August 30, 2014 § 4 Comments
Robert E. Webber, the Divine Embrace
Two weeks ago I posted on Robin Williams’ death with the hope of honoring the impact he has had in the life of my family, and our world. Additionally, I relayed that he had confessed the Faith, to express that regardless of what drove Williams to suicide, it could not negate the gospel’s power if he belonged to Jesus, fully expecting that some in the believing community would take issue with this (which proved to be true). But I stand by this.
What I didn’t expect was the backlash on the more incidental statements I made on suicide (that they are selfish and cowardly). I say, ‘incidental,’ and am admonished by treating any words lightly.
So let me begin by saying that I greatly appreciate the response! What a rich and rewarding conversation.
Unfortunately, as a pastor, I have always been on the survivors’ end of things – walking beside people in the aftermath of suicide, as they process their last conversations, their last arguments, and their own feelings of guilt, anger, devastation and sorrow. From the survivors’ perspective it always looks selfish, even cowardly.
But what I have learned is that for those who suffer from depression, it all looks the opposite. To the seriously depressed it seems the only unselfish thing left to do.
Here is what a new friend sent my way:
Until recently, I have hidden my struggle with depression. I felt ashamed, weak, lazy, selfish, sinful, and stupid for something I never knew is actually a disease. The chemicals and neurotransmitters in my brain that help stabilize moods don’t work as well as they should. It isn’t that much different from someone whose pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin… The words you chose to use in your blog, cowardice and selfishness, are condemning enough to shame me and lots of others into hiding again.
A long time friend offered this:
Yes, suicide is selfish for those left behind, in that the one considering it is only concerned about relieving his own pain. I would contend, however that with such tremendous pain, he is not choosing to put himself above all others, but rather is unable to see past himself.
Last year the New York Times published an article on suicide, noting that more people die from it annually than in auto accidents. I remember a Youth Workers Convention seminar Katherine and I attended in 1984 that reminded us that every attempt is serious, and will usually be followed up with another.
So to those I was insensitive to, please accept my sincere and heartfelt apologies.
I have a lot to learn. I guess we all do.
I’ll never forget a sermon by the great theologian and pastor, Sinclair Ferguson, who said that he believed that Jesus, in experiencing every human emotion, even battled mental illness in the Garden of Gethsemane.
All this to say that regardless of what we do and don’t understand about the workings of the human condition, fortunately, until He makes everything new, in Jesus we have a Redeemer who sympathizes with and fully grasps whatever darkness we live with – even if no one else can.
And that is very good news, friends…
Postscript: In his LAWeekly blog, Henry Rollins, a former Punk Rocker out of DC, recently wrote on suicide (in response to Williams’ death), and experienced a similar backlash that I did. His articles don’t come from a Christian perspective, and the language is rough, but I appreciate what he offers.
August 23, 2014 § 1 Comment
A refreshingly honest friend
So some disclosure…
I’m a white guy who grew up in Miami in a mostly white world that was shaped by white tastes, white opinions and white culture. Everyone else had to fit in, and it never occurred to me that this could be wrong.
I can’t remember ever thinking that the streets, our neighborhood or my world, were anything other than perfectly safe. And because I was safe and happy, I just assumed everyone else was.
Injustice wasn’t even on my radar, until a friend in ministry opened my eyes. I’ve been catching up ever since, and am far from an authority.
When my studies floundered, I was still believed in and considered full of potential. Contrast this to Malcolm X, a bright-eyed, super-achieving high school student, whose joy was demolished when a teacher scoffed at the notion that he, an African-American, would aspire to a future that involved being anything other than a janitor.
Earlier this week a coworker and I conversed about issues unearthed by the events in Ferguson. He’s black and I’m white. It was good – we just talked. And we agreed on the need to take the conversation to another level.
Random Thoughts I Scratched throughout the Week…
I have to think that the symbolic, anecdotal, mass-media-driven vitriol takes us nowhere good – It has to be personal, because it is.
