Lights of Distant Cities

Lights of Distant Cities, Bebo Norman, BEC Recordings, 2012.

One of my favorite Christian artists, Bebo Norman, announced his upcoming retirement earlier this month. As a tribute, I have decided to review his latest album, Lights of Distant Cities. In interviews, Bebo has said that he began writing the songs on this album in the middle of what felt like an emotion-less, spiritual wasteland.

In an ironic twist, however, he shares that despair and loneliness gave way to hope and renewal during the final months of the song-writing process. This journey is reflected beautifully in the title track “Lights of Distant Cities,” where Bebo likens our earthly dwelling to a foreign land of shadows, but declares that lights from distant cities are calling us out.

The songs on Lights of Distant Cities are beautifully interwoven musically and lyrically. The thumping toms in “Lights of Distant Cities” sound like a march of the lights, breaking in closer and closer to our present existence, the bass resounds like an anthem, and the chorus, which says, “You come alive like a melody” soars with atmospheric electric riffs.

The second song on the album, “The Broken,” is probably the one with most mainstream appeal. The premise is simple but heartfelt, “God of the Universe, do you hear the cries that pour out from all the earth? Can your hands of glory reach down and heal the hurt of the broken … the poverty of the soul?” The hammered dulcimer shimmers between lines like beams of light shining through cracks in a wooden door, and its hope-filled melody is a sufficient answer to this question: the “weight of glory can still rise above” and “capture the captives on the wings of love and carry us to our home.”

Hope in a fallen world is the common thread that runs through this entire album–a message that is encapsulated by the heavily-synthesized “Outside Her Window Was the World,” which recounts the spiritual redemption of a depressed young woman who used to cut herself.

My personal favorite on this album is “Collide.” The ethereal acoustic guitar loops create a sense of swirling in space and colliding from one wall to another, musically representing the “altars [we] keep building to the sky” to no avail and our “failed attempts to fly away.” The poignant question of the bridge hangs unanswered, “How long must we hold on before grace and gravity collide?” All who have struggled between fallen depravity and sanctifying grace know this longing.

Lights of Distant Cities shows that Bebo has grown much more comfortable within the pop/rock genre that he began experimenting with in his album Big Blue Sky, but more so than any of his previous albums, Lights of Distant Cities showcases rich, atmospheric sonic layers reminiscent of U2 and Coldplay. Nevertheless, one can catch glimpses of Bebo’s folk roots in songs like “Daylight Breaking” and “Go With You.”

The signature elements of Bebo’s music, melodic pop hooks, lyrical intimacy, and passionate, vulnerable, yet warm vocals, are all here. This is a worthy capstone to Bebo’s 20-year career.

Buy Lights of Distant Cities HERE.

Can Christians Be Depressed or Suicidal?

Depression and Suicide

Depression and suicide are taboo topics among Christians, because they are often perceived as signs of spiritual weakness. “Good Christians are never depressed,” and “True Christians never commit suicide” are common sentiments among Evangelicals. But are these even true?

This week, the suicide of the 27-year-old Matthew Warren, the son of the renowned pastor Rick Warren, rocked the Evangelical world and began a national conversation about mental illness.

It is impossible to speak with certainty on this issue since the Scriptures do not directly address it. However, I do think that Christians can be susceptible to depression, and I do not think that suicide is an unpardonable sin.

What the Bible Says…
The Biblical narratives that mention suicide (Abimelech, Jdgs. 9:52-54; Samson, Jdgs. 16:30; Saul, 1 Sm. 31:4; Saul’s armor-bearer, 1 Sm. 31:5; Ahithophel, 2 Sm. 17:23; Zimri, 1 Kings 16:15-20; Judas, Mt. 27:3-5) pass no judgment on the morality of suicide itself. They merely comment on the reason why these men took their own lives.

Furthermore, men chosen by God such as Job (7:15-16), David (Ps. 13:2-4), Jeremiah (20:14-18), and Jonah (4:9) all despaired of their lives at some point, and Samson, who kills himself along with the Philistines, is hailed as a hero of the faith in Heb. 11:32. These examples alone should dispel the idealistic notion that Christians are immune to depression and suicidal tendencies.

Mental illnesses can have complex physiological, as well as psychological, causes. Loneliness, anxiety, and depression persist in this fallen world because our bodies are still groaning for the full redemption of God (Rom. 8:22-23).

