HOW TOUGH IS YOUR SOUL?

HOW TOUGH IS YOUR SOUL?

Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong. Do everything in love. (1 Corinthians 16:13-14 NIV)

In my first year at the church I lead, I met a wonderful woman, about sixty years old, named Violet. I was just getting to know her when I got a call that she was in the hospital. I went to visit, and she said, “I just got dizzy and weak one day. The next day they told me my heart was bad and here I am, on my way to Duke for bypass surgery.”  Less than a week later, we were burying Violet.

The economists tell us that we are experiencing full employment, the economy is stronger than it has been in fifty years. But over the last month, five friends find themselves looking for new jobs.

Life is tough. And it only gets tougher. I’m discovering as I get older, and I know you are too, that “life is good, no worries” is at best a temporary arrangement.  “Life’s a witch” is usually waiting just around the corner.  The tough things in life are one heartbeat, one doctor’s report, one emergency phone call, one company meeting away.

And lest we think “that’s only for the older folks” I remember how suddenly I lost my friends Joseph Ramsey, a high school senior, and Steve Kotter, aged 49, who died in car accidents in 2002 and 2004. I also remember how quickly our small town lost over five thousand textile jobs, mostly to China, in the first few years we lived here.

Life is tough and it gets tougher.  In fact, life can get downright crazy. And the temptation is to spend all of our time as Christians in the “emergency room” of soul work – helping wounded people heal – instead of in the gym or on the practice field, training believers for strength and endurance and skill to face the battles.

Healing is necessary. But healing is a temporary state, or it’s supposed to be. (No one I know wants to spend one day longer in the hospital than necessary.) Growing up into full maturity, coming back into the game after an injury or illness, and playing ‘all out’ to the end is what following Christ is all about.

God wants us to be strong people, active people, resourceful people, and balanced people as we face the challenges of life. I’m going to spend the next few posts talking about how to get there.

Until then, …be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. (Eph 6:10-11 NIV).

HOW TO BEAT BURNOUT

HOW TO BEAT BURNOUT

The Seven Year Itch, a 1955 Billy Wilder film with Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell, surfaced an idea that had burbled along for some time in pop culture. To wit: married couples experience a decline in satisfaction over the first four or five years and, by year seven, tensions have risen to the point that they either divorce or adapt to each other in new ways. Some social scientists pooh-pooh the notion, but others have documented the phenomenon.[1]

I’ve been in the people business a long time and I think they’re on to something that affects not just our marriages, but every aspect of life. Calling it the seven year enthusiasm curve or passion cycle may be more accurate. But knowing what it is and how to deal with it can definitely increase your quality of life, may help you make better job choices, and might even save your marriage.

The burnout cycle in a nutshell: First, initial enthusiasm about a new idea, person, job, or ministry. We find something or someone new and fall in love. Second, energetic commitment to it, we go all in. Third, sustained effort for two or three years, we work hard at the new thing or new love and enjoy it. Fourth, inevitable problems emerge and the new thing starts to feel old, the gears grind, effort required increases as enjoyment declines. We hang on a couple more years, wondering where the love went. Fifth–and this can happen anywhere between years five and seven–the thrill is gone, burnout descends, and we start looking for something new to relight the fires of passion, or else begin casting blame for our unhappiness.

The end of the cycle can get ugly in all kinds of ways. People have affairs, start fights in churches, or jump from job to job, seeking long-term satisfaction at the price of instability and upheaval. (I first learned about this cycle not from the movies, but from a theology professor who had observed the dynamic in some of the more emotion-based expressions of Christianity).

But even if it doesn’t deteriorate into shouting matches, unconscious acquiescence is not the path to peace and happiness. So how do we beat burnout? A few suggestions:

First, plan to bail before you fail. Some things do not require life-long commitment and work better if we plan to step aside at a predetermined time.  I did this as a soccer coach. When my kids were done, so was I. Ministry tasks, volunteer roles, hobbies, these and many more, benefit when we recognize the limits of our humanity and plan to move on to new things before passion becomes drudgery.

