Tag Archives: Acceptance

“W.W.J.D.” & Ebola

The news this week of the first diagnosed case of Ebola in the United States in our very own backyard – Presbyterian is Northway’s neighborhood hospital, Vickery Meadows where the afflicted man lived is part of our congregation’s “front doorstep” Mission field through the work of Oasis de Esperanza, and Hotchkiss Elementary School where some of the children in the family of the afflicted man attend is one of our “Signature Outreach Ministries” – has given us all pause.

The traditional five stages of grief provide a helpful roadmap to understanding the range of reactions and responses that we are experiencing in ourselves and observing in others.

Denial: The initial state of disbelief that this is really happening and the refusal to accept its full reality.
Anger: The frustrated and frightened outpouring of raw emotion.
Bargaining: Looking for someone or something to blame, and the offer to change behaviors in the hope that it might change circumstances.
Depression: The dawning realization of the full reality of the situation and its dire consequences.
Acceptance: Finding a way to live in the hope, love and peace that God in Jesus Christ supplies that is bigger than the circumstances that we face.

These are the natural and normal inward responses to our outward experiences of loss and threat. They are part of the path that inner healing takes when we are wounded or worried.  Our commitment to Christ certainly doesn’t exempt us from such experiences of difficulty or emotions of distress.  Even the most cursory reading of Jesus’ response to the death of his good friend Lazarus (John 11), and the accounts of the deep personal crisis that Paul found himself facing during the Second Missionary Journey  (2 Corinthians 1:3-2:4; 4:7-18; 11:21-10) are sufficient Biblical grounds for the spiritual legitimization of grief.

Because we are human beings, when we get bad news or face difficult circumstances, we will find ourselves launched out onto the sea of grief where we are forced to weather the storm. But because we are Christians, we are called to be and do something more than just grieve, spiritually and emotionally legitimate as grief may be.  Paul described what we are capable of and called to as Christians to be a matter of “hopeful grieving” (I Thessalonians 4:13). Not ignoring our pain and fear, in faith we are exhorted to push through it into something else.

Black white

When an explosion and fire destroyed the music room of Cleveland Hill Junior High School in Buffalo in 1953, the Rev. Charles B. Smith visited the homes of the parents who lost children in the tragedy. The shock of the community, and the anguish of those who had to go find a casket for eleven and twelve year old children was almost too much to bear.  Fathers and mothers spoke of the comfort and caring and prayerful support that Rev. Smith gave as a Christian and neighbor.  He spoke to their condition out of the resources of his faith, and out of his understanding for their grief in a personal way, for one of the fourteen children lost in the school fire was his youngest daughter, Reba. [Told by David Poling in his Sermon “The Last Fraud” in The Gift of Easter, Floyd Thatcher, editor, Word Books, 1976].

Our commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior pushes us into an entirely different gear as we make our way through life as Christians.   “The love of Christ constrains us” is how Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 5:14.  That word “constrains” in Greek is a word that describes the action of “compressing forcibly all of our energies into one channel.”


In your imagination see the concentration of water flowing through the nozzle of a fire hose, how it focuses and directs all of that potential and power into a particular direction. In exactly the same way, the love of Christ “compresses forcibly” all of our energy as Christians into a channel of response.  This explains the remarkable record of how Christians have reacted through the centuries to the difficult circumstances that have broken upon them as part of their life in this world.

When a devastating plague swept across the ancient world in the third century, Christians were the only ones who cared for the sick, which they did at the risk of contracting the plague themselves. Meanwhile, pagans were throwing infected members of their own families into the streets even before they died, in order to protect themselves from the disease. (http://www.earlychurch.com/unconditional-love.php)


Around A.D. 260 Dionysius wrote:

“Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty; never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and caring for others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead…. The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.”

