A Prayer in the Valley of Shadow

In The Silver Chair (one of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia), the great lion Aslan gives Jill some signs by which she and Eustace are to find the lost prince. But then Aslan warns her, “Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly; I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind.”

We also speak of “mountaintop experiences” in which God’s voice seems so clear and our perspective is sharpened. Prayer on the mountaintop feels easy because God feels so close. But we don’t live on the mountaintop.

We live in the valley, where the air is “thick,” where our senses are dulled by the noise and our sight is dimmed by the shadows. We live in the “valley of the shadow of death,” as the psalmist put it, and prayer in the valley doesn’t feel so easy or exciting.

My favorite collection of prayers is a little volume of Puritan prayers called The Valley of Vision. The first prayer (from which the volume gets its title) is a prayer out of the depths of the valley, but in this case, the valley–because of its darkness–becomes a place of clear vision if one looks up to see the brightness of God’s stars above. Whatever valley you may find yourself in, may this prayer lift your eyes to the One who is far above you holding all things together, and yet is even now with you in the valley.

Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly,

Thou hast brought me to the valley of vision,
where I live in the depths but see thee in the heights;
hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold thy glory.

Let me learn by paradox
that the way down is the way up,
that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart,
that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,
that to have nothing is to possess all,
that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,
that to give is to receive,
that the valley is the place of vision.

Lord, in the daytime stars can be seen from deepest wells,
and the deeper the wells the brighter thy stars shine;
Let me find thy light in my darkness,
thy life in my death,
thy joy in my sorrow,
thy grace in my sin,
thy riches in my poverty
thy glory in my valley.

Is Freud Right?

Heath Lambert, in his book The Biblical Counseling Movement after Adams, says that a part of Sigmund Freud’s impetus to develop psychotherapy was that he believed the church had failed in the task of “helping people with life’s problems.” Because the church was not providing this needed care for souls, Freud sought to develop a class of professional, non-religious workers to carry it out. Ironically though, Freud called this class of counselors “secular pastoral workers,” by which he seems to be acknowledging that at its core, counseling is a pastoral role.

Many psychoanalytic theories—and theorists—have come and gone since Freud, but the question posed by his indictment of the church still remains: Is the care and cure of souls a uniquely pastoral role, and if so, has the church indeed failed by handing over this role to professional psychologists?

A present-day psychologist named Larry Crabb asks a similar question in his paradigm-shifting book Becoming a True Spiritual Community. This is what Dr. Crabb writes:

If that [i.e. a desperate determination toward autonomy from God] is what needs therapeutic attention, and if attention that is therapeutic is a relationship of love, wisdom, and integrity, then successful therapy consists of a kind of relationship a spiritual community is uniquely and intentionally gifted to provide. Why, then, do we turn to professionals?

Crabb’s answer to his own question—“Spiritual community is rare. That’s why we have professionals.”—sounds like he is coming to a similar conclusion as Freud. But rather than turning to the psychotherapy he had been trained in and practiced, Crabb started NewWay Ministries to train lay people in the art of spiritual direction. According to a CT article, Crabb “turned his back on diagnostic counseling methods in order to care for people’s souls in an unpredictable, unprofessional, fickle, and, in his opinion, most useful context: caring relationships. He now believes that there’s no better psychotherapy than friendships fashioned after the everlasting friendship between Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

Spiritual community is rare. Therefore we as God’s people must rise to the challenge and learn to love one another in redemptive and healing ways, in order that one day perhaps Freud’s indictment of the church may be proved wrong.

1000 Sleepless Nights

I remember well the tears and trauma (or maybe just drama) of dropping toddlers off at Sunday school and trying to extricate oneself from clinging arms and screaming mouths, all the while promising that Mommy and Daddy will come back soon. I also remember well the times of serving in the toddler department when other parents were the ones dealing with tears and trauma–the most frustrating thing as a helper was when a parent didn’t leave but hung around and tried to calm their child. That was frustrating because it took much longer for that child to learn to be OK with the temporary separation from their parents, and they never quite gained the same level of trust in their parents. But those children whose parents left even while the child was screaming came to eventually know–not just in theory but in lived experience–that they could trust their parents and take them at their word.

