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Archive for May, 2016


This weekend I read Zack Eswine’s short (140+ pages) book Spurgeon’s Sorrows: Realistic Hope for those who Suffer from Depression. I wasn’t depressed, but I was preaching on Psalm 42-3 on Sunday. I had been meaning to read this book earlier, but other volumes always seemed to jump to the front of the queue. So, with a long weekend, the time was now.

I had already done much of my preparation and even written the sermon when I started the book. I added a few things as a result of the reading I’d done by Saturday night. I also changed my introduction.

“I am the subject of depressions of spirit so fearful that I hope none of you ever get to such extremes of wretchedness as I go to.” Charles Spurgeon

What I discovered is that many people have never heard a sermon on depression. That is depressing. Just about everyone struggles with depression at some point, but for some it is commonplace and debilitating. The Psalm in question is one of the places where we learn that godly people can be downcast. It is no sin, but a manifestation of living in a fallen world.

Eswine’s book is written, or seems to be, with the depressed in mind. The chapters are short since often their attention spans are short. This is no tome, but meant to encourage people and let them know they are not alone in suffering from this malady. He also points us to Jesus who knew such negative emotions as the Sin-Bearer.

“Broken hearted one, Jesus Christ knows all your troubles, for similar troubles were his portion.” Charles Spurgeon

There are three main sections of the book: Trying to Understand Depression, Learning to Help Those Who Suffer from Depression, and Learning Helps to Daily Cope with Depression.

Old SpurgeonThe first section helps some to name their experience. That may sound strange, but let me explain. For years I would get bad headaches and would want to sleep. These were different from what I was used to. One day someone told me they were migraines. I never would have imagined that I had migraines. Other people get those, not me. This is how many think of depression- that’s for other people. Eswine takes some of the mystery out of depression by reminding us how common it can be, and various ways depression is experienced (just as the Psalmist seems to do).

He brings us often to Spurgeon who struggled with depression all of his adult life. This is important for us to see that being depressed itself is not a sin and that real Christians can and do get depressed. There are also a variety of causes of depression: body chemistry, spiritual problems and circumstances. These interact with one another, and all are traced back to Adam’s sin in Eden. We are embodied spirits, so there is interaction between physical and spiritual realities. Not every depression is caused by spiritual problem, but every depression will have spiritual consequences. Because some have a genetic predisposition to depression means that they have a weakness, not that they are weak people. We all have weaknesses. But we don’t want to point a finger and condemn those who suffer as weak.

“Our misery has poisoned us with a tragic arrogance. Our pains have deluded our reasoning.”

In the second section he notes that diagnosis is not the same as a cure. There is no magic bullet for depression. It doesn’t take away the struggle, but helps us to understand some of the dynamics of depression. We can start to analyze ourselves and say “That’s the depression talking.” Depression obscures reality. It even lies to us (“It will never get better.”) and we struggle to sort out fact and fiction, like Peeta in The Mockingjay we have to ask “Real? Not real?”

He reminds us that not all who seek to help are helpful. Sincere people can do harm while they seek to help. We are also reminded of the Man of Sorrows who is able to help because He has experienced these cruel realities.

The third section is largely about coping with depression. He discusses feeding hope, one of the spiritual realities depression robs us of. Pouring out our soul, and filling it with truth is important. But it isn’t a cure-all. He mentions other ways we can care for ourselves in depression: rest, laughter, medication etc. Taking medication doesn’t make you weak or weird. You are not a 2nd class kind of Christian. It is the use of appropriate means, particularly when combined with other means like counseling. The medication helps you to function so you can talk, work and relate to others. I recommend keeping DVDs and books that make you laugh. They can serve as another life preserver when you feel like you are sinking down. These things are not substitutes for Jesus unless you use them to avoid Jesus.

“Our way of fighting is to hide behind Jesus who fights for us.”

There is also the dark reality of suicidal thoughts. Many in deep depression consider ending the deep, unending pain they feel. It doesn’t mean they aren’t Christians. It just means their suffering is incredibly profound. Eswine handles this wisely.

There are benefits that come from such sorrow. These are not reasons to choose depression, but the good God works out of our depression which we might not experience any other way. We are able to exhibit more empathy with those who suffer. We are also better able to understand our weakness and profound need for Christ in all things.

“Perhaps, nothing in life reminds us that we are not God, and that this earth is not heaven, like an indescribable distress that sometimes defies cause and had no immediate cure, or no cure at all.”

