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

“The Case for Christ” Movie Review

I admit it.  I’m a Christian, but when I see another “Christian” movie headed for the silver screen I get a little squeamish.  Why?  Because I’ve seen too many of them where the script is shallow, the plot is idealistic, Christianity is portrayed as cliche’, etc…you get the picture.  But then I saw PureFlix’s The Case for Christ.

It was the best Christian-themed movie I have seen to date. Powerfully directed and acted.

I was particularly interested in seeing it for two reasons:

Is the purpose of the movie to convince the audience that Christ did, indeed, rise from the dead? Sure – it’s a Christian-themed film.

But, not once does the movie insult the intelligence of the audience. While Strobel, using his experience as an investigate reporter for the Chicago Tribune, painstakingly investigates the evidence for Christ’s resurrection (for the sole purpose of proving Christianity to be a farce) he asks the same intelligent questions any non-believer/skeptic would ask.

Furthermore, not once does the movie make the claim that the resurrection can be 100% proven. What is clear, though, from Strobel’s investigation is that the evidence for the resurrection is overwhelming. But even then, the movie makes no attempt to coerce the viewer into belief.  Instead, echoing former renowned atheist, Antony Flew, the movie simply presents the evidence and then invites the audience to “follow the evidence where it leads.”  (Prior to his death in 2010, Flew discarded his atheistic worldview confessing that, based on the evidence, God must exist.  His intriguing story can be found in his 2007 book, There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind.)

Finally – and I’m thrilled this was stated in the movie– sure, Christianity requires faith (“For by grace are you saved through faith,” Paul wrote), but make no mistake, so does atheism.

One final thought – one nanosecond after we die we will know for certain whether or not the Bible is true. The evidence strongly argues it is. If you’ve never honestly considered the claims of Christ this movie is a good place to start

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 that statement.  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)

Heaven

As a Christian, I believe in heaven. As a pastor, I’ve studied and taught about heaven. As a musician, I’ve noted that almost every single hymn written has heaven the subject of its final verse.

When my dad died I didn’t really think differently about heaven. When my sister died I didn’t really think differently about heaven.

But when my 19 year old son died…

Heaven was real to me before Jordan became a resident. But now, it’s something altogether different. How can something become “more real” than “real”? I don’t know. I can’t explain it. It’s as though, in May 2013, a part of my soul took up permanent residence in heaven.

The veil separating heaven and earth, for me, became thinner.

In his brilliant sermon, The Weight of Glory, CS Lewis described heaven as “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

Lewis wrote much about heaven. In Mere Christianity he observed, “If I find myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” And in his genius Screwtape Letters, based on correspondence between two demons, the senior demon, Screwtape, wrote to his apprentice, “My dear Wormwood.., the truth is that the Enemy (God), having oddly destined these mere animals (Christians) to life in [heaven], has guarded them pretty effectively from danger of feeling at home anywhere else.”

From John Newton’s “When we’ve been there ten thousand years,” to Andre Crouch’s soulful “Soon and Very Soon” and Dallas Holms’ reverent “I Saw the Lord” to Mercy Me’s “I Can Only Imagine”, heaven has filled the pages of Christian music.

And that brings me to what prompted this post.

I heard, for the first time this past week, Chris Tomlin’s “Home”. As I carefully listened to the lyrics of the chorus i had to grip my chest as my heart ached for “home.”

Hopefully, this reflection of mine has brought you encouragement and hope, and perhaps helped someone, for a moment, think about heaven, and that “this is not all there is.” Paul encouraged the Colossian believers, “…set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” (Colossians‬ ‭3:1-2‬)

Allow me to close this post with one more of my favorite quotes from Lewis:  “At the present, we are on the outside of [heaven], the wrong side of the door… But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so.”

Soli Deo Gloria, Nick

For Those Who Have Ever Doubted Your Christian Faith

Have you ever, as a born-again Christian, secretly (or publicly) doubted God, or your faith? If so, it means one thing:

You’re normal. 🙂

I heard a wise preacher once say, “Doubt is a parasite of faith.”

British author/scholar, Os Guinness, rightly stated, “If [Christianity] is an examined faith we should be unafraid to doubt. There is no believing without some doubting; and believing is all the stronger for understanding and resolving doubt.”

Need biblical evidence that doubting God is a normal part of your spiritual journey? Here you go:

John the Baptist is the man who baptized Jesus and, upon seeing Jesus that day, exclaimed, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” “There is no greater prophet that John,” Jesus, himself, affirmed.

This same John, later on in prison for preaching repentance, would ask his closest friends to find Jesus and ask him, “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?”

John doubted.

In an extraordinary passage (and a strong argument for the historical reliability of the gospels), Matthew records the following: “When [his disciples] saw [the risen Christ] they worshiped him; but some doubted.”

Jesus’ own followers doubted.

There is a tender story in Mark’s gospel about a man desperate to see his son healed. When the father questioned Jesus’ ability to heal his son, the broken-hearted man pleaded with Jesus, “Help me overcome my unbelief.”

So, if you’ve ever – for whatever reason – doubted your faith, know you are normal. Then, like the father in Mark’s gospel, take that doubt to Jesus.

I love you all.

Soli Deo Gloria, Nick

Lessons from Middle Earth

[Jesus said], “A thief is only there to steal and kill and destroy. I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of.”  (John 10:10, Message)

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (The Return of the King), Lady Éowyn desperately desires to be allowed to join in the fight against the evil Sauron. Soon-to-be-king, Aragorn, however, does his best to discourage her, desiring her to retreat to safety. Éowyn assures Aragorn she is neither afraid of fighting, nor dying. We pick up the conversation there:

‘What do you fear, lady?’ [Aragorn] asked. ‘A cage,’ [Lady Éowyn] said. ‘To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.’

