Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Fatherhood and Grace

A couple of months ago, a sister of a friend was soliciting "words of wisdom" to be part of a surprise scrapbook to commemorate the birth of their first child. After some thought, I passed along the following to my friend who I've known for a long time, having met at a college Christian fellowship:

One of the great gifts of parenthood is that it provides a unique glimpse in terms of our own Sonship through Jesus Christ. There's something profound about holding your newborn child (and I've been blessed with three of them) and feeling such a powerful love which, frankly, the child has done nothing to "earn". The baby can't speak, encourage and clearly is unable to physically help me in any way. But a parent has such intense love simply because the child is his or hers. And it's a wonderful reflection of an infinitely more intense and faithful love that our God extends to us, who are even less deserving than that helpless child. And we give thanks because He loves us, and through Christ has made us His own.

Interestingly, parenthood is also a humbling reminder of how much our love fails to reflect the lavishness and abundance of God's love, particularly in areas such as grace, patience and mercy. Last week, one of the pastoral interns at our church delivered a terrific sermon in which he shared an anecdote in which his toddler daughter continued to utilize a playground set incorrectly. Frustrated that his daughter was walking up the slide and down the ladder, he scolded her and said, "Next time I'm not going to catch you and when you fall, it'll be your fault." His candor and vulnerability in sharing this was redeemed in the sense that he used it to teach the congregation a stark example of what God's love is not like.

Sadly, I responded that afternoon by doing something really similar. Taking my three kids to the pool that afternoon, I was fed up with them whining about my refusal to play certain pool games with them in the deeper end (I had tried to explain to them that I needed to keep an eye out of my youngest) and stormed, "Look, if you're going to complain and be ungrateful, we can leave right now!" My chastened children stopped complaining and quietly slinked away.

Frankly, to desire children to use a playground set correctly and to not whine aren't misguided, per se. But there's a certain dark edge to human correction in which vindictiveness and frustration seep in. The remarkable thing about God's correction is that it's done without either, and that even in the midst of our sin and error, He is patient and slow to anger. These are attributes which I need to continue to aspire towards.

Even within devout Christian circles, I wonder if we falsely attribute aspects of human discipline to God. For example, when experiencing hardship or loss, we may be prone to think things such as "Well, God heard me complain about my job and now He's gotten me fired," or "I got into a car accident because God was angry that I missed church this past Sunday." Again, it's not that God doesn't discipline those He loves - the Bible is pretty clear about this - but it can be dangerous to personalize circumstances, especially when the human versions of discipline are often so tainted.

I am grateful that the discipline I receive from God is purely loving - without taint of frustration, impatience or self-interest. And I am spurred to try to do likewise with my own children.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Thief Called Depression

Since the emergence of social media, I don't think I've seen any death cause such an outpouring of grief as with Robin Williams' this past Monday. What I found interesting was the universality of the reaction across all types of people from all walks of life. For example, when Nelson Mandela passed away this past December, those friends who were more geopolitically aware or passionate about racial justice offered tributes with photos and quotes on Facebook or Twitter. But when Williams passed away, I found a remarkable consistency of grief and sorrow from people who would otherwise probably have nothing in common. People of all different races, religions, political leanings all reflected sorrowfully about how a certain clip from a movie of his deeply touched them, and how his humor - sharp without being mean-spirited - often served as a reliable balm in the midst of the drudgery of life.

My wife wondered aloud about what made him such a beloved personality. My hypothesis was that even though the vast, vast majority of us didn't know Robin Williams personally, it just felt like we did. He was such a magnetic and effective performer that people couldn't help project the characteristics of the characters he played on the actor, himself. For example, it was easy to believe that Williams was Mrs. Doubtfire, the loving dad that would do zany things just to be with the kids he loved or that Williams was Mr. Keating, the teacher that loved his students too much to allow them to live lives that were anything less than extraordinary. There was a kind, yet vulnerable, fun-loving joy to almost all of his characters (yes, "One Hour Photo" and "Insomnia" are exceptions here), and we all assumed that if you took a gestalt of these characters, you'd get Robin Williams.

We all know now that this wasn't the case. Sure, many of us who regularly flipped through magazines or newspapers were aware that he had some issues with substance abuse. But did anyone actually see him being clinically depressed, much less taking his own life?

With Williams' death has come a good deal of thoughtful discussion around depression. I remember my first experience with depression many years ago with a friend at church, and I did my best to be supportive. Thankfully, I had the good sense not to exhort my friend to "suck it up" or "pray and trust God more", though I'm sure that this horrid direction is sometimes still given by well-intentioned people who are sadly misinformed or mistakenly equate a clinical condition with "having bad day". Like many who are depressed, this friend had good periods and bad periods, but sadly took his own life after many years of battling. And there have been other friends who are living with depression. And some of those have taken their lives, and others who are still bravely fighting on.

I don't have depression (at least I don't think I do), so I can't claim any deep credibility in the matter. But what I do believe is that it's a horrible, horrible disease. Like any disease, there isn't (or at least shouldn't be) any stigma. A person with depression deserves no more scorn or judgment than a person with colon cancer. Like any disease, there's a hope that it can be maintained, Lord-willing over the course of a lifetime. And like any disease leading to death, the anger of those left behind should be directed to the horrid disease, not the afflicted for being "weak" or "selfish".

Robin Williams is gone, having left a legacy of laughter and comedy. It would be ironic, and dare I say redemptive, to see his death become a catalyst in educating all of us around this disease. Perhaps that would be fit legacy to honor the man who touched so many, to find ways to support those with the same condition that took his life.