Do Not Ask…

*Warning– The following poem is a work of fiction. The first part of this post is meant to reflect emotions that may be associated with depression and suicide. The represent things I have heard, and some things I have said…

Do not ask me, “How are things going?”
Things go on around me. Things happen at me.
Things are not going– of if they are, I am not going with them…

Do not ask me, “Are you ok?”
I will say, “Sure, everything’s fine.”
Not because it is; not because I am, and
Not because I care whether you believe me.
It is what I will say because it gives you permission
To feel good about asking, without actually having to
Share the pain and fog and futility of my honest answer.

Do not ask me, “How are you doing?”
I am not doing– not much of anything.
I live surrounded by unfinished tasks–
Stacks of unwashed dishes and piles of dirty laundry;
Unpaid bills and unopened mail.
I forget to eat or brush my teeth;
I have trouble finding the energy to remember how to
Smile, use polite words, look up, function…

Do not ask, “How are you?”
For I am not…

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How do I pray for someone like this? How do I pray AS someone like this?

Depression is devious and deadly. It impacts thousands of lives, and takes thousands of lives each day.
It is easy enough for me to say, “Snap out of it!”, or to blame the person who chooses to think and act negatively. After all, attitude is a choice. We choose to look at the positive or negative in life, and no one else can choose for us what to think or how to feel.

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What we can choose– all of us– is to turn our focus on God and away from the negative. I cannot rescue someone else from their own emotional demons; I cannot save myself with “positive” thoughts. I CAN cry out to the one who loves me more than I love myself– even on my best days–that HE would transform my thinking, and bring light into the darkness of those who cannot see past the fog and mire of their own gloom.

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And I can stop asking the surface questions– “How are you?”– prying and digging without being prepared for the raw ooze and festering pus that comes with honesty. Those questions may be well-meant, but they often come without context or conviction. They can become a polite way of skirting the obvious– we EXPECT the reassurance that everything is fine; and when it isn’t, we feel obligated to come up with a quick cure for a problem we haven’t fully diagnosed.

Depression is scary– both for those who experience it and those who encounter it in someone else. Ignoring it, covering it up, or trying to force it into the background doesn’t help. Nor does it help to wallow in it, trying to micro-manage it or hyper-spiritualize it.

The same God who listened to Elijah begging to die just after his momentous victory over 450 prophets of Baal (1 Kings 19: 1-14); the same God who listened to David in exile, Jonah from the belly of the whale, Moses in the midst of rebellion and exhaustion, and Job from the ash heap– He listens to us in our weariness, our grief, our confusion, and our depression. This is the same God who Himself experienced the agony of Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-42), and expressed a soul “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.”

If you are struggling with depression, even if you question whether God is listening, you can still pray. God will never ask, “Are you ok?”– He already knows. Moreover, He already knows the best that He has for you.

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If someone you know is struggling with depression, PRAY! But don’t stop there. When Elijah was depressed, God sent food and water. When Moses was struggling with the entire nation of Israel in the wilderness, God sent food and water– and wisdom from Moses’ father-in-law. Practical help, positive reminders, and consistent care DOES make a difference. I cannot begin to tell how many times a random smile or compliment has helped stem the tide for me. Someone I haven’t seen in awhile who doesn’t just jump in asking how I’m doing, or how I’m feeling, but instead comments that it is good to see me–someone who admits that they have struggled, and found grace and healing– someone whose primary goal is not to “check up on me,” or “fix me,” but rather to interact and connect and to be “present” with me.

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Losing someone to suicide is horribly painful, and it is tempting to carry a load of guilt and unanswered/unanswerable questions. PRAY! And then PRAY some more! God won’t send easy answers; He won’t take away the pain of loss; though He will provide healing and grace. But God will do as He has promised– to BE with us, no matter what, and to give us a peace that passes all understanding. God never punished the people in the Bible for feeling depressed, or for crying out in despair. God didn’t tell them to “Snap out of it,” or to “Get over it.” But neither did He coddle it. He did not rescue those, like King Saul, who fell on their own swords rather than falling on their knees.

For more Biblical information on depression: see https://www.beliefnet.com/wellness/health/emotional-health/depression/5-bible-figures-who-struggled-with-depression.aspx#:~:text=Even%20kings%20get%20depressed.%20King%20David%20was%20%E2%80%9Ca,Psalms%2C%20stem%20from%20any%20of%20several%20probable%20causes.

Please pray– but don’t ignore practical help. Even simple steps, like taking a shower, paying attention to sleeping, eating, and drinking habits, making sure you move/exercise/stretch throughout the day, can help. Ask for and accept help– true help–and beware of asking for “substitute” help that will enable you to continue with unhealthy thinking and behavior.

