The Day That Laughter Died

Robin Williams The Day That Laughter Died

Robin Williams 1951-2014

While in the midst of writing another blog piece on a suicide, the news of Robin Williams arrived upon my computer screen. The first column will come later because everyone’s mind is on this man who by so many accounts was a gentle, compassionate, sensitive soul.  August 11, 2014 will be remembered as the day that laughter died.

The shock of William’s death is that we thought we knew him and discovered we did not.  That is always the shock of suicide. It leaves so many questions.  However, in Williams’ case the initial shock was compounded by the undisputable reality that he brought so much joy and insight into our lives. He lightened our journey by sharing his gifts. How could one with so much life choose to die? Questions – So many questions?

Robin Williams was not alone in his suffering – in his despair – in his disease of depression. There are Robin Williams’ all around us. We should not be as surprised as we are when something like Williams’ death occurs. The truth is none of us are truly known to any other. We have become a society of mask wearers, and a large portion of those masks are worn to hide mental illness.

I have no idea why there is such a stigma to diseases of the mind. I have no idea why we spiritualize depression, but not cancer or why we believe depression can be cured with a motivational speech, but cancer needs millions of dollars in research along with months, perhaps even years, of treatment.

There are those in your life whom you love deeply, but they hide their biggest struggle from you. They have fought it for years. At times it has taken every ounce of courage and fortitude, character and spirit, strength and guts just to survive the day. Social interactions can drain them and send them deeper into despair. Once or twice in your relationship with them they have been so desperate that they have decided to share their lifelong secret with you. When they began to broach the outer crust of what they suffer from, more likely than not, your response sent them back into their closet. Next time, if they are brave enough to try again, stay quiet, will compassion into your eyes and listen. When they have finished their confession just do one thing – love them.

Most who suffer from serious depression have done so for many years – perhaps their entire lives. By Robin William’s age they are exhausted beyond understanding. They have fought a battle that has never ended. It rages within them each day. When you rise to the sunrise – they have arisen to battle, and they are tired, so very very tired. Is it really that surprising that some give up? How much easier it would be to not be alone and know that they are one of many.

My heart is broken for the loss of this talented and generous man. The pain and loss of his family and friends are unimaginable. But I feel most for those that Robin has left behind who suffer from the same sickness and likely feel a tad more hopeless and alone than they did two days ago. Go to someone today and ask them, “Do you suffer from depression and, if so, can I hear your story and love you?” Love can roll stones away from tombs of darkness. I believe that. Do you?

Soul Keeping

Soul Keeping by John Ortberg

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In many ways “Soul Keeping” by author and pastor John Ortberg is a tribute to and reflection upon the life of Dallas Willard. I have been familiar with John Ortberg through his books “The Life You Always Wanted,” “If You Want to Walk on Water You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat,” and Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them.” I have also heard him speak a few times at conferences. Since I have been positively influenced by him, I was anxious to read “Soul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You.”

Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California, although he additionally educated as a clinical psychologist. This is valuable preparation for a book about attending to one’s soul. As alluded to above, Ortberg has been extremely affected by the life of Dallas Willard, who passed in May of last year. (You can read my reflections of Dallas Willard and is passing by clicking here.) Willard’s impact is strongly exhibited throughout the “Soul Keeping.”

“Soul Keeping” is a book on how Christians care for the most essential part of us their lives. From the beginning, Ortberg attempts to describe the soul so that the reader can continue with a basic understanding. Once he defines what the soul is; he goes on to examining what the soul needs and finally how the soul is revived.

There were a few points which I especially welcomed. First, Ortberg does an excellent job of distinguishing between the soul and the self. So frequently, in modern thinking, we only consider the self, which Ortberg advises is misguided. Preferably, he suggests, we should concentrate on the soul, which determines who we are in relationship with God. In today’s narcissistic Christian culture, this is an essential differentiation.

Second, Ortberg effectively folds in his belief about the importance of spiritual rhythms. As one inspired by Willard and associated with Renovare, Ortberg views spiritual rhythms, or disciplines, as vitally important. He explains these in more depth in his book “The Life You Always Wanted,” though here they presented more as a given.

Lastly, I loved the last two chapters. These deal with his Ortberg’s friendship with Willard. He considers affliction and what he believes it looks like to die well, looking at Willard as a guide.

I would strongly recommend this book. It is profoundly relational, hopeful, and grounded in the trustworthiness of Scripture.

soul keeping 500x325 Soul Keeping

How Do You Worship Your Golden Calf?

flatirons.church.easter How Do You Worship Your Golden Calf?

