Tag Archives: Grief

O Key of David…

O Key of David, and Ruler of the House of Israel, you open and none can shut;
you shut and no one can open:

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Come and lead out of the prison house the captives who sit in
darkness and in the shadow of death
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easterThe traditional Easter icon of Eastern Orthodox Christianity shows the Risen Christ breaking down the gates of Hades and pulling people out of the bondage of death. The detail in this icon that I simply love are all the locks, and chains and keys that have been opened to set people free that are falling away beneath Christ’s feet.  As the Risen Christ tells the church in Philadelphia in Revelation 3:8 – I have opened a door for you that no one can close.” In the book of Hebrews this is the idea that’s at work in the wonderful invitation of chapter 10 –

Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. (10:19-22)

And, of course, this invitation is premised on the theologically rich image of the curtain in the Jerusalem Temple being torn open wide from top to bottom at the very moment when Christ died (Matthew 27:51). That curtain was the barrier that symbolically separated people from the Holy of Holies where God was said to dwell on earth. This was part of the dividing wall of hostility that Christ broke down on the cross giving us our access to God (Ephesians 2:14-18).

And so it is that in our run-up to Christmas the church prays the fourth “O” Antiphon –

O Key of David, and Ruler of the House of Israel, you open and none can shut;
you shut and no one can open: Come and lead out of the prison house
the captives who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

At Christmastime I begin by praying this “O” Antiphon as an intercession for myself. The door that Christ has opened by His saving presence and work is the door through which I must daily pass (John 10:1-3).  I understand that my access to God and His provision for all my needs depends upon this door being open.  And then I pray this “O” Antiphon as a petition for you.  I know that what Christ has provided for me through that open door, He intends to provide for you, and for all, as well.  And so I pray this fourth “O” Antiphon as a reminder of the mission that is mine as someone who has passed though that open door that is Christ.  It is not enough just for me to get “in.” Because that door to God has been opened by Christ for all, my experience of it is diminished so long as any remain outside of it.  This was Paul’s lament in Romans 9 where he wrote of his “great sorrow and unceasing grief” in his heart for those from his own spiritual family who remained outside the access and provision that Christ had made.  “I wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ,” Paul wrote, if that would mean their inclusion (9:3).

A more positive statement of this same desire was Sam Shoemaker’s (1893 – 1963) personal mission statement –

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I Stand at the Door

I stand by the door.
I neither go too far in, nor stay too far out.
The door is the most important door in the world –
It is the door through which people walk when they find God.
There is no use my going way inside and staying there,
When so many are still outside and they, as much as I,
Crave to know where the door is.
And all that so many ever find
is only the wall where the door ought to be.
They creep along the wall like blind people,
With outstretched, groping hands,
Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door,
Yet they never find it.
So I stand by the door.

The most tremendous thing in the world
is for people to find that door – the door to God.
The most important thing that any person can do
is to take hold of one of those blind, groping hands
and put it on the latch – the latch that only clicks
and opens to that person’s own touch.

People die outside the door, as starving beggars die
on cold nights in cruel cities in the dead of winter.
Die for want of what is within their grasp.
They live on the other side of it – live because they have not found it.

Nothing else matters compared to helping them find it,
And open it, and walk in, and find Him.
So I stand by the door.

Go in great saints; go all the way in –
Go way down into the cavernous cellars,
And way up into the spacious attics.
It is a vast, roomy house, this house where God is.
Go into the deepest of hidden casements,
Of withdrawal, of silence, of sainthood.
Some must inhabit those inner rooms
And know the depths and heights of God,
And call outside to the rest of us how wonderful it is.
Sometimes I take a deeper look in.
Sometimes venture in a little farther,
But my place seems closer to the opening.
So I stand by the door.

There is another reason why I stand there.
Some people get part way in and become afraid
lest God and the zeal of His house devour them;
For God is so very great and asks all of us.
And these people feel a cosmic claustrophobia
and want to get out. ‘Let me out!’ they cry.
And the people way inside only terrify them more.
Somebody must be by the door to tell them that they are spoiled.
For the old life, they have seen too much:
One taste of God and nothing but God will do any more.
Somebody must be watching for the frightened
Who seek to sneak out just where they came in,
To tell them how much better it is inside.
The people too far in do not see how near these are
to leaving – preoccupied with the wonder of it all.
Somebody must watch for those who have entered the door
but would like to run away. So for them too,
I stand by the door.

