Pit of Despair

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also.
For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away.
– Psalm 31:9-10 (NRSV)

I do not wish the Pit of Despair on anyone—neither The Princess Bride version, nor the poetic biblical version, nor the version I’ve experienced: major depressive disorder. The depth of depression’s hopelessness is a Mariana Trench beneath a vast ocean, a place in which there are no guiding lights, a pressure under which breath is labored, a reality so far removed from others that it seems certain no one can hear you scream.

In the depressive distress of such a Pit of Despair, strength of spirit and body fail—even though we might still appear to function at full capacity in daily life.

In the chasm of grief, joy in life and purpose is utterly sapped—even though some of us who live with depression continue to laugh and nod in conversation.

In the vacuum of depression, any possible doorway of escape seems hidden or inconceivable—and every friendly gesture seems a mockery of our isolation.

The psalmist is consumed by the fatigue of her body, hopeless with the dread of adversaries and neighbors alike, locked away from community by the delusion of worthlessness.

Only one remains trustworthy: “I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God’” (31:14). Only one can navigate the Pit of Despair to find the psalmist: “Let your face shine upon your servant” (31:16). Only one shows up faithfully: “My times are in your hand” (31:15).

Thanks be to God, who not only shows up in the Pit of Despair but also in the grace of therapists and the miracle of medicines. Thanks be to God, for the incarnate presence of friends who shine for those of us drowning in the trench, that we might be encouraged that a way out is possible.

Be gracious upon our minds, bodies, and spirits when we are depressed and weary. Even in the deepest chasm, remind us that we are not alone.

written for the 2020 Lenten Devotional
(a Stillspeaking Writers’ Group product)

A Jar of Oil

The widow of one of the prophets cried to Elisha, “Your servant my husband is dead, and now creditors come to take my two children as slaves.” Elisha said to her, “Tell me, what do you have in the house?” She answered, “Nothing except a jar of oil.”
– 2 Kings 4:1-2

Let’s not pretend with one another that loving God means you will never be broke. Let’s not repeat the lie that you are guaranteed to have plenty so long as you serve God.

Because I’m not the only person of faith who ignores the 1-800 numbers of creditors calling.

Bad things do happen to good people. Bad circumstances. Bad relationships. Bad environments. Bad credit. And you’re on the hook for dealing with the consequences, regardless of whether it was your fault or not. Rise to the occasion. Repair your heart. Fight the system. Reassess your budget. Use whatever you have and do the best you can.

Even if it’s just a jar of oil.

Devastated by the death of her husband, the widow now faces compounding crises. She is not well-off; prophetic work doesn’t exactly come with a pension and life insurance. The stress of calling creditors keeps her awake at night. And now the worst of all nightmares: they will tear her children from her, enslave them for their own profits.

What good is “take nothing with you” if everything has already been ripped from you?

If there’s really nothing, or the threat of nothing, then fight like hell to not be alone, at least.

Cry out to those who will listen. Call for community. Protest against those who would separate you from love and loved ones. Resist the despair that lies to you when it says nothing means no one.

Bring your jar of oil, and stay together.

Let there be love and companions along this weary way, O God.

written for the Daily Devotional

Whispers

I hear a voice I had not known:
“I relieved your shoulder of the burden;
your hands were freed from the basket.
In distress you called, and I rescued you.
– Psalm 81:5b-7a (NRSV)

I’ve never felt close to God in a personal buddy-buddy kind of way. It’s never been my spiritual practice to call up Jesus in prayer like we’re BFFs who need to ponder every personal detail together, from hairstyles to romance.

Maybe it’s due to my upbringing in an Evangelical & Reformed UCC congregation with its formal worship, its elevated altar (not a communion table), and its hazy white dossal behind which I assumed as a child that God might dwell. Maybe it’s due to my personality type. Certainly it’s an aspect of my theology. I’m particularly fond of God’s mystery and grandeur; I’m less keen on God whispering sweet nothings in my ear.

In any event, God has always been distant to me. To hear the voice of God, the actual disembodied voice of God, would be to hear a voice that I do not recognize.

Sometimes this spiritual distance with God seems unorthodox. Across the theological span of modern American Christianity, closeness with God is prevalent and valued:

“Proximity to Jesus will save us.”

“Proximity to justice will save us.”

Those of us with a theology of God’s aloofness, and those of us experiencing a season of spiritual dryness, can be tempted to doubt that we can be saved across the distance. “If proximity is necessary for salvation,” we find ourselves thinking, “we may never be delivered.”

And yet there it is in Psalm 81—the assurance that deliverance can come through an unknown voice, justice can pour out from a well we didn’t dig, relief can be given by a stranger.

Thank you, God, that deliverance comes even when it is unknown and far away.

written for the 2020 Lenten Devotional
(a Stillspeaking Writers’ Group product)

Chocolate and Other Habits

Remember the wonderful works God has done: the miracles, the judgments uttered, the word commanded, the covenant kept. – Psalm 105:5, 8

Two weeks into Lent, how are you doing? How are those Lenten practices that you planned to observe faithfully? The chocolate and sugars you swore off, the alcohol you decided to abstain from, the meditative silence you intended to observe for twenty minutes each morning, the handwritten thank-you notes you were going to write each day to foster a spirit of gratitude. Still going strong?

No shame if they’re not.

But also, no kudos if they are.

Of course, it’s fabulous if your chosen Lenten discipline has revealed deep meaning and has taken hold in life-giving habitual ways. Seriously, I don’t “give up” for Lent for the same reason that I don’t make resolutions for the New Year—it doesn’t ignite my soul with anything but guilt—so I’m delighted if your Lenten discipline is feeding your spirit.

But no kudos and gold stars for you.

Because it’s not about your work in Lent.

It’s about God’s work in Lent. God’s miracles. God’s judgments. God’s promises. God’s breath and flesh on earth. God’s mystery and majesty in the heavens.

No matter if you’re experiencing stunning spiritual growth or if the no-chocolate thing has already flopped phenomenally, you can still focus your Lenten journey on the work that matters: God’s grace.

God, I’m already eating the chocolate eggs that I bought for Easter. Remind me that calories are not the measure of this Lenten journey.

written for the Daily Devotional

Restraint

The LORD God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.” – Genesis 2:16-17 (NRSV)

When the new year dawned two months ago, my social media feed was filled with people saying goodbye: “I’m letting go of my burdens and picking up my freedom.” “I’m forgiving last year’s disappointments and welcoming the new year’s expectations.” “I’m muting unhealthy friendships.”

There’s wisdom to these choices … and plenty of songs to accompany them, for those of us who lean on music to bolster our determination.

“Wave your little hand and whisper ‘So long dearie,’” is a personal favorite, à la Bette, Barbra, Pearl, and Carol, in Hello, Dolly!

“Let it go, let it go; turn away and slam the door,” via Idina Menzel in Frozen. (And I thank God that my children were too old to obsess over this movie when it was released.)

To say goodbye, in the healthiest sense, is to claim and proclaim a boundary. It’s to say, “I am here, you are there, and our paths are not identical.” It’s to identify our “yes” and our “no.” It’s to recognize that not everything is ours to have, not everyone is ours to hold, not every mystery is ours to know.

God tells the human that the garden is full of sustenance for the mind, body, and spirit … but not every provision in the garden is meant to be consumed. Not all knowledge is meant to be known—not all knowledge can be known—by the human. To resist the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is to accept this boundary.

Deliver my spirit from craving, “Mine! Mine!” and soothe my heart with the good news of boundaries.

written for the 2020 Lenten Devotional
(a Stillspeaking Writers’ Group product)