Wild in the Wilderness: Reese Witherspoon gets serious

398px-Reese_Witherspoon_2009Reese Witherspoon (the actress who starred in cinema classics Legally Blonde and Sweet Home Alabama) is starring in Wild, a biographical drama about the destructive young adult life of Cheryl Strayed (oh the irony of her last name). The movie is based on Strayed’s successful memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, a book about a young woman’s journey of personal discovery in the wake of tragedy and reckless decisions including drug use and sexual promiscuity. This book and movie caught my attention because I’m interested in topics of sin and immoral behavior. Fortunately I aspire to remain non-judgmental about many issues of immorality (especially my own).

Yet whenever I hear about the type of rough story in Wild, I wonder if there was a special person in the life of the protagonist; you know, someone the protagonist cared for, someone who attempted to dissuade the protagonist from harmful behavior. Was there a parent, sibling, spouse, BFF, pastor, or priest who spoke up in an effort to get the reckless person to change direction? Did they go too far, or not far enough in their efforts? I’m intrigued about Strayed’s story, so I guess I’ll have to read the book . . . though I hear it contains some raunchy elements (which are either verboten or deliciously enticing, depending on your denominational affiliation).

Here’s where I’m going with this: What should we do when someone dear to us makes life decisions that conflict with God’s plan and loving boundaries for the way people ought to live? For example, what should parents do if their young adult son or daughter embarks on a series of casual sexual relationships outside of marriage? I suspect most parents would gravitate toward confronting their son or daughter’s harmful behavior in a firm but loving manner. If the errant son or daughter refuses to listen, what should a parent do next? Should they follow the steps described in Matthew 18 and confront their child with a witness? Should they take the problem before their church? If the son or daughter still won’t change their reckless behavior, should they cast them out of their family and the church to be ignored by all? Frankly, we don’t follow these Biblical steps very often these days. They seem … harsh and invasive to our modern sensibilities.

That said, it is important to understand there’s a difference between canceling the church membership of an unrepentant person engaging in serious sin (there would be no church members if we cancelled membership for ALL sins), and cutting the person off from ALL relationships. Some of the serious sins mentioned in the Bible that relate to this topic include: Idleness, busybodies (gossips), sexual immorality not even tolerated by pagans (I don’t wanna know what that looks like), denying the resurrection of Christ, stirring up division, and blasphemers. I suppose a fundamentalist theological scholar could make a Biblical argument for casting out an unrepentant person engaging egregious sins. Granted, there are situations where we must set a strict boundary and end a relationship for the sake of our own health and safety or the health and safety of others. On the other hand, when someone we love commits serious sin, one human reaction we might have is to hound the person we love about their sin. Our intentions might be laudable, but I don’t recall any Scriptures permitting us to hound someone about their sin. There might be some situations where hounding would work, but not many. The Prodigal didn’t hound his son. And I don’t recall Jesus hounding very many people about their sin, though he certainly hounded the Pharisees. It is important for us to understand that hounding a person about their sin can backfire. It is not uncommon for someone who has sinned to turn on anyone who hounds them about their immoral behavior. They eventually begin to twist the truth of their bad behavior and make the hounder out to be the bad guy. The scary thing is that they often come to believe their own perversions of the truth. At that point, only God can fix them. By the way, hounding a person is not the same as holding them legitimately accountable, but that’s a topic for another day.

Perhaps we overly focus on God doing some dramatic turnaround work on someone we love (and we often want God to do it in a hurry) when in reality God is also doing turnaround work in OUR life through the bad decisions of the person we love. Wrap your noodle around that! Maybe God is trying to reveal something about the nature of our relationship with the unrepentant loved one in our life. Maybe He is trying to show us that we are trying to be the perfect Christian via our own strength. Maybe He wants to show us some hypocrisy or pride that has crept into our own life. Maybe he wants to show us that we have crossed the line and are trying too hard to live by the law and have neglected God’s grace. Maybe he wants to show us that we do not know enough of the details and nuances of our loved one’s situation to form an accurate or appropriate judgment.

