Posts tagged ‘Hope’

Suicide Rates Keep Climbing

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Credit: cocoparisienne from Pixabay 

Suicide has become a national mental health crisis. Story after story bears this out. Take this, for instance, from Brianna Abbott of The Wall Street Journal:

The suicide rate among people ages 10 to 24 years old climbed 56% between 2007 and 2017, according to the report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention … Around 2010, the death rate of suicides among adolescents and young adults surpassed the rate of homicide deaths, according to the report.

This spike in suicides comes after a period of relatively stable suicide deaths between 2000 and 2007.  And it’s not just young people who are taking their own lives at an exponentially increasing rate. Ms. Abbott goes on to note:

Suicide rates in general have increased in the U.S. across all ages and ethnic groups, rising roughly 30% from 1999 to 2016. 

This is terrifying, especially since we can’t seem to figure out precisely why suicide rates are increasing so dramatically. EJ Dickson, also writing about the latest CDC statistics for Rolling Stone, explains:

Alarmingly, public health experts have no idea why the suicide rate for young adults is increasing so rapidly. “The truth is anyone who says they definitively know what is causing it doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” says Ursula Whiteside, a researcher with the University of Washington, recently told the Washington Post. “It’s a complex problem with no easy answers so far” …

Most mental health experts caution against isolating one “cause” or factor when discussing suicide. Though we know there are certain factors, such as a history of mental illness or substance use, that put teenagers at increased risk for taking their own lives, the mental health establishment simply doesn’t have enough research to draw “firm scientific conclusions” about what causes spikes in suicide, Dr. April Foreman, a psychologist and a board member at the American Association of Suicidology, previously told Rolling Stone. Regardless of what external factors may or may not be contributing, it is “much more likely there are complex things going on in society. We just don’t understand suicide well enough,” she said.

Dr. Foreman’s reference to “complex things going on in society” is ominous. We know monumental societal shifts are taking place. From the ascendency of social media, the overuse and misuse of which has been linked to depression, to the glorification of suicide itself, there are plenty of potential culprits behind these scary statistics, even if we can’t pinpoint precisely how much of a role these culprits play.

With societal shifts affecting how we see the value of our lives – even if their precise effects remain statistically vague – it has become clear that we need a way of seeing ourselves that does not shift with society, but is instead steady in spite of society. Christianity has consistently affirmed and defended the value and dignity of the human person and human life. Our value and dignity are not derived from our status, our income, or even our own feelings about our own selves. Instead, they are grounded in our Creator who, when He created us, called us “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Jesus affirms the value of humanity with a small, but powerful analogy:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.  But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:29-31)

“If God takes good care of the sparrows,” Jesus says, “it should be self-evident that He will take great care of you. After all, if the sparrows are valuable to Him, imagine how much more valuable you are to Him.”

Indeed.

So, if you are feeling worthless or like life is not worthwhile, Jesus invites you to drop the societal estimations of your value and find your value – and hope – in Him. He has given you a life worth living.

October 28, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Lamentation and Restoration

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Lament is not something at which we, as a culture, are particularly skilled. Our carefully curated posts on social media often show only the best moments of our lives, any pain being artfully disguised behind filtered photos of smiling faces in exotic places. At funerals, we often hear about how a deceased loved one would not want those left behind to cry. Instead, they would only want a celebration! And, of course, there is the ubiquitous answer to the ubiquitous question, “How are you?” Any answer other than “fine” may draw some disinterested eye rolls. After all, the question is not really a request for information, but the product of polite social expectation. Lament is not something at which we, as a culture, are particularly skilled.

And yet, in the Bible, there is a whole book called “Lamentations.” It describes the despair and despondency of the Israelites after their nation falls into the hands of the Babylonians and they are carried off from their homes into exile. The book opens with a haunting picture:

How deserted lies the city, once so full of people! How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations! She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave. (Lamentations 1:1)

The capital city of Israel, Jerusalem, once the center of Israel’s life, now lies abandoned. So Israel laments.

But Israel does not just lament over an empty city. Israel also laments over her own sin, for she knows that her exile is a divine punishment for her rebellion:

Jerusalem has sinned greatly and so has become unclean. All who honored her despise her, for they have all seen her naked; she herself groans and turns away. Her filthiness clung to her skirts; she did not consider her future. Her fall was astounding; there was none to comfort her. (Lamentations 1:8-9) 

In very picturesque language, Israel describes the blight of her sin and the resulting plight of her people. It is brutal.