There are few issues which I believe modern evangelicals have gotten wrong more, than the issue of worship. It does not matter if it is a mega church with a rock band playing the Doobie Brother’s “Taking it to the Streets” or a small town church’s choir singing an anthem accompanied by organ. Somewhere along the way, we have come to believe worship is about our experience, taste, preferences and feelings. Worship has never occurred and never will occur, because of externals. Worship depends upon the state of the human heart.

If I had a dollar for every time, when I was pastoring, I was asked if I preferred “contemporary worship” or “traditional worship” I would be a wealthy man. One of the reasons I kept being asked the question is because the answer I gave failed to satisfy the fleshly desires of those who asked. My response was short and sweet. “I could care less because neither have very much to do with whether worship occurs or not and both, more often than not, get in the way.” In fact, if someone was asking the question with the intent behind it being that they would get the style which they preferred, it told me that they were more interested in having their personal taste fulfilled than they were encountering the living God in a transcendent manner.

Perhaps, the most profound encounter I have had of worship within a church, (more and more of my worship and encounters with God sadly are occurring outside of church services) occurred after a service was over, and people were leaving. But God was there, I encountered him, and his Spirit leapt within me.

One of the oldest members of our church family was a man by the name of Bob Florence. Bob was a southern boy at heart who had moved north to Baltimore after World War II so he could work at the local steel meal. Bob preferred southern preaching and southern gospel music. If he could not have southern gospel, then he was fine with a few good hymns. What he did not enjoy, or understand much of, was the contemporary music we sang and played. Often, I would notice Bob turning his hearing aid down when “the young people’s music” began. But he never complained, and he never asked or demanded that his personal taste be fulfilled.

On this particular Sunday, we had intentionally focused on people under 30. We had a guest band who were loud and liked to push the envelope. After the service, as Bob was leaving, he shook my hand and said, “That was the best worship we have had here in a long time. Thank you Pastor.” I was speechless for a moment before responding, “Bob; I didn’t think you liked that type of music.” “Oh, I don’t,” he said, “I can’t stand it. But when I don’t like the music, I just watch the young people, and I’m able to worship God with what I see in their eyes.” Bob knew what worship is, and it had nothing to do with his, mine or anyone else’s preference in music. It had nothing to do with technology, lighting, projection screens, smoke or instrumentation.

So, if you like modern worship – with the full smorgasbord of all that contains, I dare you to search out a body this week who is more traditional and encounter God while the organ plays or the choir sings. I dare you to see God in those stained glass windows and hear him as the chimes ring. On the other hand, if you are like Bob and can’t stand modern bands and their loud instruments, I challenge you to find the biggest, most cutting edge mega church near you. As you enter the doors and face the crowds I dare you to look for Jesus. If you do, I promise you will find him. However, whether you accept my challenge or not, please stop thinking that worship has something to do with what you feel, experience or prefer and start looking at your heart. I dare you.

acd117 orchestra xlge How Do You Worship Your Golden Calf?

Why I Began “Refresh Your Spirit”

Why I Began “Refresh Your Spirit”

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This week I published the first edition of “Refresh Your Spirit” which is an internet paper that focuses on providing encouraging stories from across the web. A large emphasis of the paper will be providing you with and directing you to resources that can bring you closer to God. Sometimes there will be no point other than making you smile or see good in the world. The paper will be published no more than once a week and no less than twice a month.

This week’s edition has a number of encouraging stories and resources. There is the story of 88 year old Yolanda Entz, who shares about her journey to finding forgiveness for those who persecuted her during the Holocaust. Pastor Scotty Smith offers prayers of thanksgiving, encouragement, and for freedom from resentment. He also gives us “5 Prayers that Changes the World.” You can enjoy the poetry of Wendell Berry, Shari Wagner and Ruminate Magazine. The Apprentice Institute and Potter’s Inn are just two resources which write on how you can be drawn closer into an intimate relationship with God.

I began “Refresh Your Spirit” because I believe it is needed. There are plenty of Christian blogs and internet sites but often they are cluttered with discouraging stories or argumentative debates. One major site is kicking off a regular blogging pastor because he is not “truly reformed.” Another site is declaring capitalism a sin and evil. We can read of fallen pastors, fighting churches, and the battle between “progressive Christians” and “the religious right.” Often you can leave a “Christian” site discouraged and missing Jesus. What I do with “Refresh Your Spirit” is find the good stuff hidden on many of these sites and bring them to you so that you do not have to deal with the garbage.

