The Old Rugged Cross

NOTE: I wrote this four months after finding my 19 year old son after he’d taken his own life…

There have been moments these past months that I’ve wanted to give up on God.

I’m simply being honest.

As one who grew up in a violent, alcoholic home, I witnessed more violence as a child than I care to remember.

As a full-time pastor now for 30+ years, I’ve had, on occasion, the unfortunate opportunity to see the very ugly side of what some have otherwise called “Christianity.”

But those pale in comparison to the events of May 13th, 2013, when my world caved in around me.

In light of the pain we suffer on planet earth, what proof is there that there is a God? More than that, what proof is there that that God really loves me?

From their outstanding work, “Name Above All Names,” Alistair Begg & Sinclair Ferguson write,

It is the cross alone that ultimately proves the love of God to us – not the circumstances of our lives.

We must not allow ourselves to be tricked into thinking that if things are going well with us, Then we can be sure of God’s love. For life can often seem dark and painful. Things do not always go well for us.

Rather, we look to the sacrifice of the cross and the proof God gave there of His love. ‘God [demonstrated proof of] His love toward us, in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5:8)

This is the proof I need. This is the truth I need to hear. This dispels the lies of the enemy.”

This is the unstoppable, indefensible, indisputable love of God in Christ Jesus.

I love you, Nick

Our True North: the Word of God

After our son, Jordan, took his life the earth shifted underneath our feet. Our world was turned upside down.

We soon took scripture printed on copy paper and taped it to every door-jam, every mirror, every cabinet door – you get the idea. (A few of them are in the very spot we placed them 4 years ago.)

So, while the enemy assaulted us with lies: “life for you is over; your marriage is over; your son’s death is your fault; there is no God; etc….”, we made a conscious choice to focus on what we knew to be true: the infallible Word of God.

Both Matthew & Luke record the “showdown in the desert” between Satan and Jesus. Even a cursory reading reveals that, in light of Satan’s lies, Jesus responds with a single, devastatingly powerful weapon: the Word of God. Satan fled in defeat.

The same happened in our home. Oh – I’d be lying if I said it was easy. The spiritual battle was intensely brutal. But, in the end, Satan, the “father of lies”, was rendered impotent when confronted with the Truth.

Throughout this ordeal, my family learned – on a deeper level – what Jesus meant when he proclaimed, “You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

Psalm 119 is almost entirely devoted to the exaltation of God’s Word. In verse 28, the psalmist prays, “My soul melts away for sorrow; strengthen me according to your word.”

Are you confused? Hurting? Afraid? Tired? Lost? Find your “true north” in the powerful Word of God.

Soli Deo Gloria, nick

The Frightening Thought of Being Used by God

Have you ever believed in something so strongly, so passionately, you wanted the entire world to know about it?

I told my wife, Michelle, “You know – when you have a cause you strongly believe in, you want to get the word out to the masses. But, when it does begin to get out to the masses it is somewhat terrifying.”

I recently wrote a blog about suicide and the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. Apparently, it struck a chord with the public because, in a week’s time, it was viewed just under 200,000 times in over 150 countries.   In addition, two local TV stations ran stories on it.  You can view those stories here, and here.

As the blog I wrote spread I have been forced to continually fight off fear and insecurity.  I’ve lost count of how many people from all over the U.S. – and close to home – have contacted me to talk about their own painful journeys.  The more people who contacted me, the more I thought to myself, “Am I really equipped to help these people??  I don’t even have my own screwed-up life figured out – how in the world am I supposed to help them?”  The responsibility of “owning the mission” God assigns to a person is sobering – even discouraging, because we tend to feel so inadequate – just like a man in the Bible named Moses.

I’ve thought a lot about Moses – a deeply flawed “failure” who, after a royal and privileged upbringing, had been consigned to herding goats. For 40 years. In relative isolation.

Then, one day God shows up and gives Moses an assignment that Moses clearly believes is beyond his skill set.  As God informs Moses he is to return to Egypt and face Pharaoh, Moses is, like I have been recently, somewhat terrified. Five times Moses tells God, in essence, “You’ve got the wrong guy!”   (You can read the story in the biblical book of Exodus, chapters 3-4.)