Maybe the best approach is for us to speak our piece about the sin and let the unrepentant person walk whatever path they choose . . . and continue to love them while God works. 1 Peter 4:8 says “Most important of all, continue to show deep love for each other, for love covers a multitude of sins.” I don’t think this verse is referring only to situations where people sin against us or wrong us. I’m just saying!

Yelping God’s House

4-5 Stars by Estoy Acqui

Now that the Republicans have taken control of Congress, we can relax in the assurance that God will not smite us with his wrath. (Unless God is a Democrat or Libertarian . . . do Libertarians smite?) Anyhow, I recently got tired of all the political ads and stories in the media and found myself looking for a distraction. I ended up perusing church reviews on Yelp (which can be like listening in on delicious gossip). After reading several reviews I realized something intriguing: Some of the reviewers praised the churches they visited and ended their reviews with statements along the lines of “This is not your typical church.” I had to laugh because the things they cited as new and groundbreaking are indeed, well, typical. Things like: “The church has a mix of modern and traditional worship music, lots of programs for children, excellent premarital counseling services, an all-are-welcome atmosphere (code for gay people are MORE welcome at our church than yours), relevant sermons, and the people are so nice and genuine.”

After many church experiences, my definition of “not your typical church” is narrower. For instance, a clothing-optional liturgical church would qualify, under my definition, as “not your typical church.” A church made up entirely of short people who all have a fear of heights would qualify as “not your typical church.” You get the idea. The modern church has lots of features that are fairly common across the board. It takes something way outside the box to classify as truly atypical.

Here’s the deeper issue. Nearly all the reviews I read focused on first-impression features of the churches they visited. They were very similar, in many ways, to reviews of a restaurant or a hotel. In other words, they were rather shallow observations. I must admit that the practice of reviewing churches on Yelp feels a tad impious to this old coot. But I also see value in reviewing churches. Reviews can help lackluster or unhealthy churches get their act together. Reviews can help those new to a community narrow their search for a church. Reviews can help people get hurts off their chest if they have been wronged by a church. Right or wrong, reviews of churches are likely here to stay and church leaders who ignore them do so at their peril.

In the city where I live, some churches currently have 4 or 5 reviews. Others have as many as 50 or more. When I review reviews (I crack me up), I generally follow the law of large numbers. That is, the higher the number of reviews the more accurate the star rating. This is because the higher number of reviews tends to balance out the opinions of angry, bitter, and impossible to please people. But aside from the number of reviews, many reviewers seem to suffer from a lack of deep observations about churches. Here’s the problem: Churches are not like reviewing a restaurant or a hotel. Writing a genuinely helpful review that touches on something deep about a church requires more than one or two visits to the church. First impressions are important, but they rarely tell the whole story when it comes to churches. I went to a church where the senior pastor blew me away with his outstanding oration and his ability to speak Biblical truth directly into my life. The congregation was huge. As time went on, I began to realize that the church was built largely on the personality of the senior pastor. People were naturally drawn to the man’s warm and bold personality. The long-term viability of the church was at risk, unless they could find an equally dynamic associate pastor. This realization took time to formulate in my noggin.’

Writing a review about your difficulty finding a parking space at a church or your frustration about the long line to pick up your child from the nursery is not deep. These are certainly problems, but they are also first-world problems. Focus, focus, focus, people! Deep reviews touch on things like: Does the congregation have a reverence and love for God? Do they have a family atmosphere where newcomers are welcome? Do they help each other and those in the community struggling through difficult times? Do they have staying power, or is turnover high in the congregation and staff? Does the pastor cherish the Bible and preach exclusively from it? Are children’s programs treated as a high priority or just a necessary evil? Is the majority of the congregation genuine, down to earth, and not pretentious? Do the people admit mistakes and ask for forgiveness when they hurt each other? Does the church honor the past while moving ahead toward the future? These are things that take more than a single visit to ascertain. I’m just saying.

Vote for . . .