Sin is never excusable. Period. Figure out the rest, but if you put a color to your conclusions, you’re missing the point.
There are more civilly minded and community-loving people than not (don’t think color – think people).
There are more good cops than bad ones.
There are more bad politicians than good ones (hey, this is my blog – I can say what I want, but term limits would dramatically help).
Violence is almost never the answer, and victims abound when it occurs.
Not merely with words, but in communal life, will the Church make a difference…
There is no ‘Them’
Protest ≠ Destruction
Love > Fear
Right now I don’t like my world very much.
But God created it to be good. And the gospel informs me that everything that disturbs me is less about ‘it’ and ‘them,’ and more about what is in me.
The fact is that I have no idea what went down in Ferguson. But whatever it was, the images have excavated fears, preconceived notions, and prejudices that either I didn’t know existed – or worse, that I never before wanted to admit.
And I don’t know what to do with this other than to pray… and listen.
All the while holding on to the promise that Jesus, the One who entered into the mess that is our world, and actually loved it, is making everything new, until heaven and earth are one, and the nations gather at the throne, where lions and lambs and infants and cobras dwell safely together in peace.
It is the good news that sustains…
August 16, 2014 § 38 Comments
“Robin Williams attended City Church in fall of 2006 when I was preaching through the Apostle’s Creed. He confessed the faith of the church and shuffled up for communion with everybody else needing grace. He was always kind to those around him. I know from other friends of his in the Bay Area what a generous, humble, and charitable man he was and his death saddens me greatly today. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.”
Fred Harrell, Sr. Pastor, City Church San Francisco
Robin Williams’ death has rocked me. Yes, I’m a Christ-follower and minister, and in God’s story, no one person is greater or better than the next. He was addicted to alcohol – I know this too. And I already know that suicide is not only an act of desperation, but also one of selfishness.
All this is true, and more. But for some reason, in the brilliant offerings and characters of this extraordinary comic and actor, it is as though Williams’ sorrows somehow connected with my own. Whether a magnificent iconoclastic English teacher, a distant Dad reminded of love and joy and family, a son who longed for the courage to face his own terrors – and father, or a caring Therapist, Williams drew me in like few have.
Through great writing, roles and directing – but also in his own pathos – Williams tapped into something deep within. When his heart broke over the suicide of one of his students in Dead Poets Society, it was real. When he finally refused to run from the hunter who chased him for years, in Jumanji, it was as though all of us finally grew up and stopped running. In Hook, when he told Jack, his son, that he was his ‘happy thought,’ my heart swelled for our own children.
I think it was more than acting, but a man who wanted to believe there is hope past one’s own sorrows and demons. I am sad for him and all who wrestle with the darkness of such depression that wrecks that hope.
Fortunately, as selfish, damaging or cowardly as it may be, for those who belong to Jesus, suicide holds no power over the gospel. It is a sin, but it isn’t unforgiveable, any more than my own cowardice, selfish ways and damaging actions. We believe that nothing can separate us from God’s love – not even us (Romans 8).
I am sure that when I was fresh out of seminary, and filled with self-righteous zeal, that I would have written some pietistic essay on why Williams could not have possibly entered the Kingdom, but I would have been wrong.
Instead, I am comforted by the words of his pastor, and my friend.
And though I didn’t know Robin Williams, I will miss him.
But better, and in spite of his flaws – and mine – I hope to one day see him – and you – at the Feast.
Wouldn’t that be sweet.
What good news…
August 9, 2014 § 1 Comment
“… ‘the problem of evil’ is not something we will ‘solve’ in the present world, and… our primary task is not so much to give answers to impossible philosophical questions as to bring signs of God’s new world to birth on the basis of Jesus’ death and in the power of his Spirit, even in the midst of ‘the present evil age.’”
N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God
What do we do with the world’s brokenness?