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Because I want you to “do well.” I want you to “be ok.” I want you to be!

I Shall Not Want..

Of all the 150 Psalms in the Bible, Psalm 23 is the most well-known. It speaks of our Lord as a Shepherd who takes care of us, leading us to green pastures and calming our fears even in the valley of the shadow of death. But these four words in the very first verse, though comforting to many, have also been a source of grief to others. If the Lord is my Shepherd, I should have no reason to want. But what if I still have wants? Unanswered prayers? Struggles and trials and lacks?

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Let’s look at the phrase carefully. “I shall not want” is the wording in the King James (English) version of scripture. More modern translations render the phrase as “I lack nothing (NIV),” “I have what I need (CSB),” or other variations of “I shall not want.” Let’s stick with “I shall not want,” and look at it word by word.

This Psalm is very personal. The Lord is MY Shepherd– I shall not want. This is between me and my Shepherd. I may be tempted to look around and compare, to want what someone else has, even if I don’t need it; even if it isn’t good for me. But when I depend on my Shepherd to provide, I can trust that whatever comes, He knows what I want and what I need. He knows what is best. Therefore, I shall not worry or wonder or want.

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I am a former English teacher, so the verb “shall” interests me here. “Shall” and “will” are sometimes used interchangeably in English, but they are not exactly the same. “Shall” is not used much, but it indicates a future condition, or a condition that is ongoing into the future. It is not the active verb in this phrase, but rather the indicator of when that action (wanting, lacking, needing) will take place and how. The difference between “shall” and “will” in this case is not one of action, or time, but of volition. “Will” indicates a conscious decision– I “Will not want” means I will determine the action and outcome–without a Shepherd’s guidance or provision. I “Shall not want” means the outcome is determined by my Shepherd (in this case), not by my own volition or actions. There may be things I “will” still want– if I’m trying to go my own way and depend on my own wisdom and abilities, but that doesn’t change my condition–God has provided. God has given. God WILL continue to provide.

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“I shall NOT want”– I may desire something else; I may not have what others have; I may be poor or sick or sad. I may respond to my circumstances with grumbling, doubt, anger, envy, greed, or disbelief. But I can also respond with trust, gratitude, wonder and worship, knowing that God sees me, knows me, and cares for my always. God doesn’t force me to respond positively to hard times– the Psalmist doesn’t say, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall be grateful,” or “I shall never complain.” He doesn’t say, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall have whatever gives me pleasure or makes my life easier.” Rather, he gives us a true picture life– I will NOT have everything I wish for; I will NOT understand or take pleasure in all the circumstances of my life, but I shall NOT be abandoned, left alone and without help or resources, lacking any source of hope, joy, peace, or love.

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Finally, we come to the word “want.” In this context, it is meant to signify lack– I shall lack for nothing; I shall not be without (God who provides). And this is where many people struggle with the verse; with the Psalm; with the Shepherd Himself. We DO lack– many things. We lack money to pay the bills, we lack in our relationships, we lack perfect health, we lack patience…the list is endless. We “want” for many things. And we read Psalm 23, and it seems to mock us. If God is our Shepherd, why do we lose loved ones to disease? Why do we have to declare bankruptcy? Why did our spouse file for divorce? Why can’t we break that bad habit or addiction? Why do we see “good” people suffering? Doesn’t God see or care? God doesn’t give us easy answers. He doesn’t promise ease and comfort in this fallen world. But He is with us, not matter where, no matter what, no matter how we got there. And He promises to renew, restore, and redeem all that we lack in the present– perfectly and forever after.

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I shall not WANT. I shall suffer in the present– loss, pain, confusion, heartbreak, disappointment, failure. But I am not without– not without God’s presence in this world, and not without His promise of justice, mercy, hope, and love now and in the world to come. I am still a sheep–I have needs, I make unwise decisions, and I don’t have the ability to see or defend against the dangers of this world. But I have a Shepherd– all-knowing, all-powerful, and extravagant in Love and Grace. I will depend on Him. I will call out to Him. I will follow Him. And I shall not want!

How’s My Serve?

“Life is so unnerving for a servant who’s not serving–
He’s not whole without a soul to wait upon…”
(Be Our Guest from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast)

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Philippians 2:3-8 King James Version (KJV)

Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

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1 Peter 2:13-19 Revised Standard Version (RSV)

13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution,[a] whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing right you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. 16 Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God. 17 Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

[a](or,  every institution ordained for men)

  

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The English word serve has at least seven different definitions, according to Merriam-Webster dictionary see here, and that’s just the intransitive verb form!  The concept of service and serving is often misunderstood and denigrated.  Our culture (especially American culture) in general has a low opinion of servants.  Value is placed on independence– neither needing service nor being required to give it to others.  But service is much broader then “servitude”, and good service requires that we place our value on interdependence, rather than independence.

