Friday, September 08, 2006

Romans and depression

N.T. Wright tells an instructive story at the beginning of a lecture given at Wycliffe College in Toronto. A minister friend in England, before he sought ordination, was working in a rough area of London. The experience was trying, and he became very depressed. The warden of the hostel where he stayed told him he should read the letter to the Romans every day for a month. As in a chapter or half-chapter a day? No, the warden said. Read the whole letter, every day, after work. He did, and he says it changed his life and transformed his views of all sorts of things.

The Christian psychiatrist John White tells a similar story, about himself, in The Masks of Melancholy.
Years ago, when I was seriously depressed, the thing that saved my own sanity was a dry-as-dust grappling with Hosea's prophecy. I spent weeks, morning by morning, making meticulous notes, checking historical allusions in the text. Slowly I began to sense the ground under my feet growing steadily firmer. I knew without any doubt that healing was constantly springing from my struggle to grasp the meaning of the prophecy. (202-03)
The Gideon Bibles you find in hotel rooms usually have an index of passages to read when you're fearful, guilty, doubtful, or otherwise beset. It's a perfectly legitimate approach to fear, guilt, doubt, and the rest. But there's something to be said for what Wright's friend and White did, immersing themselves in a couple of whole books of Scripture. I suspect it "worked" in part precisely because Romans and Hosea didn't address their depression head-on, at least not in any obvious way. Repeated exposure to the letter and the prophecy kept drawing their minds away from themselves and pushing them toward other concerns.

Maybe there are times when we don't need another comforting passage to read or another Christian book on suffering; we need something that will open our minds to the big picture, and a work such as Romans does nothing if not present a big picture. Ditto a stretch of Scripture such as Isaiah 40-66. Ditto the Gospel of John. Ditto (if you want something much shorter) the letter to the Ephesians.

One blessing per finger

This is good. David Field, who teaches at Oak Hill Theological College in London, shows how "at all times I have immediate access to great truths which put hassle, disappointment, pain, and hard work in perspective."

Monday, September 04, 2006

'Thy kingdom come'

I spend about an hour walking just about every day. And when I walk, I often pray, with set prayers as well as extemporaneous ones. The Lord's Prayer, the "Our Father," is always among them.

"Thy kingdom come."

The other morning I landed on that petition and camped there awhile. I've been thinking about it a lot since a recent trip to Southeast Asia, where I met a little group of Christians who follow Jesus in circumstances less comfortable than mine.

It's possible for some believers to so emphasize that God has decreed whatsoever comes to pass that they lose a sense of the tension between how things are and how they ought to be -- yes, even decreed to be. I fear that, given the chance, they might rewrite those subjunctives in the Lord's Prayer ("thy kingdom come, thy will be done") as simple indicatives ("thy kingdom is come, thy will is done"). And of course the indicatives are true in a sense, too. But clearly the prayer implies that God's will is not in fact done in the way we hope for it ultimately to be done, here in the "colony" (earth) as back at "headquarters" (heaven). And the kingdom has not in fact come in full.

I'm not sure how to hold it all together. I do know that the Lord's Prayer, at least in Luke's Gospel (11:1-4), is Jesus' fundamental answer to a question about how to pray, and that the question was prompted by the sounds of Jesus' own praying. This prayer tells us how he wants us to think aloud in the Father's presence and with what disposition of heart. And it's a prayer with subjunctives, a prayer that asks for a different world from what we've got. It longs not for escape, but for change and transformation.

"Thy kingdom come ... on earth as in heaven." That's a plea. But I doubt many of us experience it as much more than pretty words until we get some heartfelt sense of the present disjointedness between heaven and earth. We've got to feel in our gut, as Hamlet did after that horripilating midnight interview with the ghost, that "the time is out of joint." We've got to feel the pinch. I suspect that my brothers and sisters in Asia and elsewhere feel it more keenly than most of us in the West do. The ones I met gather every morning at 5:30 to pray. I take it their circumstances have taught them something about the importance of prayer, perhaps especially a prayer such as "Thy kingdom come."

A recent heartbreaking experience at home and my glimpse of life abroad and the acquaintance of a few Asian Christians have left me more sensitive to the disjointedness, the pinch. They're teaching me to want to see the Father's reign -- his healing, restoring, all-things-reconciling, true-sons-vindicating reign -- brought to bear in his world.

It struck me as I prayed one recent morning that when we say "Thy kingdom come," we scarcely realize what we ask for. What on earth does that look like? What would it look like for God's reign to come in our relationships? In the lives of Christians around the world? In our churches? In our families? In my life? In yours? I hardly know. And so it also struck me that part of our problem as pray-ers is a staggering failure of imagination. We can't imagine -- we often don't even try to imagine -- how the coming of the Father's reign might change things. We can't imagine that things can be different. We can't imagine that repentance and progress and maturity and real change -- personal, cultural, or otherwise -- are possible. We can't imagine that things could be transfigured.

It's good to have the apostle Paul's consolation (in Ephesians 3:20) that the Father can do more than we ask or think. But surely Paul means not just to console, but also to prod: Enough of the shriveled imaginations. Ask more. Imagine more.

In whatever context we pray it -- friendships, relationships, marriages, missions, conflicts -- "Thy kingdom come" is an invitation to think a lot bigger, a lot more Father-focused, than we are used to.

Step right up!

Hello. I'm Paul Buckley. Welcome to my blog.

No idea what all I'll say here. I'll tell you something of what I'm thinking. I'll tell you what I'm reading. And I'll welcome your thoughts along the way.