Polling_StationThe legions of recent political ads on TV have inspired me . . . to order TiVo. Too many political ads flood the airwaves in the weeks leading to Election Day. I shan’t bore you with a trite plea to get out and vote as your civic duty to end the insanity. In reality, the candidates and ballot propositions are often difficult to evaluate because politics have become so tortuous it is hard for a fair-minded person to sift through the muck and find clarity. Political ads too often contain lies and half-truths. That does not mean a good Christian should give up and shun the polls. Yet followers of Christ would do well to reject shallow loyalties to a political party and familial ideologies. In other words, it is a copout for anyone to be a Democrat or a Republican just because everyone in their family was a Democrat or a Republican. I am not suggesting all Christians need to belong to the Independent Party. I’m suggesting that Christians educate themselves and commit to uncovering truth wherever we find it, even if it flies in the face of some of our cherished political leanings. We are too easily allured by superficial issues that distract us. The biggest problems facing America are not gay football players or the debate over Renee Zellweger’s new face (I thought she was brilliant in Cold Mountain).

As Christians and citizens who must care more about real life than what’s on TV or trending on Twitter, we have a precious voice in our vote. Granted, it is not much of a voice when at odds with big money and powerful special interests. But it is a voice, nonetheless. I still get goose bumps when entering a voting booth because I know what has been sacrificed by courageous men and women for me to engage in that sacred act of contributing to the voice of the people.

If you read through the Book of Hosea you find the Lord lambasting the Israelites for the flagrant immorality in their culture, religion, and politics. And every now and then in Hosea the Lord says “None of them calls upon me.” God was angry and hurt that the people didn’t bother to pray to Him for help. Prayers for elections matter. That said, Christians who vote are morally obliged to vote in line with Biblical values, or as close to Biblical values as the candidates and issues allow. It does no good to pray for an election of leaders then go out and vote for candidates or propositions almost entirely at odds with God’s values. Instead, Christians must read the Bible and get familiar with its broad context, which means they must read more than a smattering of verses in the Gospels and Paul’s letters. Prayer, Bible literacy, and astute understanding of the issues are excellent voting guides. (It’s either that or ask Willie Robertson who he endorses for political office . . . which might not be a bad idea.) It’s also imperative to have at least a basic understanding of the history of America’s founding. I strongly recommend that all voters know the history of William Bradford and the issue of “common course,” a form of agrarian communism that failed miserably and led to private agriculture. I am not advocating for a survival of the fittest society in America, but I do believe every voter must have an understanding of the ideologies that formed America.

One last thought: Do not vote expecting politicians and government to make all your dreams come true. That’s up to you and God and must be done without neglecting the Biblical value of loving our neighbors. This may become an increasingly impossible task given the current unholy marriage between politics and crony capitalism. Hopefully the American people are ingenious enough to continue to prosper and take care of each other despite the failings of government and big commerce. If not, our system will flounder and eventually collapse. And I pray the church and the next generation are prepared to rebuild when it happens. Until then, if you want greater meaning in life—go deeper than the superficial politics seen in political ads and vote wisely and in truth.

If I had money I’d get my way

800px-USMC-02030Nobody ever accused me of attempting to get my way in church politics because of my money. This was not due to my stellar character, but rather to the emptiness of my wallet. Just once I’d like to have enough money to push my weight around. If I had the money to get my way in how the church does church, here are some changes you’d see if you came to worship where I hold sway:

After the first worship song, the congregation sits until the 7th inning stretch, or the Holy Spirit moves.
The chorus of each worship song is repeated no more than three times . . . period!
No more than two happy-clappy songs per service.
Sermons limited to 20 minutes. (Don’t pretend to be shocked, you know you want the same thing.)
Pastor does not repeat the same point during the sermon.
Pastor does not repeat the same point during the sermon.
Pastor does not repeat the same point during the sermon.
Extroverts sit up front, introverts in back . . . even if it means husbands and wives don’t sit together.
Absolutely NO, under ANY circumstances, 30 seconds of cursory meet-and-greet (unless the extroverts can keep it among themselves).
Ladies wearing too much perfume must sit with the extroverts.
Men wearing tank-top shirts will be admired for their laissez-faire spirit, and told to never do it again.
No mobile phones ringing during the service . . . it just wouldn’t happen in my world.
A four month annual moratorium on sermons about anything in Paul’s letters in the New Testament.
Pastor limited to one 6 to 8 week sermon series per year. (Don’t hate me for trying to break us out of the rut.)
Small groups will be called small groups, not home groups, fellowship groups, connect groups, care groups, fusion groups, community groups, friendship groups, or (shudder) life groups.
The pastor will not shout during the sermon. (That’s why we have microphones.)
Because they care, leaders will conduct exit surveys of people who leave the church dissatisfied

