Posts tagged ‘Death’

Too Young To Die

Credit: RODNAE Productions / Pexels.com

One of my most sobering tasks as a pastor is participating in funerals. Every funeral is weighty, but those that are for someone who we would say “died too early” carry with them a unique set of challenges. A young child who passes away, for instance, leaves behind intensely grieving parents. A husband or wife who dies in the prime of life leaves behind a devastated spouse.

One of the starkest portraits of life and death comes to us in Genesis 5, which is a genealogy of the first humans. There is a refrain that comes up again and again as each person is listed, beginning with Adam:

Altogether, Adam lived a total of 930 years, and then he died. (Genesis 5:5)

Altogether, Seth lived a total of 912 years, and then he died. (Genesis 5:8)

Altogether, Enosh lived a total of 905 years, and then he died. (Genesis 5:11)

Altogether, Kenan lived a total of 910 years, and then he died. (Genesis 5:14)

Altogether, Mahalalel lived a total of 895 years, and then he died. (Genesis 5:17)

Altogether, Jared lived a total of 962 years, and then he died. (Genesis 5:20)

Altogether, Enoch lived a total of 365 years. Enoch walked faithfully with God; then he was no more, because God took him away. (Genesis 5:23-24)

Altogether, Methuselah lived a total of 969 years, and then he died. (Genesis 5:27)

Altogether, Lamech lived a total of 777 years, and then he died. (Genesis 5:31)

The phrase “and then he died” evinces an inescapable reality: ever since humanity’s fall into sin, people die.

There is, however, a hiccup in this genealogy’s refrain with Enoch. The end of Enoch’s life is not characterized as “death,” but as being “no more” because God took him away (Genesis 5:24). His lifespan is also notable – 365 years. This is by far the shortest lifespan of anyone in this genealogy. Compared with lifespans as long as these, Enoch could easily be said to have been taken from this world too early. And yet, as C. John Collins reminds us in his book Reading Genesis Well in his comments on Enoch:

Apparently, there are higher values and rewards than simply length of days, and the text assumes that there lies something worthwhile beyond the grave for the faithful.

We can sometimes wonder why God takes certain people from us “early.” But, as Enoch reminds us, God taking someone is not an indication of a curse. It can be an indication of a blessing. This reality does not remove the severe sting of a person who passes young, but it does offer hope. What happened with Enoch can happen for them, too. They may be apart from us, but they are with the Lord. And anytime is a good time to be with Him.

July 5, 2021 at 5:15 am 1 comment

More Than a Memorial

Credit: Chad Madden / Pexels.com

Today is Memorial Day. Today’s observances continue a tradition that began on May 5, 1868, when General John A. Logan called for a nationwide day of remembrance at the end of that month for those lost in the Civil war:

The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land.

Because General Logan called for the decorating of graves, his observance was called “Decoration Day.” Over time, Decoration Day came to be known as Memorial Day and was moved to the last Monday in May by an act of Congress in 1968 and has been celebrated on this Monday ever since 1971.

As Memorial Day encourages us to do, remembering those we have lost is critical. And like its predecessor, Decoration Day, reminds us, using physical objects – from crosses to pictures to flowers to flags – to help us remember can be healing.

The night before Jesus goes to the cross, He gathers His disciples to celebrate a final meal with them. As in Decoration Day, Jesus presents His disciples with some physical objects:

Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to His disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is My body.” Then He took a cup, and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:26-28)

And as in Memorial Day, Jesus also encourages His disciples to remember Him:

“Do this in remembrance of Me.” (Luke 22:19)

But this meal is more than simply a memorial with some tokens that help us remember a person we have lost. The apostle Paul writes that, when we partake of this meal with its objects of bread and wine, we are not only remembering with Christ, but communing with Christ here and now:

Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? (1 Corinthians 10:16)

But how do we commune with Christ – indeed, even with His very blood and body – here and now?

If Christ had shared this meal with His disciples before He died and then remained dead, this meal would simply be a memorial. But He did not stay dead. Three days later, He rose. So we do not just remember Christ with bread and wine, we truly commune with Christ in the meal He has given us. He is our risen and living host.

Paul also writes:

We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in Him. For the Lord Himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. (1 Thessalonians 4:14, 16-17)

Paul reminds us that Jesus’ resurrection is only the beginning of something even bigger. Because Christ has risen, those who die in Christ will rise, too. And we will all be together again. Children who have lost parents in battle, parents who have lost children, husbands who have lost wives, and wives who have lost husbands will all be reunited. And Memorial Day will be needed no more. For on the day Christ returns, we will not just remember our lost loved ones, we will commune with them – and with Christ.

