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.
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.
Yes, if you want to end up like Howard Hughes (without the money). People who lose the ability to trust can find themselves, later in life, living in a darkened studio apartment, chain-smoking, watching television 24/7, and nursing a bottle of vodka. OK maybe that’s an exaggeration. Or is it?
Of course a healthy dose of mistrust is necessary for protection. Spiritual discernment, and our gut-feeling, can often warn us about untrustworthy people. Unfortunately there is not a 100 percent effective formula we can follow to protect us from untrustworthy people. If an employer betrays you, or a partner stabs you in the back in a business venture, or a spouse cheats, it can trigger a lifelong negative effect on your interaction with others. If we overreact with mistrust we can end up harming our significant relationships by directing mistrust towards people who do not deserve it. The following is an excellent article on the symptoms and consequences of excessive mistrust: http://www.goodtherapy.org/therapy-for-trust-issues.html
When we openly direct our mistrust without evidence at innocent people we are, in a way, bearing false witness. (See Exodus 20:16 . . . and yes, it is one of the big Ten.) I suspect God included it in The Ten Commandments as more than a protection of the innocent, but to also dissuade accusers who do not trust anyone. In other words, it is there to get would-be accusers to examine their own hearts and minds.
Don’t get me wrong, the Bible seemingly confuses us regarding trust in people. For instance, Psalm 118:8 says:
“It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man.”
But then 1 Corinthians 13 talks at length about the ways of love. Verse 5 says love keeps no record of wrongs people inflict on us (paraphrasing). Clearly love cannot exist without some degree of trust. So what is the solution? Should we go through life blindly trusting like Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty, or should we plod through life trusting only our self and the hell with everyone else? The answer is a little of both. The Bible says we should be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. If I trusted everyone who came to my door I would be locked into at least three pest exterminator contracts, two cable TV contracts, three home security contracts, a dozen magazine subscriptions (I love my monthly edition of Hummingbird Enthusiast), and I’d own two sets of solar panels as well as two home heating and air conditioning systems . . . AND I’d be going door to door with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. On the other hand, because I have the capacity to trust with discernment, I get a cupboard full of delicious Girl Scout cookies every year. (The day one of those cute little Girl Scouts embezzles my cookie money is the day I embrace my inner paranoid personality disorder.)
Most importantly we have to embrace the truth that despite what happens here on earth, God can be trusted. It’s a hard truth to practice consistently throughout this life of tears. But if we can’t often return to a God of trustworthiness, we can’t hope to live wisely in this life where we will, no matter what defenses of mistrust we erect, encounter occasional back stabbers. I don’t want to miss out on relationships with people who bless my life because I am afraid of encountering a few rotten apples. (And I don’t want to end up on the wrong end of that bottle of vodka, either.)
Some might accuse me of an obsequious manner when I’m at work. “Obsequious” is a highbrow word for brown-nosing. I resent the implication. After all, it’s not like I mow my supervisor’s lawn on weekends. (She prefers that I wash her car.) Aside from my “obsequious” endeavors on the job, I do indeed appreciate the work itself. Work provides a strong sense of purpose and human dignity. God himself worked when he created our world. God gave humanity work that included purpose right from the start. Rick Warren wrote a famous book titled “The Purpose Driven Live.” Agent Smith in the Matrix told Neo: “There’s no escaping reason, no denying purpose, for as we both know, without purpose we would not exist. It is purpose that created us, purpose that connects us, purpose that pulls us, that guides us, that drives us; it is purpose that defines us, purpose that binds us.” I don’t agree with all of Agent Smith’s assertions, but he does make a valid point about the significance of purpose.
During a Sunday sermon not long ago, I daydreamed about work, purpose, and retirement. (Before you judge me for not paying attention to the sermon you should know that the Bible says old men will dream dreams.) As someone with one foot in the workplace and one almost in retirement, I am beginning to understand how disconcerting it can be when the routine of daily work begins to fade away. For some folks, it gets abruptly yanked away. Advanced age, declining health, organizational restructuring, family issues, a host of reasons can move a person from productive employment to a completely different stage of life we call retirement. It can feel like the death of one’s purpose.
I used to look forward to retirement with joyful anticipation. It would be a chance to do what I want with my time. But the reality of advancing years and creeping problematic health issues that threaten to catapult me into retirement have made me realize how much work is essential for survival . . . or I should say the survival of purpose. Aging has revealed something startling about me: I was not ready to give up on dreams of advancing my career or doing something great in service to God, though the reality of life’s limitations say otherwise. I am not in absolute control of my destiny. The fear of losing purpose is a terrible thing. You see, I felt certain God was taking me in a specific direction . . . the direction I wanted to go. It turns out that was not the case. (Go figure.) Accepting this reality has been a classic study in denial and resistance. Here’s the thing: The more I deny and resist, the more painful it is.
