeem me from the darkness I am in and the fear I have of being alone, and the worship I have for other people. I have exchanged God’s love for me with the love for other people. I spend my energy on making people want me and support me; I squander that energy and end up alone, in a chicken coop, on New Year’s Eve 2016. I am the younger brother.
I’ve now reached the realization that people can no longer rescue me. I have begun to feel alone even when I am told how cool I am. I have begun to feel alone even when someone wants to hold me. I have found myself literally alone in the woods asking God “Where are you? Will you take me back? Will you let me start from the bottom and find my way back to your feet? Will you celebrate me? Will you hold me?”
Another book I began to read on my journey in the woods is titled “When People are Big and God is Small” by Edward T. Welch. He wastes no time calling out my sin, calling me a “love tank with a leak.” What or who you need will control you. When you have a leak, that is a never-ending, worldly search. I need to continue my search in order to feel good, to feel full. So how do I discover God as my filler? How do I force myself to have that epiphany?
According to Mr. Welch, it’s obvious. “…repent of seeking God so that you can feel better about yourself.” What? What is the point of seeking, if not to feel good about myself? It was in this moment that I realized I had no idea why I worshipped God. Why am I supposed to seek after this Creator if not to feel good about myself? I constantly fall away to seek other “feel-goods” only to return to try to find those in God. But now, now you’re telling me that’s not right? This is why I cannot feel or know God’s love. I’m not seeking love. I’m seeking “feel-goods.” I’m seeking coziness. I want to be affirmed, but not as the beloved. I want to be affirmed as cool, as cute, as funny; I want to be held and comforted. Why isn’t this an okay love to seek? In this, I am exalting my feelings. I am exalting my interpretation. I am controlled by “feeling,” and I just add “feel like a Christian” to that list. Oh my.
Again, Welch offers some nuggets of Gospel goodness.
God fills us. He pours out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us (Romans 5:5). God actually showers us with himself. Why didn’t we think about this before? Isn’t this news too good to keep in the closet? The reason we are considering this now is that there is a precondition to this blessing. It is not available to us when we adopt the shape of a cup of psychological needs. That is, if we want to be filled so that we can feel happy and better about ourselves, then we will never be truly deluged with God’s love. The cup of our own desires is never able to catch the flood of God’s love and blessing. Rather, it makes God’s redeeming love less accessible to us. When this cup of “I wants” is broken, it leaves us with a number of shapes or identities that God has given us…we are empty cups. This cup, however, represents our spiritual need for forgiveness of sins, covering from shame, protection from oppressors, and acceptance into God’s family. It is an emptiness that says, “I need Jesus.” It is an emptiness that needs God’s love. [When People are Big and God is Small; Edward Welch]
Welch doesn’t leave it there. He says that as creations of the Divine Lover, “we will never be okay unless we know deeply of that love. Without this love, we are spiritually and physically dead.” He compares this to the story of Hosea, a story in which God tangibly shows Israel what relentless pursuance looks like by making Hosea marry and pursue (again and again) a prostitute who is desperate for satisfaction. Like this prostitute, and like the younger brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, I am seeking something in all the wrong places. I am trying to feel good, or I am trying to feel nothing at all. I am falling, again and again. Like the Father, and Hosea, God is waiting for me. God is seeking me out. God is enveloping me with Truth and showering me with Grace. This has nothing to do with my feelings, but the knowledge of that love does generate a feeling in the depths of my heart.
I am alone in Burnsville, North Carolina. I am 223 miles from Durham. I am in solitude. I am in the wilderness. I am in a chicken coop(!!), and I am looking for God. She never showed up to tell me “I told you so.” He never showed up to demand my repentance. She never showed up to rescue me. He didn’t show up. She was there before I arrived, waiting for me to get there, with arms ready to embrace me. He was there, ready to remove my baggage and darkness; she was there and removed the straps from my shoulders, slowly taking off the weight of other people’s opinions of me. He took the bags from my hands, taking away the burden and pain I feel from fearing my own loneliness, reminding me that a desperation for love does not have to be what control me. She sets my baggage on the floor and pulls me in. He was there to hold me and keep me warm. She celebrated my return. God loves me with the love of a father; God loves me with the love of a mother. But better than either of mine ever could. He loves me as my brothers and my sisters, my boyfriends, my girlfriends…but better than any and all of them.
God wants simply to let them (me) know that the love they have searched for in such distorted ways has been, is, and always will be there for them….”You are the beloved, on you my favor rests.” [The Return of the Prodigal Son; Henri Nouwen]