The Darkness of the Dungeon

Image by Evgeni Tcherkasski from Pixabay

Last week I was reading a blog post by a friend, in which she said that she was feeling that rock bottom has a basement. The definition of rock bottom is the “lowest of the low.” Yet my friend felt that life had managed to go even lower than the lowest possible place.

In Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, Christian and his friend Hopeful are caught by Giant Despair and put in his dark dungeon. There they lay for three days, terrified and without hope. They were also in the basement of rock bottom.

In Psalm 88, the Psalmist is also in that place beyond the lowest low:

You have put me in the depths of the pit,

in the regions dark and deep.

Your wrath lies heavy upon me,

and you overwhelm me with all your waves. vv. 6-7

In fact, unlike the other Psalms that start in despair and end up on a positive note, Psalm 88 ends:

You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me;

my companions have become darkness. v. 18

The alternative meaning in Hebrew is darkness has become my only companion. The Psalmist has no hope left. There is nothing for him. He is in the black dungeon of Giant Despair. He’s with my friend in the basement of rock bottom.

If we left him (and Christian and my friend and us) there in that dungeon, then what would be the reason to go on? Where is there hope for the Psalmist or for any of us?

This man feels that God is against him, that there is nothing in life that’s good, that his soul is full of trouble, that he has no strength, that he has been forgotten by God, that his friends have all abandoned him and view him as a horror, that the only companion, the only friend he has is darkness, and that the only place lower is death.

However (praise the Lord, there is a however), despite all of these feelings and circumstances of darkness and feeling forgotten by God, the Psalmist still cries out to God, he still has the small kernel of faith that looks to God in the darkness and believes that He hears and that He cares.

Jesus says, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you. (Matthew 17:20)

In our dark places, the tiny seed of faith that the Lord has given us strengthens us to turn to Him, the Light of the World, and cry out, pleading with Him for light, for hope, for salvation. When we are in the dark, we need only to remember to look for the light.

Despite the seeming hopelessness in this Psalm and in our lives, there are glimmers of light if we look closely enough. The glimmers of God’s promises:

  • He will never leave us nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5)
  • Even if a mother could forget her nursing child, God will never forget us (Isaiah 49:15)
  • We are inscribed on the palms of His hands (Isaiah 49:16)
  • He will with us in the waters and walk with us in the fire (Isaiah 43: 2)
  • He has loved us with an everlasting love (Jeremiah 31:3)
  • He rejoices over us with singing. (Zephaniah 3:17)

As we focus on these promises, even if the circumstances are still hard and our road seems endlessly black, we begin to see the glory of our Father’s face shine out in the gloom, the fingers of sun gleaming through the cracks of the dungeon walls, and to believe again in His love poured out for us in Christ. We start to grasp that if God is for us, which He is in Christ, who could be against us. We take shelter in His love and in His protection. And we take hold of the glorious truth that Christ is sufficient and will always be sufficient for all our needs, no matter what is occurring in this world. If we have Christ, then we have eternity and glory and unfailing love from our God.

Charitie Lees Bancroft wrote:

When Satan tempts me to despair

and tells me of the guilt within,

upward I look and see him there,

who made an end to all my sin.

Because the sinless Savior died,

my sinful soul is counted free;

for God, the just, is satisfied

to look on him and pardon me,

to look on him and pardon me.

Christ has become wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption for us. (I Corinthians 1:30) If He has done all this, how will He not also give us all things. (Romans 8:31)

As Christian lay in the dungeon, he prayed and the Lord reminded him of the promises of God, and these promises were the key that allowed Christian and Hopeful to escape into the sunshine. My friend, too, acknowledged that God’s light still shines even when it is clouded over by life’s circumstances and she can’t see it at that moment.

What about you, friend? Are you in the darkness of the basement of rock bottom? Do you feel abandoned, forgotten, and alone in your hard times? Can you see no hope and no light and no escape?

Go to Jesus. He loved you enough to die for you, He stands at the throne of God and pleads your case, He will give you all that you need to walk with Him in this life, and He will come and take you home to be with Him, basking in the sunshine of His love for eternity.

Writing in Difficult Times

A journal with paper that doesn’t allow the ink to bleed through and a roller ball pen are my tools of choice when writing by hand.

Like most of you reading this, I have been home a good deal over the last several months, in order to help keep my loved ones and other people in my circles healthy and safe. You would think that with all of this extra time at home (no commute!), I would have been writing up a storm. Alas, it seems that the same conditions that are keeping me at home also seem to be stopping up my creativity.

However, I have been writing and hanging out with writers long enough to know that creativity is not something that always strikes like lightning. Instead, thoughts and ideas come when you cultivate the right conditions for them. What are these conditions? Here are a few that I found help me create a conducive atmosphere for writing:

Noticing
A good writer notices things—the color of the sky, the sound of a dog barking in the street, the conversation in a restaurant, the way a girl skips home, the feel of a fuzzy kiwi in your hand, etc. Writers also notice the way the world works with all of its contradictions, surprises, ruts, pleasure, and pain. They then take these noticings and turn them into ideas for stories, essays, poems, and more.

Recording ideas
No matter how much noticing you do and how many ideas rise to the surface, unless you record them somehow, they could slip through your fingers and be lost. Find a good way to record your ideas and the things you notice. I use several methods to retain ideas. I have a notebook with a pen clipped to it. It’s small enough to keep with me most of the time so I can always jot down a thought as it occurs. I also use the notes app on my smart phone for the times when I don’t have my notebook handy. In a pinch (usually when I’m driving, which seems to be a great time for writing blog posts in my head), I have resorted to talking into my phone and recording my thoughts or the ideas taking shape. Then I can work with them when I get home.