Second, identify your non-negotiable’s and plan to replenish your energy. Think of marriage. Think of calling, be it ministry, law, medicine, or business. If it is something worth keeping, it is worth the effort to build emotional and spiritual recovery and renewal space into your life to sustain it. God’s gift of Sabbath is part of this, as was the year of Jubilee for Israel, each occurring not so coincidentally every seventh day and seventh year respectively.

Third, develop long-term goals and short-term objectives that move you toward the goal, and then take time off to celebrate when each objective is met. Celebration replenishes energy.

Finally, and most importantly, build your life and learn to draw your strength, day by day and year by year, on the only one with an infinite supply of energy and passion: Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever.[2]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_seven-year_itch

[2] Hebrews 13:8

GETTING A GRIP ON DEPRESSION D. Martin Lloyd-Jones’ Classic Book on Emotional Health

GETTING A GRIP ON DEPRESSION   D. Martin Lloyd-Jones’ Classic Book on Emotional Health

It happened again yesterday. A Facebook post from a friend reported the death by suicide of a man in the prime of life. The post also mentioned one of the common denominators in most of these stories: even his closest friends didn’t know how badly he was hurting. That’s the bad news. Far too many struggle with depression in the dark, not knowing what to do with it until it kills them.

Yesterday, World Radio’s Emily Whitten reminded me of the good news (you’re not listening to World Radio yet? Try it here) with her classic book of the month review on D. Martin Lloyd-Jones’, SPIRITUAL DEPRESSION: Its Causes and Its Cure.

Lloyd-Jones was a well-known British preacher of the mid-twentieth century with an agile mind and accessible style who left a career in medicine to pursue ministry because: “Medicine could not cure the real disease. Only the gospel had the power to change people at the core.”[1]

I read SPIRITUAL DEPRESSION years ago with great profit and still counsel others with its five major principles. Lloyd-Jones outlines them in the first chapter and elaborates on them through the rest of the 300-page work.

He begins with temperament, explaining that just as one diet works better for some body types and a different diet works better for others, so our temperaments, our personalities effect how we experience life and how we process it. Lloyd-Jones is quick to point out that temperament has nothing to do with salvation—we are all saved by faith in Christ alone—but it has everything to do with how we experience the Christian life. Self-examination is healthy, indeed a necessary spiritual discipline, but some of us are prone to perpetual introspection, self-accusation, and vain regrets. The first principle is to know ourselves, our particular weaknesses, and compensate for them.

The second is obvious but often overlooked: our physiology. We are body, soul, and spirit and though we talk about them separately we experience them as unity. One affects the other. Illness, sleep deprivation, lack of exercise, and a poor diet contribute to depression. The energy of youth can delay the effects for a while, but fatigue is incremental and cumulative. It catches up with us.

Writing in the 1950s’, Lloyd-Jones could not know what later medical research has shown. Just as some bodies are prone to diabetes and require medication, others are prone to neuro-chemical imbalance and benefit from medicines that enable healthy brain function. But those drugs are not for everyone and can mask serious spiritual issues that need to be addressed first. True guilt arising from real sin that results in painful shame can be cleansed and healed only through the cross of Christ.

Next are the natural cycles between highs and lows. The peaks of excitement that come with great success are usually followed by emotional troughs. Think of Elijah under the juniper tree after the success on Mount Carmel.[2] We manage our emotions better when we anticipate the cycles.

A few hours before the rooster crowed his failure and betrayal, Jesus warned Peter, “The devil has demanded to have you, to sift you like wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail. After you have recovered, strengthen your brothers.”[3] The reality of spiritual assault, the fourth cause, is something every believer needs to keep in mind, especially after a personal failure.

Finally, keep up your faith. Jesus’ instructions to Peter reveal three elements for battling spiritual depression: prayer, partners, and perseverance. We should not face spiritual assault alone. Find brothers who will pray for you. And once you’ve recovered, strengthen others.

