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.

The Dreaded Christian To-Do List


Pile, inbox, list, to-doMy son and I are reading through the New Testament together this summer. Though I’ve read through the NT many times previously, the word of God is rich, my life circumstances change, and people grow and see with more spiritual vision over time.

One truth is hitting me hard this time around.

If you are a parent of a child who has gone through public or private school, you received notes from teachers about your child. Some addressed issues in your child’s life that required fixing. Others were updates on the school or its activities.

In reading the NT again, I was struck by how Paul’s letters to the churches often resemble those notes from a schoolteacher. They contain correctives, do’s and don’t’s, progress info, and so on.

But here’s the thing: If I were try to recreate an image of my child, would those letters he brought home from teachers be sufficient to tell me who he is?

I see this tendency in churches to take the Scriptures and make lists of do’s and don’t’s, form an image from those do’s and don’t’s, and then call them The Gospel™.

Problem is, compiling lists and performing what’s on them is not the real Gospel and never has been. Ironically, there exists a list of 10 To-Do items meant for “religious” people and those religious people found it a bear to do them. Even more ironic, the Giver of those 10 items concurred with the people: Yes, those 10 were impossible to keep perfectly.

And yet for most people attending a Christian Church in America, what comes out of the pulpit on Sunday is almost always a list of more “spiritual” things for them to do. It’s three, five, 10, or 12 bullet points (depending on how long-winded the preacher is) that we must now perform to have perfect





prayer lives,

Bible-study skills,

and on and on.

We have exchanged 10 items impossible to do for innumerable items impossible to do.

Preachers love to mine the Old Covenant for these items, despite the fact that covenant has been replaced by a much better one. Then they look at the better one, read all the “Notes from Teacher” letters of Paul, and use those corrective letters as additional fodder for more lists. (If anything, those corrective letters are intended more for Church leaders themselves to wrestle with. Sort of a “Teacher, teach thyself” sort of thing. But then how many preacher/leaders look at them that way?)

Funny thing  is, though the post-apostolic Church has loved its lists, the early Church knew better. When the issue of lists of Christian things to do came before the apostles and early Church leaders with regard to the gentiles, an astute James said there was no reason to frustrate those believers with a massive spiritual To-Do list. In the end, the leaders kept that list sane and super-short.

Even wilder? Those same apostles and leaders called the spiritual To-Do lists they’d had to contend with their entire lives “trouble” and a “burden.” You can read about this in Acts 15.

Jesus didn’t like lists either. When someone tried to force a list of approved behavior out of Him, He said all you needed to do was to love God and love your neighbor.

You know what? I think I can remember a list of two items. (Still, even those two are tough to keep!)

And yet today, the lists multiply and lengthen.

In Ecclesiastes, the narrator complains of the endless making of books and the weariness that comes from studying them. In our self-help, active, To-Do-centered culture today, books now equals lists. Because, hey, we’re too busy with our lists to focus on anything as lengthy as a book.

As someone 50 years old who has been a Christian for 35+ years, I’ve had enough Christian lists spoken to me over the years to gag a T. Rex. Actually, more like a herd of T. Rex. How many of those lists do I remember? None.

But if I really think about it, that statement may not be true. I do remember those lists—in a way. They bubble and churn under the surface of my spiritual life like so much hidden acid reflux and manifest as a case of spiritual heartburn. Not spiritual conviction, just a feeling like I swallowed something that’s stuck in my throat. Something akin to a millstone.

You know what? I don’t need more lists. You don’t either.

What we need more of is Jesus. And He never was and never will be a To-Do list.

It’s Never Enough Until Your Heart Stops Beating


If you don’t already know, I play drums. Four weeks ago, I got lost in the moment during worship at church and misunderstood a gesture by one of the other worship team members as the signal end a song. Not remembering how far along we were into that song, I complied and the whole thing ground to a quick halt. This left the lead guitarist unprepared for the next song, as he was lost in the moment, too.

Oops. As someone who attempts to be professional in his playing, I don’t make an enormous number of boneheaded mistakes like that.