On this side of eternity, sincere Christians still struggle with serious sins (Rom. 7:7-25). Thus, a volatile Christian can succumb to suicidal temptations in the throes of severe depression. Suicide is a tragedy in which the victim often has little control.

The good news is that there is no condemnation for those who confess Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior (Rom. 8:31-34), and nothing can separate us from the love of God–not life, not death, not even death by suicide (Rom. 8:35-39). We are saved, not by living up to certain behavioral standards, but through the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the heart of the gospel.

The fact that one cannot repent of suicide after death does not preclude God’s forgiveness. We all have unconfessed sins that are unknown even to ourselves (Ps. 19:12; cf. 1 Cor. 4:4), and confession of every sin has never been the criterion for salvation.

Some cite 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 as proof that suicide leads to eternal damnation:

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

However, this is a misinterpretation because the referent of “God’s temple” in this context is not an individual’s body (as it is in 1 Cor. 6:19-20) but the local church. We know this because (1)Paul is addressing the problem of division within the local church (1 Cor. 3:3-9), and because (2)the personal pronoun “you” in the original Greek is plural, though this is lost in translation.

The verses that immediately precede vv. 16-17 talk about how Christ will judge each one’s work in the upbuilding of the church. The enduring value of one’s labor will be tested by fire, and “if anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor. 3:12-15). This “loss” speaks not of individual damnation but of the damage done to the church. His work will be lost and he will lose his reward, but “he himself wil be saved.”

Please Don’t Take Your Own Life!
Of course, God’s mercy is by no means an excuse for suicide. Suicide is never a viable option (Acts 16:25-34). It is presumptuous to take God-given life into our own hands, and selfish to spurn the care of our loved ones.

We have been bought with a price by Christ’s blood, and our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit that belong to God. (In the context of 1 Cor. 6:19-20, the “temple” does refer to the individual body, because it is dealing with sexual immorality rather than with division in the church as before). Like any sin, suicide results in a relative, albeit not necessarily absolute, rift in one’s fellowship with God.

If you struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts, please remember that God is sovereign and that there is always hope. Please seek help, both spiritual and medical. Please hang on, so that you can “teach the world to sing [your] song”…

For a more detailed treatment on this issue, please see my friend Al’s article on Christianity Today.

Well, I don’t want to die anymore
Don’t want the Lord to call me home
I’ve got this feeling he ain’t done with me yet
So, I’ll sit right right here and place my bet

So, I don’t want to die, not just yet…

Well, it’s a hard road
To get back to my home
I don’t know how much farther I can go
But if I hang on,
Though I know the road is long,
I could teach the world to sing my song.

-Excerpt from “Don’t Wanna Die Anymore” by Ivan & Alyosha

Download the song Don’t Wanna Die Anymore.

Download the full album All The Times We Had.

Rule of Life

This is a clip of me sharing my “Rule of Life” with Leadership Transformations, Inc. To borrow a definition from the Pierce Center for Disciple Building based in Gordon-Conwell, a “Rule of Life” is simply “a holistic description of the Spirit-empowered rhythms and relationships that create, redeem, sustain, and transform [your] life.” It is a reflection on one’s roles, gifts, desires, vision, and mission, and involves thinking about how one can steward his or her trust (relationships), temple (body), treasure (money), and/or talent (gifts). While we must be careful not to be legalistic in our approach to spiritual formation, it is helpful to remember that “Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action. Grace, you know, does not just have to do with forgiveness of sins alone” (Dallas Willard, The Great Omission, p. 61). In fact, everyone observes certain “rules” in life, doing morning devotions, giving thanks before meals, or saying bedtime prayers. Such a regula, or a guiding principle, is essential for ministers for whom myriad responsibilities and opportunities vie for attention. Faithfulness in life is a prerequisite for fruitfulness in ministry, and one cannot care for others’ souls while neglecting his or her own.

Encountering the Master in the Scriptures (Matthew 5.17-20)

The sermon I preached at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary on November 15th, 2011.

“Seek to master the Scriptures, but even more seek to be mastered by the Scriptures, and yet still more seek to encounter the Master, the fulfiller of the Law and the Prophets, the author and perfecter of our faith, the Lover of our souls, who awaits you within the pages of Scripture.” LISTEN

Matthew 5:17-20
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Under the Haystack

My talk about the 1806 Haystack Revival and the ensuing Student Volunteer Movement @ the Global Impact Conference hosted by Gordon-Conwell, Oct. 4-7, 2011

While I was a student at Williams College, I was interviewed for a short documentary about the Haystack Revival. You can watch that video here.