Those five principles cover the causes of spiritual depression. Lloyd-Jones ends the first chapter by offering the first principle in effecting a cure, one he learned from the Psalms.

“You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul: ‘Why art thou cast down’—what business do you have to be disquieted? You must turn on yourself, upbraid yourself, condemn yourself, exhort yourself, and say to yourself: ‘Hope thou in God’—instead of muttering in this depressed, unhappy way … Then having done that, end on this great note: defy yourself, and defy other people, and defy the devil and the whole world, and say with this man: ‘I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance, who is also the health of my countenance and my God.’”

[1] Whitten quoting Lloyd-Jones’ friend, Jason Meyer, from Bethlehem College.

[2] 1 Kings 19:4

[3] Luke 22:31

ABORTION SURVIVOR’S LAMENT

ABORTION SURVIVOR’S LAMENT

The details are vague now, so many decades hence. He sat on a curb or was it a granite ledge? outside the downtown clinic. Either way it was cold, barren, like his heart. The girl—yes, still a girl only 17—was inside, had disappeared into the sterile glass door of the nondescript building. She had found the place, or had he? He couldn’t remember. Either way, it hadn’t been there long, a new edition to the healthcare—cruelest euphemism—landscape. But he had found the money. Oh yes, that he clearly recalled. He found the two hundred dollars it took to end the life in her womb. In blind, self-centered cowardice he thought he was solving a problem, keeping their secret. But the cold reality of what he’d done began unconsciously seeping into his soul that day like the humid chill coming through the concrete. He paid the doctor to kill his son.

How could he have done that? How could he not see? The evil was obscured in those days. “It’s just a blob of cells,” they said. But he should have known.

Little did he know in 1977 that he was only a grain of sand in the mammoth cultural landslide that was the sexual revolution. Free love never was victimless. Roe V. Wade, that revolution’s greatest victory, remains the longest bloodbath in history with the longest trail of traumatized survivors.

Time moved on and so did he until about a decade later, when his first child was born. Something clicked, a window opened inside, and he began to see. Life is precious! He should have taken the blow, not the girl. Not the child. He should have taken the guilt and shame with her and provided for them both. That’s when he started attending the annual pro-life march downtown on January 22nd. It was the least he could do, the only thing he knew to do besides giving to crisis pregnancy centers, to publicly repent and repudiate his past. To do something about the future.

It wasn’t enough. At least, it hasn’t been so far. The Pro-Choice propaganda political action machine continues to cover the selfish cowards—yes you men, I’m talking to you not the girls, not the women; you are the ones God holds responsible to protect the defenseless and provide for your children—among us. It did so again this week when forty-four Senators refused to back the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, the one that requires doctors and nurses to save the life of a baby who survives an abortion.

How could they? How could they be so blind? So selfish? So cold and hard? How can the doctors and the nurses, sworn to “first do no harm” stand aside and watch them die? They can no longer hide behind youthful ignorance or scientific uncertainty. They know. They KNOW what we are doing. They know the landslide has killed millions of innocents and yet they refuse to protect and defend.

In his forties a young man walked into his life. Energetic, intelligent, eager to serve alongside and be mentored. It took a while because he was so busy with family and work, but finally it clicked. Another window opened. “The timing is about right,” he thought. “This could be my son.” A strange wave of grief and gratitude washed over him. “God you are so good to me. I don’t deserve this privilege, but I accept it as a gift from your hand.” Many more surrogate “sons” have come and gone since, and slowly the wound has healed.

“Perhaps,” he wondered, “perhaps now, with the evil so blatant that they celebrate infanticide, this new generation of brave young men and women will finally have done with the death dance. Perhaps now, if enough of us will tell the truth of what we did and what it cost and how merciful God is—perhaps now they will ignore the propaganda, listen to the still small voice of conscience, and end this revolution for good.”

OF TIME AND TELOMERES

OF TIME AND TELOMERES

“My arm won’t quit hurting and I can’t figure it out. It hasn’t slowed me down yet, but I’m in constant discomfort.”