The manifestation of evil in the news is particularly horrific at this moment: the fighting in Gaza, the unspeakably sad slaughter in Iraq, Christians and unbelievers alike being executed for sport, with reports of crucifixions and beheadings, even of children. The spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa, injustices, whether the exploitation of the poor, the scandal of abortion, or the violence and revulsion of human trafficking and sex trade – all are appalling and disheartening. It is beyond tragic.
Yet amazingly, the gospel assures me that no effort to live out of God’s faithfulness from my little corner of the universe will ever be wasted on a world that desperately hungers for meaning and a vision of something better.
In the death and resurrection of Jesus I am assured that one day everything marred and wrecked by the fall will one day be restored to its intended beauty and loveliness.
This means that…
Indifference to the world’s suffering is not an option for those who love Christ, “who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age” Galatians 1:4). And Ignorance to the world’s brokenness is no excuse for those who live in the gaze of the Father’s daily care.
Sharing in the world’s sorrows means freshly recognizing every evil that causes it merely by looking in the mirror – only to rediscover the grace of God in our own brokenness.
Friends, what you do matters, insignificant as it may seem. Don’t let the enormity of evil and the world’s suffering dampen your hope and paralyze your intentions. Every true expression of the Faith. Each kindness. Every stranger received and enemy loved. Every sacrifice made. Every sin repented of. Every tear shed and prayer uttered – all matter, even if no one else notices, and in the belief that God has His supernatural way of multiplying our efforts, as with fish and loaves (John 6).
Hey, we can’t fix the world, but that’s no excuse for inaction, and in our simple offerings, we bear testimony to the One who can and will renew it, and our efforts signposts of God’s good world.
Even if they amount to no more than one beautiful flower in a dying bunch.
Christ has done no less.
Friends, we bear this good news…
August 2, 2014 § Leave a comment
“The most vulnerable thing we could ever do, the thing that requires the most courage and faith, is the key to freedom. We bring our nothing – accepting who we are by accepting who God is, what he has done and what he promises to do.”
J.R. Briggs, Fail
It was a treat to be invited by one of our Elders to the Baltimore Ravens’ training facility in Owings Mills a few weeks ago, which is by invitation only (as opposed to the larger venue at M&T Bank Stadium). Through another friend who works with the team, we were also permitted to enter into the complex and view the team’s two Super Bowl trophies.
What a thrill to be at field level watching these athletes. They are stunningly fast and observably sleek. Their movement is precise and seemingly effortless. When they strike the blocking machines you can almost feel the force from the stands.
Following practice the team autographed footballs, jerseys, posters and hats for the children. But we adults were equally awed with the event. Having grown up a sports fan, any brush with professional athletes has always been the coolest thing. I still feel like a kid when watching them practice, even though I am twenty-five years older than the oldest player on the team!
Yet what reached me most deeply was in observing our Worship Director and his twin sons. The photo at the top of this post really says it all – a Dad and his boys. They were his joy and the stars of his photographs.
Amazingly we enjoy no less pleasure from the heavenly Father, even more.
What a sweet picture of God and His people – a Father and His children. We are unfinished, and His love for us is complete. We are weak and He is strong. We get lost and He finds us. We are immature, and He is eternally wise. We obey imperfectly and He delights over us with singing, His lens ever fixed on us because of Jesus.
I know the tyranny of unbelief, how it creeps into our hearts and thinking, wrecking joy and imposing it’s own version of a twisted righteousness that is neither righteous nor beautiful. More than anything, it obscures us from the Father – and this is sad.
However to our sometimes despairing spirits and fearful hearts the gospel freshly announces to us that we are not orphans! Nothing Jesus did – on the Cross and in His Resurrection – is wasted. In Christ, we are God’s daughters and sons (John 1:12).
What good news…
July 26, 2014 § Leave a comment
“…I would advise you against defensiveness on principle. It precludes the best eventualities along with the worst. At the most basic level, it expresses a lack of faith… And often enough, when we think we are protecting ourselves, we are struggling against our rescuer.”