So, what is Israel’s way forward? Is this the end of her story? We know the answer is “no.” She, however, is not so sure. Lamentations ends like this:

Restore us to Yourself, LORD, that we may return; renew our days as of old unless You have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure. (Lamentations 5:21-22)

Israel is hoping for God’s grace, but she is not sure of God’s grace. She wonders if God has not rejected her forever.

Ancient Israel is not the only one who sometimes doubts God’s grace. We do, too. I have talked to many people over my years in ministry who struggle to believe that God’s grace could be for them. Their guilt feels too heavy. Their sin seems too deep. They truly wonder if God would ever, or even could ever, help people like them.

When Jesus is speaking with His disciples, He says to them, “The Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected” (Mark 9:12). And Jesus is rejected – on a cross. He is rejected by men and, ultimately, by God as He takes on Himself the sins of the world – all of the things that God rejects. But because God rejected Jesus then, we have the promise that He will not reject us now. He will always restore us, even when we fall into sin. He will always invite us to return, no matter how far we stray. We have no reason to wonder about God’s grace. It is for us.

Lamentations ends with a doubt about whether or not a nation’s sin can be forgiven. We, however, have received a confident answer to that doubt in Christ. There is no sin too great for grace.

September 23, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

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

In and After the Storm

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Credit: Wikipedia

The Bible has a lot of stories of storms.  When God appears to Moses on Mount Sinai’s summit to give him the Ten Commandments, the mountaintop is covered in “darkness, gloom, and storm” (Hebrews 12:18).  When Job endures great suffering, he complains: “God would crush me with a storm” (Job 9:17).  When God speaks to Job after his trials, it says, “The LORD spoke to Job out of the storm” (Job 38:1).  When God calls Jonah to preach to the Assyrian city of Nineveh, but the prophet instead hops a ship heading the opposite direction, the Lord sends “a great wind on the sea, and a violent storm” (Jonah 1:4).  When Jesus is sailing with His disciples across the Sea of Galilee one day, out of nowhere comes “a furious storm” (Matthew 8:24).  The Bible has a lot of stories of storms.

These days, our headlines have been plastered with stories of a storm.  The pictures that have come out of the Bahamas in the wake of Hurricane Dorian are horrible.  Halves of islands are underwater.  Debris fields stretch for miles.  And the death toll has yet to be fully counted.  And, of course, Dorian’s destruction did not end with these islands.  The storm carved a path up our nation’s eastern seaboard, dumping rain, flooding communities, and disrupting and endangering countless lives.

Whenever we face a storm like this, a common question arises: Where is God?  Though there is no complete answer to this question, here are a couple of thoughts Scripture invites us to consider.

First, God is in the storm.  When God speaks to Job after all his trials, he speaks to him “out of the storm” (Job 38:1).  This means that in all of Job’s trials, God was right there, even though Job did not know it.  When Jesus’ disciples sail across the Sea of Galilee, Jesus does not avoid the storm they sail into, but is there with them in the storm.  And when Jesus dies on a cross, He does so in the midst of storm clouds so dark that they black out the sun: “From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land” (Matthew 27:45).  God, then, does not avoid our storms even if He does not still every storm.  He is with us in the storms.

Second, God is after the storm.  When the prophet Elijah, at God’s behest, goes to meet with God on a mountain, instead of finding God, he experiences a storm:

The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. (1 Kings 19:11-12) 

Elijah goes to meet with God.  But he finds only hurricane force winds, an earthquake, and fiery lighting.  It seems like God is nowhere to be found in these storms.  But then:

After the fire came a gentle whisper.  When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.  (1 Kings 19:12-13)

It turns out that God was there for Elijah after the storms.

Dorian’s destructive path has now been cut.  The damage has been done.  People’s lives and livelihoods have been uprooted.  But God did not run from this storm.  He was in the storm with those who suffered from it.  But, perhaps even more importantly, now, He is still standing tall after the storm with those who have come out of the storm.  The question is: as God’s people, will we also be there for those who need us after the storm?  There are multiple ways to help the victims of Dorian.  I pray that you will.  After all, God is there after the storm.  So, we should be, too.