I could go on, but you get the point. The modern church has done much to accommodate the tastes and needs of a tremendous variety of people. But there is NO church that can meet everybody’s expectations, including the expectations of wealthy congregants. In a perfect church, those with money would not expect their money to buy credibility and a higher degree of influence. Cred and influence should be earned through such things as longevity, service, intelligence, experience, humility, and right living. But what does a guy with a skinny wallet know?

Government is Not Reason: Huh?

Samuel Adams bobblehead / by Justin Fincher

Samuel Adams bobblehead / by Justin Fincher

The quotes below demonstrate an essential worldview for Americans who have come to the conclusion that politics as usual have become dysfunctional. They can guide you beyond the obtuseness of pop-culture politics.

“Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force; like fire, a troublesome servant and a fearful master. Never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.” George Washington

“While we are zealously performing the duties of good citizens and soldiers, we certainly ought not to be inattentive to the higher duties of religion.” George Washington

“When people are universally ignorant, and debauched in their manners, they will sink under their own weight without the aid of foreign invaders.” Samuel Adams (Not the beer company)

“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” John Adams

“Thus, while the law permits the Americans to do what they please, religion prevents them from conceiving, and forbids them to commit, what is rash or unjust.” Alexis de Tocqueville.

I was blessed to get an early education that emphasized the beliefs, stated above, of many of America’s founding fathers. (Yes, I know Tocqueville was not a founding father.) As a result, I see misplaced faith today on the part of many conservative political zealots (think talk radio where they are legion) and liberal political zealots (think Bill Maher, most news media, and Hollywood). Many conservative zealots publicly place an inordinate faith in liberty, small government, and capitalism (noble dictums indeed). Yes, I know that liberty, a properly proportioned government, and capitalism provide, to date, the best possibilities to achieve improved lifestyles for the most people. But their long-term outcome, without the participation of a predominantly moral and religious citizenry, will be no better than the abhorrent systems of monarchy, socialism, and communism. Tis arrogant to believe that liberty and capitalism are immune from the sinful nature of humanity. Too many conservative zealots talk a big game about freedom and capitalism, but the necessity of religion and a moral people . . . not so much. The success of a nation depends more on its citizens embracing, at the very least, the reality of a constant moral standard that comes from a higher source than humanity.

On the other side of the political spectrum, we find the same fatal flaw where dwell liberal zealots such as Bill Maher and his acolytes (oh the irony of that term used in conjunction with Maher). Maher decries religion and God, and therefore does not understand the indispensable connection between religion and a government of free people. Many liberals like Maher believe that substitutes—such as the evolution of human morality and the law—for religion and God work better in the governance of the people. In other words, marginalize or eliminate religion, pass enough laws, and release government as a force for good to fight injustice, and the human condition will improve. Bull excrement! (Which is what the likes of George Washington and Samuel Adams would say.)

Our founding fathers were genius. Certainly they had human flaws, but so did Steve Jobs. Don’t get me wrong, our founding fathers did not advocate for a theocracy. They understood that religion can’t be shoved down the throats of the people by their government. They understood that citizens must be free to exercise their conscience in the engagement of religion, or not. If citizens refuse, the country is more apt to crumble. And based on history, national crumbling can be abrupt or, more likely, a gradual decay.