In her song Blessings, Laura Story asks the question: “What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You’re near?” Just as a toddler cannot fully know (in experience, not just in theory) that her parents are trustworthy unless her parents allow her to experience the discomfort of temporary separation, so also it seems that we only come to know (in experience, not just in theory) the nearness of God when we experience that nearness night after sleepless night. But if that is the case, then most likely that means that of those thousand sleepless nights, there have been several hundred in which we did not feel God’s nearness, and may in fact have doubted His presence and wondered if He had abandoned us. And then somewhere in that long string of suffering, perhaps in night 732, something finally clicks in our heart and we begin to know that God is indeed present and near, and as those long dark nights continue, the knowledge of God’s nearness moves from mere intellectual assent to the solid conviction of lived experience.

We could add our own questions alongside Laura’s:

  • What if this chronic pain is what it takes to know You’re strong?
  • What if this job loss is what it takes to know You’re sufficient?
  • What if this broken relationship is what it takes to know Your perfect love?
  • What if the strain of showing kindness to this unlovely person is what it takes to know Your extravagant mercy?
  • What if this dark valley of depression is what it takes to know Your hope that doesn’t disappoint?

A hymn by John Newton in 1779 captures God’s answer to these questions of ours…

I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek, more earnestly, His face.

‘Twas He who taught me thus to pray,
And He, I trust, has answered prayer!
But it has been in such a way,
As almost drove me to despair.

I hoped that in some favored hour,
At once He’d answer my request;
And by His love’s constraining pow’r,
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.

Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry pow’rs of hell
Assault my soul in every part.

Yea more, with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.

Lord, why is this, I trembling cried,
Wilt thou pursue thy worm to death?
“‘Tis in this way, the Lord replied,
I answer prayer for grace and faith.

These inward trials I employ,
From self, and pride, to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may’st find thy all in Me.”

Just Do It!

Character–whether good or bad–is simply the accumulation of habits over time.

Godly character is not formed in a moment, merely by an act of the will to choose what is right. But when that act of the will to choose what is right is repeated hundreds (or thousands) of times over the course of many years–that is what gradually forms a Godly character.

Bad character is not formed in a moment either, by one impulsive act or choice to sin. Rather, bad character is formed gradually through repeated decisions to sin over the course of many years.

Sometimes, if I’m talking with someone further along in their Christian maturity than me, I get the impression that, in their mind, what I’m struggling with is really no big deal. Therefore their counsel to me might come across as dismissive or simplistic, like the answer is obvious and I need to just do it! If I’m honest, though, I realize I probably do the same thing if I’m giving counsel to someone younger than me. I forget how intensely I used to struggle with the same thing they are encountering, and how impossible it must seem to them to ever be free of it.

And I forget that the freedom I experience now did not come through a one-and-done decision that “Doggone it, I’m not going to do this anymore.” No, the freedom I now experience came very slowly over many years of practicing habits and making little everyday decisions to pursue what is right. And in the daily grind of those 1001 little choices, it did not feel like anything was changing or maturing, but habits were forming that were moving me toward a greater maturity in Christ.

So in those opportunities to speak into the life of someone who is younger in faith, carelessly dismissing their struggle and expecting them to just do the right thing is not very helpful for them, no matter how true or wise “just doing the right thing” would be. Instead, I need to help them see their little, moment-by-moment choices that are becoming habits that gradually form their character. Likewise, I need to help them imagine new little, moment-by-moment choices that in time would also become habits, but would move them toward a Godly character instead.

“Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” Galatians 6:9

Highlights from CCEF Conference

My wife and I greatly enjoyed attending the CCEF National Conference together this past weekend! Here are a few of the highlights for me, along with some oimg_1116ther random observations from our trip…

Most beautiful house: on Forest Ave, a few blocks from where we were staying on the North Shore in Chattanooga.

Favorite new song I learned at the conference: We Will Feast in the House of Zion

Favorite kinda new song we sang at the conference: Psalm 126

Favorite old song we sang at the conference: How Firm a Foundation (In case you can’t tell, singing together with 2000 other Christians so many songs rich in Gospel truths was one of the best parts of the conference for me!)

Favorite quote from the conference: Joni Eareckson Tada compared suffering to “splash-overs of hell,” but then said that “Splash-overs of heaven are: finding Jesus with you in the splash-overs from hell.”

Best find in the conference bookstore: The Radical Book for Kids, selling for $12.50 (50% off) before it has even been released!

Best restaurant food: sweet potato fries at Urban Stack in Chattanooga. So good!

Best lunch deal: a 4-pack of meal-size Santa Fe Chicken Salads for $5 (total!), from Costco.

Favorite insight from a speaker: Aaron Sironi reminded us that the essence of marriage is a one-flesh union, therefore marital conflict is more like an autoimmune disease (i.e. a body fighting against itself) than like a boxing match (2 opponents fighting each other).

