Posts tagged ‘Life’

Too Young To Die

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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

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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

Looking for a Messiah

The story of David and Goliath is a favorite of children’s bibles. It features a shepherd boy named David and a Philistine giant and nemesis of Israel named Goliath who fancies himself invincible. The Israelite army is so terrified of Goliath that no one will sign up to fight him. David, however, indicates his willingness to fight Goliath to King Saul, who tries to outfit David in his armor for the battle, only to find out that he is a 42 long while David is a 34 short. So David goes to fight Goliath with nothing but a sling and some stones. But with these unassuming homespun tools, the little boy takes the big bully out:

Reaching into his bag and taking out a stone, David slung it and struck the Philistine on the forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell facedown on the ground. So David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone; without a sword in his hand he struck down the Philistine and killed him. David ran and stood over him. He took hold of the Philistine’s sword and drew it from the sheath. After he killed him, he cut off his head with the sword. David took the Philistine’s head and brought it to Jerusalem; he put the Philistine’s weapons in his own tent.  As soon as David returned from killing the Philistine, Abner took him and brought him before Saul, with David still holding the Philistine’s head. (1 Samuel 17:49-51, 54, 57)

One of the fascinating features of this story is not just that a young boy kills a towering warrior, but how David does it – he does it by striking Goliath in the head. The author of 1 Samuel seems to be quite taken by this because he uses the word “head” or “forehead” five times in these verses. Goliath’s head is so central to the image of David’s victory, that he carries the head around!

When Adam and Eve fall into sin, God curses the couple, but He also curses the one who tempted them into sin – Satan, who appears in the form of a snake. God warns Satan that there will come an offspring of Eve who will one day defeat him. But what is striking about God’s curse is not only that this offspring will crush Satan, but how he will do it. God says to the snake:

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel. (Genesis 3:15)

The offspring of this woman will crush Satan’s head.

This promise from God led the ancient Israelites to look for the fulfillment of this promise – someone who would come to save them from the sinful mess of this world by crushing the head of their enemies. They centered their hope around what they called the “Messiah,” which in Hebrew means, “anointed one.” The Israelites were looking for someone chosen and anointed by God to save them.

One chapter before the story of David and Goliath, God chooses a new king of Israel, who, unbeknownst to Saul, is Saul’s replacement. Who is this king? The giant-slayer David. God sends his prophet Samuel right before David kills Goliath to anoint him as the next king of Israel:

Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed David in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the LORD came powerfully upon David. (1 Samuel 16:13)

Just a chapter later, after becoming Israel’s new “anointed one,” David crushes the head of Israel’s greatest enemy with a stone, which begs a question: Could David be the one? Could he be the Messiah?

We know from the rest of David’s story that he was not “the one.” The one who crushes Goliath’s head with a stone is crushed by his own sin when he has an affair with a woman who is not his wife and then has her husband murdered to cover up their relationship. David may have crushed the head of Goliath, but the head of the ancient snake was still spitting its poison of sin and death. The Messiah who would crush Satan’s head was still to come.

So often, when we see amazing people do amazing things – as David did with Goliath – we wonder: Could they be the one? Could they be the doctor who wipes out cancer? Could they be the politician that fixes our nation’s ills? Could they be the soulmate who mends our heart? Could they be the financial advisor who makes us rich? Could they be “the one”?

David’s story reminds us that there is only one who is “the one.” Placing our hopes in the wrong one will eventually and inevitably lead to disappointment and anger. Placing our hopes in Christ, however, will lead to salvation and peace. He is the one we’re looking for.

May 24, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Why We Need Easter

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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

The COVID-19 Vaccines

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It’s been a long year, but there finally seems to be some good news in the battle against COVID 19. New infections, hospitalizations, and deaths are down. Vaccinations against the virus are up. Two weeks ago, vaccination sites across the nation doled out 2.2 million shots in arms. The CDC has also issued fresh guidance for those who have been fully vaccinated, allowing them to gather in small groups without face coverings or social distancing. In even more good news, new research shows that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is effective at neutralizing many of the virus variants. Hope seems to be dawning, even if there’s still more work to do.