So, is the church dropping the ball in American religious society, or is the average citizen dropping the ball by abandoning religion in pursuit of something shiny in pop-culture? Granted, the institution of the church, along with many other institutions, has earned the disillusion and mistrust of many. But fighting the battle for America in the political arena alone will not succeed. My fellow citizens will need to swallow their pride and return to religion, aka God and the church. We are fortunate in that the church in America has many styles and venues to choose from. There is something for just about everyone.

Our brilliant founding fathers understood these things. I wonder how brilliant we are. Are you listening, millennials? Now would be a good time to scale back your daily devotions with Twitter, start reading the Bible now and then, and explore religion and the church. Politics and economies will be a little easier to fix if you do because you’ll be more likely to have God’s support.

“U.S. Waistlines Keep Growing, Women Leading the Way” Oh no you didn’t

Lunch_(41415099)Add a new topic to the list of taboo subjects previously limited to religion and politics. The new topic is women’s waistlines. Mention a woman’s waistline in just about any context, and you’ll get blowback. I’m either insanely brave or suicidal for mentioning this issue. Whoever created the title above (I promise to holy God it was not me) must have no reason to live. I spotted this provocative title on a WebMD article at: http://www.webmd.com/diet/news/20140916/us-waistlines-keep-growing-with-women-leading-the-way

Male or female, most people want to be slim. My wife says that if she drinks enough Skinny Girl she will get skinny. The marketing department at Skinny Girl is clearly comprised of clever fellows, or “male pigs” as my wife prefers to call them. But I digress (some might call it stalling). Everybody knows we have a weight problem in America. I won’t bore you with all the usual reasons for the surge in our waistlines. I also won’t bore you with an exegesis of scripture on gluttony. Simply knowing that overeating is an official sin does not stop people from overeating. It is treated as a look-the-other-way sin in the church. After decades in the pew, I do not recall a single sermon on gluttony. Nuff said.

The WebMD article points out that “As baby boomers age, the natural decrease in muscle mass and slowing metabolism leads to more body fat. In addition, given the size of the baby boomer generation, these aging changes will impact statistics.” As a baby boomer, I’ve grown weary of getting blamed for everything wrong in society. Just because we’re the largest demographic doesn’t mean we’re the largest demographic (I crack me up). I find it suspicious that the increase in our corporate waistline corresponds with the legalization of medical and recreational pot in several states. In other words, maybe it was the munchies that tipped the scales (metaphors are everywhere in this irreverent blog) in the recent stats on our weight. If so, women must be getting high and hitting the refrigerator more often than men (who are apparently too lethargic to get off the couch despite those confounded munchies).

I know a guy who lost a ton of weight (sorry, couldn’t help myself) when he cut beer out of his diet. Eliminating or reducing alcohol consumption is one way to lose weight without going on a drastic diet (though some would consider the elimination of alcohol a drastic diet). All I know is that when my wife asks if her new jeans make her butt look big, I go to the refrigerator and pour her a glass of Skinny Girl.

Do I have a serious point regarding this issue? Yes, most of us boomers will never look like Chris Hemsworth or Scarlett Johansson, but we can keep active. Doctors confirm that a healthy diet plus moderate physical activity is the secret to controlling weight and longer life. It also improves quality of life. It isn’t necessary to work out intensely for two hours a day and live on raw vegetables. The experts say 30 minutes a day of moderate physical activity has tremendous benefits towards good health and longevity. That’s good to know, but I try to avoid thinking of it in terms of a minimum number of minutes a day. Instead, it is better to make physical activity and healthy food choices a lifestyle to be experienced and enjoyed (no, I’m not joking). Success depends on discovering the right type of physical activity for you. I love the solitude of running and hiking in nature. Others are drawn to team sports. Still others find their niche in swimming or surfing. Perhaps you love cycling (your Harley doesn’t count) and spandex shorts. Somewhere in your soul resides a love for a certain type of physical activity. You may be one of the few blessed to have a job you love that also keeps you physically active. Trying to nurture a physically active lifestyle doing something you loathe is futile.

At the boomer stage of life, the desire for a slimmer waistline for appearance sake begins to fade. Proper diet and exercise becomes more about health and less about aesthetics. It’s a good time of life to stop taking ourselves too seriously and enjoy the experience of physical activity and healthy food.