I would recommend Zack Eswine’s book to pastors and counselors. It is not technical but is written quite simply so the former can understand depression if they haven’t experienced, and helps the latter to communicate about it simply. It is also a good book for those who suffer. They will remember they are not alone, but always upheld by One who was acquainted with sorrows. He draws much from the words of Spurgeon, as well as William Cowper and others.  It is not an academic treatment, but a very heart-felt one.

P.S. If you leave a comment about how depression is demonic, I will delete it.

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I have a love/hate relationship with pre-marital counseling. I enjoy doing it, and it is important to do. I have yet to find the best material for me to use. I’ve tried a variety of options. I want a balance between structure and freedom (this is generally true of me). I want to be faithful and cover the basics. But I want the freedom to follow what I discover. We aren’t just dealing with topics, but with people who have real histories that need to be uncovered because their relationship is unlike any other.

I feel like I’ve ping-ponged over the abyss as I’ve tried (in my own perfectionistic baggage) to find the perfect balance. I apologize to the many “guinea pigs” I’ve worked with over the years.

With a couple preparing for marriage I’ve waded into these murky waters again. Last time I adapted some of the materials in my “soon-to-be-published” book. I’m sure of of that will hang on, but I wanted to cover some of the standard topics better.

As a result, I purchased two books. One of them was Tying the Knot by Rob Green. This is an attempt to have Christ-centered pre-marital counseling. “Jesus” and “Center” are part of each chapter title. He covers your life, love, problem solving, roles and expectations, communication, finances, community and intimacy. His desire is to see all of these things in light of the object of your faith: Jesus. Each chapter has homework to process the information and apply it in your relationship. It is intended for use with a pastor or mentor in preparation.

A pastor or mentor is important precisely because we need to be pushed. There are things we would rather not talk about. This is the way we are. We want to duck the hard questions. People “in love” don’t want the boat rocked. They think they have arrived, they have found their soul mate. The search is over, but hard questions can question that conclusion. A good mentor will be able to tell a couple there are serious concerns. Struggles are okay- they deepen love or reveal we’re really into self-interest not actual love. So don’t deny struggles, or make too much of them. What matters is what you do with them.

He does start with each person’s relationship with Christ. He wants to encourage them to have Christ as of utmost importance to each future spouse. Too often people cling to a cultural form of Christianity. We treat Jesus as an optional add-on to life as opposed to the most important person in our lives. Jesus is a king, and Christians are part of His kingdom and are to keep that kingdom central. When we don’t, we become more like neighboring nations that continually fight for control. Our kingdoms begin to matter too much and the person who threatens our kingdom must be conquered or eliminated.

Green then distinguishes between a worldly understanding of love and a biblical one. Real love isn’t about epic dates and woozy feelings. It is about sticking together in the midst of adversity, short-term and long-term. God doesn’t bail on us. He enables us to not bail on each other whether it is the flu, job loss, cancer etc. He expounds 1 Corinthians 13, and reveals how we have been loved by Christ.

Problem solving is a problem for many of us because we are “hurt hoarders”: we do keep a record of wrongs which creates long-term problems in a relationship. He focused on recording their wrongs and the growth of bitterness. We can also record our wrongs and withdraw out of a sense of guilt, shame and failure. Both make solving problems increasingly difficult. He covers some of the lies we can believe about problems that create more problems. He then lays out some basic principles to keep in mind. He brings the freedom we should experience due to the doctrine of justification to confess our sin, and to forgive theirs. For couples or individuals who really struggle with this I’d recommend When Sinners Say “I Do”.

With roles and expectations Green briefly delves into the reality of roles as God-given, and the differing expectations we have. I think he does a good job of distinguishing between roles and expectations. Too often they are confused. Expectations are person-relative. Roles are God-established. An overly progressive or liberal view makes roles all person-relative because men and women are interchangeable. Some conservatives try to cram expectations into roles. There are no divine dictates about who cooks, does dishes or takes out the trash. Each couple works through those things in light of the gifts, interests, competing time demands and responsibilities etc. Each person comes from a different family culture and the couple needs to form a new family culture that is faithful in that to which God speaks and loving & wise in that to which He doesn’t.

In communication he focuses on words as the overflow of the heart. We all need renewed hearts. Only Jesus can renew our hearts. Too often we speak in ways that diminish, wound and degrade our spouses. When your kingdom is on the line you will not care about collateral damage. And this is the problem.