I admire the people who go way in.
But I wish they would not forget how it was
before they got in. Then they would be able to help
the people who have not yet even found the door.
Or the people who want to run away again from God.
You can go in too deeply and stay in too long
and forget the people outside the door.
As for me, I shall take my old accustomed place,
Near enough to God to hear Him and know He is there,
But not so far from people as not to hear them,
And remember they are there too.

Where? Outside the door –
Thousands of them. Millions of them.
But – more important for me – One of them, two of them, ten of them.
Whose hands I am intended to put on the latch.
So I shall stand by the door and wait
for those who seek it.

‘I had rather be a door-keeper…
so I stand by the door.

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Christ is the door that opens onto God, and through which we are invited to pass into His presence, and Christmastime each year is our opportunity to both remember what it is that we have been given in the coming of Christ, and to renew our commitment to the mission that He has placed in our hands just as soon as we have stepped through the door.

The most tremendous thing in the world
is for people to find that door – the door to God.
The most important thing that any person can do
is to take hold of one of those blind, groping hands
and put it on the latch – the latch that only clicks
and opens to that person’s own touch.

– DBS +

 

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Jesus Wept…

Jesus Wept

The news of another school shooting, this time in Southern Oregon, has produced all of the now familiar reactions and responses in us.

On the personal level we grieve.  Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ predictable stages are all playing out in our hearts once again – Shock, Anger, Depression, Bargaining and Acceptance. This is a loss that we all feel to varying degrees, and grief is the healing process that we are given to survive such losses.  We are stunned that it’s happened again.   We are mad that it just keeps on happening.  We are sad for the families, and for ourselves, wondering -what’s become of us as a people? We are asking ourselves and each other – what can be done to stop this senseless violence?  And we are unsettled by just how familiar this has all become, how it is our “new normal.”  This is how grieve, and we will be grieving for some time to come.

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On the public level we seek solutions.  Gun violence is a social problem that tears at the very fabric of our national life.  We are a country birthed in the recognition that human beings have certain “unalienable” rights given to them by their Creator – “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” being just three of the ones that got explicitly named.  The establishment and defense of these rights for all is an important part of the nobility of our national agenda, and gun violence like that which left ten dead and thirteen wounded at the Umpqua Community College last Thursday morning is a clear violation of them for the slain, the wounded, their loved ones, that community and our nation.  This is a matter of deep concern for the body politic.

And so, frankly, I just don’t get the criticism of our elected government leaders for supposedly “politicizing” this tragedy. “Politicizing” is the politician’s job after all.  It’s what they are elected to do, and that’s not a “bad” thing in my mind. “Politics” is how we order our society. “Politics” is how we “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

If anything, I am frustrated that the national political conversation triggered by events like the shootings at the Umpqua Community College last week, and at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, last June, and at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, a few years back, just to name a few of the episodes of the kind of violence that we’ve got to address as a people, hasn’t been more robust and haven’t produced more and better results.  And so I say, “bring it on.”  It’s time – and many would say it’s long overdue – that we finally sorted out this question as a nation.  Too many people are dying.  Too many families are being ripped apart.  Too many communities are being devastated.  And so as a citizen of this country I am resolved to listen, and to think, and to debate the options with my family and closest friends, and to settle my own convictions, and then finally to vote my conscience on gun violence.

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And so, I grieve personally as a human being, and I ponder politically as a citizen, but what am I supposed to be doing as a Christian, and more specifically, what am I supposed to be doing as the pastor of a local church?  Well, in the simplest of terms, I think that I as a Christian and as a pastor, and that we as a church are supposed to “help.” But, what should be the shape of that “help”?

Well, at the personal level of grief, I believe that the way we “help” most as Christians is by always remembering that it is the primary business of the church “to be and to share the Good News of Jesus Christ, witnessing, loving and serving from our doorsteps ‘to the ends of the earth.’”   As Denny Burk, a Professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky, puts it –

It is important for Christians to use this moment to bring the claims of the gospel to bear upon people’s reflection on this tragedy…  The gospel gives answers to the deepest questions raised by the shootings… (1) Why is there evil in the world? (2) How do people become capable of such heinous evil? (3) Where was God during the massacre? (4) Who’s going to make this right? (5) Who will care for the broken-hearted who were left behind?  These are all ultimate questions, and… as Christians, we announce the gospel of Jesus Christ who was crucified and raised for sinners and who will one day return to make all things new as the answer.  The coming kingdom of Christ is the only thing that will ultimately satisfy the instinctive human desire for “justice,” [and that can heal the deepest wounds of the human heart].