Large numbers of pagans, including rulers, priests and physicians, having no hope or anchor for their souls, fled to get away from the plague. They left their sick behind, alone, without care or the basic necessities of life. The Christians, as a whole, tended to remain and care for their loved ones, and for each other. In many cases the love of God in them stretched far enough to also enter the deserted houses of the pagans and care for those sick as well. This individual act, resulting from asking themselves what Jesus would do in the same situation, had a profound impact. (http://www.gci.org/gospel/evang/ordinary)

And this isn’t just ancient church history. All of the medical professionals who have been in the news in recent weeks for having contracted Ebola while serving in West Africa and then being care-flighted home to receive treatment in the United States were serving through missionary agencies as part of their own commitment to Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

ebola vic

In our own spiritual tradition, the Stone/Campbell Movement, we have the example of David Lipscomb (1831-1917) who served sacrificially during the Cholera Epidemic in Nashville in 1873 when 1 out of every 25 people died in that city. Because David Lipscomb was a leader in that part of our church that asked to be counted separately in the 1906 United States Census, he is better known in the Church of Christ than he is among the Disciples of Christ, but for all of our differences, we are still part of the same spiritual family of churches, and so he is “ours” too.


Even though he lived well outside the city of Nashville, safe from the devastating effects of the Cholera outbreak, David Lipscomb moved into the city during the Cholera outbreak when so many with means were fleeing it in panic. This left the poor at the greatest risk, and David Lipscomb as a Biblical Christian knew all about “God’s preferential option for the poor and vulnerable,” how they are the special objects of God’s care and concern, and therefore of the church’s as well.

C. Leonard Allen in his book Distant Voices: Discovering a Forgotten Past for a Changing Church (ACU 1993) described the work that David Lipscomb did in those harrowing days.

Though Lipscomb himself was not physically strong at the time, he worked for days among the poor and sick, placing his own life at risk. He helped distribute food and supplies.  He went into the homes of destitute black residents of Nashville and helped to clean and feed them.  And he used his buggy to carry a group of nuns – whom he deeply respected for their courage – to and from the places where they were needed. (93-94)

In his periodical, The Gospel Advocate, David Lipscomb addressed the spiritual crisis that the Nashville Cholera Epidemic posed for Christians. As trite and hackneyed as it has become in the church today as a gimmick and a merchandizing platform, David Lipscomb positioned the decision of Christians in his day as to how they would respond to the crisis they faced in terms of simple obedience to the example and teachings of Jesus Christ – “W.W.J.D.?”

To reproduce the life of Christ in our own lives is to act as Christ would act, were he in our places. We thus become Christ’s representatives to the world. The solemn pledge of our lives is to act to the best of our ability in the various relationships that we occupy in the world, and in the exigencies and circumstances in which we are placed as Christ would act, were he here situated as we are…

Recently the Cholera made a fearful visitation upon our people. It fell with especial severity upon the poor…

Now in view of these things and the wild panic that seized the population, what would Christ have done in the emergency? Had he been a resident of Nashville with ten, twenty or a hundred thousand dollars, what would he have done? What did he do in the person of his representatives here?   Would he have become panic stricken with fear—fear of death, and have used his means to get himself and family, with their fashionable and luxurious appendages out of danger, to some place of fashionable resort and pleasure, and left his poor brethren and neighbors to suffer and perish from neglect and want?

That is just what he did do in the person of many of his professed representatives. In the person of others he retired to the cool shades of his own luxurious and spacious city mansion elevated above the noxious miasms [sic] that destroyed the poor and unfortunate and left them to die, in want and neglect, without attention from him. Did you who so acted bear true testimony to the world for him for whom you profess to act? Was not your course a libel upon him and his character? How can those who so acted again profess to be his children?

The religion of our Savior was intended to make us like Christ, not only in our labor of love—of our self-sacrifice for the good of others, but also in raising us above a timid, quaking fear of death. If it does not make us willing to brave death and spend our time and money for the good of our suffering fellow-creatures, off cast and sinners though they be, it does not raise us above a mere empty profession that leaves us scarcely less than hypocrites. The religion that does not induce us to do this essential work of a true Christian cannot save us.