As I consider my own insecurities and inadequacies, I return to Moses and his own “burning bush experience.” And I remember what God, in essence, told him: “This is not your mission – it’s mine. And, because it’s mine, I will see it through. I will give you courage. I will speak through you. I will protect you. I’ve got you. Will it, at times, be scary? Of course. But, never forget: the battle is the Lord’s. And I’ve never lost a battle. Now go.”

Last thing: when I think about Moses, my mind is always drawn to a quote by author/pastor, Chuck Swindoll, who wrote,

“For his first 40 years, Moses thought he was somebody. For his next 40 years, Moses thought he was nobody. And for his final 40 years, Moses discovered what God can do with a nobody.”

Use me, Lord.  Please.

“When I am afraid, I will trust in you.” (Psalm 56:3)

Soli Deo Gloria, Nick

Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” is not merely Dark, it’s Dangerous

“Welcome to your tape.”

If you’ve had the opportunity to view Netflix’s white-hot series, 13 Reasons Why, you’ll have no problem understanding the quote cited above.  If you’re unfamiliar with the series, it’s a 13 part Netflix original fictional series about teenage bullying and suicide.  The series, based on the 2007 book by Jay Asher, concludes with the main character, Hannah Baker, taking her life in a very graphic portrayal.  I won’t include a synopsis of the story here.  (You can read about the plot here.)  But I will say this: the series is as controversial as it is popular.

NOTE:  Since I posted this blog, two local news stations have aired stories on it.  You can view those stories here, and here.

Before I continue, please allow me to make one thing clear:  I’m not a professional counselor.  But I do have intimate experience with this topic.  

  • First, I have worked with teenagers most of my vocational life. 
  • Second, and far more importantly, my 19 year old son took his life in 2013 So I write from the perspective not of a Hollywood script, but real life.

I was made aware of the series recently by a public school counselor who wrote that she had seen an increase in students coming to see her due to watching this series.  She wrote,

I had a crisis appointment this morning and a patient taken to the hospital due to extreme suicidal thoughts after watching this series. As I called the crisis line to activate the crisis protocol, the crisis worker on the phone told me they have had several incidents the past 2 weeks since the show aired of having to activate crisis protocol after people had watched the show and began acting out suicidal plans.

Although I didn’t need Hollywood to inform me of the horror of a teenage child’s suicide, I decided to watch the series because (1) it’s extremely popular with teens, and (2) I thought watching it would help me be more informed since I frequently speak to teens in public schools and churches about suicide & suicide intervention/prevention.

I was unprepared for what I was about to watch. 

Given my family history, watching the series was, for me, brutal.  Having found my son that day in 2013, when I watched Hannah’s parents discover their girl’s lifeless body, I screamed and wept.  Immediately, I knew I needed to make parents aware of 13 Reasons Why as soon as I possibly could.  But, frankly, I was so messed up following the final episode, it took me a number of days to compose myself and be able to articulate my conviction about the series in, hopefully, a clear and intelligent manner.

For those who may read into this blog, “You’re overreacting since your child took his life,” allow me to direct your attention to a letter sent to parents from the administration at Shawnee Mission South High School in Overland Park, KS, via their Facebook page warning all parents about the series.  You can access the letter here. (A simple Google search will reveal numerous school districts issuing warnings about the series.  Here’s one article.  Here’s another.) Additionally, a public school counselor from Maine shares her strong concerns here.  Finally – and this should bring clarity as to how traumatizing the series is –  People Magazine was one of several news outlets reporting that therapy dogs were brought onto the set to comfort the actors.

Parents should know that, in an attempt to appear like they’re portraying “reality”, the producers and writers not only pushed the limit but, in my opinion (and others: see below), carelessly crossed the line.

