Suicide and the Church of the Organ Grinder’s Monkey


This weekend, I listened to a podcast from a well-known Christian organization that featured the banter of two notable hosts. The subject was not banter material, though, because it focused on the alarming rise in the last few years of suicide.

The hosts attempted to pin some of the blame on economic realities. This is no doubt true. One demographic to experience an alarming rise in self-harm: men in their 50s. For most men, the early 50s are imagined as peak earning years. When a job loss or income drop happens at this time, the results can be catastrophic, especially since 50 is the new 70 in the eyes of the corporate world.

When the hosts shifted into talking how the Church should be the answer to people who are looking for hope amid economic misfortune, I wondered if they listened to their own show. Why? Because something telling betrayed their response. It’s the reason why economic realities are not the greater portion of the problem of suicide and its rise.

All throughout the podcast, the hosts mentioned their individual, personal brands. They dropped the names of the top schools their kids attended. They talked titles and honors. In doing so, they broadcast a sub-message greater than the Gospel—at least greater in its ubiquity. It’s the message that powers America and drives people to pull the trigger, cut the wrists, and take the pills. It’s the message of the Organ Grinder’s Monkey.

Organ Grinder and MonkeyI’ve never seen an actual organ grinder and his monkey. Italian men with handlebar mustaches come to mind, wearing Tyrolean costumes, while a capuchin or spider monkey gambols about his feet in a cute, little red vest and fez.

The one thing about the monkey: It never stops doing its shtick. Fact is, it can’t. Gotta keep dancing so long as the organ music plays.

I visited the website of a well-known church growth leader, and the one thing that impressed me most about his message was how often he begged people to retweet it, buy it in book form, and share his name with friends, neighbors, the neighbor’s dog, the fleas on the dog, and the mites on the fleas.

Because you gotta keep dancing.

Gotta be number one.

Gotta have name recognition.

Gotta be flogging that personal brand. You.

Gotta get those kids into a name school.

Gotta hold down that title, that chair, that fellowship, that thing that will justify your use of air.

Gotta. Because the organ is grinding, the music is playing, and it’s dance or Antonio finds another monkey.

You have to be “on.” All the time.

Do. There is no do not.

If we think we can go to the Church for an answer on this non-stop performance, we can’t. Because so many churches are enmeshed in trying to stay alive that they do everything they can to enhance their brand, their name recognition, their “product.”

Everywhere you turn, it’s perform or die.

Don’t make a mistake.

Don’t relax.

Don’t stop selling.

ABC—Always Be Closing.

The problem is that the Gospel comes along and it’s 180-degrees in opposition to the lifestyle of the organ grinder’s monkey. The Gospel’s freedom comes in not having to dance unendingly. People are no longer slaves to the music the world pipes. God doesn’t give a rip about your personal brand because you’re a mess and will be until you draw your final breath. Your personal brand is just another load of skubalon. So stop with the charade. Grace.

Why do people despair enough to end their lives? I think too many feel that they can’t let their guard down, can’t stop dancing, can’t stop performing, and just can’t shill for even one second more for themselves or for whomever their organ grinder might be. They simply cannot keep up.

When I listen to a Christian podcast and the message sounds like the organ grinder’s music, I don’t wonder why people are not in the seats on Sunday. Because there’s no relief. If the Church can’t tell people they can stop being an organ grinder’s monkey—and give them actual help to cease the tarantella—then no one will. Freedom in Christ will remain high concept and low reality.

We can talk all we want as a Church about grace, but until we stop with the performance mentality, we’ll sit back and watch the suicides pile up and blame them on everyone and everything EXCEPT the real cause.

We took a cruel world and fed into it a bunch of performance lies that make it even crueler. It’s time, Church, to help people throw off their monkeydom and embrace the freedom that comes from being identified by more than our performance.

Apologetics, Evangelism, and a Three-Verse Gospel


I wonder if Christian apologetics is dead.

OK, so maybe not dead, but not in great shape either.

Many will be quick to launch into verses about the Last Days and people not enduring sound doctrine, but I think something else is going on with the way we promote the faith.

We live in an age when you can’t persuade/argue/enlighten anyone through rhetoric. People are dug in because what they believe is always being assaulted by someone with a bigger bullhorn. evangelismI think the biggest bullhorn of all may be the Internet, as it levels the playing field of truth and untruth. Now the deranged can have their loud voice too. Where it got weird for us is that some of the deranged rants proved to be correct, so now we’re not sure we want to believe anything immediately outside our sphere of understanding, if only to keep our sanity.

