The second greatest Christmas present I ever received

The first, of course, is Jesus Himself.

The second was about ten years ago when, in the throes of chronic depression, I woke up on Christmas morning happy. There was no reason for it, it simply happened.

I wasn’t exuberant, I was tranquil. I felt free. Everything felt quietly right. I had no guilt. No worry. I wasn’t even bored. As far as I can recall, it lasted all day, although I noticed it less as I got used to it.

Over the next few days, it gradually faded and the familiar depression returned, but for some reason that didn’t bother me particularly. Normally I would have clung desperately to an experience like the one I’d had, but in this case worrying about holding on to it seemed unnecessary, somehow. Inconsistent, even.

Besides, having felt it once made all the difference.

Partly, it gave me hope. Knowing that it was possible for me to feel like that made it worthwhile to work my way back to it. In future weeks, when I returned to the Scriptures to understand joy, one of the things that I realized was that joy is a process. Psalm 16 said:

You will make known to me the path of life;
In Your presence is fullness of joy;
In Your right hand there are pleasures forever.

I started reading this as saying that I am on the path of life, headed towards the perfect joy that is found in His presence, but not there yet. The fruit of the Spirit is joy, but fruit takes time to grow.

It also let me know what happiness was supposed to feel like. It’s hard to describe why that was so important, but it was. The closest analogy I can come up with is learning something physical. I remember rehearsing dance moves for a school musical. In the first few minutes, we would be shown the pieces of a particular step. We’d copy the way we were shown to move the left leg, the right leg, our bodies and arms. I’d try to do the step myself, holding together all the directions in my mind at once, and it would feel awkward and confused. Then, at about the third or fourth try, there would be a moment. By accident, I’d do it the right way, and from then on it was a lot easier. Once I’d felt it, I could repeat that by memory — not as a complicated series of disconnected body movements, but as one, essential, unified action. The step wouldn’t be perfect yet. I still had to think about how to move the left leg, the right leg, etc., but now those were merely minor modifications to a movement I already knew how to do.

Learning the right kind of tennis stroke or golf stroke worked the same way. Once I’d actually done it, I could repeat the same action by memory, and just tweak the stroke in small ways to get it right.

This was just like that, but instead of the feel of a smooth backhand it was the feel of being happy. I could remember what it felt like, and aim at that.

I’m still not sure why it happened. I speculated for a while that maybe I had some sort of forgotten dream whose effects were still lingering when I woke. These days, I am taking the idea of demons seriously, and I wonder if God lifted some sort of demonic oppression for a day. Maybe it was just the inner metaphorical demons of guilt and fear and despair that He temporarily released me from. Actually, I don’t think the two explanations are mutually exclusive.

The one thing I’m sure of is that I didn’t earn it. It wasn’t because I changed my attitude, or disciplined my thought life or finally surrendered my heart to God. It just happened to me.

Recently I was reflecting on my life so far. Those years of depression were one of five really difficult life struggles I’ve had. Each struggle was incredibly sad in some way. With each one, God eventually delivered me. Each made me stronger somehow, and became an essential part of my life story, so that I became ultimately glad to have gone through it. Even though I was deeply and desperately involved in each struggle, in each case there was something important God did that I could not or would not do for myself. In each case there was a moment of unexpected grace. In the case of depression, that moment was a Christmas morning a decade or so ago.

Merry Christmas, everyone. May God be as bountifully good to you in your need as He was that day to me!

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Seeking God’s blessing

I wrote this a couple of weeks ago.

The sermon today was on John 6:26-36.

