A Longing for Shalom

Have you ever wondered what heaven is like? Have you ever longed for it?

When I was a kid I used to think heaven would be a bunch of castles on a cloud made of glass and gold and jewels. The only “jewels” I was familiar with were the ones in my Pretty Pretty Princess game and my mom’s costume jewelry, so in hindsight it was a tacky, tacky place.

Then, someone told me that heaven was where we “worshipped God forever,” so I took that very literally and assumed it meant that we’d stand and sing songs at God while he sat on a throne in front of us. Forever. Which sounded kind of horrible, if I’m being honest.

As an adult, I haven’t thought much about heaven until recently, until I was in a “rut”. “Rut”, for me, this time, can be translated as “I have woken up for five days in a row and carried on with the mindset that I am a general failure of a person.” Dramatic? Yes. True? Mostly.

For the first few days of my “rut” I tried finding perspective and deciding that I was going to “feel better because I should”. Sometimes when I’m feeling a little low, I forget that it can be a struggle to choose joy and thankfulness over “blah”. Being joyful on easy days is simple, but I often forget that being joyful on a difficult day is not a passive process.

Against all logic (You have a great family! Jesus! Great friends! A great job!), I’ll find myself back on the couch again, sinking deeper into a routine that does not feed my soul anything but junk. (Side tangent: Are you in a rut? Stop watching TV. Deactivate your Facebook. Seriously. Go outside. Read. Write. Feed your soul good things.)

During this time, I read Shauna Niequist’s blog post titled “You Are Enough“. In it, she makes the case that each of us is valued because we are created in the image of God. I read that, and decided I didn’t care – decided it just wasn’t “meeting my standard” to be valued equally right along with every other human on Earth (cringe). That didn’t sit well with me, no, I needed to be the best human out there! Sorry Mother Teresa, I’m gunning for your spot. (Someone could write a book on how everything I just said makes me a terrible human, but let’s carry on…)

Seeing such ugliness and self-centeredness in my heart led me to admit there was a deeper issue going on that I needed to get introspective about. Not pollen, not hormones. Sin.

We humans have quite a bit of capacity for good, but our real specialty is taking the good things God gives us and making them cheap and empty with our sin. When I pause to take an honest assessment of myself, I see that this world is not as it should be, and I’m part of the reason it’s not. Sometimes the things I like most about myself turn into the most self-destructive parts of my life. Ambition, for example, can be directed at worthy and purposeful things that I can do heartily unto the Lord. Or, I can get competitive and only think about being better than everyone else around me, which is all about me and completely rejects the Body of Christ God asks us to build up in 2 Corinthians. There are a thousand things that were created for good that we drive to ruin. Consider alcoholism. Consider the commercialization of sex.

From where I sit today, I don’t wonder or care too much about what heaven will look like. Is it even three-dimensional? Will the food be any good? Wait – will we eat? I don’t know much about how I’ll spend my time either, or if “time” will even exist in the way we grasp it now. I doubt it. But I think I can imagine how I’ll feel – whole.

God has given us desires – things we all desire. To love and be loved. To be valued. To be cared for. We all have these desires, and we all try to fulfill them in different ways. More times than I’d like to admit, I turn away from Jesus and what I need and toward something I think I want.

An example: We have the desire to love and be loved, but instead of “considering others better than ourselves” and “bear(ing) one another’s burdens” in deep relationship with each other (a way to healthily fill that desire), we are glued to Social Media. Instead of doing the dirty work of relationship, we want to be admired from afar and show only our “best side”. It’s cheap and empty. It accomplishes the exact opposite of what we really need. It creates distance and removes purpose instead of facilitating love and grace in real relationship.

In one of my favorite teachings of all time, Tim Keller talks about the biblical concept of shalom – universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight.  (Find it here: http://sermons2.redeemer.com/sermons/justice) The idea of shalom is everything in God’s creation weaving together as it should. But we contribute to the breakdown of society when we put ourselves first, he says. We put ourselves first because we desire to be important and valued – and our pride leads us to believe that we aren’t important or valued unless we reach some threshold we’ve created in our minds. I’ll be ________ enough when I ____________.

“Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man.” – C.S. Lewis

So now when I imagine heaven like this:

A place where I know fully what I sometimes believe on my best days – that I am already loved and valued by God in a way that I cannot acquire anywhere else no matter what I do. I will finally know and operate out of that in full.

I imagine heaven as a place where all the desires of my heart are fulfilled, but not the ugly, sinful desires that pride draws me to.

I imagine heaven as a place where I can enjoy God and others fully because I will see that I AM, in fact, deeply loved, wanted, and valued by my heavenly father. A place where I can finally enjoy the good gifts that a good God wants to give us, without trying to use them for my own selfish gain.

Can you imagine? A place where these desires we try to fill with all the wrong things are finally being filled with all the right things?

Can you imagine the joy? The contentment? Can you imagine the companionship you’ll feel with others when the thought of comparing yourself to them never crosses your mind? Can you imagine the freedom? The things we want on earth – peace, an end to suffering – all becoming true?

“When we look at the whole scope of this story line, we see clearly that Christianity is not only about getting one’s individual sins forgiven so we can go to heaven. That is an important means of God’s salvation, but not the final end or purpose of it. The purpose of Jesus’s coming is to put the whole world right, to renew and restore the creation, not to escape it. It is not just to bring personal forgiveness and peace, but also justice and shalom to the world. God created both the body and soul, and the resurrection of Jesus shows that he is going to redeem both body and soul. The work of the Spirit of God is not only to save souls but also to care and cultivate the face of the earth, the material world.”

– Tim Keller

I dream of a place where my soul feels at home. I see glimpses of heaven – in the commitment my husband and I share, in the love between my parents and I, in friends who embrace their broken parts and mine too. I used to get freaked out by the idea that I won’t be married in heaven (Matthew 22:30), but this paradigm shift opens up a whole new way of thinking – I now imagine being so satisfied in my desire for love and companionship that nothing will be lost. (I still hope I get to hang out with you in heaven, babe!)

“For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)

So, do I long for heaven? Now I do. Definitely not the formal, stoic “let’s sing at God forever” heaven I used to imagine, but shalom. Every time I see my selfishness, I long for a day when I can fully consider others above myself. Every time I watch the news and my heart breaks for this world, I long for it. Every time a baby is born with no one to care for it, I want Jesus to come back. Every time a child is abused and my stomach turns and my chest tightens, I long for something that I don’t see here, but I believe will come.

I don’t long for heaven in a morbid way, not in eagerness for death. But in eagerness for life. For shalom.

“Has this world been so kind that you should leave with regret? There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.” – C.S. Lewis

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The Secret of Contentment

The Secret of Contentment – a state of mind, not a matter of circumstance.

The secret to contentment is owning a Bentley. Just kidding. Ashley took this picture of us at a wedding and I just wanted to post it.
The secret to contentment is owning a Bentley. Just kidding. Ashley took this picture of us at a wedding and I just wanted to post it.

I am three months into my marriage, three months into a new job, and have lived three months in a new city. I am already restless. This is a large part of who I am, a part of my struggle. My entire life has been a series of phases – when I was a kid, I played every sport available to me, took tumbling classes, tae kwon doe, piano, guitar, rode horses, had a paintball phase, loved camping, had a stint where I was obsessed with Star Wars, the Chicago Bulls, Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and NBA Street Ball 2k4. I was involved in at least five different extracurricular groups in High School and was all over the place.

College was no different – I was involved in a lot, traveled a lot, did a lot. Many of the absolute best memories of my life so far occurred in the midst of the freedom and adrenaline that comes with the adventure of “new”.

I was an overachiever and a bit of a flake – changing my mind and my interests at the drop of a hat and burning through the “next best thing” like it was my entitled right to do so. It was really fun, actually – I did so many awesome things, traveled to a lot of amazing places, went to great concerts, and made friends all around the world. I don’t think I would change many things about my past. But I had – still have –  some lessons to learn from it.

The danger of a life like that is this: discontentment. Because at some point, you have to reel in your wanderlust and think about your roots, your legacy, your loved ones, the life you want to lead. You have to realize that the things you’re chasing satisfy you temporarily, then bore you, and the addiction continues – you need another fix.