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Good service requires a lot, but I think there are three key ingredients–obedience, humility, and love.

I don’t normally recommend Disney as a source of moral instruction, but just in the short two lines of lyrics above there is a great example of a servant’s heart.  A good servant isn’t reluctantly or resentfully dragged into service.  (Oh, there are days or circumstances that are trying and tiring, but that’s the exception, not the norm.)  S/he is eager to serve, and even restless when unable to be of service.  A good servant is also personal.  Their service is not given by rote, but with attention to the individual “soul” they are serving.  It’s hyperbole, of course, but the verve and giddiness found in the singing and dancing dishes of a Disney movie should be reflective of the kind of service we provide at work, at home, and at church– “Be our Guest!”

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As followers of Jesus, we should also look to His example.  Paul reminds us that Jesus did not seek fame or attention or demand respect or recognition during His time on Earth.  Instead, He gave up all the glory of Heaven to become a man– and not just a man, but a helpless baby born in obscurity and growing up without entitlements and comforts; the child of a working-class family  in a small town under foreign occupation.  He lived as a homeless itinerant teacher, and died as a common criminal under shameful circumstances– naked and bloody, displayed in public, to be mocked and used as a warning for others.  But Jesus wasn’t a doormat–he was humble, he was meek–he CHOSE to submit to the pain and humiliation and even the injustice of a rigged trial and a death sentence by mob rule.  He had opportunities to grab the glory, to turn the tide, to escape his unfair fate, and/or to become a great political or military leader.  He didn’t take those opportunities– instead, he was obedient to the Father.  He showed love and compassion even to those who mocked him, betrayed him, and murdered him.

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It’s frightening to serve with that kind of abandon.  It’s not humanly possible to let go of one’s life with joy for the sake of those who have taken it from you.  My human desire is to grab hold of life and get as much out of it as I can.  Even when my intention is not to hurt anyone else, it is not in my nature to put someone else’s needs and comforts ahead of my own.  But it needs to become part of my nature.

I want to serve like Serena Williams–slamming my passion at the speed of a bullet train and earning trophies.  (And this is not meant to be disrespectful– I am a great admirer of Serena’s talent and drive, and I think there is much to learn from her perseverance and excellence.)  But tennis, while fun to watch and good for exercise, does not teach good “service”.

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I’d like to serve like a CEO– guiding a company to greater success and huge profits.  I might even help hundreds of people by creating more jobs and increasing their wealth.  But in the end, this is not the kind of service that has everlasting consequences, or “soul” benefits.

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I honor those who have served in the military; those who work in service industries, or provide emergency services.  And those who have served in government, whether local, state, national, regional, provincial, or other.  Many have served selflessly and given their lives, willingly, in combat or rescue missions.  For every story of someone who has abused their office, or fled in the face of personal danger, there are many more stories of courage, compassion, and sacrifice.  Such service should also “serve” as an example to all of us.

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I enjoy serving customers at work– helping them find something they want or need, or answering questions.  But that’s my job.  I get a certain gratification, and a paycheck, that help motivate such service.

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God wants me to learn to serve from the pure joy of service– pouring myself out with abandon to help others succeed– rejoicing with them when they reach their goals; grieving with them in their loss.  And, like Jesus, God wants me to do it, not in my own limited strength and wisdom, but in obedience to His will– not becoming a dupe or a doormat to anyone who wants to step on me, but discerning what is best for others and cheerfully doing what I can to bring it about.

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That’s a tall order, and it requires that I take time to ask God and trusted friends– How’s my Serve?

Trust and Obey

It’s a song I sang as a child in Sunday School–

Trust and obey,
For there’s no other way
To be happy in Jesus,
But to trust and obey.

It bothered me as a child, the part about “No other way.”  It seemed narrow-minded and harsh.  Surely, I could be happy in Jesus just doing my own good things and singing his praises.  Besides, I did trust him, I followed the Ten Commandments, and the Golden Rule, and I was a nice person.  So why did I feel that I was missing something?

In all the years I’ve been a follower of Christ, I have learned the importance of trust and obedience.  I can’t truly follow someone I don’t trust.  I can learn from them, admire them, even try to act like them, but eventually, I will try to take the lead, or let go and walk down a different path.  Similarly, I can’t say that I trust someone if I won’t obey them.  If they ask me to do something, and I ignore their request, or re-interpret it, or come up with excuses why I won’t do it, it really boils down to one thing: I don’t trust that their request has any merit.