Routines
A good writer develops routines. Writing only happens when you sit down in the chair on a regular basis and put something on paper. Find the time and place that works for you and make it part of your everyday life. The following quote says it all:

Serious writers write, inspired or not. Over time they discover that routine is a better friend than inspiration.

Ralph Keyes

Transition Rituals
Oftentimes, writing requires changing gears from your daily tasks to reaching down into your mind and soul to transform your ideas and thoughts and noticings into something new. This can be a hard transition, and oftentimes a little ritual of some sort can help. Lighting a candle, brewing a cup of something hot, putting on certain music, or picking up a favorite pen can all be signals to your brain that writing time has begun.

Planning
While some writers don’t need plans to write, others find that planning is the key to bridging the gap between ideas and words on a page. I fall into that camp. If I sit down to write without any plan at all, I sometimes will merely stare at a blank page or produce only garbage. Planning seems to be an essential part of writing for me. This is not true for every writer, but if you are having difficulty getting words on paper, try brainstorming several ideas and then sit down and work on an idea a day. Just having something in mind going into your writing session can be the difference between a blank page and a rough draft.

Tools
Choose your tools wisely. If you prefer paper and pen, choose smooth paper that feels good and a pen that doesn’t make your hand hurt or smear on the paper. If you choose digital, feel comfortable with your keyboard and make sure your computer or tablet or phone has the space to contain what you want to write. If you’re writing outdoors or off the grid, make sure your device is fully charged. Having enough light helps as does having a comfortable chair and sturdy desk or table.

Focus
Finally, good focus makes a difference. We live in an age of increasing distraction, but successful writing requires the ability to focus for substantial amounts of time, using deep thought and hard work. A book that I have found helpful in re-teaching myself how to focus well is Cal Newport’s Deep Work. He doesn’t have any easy answers. Work is still work, but Newport does give you the tools and practical frameworks for learning to focus for longer and longer periods of time, which can make or break your writing routines.

I hope these ideas are helpful with inspiring you to create words and articles and books and poems. Do you have any tips for creativity? Please share them in the comments.

Interesting Articles and Podcasts

Each week, I send articles to a website that sends me a collection of articles to read in a single document for my kindle. This helps prevent me from falling down “rabbit holes” when I should be doing something productive but allows me to keep reading interesting things from around the web. Here are a few of the articles I’ve read this past month:

Jen Wilkin lists nine things to help in studying the Bible: https://www.crossway.org/articles/9-tips-for-making-the-most-of-your-bible-study/

Many of us are still working from home, which can make the work/home lines bleed together a bit too much at times. This article is a helpful look at the benefits of unplugging from work and other online pursuits: http://lauraearnest.com/unplugging/

While we are able to get out and about more these days, spending a couple of hours in a coffee shop may not be optimal or even possible. Here are ways to duplicate that experience of writing (or working) in a coffee shop: https://thewritelife.com/recreate-coffee-shop-experience-from-home/

Although I’ve been a Christian for many years, prayer is still difficult for me at times. Lectio Divina has been one way, through two prayer apps a friend suggested, to focus on the Lord each morning: https://www.24-7prayer.com/ancientprayerrhythms

My garden has never looked better since I’ve had more time at home to tend it. There’s something wonderfully healing about being outside in nature without a phone or other electronic device and dig: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/08/24/the-therapeutic-power-of-gardening

Reading has been a daily habit of mine for decades. However, I’m always reading articles and books on how to cram more reading time into my life. This article was great. https://psyche.co/guides/how-to-make-a-daily-habit-of-reading-more-books

I subscribe to several podcasts, some of which I listen to every single episode and some of which I dip into once in a while when the episode sounds applicable to my life or I want to know more. Here are some episodes I found particularly useful or interesting this past month:

Sarah from theshubox.com has started a new planner/planning podcast, which I love. Here’s her take on building a planning system: https://bestlaidplans.libsyn.com/rss

I just found the Redeeming Productivity podcast this summer and am slowly working my way through the back episodes. This recent episode was helpful in thinking about how contentment doesn’t have to interfere with ambition and productivity: https://www.redeemingproductivity.com/feed/podcast

I have loved all of the episodes of Help Me Teach the Bible with Nancy Guthrie, but I found this one especially fascinating as she talked to Andrew Sach about Elijah and Elisha and their foreshadowing of the New Testament: https://feeds.simplecast.com/TtKQNBCJ

Cal Newport, author of one of my favorite productivity books, Deep Work, started a new podcast this year. This is his kickoff episode. Don’t let the length scare you. He addresses multiple questions in each episode, which means you can listen for 10-20 minutes and then leave it until the next time without losing the thread of a discussion. I highly recommend this for anyone who wants to do focused knowledge work for their job or personal projects. His humor is a bit nerdy, which adds to the fun: https://feeds.buzzsprout.com/1121972.rss

When I’m trying to focus on work or writing, sometimes I need silence and sometimes background music helps. Eric Nordhoff is an artist I discovered recently, whose music is uplifting and great for focusing:

https://open.spotify.com/album/6co8Pt2GpcnqNa17Mbr77C?si=RagH7JKOTuibDTaX5kyeKQ

What are you reading and/or listening to this month?