February 7, 2015 § Leave a comment
One of the more thoughtful pieces I have read in recent weeks comes from New York Times op-ed columnist, Nicholas Kristof. In this particular article he queries as to how we might increase empathy – in the world and in ourselves. After discussing the ‘science’ of how people and organizations successfully manipulate the public in gaining support, whether financial or otherwise, he rightly argues that the only way for our hearts to be drawn to those suffering comes when we enter into it – whether through some form of involvement (like short-term service trips), or by simply meditating or praying over the fact that there is pain in the world.
This is not a new concept to the gospel. At the heart of our Faith is a God who has entered into a broken world. In choosing not to sterilize the planet before coming, Jesus demonstrated that love is not a risk-free enterprise. In fact I am convinced that the greatest obstacle to belief for many is the repulsion that comes with associating a pure God with a messy human condition. Keeping God at a distance is like posting touched-up photos on Instagram – Everyone looks better from far away.
All of which leads to politics – our national obsession. Politics, when reduced to rhetoric is a convenient, ideological way of staying safely far from people and suffering. Rather than get our hands dirty we rattle our sabers, vote, and then pat ourselves on our backs, feeling as though we have done something good for the world.
Don’t get me wrong, I love political debate, and vote every election. And there is a place for political activism. Activism led to the abolition of slavery in England, gave women the right to vote here, and ended wrongful child labor practices. In these cases Christians, along with unbelievers, embraced justice – and one another. They worked through differences for higher callings.
Because the world changes when people get their hands dirty and serve, regardless of politics. But toxic partisan rhetoric changes nothing. It twists words, demonizes flawed humans, divides and polarizes.
From a distance.
Frankly, parsing the National Prayer Breakfast is a colossal waste of time in my opinion.
Maybe this is a good way of looking at it: Imagine with me a horrible event where one of your children or friends is moments away from death unless they are delivered from some catastrophic circumstance. And imagine with me that the only person who can rescue them shares none of your political, theological or ideological values. Will you restrain them from saving your loved one?
Friends, Love is up close. It gets so near that distinctives and differences give way to breath, sweat, smell and heat – humanness.
Jesus has modeled that we are called to something more personal than cheap politics, and He warned against frothing over ‘Caesar’ (Mark 12:13-17). Every generation bewails the political landscape, but I want to encourage you to find something deeper to care about, nobler to aspire to and much more human to fight for.
In doing so, politics will give way to living, breathing, human expressions of the gospel.
Our world can only receive this as good news…
January 10, 2015 § Leave a comment
Years ago Katherine responded to something I offered by saying that there was ‘a more excellent way,’ which was her gracious way of saying that though I might have been right about something, being right was not enough. I have carried that with me.
We are in the aftermath of a bloody, violent siege in Paris. Lives were lost and a manhunt ensues (I hope they catch her and execute her). Just yesterday it was confirmed that as many as 2,000 people have been massacred in Nigeria in a Boko Haram killing spree. Three days ago a man in Florida threw his own daughter off the Sunshine State Bridge in the Tampa-St. Pete area. She died. My heart is grieved.
What scares me in all this is that amid the revulsion and sorrow I am prone to forget what I believe. I want to respond in rage because this is in my heart, and it is my right to feel it.
It happens subtly. The horrid expressions of the fall have a way of jarring us, and hatred tunnels into our sensibilities to the extent that we get lost in understandable outrage. Politicians don’t help. They bend over backwards to deny the obvious and only stoke the flames of anger to those who are not blind.
I forget what I believe because the pain, suffering and injustices are all so real, and because there is nothing we can do to fix what is broken. We can’t bring back the victims. And lost lives are not shattered lightbulbs we sweep away and replace with new ones. We can’t stop the violence. We can’t change governments and we can’t realign a global moral compass, much less our own!
But we have Jesus – and He is the ‘more excellent way.’ What I mean is that on some level my perspective, though fairly rational, isn’t the issue. The issue is that until heaven and earth are one, the world will always be broken, and because of this, no expression of civility, though eminintly appreciated, will ever be the trajectory upon which humankind moves. Our brokenness always eventually manifests itself in damaged expressions.
We just celebrated God’s coming into the world in the flesh – Jesus. Don’t let this be lost on you. In the Incarnation we have a God who, rather than blame or ignore, entered into the rage, filth, hatred and violence of our world. He bore it in death and left it in the Grave. It was the more excellent way. He is the more excellent way. Even on the Cross He forgave His executioners when it was His right to condemn them, and He demands that we surrender our right to outrage – to the law of love.
Truthfully? I don’t want to do it. But closer inspection reveals that this is exactly what Jesus has done for me.