For this reason, I look at some of the books in my library such as Strobel’s The Case for Christ or McDowell’s More Than a Carpenter, and they almost seem quaint, a bygone of a forgotten era.

I think people are different too. We’re more scattered mentally, without time and patience for nuanced arguments. Bad for us, certainly, but it is what it is.

Evangelism suffers for all these cultural and societal changes. In some ways, we no longer know how to tell the story of Jesus to others. We’re not sure what parts are essential. Even though we know that faith is critical, we’re unclear on how we go about telling a lost person about Jesus.

I think part of the problem is that we’ve let belief in Jesus get too complex. We feel like we have to have a bulletproof apologetic, which disqualifies most of us from ever talking about Jesus because we simply can’t dredge up at a moment’s notice a counter to every question a contemporary denizen of these here United States of 2015 is likely to ask. So we stay quiet.

Let me propose the following.

The fundamental question of life:

Then [Jesus] said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
—Luke 9:20a

Which is followed by this:

And Peter answered, “The Christ of God.”
—Luke 9:20b

Everyone who has ever lived must answer that question. Some will do it right. Most will not. But everyone will answer.

Along with that question, we Christians must answer this: What Is the Gospel? Many of us stumble at that point.

May I suggest we strip the Gospel question down to its bare essence. Perhaps we need to simplify. Maybe we need to encapsulate the Gospel in just three verses.

A set of three to consider:

…but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
—Romans 5:8

…[Jesus] said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
—John 19:30b

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
—Ephesians 2:8-9

OR, consider these three:

…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…
—Romans 3:23

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me….”
—John 14:6

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
—Galatians 2:20

Many good combinations of three verses (OK, so the short Ephesians passage is two verses—you get the point) exist. What three do you know well that capture the essence of the Gospel?

Most Christians should be able to start with their three verses and unpack them a little if necessary. No oratory, just a short explanation for people if needed. Then ask the question that Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” with the understanding that everyone at some stage in his or her existence will have to answer that question.

As simple as that may be, people will still struggle with raising the topic of Jesus at all. I think it may be easier than we think, because a lot of people are concerned about the crazy times we live in. If that’s not an opportunity to talk about what really matters, I don’t know what is.

Beyond this, I think we try too hard to close the conversation with a convert. We have to stop thinking it’s on us. If anything, I would steer someone toward reading the Gospel of John and let the Holy Spirit work and convict through the Scriptures. The Jesus People movement grew in part due to the publication and later distribution of self-contained Gospels of John at concerts and events. In lieu of that, the whole Bible is available online. John is a good start, especially when the “I AM” passages are emphasized for what Jesus is really saying about Himself.

We as a Church can’t keep the Light for ourselves. Jesus is who we have, and lost people still need Him.

Plugging Mockingbird


In an age that too often passes off legalistic moralism as “The Gospel,” even in supposedly Gospel-centered churches, it’s refreshing to find a source of genuine Law/Gospel preaching. Add to this that the preaching in this case is young, intelligent, hip, and conservative Episcopalian (yes, shocking, I know!), well, it’s worth sharing.

Mockingbird ( was born in 2007 in the heart of David Zahl and a couple of his friends as a way to reach disaffected, young, urban hipsters. They not only succeeded, they drew in a few old, rural charismatics too. 😉 The site consists of intriguing writing that covers contemporary culture, events, lit, and music, and it offers some truly excellent preaching podcasts. They even publish a slick quarterly.
Mockingbird Logo
Most of all, the Mockingbird crew tackles 21st century life in a way that is astute, grace-filled, humble, and relevant—a combo sorely needed in the modern American church. I’ve found the preaching of Jacob Smith, in particular, to be some of the best I’ve ever heard.

Yes, the writing occasionally strays into East Coast literary journal-like esoterica, and love for certain aspects of culture sometimes exceeds its quota (if you don’t consider Seinfeld genius, well…), but overall, this is a great resource. Nothing thrills me more than to hear other Christians talking about the kinds of topics I tackle here at Cerulean Sanctum. I don’t agree with their take on everything, but even when I don’t, it still gets me thinking—and Gospel-driven thinking in the American Church should be something we celebrate.