The Melody of Shalom

Write 31 days, Day 16
Writing Prompt: Pray
(NB-I skipped a few days staffing Men at the Cross in Kentucky)

If you want to make many Christians feel guilty, ask about their prayer life. Every one of them would agree that prayer is important; the Bible talks frequently about prayer. Paul even told the Thessalonian believers to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thes. 5:16). If you want to add confusion to their guilt, ask them what it means to actually pray without ceasing.

The reason we feel guilty and confused about prayer is that we define it too narrowly. Perhaps we treat it exclusively as “making our requests known to God” (Phil 4:6), or bestowing platitudes upon God: “O God, Dear Holy Lord, you alone are amazing. Just be with me God. In Jesus’ name. Ah–men.” Even some of our prayer tools (e.g., the ACTS method) restrict prayer. To be clear, these are wonderful prayers, but I want to challenge us to expand the horizons of our prayer. We learn with training wheels, but eventually, we take them off.

Prayer is so much more than we make it:
Prayer is delight, and prayer is lament.
It is requesting and receiving;
Gratitude and thanksgiving.
It is wonder and frustration.
Prayer revels in the beauty of creation, and groans under the weight of its brokenness.
It is boisterous merrymaking, and wordless agony.
It is walking hand in hand with your daughter in the chill October air;
It is holding space for your spouse’s pain;
It is harmonizing with your son in song;
It is attentive presence to your child’s story.
Prayer is seeking, and it is finding. And it is seeking again.
It is imprecation, celebration, lamentation, and contemplation.
It is confession and absolution;
Supplication and adoration.
It is intimate conversation with a friend.
It is the language of wholeness, the melody of shalom.

Prayer is union with God.

For reflection: 
Spend a few minutes reflecting on what you have come to believe about prayer. Has it changed over time?  

Listen

Write 31 days, day 13

Writing prompt: talk

I chewed on this word several times today, looking for something clever to say. All I kept coming to was this:

Let your words come to a stop.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Then listen and keep listening.

Our world desperately needs our ears more than our mouths.

Reflection: sit in silence for ten minutes. Practice the spiritual discipline of not having to have the last word.

Prismatic Praise

Write 31 days, day 12

Writing prompt: praise

What does it look like to live a life of praise? Can we praise in sorrow as well as joy? In celebration and lament? I think about Job sometimes. He faced loss and suffering of mythic proportions. He laid his complaints before God. Did he ever stop praising?

Here’s the thing: I think that sometimes Christians get it in mind that a restricted emotional wavelength is preferable. Joy is welcome. Happiness, sure. Also contentment. We even allow sorrow–for a season, but then we expect it to give way to happiness. Do we believe that God is somehow incapable of handling prismatic emotions? The biblical record corrects us. We see men and women living lives of praise who deal with fear, anger, sadness, grief, and shame as well as joy. Perhaps when we bring all of these feelings before his throne, we truly offer robust praise.

For reflection: as often as you think of it today, ask yourself how am I praising God in this moment.

Heaven’s Door

Write 31 days, day 11

Today’s prompt: door

Can I be honest? I struggle with hell. I find myself asking how is it that God, who is not only capable of love, but is actually Love itself, could conscript people to hell? Especially those who have never heard. We find all sorts of ways to make sense of this: e.g., “well, God is completely holy.” That is absolutely true, but his holiness is not contrary to his love. None of us will fully understand the depths of his love or holiness this side of heaven. Part of me hopes that in the end, we will be greeted at the door by the Father, inviting us into wholeness, but only if we are willing to sacrifice our sinful ways, for darkness will not dwell with light.

For reflection: what doctrines do you wrestle with?

In the Little Things

Write 31 days, Day 10
Writing prompt: How

Each day, every one of us faces the question, “how will I choose to live today?” Some of us approach the question with intention, though most of us, I suspect, simply drift through our morning routines. Let me suggest, though, that even if we never have consciously considered this question, it still shapes us. We choose whether we will take a shower, surf the Internet, or greet our spouse with a kiss. We choose whether to walk with our shoulders back or staring at the ground. We choose whether or not we will think poorly of those who believe differently than we do.

