Posts tagged ‘Death’

Hope in the Valley: In Memory of Jarrid Wilson

Any story of anyone who takes their own life always rends my heart. When it is the story of a pastor, it has a special poignancy for me. I would be lying if I said ministry is never difficult. It is. I would also be lying if I said I have not, at times, been haunted by deep sadness over a broken situation, an angry person, or a lost soul. I have been. In my theological tradition, pastors often wear stoles – a piece of cloth draped over a person’s shoulders. This is to remind a pastor that he carries a yoke – a burden – as he goes about his ministry. Ministry can be heavy.

What is true of my ministry I am certain was exponentially truer of Jarrid Wilson’s ministry. He was an associate pastor at a Riverside, California megachurch. He was a respected author. And he was the founder of Anthem of Hope, a nonprofit organization advocating for those struggling with depression. Hours before Jarrid took his own life, he preached at the funeral of a lady who herself had committed suicide. As a pastor myself who has preached at such funerals, I know they are some of the heaviest moments in ministry. But on top of all these responsibilities and burdens was Jarrid’s battle with depression. In his most recent book, Love Is Oxygen, he opened up about his own mental health struggles and described how he had contemplated suicide on multiple occasions. This past Monday, his struggles overtook him.

Depression can come for you regardless of your gender, age, success level, or even faith. There is no life hack a person can deploy or mind trick a person can play to shoo depression away. It is an ongoing struggle against darkness in life and heaviness of soul.

Thousands of years ago, the Psalmist knew something about darkness in life and heaviness of soul. In one of the most famous passages in all of Scripture, he writes:

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever. (Psalm 23) 

The Psalmist did not try to downplay his struggles and sadness. Life, the Psalmist says, can sometimes feel like a “valley of the shadow of death.”  And yet, the Psalmist refused to give up hope.

There is an interesting switch in language that takes place in the midst of this psalm.  The Psalmist opens by talking about the Lord. He is the Psalmist’s shepherd. He makes him like down in green pastures. He leads him beside still waters. But then, suddenly, when the mood of the Psalmist changes, so does the orientation of the Psalm. Instead of talking about the Lord, he begins talking to the Lord: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” The Psalmist no longer talks about the Lord as “He.” Instead, he talks to the Lord as “You.” This is because the Psalmist knows that even when life feels its darkest and heaviest, the Lord is not far. He is right there, personally, with the Psalmist – and with us.

But there’s more. It is interesting that the Psalmist speaks of “the valley of the shadow of death” in the singular while speaking of “green pastures” and “still waters” in the plural. It’s almost as if no matter how dark this world may feel, the blessings of God always outnumber the sin in this world. The valley of the shadow of death may encroach on a person’s soul for a time. But more green pastures and still waters are on their way and are ultimately punctuated by a promise of eternity: “I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”

The language of this ancient poem is not a prescription that can take away depression and suicidal thoughts, but it can offer some perspective if you do struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts. No matter how dark your valley may feel, the Lord walks with you. And no matter how tempted you may be to take your own life into your own hands, the Lord has something for you. He is your Shepherd who wants to lead you lovingly through this life even if you feel like you want to escape from this life.

So, if you’re struggling, pick up the phone. Reach out for help. Ask someone to help you find those “green pastures” and “still waters” that feel so lost and distant. And remember, not only does God love you, many others do, too. There are plenty of reasons to keep on fighting for the life God has given you.

If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts or feelings, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

September 16, 2019 at 5:15 am 4 comments

Death Is Not a Part of Life

MaxPixel.freegreatpicture.com-Tombstone-Cemetery-Rip-Grave-Death-D-2036220.jpg

When the gritty reality of death threatens to destroy the creature comforts and status-saturations of a decadent life, the resulting tension can be enormously uncomfortable.  This tension was on full display last week in an admittedly scintillating article from the tabloid newspaper The Sun, which declared in a headline, “To Infinity & Beyond: From ‘young blood’ transfusions to apocalypse insurance – weird ways tech billionaires are trying to live forever.”

