Tuesday, August 12, 2014

They Won't Tell You This in Church

Sometimes the Dark Surprises

William Cowper

Sunday we sang William Cowper's "Sometimes a Light Surprises."
Sometimes a light surprises the Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord, who rises with healing in His wings:
When comforts are declining,He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining, to cheer it after rain. 
In holy contemplation we sweetly then pursue
The theme of God’s salvation, and find it ever new.
Set free from present sorrow,we cheerfully can say,
Let the unknown tomorrow bring with it what it may.
Toward the end of the hymn I had a disturbing thought.

Then yesterday Robin Williams killed himself, and the disturbing thought of Sunday became more discomfiting. It would appear there is no connection between the author of "There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood" and the profane and blasphemous comedic genius. But there is.

Today on Facebook there are the expected Christian comments about Williams. 
One Comment: It is interesting how our culture is also "ok" with those in the business of "performing arts" continually using and abusing drugs. Without Christ it is no wonder that depression sets in.
Another: Depression can have many causes. Some are physical. Heavy drug use damages the brain, and Williams had been a heavy drug user in his past (though he had been sober for some time). But depression isn't exclusively physical. Depression can also be caused by guilt feelings, or the emotional effects of a philosophy of despair. E.g., believing that life is ultimately tragic and meaningless is depressing.
Dick Knodel, with his characteristic rigidly antithetical outlook and absolute certainty, wrote:
I've not heard anyone address the issue of Robin William's arrogant unbelief. Using the remarkable gifts God gave him, Williams lived a life of open secularism before God. In almost every way possible, Robin flaunted his autonomy!... But all that bravado was turned on its head in his suicide! He had no saving gospel, and all his arrogance manifested itself in the ultimate contradiction -- suicide...
Robin William's death spoke volumes about his spiritual stupidity, and awful, empty, human vanity. Such is the dirty underbelly of man's impudence in the face of Christ!

Here is one of several approving Facebook comments on Dick's post:
Thanks so much for this Status Update.The "self-destruct button" has eternal and damnable consequences.Even when he was happy he looked pained. Behind all the laughter was hopelessness fueled by unbelief.
 know all these comments reflect sincere belief. But the authors don't get it. I know that because of something about William Cowper they don't tell you in church. It was what I was thinking about when we sang the last hymn about the light that surprises last Sunday.

William Cowper was converted (in the crisis experience sense) while in an asylum after a suicide attempt. (One of the things they usually don't tell you in Baptist and Presbyterian churches is that he was an Anglican.) After that he was an evangelical. Not only an evangelical but a Calvinist. Not just a Calvinist but an experimentalist. He lived for awhile with John Newton. They wrote poetry together (though some think Newton was a drag on Cowper's poetry and that Cowper wrote best when separated from Newton). Though their friendship became somewhat strained, they remained friends. 

A great deal of Cowper's poetry gives expression to experimental, evangelical, Calvinism.  Consider the final two stanzas of his "A Living and a Dead Faith":
Easy indeed it were to reach
A mansion in the courts above,
If swelling words and fluent speech
Might serve instead of faith and love.
But none shall gain the blissful place,
Or God's unclouded glory see,
Who talks of free and sovereign grace,
Unless that grace has made him free!
If you follow one of the obedience boys, you have heard that teaching, perhaps even that poem.

But there's more to Cowper's life...and death.... His last, and, some think, his best poem was written in 1799 (he died in 1800). It is based on an account he had read of a sailor who was swept overboard in a storm. According to a witness the man swam and stayed afloat for awhile, could not be rescued, watched as the ship moved further away, and finally drowned. Cowper describes the feelings the poor sailor may have had, but in the last two stanzas turns to his own situation, first identifying with and then separating himself from the sailor:
I therefore purpose not, or dream,
Descanting on his fate,
To give the melancholy theme
A more enduring date:
But misery still delights to trace
Its semblance in another's case. 
No voice divine the storm allay'd,
No light propitious shone;
When, snatch'd from all effectual aid,
We perish'd, each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelm'd in deeper gulfs than he.
The last two lines reflect a statement Cowper had made in 1793: "My sin and judgment are alike peculiar. I am a castaway, deserted and condemned." 

Cowper's pre-evangelical-conversion suicide attempt was the first of several. There came a point at which the despair finally descended not to lift the rest of his life. So far as we know, Cowper died believing himself doomed. That's not the way Christian biography is supposed to end.

Though Cowper died thinking himself damned Newton did not think so. He believed Cowper woke, no doubt to his own surprise, in glory.

One of Cowper's poems, addressed to Newton the former seafarer, describes the difference between himself and Newton. It also describes two poles of Christian experience:

That ocean you of late survey'd,
Those rocks I too have seen,
But I, afflicted and dismay'd,
You, tranquil and serene. 
You from the flood-controlling steep
Saw stretch'd before your view,
With conscious joy, the threat'ning deep,
No longer such to you. 
To me, the waves that ceaseless broke
Upon the dang'rous coast
Hoarsely and ominously spoke
Of all my treasure lost. 
Your sea of troubles you have past,
And found the peaceful shore;
I, tempest-toss'd, and wreck'd at last,
Come home to port no more.
 I don't know the how or the why of Cowper's life and despair. Nor do you. Here is a comment that makes sense from the perspective of Christian faith and points to the real difference between the depression of Robin Williams and William Cowper is to be found essentially in Christ now and experientially only in eternity:
All men are tragic figures. Artists have a deeper sense of their own failings and helped us to sense our own. Robin Williams was funny because we saw the conflict in him - funny, joyful, silly, simple conflicted with a dour drug user, with a broken family whose wrinkly eyes made you either want to melt with mirth or explode with sorrow. He was a tragic figure, and we sensed it, because he showed us the tragedy of who we are. In Christ we have already been freed from this tragedy, just not yet.
My favorite Cowper hymn is "God Moves in a Mysterious Way." I will continue to sing these verses:
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head. 
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
For some those big clouds of mercy will break in the age to come. Some will behold that smiling face in heaven. For some the bitter bud will yield to the sweet flower in the world to come. Not till then. 

So I hope.

1 comment:

jomato said...

As a pastor who struggles with bouts of depression, and a fan who appreciated Robin Williams, this article struck a chord with me. It is true that "they won't tell you this in church" but I shared Cowper's story during an Advent sermon on despair and hope last year.