Life is filled with the enemy’s subtle and, at times, not-so-subtle, attempts to keep believers “caged” i.e. enslaved to that which ruled us before we professed our faith in the liberating work of the King.  We hear the call of the King but, due to the cares of this world, coupled with the sometimes exhausting “weight of everyday life,” we are tempted to remain where it is sheltered, predictable, “safe.”

As with Lady Éowyn in the fields of Dunharrow in Middle Earth, there comes a time when all of us approach a crossroads – and a choice.  The choice cannot be ignored.  For not to choose is to choose.  As the Ring came to Frodo, so this crossroads comes to us – demanding a response.  Sometimes the “safe” way is, indeed, the right way; other times it is not.  When Luke recorded that Jesus “steadfastly and determinedly set His face to go to Jerusalem,” (to face crucifixion) this was certainly not the “safe” way.  When one thinks of Christ – and, in turn, Christianity – rather than focusing on the mild, almost demure, Jesus we see illustrated on the pages of Children’s Bibles, it would behoove us to consider C.S. Lewis’ (Tolkien’s friend and Oxford colleague) description of Aslan (representing Christ) in Narnia:

“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought [Aslan] was a man. Is he— quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” “That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver ; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.” “Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy. “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

As I contemplate the response to Aragorn from Lady Éowyn – when convicted that the “safer” way is not the right way, the following biblical implications come to mind and give me courage:

1. Participating in the battle gives us purpose in the victory:  And this is what Éowyn so desired. No doubt, in the world of sports, there is greater reward for those who played on the field/court/diamond than those who were forced to only observe from the sidelines. German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, could have lived a long, prosperous life had he chosen to remain teaching in the U.S. during WWII. However, in a letter to Reinhold Niebuhr, Bonhoeffer wrote, “I shall have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.”  Paul makes it clear to young Timothy that, during his life, Paul was no spectator:  “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

2. Somewhere, there lies within all of us a longing for adventure:  Author, John Eldridge, once wrote, “Life was never intended to be a problem to be solved, but rather an adventure to be lived.”   When Jesus bid the disciples, “Follow Me,” He was not suggesting they were about to enjoy the fruits of retirement.  Rather, the adventure of their lifetime lay before them.  Jesus was appealing to that which is hardwired into all of us.  Perhaps, this is, in part, what is meant by Solomon’s words, “God has placed eternity in our hearts.”

3. Tolkien’s story of Middle Earth lets none of us off the hook: The greatest adventure in human history was not fairy tale, but true. There is no greater Adventurer than God Made Flesh.  From Paul’s story of Jesus’ adventure from heaven to earth, to Jesus’ story of His return to heaven, and final return to earth – our souls are awakened to a desire to follow this terrifying, unpredictable, heroic, loving Lion from the Tribe of Judah. The story of Jesus Christ (God’s pursuit of sinful mankind) not only supersedes all other literary adventures, but it actually places us in the story. As such, we all are a part of a grand tale of peril, rescue and redemption. Jesus, Himself, then reminds us that the tale is far from over. “As the Father has sent Me,” He says, “so I send you.”

Concluding thought…

Adventure”, by definition, suggests “risk”: British theologian, J.I. Packer, wrote, “The Christian’s life is not a bed of roses; it is a battlefield, on which he has constantly to fight for his life.” Packer’s words certainly square with Scripture. Lady Éowyn knew well there would be great peril and risk, but her longing for the adventure coupled with her trust in her king reduced, or altogether removed, her fear of said peril and risk. I resonate with Lady Éowyn . Personally, I have no interest in “letting the battle pass me by.”  Certainly, the battle will, at times, be dangerous.  Certainly, there will be moments of unspeakable pain that will (that have) tempted me to give up. But I will not. I trust my King. As for me, I’d rather risk much in battle, than waste away “behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.”

Join me.

Soli Deo Gloria, Nick

The Faith of Christianity vs. the Faith of Atheism

I saw the following quote posted in a “proof for the existence of God” debate recently. I thought it was a very kind and thought-provoking response:

“…to believe there is no God, or to lack belief in a God, still requires faith. You have to trust that the arguments of natural theology are false. You have to trust that the information in DNA arose without an intelligent mind. You have to trust that nature arose by natural causes (a self-contradiction).

You have to have faith that consciousness arose out of dead inert matter. The list goes on and on. It takes faith to look at the universe and all its creative wonder and come out thinking that atheism is a better explanation than theism.”

What the blogger is pointing out is that since it’s virtually impossible to know everything about a particular topic where the existence – or non-existence – of God is concerned, both theism and atheism require faith.

We all ultimately have faith in something – whether we want to admit it, or not.

Retired UC Berkeley law professor (and author), Phillip E. Johnson, astutely notes, “One who claims to be a skeptic of one set of beliefs is actually a true believer in another set of beliefs.”  In other words, in this particular context, one who rejects faith in Christianity is, in truth, holding to faith in some other worldview – even if that worldview boils down to faith in believing that Christianity is a fairy tale.

In sum, the atheist, Albert Camus, represents the unavoidable faith required by atheism when he said, “I would rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn’t, than live as if there isn’t and to die to find out that there is.”

Soli Deo Gloria, Nick