In discussing finances, Green wants us to see ourselves as stewards. This means that how we spend our money is tied to our relationship with Christ. His kingdom, not our own, should determine where our money goes. Too many people give little thought to Jesus when they think about cars, homes, vacations, snack food etc. We’ve been trained to think about the environment, or “fair trade”. But most haven’t been trained to think about stewardship. That’s important too! More important actually.

He includes a rarity in pre-marital counseling material- a chapter on church. He talks about community and one of those communities is the faith community. It is one of the ways we keep Jesus in the center, and a manifestation of Jesus being in the center. He loves the Church! It is His Bride. How can we love Jesus and not love His Bride. Oh, unlike Him she is far from perfect. She’s like us, and therefore hard to love at times. Loving the Church is part of how we learn to love like Jesus.

He wraps up with intimacy, or sex. We tend to keep Jesus out of our sex lives. I am reminded of Only the Lonely when he brings her home for dinner together. Mom has gone out and this is going to be the big night when they finally fornicate. In the bedroom there is a statue of Jesus, so he puts a hat over the statue thinking then God won’t see. We fail to see Jesus as the Creator of our bodies and therefore of sex. He has authority over our sex lives and does regulate them. Sex is intended to strengthen the one flesh union as an expression of love, not self-interest. That shapes how we talk and do sex in marriage.

Tying the Knot covers almost all of the essential topics. It is a very readable book and is not verbose. He gets to the point, sometimes a little too quickly.

He could have spent a little more time developing Christ as the Creator and Lord of marriage and His supremacy and sufficiency in all things related to life and marriage. But better a book this size than the size of mine. He was able to stay focused and that is helpful for young couples on the road to marriage.

I’m surprise that child bearing and rearing is not really covered. I say this since “be fruitful and multiply” is part of the creation mandate (and Noahic covenant and Abrahamic promise), and forms one of the purposes of marriage. We live in a culture where marriage and children are increasingly separated as evidenced by more children being born outside of marriage, and more couples choosing to be childless (a national magazine had this as its cover story a few years ago). It is one of the topics I encourage friends to discuss before they are engaged. If you can’t get on the same page regarding children and how they will be raised there will be many conflicts surrounding those topics. I found this to be a glaring omission.

But all together, I thought this was a very good book. I plan to use this book and not the other with the young couple coming for pre-marital counseling this summer. It doesn’t say everything, but what it says it does say well.

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In Sunday’s sermon I mentioned John Irving’s novels, and particularly The Cider House Rules. I have a love/hate relationship with John Irving.

I often appreciate his sense of humor (though this probably reflects poorly on me), his New England settings and the “God-haunted” quality of his work. God is seldom absent from Irving’s work, even if He is rejected, scorned or ignored by characters. You get the impression that Irving wrestles with his own religious upbringing.

Back when The Cider House Rules was made into a movie John Irving did an interview in which he said it was a defense of abortion on demand. At the time I remember thinking, “has he lost his mind?” I still do. But let’s ponder the plot for a few minutes.

The book begins in an orphanage located in Maine. Homer, played by Tobey Maguire, is an older orphan there. Among the staff is Dr. Larch, played by Michael Caine. He loves the kids, who are often in his care too long. There aren’t enough couples willing to adopt. There is a touching scene as a young couple arrives and all the kids are doing their best to appear adoptable. It is heartbreaking that they only choose one, and to see the disappointment sink the rest of the kids. Except like those like Homer who is older and slightly cynical. This is part of the reason why Irving has his views, I think.

Yet, he does not portray this orphanage as a place of abuse. There is love. Homer has been well-loved by the staff and loves the younger kids well. The Dr. has taken Homer under his wing and believes Homer can take his place one day.

Soon another young couple shows up. Not to adopt, but to abort. Dr. Larch raises extra funds for the orphanage by performing abortions. Homer is torn. He loves and hates the orphanage. Part of him wants to escape and find his own way in the world. This young couple perhaps senses this. He also seems to be attracted to her. He ends up leaving with them, having a conflicted relationship with her while he goes off to war. He also works in the apple orchard.

As a result he lives in the cider house with the migrant workers. Here we see the crux of the movie in two ways. First, the workers chaff at the list of rules on the post of the Cider House (hence the title). They were made, the workers argue, by people who don’t work or live in the Cider House. They feel like someone who doesn’t understand them, their circumstances, needs and desires is forcing these rules upon them. This is a metaphor for God’s law, and the common human response to it. “Who is God”, people think, “to tell us what to do? He doesn’t walk in our shoes! He doesn’t understand what it’s like and the pressures we face.”