NBC News ran a story entitled, Netflix’s ’13 Reasons Why’ Carries Danger of Glorifying Suicide, Experts Say.  (Read the entire article here.)  The article states, in part,

Critics have lauded the show, which has earned stellar ratings, including a 91 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s also been the most tweeted about program so far this year, Variety reported. But some mental health professionals feel it is a dangerous fantasy that romanticizes suicide

“Sequences of terrible things happen to Hannah, and we don’t get a feel for her internalization until she kills herself,” Dr. Victor Schwartz, medical director of the JED Foundation, told NBC News. “None of that stuff is made clear because it’s focused on the horrible things people have done to her. The whole thing is an extended revenge fantasy.”

Phyllis Alongi, clinical director of the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, said…, “Netflix isn’t going to pull it and kids are watching it, and they’re binge watching it without anyone helping them process it.  We feel it was done irresponsibly and we don’t agree with many portrayals including of Hannah’s death, memorialization, and placing blame on others.”

Alongi said suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 24 and that the number is increasing.

Dan Reidenberg, a psychologist and Executive Director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), warns,

“One of the ways [the series] really failed is they never talked about treatment options; they never gave a viable alternative for [Hannah]… We just want people to understand that it’s fiction, not fact. It’s about helping people understand the reality of suicide.”  [However], “The show does not address mental illness or present viable alternatives to suicide.”

Significantly, Reidenberg, shares,

“…he was contacted by Netflix and asked to provide guidance… He said he told Netflix that they shouldn’t go ahead with the project.” (See entire article here.)

SAVE offers a “Tips for Watching 13 Reasons Why” here.

The Chicago Tribune ran an article entitled, ’13 Reasons Why’ Offers Wrong Solution to Teen Struggles.  The author, Jack VanNoord, wrote,

“Netflix, I love you. I really do. But on this one you not only got it wrong, you got it dangerously wrong.”

Sure, you will find many complimentary reviews online of the series.  But almost all are directed at the “nuts & bolts” of the production i.e. directing, acting, etc.   The romanticizing of suicide and the total absence of intervention i.e. medical attention, professional counseling, etc., is what makes the series both dark and dangerous for those who are depressed,  suicidal or have considered suicide as an option at some point in their life.

Yahoo News posted,

“In a public statement, the National Association of School Psychologists issued a warning against viewing the series to parents of “vulnerable youth.”

Alexa Curtis, writing for Rolling Stone, agrees:

For teens who are battling mental health issues, witnessing the end of a life as easily as the show portrayed it could help desensitize kids to this very serious matter.

She continues,

Before the suicide, Hannah admits to a counselor that she is feeling lost and empty – clear signals of depression. As she talks about her sadness and anger, instead of being admitted to a clinic, the distracted employee simply gives her a box of tissues to heal her wounds. Had 13 Reasons Why showcased other forms of outreach, like therapy, teens watching it might realize that there is always an option that doesn’t include self-harm.

And, Sezín Koehler, writing for the Huffington Post, and accusing the series of romanticizing suicide, holds nothing back:

You don’t get any more romantic than a charming dead girl speaking from beyond the grave — on cassette tapes, no less — about everyone who wronged her, as if she’s merely hosting a podcast. Whenever suicide is presented as the only option,…we are in dangerous territory. And that’s exactly what “13 Reasons Why” does.

Granted, fans of 13 Reasons Why argue that the series “encourages conversations” about bullying and suicide.  That is true. After all, you and I are having a “conversation” about it here.  However – and this is my sole contention – a person who is severely depressed and/or suicidal is not in a healthy place psychologically.  And, if they should watch this series alone they are entering a world that is both dark and dangerous.  Dark because the series is virtually void of hope.  And dangerous because of what the series can prompt in the mind of someone who is already suffering from mental illness i.e. clinical depression, bipolar disorder, etc.