But with new hope comes new questions. One of the most concerning questions I have heard recently has to do with how the COVID-19 vaccines are connected to abortion. Abortion is one of the gravest moral issues of our day, so a concern like this deserves and demands our serious consideration.

The question of how the COVID-19 vaccines are connected to abortion arises out of how these shots were developed and tested. They were developed and tested using fetal cell lines, grown in laboratories, that began as fetal tissue from elective abortions, though the cells used in conjunction with these vaccines are now thousands of generations removed from the original fetal tissue.

The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, to the best of my knowledge, were not developed from fetal cell lines, but were tested on fetal cell lines. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a different story. It did indeed use a fetal cell line in the process of its development. In the case of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, then, a fetal cell line was an actual source for the vaccine. Without that fetal cell line, there might have, ostensibly, been no Johnson & Johnson vaccine. In the cases of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, their vaccines could have still existed quite apart from any interaction with a fetal cell line.

Do such interactions with these fetal cell lines raise serious ethical questions? Yes. Are the answers to these ethical questions easy or straightforward? Not so much. Some Roman Catholic archdioceses, for instance, are encouraging people to try to avoid taking the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because of how it was developed while other archdioceses are encouraging people to take whatever vaccine is offered them.

As I’ve been considering the complicated questions involved in the development and research of these vaccines, there is a biblical framework that has been helpful to me. When an angry crowd demands Jesus’ death, they do so in a great act of evil. But from Jesus’ unjust death springs forth awesome life, as Easter so wonderfully demonstrates. Likewise, these fetal cell lines spring from abortive acts that tragically and painfully brought about death. But even after these abortions, life has stubbornly held on in fetal cell lines. Though I continue to have weighty ethical reservations about these cell lines, this framework does provide me with a surprising reminder that no matter how final and grim death may seem, life will ultimately prove victorious.

If you are trying to figure out whether you should receive a COVID-19 vaccine, I would encourage you to prayerfully, carefully, and conscientiously consider the ethical concerns and questions, and consult with your physician. The benefits of receiving a vaccine are immense. That researchers, scientists, and medical professionals developed a vaccine for a novel coronavirus inside of nine months can be rightly regarded as astounding. But I also understand the ethical questions are real. I am thankful for these vaccines. I also look forward to the day when, just like we work tirelessly to save lives at risk in a pandemic, every life in every womb will be honored and celebrated.

March 15, 2021 at 5:15 am 3 comments

A March for Life

This past Friday was the 48th annual March for Life. As with many other events, this year’s march looked different from every previous year. It was held virtually in response to the continued spread of COVID-19. The virtual nature of the march, however, did not mute its message. Since abortion was legalized in 1973, an estimated 62 million babies have been lost. And though the number of abortions is going down overall, there have been some pockets of increases.

The fierce fights over abortion show no sign of abating. Sadly, the topic has often been treated more as ammunition in a culture war instead of a pressing moral question with life and death consequences. So many pay a hefty price each time an abortion is performed.

First, there is a baby who pays the price of his or her very life. The heartbeat of a child in utero can usually be detected between the third and fourth week of development. This means that any abortion performed after this stops a beating heart. Scientifically, there is a broad consensus that the life of a human organism begins even earlier – right at conception. In a recent study at the University of Chicago, 95 percent of biologists surveyed, many of whom self-identified as pro-choice, agreed that life begins at fertilization. Many Christians believe that life begins at conception because, Scripturally, life is celebrated and sacralized throughout a child’s development in utero. As the Psalmist says to God about his own creation and gestation:

You created my inmost being; You knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise You because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from You when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in Your book before one of them came to be. (Psalm 139:13-16)

Second, there is the mother who pays a price. For every high profile incident of people celebrating abortion, there are other instances of women who struggle with regret or outright emotional trauma. And these struggles can present themselves long after the event – often 10 to 15 years later. The price of a broken or guilt-ridden heart cannot and must not be overlooked.