And then, at the public level of political discourse and decision-making, I believe that the way the church “helps” best is not by preaching a specific social policy as if it alone were God’s official position on an issue, but instead by helping the ordinary Christians who are in our care to think more deliberately and carefully about the general moral principles that are drawn from Scripture that are meant to inform the public policy debates.

If you ask me, far too many Christian leaders, both on the right and on the left, act as if the specific political conclusion that they have personally drawn on a pressing social question is the only legitimate “Christian” option when, in fact, Christians of equally “good faith” and sincere conscience can, and quite often do, draw very different conclusions. David VanDrunen, a Seminary Professor of Systematic Theology, explains how this happens by reminding his readers that nowhere does “Scripture set forth a political policy agenda or embrace a particular political party.” The Bible is not intended to be used as a textbook for civil policy” R. Scott Clark, one of Professor VanDrunen’s colleagues points out, “any more than it is intended as a ‘playbook for sports.” And so Professor VanDrunen concludes, “When it comes to supporting a particular party, or candidate, or platform, or strategy – individual believers have the liberty to utilize the wisdom that God gives them to make decisions they believe will be of most good to society at large.” And I believe that an important part of the “wisdom” that God has given us to make our decisions that we think will be of the most good to society at large are the “general principles of the second table of God’s law” (Exodus 20:12-17).  This is a resource we dare not neglect as Christians.

crossHonor your father and your mother…
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet…

Of course, the complicating factor in the use of this spiritual resource, as Jason Stellman has helpfully pointed out, is that “there is a big difference between a moral principle and the implementation of that moral principle” (http://www.creedcodecult.com) –

Just because we agree on a point of ethics, that doesn’t mean that we will agree on what to do next. …I don’t think that there are easy answers to the big questions we are facing, and therefore I will not pretend to provide them.  All I’m asking for is that, amid our pulpit-pounding and rally cries to one cause or another, we take the time to think a little bit harder than we are accustomed to doing, especially before calling an opponent’s faith or character into question.

Now, the obvious general moral principle drawn from the second table of the law that speaks directly to gun violence is – “You shall not murder.” On this, I suspect that everyone in the public political debate agrees.  But how is this general moral principle best implemented?  What shape should it take in actual public policy?

Just like you, I have some Christian friends who argue that tighter gun control legislation is the right way to give expression to this moral principle, and I don’t know, they may very well be right.  But I have other Christian friends, as I suspect you do too, who argue that open carry legislation is instead the right way to give it public policy expression, and I don’t know, they may very well be right.  Clearly, I need to give this some more thought.  But, here’s what I already know – I have equally faithful Christian friends who are conscientiously attending to the very same moral principle, and who have nevertheless arrived at very different conclusions about how to best implement it.  With them I believe that “You shall not murder” is a divinely inspired moral principle.  It’s not negotiable.  But the best way to give it expression in a modern society torn asunder by gun violence is a political conversation that needs to be had without one public policy posturing as the sole beneficiary of some imagined divine imprimatur.

For God’s sake – the God who commanded “You shall not murder” – let’s have the urgent political conversation in the public square that this moment in our social history as a people demands, free of the illusion that only this or that public policy proposal is “God’s position” on the matter.  What God wants is for the school shootings to stop.  What God is asking right now is – What are you prepared to do about it now?  DBS+

 

 

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Another Day After…

Umpqua Community College – October 1, 2015

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The fact that there are prayer and worship resources for moments like these in our hymnal says something sad and alarming about our world.  As you process the aftermath of another mass casualty shooting and think about how you as a Christian need to respond, I invite you to spend some quiet time today with the text  of this hymn from the Chalice Hymnal –

When Aimless Violence Takes Those We Love [Chalice Hymnal #512]
Words: Joy F. Patterson, 1992 – Hope Publishing Company, 1994

When aimless violence takes those we love,
when random death strikes childhood’s promise down,
when wrenching loss becomes our daily bread,
we know, O God, you leave us not alone.