The Psalmist famously writes:

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.  There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. (Psalm 46:1-4)

The Psalmist reminds us that God is in the storm.  He is “an ever-present help in trouble.”  But he also reminds us that God is after the storm.  For He has prepared for us and now dwells in a celestial city, not with waters that are destructive like a storm surge, but with waters that bubble and babble with gladness.  In other words, God is not only in the storm, nor is He even only after the storm, He is there even after this life, waiting to welcome those who have lost their lives – including those believers who have lost their lives in storms like Dorian – into His eternal city.  A storm may end this life – but it cannot drown out eternal life.

September 9, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Grace in the Wilderness

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Credit: Angelique Downing from Burst

There are some incredible words the Lord speaks through the prophet Jeremiah:

The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness. (Jeremiah 31:2)

These words are written for Israel while Israel is in crisis – when she is being defeated and decimated by the Babylonians who will carry her people into exile.  While Israel is at her worst, then, God says to her, “In a place you might least expect it – the wilderness that is your exile – you will find My grace.”

God’s people have a history of finding grace in wilderness. When the Lord led the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, He led them into the wilderness, where they received grace upon grace. A miracle at the Red Sea. Manna and quail from the heavens. Water to drink from a rock. There was grace there in that wilderness.

When God decided it was time to send a Savior, His coming was announced in where else, but the wilderness:

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.’” (Matthew 3:1-3)

The grace of God’s kingdom was being announced in the wilderness.

And when the Savior did arrive, where did He go to begin His public ministry? Into the wilderness, of course:

Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. (Matthew 4:1)

While Jesus may have been tempted by the devil, He did not succumb to the devil. He defeated the devil and his temptations so that there may be grace for everyone who does not fare so well under temptation.

I think sometimes we might prefer to find grace in places other than the wilderness. In the lushness of an awesome spiritual experience, perhaps, where we feel the warmth of God’s love surrounding us. Or in the comforts of an abundance of material possessions, perhaps, where we can breezily and easily praise God for the amazing things He has given to us.

God can show us grace through these things, but this does not mean He only shows us grace through these things.

Sometimes, grace comes to us in the wilderness. Like when we feel spiritually cold inside and all we can do is cling to God’s Word. Or when our pocketbooks feel strapped and our savings accounts are depleted all we have is God’s promise of daily bread.

Sometimes, grace comes to us in the wilderness.

This should not surprise us. For God’s grace was most fully expressed on some rough-hewn timbers, cut down from the wilderness of ancient Israel. Grace did not feel good to Jesus. But the grace of the cross is the greatest grace there is.

So, don’t let a time in the wilderness crush you. There is grace there because Jesus is there. If there’s one place He knows, it’s there. And if there’s one person He wants, it’s you.

September 2, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Depression, Mental Health, and Spiritual Health

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The statistics are scary.  U.S. suicide rates are on a steep incline.  Writing for Bloomberg, Cynthia Koons explains:

So many statistics say that life in the U.S. is getting better.  Unemployment is at the lowest level since 1969.  Violent crime has fallen sharply since the 1990s – cities such as New York are safer than they’ve ever been.  And Americans lived nine years longer, on average, in 2017 than they did in 1960.  It would make sense that the psychic well-being of the nation would improve along with measures like that. 

Yet something isn’t right.  In 2017, 47,000 people died by suicide, and there were 1.4 million suicide attempts. U.S. suicide rates are at the highest level since World War II, said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on June 20, when it released a study on the problem.  And it’s getting worse: The U.S. suicide rate increased on average by about 1% a year from 2000 through 2006 and by 2% a year from 2006 through 2016.

While life may be getting better materially, suicide rates are also climbing precipitously.  Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for people aged 10 to 34.  Ms. Koons goes on to conjecture why this is.  In her mind, the problem is rooted primarily in a lack of public funding for mental health resources to help those struggling with and suffering from depression:

Most people are at the mercy of their company’s health plans when it comes to seeking care; a person with fewer benefits simply wouldn’t have access to the best resources for either crisis care or chronic mental health treatment.  Even for those fortunate enough to be able to pay out of pocket, availability of providers ranges wildly across the U.S., from 50 psychiatrists per 100,000 people in Washington, D.C., for example, to 5.3 per 100,000 in Idaho, according to research from the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health Behavioral Health Workforce Research Center.  And despite laws requiring insurers to offer mental health benefits at the same level as other medical coverage, many make it difficult to find appropriate treatment and limit residential care.