As technology is my witness: So says Ray Rice

800px-Security_cameras_7_count_birmingham_new_street_stationRecently a story about hackers gaining access to electronic photos of nude celebrities really rattled me. What, after all, would I do if hackers gained access to my electronic photos? I’d hate for pictures of my glorious naked body to go public. Wait, I don’t have any photos of my glorious naked body. Nobody does (except those lascivious TSA agents at the airport). But seriously, many people blamed Apple and the hackers as the bad guys in this incident. Granted, quite a few people blamed the celebrities for taking and storing naked pictures of themselves. Wherever you point the finger of shame and blame, it can’t be denied that technology is revealing unsavory human behavior that heretofore remained mostly hidden.

When the public saw the elevator video of NFL football player Ray Rice knocking his girlfriend out with a brutal punch, the finger pointing went viral. Fortunately I have heard nobody condone Rice’s punch heard around the world. Rice’s punch in no way resembled those old comic images of Ralph Kramden flashing his fist and threatening “To the moon, Alice.” Domestic violence is a serious issue that deserves attention. Yet during the brouhaha over the Rice video I noticed the following statement by Christopher L. Gasper in the Boston Globe:

“The coaches, the general managers, the owners, the commissioner don’t really want to know what malice their players are capable of off the field, as long as they’re producing for them.”

Many fans feel the same way. In fact, I’ve heard some NFL fans decry Rice’s domestic violence and in the same breath the NFL for policing the morality of its players off the field. Leave issues of vice and criminality to the police, they say. Indeed, some NFL teams have taken this stance. But leaders of the NFL want to maintain the image of professional football as the clean cut all-American game (though some of the players have redefined clean cut). The NFL wants football to remain something for the entire family to watch. And what a splendid job the NFL has done with its image. Why, even NFL cheerleaders look like the girls you’d see at choir practice.

Sarcasm aside, aren’t most of us guilty of looking the other way when it comes to human flaws in the purveyors of our preferred entertainment? And yet in this brave new world of diminishing privacy it will grow increasingly difficult to look the other way. Technology’s prying eyes are a disconcerting reminder that even though much has been gained through technology, much has been lost. Specifically, we can no longer take privacy for granted. On the positive side, it will be more difficult to lie and keep our secrets. As the Good Book says, “. . . your sin will find you out.” Technology giveth and technology taketh away.

As an endangered species (a male homosapien who cares little for professional sports) I find myself pondering how adults can believe that issues of unchecked immorality won’t eventually infect the performance of even the most gifted athletes and celebrities. Sin resists compartmentalization in our life. It wants to spread like a virus. Genesis 4:7 warns us that sin waits at the door ready to strike. We don’t get to tell sin it can wait by some doors in our life but not others, such as the door to our career where our performance is excellent. That’s vanity. The destructive nature of sin seeks out areas where it can wreak the most damage. The only antidote is confession, repentance, and Christ.

So, to all those fans who just want entertainment without questions of morality muddying the waters: good luck with that.

Does racism rear its ugly head in the church?

We hold these truthsIf you have the stomach to watch the news lately, you know that Michael Brown, a young black man, was recently shot and killed during an altercation with a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. This tragic event (whether it has anything to do with racism or not) inspired me to ponder if ethnocentrism still rears its ugly head in the modern church. Thinking back on my years in the pew, the answer is sometimes yes.

I once knew a worship pastor on the leadership team of a church plant. The church plant was located in a multi-ethnic community. After a couple of years, the worship pastor unexpectedly resigned and moved back home to an almost entirely white region of North America. A mutual friend later told me that the worship pastor had moved because he felt uncomfortable in a multi-ethnic community.

I know of one church that partnered with a smaller ethnic church in the same denomination. They shared the same building. The minority church, for many years, had to schedule their worship and their events around the needs and schedule of the dominant church, which was mostly white. The children from the minority congregation were criticized for being more unruly and messy than the children of the dominant church. Some leaders of the dominant church talked down to the pastor of the minority church. The dominant church didn’t think twice about expecting the minority church to make last minute changes to better accommodate the operation of the dominant church. Don’t get me wrong, the minority pastor had his flaws. All humans do. But most of the congregation in the dominant church remained oblivious to these discrepancies. They would be appalled if you accused them of racism. They take pride in being a multi-ethnic friendly congregation.