To read this week’s edition of “Refresh Your Spirit” follow the link here. I pray you are blessed. If you wish to sign up for “Refresh Your Spirit” to be sent to your email, there is a place for you to subscribe for free on the paper. I would love to hear your thoughts. Please leave me a comment here about your thoughts or suggestions for the paper.

* Thank you to my dear friend Denise George for providing the photograph above and for always refreshing my spirit.

The Be Still Prayer

stillness The Be Still Prayer

Psalm 46 has long been my favorite Psalm.  I have taught and spoken from it more times than I could ever count.

Today is my birthday.  Would you pray the “Be Still” prayer with me today?

Find a quiet place and prepare in silence to be still and be with God.  Now  repeat the Psalm in 5 consecutively diminishing sentences.  Leave space and silence between each sentence.  I have included a video to help but you don’t have to include it.  What a great birthday present to know that people will be praying these words and spending time with God.

Be still and know that I am God.

Be still and know that I am.

Be still and know.

Be still.

Be.

Sonny Came Home – Robert Duvall’s “The Apostle”

the apostle poster big Sonny Came Home   Robert Duvalls The Apostle
There are many reasons I believe Robert Duvall’s 1997 film, “The Apostle,” is a must see. Duvall’s portrayal is one of the best performances of his career and considering he is one of the best actors of his generation that is no small task. However, Duvall’s acting is not THE reason this film is so powerful.

Second, the movie is notably one of the only films to come out of Hollywood with a realistic portrayal of “Bible Belt Christianity” (albeit a particular flavor). You find no cruel Scripture spouting warden as is portrayed in Shawshank Redemption, no apocalyptic fanatic as is displayed in Contact, there is no warped “Christian” psycho-path as in Cape Fear, and there is not even a faith healing con-man as seen in Leap of Faith. This film genuinely attempts to give an honest glimpse at a true believer, warts and all. Most evangelicals are not accustomed to receiving that level of respect by Hollywood and this is reason enough to watch this film but it is not THE reason.

There are multiple reasons one should see the film but what is THE reason you should watch this movie? Well, “The Apostle” deserves to be taken seriously because the conflict between sin and grace lies at the heart of the plot and its portrayal of undeserved grace is both powerfully moving and disturbing. The plot is a modern day parable about sin and grace told through the story of a southern Pentecostal preacher. The first biblical reference invokes the story of the thief on the cross next to Christ who asks for and receives grace from our suffering servant Lord. The reference foreshadows the story of Eulis “Sonny” Dewey. Like the thief, Sonny is a deeply fallen sinner who desires salvation and longs for grace.

Sonny is a true believer, a fact which is powerfully revealed in the first minutes of the movie when he and his mother, played by the late June Carter Cash, encounter a roadside accident. Sonny leaves the car and finds the injured, prays with them to receive Christ before returning to his car to tell his mother that news was “made in heaven today”. Religious charlatans do not take time to pray with the dying unless they smell a buck in it. However, though Sonny is a true believer, he is also a deeply flawed sinful believer. The film alludes to infidelity and abuse towards his wife and, when she leaves him for the youth minister of his church, Sonny kills the young man at a ball field in a fit of rage.

When the film was initially released it was not received warmly by many evangelical Christians. I believe many simply could not deal with Sonny’s flawed character and that speaks more to our inability to fully understand God’s grace than the films portrayal of it. There is no doubt that this man is a sinner. That is the point being made. His actions are disturbing, even horrendous, but never unforgivable. One cannot deny that Sonny is a true believer. He is painfully aware of his humanity yet dedicated to God. He seeks redemption for his sin through prayer and fasting and symbolizes his new start with a baptism in a roadside river.

Following the baptism we view a journey of redemption. Sonny begins again and brings Christ to others in genuine ways through word and deed. “The emergence of new life is neither sudden, dramatic, nor sensational. It comes in slow, incremental gestures. By the end, something profound, loving and final has taken over Sonny; he knows it and we know it too.”1 Sonny eventually is arrested and faces justice, in this life, for his actions but viewers have a sense that he really does not mind because he has found grace from God’s justice. In the end Sonny comes home and finds grace there and that is THE reason people need to see this film.

1. The quote is taken from Books and Culture (published by Christianity Today, 1997).

 

When You Don’t Do Anything

Sam+Phillips When You Dont Do Anything

Sam Phillips is like an old friend. I even knew her when people called her Leslie. Leslie Phillips was one of the biggest “Contemporary Christian” artists of the 1980’s until the artistic limits the industry placed upon her sent her into the mainstream market. If Phillips’ music is anything, it is creative with spiritual themes flowing through her music like a “River of Love”. Since leaving the “Christinan market”, she has met incredible critical success but her commercial success has been limited, peeking with her stint as the in-house songwriter for the television series “Gilmore Girls”.

Phillips 2007 album, “Don’t Do Anything”, is not only creative but is brutally honest as well. The album clearly is an open testimony of a life lived through the heartbreak of a difficult divorce from her husband, producer T- Bone Burnett which occured during the production of the album.  . Each song is like a journey through the valley of betrayal, loneliness, heartache, and stubborn faith through what John of the Cross called the “dark night of the soul”.

Leslie Phillips may have left “Christian music” in 1987 and changed her name to Sam, but her lyrics have demonstrated that she never left Christianity. “Don’t Do Anything” is the strongest example of that. On the surface, the album seems dark but, when one looks deeper, convictions about God’s grace are clearly stronger than the questions which are asked.

At first glance the title song ”Don’t Do Anything” seems odd and out of place on this album. It is surrounded by other songs which delve into the frailties and inadequacies of human love. But, it would appear that this was by design. Phillips apparently understands the necessity to show “ungrace” and its painful effects before revealing the beauty of God’s grace. Human love can lead to broken hearts, often has strings attached, and offers no guarantees. It is conditional. However, God’s grace is unconditional; it is eternal and dependable. Phillips states it well:

“I, I love you

When you don’t

When you don’t do anything

When you’re useless

I love you more

When you don’t do anything

 

When you don’t move, when you don’t try

When you don’t say anything

When you can’t feel, When you don’t win

When you don’t make anything”

 

For those who have come to the end of themselves and realized their own frailties, it is as if God is speaking from heaven. One can almost see a broken hearted wife and mother who sees her world has collapsed around her and, like Psalm 46, whose foundations have collapsed. But, in the midst of her despair, she hears the voice of God say “I love you even when you have blown it, but I love you more than that. Be still and know that I am God because I love you even when you don’t do anything.”

“I, I love you

When you don’t

When you don’t do anything

When you don’t want, when you don’t lie

When you don’t make any sense

When you don’t go, when you don’t hide

When you don’t think anything

 

I, I love you

When you don’t

When you don’t do anything

When you’re useless

I love you more

When you don’t do anything.”

Go read Psalm 46 and then don’t do anything but know that you are loved.

 

It Is Finished

savingprivateryan It Is Finished

James Ryan arrives at a headstone, and falls to his knees, tears in his eyes. On the headstone is the name “John Miller”. Ryan looks up to his wife by his side and asks, “Have I been a good man? Tell me I’ve lived a good life.” His wife looks down and assures him that he has. However, the tears continue because James Ryan does not seem to be able to believe that he has been good enough.

Many immediately recognize this scene from the movie Saving Private Ryan by Steven Speilberg. The movie is well written. John Miller is portrayed by Oscar winning actor Tom Hanks who is tasked with taking a squad of men to find James Ryan. Ryan is the fourth son of a woman who has lost three sons already in World War II. Military commanders have decided that Mrs. Ryan will not lose her last remaining son. Miller’s squad eventually loses 8 men so that it can save this one.

Miller dies in battle with Ryan by his side. With his last breath, he looks at Private Ryan and whispers, “Earn this.” Back at Miller’s headstone, Ryan has clearly lived his entire life with a tremendous weight on his shoulders. Has he earned the sacrifice of John Miller and his men? Miller himself, earlier in the film, says, “He better be worth it. He’d better go home and cure a disease, or invent a longer-lasting light bulb.”

Christians too often hear these words, “Earn this,” coming from Jesus’ lips as he dies on the cross. We live our lives trying to earn it, to become someone for whom such a sacrifice isn’t so incredibly incomprehensible. We turn into James Ryans, questioning if anything we do could ever be quite enough.

“It is Finished” is in the Gospel text the single word tetelestai. Being in the perfect greek tense, it means literally, “it has been and will for ever remain accomplished, completed, finished.”

Christ’s salvation is a free gift. He purchased it for us at the high price of his own blood. There is nothing left for us to pay. IT IS FINISHED. There is nothing left to contribute. Not that we now have a license to sin. On the contrary, the same cross of Christ is the most powerful incentive to a holy life. But this life follows the cross, it does not purchase it. First, we must humble ourselves at the foot of the cross and receive from him a full and free forgiveness.

But Jesus doesn’t say, “Earn this” from the cross. He says, “It is finished.” The message of the Gospel is diametrically opposed to John Miller’s “Earn this.” Miller applies the law to Ryan’s future in a way that Ryan can never escape. No matter what Ryan may ever do or who he may ever become, Miller’s words will never allow Ryan to live in peace, or safe from Miller’s judgment-from-beyond-the-grave. One word of law destroys the grace Miller shows in giving his life for Ryan.

No word of law escapes Christ’s lips from the cross. Incredibly, the word of law is applied to Christ (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). We are freed, and safe. Don’t allow your ingrained pride to rebel against God’s grace. Instead of stumbling on the cross because you insist on trying to earn God’s favor, bow at the cross and receive his gift.

Jesus doesn’t say, “Earn this.” He says, “It is finished.”

*My friend, Ricco Tice, Associate Minister at All Souls Church in London, gave me the original idea for this post.  He has graciously granted permission for me to use it.

Giovanni Antonia Bazzi’s “Procession to Calvary”

 Giovanni Antonia Bazzis Procession to Calvary

Giovanni Antonio Bazzi’s high renaissance painting “Procession to Calvary” was created over 500 years before Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion”; however, each are masterpieces in their abilities to capture the torment of Christ.  Bazzi, also known as II Sodoma, masterfully reflects the majesty, although willingly lowered, of Christ here.  He is a strong and muscular figure with the light of glory reflected throughout His being.  Here is God.  He is bowed but is there any doubt that it is by His choice?

We are in the painting as well.  Bazzi portrays our ability to be both kind and cruel but in both sinful.  On one side of the painting are those with clinched fists, angry expressions, and aggressive stances.  On the opposite side there are those with open palms and saddened faces, but they do nothing.  We do see Simon from Cyrene appearing to grasp the cross as he begins to take it for our Lord.  But we know that even he  did not do so willingly.  No one was without fault.  No matter if their sin was intentional of passive, it was all sin and how horrible sin must be to have brought God’s Son here and place that look of agony upon his face.

The process of separation has begun and it is this truth which Bazzi captures so clearly.  This strong muscular figure, this one with the glow of glory so clearly communicating His divinity has the face of agony.  The agony we see here is not from nails, nor blood, nor humiliation.  The agony is from the separation which has begun.  John Calvin tells us that Christ “paid a greater and more excellent price in suffering in His soul the more terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man.”  In the face of the Son of God we see a soul experiencing a pain we can never fathom.

God came.  God kneeled Himself willingly.  God allowed Himself to experience the pain we see here in this tormented face and it was all just beginning.  The agony you see is the look of grace in the face of our Lord and there is nothing cheap about it.  How He must love us.

Remembering Rubens and Grace

Peter Paul Rubens   Last Supper   WGA20255 867x1023 Remembering Rubens and Grace

Peter Paul Rubens’ classic painting “The Last Supper” is beautifully striking in its contrast and symbolism. In that contrast, you can see grace if you look for it. The figure of Christ is centered, prominent, large, with a heavenly light outlining His head. There can be no doubt that Rubens’ intention is to boldly proclaim the deity and majesty of Christ. Here is God. Here is God surrounded by men. Here is God fulfilling His mission. Here is God knowing what is to come. Here is God sitting with those He loved, those He came to redeem, restore, renew, forgive. Rubens is telling us to remember.

Remember that the hands that would lift the cup would be lifted up themselves and nailed to our sin. Remember that grace would flow by His blood just as wine flowed for their refreshment. Remember. Remember that violence would tear Him just as they tore the bread to feast upon it. Remember, Rubens is telling us, “Do not ever forget.”

It is all here in this beautiful portrayal: majesty and humanity, deity and deception, holiness and sin, redemption and decay, grace and judgement, mercy and betrayal, forgiveness and bitterness, love and envy, sacrifice and selfishness. It is all here in the image of God and man. Remember.

Can you see His grace here? It is written on His face as He looks to His Father, and it is written upon the face of the one who looks at you. Grace and sin are both sitting at that table. However, although sin sat at the table with Him and even looks toward you, it will never be strong enough to overshadow God’s grace that sat there, as well. Remember!

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