Favorite speaker: David Powlison is a man I greatly respect, whose writing and teaching have become very influential in my thinking. He did not have a full plenary session to teach this time, but I was scrambling to jot down notes even from his opening remarks at the beginning of the conference–he has a lot of wisdom to share.

Most touching moment in the conference: Joni Eareckson Tada’s birthday landed during the conference, so we all sang Happy Birthday to her in the session when she and ice-signDavid Powlison had a “fireside chat.” Then Ken Tada (her husband) and Nan Powlison (David’s wife) came out with a gift for Joni and honored her–it was an emotional moment.

Most confusing road sign: We flew into Atlanta, and then drove up to Chattanooga, and all along the highway we kept seeing this sign. Huh?!
I finally came to the conclusion that it meant that the section of roadway that was a bridge might be icy even if the rest of the road was not icy, so proceed with caution. If I’m ever driving that road in winter, I guess I’ll have to watch out.

No Formulas in Parenting

Love + discipline + Godly instruction = good kids. Is that your expectation in parenting? I think it tends to be mine–not explicitly, but functionally.

According to Julie Lowe of CCEF (Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation), this formula is a “faulty, unbiblical approach” to parenting because “children do not come to us as blank slates, but with their own personalities, strengths, weakness, desires, and temptations towards particular sin.” Therefore, though we as parents certainly have a huge role in shaping and shepherding the hearts of our children, we do not ultimately control the outcome.

This has been a challenge for my wife and I especially in attempting to parent our adopted daughter with Down Syndrome. I don’t know how many times I’ve said with great exasperation to my friends: “We’re trying everything, but nothing is working! Nothing seems to be changing in her.” In other words, I’m doing the love plus discipline plus instruction, but I’m not getting a “good kid” as the result. The formula isn’t working.

The two things Julie suggests in place of this formulaic approach are: 1) “Evaluate your motivation,” and 2) “Remind yourself of what God calls you to as a parent—no more, no less.” I was greatly convicted and challenged in thinking about what motivates my parenting of my special daughter. And I was greatly comforted in being reminded of what God calls me to, and what is His part alone. Julie says: “Though God expects you to parent with consistent love and wisdom, he does not hold you responsible for results that are driven by the child’s sin or rebellion.” Or, in our case, God does not hold us responsible for results that are driven by what was cemented in our child through her formative years in an orphanage. It is not up to us to undo all that has been formed in her through her history. It is up to us to love her, model Christ to her, and respond with wisdom and grace to her struggles.

[You can read Julie’s blog post on the CCEF website.]

Vent…or Lament?

In the sermon I preached this past Sunday, I said that learning to lament is one way to practice the Romans 12:12 command to “Rejoice in hope; be patient in tribulation; be constant in prayer.” My understanding of lament is that it is pouring out my heart and pouring out my complaint…to God. And the operative phrase there is to God. The orientation of my heart makes all the difference between sinful complaining and God-honoring lament.

I read a wonderful description of lament in a brand new book that I’ve been devouring in the last couple days since it arrived. Andrew Wilson, a pastor in the UK, along with his wife Rachel, have written an incredibly hopeful and helpful little book called The Life We Never Expected, reflecting on their still-very-raw-and-painful journey of learning to live and love in the midst of a regressive autism that has begun to affect both of their young children. This is what Andrew writes:

Lament is more than crying, of course, although it is certainly not less. It also involves putting into words the depth of feeling and sadness we’re experiencing: in prayer, in a journal, in a song, or whatever. Doing this forces us to give due weight to our emotions, which many of us (particularly the English among us) are not always very good at; articulating them carefully helps us understand them, as well as handle them wisely. But it also forces us to take our pain to God, first and foremost, before we take it to other people. Lament, you see, is about bringing your sorrows to God, in painful description, petition, and confusion, and throwing all your doubts and questions at him. Rushing to dump them on friends, on family, or on Facebook, without having gone to God with them first, is not lamenting but venting, and in the long run it doesn’t do nearly so much good. With the best will in the world, people aren’t big enough to absorb your grief. God is.

And so, less than an hour after reading those words, I found myself yelling at God in exasperation over the impossibility of breaking through my daughter’s institutionalized-stupor-made-worse-by-Down-Syndrome, which was being displayed in her bath time routine. No one else was in the house to hear me, and I’m not sure what my yelling accomplished, but it was a lament, and in it my heart was oriented toward God. Because He alone can awaken life and mindfulness in my daughter…and He alone can bring healing to my angry, hurting heart.