I don’t know what the days ahead hold for us as a community of faith in the part of this city where Ebola has made its American debut. I am inclined to believe the assurances we are being given that everything is under control and that the situation is contained and being managed.  But even if that’s true for here and now, it’s not true for “there” – West Africa – and it’s far from certain for “then” – the coming days both in Dallas, Texas, and throughout the global community.

It is only natural for us as human beings to worry about our personal safety and to think about the frightening possibilities when a threat the size of Ebola moves into the neighborhood. But as Christians, our personal safety and continuing well-being cannot be our only consideration. “The love of Christ constrains us,” and that strips “W.W.J.D.” from being a snappy slogan on a bumper sticker or a tee shirt, and positions it in our hearts as the critical and urgent question of our commitment to follow Christ. “What would Jesus do?”  DBS+


These fatal scourges, under God, become opportunities to show the superior excellence of the Christian religion, in giving true courage, love and self-sacrifice to its votaries. Alas what is it judged by the course of a majority of its professors? What do we better than others, in these days of sorrowful visitation?

~ David Lipscomb



Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings

Robin Williams, Depression and the Church



My last two postings have been on the Dark Night of the Soul. This week, after the second posting, the news of Robin Williams’ suicide broke, and since then there has been a wide-ranging and nonstop conversation throughout our culture about depression, and while I deeply grieve the trigger, I gladly welcome the result. It’s long overdue. Depression is not well understood either by those who suffer from it, or by those who know and love people who do. And as the tragedy that is Robin William’s death so painfully shows, this kind of ignorance has devastating consequences.

Because everyone has periodic episodes of reactive or situational depression, stretches of feeling “blue” when things have not gone your way that becomes the interpretive grid that most people use to understand what depression is all about. It’s part of the inner response to an outer experience of loss, disappointment, failure, betrayal, sickness, discouragement or struggle. Something negative happens to us and depression is one of the things that we feel as we process the experience. It’s one of the phases or stages of adjustment; think of the way that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross mapped the grief experience in her seminal work On Death and Dying – Shock, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. Depression is just part of the journey, one of the steps along the way to healing. It’s real and it hurts, but it’s temporary, it passes. The circumstances change and we start to feel better. In fact, people in situational depression are often encouraged by their family members and friends to “get out,” to “do things” and “go places” in order to start to feel better.   Because it was a situation or a circumstance in your life that made you feel bad, just engineer a change in your situation or circumstances and you will start to feel good again, or so the conventional wisdom goes.


We used to have a Mary Englebreit illustration printed on a piece of fabric and hanging on a wall at the house. It showed a rather stern looking little girl with her feet firmly planted, her hands on her hips and a set to her jaw with the words in the text box over her head reading “Snap out of it!” And that’s what depressed people are expected to do. Because experiences of reactive depression pass with time, when it is perceived that someone is staying too long at the fair – that one is wallowing in their misery – this impatient little girl shows up with her scowl and her screech. And while this kind of “shock” therapy, this swift sharp whack up the side of the emotional head might work for someone who is situationally depressed, it can’t touch the other kind of depression that there is, “clinical” or “endogenous” depression.

If reactive depression starts outside of us with a difficult circumstance or a bad situation, constitutional depression starts inside of us. While reactive depression is triggered by something that happens to us externally, clinical depression is just part of the way that some of us are wired internally; it’s part of our state of being. The way that I have sometimes described my own experience of being clinically depressed is to say that while we all fall into deep, dark holes from time to time that we then have to climb out of, that there are some of us who find ourselves in holes so deep and dark that they can’t be climbed out of. They are not a temporary state, a passing emotion that we can “snap out of,” they are where we live.