Although I am certainly open to the idea of making more resources available for depression, it should also be noted that one of our most publicly preferred paths of care – that of medication – seems to be not only ill-equipped, but virtually non-equipped to handle our current crisis.  As Ms. Koons notes:

The use of antidepressants in Australia, Canada, England, the U.S., and other wealthy countries didn’t lead to a decline in the prevalence and symptoms of mood disorders despite substantial increases in the use of the drugs from 1990 to 2015. 

In light of this, perhaps we need to consider not only the clinical causes of depression, but the cultural ones as well.  Here’s what I mean.

21st century Western culture has sacralized the values of achievement and freedom.  Achievement is a value that can look virtuous – stories of self-made people impress us to this day – but can often lead people to trade what is truly virtuous – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – for what is merely selfish – the lust for things like riches, success, and fame.  Likewise, our culture’s vaunted value of freedom often collapses into its dark twin of individualism as people begin to engage in personal licentiousness instead of being devoted to their community’s liberty.  Instead of living together in a free society that respects and learns from disagreements, we demand agreement with and celebration of our individual choices and proclivities, even if they are manifestly immoral and damaging to our social fabric.

It’s no wonder, then, that so many people wind up deeply depressed.  Emptiness is the inevitable end of every self-obsessed pursuit.  We simply cannot fill ourselves with ourselves.  We need something – and, really, Someone – outside of us to fill us, which is why the apostle Paul writes:

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him. (Romans 15:13)

In our frenetic search to find medical preventions and interventions for depression, let’s not forget the spiritual voids, which our culture often willingly creates and celebrates, that also contribute to the depressed state of our society.  Yes, people who are depressed need a good doctor.  But they also need a Savior.

Let’s make sure we offer both.

July 8, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

When Your Family Becomes Your Enemy

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Jesus proffers plenty of tough challenges over the course of His ministry, but one of His toughest moments comes when He warns His disciples:

Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn “a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law – a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” (Matthew 10:34-36)

Jesus’ words here make me grimace every time I think about giving a sweet wake-up kiss to my daughter or hoisting my son up over my head as he squeals with delight.  I love my family fiercely.  I would guess that you do, too.  Jesus’ words sound harsh.  And yet, Jesus’ words are also needed.  Here’s why.

Part of the background for Jesus’ teaching comes from God’s instruction to Moses:

If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), do not yield to them or listen to them. (Deuteronomy 13:6-8)

God loves families.  But He also knows that family structures, like everything else in creation, are marked and marred by sin.  Even family members can lead us astray.  Some family members can lead other family members into idolatry.  God’s worship, Deuteronomy 13 reminds us, must trump even our own family’s wishes.

Sometimes, then, as Jesus warns, we may fight with our families.  Our own family members may, at times, feel like our enemies.  We may put faith first while other family members do not.  We may declare, “Jesus is Lord,” while other family members live as if they are their own lords.  Such faith divisions can cause relational frictions.  And yet, fighting with our family over such transcendent questions can, ultimately, prove to be fighting for our family.  Because we love our family, we want our family members to experience true hope.  Because we love our family, we want our family members to experience true peace.  Because we love our family, we want our family members to experience God’s promise of and invitation to life.  And so, even when it’s tough and even though rejection is a real possibility, we are called to carry the gospel to everyone – including our own family.

Over my years in ministry, I have had to encourage more than one parent who had a wayward child to draw boundaries and demand accountability.  Yes, this would mean that a parent might have to fight with their child.  But this would also mean that a parent was fighting for their child because they love their child and want what is best for their child – even if the child doesn’t want what is best for their own self.

Over the course of His ministry, Jesus was willing to make a lot of enemies.  The religious leaders hated Him.  The Roman government was suspicious of Him.  Even one of His own disciples betrayed Him.  Yet, Jesus was never afraid to speak tough truth to His enemies – not because He wanted to fight with them, but because He wanted to fight for them.  Jesus loved His enemies and wanted what was best for them – even if they didn’t want what was best for their own selves.

Jesus’ words about family continue to be challenging.  No one likes to fight with their family.  No one wants their family members to become their enemies.  But even if our family members’ response to our commitment to Christ is rejection, our response to them can be drawn from our commitment to Christ:  “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44).

Just because someone is mad at you doesn’t mean you can’t love them.  And love, after all, is what being a family is all about.

May 13, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

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