Lastly, allow me to offer three strong recommendations:

  1. Parents – I strongly caution all teens who choose to view the series. There are healthier ways (read: less triggering ways) to have needed dialogue about bullying and suicide. However,…. if your child insists on watching the series – watch it with themBe aware:  the show is full of profanity, obscenity, two graphic rape scenes, and, of course, included in its final episode is the graphic scene of Hannah Baker taking her life.  But, if your child insists on watching it, watch it anyway – with them.  Talk about each episode immediately after that episode ends.  If your child has already watched it, visit with them immediately about it and consider watching a few episodes yourself.  If your child gets offended that you’re “poking your nose into their business” tell them, “I have that right. I’m your parent.  No one on this planet loves you more than I do.”  Always, as a parent, err on the side of caution.
  2. Teens – (even if you’re not a teen) If you’ve viewed the series – many of you will be affected emotionally (how can you not be?)   If you suffer from bullying, depression, suicidal thoughts – I beg you – talk to somebody immediately  (a parent, sibling, grandparent, teacher, friend, youth pastor, coach, counselor).  The devastation from losing you is unfathomable to the human mind.  I know this from personal experience. It may sound trite, but “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”  I know you may not be able to (and, most likely, can’t) see the light of hope at the moment – but that’s what we are here for: to carry you, to share your load, and help you see the light againThere is a God – and He loves you.  You are awesome.  You are beautiful.  You matter. You are not alone. You are so very loved.  You cannot be replaced.  And help is available in abundance Many people have gone to school for many years for the sole purpose of being equipped to help you through your dark time of crisis.  Do not do anything to harm yourself.  I repeat, do not do anything to harm yourself.  Your death is irreversible and will leave a gaping wound in the lives of your family and friends.
  3. Friends – If you are a friend of someone you suspect of being bullied, suffering from depression, or having suicidal thoughts, talk to them immediately.  Ask them if they’ve watched 13 Reasons Why.  Get them talking – whatever it takes.  As I recommended to parents, always err on the side of caution.  If the friend you suspected of suicidal thoughts is genuinely ok, everyone is good.  But, if you’re right – you may have well saved a life.

Bottom Line:  While some will disagree with what I’ve written here, please understand I write from the perspective of a parent who’s lost a teenage child to suicide.  Like me, my son, Jordan, suffered from crippling depression.  May 13, 2013, was the worst day of my, and my family’s, life. My effort here is, by making parents aware of the series, to simply try and prevent this tragedy from happening to anyone else on planet earth.  While 13 Reasons Why will not serve as a trigger to every viewer, it clearly will (and has) to many.  If the series has not yet prompted dialogue in your home, perhaps this blog will.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline1-800-273-8255

For Jordan Watts

For Narnia

I love you all, Nick

“In this world you will have trouble (bullying, depression, pain), but take heart – I have overcome the world.”  Jesus Christ  (John 16:33)

What I’ve Learned From a Dislocated Kneecap

Recently, I’ve had two epiphanies: they are elementary level axioms of the Gospel of Christ (stuff I should know well, but need to be reminded of often.)

Wed morning, Feb. 18th, my daughter, Macy, had knee surgery. The next day, we had her follow-up appt with her surgeon. Getting her from our house to the dr’s office was nothing short of torture: emotionally & physically for Macy; emotionally for me.

As she wailed, and cried out, “Daddy….!”, I began to cry because there was not a single thing i could do about her pain. (Nothing is more painful for a parent than to see their children hurting…)

The dr told us all was good, and helped us develop an effective strategy for managing the pain. By the time we finally got home, allowing me to lay Macy back down, we were both exhausted. it felt as though we had just climbed Mt. Rainer.

As I watched my girl sleep and rest, two very profound gospel truths came to mind:

1) I would’ve done anything to take Macy’s pain upon myself. Alas, I could not. (You see where this is going don’t you. 🙂 ) God “heard the cry of mankind (which began one nano-second after Adam & Eve blew it in Eden), and did for us what I could not do for Macy. “For God so loved the world (us), that He gave His one and only begotten Son…..” The mighty, awesome, terrifying God “put skin on”; He lived a perfect life.  And, even though tempted by Satan to “bypass the pain of the cross,” Christ “booked a ticket” straight from the Bethlehem to Calvary. I couldn’t do anything for Macy in way of taking her pain upon myself. Christ could take our pain upon Himself. And did! Soli Deo Gloria!