Third, low-income communities pay a price. Half of all women who get abortions live below the poverty line, and 75 percent of women who get abortions are low-income. Many of these women choose to abort because they know they will be single mothers if they carry their babies to term and they are scared that they will not have the resources or support needed to raise a child. Their decision to abort, then, is less of a freely-willed choice and more of a perilous predicament that forces the hands of already hurting women.

We must count the cost of abortion. We must stand up for those who bear the burden of abortion. We can stand up for children in utero and advocate for their lives. We can stand up for women who struggle and lovingly present alternate ways forward if they are considering an abortion or offer grace and support to those who are struggling with the decision they made to have an abortion. We must stand up for impoverished communities by promoting the value of families, by holding men who would run from their responsibilities as fathers accountable, and by offering what we can in the way of financial resources, friendships, and modeling to demonstrate different and more hopeful paths forward for at-risk women who become pregnant.

For me, abortion is personal. I have two children because of the choice of two incredible women to put their babies up for adoption. I have a family because two women chose life. To them, I offer a teary-eyed “thank you.” Your choice for life changed my life. And the chain can continue. More choices for life can change more lives.

What a great choice to make.

February 1, 2021 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

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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

Women and Babies: Let’s Choose Both

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It’s been a watershed week for abortion law in this country.  Last week, the state of Alabama passed legislation outlawing abortions, except in cases where the mother’s life is endangered.  Just three days later, Missouri passed a bill that outlaws abortion after eight weeks of pregnancy.  These restrictions follow on the heels of a series of “heartbeat bills” passed this year in Ohio, Georgia, and Mississippi, which ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detectable.

These bills have sparked angry debate as a yawning chasm has opened over the issue of abortion.  Governor Kay Ivey, who signed Alabama’s bill into law, tweeted last Wednesday:

Today, I signed into law the Alabama Human Life Protection Act.  To the bill’s many supporters, this legislation stands as a powerful testament to Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious & that every life is a sacred gift from God.

On the other side, progressive firebrand and New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted shortly after Governor Ivey:

Ultimately, this is about women’s power.  When women are in control of their sexuality, it threatens a core element underpinning right-wing ideology: patriarchy.  It’s a brutal form of oppression to seize control of the 1 essential thing a person should command: their own body.

The talking points for both sides are set.  The arguments are entrenched.  The legal battle is being staged.  And there’s plenty of animus to go around.

Personally, I uphold the value and dignity of life, whether that life be in the womb, out of womb, young, or old.  So, when a third-world despot subjects his people to disease and starvation, I shudder.  When another story of another school shooting makes headlines, I am angered.  And yes, when a child’s life is taken at the hands of an abortion doctor, I am grieved.

All of this does not mean, however, that I am unsympathetic to women who, when they darken the doors of an abortion clinic, are often confused and scared of what having a baby will be like.  Neither does this mean that I am unsympathetic to women who, after having and abortion, often struggle deeply with feelings of guilt and regret.

As with many debates in our current culture, caricatures that fall largely along “either-or” lines have been developed for the sake of simplicity and tribal identity – either you care about the wellbeing of women or you care about the life of the unborn.

I care about both.  And I have a hunch you might, too.

The Psalmist calls us to “defend the weak” (Psalm 82:3).  Babies in utero are most definitely members of the weak.  It is incumbent upon us, therefore, to defend them and to speak up for them.  But women who are pregnant and scared, along with women who have had abortions and are ashamed, can also feel weak.  It is critical, therefore, that we love and help them by offering hope for joyful lives beyond their most frightening moments.

We should care about both babies and women, for, ultimately, we are called to care for all.  In a political moment where anger burns hot, loving both babies and the women who carry them may just be the one thing that is hard to hate.

May 20, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

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