Bread
Jesus miraculously fed the crowd.
  Spiritual “anointing”
Recently when I taught, God spoke to people through me in an evident way. I love that. But today, in Sunday School, everything I planned went wrong.
They looked for him again because they wanted more.   Me: Lord, I’m so frustrated at how Sunday School went. How can I worship you this morning, when I am angry and discouraged about Sunday School?
Jesus answered them and said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled.   Jesus: Why are you seeking me? What did you learn when I anointed your teaching? Did you learn that I am the source of fruitfulness and meaning? Did you learn that it is worth seeking me above all? Or is it only that you loved the experience of knowing I was doing something supernatural through you?
  Me: (sputtering) Well … well … I know that you give meaning in an eternal sense, but I also wanted things to go well this morning. When it didn’t, that messed up my joy. Maybe it shouldn’t have, but it just did.
Do not work for the food which perishes,   Jesus: Think about it, Kevin. After an “anointed experience”, the joy fades for you in a day or two. How often will you need your anointing fix?
but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you, for on Him the Father, God, has set His seal.” Your joy can be more permanent than that. I know you like to see me at work through you, but, you know, I’m still at work even when I don’t use you. Your joy in what I am doing doesn’t have to fade whenever it isn’t happening through you.
Therefore they said to Him, “What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?”   Me: OK. So how can I  have that joy now? What do I need to do?
Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.”   Jesus: Just let go and trust me. You don’t need to be personally successful.
So they said to Him, “What then do You do for a sign, so that we may see, and believe You? What work do You perform?   Me: But how can I trust you to be meaning and fruitfulness for me if you aren’t going to keep giving me experiences like that?
Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘HE GAVE THEM BREAD OUT OF HEAVEN TO EAT.’” After all, that’s how it works with other people! They have all these stories about how you make them fruitful! As long as they obey, and surrender to you, then you reach people through them. As long as they have faith, you show up.
Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven.   Jesus: You miss the point. It was never their experiences of anointing and fruitfulness that mattered. It was always just a matter of God being in it.
For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world.” What is “anointing” after all? Isn’t it the Holy Spirit’s presence and work? That’s all that was every really important. The anointing isn’t an experience, it’s a Person.
Then they said to Him, “Lord, always give us this bread.”   Me: OK, then give that to me.
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst.   Jesus: You know what to do. Just keep abiding in Me.
But I said to you that you have seen Me, and yet do not believe.” The reason you are struggling is because you aren’t responding in faith right now. (Ouch!)

 

 

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“the peace that passeth understanding”

After I wrote this, one of the commenters (Bekah) reminded me of Philippians 4:7. In the King James, this verse refers to the “peace that passeth … understanding”, which sticks in my mind because of the old song, “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart”. In the New American Standard version it says this:

And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:7)

The phrase “surpasses all comprehension” could simply be a way of saying “Wow! That’s a lot of peace!” It surpasses comprehension in that we can’t even understand how much there is.

There’s another possible meaning though, and that is that the peace of God goes beyond what mere comprehension can attain for us.

In other words, there are two ways to try to find peace. The first is to worry at my problems, to keep mulling them over until I see a clear solution. This is the attempt to get peace by comprehension. “If I can just figure everything out,” we think to ourselves, “then I can stop worrying about it.”

The second path is to bring things to God in prayer, and leave them there without necessarily seeing how the answers will come or even if they will come. Then God gives us peace anyway. It doesn’t have its source in how much we understand, but in how much we trust. We can’t figure our way into that kind of peace. It’s only possible by the gift of God.

Because this peace is something we cannot calculate our way into, it may seem to go beyond what is rational. The peace God gives us just doesn’t make sense to us. We can’t see why, given the current situation, we shouldn’t be more worried than we are. And so, in the circumstances, the peace of God really does surpass comprehension even in something like the original sense.

If this is true, then Philippians 4:6-7 implies there is more to dealing with worry than simply trusting God’s promises. It means that, although rehearsing the promises of God and being thankful for what He has done in the past may strengthen our faith and may give us some rational level of peace, there is also something else that happens when we pray. When we come into contact with God relationally, His Spirit strengthens our hearts and gives us a peace that goes beyond the practical comfort we get from believing He will keep His promises.

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“the One who lifts my head”

A few days after wondering about this, I spent some time in Psalm 3, which says,

You, O Lord, are a shield about me.
My glory and the One who lifts my head. (Ps 3:3)

The first statement in this verse, “You are a shield about me” is about objective security. Whether we feel afraid or not, we have the promise of God that He is our protector. I think “You … are the One who lifts my head” is about subjective security, about feeling secure. God not only protects us, He encourages us (i.e., puts courage in us).

When God protects us, whether we know it or not, He is a shield about us. When He protects us and tells us so, then He is the One who lifts our heads (by His promises). When He gives us supernatural peace that overrides our fears, that is also an example of His being the One who lifts our heads (directly). The Psalm doesn’t prove by itself that He ever gives us peace directly like that because it actually doesn’t say anything at all about how God lifts our heads. Still, when He does, I somehow like having this imagery to think about it with.