“The weather has cleared, and I need to be out working but my back is a wreck. I can hardly move. I’m on my way to the doctor now.”

“My wife used to walk five miles with me every day. Now she can barely make it down the block and the doctors don’t know what’s wrong.”

“I never felt old, but once I did, I got old quick!”

I could fill pages with such quotes, and not all of them from my baby-boomer peers. Some are men and women twenty years or so behind me. They got me thinking about time and telomeres, or frailty, the inevitability of it, and how to handle it.

Telomeres form a kind of protective cap at the ends of our chromosomes. Scientists liken them to the plastic tips at the ends of shoelaces that prevent them unraveling. They degrade as we age and as they do, disease becomes more likely.[1] As sure as the sun rises our telomeres will unravel and with them our bodies.

Of course, this is not news. David sang, “As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.” [2]

And Moses wrote, “Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”[3]

The young never imagine getting old but are wise to take good care of themselves. I never believed in unions with their high labor costs and productivity choking rules until I saw what low-profit-margin manual labor and inadequate support does to the bodies of young men. It isn’t pretty. Most of them are somewhat crippled by age 55 and unable to work by 60. I still don’t like unions, but young contractors could learn a thing or two from them about the bids they offer and the jobs they take. Their bodies might last longer if they did.

Middle-aged people, even in white collar jobs, can see their slow-down coming. But most don’t take time to think about it. They’re in the middle of margin-less living, to borrow a phrase from Dr. Richard Swenson. And most aren’t setting aside the financial resources that will provide security when they can’t keep up with the guys in their thirties. Spending less and saving more would go a long way to securing their future.

My grandma, who was not known for profanity, shockingly said, “I don’t mind being old, it’s just such hell getting there!” Most senior friends will agree. They know now what their 30-something selves never imagined, and some are depressed by it. But they shouldn’t fall prey to the lie of uselessness. Remember Simeon who blessed the baby Jesus, and the prophetess Anna who did the same (See Luke 2:25-38)? Drink deeply of scripture and develop a life of prayer. Think about the major life lessons you’ve learned—you remember them as stories—and boil them down to short sentences, personal proverbs you can share when the time is right. They are invaluable to the blades of grass coming up behind you.

Frailty is a fact of life, but Christ has overcome it for all who will believe. He died for us that we might live forever and rose from the grave to guarantee that promise. Long after our flower has faded, and our earthly place has forgotten us, we will be living in flawless bodies that time and telomeres cannot touch.

Have you put your faith in him yet?

[1] From Wikipedia.

[2] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Ps 103:15–16). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[3] Ps. 90:12

ON MENTAL ILLNESS Last Ride With Big Mike

ON MENTAL ILLNESS  Last Ride With Big Mike

Suicide and mental illness have been much in the news lately. In light of that, and by way of encouragement, I thought I would re-post this story about my brother, who in great pain considered taking his own life, but chose the better path.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. (Heb 12:1 NIV)

Nitrogen fumes from the Shell premium gas Mike burned in his Honda CBR 1100 XX drifted back to us, threading their way into our helmets along with the mountain aromas of cool granite, green laurel and fresh-cut grass. I kept pace with Mike and his passenger, my daughter Mikeala, on a borrowed BMW, railing the tight curves and slowing to a walk on the switchbacks of Georgia SR 180 as we wound our way up Brasstown Bald, the highest point in the state.  It would be our last motorcycle ride together before he died on August 5th, 2010—and one of the best—climaxing as it did with a view of the world from 4,784 feet. He had already covered 200 of the 350 miles he would ride that day and wasn’t even tired.

My older brother Mike suffered from atypical bipolar disorder. This disease, or something like it, was not new to our family. Our aunt suffered for years before taking her own life. Our grandfather was also disabled by it. It hit Mike in his 39th year, brought on (we believe) by a reaction to a blood pressure medication.