Friends, this is our good news.
November 22, 2014 § Leave a comment
This past week Katherine and I were visited with the terrifying news of a shooting at our daughter’s college, the Florida State University (pictured). So let me begin by saying that our sweet Erin is fine. We praise God, not only for her safety, but also for the other young people who were spared.
It is both surreal and terrifying to be in the fog of waiting to hear good news, while deep down denying the idea that your child would be among the victims. Throughout the morning our family texted back and forth, only to experience relief over her wellbeing, though in muffled tones, knowing that some parent might not be celebrating, but grieving.
In retrospect I was struck by the fact that just six days before, we were intent on cheering on the University of Miami Hurricanes’ football team as they faced off with FSU, and then the subsequent and almost-mandatory belly aching, finger-pointing and excuse-making that accompanies a heartbreaking loss. Before the shooting, the most important thing was that our team beat their team (which we didn’t!). In fact it was heartwarming to read of how Florida State’s most hated rival, the University of Florida, put aside trivial rivalry with displays of intrastate support.
Suffering has a way of correcting our course, doesn’t it? It resets our priorities and quickly sheds away the unimportant. We so easily become scattered by life and love and work and schedules to the extent that focus withdraws from our daily diet.
In suffering there is clarity.
Now I know that there are some who have almost made a virtue out of suffering, almost as though it is a spiritual mountain to be scaled. But this is warped.
No, suffering is raw, and it is real, it is personal, and on any level it is horrid and hideous. It is the result of the fall, and part of the Curse. One day it will no longer be, but until then, there is nothing inherently good in suffering.
Except for one thing.
It is our common cup. In suffering, our differences fade into a shared struggle and inextricable bond with every other human in this broken world. It is our very real and flesh-and-blood protection from smug platitudes. It puts the pain and pathos of others into perspective and protects us from cold indifference. My pain, though horrible, is shared.
In a few weeks we will celebrate the birth of Christ, and at the heart of the Incarnation is a God who would meet us at the point of our greatest need and deepest sorrows, and then invite us into what the apostle Paul calls, ‘the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings’ (Philippians 3:10).
Paul’s summons is not for the sake of glorifying suffering, but to remind us that when we drink from the common cup of brokenness, the Risen Christ is at the table with us.
And this friends, is good news.
September 6, 2014 § 1 Comment
Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall
I want to be careful with this post, because the intention is not to tap into the popular cry against ‘religion.’ Through brilliant and thoughtful friends in ministry I am learning that some of the symbols of the Faith are important for the experience of deepening faith. So you’ll have to go elsewhere to learn whether or not Jesus was religious.
If we are serious about the Faith, then somewhere in our experience we will be confronted with the reality that platitudes and convenient religious categories disintegrate in the face of human suffering and pain. Sorrow, loss, tragedy and crumbling relationships all have a way of breaking down the superficial ideas we have of God and faith. The categories we often insulate ourselves in, fail when they are most needed, because they never were intended to nurture intimacy, but to avoid it, along with the vulnerabilities that accompany it. As a result they inhibit intimacy with God, and relegate one’s faith to a superficial expression.
And frankly, they break down because Jesus didn’t come to rescue us from pain and suffering in a fallen world. Regardless of what we sometimes hear in pulpits and on TV, Christianity is not an alternative to suffering. (that’s right, Victoria Osteen, you’re missing the point).
Throughout the past few weeks I have received e-mails and messages from people who have written in response to my post on Robin Williams’ death, and the follow-up post. The stories they have shared are excruciatingly painful and indescribably beautiful at the same time, because in them, their authors abandon self-protection, and in doing so they tap into the heart of the gospel which finds its richest expression precisely at intersection of death and life – in Jesus.
Everything about formulaic Christianity is aimed at self-protection. There is nothing real or beautiful in it. In our attempts to avoid pain and doubt and sorrow (or to over-emphasize them!), and all those other very real human expressions and experiences in a damaged world, we cheat ourselves of the one thing we most long for and need – Intimacy with God. Let’s be honest, it isn’t about enjoying God so much as it is about avoiding pain.
In her book, Amateur Believer, Patty Kirk recounts how the Faith she grew up with became dead in her – the promises – the prayers – the liturgies – all of it. And it wasn’t until her mother was dying, and she observed her sister as she cared for her, that it all became real. She writes, “Somehow, in the interim, God pieced that memory of my sister comforting our dying mother together with a thousand other frayed remnants of my life to make himself gradually recognizable to me again.”
Friends, it will always be at the intersection of death and life (that is, in the whole breadth of the human experience) that Jesus is most real.
And because this is where we really live, it can’t help but be good news…
August 30, 2014 § 5 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…