The Psalm points to the fact it is part of God’s character to lift us up when we are down. 2 Corinthians 7:6 simply says, “But God, who comforts the depressed, comforted us …”

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“Sometimes God calms His child …”

On a recent Sunday evening our church’s children’s musical had a song with these words in it by Scott Krippayne:

Sometimes He calms the storm
With a whispered peace be still
He can settle any sea
But it doesn’t mean He will
Sometimes He holds us close
And lets the wind and waves go wild
Sometimes He calms the storm 
And other times He calms His child 

I found myself wondering about the difference between “Sometimes He calms His child” and “Sometimes He reminds of us His promises and expects us to calm ourselves.”

There are two things that can change: the circumstances or the fear. There are two parties who can be responsible for the change: God or us.

So when I find myself afraid in troubling circumstances, I suppose there are four possibilities:

  • I pray, and God changes the circumstances.
  • I pray, and God challenges me to make choices that will change the circumstances.
  • I pray and God takes my fear away.
  • I pray and God challenges me to make the choice to stop being afraid.

I realize that things aren’t quite so cut and dried. Probably all four cases occur mixed together sometimes. This list is just a way for me to arrange my thoughts about the matter.

What I am most interested in is how often the third case arises. I struggle with irrational but strong fear fairly regularly. I know that there have been times in the past when God simply overrode my emotions and took the fear away. (His doing that was even an important part of my getting saved, but that’s a story for another day.) I wonder how common that kind of thing is.

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Courage

I think joy is found in courageously being who we were created to be. We can have that kind of joy simultaneously with sorrow.

I struggle with courage a lot. Sometimes I spend too much time hiding from responsibilities I don’t want to face. Sometimes I disengage emotionally from life because it feels like too much to handle. Sometimes I just give in to despair (about nothing in particular, just general despair).

When most Christians in my church talk about courage, I get more discouraged. But when Ric, the leader of a Bible study I attend, talks about courage, I get encouraged. Why is that? I think it’s because Ric links courage with faith in God’s promises. Everyone else links courage with personal determination.

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Disappointment with God

As I write this post, I’ve just finished reading Exodus 5 for my quiet time. It’s one of my favorite chapters. Moses has finally accepted his calling to confront Pharaoh on God’s behalf. It was a gutsy decision on his part. He didn’t really know at first if he could trust God to do it. After finally stirring himself up to take this risk because God asks him to, he and Aaron go to talk to Pharaoh and what happens? Everything gets worse. Not only does Pharaoh not let Israel go, he actually increases their labor. The Israelites angrily tell Moses,

May the LORD look upon you and judge you, for you have made us odious in Pharaoh’s sight and in the sight of his servants, to put a sword in their hand to kill us.

Moses goes back to God and asks plaintively

O Lord, why have You brought harm to this people? Why did You ever send me? Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has done harm to this people, and You have not delivered Your people at all.

I always find this poignant. Especially that final line: … and You have not delivered Your people at all. 

Tonight I was thinking how easy it is for us to feel let down by God when we have made some effort to obey or trust Him, and things haven’t gone as we expected.

Based on what I think was the leading of the Holy Spirit, I spent some time mentally retracing my decisions and desires over the last few months. I made a short list of about 10 things in my life I feel the same way as Moses about. Then I went through each one and prayed Moses’ prayer back to God for my own situation.

I don’t think the point was that God wanted me to rehearse complaining to Him. Instead, I think it made me more aware of my tendency toward self-pity. Also, oddly, I felt as though God was drawing closer to me through the exercise.

Moses was wrong, of course, in thinking God had let him down, just as I am wrong when I feel let down by God. God was still going to deliver His people; He just hadn’t delivered them yet. The battle between Jehovah and Pharaoh was only beginning. Our timetable and God’s are very different.

I sensed God reconfirming His desire that I pour out my heart to Him. I ended my quiet time by laying before Him once again a specific request I’d had, one I’d felt disappointed in up until then.