Just because I can’t see what lies beyond a fading responsibility to rise and go to work each day does not mean there is nothing more to do or be, no purpose. In other words, this is one of those times in life where faith is either real or lip service. Ecclesiastes 3 talks about the seasons of life under the heavens. When one season ends another begins, and the new season can be the opposite, or very different, from what we did in the previous. And the thing about seasons is we do not always get to pick when they begin and end. Ultimately, when the time comes to hang up one’s work shoes we discover if we really have the peace in our heart we claim to have as Christians. I believe the purpose we crave will arise somewhere other than at the job site . . . if we have a malleable heart. We are not a piece of unused furniture gathering dust in God’s garage. Or so I hope.
My point is not to blast Limbaugh for hypocrisy. I just want to use his example to demonstrate how easy it is for ALL of us to be hypocrites. (I prefer to focus on the hypocrisy of others rather than my own . . . and that of course is the point.) We are told in the Bible not to judge, and yet a recent Church Leadership article titled “7 Signs You Are ‘Judging’ Others” pointed out that Jesus did a lot of judging. The article rightly points out that Jesus did not follow-up his judgments with condemnation. The article goes on to state:
“Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that one of the first signs of Christian maturity is a frustration with the hypocrisy of the church and a desire to separate from it.
But the next sign of growth is recognizing that the same hypocrisy in the church is present in oneself.”
Bonhoeffer had a gift for striking a little too close to home. I have been there . . . am still there. It is soooo easy to see hypocrisy and faults in other people and institutions. It ain’t so easy to face up to them in oneself. Facing up to our hypocrisies chokes that exquisite sinful feeling of moral superiority. I am not suggesting that we can never speak up about an issue for fear of revealing our own hypocrisy. The Bible instructs us to confront one another with a spirit of love, not moral superiority or condemnation. Accepting that we might be a hypocrite regarding faults we see in others should inspire us to have an attitude of love, or so I hope.
Matthew 23: 1-3 says:
“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: ‘The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.’”
This is a hard lesson to live. Some leaders and key people in our lives have tremendous wisdom and spiritual and moral instruction that we would be wise to implement. But then we see them fail to practice what they have preached. And wham bam the virus of hypocrisy gets passed to us. Even young adults who decry the hypocrisy they see among their elders (with a certain flair of self-righteousness, I might add) wake up one day and realize they too are hypocrites in many ways.
What is a Christian to do with this dilemma? The healthiest thing is to focus on our own hypocrisy and concern ourselves less, if at all, with the sins of others. Or we can refuse to acknowledge our own hypocrisies and remain in a place of stagnation. I don’t know about you, but I have enough hypocrisy on my own plate to deal with.
A few days ago a video went viral showing a California Highway Patrol officer punching a woman on the ground beside a road. The video elicits a visceral reaction from viewers, resulting in an emotional public outcry. (I know, thank you Captain Obvious.) But let’s set aside the video for now and think about the broader issue of the relationship between the California Highway Patrol and the public they serve.
Years ago, the California Highway Patrol had a reputation as being the best of the best in the world of uniformed law enforcement. They put the safety and trust of the public above their own interests. I don’t know for certain, but I hope that is still true today. This incident with the officer punching the lady on the ground is an opportunity for the Highway Patrol to conduct a transparent investigation that leads to the truth, or as close to the truth as humanly possible. Whatever their leadership does, it is hoped their response will focus exclusively on even-handed justice AND the trust of the people they serve and police. We give them a badge and tremendous authority and we pray they do not abuse our trust.
What does this have to do with faith and the church? It has to do with trust. Trust is similar to virginity; once it’s gone it’s gone. I’ve read studies that indicate people don’t trust as much as they used to. They are suspicious and fearful of other people and they don’t trust formerly venerable institutions, and sometimes that includes the church. People instinctively know that most institutions have a tendency to prioritize the needs of the institution and its leaders above the people they serve. Of course institutions would never admit to such a culture within their ranks. They may not even be aware of the ways they damage trust. They proclaim to always put their customers and constituents first.
Jesus was clearly more interested in advocating for the common people. He did not participate in maintaining the positions and nests of those in power, and that included the religious machine of the day. In fact, he did just the opposite. He shook the foundations of their entrenched corruption. Luke 11:45 says:
Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.”