When passing years rob sight and strength and mind
yet fail to still a strongly beating heart,
and grief becomes the fabric of our days,
dear Lord, you do not stand from us apart.

Our faith may flicker low, and hope grow dim,
yet you, O God, are with us in our pain;
you grieve with us and for us day by day,
and with us, sharing sorrow, will remain.

Because your Son knew agony and loss,
felt desolation, grief and scorn and shame,
we know you will be with us, come what may,
your loving presence near, always the same.

Through long, grief-darkened days help us, O Lord,
to trust your grace for courage to endure,
to rest our souls in your supporting love,
and find our hope within your mercy sure.

As far as prayer goes on a day like today, my “go to” text for reflection is the prayer that was written by Hassan Dehqani-Tafti, the Anglican Bishop of Iran, after his son, Bahram, was killed during the Iranian Revolution in 1980.   When he received the news of the death of his son, Bishop Dehqani-Tafti wrote his wife from his exile on Cyprus –

I feel bewildered but very calm. May God forgive those who have murdered our son.  For, plainly, ‘they knew not what they did’.  What had Bahram ever done to them? May God use the death of our dear son to free people from hatred and enmity in our country, in whatever way He knows. What an educated and cultured man our country has lost. The seed of this sacrifice somehow, sometime, somewhere in the whole plan of God for his world, will blossom and bear fruit. How and when and where we cannot know but we believe that the sacrifice will not be wasted. We must not have hatred in our hearts –only sorrow, pity, mercy and compassion, for those callous murderers. May God awaken their souls so that they realize the depth of their prejudice and hatred and so be saved from their sin.

And on the day of the funeral, Bishop Dehqani-Tafti broadcast this prayer into the service which he could not personally attend –

O God, we remember not only Bahram but his murderers, not because they killed him in the prime of his youth and made our hearts bleed and our tears flow, not because with this savage act they have brought further disgrace on the name of our country among the civilized nations of the world: but because through their crime we now follow more closely thy footsteps in the way of sacrifice. The terrible fire of this calamity burns up all selfishness and possessiveness in us: its flame reveals the depth of depravity, meanness and suspicion, the dimension of hatred and the measure of sinfulness in human nature. It makes plain to us as never before our need to trust in thy love as shown in the Cross of Jesus and his Resurrection, love that makes us free from all hatred towards our persecutors: love which brings patience, forbearance, courage, loyalty, humility, generosity and greatness of heart, love which more than ever deepens our trust in God’s final victory and thy eternal designs for the Church and for the world: love which teaches us how to prepare ourselves to face our own day of death.

O God, Bahram’s blood multiplies the fruit of the Spirit in the soil of our souls: so when his murderers stand before thee on the Day of Judgment remember the fruit of the Spirit by which they have enriched our lives, and forgive.

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Goodbye Old Friend

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I knew him first as an opponent on the football field.  My little college in Oregon didn’t play intercollegiate football, and so the intramural competition between houses on campus had an importance all out of proportion to its quality or any kind of common sense.  After my house team trounced his house team on the way to the school championship one year, Steve stopped by my room for a visit.  It was a recruitment trip.  He ventured down the street and into the enemy’s camp because, as he later told me, he was tired of looking up at me after I had knocked him down on the football field.  Steve was a quarterback and I was a defensive lineman.  And so he made all kinds of promises about how great my life could be on campus if only I would agree to move into his house before the next football season.  Why, we could even be roommates Steve told me!  It was laughable, quintessential Steve.  But out of that sheer nonsense a genuine friendship was born.

Steve was the very first person to greet me when I got to Ft. Worth.  Literally, on the day when Mary Lynn and I pulled into the Brite parking lot at TCU, Steve was there to welcome us to our new “home” and take us out to dinner that night – pizza at Crystals.  At TCU we finally got to play ball together on the same team – the Brite “Bombers.”  A year ahead of me, Steve and I were in graduate school together for only two years.  But our friendship deepened greatly during that time.  His signature is on my ordination certificate, and mine is on his.

We were always something of an odd couple.   I’ve always been big and slow, Steve was trim and athletic.   I’m something of a bookworm, Steve was anything but.  I reveled in the intellectual stretching that seminary afforded me, taking every course on Bible, theology and church history that I could.  Steve viewed seminary as something that he just had to get through so that he could be ordained and then work in a church.  He took every practical ministry class that he could.  But somehow the friendship worked, and endured.