The article chronicled attempts to cheat death by such luminaries as Jeff Bezos, who is funding research to try to find a “cure” for aging, and Peter Thiel, who is rumored to have interest in transfusing blood from young, healthy people into those who are elderly in an attempt to make them young again.  Though these schemes sound, on their face, cockamamie, they are also oddly understandable.  Death is intransigently menacing.  So, it feels natural to want to try to figure out a way to deal with it – to face it down, to cut it down, and to turn it back.  But try as we might, death always seems to find a way to do to us what we want to do to it – to face us down, to cut us down, and to turn us back…into dust.

Two weekends ago, a heart-rending article appeared in the Sunday Review section of The New York Times by a self-avowed atheist mother who lost her four-month-old infant son.  Amber Scorah’s description of her struggle is potent:

Several years after leaving my religion, I felt sure I had encountered all the situations I might possibly need to get used to in my new life.

What I had not prepared myself for was death.  Grief without faith.  Which is to say, death without hope …

My son was almost 4 months old when he stopped breathing at day care.  It was his first day there, the first time I had left his side.  Neither the doctors nor investigators could tell us why it happened …

Days passed, days in which nonsensically I lived while my son did not …

If belief were a choice, I might choose it.  But it’s not.  I don’t trade in certainty anymore. If there is something more, it’s not something we know.  If we can’t even grasp how it is that we got here, how can we know with any certainty where, if anywhere, we go when we die? …

This is the one comfort that unbelief gives you, that this life will end and the pain you carry along with it.

Amber’s memoir is impossible to read without getting choked up.  Here is pain, raw and real.  But her pain, in many ways, poses only more questions.  If there is nothing beyond this life, and this is just a fact of life, from where does our hatred of this fact come?  After millions of years of evolutionary progress, hewed out by unrelenting broadsides from death, why can’t we just get over life’s end already?

Perhaps the reason we can’t get over life’s end is because we shouldn’t get over life’s end.  Perhaps our hatred of death – whether this hatred be in the form of a tragic loss like Amber’s or in the form of awkward attempts to bankroll immortality by the world’s super rich – betrays a bias against death that is appropriate, right, and even natural.  Perhaps we are hardwired to know, deep down, that things are not supposed to be this way.  And no amount of atheist and evolutionary philosophizing and rationalizing can convince us otherwise.

Amber tries to salve her longing for life by devoting herself to the study of this life, or so she claims.  She writes:

Asked about death once, Confucius answered, simply, “We haven’t yet finished studying life, so why delve into the question of death?”  The question of my son’s death – the mystery of it, why he vanished – remains without answer.  And so I ask the questions of life:  What force grew this little child?  How did those limbs form themselves from nothing inside of me?  Why did I have the power to make him, but not to bring him back?  

While claiming she has devoted herself to the study of this life, she manages to lapse right back in to pondering her son’s death.  Death, it seems, finds a way to successfully stalk her life.

Jesus once said, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).  He was, like Amber, a student of life.  But He was also, like Amber, stalked by death.  And so, Jesus claims to be the answer to the billionaires and grieving mothers alike who struggle with death – He can face down, cut down, and turn back death.

Try as we might, we can’t quite seem to normalize and naturalize death – which just might mean that the claim that Jesus makes of being resurrection and life is worth our investigation.  It just might mean that Jesus is not so much calling for us to suspend disbelief for the sake of the supernatural as He is calling for us to admit what we already intuitively know is very natural – that death is not a part of life, but an enemy against life that must be defeated.

We can’t help ourselves.  We hate death and want life.  Jesus promises to defeat death and give life.  And if His promise is true – and I believe that it is – then He is the answer to our irretractable longings.