I am fearful that the modern church has lost a great deal of public trust, at least here in America. There could be legions of reasons for this loss of trust, some valid and some imagined. For instance, some point their accusatory finger at highly public failures of institutions to protect the most innocent and vulnerable among their ranks; think Catholic Church or Penn State sexual abuse of children scandals. Others believe institutions just want their money and do not care about them as a person. Still others see their political leaders as blind and deaf to the situations of average people, pandering more to the wants of the wealthy and connected. Restoring the trust of the people could be a long process, and it won’t happen unless we first admit that the trust has been damaged and something needs to be done about it. I suspect Christ’s church is the most appropriate place to start focusing on rebuilding trust. And here’s a hint: it can’t be accomplished with a six week sermon series. I’m just saying.
Gird your loins Christians of America, the day of television reckoning has come upon us. Barna Research released a fascinating report about which TV programs we watch in 2014. They found that the top five programs Christians watch are:
The Big Bang Theory (ironic)
Dancing with the Stars
Only one of my favorite programs made the list. (This shook my faith and caused me to question whether my name really IS written in the Book of Life.) Fortunately my sense of self-righteousness took over and reassured me that there is nothing wrong with me or my viewing preferences. I simply prefer a more highbrow television experience. For instance, I watch Downton Abbey (only because my wife refuses to surrender the TV remote when DA is on). Nevertheless, there are times when my faithful wife acquiesces to my authority as lord of the manor (specifically, when she is away from the manor) and, like Frodo in possession of the precious ring, I take possession of the TV remote. Lest you doubt my snobby taste in television, here are MY top five programs:
Man vs. Food
Fox News and CNN (Wait, are they news programs, reality, propaganda, or drama? . . . It’s hard to tell.)
Now that’s what I call a sterling lineup of classiness. The good folks at Barna also discovered that 74% of Americans turn on their TV every day. This begs the question: Who are the remaining 26% who do not turn on their TV every day . . . household pets? It wouldn’t surprise me if my own quadrupeds were watching TV all day while I’m at work, given their propensity to swipe snack foods from the kitchen counter and lounge on the sofa in perpetuity. Barna also found that 30% of people watch five or more hours in a typical day. Viewers no longer have to wait for each episode of their favorite miniseries to come out week after week. They can go online and watch them all in one sitting, like binge drinking.
The problem with TV is that it jams a lot of vicarious living into short amount of time. Real life is much more mundane. Personally, I have to be careful about letting TV make me feel like I’m not living an exciting life like everybody on TV. Hey, after all, who wouldn’t want the glamorous life of Si Robertson on Duck Dynasty? Anyhow, I recently read a devotional that described how the writer of Ecclesiates warns us about many of our strivings that are meaningless under the sun. The writer goes on to explain that it is OK to enjoy the simple pleasures, so long as we accept them for what they are—simple pleasures. The point being that we have a human tendency to want more out of just about everything. TV feeds that beast. The Bible reminds us that a lot of the “more” that we crave can’t be had in this life. And that is why it is OK to enjoy the simple pleasure in this life. It helps us live more richly in the present.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MNCzSfv4hX8 When I was a child, the church taught me the great Bible stories. The Garden of Eden, Noah’s Ark, Moses and the parting of the Red Sea, Jonah in the belly of a fish; these are classics we grew up on. It was easier as a child to accept without hesitation the miraculous and supernatural elements of these stories. But soon after entering my fifties some doubts began to creep in. Having spent a fair amount of time in the Bible I began to wonder if some of those stories were allegories or didactics meant to teach a moral lesson. After all, Jesus himself used parables to convey spiritual truths. By the way, allegory is defined as:
“A representation of an abstract or spiritual meaning through concrete or material forms; figurative treatment of one subject under the guise of another; a symbolical narrative.”
As the years passed, it became easier to entertain the possibility that extraordinary Bible stories such as the Garden of Eden or lions lying down with lambs might be allegory instead of literal. It just seemed like the path of least resistance given the constant assault by the scientific community to discredit such stories. But then I occasionally come across things like this video (click link above) of Kevin Richardson, a park ranger in Africa. I don’t know if Richardson is a believer, but the image of the male lion embracing him like a friend reminds me that God does indeed pull off supernatural events and those events are not as far from our “real world” as we might think. This video is a glimpse into what it might be like when God is finished making all things new and the lion indeed lays down with lambs. And it ain’t no allegory.
A pet peeve is not something my ill-mannered dog leaves on the kitchen floor. It is a grievance (such as the grievance my dog has with me for neglecting to let him outside to go pee). Some peoples’ attitude about water really kinks my garden hose. Allow me to elaborate.
I have lived in California all my life (please don’t hold that against me). When I was a child, they built Whiskeytown Lake just west of Redding, California. I remember my dad taking me out there to watch the heavy equipment moving all that dirt to make way for the lake. It was impressive to behold. That’s when I fell in love with Tonka Trucks. When the project was finished, President John Kennedy flew to our little town and dedicated Whiskeytown Lake. That was the last time I witnessed the construction of a lake. In fact, it was the last time I even heard of a lake under construction in California. I will be 58 years old this month. In other words, decades have passed since the glory days of water reclamation in California, at least from my humble perspective as a water addict.
