The Death of Mrs. Doubtfire

Mrs. Doubtfire

The death of Robin Williams hit me hard.

While on sabbatical, Bambi and I have sought to insulate ourselves from the bad news that is a staple of the modern diet. Given spotty internet connections and unfamiliar TV channels, our ability to stay abreast of world developments–not to mention our motivation–have been at an all-time low.

To be sure, some tragic news has pierced our zone of blissful ignorance: the senseless bloodshed in Palestine, the embattled refugees in the mountains of Iraq, a terribly frightening Ebola epidemic. Hearing about these distressing developments, I’ve shaken my head in disbelief, winced with sadness, and said my prayers.

But the death of Robin William hit me like a punch in the stomach. It felt like a personal loss. How could the comedian who brought me and millions more so much side-splitting laughter suddenly be gone? And gone like this.

It is a poignant reminder that no matter what sort of happy face people wear to work, or to church, or even to the breakfast table, many are living in a private hell they try to keep hidden. And sometimes, they fail.

And now, to add insult to injury, there is chatter on Facebook and other social media by supposed Christians pronouncing some version of “Robin Williams went to hell because he committed the unpardonable sin.”

It baffles me why, in the name of God, some feel at liberty to pronounce eternal judgement in the face of another’s misstep, miscalculation, or tragic mistake. If there is one thing the Bible is emphatic about, it is that God alone is in a position to judge others (Matthew 7:1, Romans 14:10-13, 1 Corinthians 4:5 for starters).

In my pastoral experience with suicide, one thing has always proved true: the person committing suicide was lost in a jungle of hopelessness, whether from mental illness, addiction, or some tragic dead end, and couldn’t find their way out. So lost in a haze of despair, often fortified with drugs or alcohol, they simply and irrevocably gave up.

Sin, by any theologically serious definition, requires agency: the ability to make an informed, freely-chosen decision. I suspect the vast majority of people who commit suicide are in no state to make such a decision. Except in the rarest of cases (e.g., a soldier swallowing a cyanide capsule to avoid divulging crucial information to the enemy), suicide means one has lost the capacity to be rational and hence, to sin.

Further, I believe in a God whose love is vastly greater and infinitely more resourceful than any tragedy we bring crashing down upon ourselves or those we love. I believe that God’s searching, redemptive love never gives up on us, not in this life nor the next. I believe that when Robin Williams died, the first tear to fall, fell upon the face of God.

And I don’t believe this because it is my personal preference. I believe this because I believe in Jesus, the face of God’s defiant, unquenchable love.

IMG_5366 corrected

At noon the day Robin Williams died, Bambi and I wandered into a prayer service on the isle of Lindisfarne off the north English coast where we have been staying. Saint Aiden picked Lindisfarne as the spot for his monastery because twice a day, it was cut off from the mainland by the tide. But I suspect brother Aiden soon learned in the seventh century, what I have learned in the twenty-first: there is no escaping the world’s pain and suffering. It has a way of finding you, one way or another, especially if you love God and drawn into God’s heartbreak over a troubled, turbulent world.

Lindisfarne tide

During the prayer service on the isle of Lindisfarne, those present were invited to pray using these words: “Dear God, keep ________ within and keep _______ without.” One of the first prayers offered–and God knows, I needed it–was voiced by a dear woman who said, “Dear God, we remember the family and friends of Robin Williams. Bring them a measure of your comfort. And for them, as for us, keep the hope within and the despair without.

“Yes, dear God, for me and for those I love, keep the hope within and the despair without.

“And wherever you are holding Robin Williams in the palm of your hand, at this very moment, may he find that at last, for him the prayer proves true: ‘Keep the hope within and the despair without.’

“Grant that in the eternal radiance of your all-encompassing grace, my friend, Robin Williams might discover that even if in the pain and blindness of the moment, he gave up on you, you never gave up on him.

“I ask this in Jesus’ name for Robin’s sake, and for my sake, too.

“Because of Jesus, I knew I could. Amen.”

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Give Way

IMG_5215 corrected

Bambi and I recently returned for our second week on Iona, that hallowed island off the west Scottish coast where Saint Columba brought Christianity to Scotland. It was a privilege to return so soon. Some people wait a lifetime to do so.