June 10, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

A Senator, A Pope, And A Shooter

This past weekend was a busy one in the news, to say the least.  Friday, it was announced that Senator John McCain would discontinue treatment for his brain cancer.  24 hours later, he passed away.  Around this same time Saturday, news broke that Pope Francis may have known of accusations against one of his closest confidants, former Washington D.C. archbishop Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who resigned this summer after it was discovered that he may have sexually abused a minor some 50 years ago.  Then, yesterday afternoon, a gunman opened fire in a Jacksonville, Florida bar during a Madden 19 video game tournament, killing three and wounding eleven.

After a weekend like this one, it is easy to be left reeling and restive.  When cancer takes the life of an American hero, when a spiritual leader is accused of covering for sexual abuse, and when another – yes, another – mass shooting unfolds on another soft target, it can be extremely difficult to take everything in, much less to make sense of much or any of it.

So, how do we process any of this?

During relatively peaceful times, which seem fewer and farther between these days, we can be lured into a false sense of security.  We can be tricked into forgetting that, in the words of God to Cain, “sin is crouching at the door” (Genesis 4:7) and it can rear its head at any moment.  However, during tumultuous times, which seem to have become all too common, we can become drawn into alarmism and catastrophism.  We can have a false sense that, in the words of Chicken Little, “the sky is falling.”  Both senses are false.  Generally, things are never quite as bad or quite as good as we think they are.

The message of Christ can provide us with a reality check after a weekend like this one. Jesus has no problem warning the world of the full damage and devastation that human sinfulness can wreak.  Jesus warns that, in this age, there will be an “increase of wickedness, and the love of most will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12).  But Jesus also is clear that He has come to overcome sin.  In the words of Jesus’ dear friend John, Jesus is “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).  Sin will not ultimately get its way.

Christians can respond to the tragedies of our world with both a sober realism and an indefatigable hope.  The death of a man as well regarded and as widely celebrated as John McCain can serve as a reminder of the brokenness of our political system and the often illogical rancor that eats away at any generative discourse.  The promise of the man Jesus Christ is that He has come to bring peace between divided peoples and parties.  The alleged secrecy of a man like Pope Francis in the face of a terrible crime like the one allegedly committed by Theodore McCarrick reminds us that sin runs for cover so it can continue its damaging and damning work.  The promise of the man Jesus Christ is that He has come not only to reveal sin, but to heal those ravaged by it.  The murderous intentions of a man like Jacksonville’s mass shooter is a reminder that death comes for everyone – sometimes at the times we least expect it.  The promise of the man Jesus Christ is that by His death, He has conquered death.

Every tragedy yearns for a Savior.  Christianity promises that every tragedy has a Savior.  And after a weekend like this one, that’s what we need to know most – and believe deeply.

August 27, 2018 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Digitizing Life After Death

Digital Brain

Credit: Martin420

There seems to be something hardwired into humans that wants to cheat death.  Writing for NBC News, Kevin Van Aelst, in his article “Disrupting death: Technologists explore ways to digitize life,” chronicles a new bevy of scientific experiments designed to con the grim reaper.

In one experiment, researchers work at mapping brain connections in an attempt to digitize the mind so that, even after a body dies, a “human being can live in on virtual form.”  In another experiment:

Artificial intelligence specialists are developing digital avatars that replicate users’ personalities and can continue to communicate with loved ones after their owners have passed away … The program, Augmented Eternity, will then be able to communicate memories of your life and answer questions on certain topics, such as your political views, depending on what information is stored in your data.

Even before these technologies have been thoroughly tested and refined, their limits are glaring.  Having someone live on as a digitized mind makes bioethicist John Harris wonder, because “we are so much flesh and blood creatures,” what it would be like to “continue to exist in a disembodied state.”  Another woman, who created an avatar of a friend she lost, describes the avatar as a “sort of digital tomb to come to and mourn” and freely admits that her friend is no longer alive – at least in any sort of meaningful way.  In other words, for all of science and technology’s attempts to cheat death, its reality and finality still loom large.