Homer soon finds himself in another bind; another complicated relationship. There is sin in the camp, so to speak. He is friends with the workers, especially Mr. Rose and his daughter Rose (yeah, Rose Rose). He has thrown off God’s law (and social convention reflecting it) and had an incestuous relationship with his daughter who is now pregnant. What can Homer do?

Homer, using the skills learned from Dr. Larch, performs an abortion for Rose. In a sense, he gains clarity on how he wants to spend his life. He wants, so he thinks, to relieve misery. In particular the misery caused by sin. So he returns to the orphanage to learn more from Dr. Larch and take his place.

Soon though, Dr. Larch dies from an overdoes of the ether he uses to get to sleep. Though he, like the migrant workers, has rejected the rules, he still wrestles with guilt over the lives he has taken. So, while we see abortion as an attempt to relieve the misery of sin it actually creates more misery because it too is sin.

Is Irving right? Do we have a right to toss out the rules? Is life in an orphanage a fate worse than death/non-existence? Is abortion the best answer to rape & incest?

Let’s start with Jesus. To stick with Irving’s metaphor, Jesus entered the Cider House, lived in the Cider House. The accusation of an absentee deity doesn’t work with Jesus. He not only made the rules, but also lived under the rules He made.

Though He never broke the rules, Jesus suffered the penalty for law breaking for others. Though He never sinned, He tasted the misery produced by sin. He lived in poverty, and suffered injustice for others. This is the essence of the gospel, which refutes Irving’s cry in the mouths of the migrant workers.

We see this same God loves orphans, the abandoned. He loves them so much He calls His children to welcome and care for orphans. Christians have a long history of doing just that. When it was still an illegal religion, Christians were well-known for taking in the children abandoned by their parents. Many pastors, famous and unknown, have established orphanages to care for orphaned and abandoned children (Spurgeon and Mueller for example). Today many pastors in Africa still do. In the west orphanages are seen as passe. We have the foster care system and adoption. Christians are among those most likely to foster or adopt children. My wife and I are thankful for orphanages since 3 of our children were adopted out of orphanages.

Pregnancy as a result of rape or incest is a real problem. It seems as if we are punishing the woman. I understand a traumatized woman wanting to abort the child.

That doesn’t mean it is the right thing. Or the best thing. Remember, the gospel centers on Jesus who suffered for the benefit of others. The gospel calls us to suffer with, and sometimes for, others. A life transformed by Christ’s work will choose to suffer at times. A woman could carry the child to term and give him/her up for adoption. Or raise the child. I’ve known of people who did this. It seems impossible. It happens only by the grace of God.

Jesus doesn’t just pardon our sin after the fact. He can help us to say ‘no’ to unrighteousness. Our moral code is not to be a lowest common denominator kind of thing. Jesus works in us to do the right thing, the best thing not just for us but for others.

Irving’s argument works in a world without God, or the world of an absentee God. But it doesn’t really work in a world where Jesus is God Incarnate, the Lamb of God and reigning king.

What was John Irving thinking?

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For most of my life the New England Patriots just weren’t very good. They somehow managed to get to two Superbowls but I never expected them to win either of those games.  They showed promise in the late 70’s but Oakland and a few horrible calls took care of that.

For the last fifteen years they have been most successful team, making the playoffs every year but two, six Superbowl appearances and 4 Superbowl victories.

Some people want to “blame” it all on cheating, but that is too easy. In the book Patriot Reign, Michael Holley looks at how this franchise that only frustrated its fans became one that frustrated the rest of the league. He wanted to do a book on Bill Belichick, but at his request it also became about the other coaches, players and the owners who built a champion.

After their first Superbowl victory, Holley decided to write the book and took a year shadowing the team. He sat in meetings and was given pretty much unlimited access (they also did not edit the material). He was disappointed when they failed to defend their title, but the returned to championship form the next year. This was a great “plot” twist and added more material as he could examine how Belichick “rebuilt” the Patriots.

Holley begins his account with Belichick. He offers you the side you don’t see. He doesn’t make him out to be a saint, but simply another side. He does have a sense of humor. He considers press conferences as part of the game plan and prepares for them- what he will and will not say.