Today, let us take a moment to remember those who have given their lives in battle to protect and defend this nation. But let us also hope for the day when we will need to remember no more because we will be able to see those we have lost face-to-face. The headstones we visit today will one day give way to hugs we enjoy forever.

That’s a promise worth remembering.

May 31, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Why We Need Easter

Credit: Anna Shvets / Pexels.com

In an article for The Washington Post, Emma Pattee writes about how the COVID-19 pandemic has brought us face-to-face with the reality of our mortality:

You probably remember where you were that day in March when you first realized that the novel coronavirus was something …

I remember where I was: driving to the gym for a Mommy & Me boot camp.

I pulled up to a red light and locked eyes with my 6-month-old baby in the rearview mirror. I felt unsettled and scared. I had an inexplicable urge to go home, and also to call everyone I knew and check on them. Yet nothing had happened. I was safe, healthy and employed. At that point, in mid-March, I was more likely to die of a car accident than of contracting covid-19 …

That eerie uncomfortable feeling has been described as grief. As fear. Or anxiety. But Sheldon Solomon, a social psychologist and professor at Skidmore College, has a more robust explanation: It is the existential anxiety caused by reminders of our own mortality.

Simply put, to function as a conscious being, it’s imperative that you be in denial about your impending death. How else would you go about the mundane aspects of your daily life – cleaning the gutters, paying the bills, sitting in traffic – if you were constantly aware of the inevitability of your own death?

Ms. Pattee goes on to cite studies that have found that we seem to be hardwired to fear death and to avoid thinking about it:

neurological study was published in 2019 about a mechanism in the brain that avoids awareness of a person’s own mortality and that categorizes death as something unfortunate that happens to other people. …

An Israeli study showed some participants a flier about death anxiety and others one about back pain. When subjects were then offered an alcoholic beverage, one-third of the death flier group bought alcohol vs. one-tenth of the back-pain group.

We don’t like death. And the day we celebrated yesterday – Easter – gives us an answer as to why.

Scripture’s story is that we were created not to die, but to live. But when our first parents, Adam and Eve, fell into sin, they reaped the wage of sin, which is death (Romans 6:23). But this wage disordered the way creation was designed to be. It was designed to be filled with life – not marred by death.

Our dislike and fear of death, then, can be rightly said to be a yearning for the way we know things “should be.” We should not have to mourn the loss of our loved ones. We should not have to struggle and suffer through a pandemic. We should not have to endure horrific acts of violence that lead to death like wars and mass shootings. We should not have to deal with death. We can sense that dealing with death is, in some way, profoundly unnatural.

This is why we need Easter. Easter is the beginning of a return to the way they were always supposed to be. As Timothy Keller puts it in his book Hope in Times of Fear:

The resurrection was indeed a miraculous display of God’s power, but we should not see it as a suspension of the natural order of the world. Rather it was the beginning of the restoration of the natural order of the world, the world as God intended it to be.

In other words, death is wrong. Resurrection is right. Life is what the world was designed for, which is why it’s what we yearn for. And our yearnings will be fulfilled.

Christ’s resurrection is not only a feat against death, but a forecast that death will not have the last word. Christ’s resurrection, the apostle Paul says, is a “firstfruits” of our own resurrections (1 Corinthians 15:20). As Christ is risen, we will rise. And death will die. This is the message and the promise of Easter.

I hope you celebrated Easter well yesterday. And I hope you’ll hold on to all that Easter is today – and every day.

April 5, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Jesus’ Love For Children Lost

Jesus Christ, Statue, Children, Catholic, Virginia
Credit: Pixabay

One of the most moving moments of being a pastor is sitting with a family who has just lost a child. Perhaps they had a miscarriage. Perhaps their baby never made it out of the NICU. Perhaps their child lost their life in a tragic accident. There are many questions that a family asks at a moment like this:

How could God allow this to happen?

Did this happen because we did something wrong?

But there is one question I want to focus on in this blog:

Is my child in heaven with Jesus?

This is a weighty question because it reaches beyond a parent’s present pain and cries out desperately for an eternal hope. It deserves our serious consideration.