Steve’s journey through life didn’t unfold in a straight line.  There were some failed marriages and some failed ministries.  We saw each other pretty regularly through the years.   He would suddenly call out of nowhere and say that he was going to stop by.  I remember waiting at a little airport in far West Houston for hours one evening because Steve had called and told me that he had hitched a ride and was coming in for a visit.  He wanted me to meet his new wife.  He didn’t show.  That marriage didn’t last, but our friendship still did.

We lost touch for a while.  Steve just disappeared.   And then one day he was back, in Maine of all places. And our pattern of occasional phone calls and e-mails picked up again right where it left off.  He was forever making a wisecrack about something I wrote.  But the fact is that Steve still read everything I wrote and watched everything I we posted on the church’s Facebook page.  I knew that he was out there paying attention to what I was doing because he would respond to the pictures, web devotionals and blogs. Steve was my friend, a good friend.

Well, I got the word last Saturday that my friend Steve died.  I didn’t even know that he was sick.  I sure wish that I could have visited with him before he left.  Steve was not the easiest friend that I’ve had, but he was one of truest, and I just wish that I had had the chance to tell him that.  I would have liked the chance to tell Steve that I loved him, I really did.  But then again, I’m pretty sure that Steve knew.

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After a good friend of his unexpectedly died, Philip Yancey wrote that the only thing that could really have helped him in that moment of his loss would have been to somehow get his friend Bob back again.  And that prompted this profoundly meaningful meditation on the Gospel –

On the day Bob made his last dive, I was sitting, oblivious, in a cafe at the University of Chicago, reading My Quest for Beauty by Rollo May. In that book, Rollo recalls a visit to Mt. Athos, a peninsula of monasteries attached to Greece. There, he happened to stumble upon an all-night celebration of Greek Orthodox Easter. Incense hung in the air. The only light came from candles. At the climax of that service, the priest gave everyone three Easter eggs, splendidly decorated and wrapped in a veil. “Christos Anesti!” he said — “Christ is Risen!” Each person present, including Rollo May, replied according to the custom, “He Is Risen Indeed!” Rollo May writes, “I was seized then by a moment of spiritual reality: What would it mean for our world if he had truly risen?” Rollo May’s question kept floating around in my mind, hauntingly, after I heard the terrible news of Bob’s death. What did it mean for our world that Christ had risen?”

…When I spoke at Bob’s funeral, I rephrased Rollo May’s question in the terms of our particular grief.  What would it mean for us if Bob rose again?   We were sitting in a chapel, numbed by three days of sorrow, death bearing down on us like a crushing weight.  How would it be to walk outside to the parking lot and there, to our utter astonishment, find Bob. Bob! With his bounding walk, his crooked grin, his clear gray eyes.  It could be no one else but Bob, alive again!

That image gave me a hint of what Jesus’ disciples felt on the first Easter.  They too had grieved for three days.  On Sunday they heard a new, euphonious sound, clear as a bell struck in mountain air.  Easter hits a new note of hope and faith that what God did once in a graveyard in Jerusalem, he can and will repeat on a grand scale.  For Bob.  For us.  For the world.  Against all odds, the irreversible will be reversed.

Because of Easter, Philip Yancey talked about the day when he was going to get his friend back.  And today as I write, thinking about my old friend Steve, all I can say is… me too.  DBS+

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Robin Williams, Depression and the Church

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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.

 

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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+

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I highly recommend –

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http://calvarychapel.com/resources/article/view/robin-williams-and-secret-suffering/

 

 

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Gold, Frankincense and Flu

 

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I got a flu shot for Thanksgiving.
I got the flu for Christmas.

It started with a cough on the Thursday after Christmas Day.  On Friday morning my sinuses were involved, by Friday afternoon chills and body aches had joined the party, and by Saturday I was down for the count.  I barely moved for the next four days.  I was good and sick; the kind of sick when you just don’t care.  I couldn’t sleep.  I couldn’t eat.  I couldn’t get comfortable.  I wouldn’t be comforted.  I was just flat out miserable, and making my loved ones, my caretakers miserable as well.  When my downhill slide finally flattened out and I gradually began to rebound, I began to think about the meaning of being sick.