While visiting a church in another region of the country, I was told of some in the congregation who were enthusiastic that a smattering of black families had started attending services in their church, a church that had been white since its inception. Unfortunately some in the church looked askance at this change in the makeup of the congregation.

Granted, some of these suspect behaviors might have nothing to do with racism. For instance, it could be that the dominant church leaders who were critical of the ethnic church were merely jerks or self-centered and didn’t have a racist bone in their body. Either way it had the appearance of bigotry, albeit subtle.

I think these scenarios are more prevalent across churches in America than most Christians would like to admit. It makes us uncomfortable because we prefer to think the children of the Lord have moved beyond the ugly sin of racism. We don’t like to gaze deep into our hearts and think about how we view and treat people who do not share our skin color. Do we feel like we are better than them, like our race somehow has it more together? Yes, that’s a disconcerting question . . . especially if you were raised in a family that held these insidious views when you were growing up. How much of it rubbed off?

Tension naturally exists between what we know Christ would have us feel towards others and the way we have formulated an all-too-human (and flawed) opinion and stereotype about other races. Laws, protests, movements, and policies can help restrain racism, but ultimately they can’t fix the human heart. Only Christ can do that, and it must be modeled by the church. As an aside, America is not the problem; the human heart is the problem. I do not deceive myself into thinking America is perfect. She is not. But America has the best system in the world to live out “all men are created equal” . . . if her citizens join Christ in confronting sin in their hearts.

Sadly, Robin Williams Has Left the Building

Robin Williams

Robin Williams

Two people in my family killed themselves. My grandfather committed suicide, I heard, when he aged to the point where he needed someone to care for him. Another family member, a young adult, killed herself because she thought she was too much like her biological father, a hard and physically abusive man. Both took their lives by the gun.

When a celebrity like Robin Williams commits suicide, ostensibly due to struggles with depression, public discussion about mental illness becomes a hot topic . . . for a while. Everybody has an opinion, but it is difficult for people who do not have depression to understand the disease.

All people have days or life situations that trigger sadness or depression. But the clinically depressed, such as me, don’t necessarily experience a trigger or causation. It can come on without warning and little can blunt the edge of the depression, other than anti-depression medication. During a bout of depression, I feel as if I’ve lost part of my connection to the world. The ability to enjoy anything, or any other emotion, dissipates. I’ve heard some people describe it like falling down a dark well with no bottom in sight. For me, I can see the wind blowing in the branches, but it’s like watching it on TV with the volume turned off.

One of the most frustrating things for many depressed people happens when the un-depressed try to get us to do things that would lift their spirits if THEY felt gloomy. This does not often work. Recently the humor site BuzzFeed posted “15 Things You Shouldn’t Say To Someone Struggling With Depression.” Here they are:

1. Other people have it much worse than you do.
2. You’ll feel better tomorrow.
3. Life isn’t fair.
4. You just have to deal with it.
5. Life goes on.
6. I know how you feel, I was depressed once.
7. You’re being selfish.
8. Go out, have fun, have a drink, and forget about it.
9. You’re bringing me down.
10. What do you even have to be depressed about?
11. Stop feeling sorry for yourself.
12. You need to go on a run.
13. You just need to get out of the house.
14. Everyone else is dealing with life, so why can’t you?
15. You’re strong, you’ll be fine.

Given these pearls of wisdom, it’s no wonder the suicide rate isn’t higher. Sometimes it is best to resist the urge to try and cheer the clinically depressed. Food, wine, books, movies, children playing, puppies, walks in the park, funny cat videos on Youtube, even tiramisu; all these things have little effect on battling clinical depression. (And sometimes they make it worse . . . damn you Youtube.) I find it helpful when someone I trust sincerely asks how I’m feeling and then patiently listens. I also find it helpful when friends let me know they are willing to listen if I want to talk, but they are also willing to give me space to let the darkness pass. It helps when friends pray for me.