Since his suicide, I’ve heard people in the media wonder about what could have been so terrible in Robin Williams’ life to have prompted him to do this. I’ve heard the speculations that he was having money problems, or relationship problems, or career problems – a cancelled television series, or a health problem – more heart disease, or a substance abuse problem, and that it was this problem, whatever it was, that prompted him to take his life. But that’s reactive depression thinking in a clinical depression life. Something didn’t happen to Robin Williams this week that resulted in one desperately bad and irreversible decision. No, Robin Williams was sick; had been for a long time, and it was that disease – clinical depression – that killed him. Like any disease, you can live with clinical depression, function at a very productive and creative level, even while you are desperately ill. Think Abraham Lincoln. Think Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Think Vincent Van Gogh. Think Ernest Hemingway. This is what has confused so many people about Robin Williams. We saw his genius. His gifts were obvious to us. His accomplishments were great. But all of this happened against the backdrop of his very real suffering from a very real disease.

A few years ago we admired the strength of Patrick Swayze as he continued to act while battling terminal cancer. And when his disease finally claimed him, in the sadness of his death there was a widespread recognition of the courage that he had displayed in the way that he had continued to ply his craft when it would have been so easy for him to just have rolled over and quit. He “played hurt,” and we greatly respected it, even saw it as “heroic.” Well, so did Robin Williams, only it appears that he “played hurt” for his entire career. But because his terminal disease was mental rather than physical, it’s unlikely that his passing will be viewed by society at large in the same way. But I do. For all of the sadness of this week, I want to go on record here with my admiration, respect and honor for the courage and strength of Robin Williams.

Some of the most courageous people I know are those who battle mental illness. There are men and women all around you every day in the cubicle next to yours at work and on the pew next to you in worship who have to muster every last ounce of strength they have just to get out of bed in the morning to step into another day. They carry burdens and fight battles that we can’t even begin to imagine. And because we just don’t “get it,” because we don’t understand mental illness as a disease that is just as real and devastating as cancer, diabetes or emphysema, we think that these people could “snap out of it” if they really wanted to. Tell that to the next person you see having a heart attack!

It was in a class on ministry that I took in seminary taught by Dr. Charles Kemp that I first heard the quote: “Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” He said that this was one of the most basic principles of pastoral care. And if Robin William’s tragic death this week is to have any enduring impact on us, I urge it to be this.

In Matthew 12:20, it was said of Jesus Christ that “a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” In the history of interpretation these descriptions have been applied to the discouraged and the disheartened, to those who have been overwhelmed by their lives and are just barely hanging on. And it seems to me that the stance that Jesus took toward such people should be the stance that we as part of His church ought to be taking as well, and this begins with simple kindness, and a recognition of the depth and the darkness of the fight that so many find themselves in every single day.  DBS+


I highly recommend –

Robin w






Filed under Soundings

Faiths in Conversation: Human Sexuality – May 2014; A Christian Perspective

Russell Moore, the new President of the Southern Baptist Convention, has described the belligerence with which the church has traditionally spoken to culture about matters of sexual morality. Assuming that the culture at large shares the church’s convictions and conclusions, Dr. Moore described the church’s usual form of address to those who would dare to question its teachings as a version of, “Hey, you kids get off my lawn.”

In the past it was enough for the church to simply state her prohibitions and to make her affirmations.

Premarital Sex – No
Pornography – No
Promiscuity – No
Abortion – No
Sexual Violence & Abuse – No
Marriage – Yes
Adultery – No
Divorce – No
Monogamy – Yes
Polygamy – No
Heterosexuality – Yes
Homosexuality – No

I think of this as the algebraic approach to theology and ethics. It’s all about the bottom-line, about giving the “right” answer. We reduce complex moral and spiritual questions to “sound bite” answers which are then used to “litmus test” people, to determine which “side” they are going to be on in the fight. But I was never very good at algebra. In fact, when I was growing up, this time of the year was always the worst.