California is now in a drought, and if we do not get a wet winter in 2014-15, it will be an epic drought. Here’s the thing: I recently adjusted my automatic sprinkler system to only water on Saturdays and Tuesdays, just as the City of Sacramento requested. But I forgot about Program B in my watering system, which means it continued to water every day. This resulted in my receiving a nasty letter from the City advising me of the consequences of wasting water. I wondered who of my smiling neighbors squealed on me. Fearing that the City’s water soldiers would submit me to waterboarding, I quickly fixed the problem. Soon thereafter, Cindy and I were having lunch with friends when the sensitive topic of H2O conservation came up. My friend said he would start conserving water when the City communicated with him that it was mandatory or when his neighbor emptied his swimming pool. I detected a tone of irritation in his declaration. I quickly realized that should the water police pick me up for questioning I would have to deny that I know the man. I would not want to be seen as collaborating with water wasters.
At a family gathering I heard someone blame farmers in the Sacramento Valley for using too much water. I think this is what psychiatrists call cognitive dissonance. Anyhow, these incidents heightened my awareness of water usage in my neighborhood. Yesterday I noticed a neighbor watering his lawn in a furtive manner in the middle of the day. Watering in the middle of the day is verboten in the City. For a moment I experienced a flash of resentment towards my neighbor for not following the rules. Cindy asked if we should turn him in. Sigh! So this is what the Bible refers to about neighbor turning against neighbor, children against their parents, I thought to myself.
Where am I going with this topic? Human nature can cause people to turn on each other when everyone does not play by the same rules, and rest assured EVERYONE will never play by the same rules. Ideally, we should not get angry with our neighbors for sneaking some extra water on their lawn, the lawn they labored hard to maintain for the sake of beauty and property value. Instead, we should direct our scorn towards political leaders who have not planned accordingly to deal with this problem. Their focus is off course. For instance, California political leaders are pushing that we spend billions of dollars on a high-speed rail system. High-speed rail sounds cool, European, sophisticated, and forward thinking. But compared to the State’s failure to keep pace with the water needs of millions of new people who have moved to California since I watched them build Whiskeytown Lake, their priorities are dangerously wrong.
Well, I need to go put some bricks in my toilet tank. It’s either that or stop flushing.
Recently, a man vied for a promotion at work. He was convinced that he was the perfect fit for the new job. Some people in his church even told him that the Lord had showed them that he would be chosen for the promotion. It threw him for a loop when someone else was selected for the job. Granted, it is possible he could eventually get the promotion at some point in the future. But this situation made me wonder what we, as Christians, should think or learn when “prophecies” don’t come true.
Jeremiah 14:14 says:
“Then the Lord said to me, ‘The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I have not sent them or appointed them or spoken to them. They are prophesying to you false visions, divinations, idolatries and the delusions of their own minds.’”
This is a strongly worded verse. The context of the verse is a situation where the nation of Israel faced drought, famine, and war. A bunch of false prophets were telling the people of Israel that everything would be fine. The Lord wanted the people of Israel to know that they were indeed facing drought, famine, and war; the opposite of what the faux prophets were saying.
If you read between the lines of Jeremiah chapter 14, it strongly implies a caution from the Lord that both the prophets AND the people who listen to the prophets have a responsibility to confirm that a prophecy is from the Lord, good news or bad. In other words, it can be questionable for prophets to prophesy only what the people want to hear and risky for the people to crave good news so much it blinds them to unpleasant realities. Today, many Christians view the role of prophet as cool. In reality, the role of a legitimate prophet is serious business, even dangerous. It is often an unpopular role because legitimate prophets are occasionally asked by God to be heralds of bad news. There’s no shortage of wannabe prophets, but fewer people than we think are anointed by God to actually BE prophets in the church.
I suspect many would-be prophets in the church today draw prophesies from their imagination. It’s understandable since humans have a very active imagination and a powerful yearning for communication with God. But we have a sober responsibility to not utter prophesies without absolute assurance that they come from God and not our own mind. Better to say nothing than something false. Also, there is nothing wrong with getting second opinions from other mature Christians before speaking a prophecy. It is also essential to pray about a prophecy and meditate on it before speaking it out in the world.
There is one more danger for would-be prophets. The nature of being a prophet entices us because it can make us feel important in the ecosystem of the church. For instance, I might never be the esteemed senior pastor, but I can be the go-to guy if I have the gift of prophesy. After all, some of the most famous people in the Bible were prophets. It’s tempting to go down that road, even if we belong on a different and less celebrated path.