For me, it has been beneficial to intentionally consider how to approach each day. Borrowing from Chuck DeGroat, I ask myself “how can I be an ambassador of shalom today?” or from my friend Curt Thompson: “am I living as an outpost of goodness and beauty?” I firmly believe that we can make the choice each day, indeed in each circumstance, to strive toward wholeness and peace or to degrade toward bitterness and division.

Last night, when I came home from work, I was irritable. Perhaps 20 minutes later, Heather asked me if I needed anything because I “seemed short.” She was right, and I told her so, but it was for no reason I recognized. It helped me to own that emotion and ask myself, “how does my attitude toward my wife, my son, and my dogs press toward shalom?”

None of us will get this perfect. We are all broken. Yet our imperfections do not disable our capacity to strive toward wholeness. I pray that more and more people will strive to embody truth, goodness, and beauty in their daily routines, and that those choices will push back a little bit of the darkness.

Reflection:
What daily rhythms help you to live toward wholeness?  How can you stretch toward deeper wholeness this week? 

Hopelessness

Write 31 days, day 7
Writing prompt: Hope

The gray clouds of depression first overshadowed my life several years ago. Though I could not give a precise date, I can tell you the circumstance that led to the realization that I needed some help. We were trying to sell our home and had some decisions to make. My wife asked what I wanted to do, and I just kept saying “I don’t know” and then I began to cry. She asked what was wrong, and I honestly could not tell her. She recognized something was amiss with me before I did. She asked if I was depressed, and I honestly wasn’t sure. I’m a psychologist, and I wasn’t sure. I knew I didn’t enjoy reading anymore. I felt numb. I had difficulty concentrating. But I wasn’t really sad, which is what people so commonly associate with depression. Believe it or not, sadness isn’t a requirement for depression.

In fact, what many people don’t realize is that depression can have nearly as many presentations as there are people who experience it. For some, sadness predominates and for others, a marked loss of interest. Some people sleep more and others sleep less. Some eat more and some eat less. Depression may include feelings of guilt, shame, punishment feelings, stomach aches, anxiety, headache, low energy, an unwillingness to get out of bed, a loss of interest in sex, not wanting to shower, feeling numb, or feeling disconnected just to name a few.

What does all of this have to do with today’s writing prompt, hope? Here’s the thing: depressed people may also feel hopeless and hopelessness is the greatest predictor of suicidal thinking. It seems that we can deal with sadness and we can deal with a loss of motivation, but when one truly perceive that there is no hope, what’s the point of going on? The horizon is all black and there is no sign of light. The future is all pain and there is no expectation of relief.

So often, well-meaning Christians desire to help. They say things like “well, have you prayed about it?” or “I’ll pray for you.” I have spoken with believers who view depression as a sign of sin because “Christians would never get depressed. They have too much to look forward to.” Any discussion of antidepressant medications is taboo because that is believed to be a sure sign of a lack of faith.

I have to ask, is the gospel that we are providing people truly a message of hope? If we fail to listen and hear someone’s deep pain, we are not. Not until we can sit with another person in his pain can we truly offer hope. Ezekiel 13:10 reads “Precisely because they have misled my people, saying ‘Peace,’ when there is no peace and because, when the people build a wall, they smear it with whitewash.” My friend Larry calls these people “wall whitewashers.” They tend to pretend everything is good and right when in truth, there is pain.

True compassion does not cover over another’s pain or pretend it does not exist. True compassion acknowledges the reality of the pain and hopelessness and sits with another in the midst of it.

For reflection:
What has been your experience with depression, either within yourself or with another? How have you made sense of it?

True Love’s Welcome

Write 31 Days, day 6
Today’s Prompt: Belong

Today, I wrote a brief reflection on the Trinity, inspired by the 15th century icon The Trinity by Andrei Rublev.

On a clear day, I saw them from a long way off. At first, I could barely make them out. From such a distance, I could not say whether there were three or one as they seemed to blend into one another. As I drew closer, they came into focus, the three seated around a small table. At first glance, I struggled to tell them apart; thankfully they each wore different robes.

Watching them kindled a longing I had never felt before. Intimacy flowed between them. There was no sense of posturing, no one-ups-man-ship. They genuinely delighted in being with one another. So often, with meetings of more than two, cliques begin to form. Two will buddy up tighter than the third. Not so here. They each reveled not only in the others, but even in the connection between the other two. I was seeing love embodied.