Christmas is the season of Emmanuel – the celebration of the “God who is with us” (Matthew 1:23/Isaiah 7:14).  The author of Hebrews makes the most of this affirmation in his teaching about Christ’s full identification with us in our shared humanity –

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

So, does this mean that Jesus had the flu when He because flesh and dwelt among us?  If His ability to “sympathize with our weaknesses” is the result of the fact that in His full humanity, Jesus Christ “in every respect has been tempted/tested as we are,” then I am certainly inclined to think so.  In fact, in the prophetic description of His person and work in Isaiah 53:4-5, it was said of the Messiah –

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.

This text provides me with some basis for thinking that Jesus in the days of His flesh ran a fever and had the chills. In – “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6) – I think I can include the flu.  Of course, this is speculative.  What I have no doubts about whatsoever is the fact that in the redemption that God has already accomplished in Jesus Christ and is right now in the process applying to our hearts as individuals and to the world in general through the Holy Spirit is the elimination of flu.  It’s part of
what’s got to go on that day when God will finally and fully “wipe away every tear from every eye; and there shall be no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain” (Revelation 21:4).  Many of my Pentecostal friends want me to believe that if I could just muster up enough faith, that this could be my reality right here and right now.  But I am persuaded by Scripture that such an idea is an “unwarranted anticipation” of the future that God has promised.  I believe that it will come, that the flu will be done away with once and for all in the redemption of my body in the day of resurrection when Christ returns (Romans 8:18-23). But that’s “not yet.”  And this means that we are all going to have weeks like the one that I’ve just come though. Oh, it would be nice if there was a shot that we could take that would solve the problem of the flu, but there’s not, at least not yet.  What we’ve got is eschatology – the doctrine of last things.

At a men’s retreat a few years back I was roundly criticized and mocked by a ministerial colleague for teaching a workshop on the different theories of interpretation about what the Bible tells us will occur in the last days.  He saw it as a big waste of time.  “What good does any of this do when I’m sitting at a hospital bedside or standing at a graveside?” he demanded to know.  “It’s spiritual minutia and theological claptrap in the category of ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin,’” my colleague insisted, “junk that distracts us and obstructs us from really dealing with the things that matter.” I disagreed with him then, and now.

In I Thessalonians 4:13-18, the Apostle Paul dealt with a pastoral crisis in that community of faith by reviewing with them the things that he told them about the end times when he had been with them planting the church.  “We do not want you to be uninformed,” Paul told the Thessalonians, “that you may not grieve as do the rest who have no hope” (4:13). And then, after working through what will happen at the close of the age one more time with them, Paul concluded his excursion into eschatology with the exhortation: “Therefore comfort one another with these words” (4:18).  It was an examination of revealed truth and not just an emotional pep talk that spiritually sustained the Thessalonians in their day of trial.   Paul didn’t pin their hope up in a vacuum, but instead rooted and grounded it in an affirmation of what God has already done for us in Jesus Christ, and in what He has promised to finish.

In I Corinthians 15, at the end of one of the longest chapters in the New Testament – a chapter all about the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and what it means for us when we die and/or when the world ends – Paul ended his eschatological reflections with this charge: “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord” (15:58).  In other words, the courage and stamina that we need for this world finds its reserves in the promises that God makes about what will happen in the next world.  And so, last week when I was down with the flu, the only thing that helped was lots of bed rest, Advil, a decongestant, and eschatology.  DBS+

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The Rain Descended, The Floods Came, The Winds Blew and Beat…

houseTherefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it fell. And great was its fall. (Matthew 7:24-27, NKJV)

Last week in my sermon on “A Church of Thoughtful Teaching” based on Acts 11:19-26, I said that the minute Barnabas knew that was going on in Antioch was an authentic work of the Holy Spirit, that he left for Tarsus to find Paul to bring him back to Antioch where together they could begin to teach those brand new Christians the faith (11:25). I explained that this was a work of encouragement, a way that Barnabas was looking out for the life and faith of those brand new Christians in Antioch. I said that Barnabas understood that the very best thing that he could do for those brand new believers in Antioch would be to strengthen them in their new found faith, and that meant a ministry of thoughtful teaching. Just as Jesus had explained at the end of His first great unit of teaching, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:24-27), when the storms of life blow and the floods of trouble rise, nothing serves us better than to be built on the firm foundation of God’s truth.