There is a famous episode in Mark 10 that gives us a glimpse into Jesus’ relationship with children:

People were bringing little children to Jesus for Him to place His hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, He was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And He took the children in His arms, placed His hands on them and blessed them. (Mark 10:13-16)

There is an interesting debate over Jesus’ words in verse 14 when He says, “The kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” What is the referent of “such as these”? Some say the referent is found at the beginning of verse 14 in “the little children.” This means that Jesus is not only welcoming a particular group of little children into His arms at this moment, but making a broader declaration about how the kingdom of God belongs to many other little children who are like these but who are also beyond these. The phrase “such as these,” then, reminds us that “Jesus loves the little children – all the children of the world.”

There are others, however, who argue that the phrase “such as these” is better informed by the word “anyone” in the next verse. In this interpretation, Jesus is not declaring that little children can enter His kingdom. Instead, He is only calling people in general to have a childlike faith. Though Jesus is certainly calling people to have a childlike faith in verse 15, syntactically, the specific referent of “such as these” is quite clear. In Greek, the word for the phrase “such as these” is tointoun, which is neuter. The word for the children who come to Jesus is paidia, which is also neuter. The word for “anyone” in verse 15 is hos, which is masculine. It is important to note that the genders of each of these words are incidental features of Greek syntax and not determinative of which genders of human beings can and cannot enter God’s kingdom. Syntactically, however, Greek pronouns and nouns do need to generally match in their genders. Thus, the first interpretation of which referent is the appropriate one for the phrase “such as these” is correct: it is children like the ones who are coming to Jesus in Mark 10 who can enter God’s kingdom. Age is no barrier to a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

Of course, I would not walk a grieving family who has just lost a child through the technicalities of the Greek syntax in Mark 10 like I did in this blog. But a careful consideration of the syntax is important for my pastoral ministry because it allows me to confidently proclaim:

Jesus welcomes children into His kingdom.

Just because a baby cannot intellectually assent to the great truths of the Christian faith does not mean they are barred from eternal life. Indeed, one of the reasons that adults can have a faith like a child is because there is such a thing as a faith of a child (cf. Matthew 18:6). Children – and even babies – can sing babbling praises to the Lord (Matthew 21:15-16). Babies – and even infants in the womb – can respond to God’s good news of a Messiah (Luke 1:41-42). A child lost to a parent does not mean a child lost to the Lord.

If you are reading this and you have lost a child, this I want you to know:

Jesus welcomes children into His kingdom.

You can have hope.

If you are reading this and you have a child or are expecting one, share with them God’s Word, even from the womb. Allow them to hear the voice of their Savior calling them. It’s never too early to teach the faith because it’s never too early for someone to have faith. And it is by faith that we live – and live eternally.

March 1, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Sunshine & Branches

Tree, Aesthetic, Log, Branch, Winter Sun, Winter, Kahl
Credit: Pixabay.com

When an elderly priest named Zechariah is chosen by lot to burn incense at the temple in Jerusalem, it marks a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for him. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, there were around 20,000 priests serving at the temple in the first century. Many of them never got to bring such an offering before God. So, Zechariah, when his lot is drawn, is obviously overwhelmed by the magnitude of the moment. But an already overwhelming moment becomes even more potent when, in the middle of Zechariah’s liturgical service, an angel appears to him, telling him that he and his wife Elizabeth, both of whom could have easily qualified to be members-in-good-standing of the AARP by this point in their lives, will have a child who will, in fulfillment of ancient prophecy, “prepare the way for the Lord” (Isaiah 40:3). At first, Zechariah is skeptical of this angelic announcement, but his suspicion quickly melts into praise and hope, both at the promise that he and his wife will have a child and that his child will prepare the way for the arrival of God’s salvation. At the end of a song of celebration, he muses:

You, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for Him, to give His people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heavento shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace. (Luke 1:76-79)

In his song, Zechariah celebrates both his child and God’s Messiah. He describes the Messiah as “the rising sun” who will come “to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death.”

This picture of light was a common metaphor for the Messiah among the prophets:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined. (Isaiah 9:2)

And:

For you who revere My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. (Malachi 4:2)

In a world full of the darkness of sin, the Messiah would bring the light of righteousness.

When Zechariah speaks of the coming Messiah as “the rising sun,” the Greek word Luke employs is anatole, a word which refers to the east, the place from which the sun rises. What is fascinating about this word is that it can also be translated as “branch,” as it is when God speaks through the prophet Zechariah, who lived over 500 years before the priest Zechariah did:

I am going to bring My servant, the Branch. (Zechariah 3:8)

God calls the Messiah “the Branch,” the Greek word for which is anatole. In a world full of death, the Messiah would be like a tree that sprouts and brings life.