But I was most grateful to return to Iona for a very selfish, superficial reason: returning to the two-legged gait of my ancestors and surrendering the rental car once and for all.

For me, driving on the “wrong side” of the road was a daily grind in the art of thinking backwards. It was like revisiting the Waterloo of my seminary education: trying to learn to read Hebrew where one starts reading at the end of the manuscript and works backward. Perhaps due to some defect in myself, I never found this catywampus way of reading or driving any fun.

But for Bambi, my driving on the wrong side of the road was even worse. She had the unenviable task of shrieking with alarm whenever I courted disaster by wandering over to the American side of the road.

Perhaps the toughest part of our driving adventure was the Scottish penchant for single-lane roads. These are narrow roads barely wide enough for one car, let alone two, that weave through the Scottish highlands and isles for mile after endless mile. The only upside is that on a single-lane road, there is no wrong side of the road. There is only the delicate task of regularly avoiding head-on collisions. And not just with cars, but with sheep and cows lumbering down the lane.

Passing Place with Cows

Now in the Scot’s defense, they do regularly create wide spaces in these tiny roads called “passing places.” The idea is that as two drivers approach, one slips into the passing place. Then both drivers nod and wave as one sits patiently and the other goes humming by. This works pretty well on long, straight, highly visible stretches of road. The problem is such roads are in woefully short supply on the back roads of Scotland.

Passing Place Best

So take a ride with me. You are rumbling down a road at twenty or thirty miles per hour. You wave at the cows or sheep that for the moment, are where they belong in their pastures on either side of the road. You see the summit of the next hill and tense up, wondering what is waiting on the other side. You slow to a crawl as you crest the hill, straining to peep over it to see what may be coming. And then you gasp to see a tourist bus the size of Manhattan quickly filling your field of vision, also known as the windshield.

The bus driver hits the brakes and comes to a screeching halt. Reeling from shock, you do the same. Then, seeing your ashen, bloodless face, the bus driver nods politely, even apologetically, and backs up to the nearest “passing place” a hundred yards behind him. The shriek level in the car subsides as your passenger releases her vicelike grip on your forearm. You engage the gear shift and drive forward, silently thanking the Almighty that once more, your life has been spared. Then, as you drive by the bus driver sitting patiently in the “passing place,” you smile and nod, thanking him too.

So why do the Scots, a smart, industrious people, insist on building these infernal single-lane roads that regularly cause American preachers (and other not-so-saintly saints) to fight a nearly overwhelming urge to cuss? Is it an expression of Scottish frugality taken to the extreme? Or are they hoping to minimize the impact of roads on the environment, making roads so small that cows and sheep feel safe to call them “home”?

Give Way

No, I finally decided. It is to teach people to be kind, considerate, and polite. Because there’s no way to survive a drive through the Scottish isles or highlands unless one cultivates such virtues. Little wonder regularly posted signs entreat drivers to “Give Way.” Because unless both parties are willing to “Give Way,” as the situation demands, a catastrophic collision is inevitable.

It’s that way in all successful relationships: a certain amount of give-and-take is required. So long as this yielding to another’s pressing need is mutual, the relationship has a good chance of thriving. But if one or both parties lose the capacity to “give way,” whether out of selfishness, frustration, or sheer exhaustion, an impasse or collision soon looms on the horizon.

And so, the New Testament regularly implores and reminds us: “Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10). “Love is patient; love is kind . . . It does not insist on its own way” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5). And this one from the Master: “As I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34).

So this day, as you survey the horizon of your own most intimate relationships, ask yourself: “Have I lost my capacity to ‘give way’? Am I thinking only of myself and my needs while growing forgetful of the needs of others? Is it my turn to pull over into the passing place and give somebody else room to roll?”

The Scots do this well. They are a kind, considerate people, polite to a fault. One rarely even hears a horn honk.

Maybe they learned this from Jesus or maybe they learned it from driving on the harrowing back roads of Scotland. Maybe they learned it from both.

I just know I’m beginning to think those single-track roads are not such a bad idea after all.

Blessings,

Bob Setzer, Jr.

Passing Place cattle in road

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