Later, I was told by someone that my mistake resulted in the quenching of the Spirit. I know in my heart that this isn’t true because the Holy Spirit isn’t so timid that a missed cue sends Him flying away. This isn’t an incantation, folks.

Still, a nagging doubt of my skills remained.

The next Sunday—Easter—rolled around and a packed church greeted us as I sat down on my drummer’s throne. Our set had a number of songs we’d not practiced fully, so I was on pins and needles considering the previous week.

What happened next could best be described in my view as “a disaster.” Because we sometimes extend songs if the mood hits, endings get dictated by whomever leads the song. I play along until I get a cue to end. Easter Sunday, yours truly, my cue radar on hypersensitive, proceeded to take three slight gestures by song leaders as “let’s end this”—only to end the songs prematurely. This happened on each of the last three songs we played, each ending worse than the one before.

The people in the seats didn’t know any better. The vast majority didn’t catch the mistakes. But I could barely get off the stage. I didn’t hear the message. I don’t think I heard anything anyone said. The afternoon stunk. The evening followed in kind. The Monday after resembled the dark-hued one that New Order (or Fats Domino, for all you oldsters) sang about.

New Order also sang the following:

That’s the way – shellshock.
Hold on! It’s never enough,
It’s never enough until your heart stops beating.

I talk to people and it never ceases to amaze me how many live in perpetual shellshock. No matter what they do, it’s never enough. Never enough until their hearts stop beating.

I look at what we’re doing to ourselves and wonder if the cost to keep up with the Joneses, to never let our guard down for one moment lest we stumble and the herd of stampeding elephants behind us run us over, is worth it.

I dare any married couple with children to arrange a get-together with five other similar couples. How far does the calendar spool out before a mutually open date shows up—if at all? Then the pressure mounts.

When our culture only likes a winner, everyone fights to win. But what of the losers? And if there’s only one winner, aren’t most of us losers?natlamp.jpg

When our culture praises a life set awhirling, how do we turn off the spin cycle?

The iconic magazine cover at right summarizes our dilemma. Are we the dog? Or are we the consumer? Don’t we lose in either case?

I think too many of us feel like we have a gun pointed at our heads and that at any second someone or something may squeeze the trigger. We rationalize that if we only do this better or that more quickly, the gun will magically disappear.

Or we feel the pressure to conform to the voices yelling at us through our culture. Sadly, we may feel as if our churches scream the same message as the culture. They tell us what we should be doing, but give us no tools or assistance to make that command possible. In some ways, we’re left attempting what they say for fear of worse consequences, even if we can’t make what they say work.

It’s never enough. And the heart beats on, though more anxiously.

I used to think that frenzy and performance stood as distinct traits, but now I’m beginning to see they feed off each other. They combine like nitro and glycerine to explode in our lives, leaving us shellshocked.

Yesterday afternoon, my family attended a wildflower walk hosted by the Audubon Society. Jack in the Pulpit, Spring Beauty, Blue Phlox, Trillium, Yellow Ragwort. Flowers. In the woods. For hours.

Driving home, I wondered how many people would consider that time ill-spent because the dividends don’t leap out. Or how many have so scheduled their lives they can’t possible find the time to stop and consider a fragile flower not even a quarter inch across.

I’ve got to believe that a culture that hurtles here and there loses its soul. If we’re living our lives under the mantra that it’s never enough until our hearts stop beating, then perhaps we’re already dead.

Someone has to stand up and oppose this performance-oriented frenzy of activity. And more than just one of us. We can’t do this alone or else we simply won’t generate the inertia to change our culture.

Yes, it’s a matter of prayer. But more than that, it’s Christians playing the counterculture card and doing so with their very lives.

We want to see Christ lifted up, to win the world for Him, yet we’re either stuck in the spin cycle or sidelined by shellshock.

Something’s gotta give.

{Image: One of the most recognized magazine covers of all-time, National Lampoon, January 1973, ASME‘s #7 cover of the period 1965-2005.}