This one little word speaks to who the Messiah is in multiple ways. He sheds light in the darkness of sin and he branches out from death with life. Though Zechariah, more than likely, did not understand the fullness of who the Messiah would be and what He would accomplish when he sang his song, we live in what the apostle Paul once called “the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4). In other words, we have the benefit of historical retrospection to understand more fully how Jesus changed the world – and how Jesus still changes lives. And because of this, we, like Zechariah, can have praise to offer and hope to hold this Christmas.

December 21, 2020 at 5:15 am 3 comments

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: 1933-2020

screen-shot-2020-09-20-at-8.27.35-am

Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1977 / Credit: Lynn Gilbert


Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg lived a remarkable life. Appointed to the nation’s highest court in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, she presented herself as someone who was soft-spoken while also distinguishing herself a firebrand of the court’s progressive wing and, in her octogenarian years, a cultural icon, being dubbed “the notorious RBG” by her fans. Her death on Friday brought raw mourning, moving tributes, and a looming political melee as Republicans and Democrats began to draw their battle lines with President Trump already preparing to nominate a new, likely far more conservative, judge to serve as the justice who, if confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate, would fill Justice Ginsburg’s seat.

There has been much that has already been said about Justice Ginsburg at her passing. And, with the hindsight afforded us by history, there will surely be much more to say into the future about her and her legacy. Her judicial philosophy alone will no doubt be the subject of many yet-to-be-published books as we, as a nation, continue to debate the merits of Constitutional interpretation philosophies like textualism, originalism, and her preferred method of seeing the Constitution as a living document, subject to broader interpretations that can reflect our zeitgeist.

Philosophically, I have questions about Justice Ginsburg’s method of Constitutional interpretation. I have reservations about many of the opinions she rendered. I stand opposed to her view of and her advocacy for abortion. Nevertheless, many of the stories that have been shared about her upon her passing deserve our reflection. In an article for Slate Magazine, Dahlia Lithwick recalls Justice Ginsburg’s humble sense of self. The justice knew she was the beneficiary of the hard work of many who came before her. She may have been called a pioneer, but she never forgot that she was also a payee. Ms. Lithwick writes:

Whenever she spoke, Justice Ginsburg was at pains to say that she stood on the shoulders of giants. At her confirmation hearings, in her prepared statement to the Senate, she was meticulous about who truly deserved the credit for her landmark career, and it wasn’t RBG: “We could not have come to this point – and I surely would not be in this room today – without the determined efforts of men and women who kept dreams of equal citizenship alive in days when few would listen. People like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Harriet Tubman come to mind. I stand on the shoulders of those brave people.” I never heard her give a public speech in which she didn’t thank, by name, the allies, champions, fighters, of whom she inevitably saw herself as a beneficiary; she cast herself as someone lucky enough to be in a long line of champions and fighters, and also as someone set and determined to pay it forward to the people who would someday stand on her shoulders.

Her gratitude for how others had shaped her and paved the way for her is something worth emulating, for we too ought to be thankful to those who, by their sacrifices, have made our lives better and our opportunities broader.

But it wasn’t just Justice Ginsburg’s gratitude for others that endeared her to so many; it was her warmth toward others. Her friendship with the late devotedly conservative justice, Antonin Scalia, has become the stuff of legend. Upon her death, Justice Scalia’s son shared a story from Judge Jeffrey Sutton, who clerked for Justice Scalia in the early 90s, who admitted to being confused by Justice Scalia’s close friendship with Justice Ginsburg:

During one of my last visits with Justice Scalia, I saw striking evidence of the Scalia-Ginsburg relationship. As I got up to leave his chambers, he pointed to two dozen roses on his table and noted that he needed to take them down to “Ruth” for her birthday. “Wow,” I said, “I doubt I have given a total of twenty-four roses to my wife in almost thirty years of marriage.” “You ought to try it sometime,” he retorted. Unwilling to give him the last word, I pushed back: “So what good have all these roses done for you? Name one five-four case of any significance where you got Justice Ginsburg’s vote.” “Some things,” he answered, “are more important than votes.”

As we enter into what is sure to be a contentious nomination fight and presidential election, maybe we should let Justice Scalia have the last word as we remember Justice Ginsburg: some things are more important than votes. Why? Because better than the wielding power is loving people.

His words are words to live by as we energetically debate in the months to come who should fill her seat.