My husband taught me that when he asked me to marry him. I ran from him for years, terrified of commitment and that love would tie me down from experiencing whatever “next best thing” I craved next. Then God began to teach me the value of commitment, the divinity of promise, and the need for His children to invest themselves in things for the good of humanity and the glory of God. Not just use up experiences for our own fulfillment, and move on to the next best thing, the next “temporary high”. How does this bring value to our lives, and more importantly, how does this benefit the good of all?

If you’re like me, you’re afraid of living an un-extraordinary life. You are afraid of getting to the end of your days and realizing you didn’t live a wide and full life like you always dreamed you would. I used to think the way to prevent a disappointment like this was to live harder. Do more. Be better.

Now I think it’s about letting go.

There is a big difference in seeking fulfillment and finding contentment. When we seek fulfillment, we put the burden on ourselves to give our life meaning and purpose. We try to do admirable things so that the story we write with our lives is one worth reading. We want to do something worth remembering, something to make an impact. So we strive to do that, we push aside everything else – commitments, relationships, roots –  to try and make that happen.

Finding contentment is about being passionate about one thing – loving God and loving people – and trusting God with the rest. It is about ceasing to find your identity in your work output, your social media clout, and your influence. It is about being faithful and finding joy in what God has put before you, instead of wishing for something else. It is about loving what you have, instead of obsessing over what you want.

When I was freaking out about marriage, my friend Andrew gave me the most useful and practical analogy. It went something like this:

“It’s like your at a fancy buffet, Madisson. You are looking at all the delicious things you could choose to eat, and God walks up to you with a plate full of food saying, ‘Take this! You’ll like it – it’s good for you. It has everything you need. I know it!’ But you’re looking over his shoulder at all the things you didn’t get to try, only thinking about the things you’re missing out on.”

I often struggle to find the line where our efforts meet God’s will, so I keep trying to balance dreaming and doing with patience and practicality.  For example, I have a dream of living overseas. But what a fool I’d be to rip up the roots we already have here – to leave family and work and community and ministry – just to move to Europe or Africa for a year because I want to and think it would be adventurous and fun. Adversely, what a joy it would be to move abroad for a year if God placed an opportunity in front of us and gave it purpose.

Contentment is something firm to stand on. It’s not letting praise get to your head nor failure to your heart. It’s a laser-focus on what matters, walking a path that winds through deserts and gardens and stormy weather and sickness and health and ultimately knowing where the path leads, even if at times you can barely walk it.

There is a desire for contentment that often eludes us. “You say, ‘If I had a little more, I should be very satisfied.’ You make a mistake. If you are not content with what you have, you would not be satisfied if it were doubled.” ― Spurgeon

We seem surprised when then rich and famous struggle, take their own lives, deal with addiction, citing that they had, “everything they could want.” Likewise, we seem surprised when we see poor families who are rich in joy and happiness, saying something like “they have nothing, but they’re so happy anyway!” But it is a lie to believe that contentment has anything to do with having plenty or being in want. Perhaps that’s why the rich and famous seem to be involved in scandal after scandal – when your dreams are realized and you’re still unhappy, what do you do with that? And to use Andrew’s analogy again, perhaps the blessing of the poor is that they aren’t tempted to look over God’s shoulder at what they don’t have, but instead are thankful for each gift.

It’s easy to talk about theories of contentment, harder to actually put them into practice.

I am making a commitment this week. A list of things I will and will not do – simple things – a list of ways to be present and thankful. Maybe you can make your own list.

1. I will not go ok Kayak.com or look at Groupon Getaways, Travelzoo, or Cheap Caribbean this week. Because I just went to Mexico on my honeymoon and am an entitled idiot for thinking I have to go on another big trip this year.

2. In the time I will save by not looking at every budget travel site known to man, I will read a book this week. I will underline my favorite passages and enjoy the warmth that comes with relating to an author.

3. I will wear a scarf and boots and go on a walk down our long, wooded road with my husband to celebrate Fall weather and Fall things.

4. I will cook a healthy and delicious meal – or at least try to – light some candles, turn off my phone, and sit down at the dining room table with Bryant to eat it.

5. I will go meet all the neighbors on our point that I haven’t met yet and leave them with baked goods – so domestic. (This is actually a bribe so they’ll think fondly of us even when we don’t mow the yard regularly.)

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.

(1 Timothy 6:6-12)