Mid-May was when my folks always got the note from school telling them that if little Dougie was going to advance with his class in the next school year that he was going to have to spend some time in remedial summer school in a math “do-over.” I struggled mightily with algebra. But when I took geometry, suddenly a switch was thrown in my head and I excelled. To the shock of everybody, not the least of whom was me, I was near the top of my geometry class! And when I think back on what that was all about, I have come to the conclusion that I did better in geometry than I ever did in algebra because they involved different kinds of thinking.

Algebra is about the “what?” Getting the answer “right” is what matters in algebra. But geometry is equally interested in the “why?” How you get to the “right” answer is just as important as the answer itself. And what I hear Dr. Moore saying is that spiritual algebra is not going to work for the church anymore. Because the traditional church is out of step with where most Americans are according to the public opinion polls, it’s not going to be enough for the traditional church to merely stake out the territory that she occupies. Dr. Moore is urging his part of the church to recognize that the era of spiritual geometry has arrived.

And this means that when the church speaks to culture about what it is that she believes and values, the church is going to have to talk with culture not just about what it is that she thinks, but about why she thinks the way she does. And when this conversation begins, it won’t be long before it becomes clear that apart from the divide that exists between the church and culture on questions of human sexuality, that there is an equally dramatic divide inside the church. The bottom-line is that we who are Christians don’t think alike on questions of sexual morality anymore. Where once there had been a rather broad consensus among Christians of all stripes, one no longer exists, especially within the Protestant family of churches.

I can’t think of a Mainline Protestant denomination that isn’t prayerfully and painfully sorting out urgent questions of human sexuality these days. Earlier this month I got a pastoral letter from the faculty of the seminary where I did my doctoral work, a seminary of the Presbyterian Church USA. In advance of their denominational General Assembly in Detroit later this summer at which matters of human sexuality will be vigorously debated and policies for the church concerning gay marriage and ordination will be considered, that faculty called on their denominational leadership to embrace “a season of mutual forbearance” in which, together, they “might seek the mind of Christ.”

Now, allow me to translate that for you non-Christians in the room here this evening. That means that they don’t agree on what they think, and they don’t want that fact to be the cause of another church split. They want their progressives and their traditionalists to stay in community with each other. And that’s where most Mainline Protestant Churches are today. Within our own communities of faith as Christians we don’t agree; our algebraic bottom-lines are different. And when you start to probe why this is the case, what you will discover pretty quickly is that we are working with very different theorems in our geometric calculations.

For more than five years I was part of my own denomination’s Task Force on the question of “What is the Gospel message to our church as we relate to gay and lesbian Christians?” Great effort was made to insure that voices from across the spectrum of conviction within my church were represented among the members of this Task Force. To use James Nelson’s standard typology of the representative stances on homosexuality that exist within the Christian community – “Rejecting-Punitive,” “Rejecting-Nonpunitive,”Qualified Acceptance” and “Full Acceptance” – three of these four positions were well represented by people on the panel.

The “Rejecting-Punitive” position was deemed from the outset of our conversation to be fundamentally inconsistent with our denominational commitment to “unity in the essentials; liberty in the non-essentials; and charity in all things.” The track record of my denomination has invariably been on the side of defending the civil rights of sexual minorities regardless of our interpretation of Scripture. It’s just hard for us who are members of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to think in “punitive” sorts of ways. But the other three positions – “Rejecting-Nonpunitive,” “Qualified Acceptance” and “Full Acceptance” – were all in the conversation. And it is from that experience that I think that I can identify some of the watersheds that result in Christians winding up on opposite sides of the questions on human sexuality.

The first watershed has to do with the foundational question of whether or not we believe that we have access to the mind of God? This is a question about revelation. Has God spoken and acted in such a way that who God is and what God wants can actually be known by us?”  When a Christian says that the Bible is the Word of God, or contains the Word of God, or bears witness to the Word of God, this first watershed question is being answered affirmatively. But immediately on the heels of this “yes” there follows the second watershed question: “So, what does God think about human sexuality? Is this something that God really cares about?”