As I continued to gaze upon them from my safe distance, tears wet my cheeks. Never before had I witnessed something so beautiful. In that moment I beheld perfection. Oh, to be loved like that! To experience such divine intimacy. It touched upon every desire I had ever felt. Yet I remained outside, hidden.

I intended to sneak away quietly. To interrupt them would be to intrude upon perfection, and I was unwilling to disturb what they had with one another. As I raised up to leave, they looked my way. I expected irritation, but saw delight. I expected disappointment, but they exuded joy.

As one, they beckoned, “Come join us.”

“I couldn’t. I wouldn’t want to intrude,” but every part of me resisted my own words.

“We’ve been waiting for you. There is already a place at the table,” they said invitingly.

“But as I have watched you, I have witnessed perfection. I fear that if I join in, I will diminish perfection.”

“Friend, nothing you have ever done, thought, or said can diminish us. Rather, our love will envelop you. You belong. You have always belonged. You were created for no other purpose than to be in fellowship with us.”

And, hoping against hope, I took my seat and felt true love’s welcome.

My Grandma’s Table

31 days of writing, day 5
Today’s prompt: Share

Lately, I have been contemplating the church trend of life groups or small groups, which aim to function as spaces for shared life and faith. Like much that happens in the modern church, these groups often feel mechanistic and forced, though considering our frenzied lives, perhaps we believe it to be a necessary pressure.

I don’t remember anyone from my childhood participating in a small group. Instead, I recall people living in close proximity to one another. Their focus was not life groups, but simply life. Neighborhood kids played together until past dark. Men would gather at the Knotty Pine or at Hill Farm, to drink coffee and shoot the bull.

For me, my life group met around my grandmother’s table on Sunday mornings. It was a round wooden table, nearly always cloaked with a white table cloth, for the wood underneath showed the signs of age. There were more chairs situated around the table than its small diameter could reasonably support. First Reformed Church, just one block to the west, released at 10:00 and First Presbyterian Church, directly across the street, a half-hour later. Uncles and aunts, cousins and friends, would trickle in and out over the next couple of hours, bodies stacked two deep around the perimeter of the small dining area.

My grandmother never failed to provide the necessary staples—hot coffee, orange Kool-Aid, saltine crackers, soft butter, and cheese spread. Other delights also regularly found their way to the table–molasses cookies, blond brownies, or summer sausage. But without fail, there was always coffee and conversation. Sometimes, I would go the whole week without seeing these people, but come Sunday morning, we met for our “life group.”

I think we miss something precious when we live life by curriculum. I ache for those times around that table; we talked about nothing in particular, and in so doing, we talked about everything.

For reflection:

What do you remember about your childhood gatherings? Where do you see organic community occurring today? 

Growing Whys

31 days of writing, day 4
Today’s prompt: Why

Almost from the time we are able to speak, we begin to ask why. Parents of preschoolers can regale us with tales of their children repeatedly asking, “Why? Why? Why?”

Why is the sky blue?
Why are turtles so slow?
Why are sidewalks gray?
Why can’t I have ice cream for dinner?

As we grow older, our questions mature along with us. Presumably. In grade school, we ask, “why do I have to go to bed at 7:30?” In middle school, “why is my best friend ignoring me?” In high school, “why won’t she go out with me?”

Our development is intimately intertwined with attempting to make sense of the world  and our place in it. But as we press further into our confusion, clarity often dims. More and more often, our “whys” remain unanswered.

Too often, Christians dismiss why questions. We are supposed to have all of the answers, wrapped up in sparkly paper and finished with a bow. When people bring us their hurts we ask “have you prayed about it?” People muster their courage to share their fears and we respond “the Bible says don’t be afraid” or perhaps even “fearfulness is a sin.” Ugh.

But the biblical narrative reveals that God’s people were not afraid to ask why. Habakkuk asked “Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?” (1:3). Jeremiah asked “Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?” (15:18). Even Jesus, echoing David, pleaded “why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?” (Psalm 22:1).

Premature answers and biblical platitudes often fail to comfort. People need to hear that God is strong enough to bear their pain. They need to understand that asking difficult questions is not a sign of faithlessness.

Maybe, if we live in the world of easy answers, we would do well to ask ourselves, “why?”

For reflection:

What questions are you afraid to bring before God? How do you respond when people share their difficulties with you? 

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