2) The succeeding days gave me & my daughter a number of “moments” to understand that “pain is part of healing.” The dr told us, even in the midst of overwhelming pain, Macy was well on her way to being well. Obviously, at least in the Watts home, this led to conversations about the death of Jordan, and how our pain from losing our son/brother is a necessary part of healing. We *must go through” the pain; there’s no way around it.  I think of Paul writing this sage advice to young Timothy: “Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 2:3) Jesus demonstrated this truth by refusing to give in to the tempter (Matt 4 & Luke 4), knowing that the only path to the resurrection was through the crucifixion.

O God, my God – thank you….thank you….

If you’ve never met Him, please consider investigating the claims of Christ. smile emoticon

I love you all, Nick Watts

“Awakenings” (sermon excerpt)

From a Roman prison Paul wrote, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened [flooded with light] in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you,…”  (Ephesians 1:18)

Below is the link to the final 9 minutes of the sermon I preached this past Sunday.  What you will not hear (because I spoke of it during my introduction) is my explanation of what C.S. Lewis calls “looking at” vs. “looking along.”  You can find Lewis’ explanation of this brilliant concept in his book, God in the Dock (a defense of Christianity), in the chapter titled, Meditation in a Tool Shed.

To illustrate the difference between “looking at vs. “looking along” go with me (in your imagination) to Studio B in Nashville, TN.  In July, 2013, my family was given a private tour of this historical address, located on Nashville’s “Music Row”.  Upon entering the main recording area, I immediately noticed the beautiful Steinway piano.  As i “looked at” the piano I saw that it definitely “had some mileage on it” (I had no idea how old it was), but was still in excellent condition,…a sight to behold for a piano man like me.  Then, the lady giving us the tour said, “Elvis played this piano often when he recorded in this very studio.” Being a huge Elvis fan, my heart skipped a beat as I stared at her trying to think of something to say in response. But, before I could speak she continued, “Floyd Cramer not only played this piano, as well; he recorded his monster hit, Last Date, in this studio, on that very piano.”

My entire perspective of that piano changed in a matter of seconds.  I had entered that studio seeing that piano one way, but was leaving seeing it completely differently, recognizing that this piano was merely part of a much grander story. I had gone from contemplating the piano to enjoying not simply the piano, but the history it represented.    I was not longer “looking at” the piano; I was now “looking along” the piano, enraptured by its history.  My imagination ran wild “seeing” Elvis and Floyd Cramer “doing their thing” in the very room in which I was standing. The eyes of my imagination were enlightened.  In short, at least for me, the piano came to life.  (Yes, they did give me permission to sit down and play Cramer’s “Last Date” on that piano.  It’s a moment I’ll never forget.”)

In the sermon I preached on Feb. 15th, using Ephesians 1:11-23 as my text, with verse 18 serving as my primary text, I described the difference between “looking at” the Word of Christ, the Body of Christ, and the Cross of Christ” vs. “looking along” the three.  The sermon excerpt here picks up with “the Cross of Christ“.

Although the excerpt is categorized as a video, there is no video of me – only audio – since I instructed the folks in our A/V booth to leave a logo I’d put together on our video screens.  However, a video clip from the 1998 hit, Patch Adams, begins at the 3:15 mark.  The scene encapsulates what I was trying to communicate and teach from Ephesians 1:18.  “Don’t focus on the problem – look at me,” rails the bitter old man to Adams (played flawlessly by Robin Williams).

Since my 19 year old son took his life, God has patiently and lovingly taught me how to “look along” that day of unspeakable pain, rather than “look at” it. “Don’t focus on Jordan’s death – look at Me,” Christ has taught me.  “[I am] not the God of the dead but of the living…I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.”  (Matthew 22:32; John 11:25)

In sum, when we allow God to “open the eyes of our heart”, we quickly become acutely aware of the Hope we have in ChristAnd hope changes everything. 🙂

Soli Deo Gloria, Nick