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

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.

BILLY GRAHAM ON LEADERSHIP

BILLY GRAHAM ON LEADERSHIP

In the film Blackhawk Down, a vehicle filled with wounded Americans comes to a halt in the middle of a hailstorm of Somali bullets. The commanding officer orders a soldier to take the wheel. The soldier protests, “I can’t, I’m shot!”

The officer is unimpressed. “We’re all shot. Get in and drive!”

Leaders keep going, even when combat rages around us and wounds pile up within us. Those halted by trials, who give in to self-pity and retreat into apathy, vanish like sand castles with the evening tide. Those who persevere become light houses on the shores of history. Martin Luther, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., Chuck Colson, and of course Billy Graham, who died last week, the list of leaders who suffered huge defeats and kept going is long and no doubt one of your heroes is on it.

Harold Myra former CEO, and Marshall Shelley, former Vice President of Christianity Today International (which Graham founded), knew Billy well and worked closely with him. Their book, The Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham, records many of his trials and how Graham responded.

“I’m no different from you,” said Billy, “I would like to live a life free of problems, free of pain, and free of severe personal discipline. However, I’d had extreme pressures in my life to the point where I’ve wanted to run away from reality … I felt like going to the Cove (the retreat center he founded in North Carolina) and lying down in the cemetery to see how I fit.”

The apostle Paul also knew the wounds of leadership.

“I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.” (2 Cor 11:26-28 NIV).

Earlier in that letter Paul revealed his attitude toward suffering: “Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.” (2 Cor. 1:9 NIV).

“Mountain tops are for views and inspiration,” wrote Billy, “but fruit is grown in the valleys.”

Leadership, of large organizations or small families, is exercised at a price. Plans run awry, friends fail us, the world wounds us and still the job must get done. As Churchill wrote, “Success is never final, and failure is rarely fatal. It’s the courage to continue that counts.”

That was Billy Graham. Right after the comment about getting measured for his grave he said, “God has called me to my responsibilities, and I must be faithful.”

The truth is that at some level we’re all called and we’re all shot. Lead anyway and live for the commendation that all people of God long for: “Well done good and faithful servant. You have been faithful with a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”[1]

[1] Matthew 25:21.

YOU ARE NOT ALONE

John Donne famously wrote,

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

Nevertheless, everyone feels isolated, everyone feels alone now and then, perhaps especially during the holidays. It’s part of the human condition, a result of the fall. Eve caved to the serpent’s song followed closely by Adam, each seeking to be like God, only to find that they lost connection with God and each other. Loneliness began in the garden.

From that day to this every man, woman and child knows the ache of loneliness, the pain of separation from his fellows and his Creator. Loneliness assails us especially on significant anniversaries when we feel the loss of loved ones long gone. The divorced also feel the pain, with the added grief that separation was by choice rather than by chance.

It was with such melancholy mental meanderings that I turned to meditate on John 14:1-4, a passage so familiar that the words felt lukewarm on my tongue as I recited them back to God. Lukewarm that is, until I spoke verse three: “And if I go and prepare a place for you,” said Jesus to his downcast disciples, “I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

… that you also may be where I am. That little phrase lit a pale flame on the horizon of my soul that grew in magnitude like the sun rising in the porch window, filling it with warmth and banishing the night.

… that you also may be where I am, is Jesus telling us that he is just as unsatisfied with the separation as we are, that he knows the ache in our hearts, and that he is doing something about it.

… that you also may be with me where I am, is Jesus telling us how much he wants to be with us, even more than we want to be with him.

…that you also may be with me where I am, is Jesus telling us that we are welcome at his table no matter how inadequate we may feel about being there. It is he who prepared the way, not us, for he was the only one who could.

…that you also may be with me where I am, is Jesus telling us that we are not alone.

I don’t know where this meditation finds you today, perhaps full of joy and good fellowship. But if you are experiencing that existential ache, if you are feeling deeply the losses of life, Jesus offers the way home.

How? Funny, that’s the same question Doubting Thomas asked, “We don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

DOING WITHOUT THE DO-OVERS

 

“What is behind-a me is not-a before me!” shouted the Italian racer as he ripped the rear view mirror off the windshield and put the pedal to the metal in one of those silly seventies rally movies. We used to quote it when heading out on family road trips, exaggerating the dialect for effect.

Most of us would like to live that way, “forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead…” as the Apostle Paul would say. But the truth is many of us do look back, are held back emotionally and spiritually by mistakes we’ve made in the past, things we wish we could “do over.” We don’t necessarily call them sins. We’re still uncomfortable with that verdict. But if we were honest we’d admit that most of them were. We were raging, deceitful, covetous, gossipy, greedy, or gluttonous and sometimes all of the above. We indulged our sinful nature and it cost us.

In our guilt we look for “do-overs,” ways to fix what we did wrong, or we indulge in melancholy self-loathing, a kind of mental and emotional self-flagellation, in an attempt to appease God or balance our internal scales of justice.

Trust me; God doesn’t need your melancholy. If you are living with some left over guilt allow me to share some encouragement. It comes from the tenth chapter of Hebrews.

Under the old covenant, the Law of Moses, “Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.” (Hebrews 10:11 NIV). That didn’t help much because the sacrifice of an animal was never enough to cover all sins. In fact, verse three explains, “…but those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins,” (emphasis added).

All the Law could do was to remind us of our inadequacies and encourage an eternal longing for “do-overs.” But Jesus Christ, “having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God…” In the Bible, sitting down is a symbol for finished work. Jesus was one and done. He made one sacrifice, himself, and it was enough.

Hebrews goes on to explain that the whole Old Testament temple system was a model, a type, a shadow of the real thing in heaven. When Jesus made his sacrifice it wasn’t offered on earth alone, it was offered in the real temple, the heavenly temple. It was once for all, eternal, infinite in its ability to wipe out the sins of all who believe.

In other words, the sacrifice of Christ enables all of us to do without the do-overs.

So no more do overs. Grab that mirror, rip it off the windshield, and say it with me as we continue the race that lies before us: what is behind-a-me is not-a-before me!