I really do believe this.

It is a faith well-anchored in the truths of Scripture that sustains us in the days of testing. When the bottom drops out of life, it’s good to know which side is up, and this is what the Scriptures do for us. They orient us to reality. I have heard pilot friends talk about how you have to trust your instruments when the weather suddenly closes in on you and you can’t see anything in front of you. You can’t trust your feelings in those moments, your “sense” of what’s up and what’s down. That’s a formula for disaster. No, when you can’t see, you have to go to your gauges and dials and follow their leading. That’s the only sure way to navigate when the darkness suddenly descends and thoroughly engulfs you, and it did this week.

This week another church member died. This is the third week in a row that this has happened. And each week it has been an active and exemplary member of the community of faith, someone we have looked to for leadership, someone whose life has been a reflection of the light and love of Christ to us, and to the world. Needless to say, this has all hit us pretty hard. It would be fair to say that we are reeling just a little bit these days as a community of faith. The darkness has descended and engulfed us. And the only way that I can navigate it is by going to my instruments and trusting them to safely guide me through the storm, and this means knowing and trusting the teachings of Scripture.

This is the watershed for me. Either God has spoken and acted, and we have a reliable account of what God said and did, or we don’t. It’s either hunches and guesses when it comes to God and His ways, or it’s a knowing based on God’s own self-disclosure: His speaking and His acting.

Last Wednesday in Bible Study we finally got to Romans 8:28: “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (NASB). As we discovered last fall on our “Life Verse Project” as a church, this is Northway’s #1 favorite Bible verse. I know it’s mine. The “meat” of this verse that we find so sustaining is that promise that God is at work in every moment and circumstance of our lives bringing about His good. This is the source of such comfort and strength. But what hit me with particular force this week as we studied it was how Romans 8:28 begins: “And we know.” It wasn’t “And we hope…” Or, “And we want…” It was, “And we know.”

Of course, I can misunderstand what God has said and done; there’s always that possibility (even probability), and so there must always be a degree of modesty in what I claim to “know,” and a willingness to “check” my convictions and conclusions with both the “Great Tradition” and the community of contemporary interpretation. And since God hasn’t revealed everything that there is to know about Himself in the things that He has said and done in His self-disclosure, there still remains some real areas of “mystery” when it comes to God and His ways. Deuteronomy 29:29 remains a pretty “big player” in my personal faith: “The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children forever.”  To “know” some things is not to “know” all things. But with both of these necessary “speed bumps” – both modesty and mystery – securely in place, I can fully affirm that “we know,” in fact, I would argue that Christianity depends on it.

Since last Christmas I have been slowly working my way through the Reformed theologian John Frame’s “magnum opus” – the four volumes of his Theology of Lordship. It has been a deeply challenging and richly rewarding journey. And near the beginning of the fourth volume, The Doctrine of the Word of God, Professor Frame writes –

Now, to be sure, there are questions about where we can find God’s personal words today, for he does not normally speak to us now as he did to Abraham. (These are questions of ‘canon’). And there are questions about how we can come to understand God’s words, given our distance from the culture in which they were given. (These are the questions of ‘hermeneutics’) But the answer cannot be that God’s personal words are unavailable to us, or unintelligible to us. If we say either of those two things, then we lose all touch with the biblical gospel. The idea that God communicates with human beings in personal words pervades all of Scripture, and it is central to every doctrine of Scripture. If God has, in fact, not spoken to us personally, then we lose any basis for believing in salvation by grace, in judgment, in Christ’s atonement – indeed for believing in the Biblical God at all. Indeed, if God has not spoken to us personally, then everything important in Christianity is human speculation and fantasy. (6)

And lest you think this is “just theology,” just the abstract and irrelevant reasonings of somebody with too much time on his hands and too little investment in “real life,” I would suggest that you navigate a month like the one we’ve just been through as a community of faith. When the rain descends, the floods rise, and the winds blow and beat, what collapses and what endures? I think the old hymn got it exactly right –

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in his excellent word!
What more can he say than to you he hath said, to you that for refuge to Jesus have fled?

“Fear not, I am with thee; O be not dismayed! For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.

“When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
the rivers of woe shall not thee overflow;
for I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

“When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
my grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;
the flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.

“The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
that soul, though all hell shall endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no, never, no, never forsake.”

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