Then I remembered the verses at the end of the Psalm we looked at yesterday in Sunday School:

Unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living … !
Wait for the LORD;
Be strong and let your heart take courage;
Yes, wait for the LORD. (Ps 27:13-14)

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Sadness

I’ve been trying to post something every Tuesday, Thursday and weekend (Saturday or Sunday or both), but this past week I didn’t get around to it until Friday. Part of the reason was, frankly, that I lost motivation to write due to being in a bit of a funk on Wednesday and Thursday.

A few years ago, when I was prone to more serious bouts of depression, that would have meant lots of rage and despair. In this case I just went a couple of days with absolutely no motivation to do anything. Also, I was really cranky. (Sorry, Kate and kids.)

Anyway, there were two features of this most recent time of discouragement that I want to comment on. Both are pretty typical for me, and both run counter to what people expect.

The first is that what triggered my depression was an attempt to get closer to God. A couple of days earlier I had spent some extra time with the Lord praying and confessing some sins and and meditating on a Scriptural passage in 1 Peter. The prayer and confession and time in Scripture were all encouraging, but trying to live out my faith honestly afterwards was tough. It’s so much easier emotionally to fake the Christian life than it is to walk with God for real. Facing fear, anger, denial or self-centeredness is so much harder than being in denial about them.

I don’t want to be misunderstood. In the long run my life is much happier because God pushes me to deal with things. Ultimately, knowing God is the source of all true joy for me. But on a day-to-day basis I often find that pursuing spiritual victory leads to feelings of discouragement, loss, and guilt. Until I fight through those feelings, it can seem as though pursuing God is the harder path.

The second thing I want to comment on is that when I’m really feeling melancholy, the thought of having to muster up encouragement is especially discouraging. Folk wisdom says that if you keep a positive attitude, if you count your blessings and express yourself in praise and thankfulness, you’ll begin to feel better. That’s the opposite of what happens in my case. When I’m sad, trying to be cheerful makes me a lot sadder. (It doesn’t sadden me to act cheerfully towards other people, just to try and mean it on the inside.)

I’ve always wondered why this is true. On Thursday I noticed something about my emotional state at the time that might be relevant. When I’m feeling low, I normally toughen up my feelings a little in order to hold everything together. I have to keep myself a little numb. Being genuinely thankful requires an emotional vulnerability that I can’t handle at moments of deep sorrow. Starting to praise or give thanks makes me feel like crying!

If I’m going to open up emotionally when I’m profoundly sad, what I’d rather do is just be melancholy in God’s presence. It reminds me of the Amy Grant song Better than a Hallelujah.

God loves a lullaby
In a mother’s tears in the dead of night
Better than a Hallelujah sometimes

God loves the drunkard’s cry
The soldier’s plea not to let him die
Better than a Hallelujah sometimes

We pour out our miseries
God just hears a melody
Beautiful, the mess we are
The honest cries of breaking hearts
Are better than a Hallelujah

God invites our expressions of sadness just as much as our joy. You can see this all through the Bible, especially in the Psalms.

I’ve learned in the last several years that if I give it time, the depression will pass and joy will replace it. I am thankful to “the God of all comfort … who comforts the depressed” (2 Corinthians 1:3, 7:6). My family is also patient with me when I get blue, so I’m thankful to them too.

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Weariness

It’s been a good semester for me so far, but a wearying one. Tonight, I am exhausted physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

The two things that wear me out most are having courage and being responsible. I don’t know what to do about the weariness of facing fear, but when the weight of responsibility begins to get really heavy, I find the following verses refreshing:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

And He called a child to Himself and set him before them, and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

Matthew 18:1-4 (NASB)

 

O LORD, my heart is not proud, nor my eyes haughty;
Nor do I involve myself in great matters,
Or in things too difficult for me.

Surely I have composed and quieted my soul;
Like a weaned child rests against his mother,
My soul is like a weaned child within me.

O Israel, hope in the LORD
From this time forth and forever. Psalm 131 (NASB)

It’s hard having to be grown-up all the time. It’s nice to know that we are always just children to God. Probably one reason seeing ourselves as children is helpful is that it punctures our self-importance. Taking ourselves too seriously is one of the heaviest burdens of all.

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Emotional openness

Two ways of watching movies

A few days ago, my two daughters Hannah and Bekah and I had an interesting conversation about how we watch movies.

First, Bekah and I analyze movies as we watch. Hannah analyzes movies and her reaction to them after seeing them, but as she is actually watching it is very important to her not to analyze.