Just because you believe that God has spoken and acted, and that you have a reliable record of that speaking and acting in the Bible does not mean that you have to believe that God has spoken about everything. Deuteronomy 29:29 says, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever.” And this means that while I claim to have a reliable revelation of God in the Bible, I do not claim to have an exhaustive knowledge of God or God’s will, and this is where the debate about human sexuality in the Christian community rages most fiercely today.

“Does God have a design for our sexuality as human beings that norms our behavior?”  Some Christians, looking at the dizzying array of sexual expression found in the Hebrew Scriptures – polygamy, concubinage, endogamy, rape, incest, adultery, prostitution and divorce – conclude that there is nothing normative about it at all. But other Christians find a Divine design for our sexuality in the Order of Creation. Traditionally Christians have understood Genesis 1:27-28 – “And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. And God blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply…” – and Genesis 2:24 – “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall become one flesh” – to establish a heterosexual, monogamous and covenantal design for human sexual expression, and regard all of those other biblical descriptions of alternate sexual arrangements to be deviations from this norm, the deliberate and willful stepping over of a divinely established boundary. And this raises the next watershed question.

“Does the Bible ever address the question of sexual orientation, or does it regard all same sex behavior as always being a matter of something that a constitutionally heterosexual person willfully chooses to do as an act of sinful rebellion against their God given nature?”  What do we do with the idea, one which by the way is quickly becoming the consensus, that people are “created gay”? “When did you decide to be straight?” the gay panelists on my denomination’s Task Force often asked their straight counterparts. And then said, “If you say that when your sexual awakening occurred you just instinctively found yourself attracted to members of the opposite sex, then you need to know that our experience was exactly that same, it was instinctive, but our attractions were entirely different.” And this raises the next watershed question.

“How will we who believe that the Bible is the Word of God ‘weight’ other sources of knowledge about ourselves and our world as we draw our conclusions and settle our convictions?” A standard tool for Christian theological reflection is something called the “Quadrilateral.”  What the Quadrilateral says is that there are four sources for our knowledge of God – Scripture, Reason, Experience and Tradition. And the critical question in this system is which of the four has primacy?

When a fight between the Quadrilateral’s four components breaks out, and they do all the time, which one functions as the referee? When reason and experience come to blows, or when tradition and Scripture start throwing punches, which one of the four is supposed to step up and settle the dispute? Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians tend to say tradition. Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians tend to say experience. Mainline Protestant Christians tend to say reason. Evangelical and Confessional Protestant Christians tend to say Scripture. And how you answer this question will go a long way to determining how you will wind up doing the theological geometry on questions of human sexuality.

The last watershed question that I will quickly mention in closing here this evening concerns the proper response to what is determined in good faith to be a violation of what God intends. Understand, in today’s church this is something that cuts two ways. Those of us who wind up on the “rejecting” side of a question about human sexuality have got to then figure out what how we will relate to those who are on the “accepting” side of it, and vice versa. “When something is conscientiously determined to be a sin, be it homophobia or homophilia, what will you then do with those with whom you disagree? Will you, can you, stay in community with them?”

Because we do the geometry on questions of human sexuality using such different theorems, this is the critical question for those of us who are Christians in a Mainline Protestant Church today. The tools I’ve used to stay in mine are two. First, I accord those with whom I disagree a “good faith” assumption. This means that I start by trusting them when they tell me that they are just as committed as I am in knowing God, and that they are just as concerned as I am in wanting to know and do His will. And second, I remember that I am a Christian solely on the basis of forgiveness. God doesn’t love me because I get the answers right. God in Jesus Christ just loves me. And because I believe that God loves those with whom I disagree in exactly this same way, I choose to remain in communion and conversation with them, no matter how challenging that may prove to be for me.  DBS+

1 Comment

Filed under Soundings