I've been considering what it means to employ the craft of writing for my immediate community, and what community could be more immediate than the community of my family? To that end, I've written this piece, titled "5 Instruction to my sons." Enjoy.
Dear Ike, Jude, Bean, and Titus Lee:
Last night, as I was walking Lucy around the neighborhood waiting for her to tend to her business, I considered those things I'd like you to know. I typed a short list on my phone, and this morning, I gave flesh to the bones of that list. It is true, there are many words of instruction I'd like to leave you; among those many words, though, are these five.
1. Good prayers are not wordy prayers.
When I was a young boy, I listened as an older young boy prayed from the front of my Sunday class. He was a home-schooled boy, one who boasted a great vocabulary and the will to use it. He tossed about large words like "omnipotent," and "sovereign," broke into the occasional use of Hebrew or Greek, and more than once employed rhyme. "Sovereign Abba, omnipotent Logos" he prayed, "may your grace shine on my face." I was ten at the time of his prayer, and I had no idea what he was saying. I am thirty-six now, and having reflected on this prayer again, I still have no idea what he was saying.
As you grow in faith, some might try to poison you with the notion that big, complicated, poetic prayers capture the ear of God. The truth is, these sorts of prayers, if not from the heart, capture only the ears of men.
Prayer, especially public prayer, is not an opportunity to show others the many large words you know. It is not an opportunity to be praised for being "such a good little pray-er." Instead, prayer is an opportunity to be present with God in quiet places. As the Gospel of Matthew records,
"When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you."
Mary Kate Morse says that prayer is "attentiveness to God." And attentiveness, she says, "is an awareness that we are in God's presence, and God is in ours." If God is always in our presence, and we are always in his, shouldn't prayer sound a lot more common? Shouldn't it sound like the words we use everyday? Shouldn't it come from the heart, naturally, just like the way you talk with me or your momma?
2. Friendship is simple presence, too.
If prayer is the "awareness that we are in God's presence, and God is in ours," maybe the secret to good prayer is learning to be present with God in the moment. What does it mean to be present? The dictionary describes it as "being with one or others in the specified or understood place." In the same way that good prayer relies on being present with God, being a good friend also relies on the ability to be present.
For illustration, let's use an example.
If our little friend Melody came to play, and you were tapping on an iPad while she was trying to talk with you about her new kittens, would you be present with her in the moment? Sure, you might be in the same place, but would you be fully aware of her joy in the new kittens if you did not note the smile on her face, or see her hopping around in excitement? Presence, then, requires interaction. Presence involves looking people in the eyes, noting their joy, pain, elation, or agitation and responding to them. Presence is being with someone instead of merely around them.
3. It's not the size of your Cadillac that matters.
This is a fact of life: men will judge you by the size of your Cadillac, the shine of your shoes, or the height of your mansion. And as has been the way of men for all eternity, the more wealthy you appear, the more honor you are likely to receive. (Doesn't everyone seem to value the opinion of the rich businessman more than the blue-collar factory worker?)
In this, there will come a great temptation to live in such a way that other men might esteem you, might judge you as wealthy. You might begin to purchase cars you cannot afford (or can, for that matter), might buy a large house on the highest hill so that everyone might know the size of your manhood. And do not get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with having a few nice things. But always remember that men are suckers for judging a book by its cover. As old Sammy said, "God doesn’t see things the way men see them. People judge by outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.”
Remember, it's not the size of your car that matters; it's all a matter of the heart.
4. Folks will talk about global crises and wanting to change the world; don't let that distract you from a more neighborly mission.
There are a great many global crises these days (climate change, the orphan crisis, kidnapped children, wars, revolutions, rumors of wars and revolutions, dictators run-amok, immigration, Fox News). And though I hope that you are voracious learners, that you know the things that impact the world, know this, too: these things can distract you from being present to your neighbors and friends.
These days, popular psychology, theology, and sociology will teach you that "you can change the world." I think that I believed them, once, that I strived and strived and strived to make a grand difference. In that striving, I forgot to be present with my friends and family. Maybe I even forgot to be present with you. This was a mistake.
In the 1960s, a good and smart frenchman named Jaques Ellul (Zh-ok El-ool) wrote,
"scripture never asks us to bear the world's suffering. It is enough to bear that of one's neighbor. Once again, we encounter the very bad presumption of putting ourselves in the place of Jesus Christ, who alone bears the sufferings of the Algerians, the Tibetans and the inhabitants of India. He does not ask us to substitute ourselves for him."
(Jacques Ellul, False Presence of the Kingdom.) I hope that you see the world, and I hope that your work alleviates suffering wherever you see it. I have some great friends who are engaged in this kind of humanitarian work (get to know Sarah Bessey, John Sowers, Kristin Howerton, and others). But I would tell you, and they would agree, that if you are seek to change the world at the expense of knowing your neighbor, you're missing the point of the Great Command, "love your neighbor as yourself."
5. Jesus isn’t as rigid as we want him to be, and not nearly as silent as we think he is.
This is, maybe, the most important instruction I could leave you. Jesus is not as rigid as men might make him. He is not Baptist, or Methodist, or Anglican, or Non-Denominational (which is becoming its own sort of denomination), or Catholic. Jesus exists outside the small boxes of men. In the Gospels, he was present (there's that word again) to the Jews, the non-Jews, the religious and non-religious alike. Jesus was all things to all people, was in all of the boxes but outside of them, too. He was not as rigid as some would have made him to be. (As an aside, this is likely why he was murdered.)
Yes, refuse to believe that Jesus is as rigid as all of that. In the same way, refuse to believe that, in the words of Buddy Wakefield, "that guy [God] hasn't spoken in... like... ever." Refuse also those who would teach you that God doesn't still speak today, that he's not active in the world around you. He will speak and you can hear him if you'll develop the ears to hear him. And developing those ears takes a lifetime of practice.