September 21, 2020 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Kobe Bryant: 1978-2020

When my wife said to me from the other room, “Kobe Bryant is dead?!” I thought at first she had been taken in by another one of those celebrity death hoaxes that sometimes make their rounds on social media. But she hadn’t. The news was true. The loss was real.

As the story of Kobe’s untimely death began to sink in, my first thought was, “He was my age.” He was born a mere two weeks before me. Then when I learned that his daughter was with him on the helicopter flight that crashed and took their lives, this tragedy felt even worse. Kobe leaves behind his wife and three other daughters. I cannot imagine the pain they must be experiencing right now.

As the news played a never-ending loop of Kobe Bryant highlights, reporters interviewed fellow stars who were memorializing him and fans who were crying over him. The death of a household name like Kobe Bryant – especially under the fluke circumstances of a terrible crash – brings into sharp focus something so many of us are generally loathe to consider: the stark and dark reality of death.

As a nation grapples with the loss of one of its biggest stars, there is an ancient perspective on death – the Christian perspective on death – that is worth our reflection, for, I believe, it can be a source of hope. So, here are three Christian claims about death.

Death is unnatural.

Contrary to what Forrest Gump’s momma told him, dying is not just a part of life. There’s a reason that, when someone dies, tears flow, questions of “why” are asked, and anger at a life-gone-too-soon ensues. It’s because we can feel that there is something profoundly unnatural about death.

The Christian faith teaches that this feeling about death is nothing less than a good theology of death. Death is the result of and the punishment for sin. It is not, however, part of God’s creative design. It was introduced only after Adam and Eve disobeyed God. This is why the apostle Paul calls death an “enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26).

So, if you ever find yourself mourning a death, don’t feel as though you must feel that death is natural. It’s not. Your tears can flow, your questions can be asked, and you can shake your fist at what has taken your loved one from you.

Death is inevitable.

Death may not be natural, but it is inevitable. Part of what makes a passing like Kobe Bryant’s so shocking and tragic is because he was a man who seemed invincible. A sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times, Bill Plaschke, eulogized the basketball great this way:

Bryant, 41, and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, were among nine people who died in a helicopter crash Sunday in Calabasas and how does that happen? Kobe is stronger than any helicopter. He didn’t even need a helicopter. For 20 years he flew into greatness while carrying a breathless city with him.

This can’t be true.

This is the way Kobe seemed – stronger than any helicopter. And yet, life’s fragility – and death’s inevitability – have coldly slapped a culture that treats its sports stars as invincible in its face.

The 17th century English poet John Donne wrote a poem in 1624 about a bout he had with spotted fever. While in the throes of his sickness, Donne heard the bells of a nearby church ringing at a funeral. He opined:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

Donne knew that even if he survived this sickness, he would not survive every sickness. One day, the bell would toll for him. Indeed, one day, the bell will toll for us all – no matter how strong, how rich, how famous, how moral, how respected, or how invincible we are.

It is maddening. But it is true. Death is inevitable.

Death is destroyable.

The first claim of Christianity – that death is unnatural – we feel. The second claim of Christianity – that death is inevitable – we can empirically verify, for we all die. This final claim of Christianity – that death is destroyable – is one that calls for faith.

On its face, death does not seem destroyable. It seems only to destroy us. And yet, Christianity claims that there was once a man who was destroyed by death on cross who managed to return the favor to death when He rose again three days later, destroying death. And because He destroyed death for Himself, Christianity claims that He can also destroy death for us. For just as He once emptied His grave, He will one day empty our graves. As the apostle Paul explains:

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed – in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” (1 Corinthians 15:51-54)

Death is destroyable, Paul says.

The same poet who once reflected on the inevitability of his own death also wrote a sonnet about his hope for life. John Donne called it “Death Be Not Proud”:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

When death takes a life, John Donne reminds us, it “swell’st thou.” It swells with pride that it has separated another family, brought on more tears, and broken more hearts. But even if death is stronger than us, it is not stronger than the One who once called Himself “the life” (John 14:6). And because of His life, we can have life, too – eternal life.

Kobe Bryant has died. But death should not be proud. Because Kobe’s death is not the last word on his life. For this much I know:

Death, thou shalt die.

May it be so quickly.

January 27, 2020 at 5:15 am 2 comments

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

Older Posts


Follow Zach

Enter your email address to subscribe to Pastor Zach's blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 2,109 other followers


%d bloggers like this: