Manuscript: He Must Increase, But I Must Decrease

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This is part of an Irish prayer, commonly atttributed to Patrick and named “Patrick’s Breastplate,” the part of the armor that protects the heart. And I’m Irish.

Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

That’s a prayer. Asking for Christ with me, before me, behind me, beneath me, above me, on my right, on my left, when I lie down, when I sit down, when I arise.

Theologically, we believe that God is omnipresent. He’s everywhere, somehow present at the same time everywhere. But I don’t think this prayer is invoking God to be present as if he weren’t before. Patrick wasn’t trying to convince God to be around. This prayer does something different. It speaks a reality that we forget, it invokes not God to be here when he wasn’t but me to be here when I wasn’t. Yes, I’m here. You can see me and hear me. But when I imagine that I’m here without God, I’m kind of living a fantasty; I’m not any less here, but to a significant degree, I’m not living in reality. Christ is with me, Christ is before me, Christ is behind me, Christ is in me. This a great prayer. Sometimes people’s response is, “I know that.” But do you?

I have a habit that some people find humorous, or eccentric, or perhaps some less generous word. I walk to school. That’s between 5 and 6 kilometers. It’s not the best walk, since the majority is on caretera vieja leon, which is usually pretty busy. But I like it, because it’s a good prayer time for me. My preferred ways to pray are to write in my journal or be moving while I’m praying. So I walk for about forty minutes and talk with God, because of course he’s there with me. And I ask God to bless people as I pass them, because, you know, we’re walking together and talking and all.

And then I get to school and it’s almost like I say, “Thanks, catch ya later.” God isn’t any less with me than he was when I was talking with him. But I experience him less. I live less aware of his Presence.  He doesn’t go away, but it’s as if I 

John 3:22 After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized. 23 John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized 24 —John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison.25 Now a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew. 26 They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” 27 John answered, “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. 28 You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.’ 29 He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”

The first thing to say about John the Baptist is he’s been utterly clear, all along, that he is not the Messiah. He is the messenger. He is the voice calling in the wilderness. To emphasize this, he tells the priests and Levites who ask him, “Are you the one?” “Not only am I not the one, I am not worthy to untie his dirty shoe.” Get this: an ancient Hebrew source says, “A Hebrew slave must not wash the feet of his master nor put his shoes on.” 1st century Hebrew slaves are expected to do everything for their master…except untie the thong of their sandals. I’m assuming because people walked through manure and sewage water and even slaves aren’t that lowly. And recorded saying, ““All services which a slave does for his master, a pupil should do for his teacher with the exception of undoing his shoes.” John the Baptist says of Jesus, “I am not worthy to undo the thong of his sandal.” Do you feel the weight of that? Hebrew slaves don’t have to untie their master’s sandal and John the Baptist says he isn’t worthy to do for Jesus the thing that is beneath a slave to do.

I would call that a “No.”

John has been directing his disciples to Jesus. Jesus walks by and John shouts to his disciples, “Hey, there goes the Lamb of God!” Two of John’s disciples heard this and followed Jesus. Makes sense. One of them was Andrew, who would spend the rest of Jesus’ life on earth following him, being Jesus’ disciple, and the Gospel tells us the first thing Andrew did was find his brother Simon to tell him, “We’ve found the Messiah.”

So when we look at what John says in our passage, “He must increase but I must decrease,” we’ve already got concrete examples of how John carries this out.

We’re going to walk through the passage and then consider some implications.

In verse 22, John tells us that Jesus and his disciples have headed into the Judean countryside, and they are spending time together there and baptizing people, receiving new followers. Notice this, for Jesus to disciple meant, first, that he simply spent time with them. The first two verses of John four clarify that “in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples.”

John continued to baptize, as well, calling people to repentance and directing them toward Jesus, the Lamb of God. Aenon means “springs” or “fountain,” so it’s saying John was baptizing at the springs near Salim. Since John had been baptizing “beyond the Jordan,” meaning east of the Jordan, he’s now moved West and is no longer baptizing folks in that river. We can’t really say how far apart Jesus and John were, because “into the Judean countryside” is like saying, “somewhere around Managua.” It’s also interesting that the Gospel writer tells us, “John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison.” That’s a way of marking the chronology of this event. But it’s also striking because it shows that the Apostle John’s readers would have known all about John the Baptist, as this is the only reference to the Baptist’s time in prison. The other three Gospels describe when Herod locked up John and ordered him killed, but the Apostle John has a different focus. We get to see the transition between disciples of John the Baptist and disciples of Jesus.

In verse 25, “a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew.” The question raised may have been which is superior, ceremonial cleansing or baptism. Before John the Baptist, the Jews practiced ceremonial cleansing as laid out in the Law, for everything from washing before meals to purifying themselves after coming in contact with a leper. John describes his ritual as “ a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” And somehow, this debate leads John’s disciples to come talk to him. Really, the underlying motive appears to be jealousy. They go to John and object: “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing and all are going to him.”

I get this. These guys had committed themselves to following John, and John had made a big impact. Everyone was talking about him. Matthew’s Gospel describes that everyone from tax collectors to Roman soldiers were coming out to hear him. And John could preach up a storm. He was…direct. “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee the coming wrath? Bear fruit worthy of repentance!”

But in the Gospel of John, John the Baptist has one message: go to Jesus. That’s the Lamb of God. I’m not him, I’m just pointing you to him. John needs to correct his disciples now, who are apparently jealous on his behalf (and maybe their own):

No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. 28 You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him. 29 He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”

There are few statements in the Bible that better capture our position with Jesus than this. First of all, I’m not the Messiah. So true. Neither are you. Agreed? Good. John says, “I have been sent ahead of him.” And here is the relationship he sees: He who has the bride is the bridegroom. Jesus is the bridegroom. Jesus uses this same analogy about himself in Mark 2, when people scold him that the Pharisees and John’s disciples are fasting but his disciples aren’t: The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.”

So Jesus is the bridegroom and there’s a big wedding on. So what does the friend of the bridegroom do? He rejoices! The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason, my joy has been fulfilled. John has his joy fulfilled. I love this answer to “Rabbi, remember that guy? The one you talked about? He’s baptizing [which he wasn’t] and people are going to him!”

Have you ever tried your best to teach something and realized “they aren’t getting it?” I know a bunch of you have. I have. John doesn’t say, “Idiots! Haven’t you been listening? What have I been saying this whole time?” No, he says, “my joy is fulfilled!” Jesus says in the 15th chapter of this Gospel, “I have said these things so that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete.” John the Baptist’s joy is complete!

John concludes, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” My joy is fulfilled; he must increase, but I must decrease.” Do you hear any sadness in that? John is completing his work, his calling. His moment to be the center of attention, to preach, to baptize, is passing, and Jesus’ public ministry is beginning. IN fact, the other three Gospels all say some variation of this: Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.John’s arrest is Jesus’ moment to begin preaching the Kingdom of God and the good news. But in this moment, we get a response very similar to Simeon when he holds the baby Jesus, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation.”


That’s our passage. Let’s talk about some implications.

He must increase, but I must decrease.

John’s specific calling was to prepare the people for Jesus. “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.” John’s task is nearing its end. John must step back out of the center of attention so that Jesus can step into it.

Though I am sometimes wary of spiritualizing a literal truth, I think that we can appropriate John’s statement. Going back to the Irish prayer we began with, Christ is in me and before me and behind me.

Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

That’s both a reminder and a request. May Christ be in the heart of every man who thinks of me. May thinking of me be a moment to think of Christ. And may Jesus Christ so increase in me that when someone speaks of me, their words turn to Him.

And because Jesus is always present, Christ is in every eye that seems me, and every ear that hears me.

So how does Jesus increase and we decrease?

1.We lead people to Jesus, not to us.

That’s a tricky line, because they are paying attention to us. But if they aren’t getting more of Jesus, if we are increasing, then we’ve lost the point and might even be leading in the wrong direction.
2. We rejoice in him.

John the Baptist isn’t fighting this, he’s embracing it. He’s rejoicing in it. The friend of the groom is not having a fit that the attention isn’t on him nor that the bride isn’t for him. He is rejoicing that the bridegroom has come.

What does it mean that we must decrease? I don’t think it means that we hide and withdraw and try never to be noticed again. I don’t think we become less than we are. In John’s case, it was time for him to transition roles. For everything there is a season. We, in whatever stage of life we’re in now, are praying for Jesus who is Christ to increase in us, and everything that isn’t him to decrease in us. And rejoicing does this. When I truly rejoice in God, when I consciously remember and thank him, then the small, selfish part of me recedes. God is filing me up more and there just isn’t as much room for that.

3Next, Jesus increases in us and we decrease when we let people know that it’s God’s strength, and not ours, God’s goodness, and not ours.

Paul writes For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 7But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” II Cor 4:7 I know you’ve heard this from me before, but you’re probably going to keep on hearing it as long as I’m up here preaching: we are here by God’s grace and we communicate that grace when we let others see how truly messed up we are. Now I know it’s a little unfair that I have more material than most in this area, but we all get to play the cards we’re dealt. God increases in us when we recognize, to others—and more importantly, to ourselves—that it’s God in us, not some power or kindness or love we just summon up within ourselves. In fact, I’d say that when I call others’ attention to this, it helps me also remember and believe this is true.

4. Finally, as I was reflecting on how we seek to have Jesus increase in us and let ourselves decrease, another famous prayer came to mind. When we talk about things that need to decrease in us, that part of me that resists God because it wants to be in control, it wants to be the center and get the glory, we’re talking about something that would kill us. The wages of sin are death. Scripture uses some other words for that: die, crucify, put to death. That’s what we need, because those things are death in us. If I went the other way, I must increase but he must decrease, that would destroy me. Grace means God has us, even when we fail, and he is faithful to help us. Perhaps the most important think for us in cooperating with God that he might increase and I decrease is simply believing that the true me, the me that God made and intends, the most fully alive me, is the one in which God does increases. The real question of faith is whether we believe God that he will make us fully alive or if we believe our ego that screams and yells not to die.

So listen to this prayer as a prayer of belief: Help us to believe that this is what we truly want, so that God will increase in us.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen.

What about Power?

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Lately much of what I hear is a debate about power.  It may not be the stated or acknowledged topic, but between the lines or as the underlying theme?  Almost always.

When we discuss what to do about refugees, we’re talking about power.  When we debate who gets to own and fire guns, we’re talking about power.  When we argue over the best next leader for the United States, the heart of that argument is power.

arm wrestlingThis is not new, but I really think we need to acknowledge it.  If we don’t, we pretend to have different motives than those actually guiding our interactions.  If we deceive ourselves, we cannot be straightforward with our opponents.

Take this another step.  I think many people feel powerless.  Many folks think–or imagine–that they have lost power they screaming protestersonce had.  Was there once a sense of control, of being master of one’s own destiny, that has gotten away?  Is that why we’re so pissed off?  Is that why all political discussions immediately devolve into insults and name-calling?

I’m asking questions here, because though I am generalizing, I’m certain these matters are more complex than simply the issue of power.  Nonetheless, I see this issue acknowledged so rarely that I feel almost compelled to name it.

I hate–and I do mean that word, “hate”–how uncivil our political discourse has become.  I’ve said this before and it bears repeating–how we treat one another is more important than who we vote for or our political stance.  Jesus said so.  There were crazy levels of politics and power struggles going on in Jesus’ time, folks popping up claiming to be the Messiah, a whole insurgent movement against Roman occupation, a religious/political party claiming the way forward was holiness (Pharisees), another claiming it was gaining secular influence (Sadducees), and then a bunch of people hoping for a military revolution led by an all-powerful Messiah from God who would crush enemies under his heel.  And to that cyclone of conflicting factions, Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you:  love one another as I have loved you.  They shall know you by your love of one another.”

Yeah, they don’t.  They, the non-Christians who see how we communicate, don’t know us by our love for one another so much when we scream over Hillary versus Bernie, or blare about how much we need to prevent these Syrian immigrants from entering our country so we don’t get blown to hell.  In fact, we almost seem to take it as a matter of pride that we don’t engage in civil discourse, that we don’t allow for the possibility that we could be wrong on any single point because we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that anyone who is of the opposite political persuasion from me, is both an idiot and an asshole.

new-jesus

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Fighting for Hope: Depression

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the-labours-of-alexander-1950 Rene Magritte

I am a bit scared to share this one.  People judge a lot for this.  But I hope it can help someone–maybe you, maybe someone you love–and if so, I want to do what I can.

The truth is, there are days for me when it’s hard to get out of bed, hard to pray, hard to breathe. There are days when just being takes all my energy. It isn’t because I’m lazy, it isn’t because I lack motivation. It isn’t even because I’m unfaithful. I struggle with depression and I have some dark days.

I have days when doing anything at all feels exhausting. Some of those days I’ll sit and read my Bible and pray and the clouds lift and the weight comes off my chest. But others, I’m praying and exercising and eating healthy and doing everything I know how to do and it doesn’t seem to change anything. Or maybe because I’m doing those things it doesn’t get worse, but it’s like I’m fighting to a standstill.

My father was diagnosed bi-polar. Genetically, that means I’m about four times more likely to develop this condition than someone without a close relative who is bipolar. About 10% of children with a bi-polar parent will exhibit symptoms themselves. So that’s fun. I didn’t get to choose; those are my cards. God loves me. I’m His. He’s given me gifts and He uses me for His Kingdom. And I also have to be vigilant about my mental and emotional health, probably more vigilant than many people, and I walk through some tough days.

God might heal me completely someday. Then again, compared with what I saw my dad suffer, God has mercifully spared me already.

Right this second, a number of people are re-evaluating me, trying to make what I’ve just said fit with their picture of me. I may have just lost a bit of standing with certain people.  Someone else is saying, “Oh, my gosh, me, too!” It may look different on you than me, but the core is the same.

One of the funnest things about depression is the shame, the feeling that something fundamental is wrong with me and if people knew, they would…well, they would think as lowly of me as I sometimes think of myself.  And that would be a bummer. So the predictable response to depression is to isolate, because a)you don’t feel like doing anything, and b)telling other people you’re like this is a huge risk.

That’s not an unfounded fear, either. I’ve certainly encountered people who don’t understand depression and who assume that it’s just self-pity or a lack of faith or laziness.  Part of understanding is knowing what these words we use so freely mean.  I need to define things so that we’re clear on our terms.

I’m quoting Archibald Hart, who was the Dean of the School of Psychology at Fuller Seminary when I was studying there:

Depression can be seen as a symptom, a disease, or a reaction.  As a symptom, depression is part of the body’s warning system, calling attention to something that’s wrong. It alerts us to the fact that there has been a violation of some sort. Something is missing or lost. It can also be a symptom of something physically wrong. Depression accompanies a wide variety of physical disorders, such as influenza, cancer, and certain disturbances of our endocrine system. But depression is also a disease in itself.  In its most severe form, the psychotic depressions, it is an illness category all its own. Known as a major depression, it has two forms: unipolar depression (one just gets severely depressed) and bipolar depression (alternating manic and depressed moods). Finally, depression can be a reaction to what is going on in life or more specifically, to significant losses one experiences. This last form is known as reactive depression. It’s the kind most people have to contend with in their daily lives. If we are emotionally healthy, we deal with those losses promptly, and the depression is short-lived. If we’re not, the depression lingers and may even get worse or chronic.

  So depression is complex, and we’re really talking about 3 different categories with similar effects:

1)Depression as a symptom of things ranging from flu to cancer;

2)depression as a serious disease, and

3)depression as a reaction.

I think this is partly why people can get so confused and overwhelmed about depression, and why some people don’t understand what others go through. Most of us know what the flu feels like, how your body just seems to drop into low gear. Many of us here have suffered loss or grief, and reactive depression can hit hard and last for a while, and then gradually or suddenly lift again.  A smaller number suffer depression as a disease, and this also has a range, from low-level doldrums to a crippling extreme that makes functioning in normal, everyday life impossible.

Jesus experienced depression. He certainly did.

What did Jesus feel in the garden of Gethsemane when he was preparing to face his arrest, torture, and murder?

He left the upper room with his disciples, who were singing a song together. He told them what was about to happen—how he would be betrayed and deserted—and they told him “No, you’re wrong.”

He went out to be alone with God but asked his three closest disciples to watch with him and they fell asleep. He asked them for help—one time in the Gospels where Jesus specifically asks for help—and they failed him.

“I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here and stay awake with me.” They fell asleep. He found them sleeping and rebuked them, then exhorted them not for him, but for their own sake, ”Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” He goes off and prays in utter misery, so that “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.”  He came back…and they were asleep again.

This is a perfect description of reactive depression. Of course it’s not sin; Jesus is suffering loss, he’s in agony, and his body is registering this physically.

Studies show that people who are in the “helping professions” experience reactive depression more often:  social workers, community organizers, pastors, missionaries. That makes sense, because it’s a physiological response to loss.  It’s one stage of grief.  When someone you love and have been helping makes horrible decisions and/or walks away from God, you feel depressed. You may not exhibit the symptoms I described earlier.  You may have different coping mechanisms to deal with it.  Or you may be internalizing these losses and pushing on, which almost always leads to problems later.

But everyone experiences depression from external events that impact us strongly.  When we’re deeply invested in people, we’re going to face pain and sorrow with them, and because of them.  Would any parents disagree?

The disease level of depression is often triggered less from external conditions and more from internal mechanisms, from brain chemistry out of balance. But studies show—and believe me, I’ve studied this—that genetic and environmental components also play a part. This is where people who haven’t experienced severe depression can misunderstand what’s happening to those suffering it.  I’ve already touched on this, but I’m going to say it more directly:

Depression is not sin, and telling people to “just get over it” is akin to telling people with physical diseases to “get over it.”

Depression can lead to sin; it can make us more vulnerable to sin. But condemning people for being depressed is badly misunderstanding what is happening to them. Telling people that they’re depressed because they lack faith is like telling someone with diabetes or cancer that they are sick because they don’t have enough faith. That’s behaving like Job’s “friends”: “Gosh, you’ve got problems–you must really be an awful sinner!”

I don’t claim to speak for all people suffering depression everywhere—I’m not signing up to be Poster Boy for Depressed Folks—and please forgive me if my description does not helpfully address what you experience.  But I am going to give you four truths that I know about depression.

#1:  God knows.

Scripture addresses depression. Have you read Psalm 88? What’s different about this Psalm? It doesn’t resolve. It doesn’t end with a rallying cry of hope and a declaration of faith. Most of the Psalms, even the most downer-sounding of them, conclude with God’s faithfulness, God’s judgment on the wicked (those wicked often being the cause of the downer-ness), and a reaffirmation of hope in God.

In God’s wisdom, we also have Psalm 88. There aren’t dozens of Psalms that end with “life sucks,” which I take as a guideline not to wallow in our pain. But there is one, which I take to be a promise that God understands and that our struggles are not unique; we are not alone.  Though depression always makes you feel isolated and cut off from humanity, that is not true—you are not alone in feeling this way! The psalmist felt the same way, and this is part of our Scripture. Psalm 88 is a prayer.  It’s a cry to God for help in despondency. “O Lord, God of my salvation, when, at night, I cry out in your presence, let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry.”

The writer goes on, “For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol. I am counted among those who go down to the Pit; I am like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand. You have put me in the depths of the Pit, in the regions dark and deep. Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with your waves.”

It’s easy to blame God when you feel this way. The psalmist totally does: “You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a thing of horror to them. I am shut in so that I cnanot escape; my eye grows dim through sorrow. Every day I call on you, O Lord; I spread out my hands to you. “But I cry to you for help, LORD; in the morning my prayer comes before you. Why, LORD, do you reject me and hide your face from me? From my youth I have suffered and been close to death;I have borne your terrors and am in despair. Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me.You have taken from me friend and neighbor—darkness is my closest friend.”

The writer doesn’t say, “There’s this situation right now that is really getting me down.” “From my youth I have suffered and been close to death.” We don’t know the objective situation of the writer, we don’t know how bad things are, but we know the psalmist feels miserable and describes this as a long-term struggle, “from my youth.”

This may be a lifelong battle with depression, or this may be how, when you’re depressed, everything can seem horrible, including your entire life retroactively. God knows. I think this is validation.  Feeling depression, even long term, is just what some people deal with; these are the cards they drew. Or we drew. Depression is hard enough to deal with, without adding self-condemnation on top. It’s crucial to believe that God knows, He understands our situation.

#2 God is with us in our struggle.

Believe me, I am not saying this cheaply. It’s not a cliché for me. Not everyone considers Luke 22:39-46 a crucial passage for their faith. I do. Jesus is in the garden of Gethsemane and he is miserable. I don’t love this passage because Jesus is miserable, I love this passage because God used it when I was most depressed to help me believe that He understands me and is with me, even in my darkest times. When our son died, I was furious with God and could no longer see how he loved me. I was refusing to accept Isaac’s death. I felt like if I told God it was okay that it happened, then I would have to accept it and go on. But it wasn’t okay. So I stayed angry and figuratively held my breath, demanding that God change it. He didn’t. He didn’t raise my son from the dead.

But this is what stationsofthecrossgardenhe showed me: Jesus prayed in the Garden, “Lord, if it be your will, take this cup from me.” That’s the most ludicrous prayer in the history of existence. Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, The Incarnate Word of God who was Present at Creation, who knows better than God the Son that this is the plan for Redemption—and yet Jesus asks, “Could we change it now? Would that be possible? I will do your will, Father, but maybe we could try a different plan?”

What is that? That is Jesus’ heart. That is the intimacy between Son and Father, that Jesus prayed exactly what He felt, knowing full well that it was impossible, that God would not answer that prayer in the affirmative. For me, more than any other Scripture, this proves to me that God knows my suffering and is with me in my suffering, no matter how ludicrous my thoughts or how impossible my demands. This passage is bedrock for me. Because in depression, in grief, in our struggles down in the depths, we need to know more than anything else that God is with us. He is.

“If I make my bed in hell, you are there.”

#3 Healing means coming into the light.

Pain, injuries, depression, and bitterness, many things fester and grow worse in the dark. God’s healing is always in the Light. Keeping our secrets, whether because of shame or humilation or pride, does not lead us to life. Why does God choose to work that way?

I know many of us have prayed and prayed for healing and help in private, just us and God, and it sure seems reasonable that God would answer those prayers, for so many reasons. But God prefers to work through community. That is as clear as anything in Scripture. God’s Kingdom is communal; our prayer, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is a corporate plea. The “me and Jesus” approach, for the most part, is not Biblical. Sorry, I’d often prefer it, too. But God heals us through our brothers and sisters. We seek God in community.

Our Enemy is much more convincing when we face him alone, when we have no one to remind us of the Truth. I never win arguments with Satan. Never. And sometimes I can just step back and let God defend me, but sometimes I’m not able to grasp the Truth that saves me without a human voice to remind me. That’s my weakness, yes, but that’s our condition. We are weak. And we’re inclined to believe lies.

I’m not saying that depression magically goes away when people speak God’s truth to us, but I know that one of the most crucial weapons in the battle against depression is people faithfully speaking what is true about us to confront the negative things we have internalized. You might be shocked by how loud and constant the negative voices in my head are; if you can’t relate, God bless you and I’m happy for you. Or you might sing this exact song with me, note for note. I don’t have an off switch for those voices, but one of the things that helps most is seeking the truth to confront the lies. I can do that by reading Scripture, by praying, and by hearing my brothers and sisters—and my wife—tell me what’s true about me.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

“When one person is struck by the Word, he speaks it to others. God has willed that we should dietrichbonhoefferseek and find His living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of man. Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation. He needs his brother solely because of Jesus Christ. The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.”  Bonhoeffer, Life Together

 


 

I need to make a caveat now. Not everyone can handle hearing what we suffer. Just like some of us suffer from depression and other mental struggles, some of us suffer from lack of compassion or empathy, and some simply have not yet reached the depth and maturity to walk with others through certain kinds of suffering. It takes wisdom and grace to handle hearing about someone else’s struggle, and it takes wisdom and discernment to choose the right person or people with whom to share these things. Sharing pain with someone who can’t handle it can make things worse for everyone. It’s important that we not think, “If I tell someone, I’ll automatically get better.” That belief can set us up for crushing disappointment.

One aspect of this is that some people struggle with depression at a level that will require more than a willing ear. I was a pastor for about 10 years and I’ve been in vocational ministry for coming on twenty. I had one, one, pastoral counseling class when I was in seminary. I’ve learned a lot, I’ve read a lot, I’ve receiving counseling and I’ve offered counseling, but I’m not capable of dealing with every level of depression. I can love people. But I also need to be able to recognize when I am out of my depth. Like I said before, that can be particularly difficult here, where it’s such a risk to let someone else see one’s struggle.

On the other hand, we have to walk carefully, because “This freaks me out” or “I don’t want to deal with your pain” is not the same as “I’m out of my depth.” I believe in both God’s power to heal and God’s use of our minds, education, and understanding.  Psychology without the Gospel doesn’t have the heart of the Truth, but sometimes we need the Gospel applied with the tools psychology offers.  Pray and ask for God’s leading before you open up.*  Pray and ask for God’s leading if someone opens up to you. Keep their confidence, but if you suspect their struggle might be beyond what you can walk through—I don’t say “fix” or “heal,” but journey beside—then seek counsel.

#4 Final Truth: God is bigger.

God’s grace is bigger than however messed up and discouraged you or I might be. This is the bottom line. This is the most important thing I can tell you about depression. This is my choice to believe every day of my life. Depression is not sin, but we can sin in our depression, and it is easier to sin when we are depressed, believe me. But where sin abounds, Grace is Greater. Hear me: God’s Grace is always, ALWAYS, ALWAYS greater. I know it doesn’t feel that way. I am a very feeling-oriented person. But sometimes our feelings are just wrong. It’s not a sin to have wrong feelings, and sometimes those feelings are caused by brain chemistry that is not functioning correctly.

I told you my dad was bi-polar.  He had so many untruths that he believed and battled every day. I watched this battle from long before I could understand what was going on, and he wanted to tell me his problems from much younger than I could handle hearing them (choosing your young child for your confidante: bad idea) and he passed on a lot of these characteristics and genetic dispositions to me.  Here is my final Bonhoeffer quote:

We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.

I resented and even hated my father for a long time, especially before I became a Christian. Now I understand a lot better, both intellectually and viscerally. My life looks very different than his did, because he lived a Job life and didn’t come to peace with God until the last few of his 68 years. But God’s grace was greater than my dad’s pain, if only Dad could have availed himself of it decades early, and God’s grace is greater than my struggles. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ says that sorrow and depression and death do not have the final word. Even on the days when we feel like we’re hanging on by our fingertips—maybe especially on those days—God’s Grace has the final word, and that Word is Eternal, while this fight is temporary. I’m not one to tie up messy theological or existential struggles in neat little bows (depression and the death of a child defy those easy answers), but God is doing something in us through this struggle, because he never leaves bad things to rot; He is the Redeemer.

“And I know, as my Redeemer lives, that at the last he will stand upon the earth, and after my skin has been destroyed [and all this damnable misery with it], then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”

 

*If you are depressed and have never prayed before, this could be the time to start.  If you want to write me, please do.

Competition, Part 1: How Important Is Winning?

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I don’t know, but I’ve spent all my life trying to figure it out.

Is there any room for competition in the Kingdom of God?  In a world starving for grace and love, do activities that promote one person over another, often because of innate abilities, have any place?

Let’s start with some truths:

The first shall be last and the last shall be first.

But whoever would be great among you must be your servant,  and whoever would be first among you must be your slave.

But when they measure themselves by one another, and compare themselves with one another, they do not show good sense.

Trying to win is trying to be first, by definition.  If I am racing, I want to get there first.  I want more points than you, or fewer strokes than you, or higher scores than you.  I want to stand on the highest step of the podium.

Winning is trying to be great by being great.  Again, this seems so obvious as to be a given, even redundant, but if greatness comes from service, from elevating others and putting them first, then winning and greatness-through-servanthood look, on the surface, antithetical.

Competition is, again by definition, a comparison.  If one team cheats or illegally brings in a ringer, we say that’s not fair, by which we mean, the match-up did not accomplish a fair comparison.  Competition in any sport that has a winner and a loser, or a winner and a bunch of losers, is the act of comparing these parties’ ability to accomplish a certain feat or display a certain skill or complete a certain task, to see which is better, faster, or more effective.  The purpose of rules and, in certain contexts, limitations on who can play, is to make for an even and just comparison.  “Yes, you ‘won’ the basketball game but we shot at the ten-foot basket and yours was eight.”  (We used to call that “ego ball,” or “dunk ball,” by the way–playing on a rim low enough to be able to dunk at will.  For those to whom God didn’t give the ability to dunk on a ten-foot rim.)  If a ref or ump calls a game poorly, meaning doesn’t follow the rules very well, but at least calls it badly in both directions, we can live with that.  But when we suspect that the official favored the other team, gave them the benefit of unfair rulings, failed to (or chose not to!) create an even comparison, well, God made tar and feathers for a reason.

You see my point, I hope, and yet comparing ourselves with others is foolish.  Sports ARE measuring ourselves by one another.  That’s why we get pissed off when the playing field isn’t even: it suggests an inaccurate measurement, scales held down in your favor.

Which brings us to the next point.  We hate to lose.  I’ll own that; I hate to lose.  I really do.  Not as much as I used to.  I’ve come a long way in this area.  I used to hate to lose at anything, at any time, in any circumstances, and it ate at me when I would lose.  I mean, it would gnaw at my liver.  What is the “it” in that sentence?

You know, “it.”  The thing in you that hates to lose.

Yes, but what is that?  When I say I’ve made progress in that area, I mean that thing doesn’t rage as long or as loud as it used to.  There are even times when I can just brush it off and go merrily about my day, because this or that competition didn’t even matter.

There are even times when I can be happy for the winner and content to be the loser.  And I call that “parenthood,” the greatest of all humbling experiences.  I know people who can’t stand to lose to their children at anything and some who have never let their child win, ever.  “When he or she finally beats me, everyone will know it was earned!”  Okay.  But it may just be that you don’t want to give up winning.

Before I digress too far, let me tell you a few specifics:  I grew up being taught that the purpose of playing sports was to win.  Period.  Yes, there was some lip service paid to “how you play the game” and “the importance of participation,” but honestly, not that much.  We were there to win.  I was not taught to win at any costs, because that defaulted the fairness of the comparison.  It was important to win fairly, because then the win counted; it was important to win.

(Fortunately, the competition wasn’t to look coolest, because clearly I was losing at that.  Even my gracious wife said, “You’re better looking now.”  We think this happened in 1984 or ’85.)12143283_1054280147916139_3712188732773355066_n

I was not a victim of this attitude, I was a gleeful participant.   It just turned out that I wasn’t a big winner.  I didn’t get a a lucky number in the universal lottery of athletic ability.  I just wanted to win, really bad.  I wanted to prove myself, I wanted to be important, I wanted to impress people, I wanted to be cheered.

I would say that most of these desires are, in truth, opposed to the Gospel.  They are an attempt to earn myself value in my own and others’ eyes.  The fact that my value would come from making a ball go through a hoop or fly over a fence (or settle in my glove and then reach first base in time) means that I wasn’t grasping God’s value for me.

Wanting to prove ourselves great by triumphing over others, wanting to be first by making someone else second, needing to compare ourselves with others to show that we come out ahead in our comparison, these are all feasting exclusively on the most delicious white rolls, filling ourselves with no nutritional content.

Please pay close attention to my wording.  The need for these things is the danger.  I would tell you the need to win and through winning prove who I was to myself and everyone else was the “it” that chewed on my entrails.

Is it bad to want to win?

It’s bad to need to win.  Needing to win can take us to very dark places.  Needing to win can quickly make the results of the competition more important than my opponent.  But as it turns out, my opponent is made in the image of God.  Often, our approach to winning can look a little too much like our approach to war: I need to dehumanize the enemy in order to be able to…  Valuing other people is more important than valuing victory.

I better repeat that, for myself and others who, I strongly suspect, know it’s for them:

Valuing other people is more important than valuing victory. 

I know there are a few folks who would read that and decide, “Written by a loser.”

Well, I won’t argue with you.  I’m trying to figure out how to reconcile my competitive drive with God’s values.  I feel very uncomfortable when I try to understand why I hate losing so much.  I think it’s because I don’t want others to see me that way.  I think it’s because I don’t want to see myself that way.

What way?

Lesser.

Going back to my history again, there was a time when the most agonizing arrangement for me in sports would be mixed-level competition.  I’m playing on a team with people of lesser ability, experience, or both, and I’m trying, I am really trying to include them,  pass to them, affirm them, value them above my need to win (which, if given priority, would require excluding them so that they don’t have the opportunity to screw up my game.  You get the tone.  It’s ugly.).  So I attempt a pass to someone, and I make sure not to throw it too hard, and–

BOOM!

My opponent,  a player of comparable ability who is guarding me, slams it to the ground!  On so many levels, ouch.  I look stupid.  I have just failed and damaged my team’s chance to win, I have been shown up by my competition (there’s always a game within the game, a comparison within the comparison), I have had my attempt at kindness and inclusion paid back with shame.  Sounds like I’m exaggerating?  Not the feeling.  Not even a little bit.  In fact, it should have more italics and exclamation points.  !!! 

I used to get so angry in those situations.

But at some point as I matured, like maybe six weeks ago, it occurred to me that if I was choosing to play at a different intensity level to include, then I didn’t have to count this on my cosmic scoreboard of greatness.  Sometime after that, it dawned on me that my cosmic scoreboard of greatness wasn’t that great of any idea in the first place.  I mean, biblically.

It took me a long time, but once I grasped that intellectually, the truth started to seep into my heart.  My wife has been telling me for about five years longer than we’ve been married (or nearly thirty years) that people are more important than winning.  I don’t know how this works for professional athletes. I’ve never been blessed or cursed with that level of ability.  But once it began to sink deeper that my value wasn’t decreasing when I played to include instead of exclusively to win, some long-silenced part of my brain whispered, “Maybe my value doesn’t decrease, even when I’m utterly playing to win.”

Now we’re nearly there.  Can you play a sport, or any competition, all out and not need to win?  I’m not saying be gleeful when you lose, but take it in stride, as my father used to say.  If we need to win to be greater and first and come out on top in the the comparison, then some internal part still clings to a belief that contradicts God’s Kingdom.  Jesus reveals a God who serves and elevates others and finally gives of himself.  I can play sports all out and worship that God, but I can’t play sports to prove that I am great and valuable and better than you while worshipping that God.  That sets me up for a future segment: I think the redemption of sports, and even of competition, is that playing is worship.  Do I glorify God and experience his joy when I compete?

 

It was probably clear all along, wasn’t it, that when we talk about competing and comparing, we aren’t just talking about sports?