“Let’s put it this way: when you’re the head coach, you’re the head coach twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. No matter what happens, it’s on your watch and, to a degree, it’s your problem.”

Belichick’s development as a coach took time. In 1989 when he interviewed for the position as Arizona’s head coach he didn’t quite understand all that it took. He learned from his mistakes in Cleveland, and what kind of owner he wanted to work for if he got the chance again. That is why he picked New England over the Jets (and to get out from Parcells shadow). During his time there under Parcells he would talk with Kraft about any number of subjects (something Parcells didn’t do with Kraft). He knew the man he was, and Kraft knew the man he was. He almost offered the job to Bill instead of Carroll when Parcells left. He faxed the request to talk with Belichick to Parcells before Carroll even had his press conference after his last game as head coach. They have successfully collaborated ever since.

Holley then moved into the reconstruction of the Patriots, including the drafting of Tom Brady. The Patriots were a mess: over the cap, filled with fiefdoms in the locker room and offices. They were like the Red Sox under prior owners. The players were spoiled and didn’t know it.

“Rehbein described him as a winner, a leader with a good attitude. The quarterbacks coach told Belichick that if a decision had to be made between the two, he would give the edge to Brady. Belichick had studied the tapes and felt the same way.”

That first draft was key. But since Holley wasn’t hanging out with them then, he focuses on one player. They were looking for a back up for Drew Bledsoe. Bill and Ernie Adams had listed the characteristics of what they considered the perfect quarterback. They had narrowed the search down to two prospects; Tim Rattay and Tom Brady. So Belichick dispatched his QB coach to work them both out. During the 6th round the draft they saw that Brady’s name was still there. “Brady shouldn’t be there. He’s too good.” They didn’t think Brady would be a starter, much less a superstar when they pulled the trigger on pick number 199. Brady fit the characteristics they listed months earlier.

Soon it was a repeat of his years in Cleveland. The established and (sort of) loved starter was being surpassed by the understudy. In Cleveland it was part of  Belichick’s undoing. In New England circumstances forced his hand so that people weren’t enraged. Bledsoe had the big arm, and big contract, but he was making costly errors- something Bill can’t stand.

“Under Belichick, all Patriot jobs could be classified as temporary. They were earned and held by performance, not status or longevity. Belichick didn’t go out of his way to antagonize stars, nor did he do anything special to accommodate them.”

While externally it was an “easy” transition. The fans were not clamoring for Bledsoe because the team just kept winning. Internally it was a different story as Bledsoe was not a happy camper. Since Rehbein had died the previous summer, Bill was serving as the QB coach. Those were often tense meetings.

“I never want to be on that crawl at the bottom of the screen: ‘Patriots quarterback Tom Brady arrested…’ I never want to look like an ass who let down my family, my teammates, and my organization.”

As an aside, the above quote is part of why I don’t believe Brady would cheat, or ask anyone else to cheat. A fierce, driven competitor to be sure, but one who is also driven by honor. Cheating would make him look like an ass, and that just isn’t an acceptable outcome for him.

Holley takes us to the Superbowl against the Rams. He discusses how the coaching staff dissected their offense. They saw how deception functioned in the offense. Belichick identified their 5 passing concepts, and that Faulk was the most important player out there- no Warner. He boiled it down to applicable concepts for the players. In the midst of this Holley briefly discusses the mysterious Ernie Adams, with whom Belichick went to college.

After the victory against the Rams, Holley became a frequent sight in the complex. As a result, he begins to write about how they evaluate the team, players, free agents and draft picks. This is the real strength of the book. Particularly after the 2002-3 season. In some ways they were drunk on success, thinking they could just turn it on again but they couldn’t because they were too old and too slow. They needed to reload one year after winning it all.

“The essence of Belichick is that he is a problem solver.”

In all of this there are small sections on players like Vinatieri and Fauria, and key figures like Pioli. He talks about the Lawyer Milloy situation which led to the silent feud with Tom Jackson.

All in all this is a very interesting read. You can learn, not only about the Patriots, but football through the anecdotes. You find overall commitments to process that work more often than they don’t. I enjoy learning how people approach their work. That is what make the recent Parcells biography so interesting. I am eager to read Holley’s 2012 follow up, War Room, as a result.

This isn’t a book for children. Unless you are Tony Dungy, football culture is quite colorful and crass. As a result there are more than a few curse words, and slang for sexual acts. This is unfortunate. While it adds to the realism, I wouldn’t want to give it to my son for quite some time.

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