Second, Hannah evaluates a movie almost entirely on the basis of how intensely it makes her experience the story. She doesn’t mean that a good movie has to explore grand themes. Some movies are about routine, about the ordinariness of life. That’s fine. Other movies end in emotional ambivalence or even confusion. That’s OK with Hannah too. What she wants, though, is for the movie to allow her to live through the story in the movie as though she had experienced it in her own life. She wants to have really felt the happiness or the tragedy or the sense of routine or the emotional ambivalence.

Bekah and I are more concerned with enjoying or appreciating the various things the movie does well. We have fun when it makes us laugh and enjoy the tingle when it makes us scared, but I think we don’t live through it the way Hannah does. I think it’s a little more distant from us than Hannah experiences.

The reason Hannah can’t analyze a movie as she watches is because she doesn’t want to put any wall between her and the story the movie is telling. She doesn’t want to hold it out at arms’ length and inspect it. She wants to get inside it and then enjoy the ride.

It’s also important to her not to know anything about a movie beforehand. She doesn’t even like to know whether other people liked the movie or not. She wants to experience it naively, without expectations or preconceptions about where it will lead.

Emotional Openness

As Hannah described all this, I realized that I do something very similar sometimes. At certain points in my life, I find myself listening very closely to someone, trying to understand how they see the world. When I do that, I slide into a special frame of mind, in which I suspend judgment as much as possible about how they think and feel, and just try to get them. I try not to compare what they are saying to my own way of looking at things until after I’m sure I’ve really heard what they mean.

Or again, when I interpret a Bible passage, praying about what it means, I find that it helps if I suspend all my expectations for the passage. If I come to a passage with questions or needs they can get in the way. It’s as though I am trying to listen to what the passage is telling me, but I keep talking the whole time. What I have had to learn to do is to be quiet, even in my own thoughts, and just let the Bible speak. I can’t even maintain the goal of being convicted, or being encouraged, or finding something to obey. All these things mean I am interrogating the passage to find out what I want to know instead of letting it simply speak to me.

When I do slip into either of these two mindsets, it always feels to me as though I am opening myself up to the person or the Bible passage. What Hannah does with a movie seems similar to me. She opens herself up emotionally to experience whatever the filmmaker is wanting her to experience. She waits through the whole movie to be sure she gets it all as a whole. Then afterwards she analyzes what has happened to her and how it has changed her.

In daily life

One of the things I’m wondering about is whether God is calling me to learn to take Hannah’s approach to life in general. I’ve been becoming aware in the last few years of the ways I distance myself emotionally from life. I seem to have two emotional gears: in one, I wallow in my feelings, which isn’t very healthy; in the other, I observe them from a distance and live in my head, which is turning out to be not all that healthy either.

I talked a few weeks ago with someone who is going through a kind of charismatic revival in her walk with God. She is experiencing some intense emotional highs in her Christian life and has begun to actively seek that kind of emotion in her prayer and worship. I’m not interested in pursuing emotion for emotion’s sake, and I’m a little leery of becoming too emotionally vulnerable just to be able to feel things more intensely. But it’s also possible to be too much in control emotionally, and I sense that perhaps that is more commonly where I go wrong.

I started thinking after my talk with Hannah that her approach to movies could be my approach to life. By letting go of expectations about how I should feel or want to feel about the day ahead, I can just let myself experience whatever there is. I can let God do whatever He wants to do without trying to fit it into a package labeled “What Life Should Be”.

At the same time if I avoid passing judgment on my emotional experiences as good or bad, if I just let them happen without appraising them as I go, it will keep me from the worst part of wallowing. There’s a kind of protection from the roller-coaster ride of emotions in the very fact that I am not identifying with them or connecting them to my other hopes and fears but just letting them flow over me.

I’m not sure if I entirely trust this approach. It feels like it might be dangerous. I don’t think it has to be narcissistic. I suppose the real question is whether it’s Spirit-led. So I’m not sure where I go from here. Certainly I’ll keep mulling it over. If I can, I’ll spend a little extra time in the Psalms (a good place to learn how to feel the way we’re supposed to). And for now, whatever each day bring to me emotionally I’ll try to accept without passing judgment on it.

 

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