Christ does what science and technology cannot.  All of our experiments, from digitizing minds to fashioning avatars, only succeed in mimicking life after death.  Christ actually gives life after death.  As He says to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life.  The one who believes in Me will live, even though they die” (John 11:25).  The Christian hope is much more than a digital grave that a person can pay a visit to in order to hear a phantom voice.  It is a real life that we are promised.

The scientific and technological advances that address life and death are both problematic in that they blur distinctions between the two and promising in that they give us insight into the two.  But whatever their problems and promises may be, this much is clear:  they will always only be partial.  Only Christ can give real life – a life that is “to the full” (John 10:10).

July 30, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Mandalay Bay Moves to Protect Itself

This past week, MGM Resorts International filed a lawsuit against the victims of last October’s Las Vegas shooting, when a gunman opened fire from his suite in the Mandalay Bay, an MGM property, into a group of concert goers below.  The lawsuit does not seek any money from the victims, but argues that MGM cannot be held responsible for any deaths, injuries, or damages that occurred during the shooting.  Legal experts believe that MGM is attempting to shield itself against protracted battles in state courts, which could be sympathetic to the victims, and instead push any cases up to the federal court system, which MGM believes to be more attuned to their interests.

This is the kind of story that invokes a reflexive revulsion in many.  There is a hotel that is suing shooting victims?

The Psalmist writes:

No one can redeem the life of another or give to God a ransom for them – the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough – so that they should live on forever and not see decay. (Psalm 49:7-9)

In a culture where lawsuits are plentiful, the Psalmist reminds us that, in a tragedy like the Las Vegas shooting, even the most lavish remuneration of cash does not lead to a restoration of life. This is not to say that negligent parties should not be held accountable and that monetary penalties should not be imposed; it is only to say that any action we take after death will always be incomplete.  This is because, ultimately, life is not a commodity, but a gift, and the only way to truly address the loss of one gift is with another, even greater, gift.  But what gift can be greater than that of a life?

Jesus offers a greater gift.  For He takes a life that is lost and replaces with a new life that is eternal.  He takes death itself – even when death rears its head in the most tragic ways imaginable, as in the case of the Mandalay Bay shooting – and turns it into an opportunity for an upgrade to a resurrected life with Christ for all who trust in Christ.  Christ does more than just pay for death.  He conquers it.  And Christ offers what no payment can – a promise that we can “live on forever and not see decay.”

I pray that MGM does the right thing and treats the victims of this terrible shooting, along with their families, with the respect and support they need and deserve, even if doing so costs the hotel chain some money.  I am thankful, however, that while MGM may rightly honor the lives lost, Jesus can actually restore them.

July 23, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

A Tragic Spate of Suicides

One week.  Two tragic deaths.

First, it was iconic fashion designer Kate Spade, who was found dead in her apartment Tuesday night after she had hung herself.  Then last Friday, it was celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain who, while working on an upcoming episode of his CNN show “Parts Unknown,” also hung himself at the hotel where he was staying in Kaysersberg, France.

We are facing nothing short of a suicide epidemic in our country.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that suicide rates are up almost 30 percent nationwide since 1999.  During this time period, only one state saw a decrease in suicides: Nevada.  And Nevada’s rate decreased by only 1 percent.  In North Dakota, the suicide rate jumped more than 57 percent during this time period.  In 2016, nearly 45,000 people took their own lives across the United States, making suicide more than twice as common as homicide and the tenth leading cause of death overall.

We have a problem.

Mental illness certainly plays a role in many of these terrible deaths.  But more than half of the suicides in 27 states involved people who had no known mental health concerns.

Of course, no explanation, no matter how clinical or comprehensive it may be, can ever even begin to blunt the pain of a life lost on those left behind.  Mental health diagnoses of diseases like clinical depression often only leave people wondering why physicians weren’t able to help.  Suicide notes often raise more question than they answer.  It seems no explanation can really answer the furious and frustrated one-word interrogation of “why?”.  This is because this is an interrogation birthed by pain and bathed in pain. You see, there is a creeping realization that comes with death – a realization that a person who was once with us has now gone away from us and we will no longer be able to see them, talk to them, or hold them.  As many a grieving person has muttered after the suicide of a loved one: they were taken from us too soon.