In a broken world, filled with sin and pride and selfishness, there are many reasons NOT to trust or obey certain people.  Abusers, users, sadists and sociopaths abound.  Such people may suggest that there is “no other way to be happy..” than to trust them and obey them implicitly.  So when God asks us to put our trust in an invisible Godhead, it seems terrible, final, and harsh.  Is God demanding abject humiliation and mindless adherence to his law?  Will we lose ourselves in drudgery and joyless obedience to a harsh taskmaster on the whimsical hope of a happy afterlife?

That is a view that is often peddled, and ridiculed.  But I think a closer look at the Bible gives us a different picture.  Yes, God is harsh and wrathful against sin and sinners–but so am I!   I find myself getting furious over injustices and pain caused by sin in the world–I can only imagine how angry God must be to see the way we lie and cheat and abuse each other, and the untold painful consequences he has witnessed through the years.  The only thing holding him back is the power of his Mercy.  His anger is swallowed up in patient and unfathomable love that is ready to forgive even the worst offenders.   And God’s wrath is pure, unlike mine, which is selective against those who have hurt me, but wants to smooth over my own sins.  His love is even more pure– he loves even the worst sinner, and even the most unloveable people (in my flawed estimation).  He is unwilling that ANYONE stay lost and enslaved by their sinful past.

Think about it– Jesus, who knew God best (being part of the Godhead himself) never painted his Father as a brute who demanded people to become “useful idiots” just to stroke his ego.  He didn’t talk about a harsh and unforgiving God who “hated” sinners.  Instead, Jesus healed the sick, raised the dead, gave sight to the blind, and spoke to sinners and outcasts as though they were more important than the religious elite…because that was his heart!  But more than that, Jesus showed us what it meant to “Trust and Obey”–he didn’t seek fame or fortune for himself, he never owned a home, or sought public office, and he never ran arouns worrying and fretting that God would leave him in the lurch.  Even under the worst circumstances leading up to his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus only spent one hour worrying about what was to come, and in that hour of prayer, he found the peace and strength to say, “not my will, but yours be done (Luke 22:42).  In his ministry, he humbly walked the byways and taught those who willingly followed him.  He healed and encouraged and saved those who came to him; those who trusted him as he trusted his Father.  He did not pat on the back those who claimed to follow his Father, but wouldn’t trust him.  Nor did he reward those who claimed to obey God, but hated their neighbors, justified their own self-righteousness, and changed God’s laws to feather their own lifestyles.

Does “Trust and Obey” mean that we might lose our status, our wealth, our comfort, and our lives?  Not necessarily, but there is no promise that we will be richer, or healthier, or more popular for following Jesus.  He didn’t come to make us comfortable or “better than” someone else.  In fact, he warned us that while we are in this world, we will have troubles and sorrows (with or without our faith!)  So how can we be “happy in Jesus” if we end up homeless, hated, or sick?  How can we talk about being happy in Jesus under awful circumstances?  Is this just some brainwashing tactic to make us forget how miserable we are?  What’s the “payoff” of Trust and Obey?

The answer involves a choice–Do I trust Jesus when he says that he came to give us, not just life, not even just eternal life, but abundant life?  If Jesus isn’t trustworthy; if I am not sure that he can or will make my life MORE than I ever dreamed, MORE than I imagine–even in the midst of otherwise difficult circumstances–then I will never be happy in Jesus.  But if I DO trust Jesus, then I can be happy, not because of my circumstances, but because I can trust all that he says about them, and that his grace is more than sufficient to see me through.  And I know that whatever trials I may be going through can be turned to good because I trust his power and his goodness.

And true obedience can only follow true trust.  If I say that God’s rules aren’t important, or don’t apply to me, then I’m really saying I don’t trust him to know what’s best, or that I don’t trust that He is really Good.  The temporary happiness that comes from following my way (even if I think I’m doing it for the right reasons) will give way to resentment against God.  How dare he stop me from that one thing that brings me joy– how dare he question my “needs” or call my actions “wrong”.  How dare he suggest that His way could be better or more abundant than what I know–even if I suspect that what I know and experience isn’t always the best it could be.

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No– the longer I follow Jesus, the more that old song rings true, and not harsh or condemning, but full of wisdom and promise.  It is with the faith of a child (not stupid or simplistic, but hopeful and eager), and humble (not abject or reluctant) obedience that we find happiness in Jesus, peace for our souls, and strength to face the trying circumstances of this life.

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