Marlilynne Robinson, Gilead
There is an ice-cream shop at the beach we visit each year that smells heavenly as one walks by. It emits a delicious aroma that undoubtedly draws many in. However, this year on one occasion, I turned the corner the shop is on, only to be hit with the foulest of smells. On the ground, puddling along the building was the nasty water that obviously drains from the shop – the county fair puddle kind of smell that one can barely endure in between nausea-inducing rides.
Reflecting on that odorous moment, I am reminded that we can be like that little shop. We have a beautiful side that we want everyone to notice and embrace. But we also have another side.
Dare I say, a stinky side…
All kinds of experiences, flaws and encounters contribute, and unfortunately our tendency is to not only hide this side, but to live, act and relate as though it doesn’t even exist.
Which is ludicrous.
I have found that the relationships that we hold most dear are those in which we have entrusted some glimpse into our ugliness. In fact, the reality of our flaws and blemishes is the only point of commonality we share.
Other than Jesus.
In other words, our stinky side, and the One who has delivered us from its lasting effects, are what unite us. They are what inform our spirits that we are not alone.
That we don’t have to hide.
That we are safe.
You would think this to be a no-brainer, yet the instinct to self-defend is powerful, and every chink in my armor serve as temptations to protect, pretend and hide, when all along the gospel screams that they are God’s invitations for me to enjoy the dance of intimacy with a world that shares my brokenness.
And hiding only diminishes me.
So back to the Ocean. It is not merely the surface and horizon, but the depths, and perilous realities, the mysteries and dangers, that make it magnificent. The depths shape its lovely colors. The creatures fill it with beautiful diversity. Its mysteries draw us into the wonder of God.
It can’t be what it is, without all that it is.
And neither can we.
But the Father already knows this. And by His grace, in Jesus He has embraced that most ugly, stinky part of us, in forming us into something lovely, flaws and all, until He comes and makes everything new.
Friends, this is our good news…
July 19, 2014 § 3 Comments
“The ocean is a desert with its life underground and a perfect disguise above…”
America, A Horse with no Name
Nothing restores me like the ocean. The expanse of the waters, the sound of the waves, the warmth of the sun, the surf, the birds, the clouds, the ocean spray, the smell of the water, an occasional breach of the waters by dolphins, and just being there with Katherine – all do something good for my soul.
It is all so beautiful. You can stand in the same place every morning and get a completely different, and equally spectacular view.
But the sea is as treacherous as it is beautiful, filled with immeasurable depths, unlivable pressure levels, treacherous currents, pitch black darkness and terrifying creatures (especially sharks!). It separates people and countries, and throughout history it has swallowed ships and souls whole.
And it is in its beauty and terror that this magnificent expanse symbolizes God’s unfathomable mercy. The prophet Micah writes that God will one day ‘cast all our sins into the depths of the sea’ (Micah 7:19). He is using prophetic imagery to describe the extent to which God freely forgives.
But why the ocean? Why something so beautiful?
Why not hurl our sins into the depths of a chemical waste pit… or bury them at the bottom of a landfill? Why cast the ugliest of who we are into the loveliest of what God has created?
The answer is, because this is what God does. And this is what He has done – in Jesus.
We rebel and our sin is hideous. Yet in exchange, the Father gives us Jesus – not His creation, but His Son – the best of who He is, to take on the worst that we are.
In Jesus the Father has created for Himself a spectacular view that He delights in every day, in the way one would delight in the ocean as the sun rises and sparkles on the water, and as the gulls make their way across the canvas, and the waves gently invite us to drink in the beauty.
Don’t let the imagery be lost on you – it is far too wonderful. It isn’t that God blinds Himself of our brokenness, but that in Christ, our sin has been covered, engulfed as it were, under the deep waters of the Father’s compassion and the Son’s blood.
His Spirit testifies to ours that we are not only His children, but that we are the very thing He delights in, every day.
What good news…