Depression DOES NOT necessarily indicate a person is demon possessed or oppressed. It doesn’t mean their walk with the Lord is off course. It doesn’t mean you should feel uncomfortable around them (unless they are sitting nude in front of the computer watching funny cat videos on Youtube). I suspect that many Christians pooh-pooh the notion of clinical depression in believers. Pooh-poohers don’t understand how a person with Christ in his or her heart, and their sins forgiven, can be depressed. Here’s how: The brain is inside a flawed body.

Actor Todd Bridges said of Williams:

“You don’t think that my life has been hell and I’ve had so many ups and downs now?” Bridges told TMZ. “If I did that [commit suicide], what am I showing my children [is] that when it gets tough, that’s the way out. You gotta buckle down, ask God to help you. That’s when prayer really comes into effect . . .”

Yeah, that’s the proper response, Bridges. NOT! I am going to share a hard truth here: Given enough agonizing physical or mental pain over a long period of time, almost anybody is capable of suicide. By the way, physical pain often accompanies depression. The depressed can experience pain in the hip, neck, various muscles, just about anywhere in the body . . . sometimes for years. So think twice before yammering on about how suicide is a selfish act, and it’s a permanent solution to a short-term problem. These statements are true, but they usually come from ignorance. People who do not live with chronic pain are ignorant of its effects on mind, body, and soul. Pain is the enemy, not the person IN pain. Pain wears you out. It affects family members, often in ways they are not aware of. It destroys one’s ability to think rationally. Chronic pain is death by a thousand cuts. So let’s not be too quick to castigate Williams. On the other hand, let’s not be too quick to glamorize IN ANY WAY the terrible tragedy of suicide.

Praying FIRST for Christians in Iraq

Displaced Iraqi Christians settle at St. Joseph Church in Irbil, northern Iraq, Aug. 7, 2014 / by Voice of America

Displaced Iraqi Christians settle at St. Joseph Church in Irbil, northern Iraq, Aug. 7, 2014 / by Voice of America

Over the years I’ve heard and said some eccentric prayers in the church. I heard a woman ask for prayer that she would buy the right horse trailer for her horse; she wanted the Cadillac of horse trailers. I heard a man confess that he’d prayed his daughter’s sketchy boyfriend out of her life (I sympathize). I’ve heard a woman say her car was making a funny noise and it needed prayer for healing (probably a GM). I’ve been in a small group where we prayed for a washing machine that was broken. We have a penchant in the modern church for focusing on our own first-world problems when it comes to prayer. We zero in on our needs and wants to the extent that we occasionally drift into eccentric prayers. Granted, we can pray for just about anything that doesn’t contradict the Bible. But there is something to be said for prioritizing our prayers.

This week the news broke about a community of thousands of Christians stranded on a mountain in Iraq. They face death at the hands of Islamic State (aka ISIS) barbarians surrounding the mountain. Knowing this, I just can’t bring myself to pray first for healing of the rash on my border collie’s rear leg (even though he and I are very close). I think God’s heart yearns for those of who are blessed with peace and freedom to at least pray for our brothers and sisters in harm’s way. There are Christian women, children, seniors, and infirmed on that mountain. They face evil that would like to kill them simply because they believe in the same Christ we freely worship in our hip churches on Sunday morning. It is essential to the health of our faith to set aside our needs and wants for a while in order to implore God to deliver them. We should also pray that our government responds to the crisis in the right way.

I’m not suggesting that you go to your nearest church cathedral, climb the steps on your bare knees, light a candle, and throw yourself prostate before the altar (especially if there is a wedding going on) where you remain for hours in fervent prayer for adherents to the faith on that mountain in Iraq. Just a simple “Lord, please guard your children in Iraq” is sufficient, especially if you offer this prayer BEFORE praying for your dog’s rash. The events in Iraq are a spiritual war as well as an actual war. We should be willing to shoot back via prayer. I’m just saying.

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