The horror of suicide needs some sort of hope.  But hope is hard to find in something as final and gruesome as death.  This is why we need the gospel, for the gospel reminds us that there is a death that undoes death.  While suicide takes people we love from us, the gospel declares that Jesus, out of love, gave His life for us.  As the apostle Paul puts it in Romans 5:8: “God demonstrates His own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Suicides may feel final, but the cross of Christ reminds us that they do not have to be.  The cross’s effects held on for three days before the cross was double-crossed by an empty tomb.  The effects of a dark moment of despair that leads to a tragic end by one’s own hand may hold on for a little longer, but their days too are numbered.  A resurrection is on its way.

And so, to anyone who is suffering, perhaps in silence, let me say simply this:  you do not have to escape despair through your own death, because despair has already been defeated by Jesus’ death.

He’s your reason to live.

If you’re struggling with thoughts of suicide, you are loved and there is help.  Talk to a counselor or a pastor at your church.  If you need immediate help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.  Do it now.  The life God has given you is far too valuable to lose.

June 11, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

U.S. Life Expectancy Slides

King Solomon makes a sobering statement in the book of Ecclesiastes:

The wise have eyes in their heads, while the fool walks in the darkness; but I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both. (Ecclesiastes 2:14)

Solomon knows that, for all humanity’s wisdom, no one is clever enough to outrun, outsmart, or outmaneuver fate.  The wise, just like the foolish, share the same fate of death.  As Solomon puts it later in Ecclesiastes: “Death is the destiny of everyone” (Ecclesiastes 7:2).

I was reminded of this truth when I came across this headline: “With death rate up, U.S. life expectancy is likely down again.”  Mike Stobbe, writing for the Associated Press, explains:

The U.S. death rate rose last year, and 2017 likely will mark the third straight year of decline in American life expectancy, according to preliminary data.

Death rates rose for Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, flu and pneumonia, and three other leading causes of death, according to numbers posted online Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The progress we have made in fighting disease has been nothing short of astonishing.  From advances in treating HIV to new drugs for ALS and MS to promising gene therapies for certain types of cancer, we are making extraordinary strides in protecting and extending life.  But disease still haunts us and hurts us.  What’s more, it’s not just disease that threatens us existentially, it’s we who threaten ourselves personally.  As Mr. Stobbe notes:

Full-year data is not yet available for drug overdoses, suicides or firearm deaths.  But partial-year statistics in those categories showed continuing increases.

The indicators from late-2017 looked grim on both drug overdose, where U.S. deaths skyrocketed 21 percent, and on firearm deaths, two-thirds of which are suicides.  As it turns out, we are often our own worst enemies.

I sometimes wonder if our societally sliding life expectancy doesn’t have an inverse relationship to our personally skyrocketing life expectations.  Far too many people have unattainable, unsustainable, and, frankly, misplaced expectations for life.  Some people expect riches.  Others expect pleasure.  Others expect ease.  Still others expect perfection.  When these expectations are not met, sometimes, some people slide into destructive habits, patterns, addictions, and even moments of despair.  And a life expectancy craters because life expectations are not met.

In Ecclesiastes, Solomon notes that even if a person recklessly indulges every desire, his life expectations will remain impoverished.  Life expectations based in things like riches, pleasure, ease, and perfection can never satisfy.  This is why we must place our deepest expectations not with our individual longings, but in our transcendent Lord. For when we do, even if our life expectancy is cut short, our eternity remains secure.

The nation’s average life expectancy may continue to slide.  But our lives do not have to fall forever.  Because of the One who was lifted up on a cross, we can be lifted up from the grave.  And that’s not an expectation that can be dashed.  That’s real hope that lasts.

June 4, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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