Big Mike, his nickname in the neighborhood, was always bigger and stronger than me and most of my friends. He was also a rock when I needed him most. Watching him break into a thousand mental pieces was almost more than I could bear. But watching him climb up out of that psychological black hole, a place from which few men return, was one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever witnessed. We talked about writing a book on it. I’m writing this today to encourage you and anyone else that you know who suffers from a mental disorder.

Mike’s journey from the pit of despair back to mental health was marked by three things.

Humility. Mike was a proud man, a strong man that submitted himself to hospitalization under the care of competent professionals who prescribed medication and psychotherapy. Once out of the hospital Mike took responsibility for himself and worked the program. It took years. And like many bipolar patients, along the way Mike decided he no longer needed the meds. This led to a relapse and another hospital stay. But the second time was the charm. He humbled himself by taking his medicine every day and visiting a counselor every week for years. Even when he no longer needed the counselor he stayed on the medicine and visited a therapist now and then just to keep a check on himself. He knew the disease too well and as strong as he was, knew he couldn’t handle it alone.

Faith. In all the years of his suffering Mike never turned his back on Jesus Christ. I never heard him blame God or use his illness and disappointment as an excuse to quit worshiping or neglect his devotions or stop fellowshiping with other believers. He wanted to be well and he knew that in the end, only walking with Jesus would give him the strength to get there.

Perseverance. Sadly, many suffering people give up and let their illness define them for the rest of their days, or take their life. Mike never gave up. Even after two years of unemployment due to his disease, something that spins many men down into depression, he kept up his courage. He was as healthy on that day at the top of the world as I have ever known him, enjoying the good gifts God gave, enjoying the ride, and discussing plans for his new business. No one knew that even though his mind had healed his heart was diseased. He was working on a motorcycle in his garage on the day his heart stopped.

So, if you know someone who is struggling with a mental disorder tell them about my brother. Tell them they can recover. And tell them there’s a big guy in that great cloud of witnesses, cheering them on.

SNOW SABBATH

SNOW SABBATH

The recent weather reminded me of something I wrote many years ago, when our girls were little, and a blizzard stopped the world for a while. I hope it encourages you as we anticipate more snow Saturday night.

Monday morning January 24, 2000, dawned bright and clear, but school was still out. The cold and light snow we had experienced the previous week and weekend had closed the roads and deposited several neighborhood kids on our doorstep, in our den, in the basement and in our bedrooms.  They were everywhere! Eating the groceries, needing their mittens and boots dried and going through art supplies like snow in a frying pan. A few of them (including my two youngest) were home-schooled but most attended the elementary school down the street.

When my oldest daughter asked, “Are we going to school tomorrow?” My wife and I both said, “Yes! You, your sisters, the neighbors and all the home-schooled kids in the neighborhood!”  Little did we know; the blizzard of 2000 was almost upon us.

But the storm had a different effect than might be expected. Unlike the previous week’s weather that kept only the schools closed, the blizzard brought the adult world to a standstill too.  Fifteen inches of snow in eight hours forced everyone to “be still and know that I am God”.  It created a snow sabbath.

Sabbath, at its most basic, means to cease from work. Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man.”  It is an opportunity for the soul to re-establish the balance and equilibrium it loses by striving in the work place. We work in a world cursed by sin and that makes work difficult and draining.  It taxes us spiritually, emotionally, and physically.  Sabbath compensates us for the energy we spend dealing with our own sins and the challenges of working life.  We need sabbath time.  It restores us.

And if you’re one of those folks that “feels guilty when I relax” then sabbath can re-orient your perspective.  I had “things to do, people to see and places to go” the next morning. But the snow sabbath forced me to realize once again that, “God can run the world quite nicely without your help thank you very much.”  That single thought, a sabbath thought, will do more to relieve your stress than anything I know.  God has worked and is working to provide for us.  He wants us to know what it means to rest in him, to be humble enough to know that we can’t accomplish anything at all without him. So, we can trust him enough to relax, let the world go by, and enjoy the peace of a quiet day, or even the occasional blizzard.