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!

 

ISIS, JONAH, NINEVEH, AND US

Immigration and refugees were powder-keg issues in the 2016 presidential elections and remain pivotal today. A dear friend of mine, a former Muslim and native of the Middle East, who is now an American citizen with multiple ministries to Muslims, has a unique perspective on these issues. I asked his permission to share the following with you. I’ve withheld his name for reasons that will become apparent as you read. DS.

“The current political atmosphere has impacted ministry to Muslims and refugees. When I speak to churches about this subject, I find a growing number of believers who are apathetic to Muslims, and who are more interested in how awful Islam can be, than in why and how they can love Muslims. Some, who are interested in becoming missionaries, are reluctant to consider ministry to Muslims.

We need to ask ourselves these tough questions: Are we angry with Muslims, afraid of them, or do we love them? Is there in our hearts any hatred toward them? Do we pray for the salvation of the terrorists? What if an ISIS terrorist became a follower of Jesus? Would we forgive his or her atrocities? Could someone like the current Caliph of ISIS, al-Baghdadi, be saved?

We are familiar with the story of Jonah and Nineveh. Some may even know that modern Mosul, a stronghold of ISIS where the Caliphate was first declared, and now undergoing liberation by Iraqi forces, sits on top of ancient Nineveh.

Nineveh, during Jonah’s time, was not that different from Mosul under ISIS. Both were brutal, evil, and godless.

Jonah 1:1-2 says,

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.’

How evil were the ancient Ninevites? Here is an example:

The head of Tiumman was fixed over the gate of Nineveh, to rot before the eyes of the multitude. Dunanu was slowly flayed alive, and then bled like a lamb; his brother Shambunu had his throat cut, and his body was divided into pieces, which were distributed over the country as a warning.[1]

ISIS does the same kind of barbaric and brutal things to its enemies today. Jonah did not like the Ninevites, just as most of us do not like ISIS, the modern Ninevites. He was reluctant to deliver the word of the Lord to them and tried instead to flee to Tarshish (in modern Spain), which was the end of the known world in his day. He wanted to avoid the mission altogether.

Are we also abandoning our mission to ‘deliver the word of the Lord’ to those we consider to be our enemies today?

I am not naive to the dangers of ISIS. I was one of those who gave early warnings about terrorist creeds, strategies, and tactics that you hear of today. My name appears on one of their published ‘hit lists.’ They have executed people I know and care about. I watched their executions on ISIS videos. Neither my family nor I feel safe, even in America.

But I think some of us are like Jonah. We are either trying to buy a ticket on a ship which will take us as far as possible from the Ninevites, or we have already set sail.

If we are to avoid Jonah’s mistake, we need to remember something: yes, all ISIS are Muslims, but not all Muslims are ISIS. In fact, ISIS atrocities are more disgusting to most Muslims than they are to us. Because of ISIS, Muslims are questioning their religion and attempting to reform it, or reduce it to simple cultural observance, like Americans with Christmas, or are abandoning it altogether.

Muslims are also children of Adam–like we are. They are born under the sin of Adam, like we are, and they need a redeemer, like we do. Let us not allow the atrocities of some Muslims cause us to reject all Muslims. You can hate Satan, but not his victims. May we all learn from and obey Christ who said: ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ Matthew 5:44.”

[1] Maspero, G. (Gaston), The Passing of the Empires, 850 B.C. to 330 B.C., London 1900, P. 413.

 

THE CERTAINTY OF UNCERTAINTY: Encouragement for Millennials Who’ve Hit A Wall

“I’m not happy with where my life is at the moment, and I’m not real sure what to do about it, but I’m working on it,” said my friend. I could feel his frustration, having been there and done that.

Similar conversations with a number of twenty-something friends who have run head-on into a string of disappointments have had me praying and thinking about how to encourage the millennials among us.  I know what it’s like to see thirty coming up on the horizon with little in the way of success to show for it. Now that sixty isn’t that far off, some constants stand out, not only in my life, but in those of the people I most admire.

Let’s call them three keys to handling the certainty of uncertainty.

First, a successful life is something that you build, not something that you have. Adjusting expectations to that reality is tougher today, where our social media personas only show the “A” side of life, than it was thirty years ago. It takes time, tact, and tenacity to build the skill sets, the relationships, and the track record that open the doors of opportunity. These things form the platform of a prosperous life. There are no shortcuts. Be willing to start small, but start somewhere, and build.

Second, expect setbacks. The old word for this one is prudence. Everyone loves Solomon’s advice in Proverbs, “Commit your way to the Lord, and he will direct your paths.” It sounds like clear sailing to serial successes. But we tend to forget his warning that, “Time and chance happen to them all.” I call that Black Coffee Theology, the certainty of uncertainty. It’s not that God isn’t paying attention or doesn’t care about your life. His eye really is on the sparrow, but he won’t suspend the effects of the fall for anyone until Christ returns. Until then, the cosmic Murphy’s Law remains: You will experience failure. You will be frustrated. But there is an up side: Failure and frustration teach us more, and faster, than success. Learn the lessons early, and well, and they will protect you down the road. On the financial side, build an emergency fund for the inevitable, and develop a back-up skill set that can pay the bills until the opportunity you are looking for appears.

Third, persevere my friends, persevere! Do not let the inevitable setbacks and difficult lessons convince you that you are a failure. Discern your calling, or at least choose a career path where your interests and aptitudes meet, zero in on that path and trim away trivial pursuits. Then take the long view and start putting one foot in front of the other. Lay your plans–your dreams too–before God, and watch, and pray, and live before him in trust one day at a time. Learn the secret of contentment in the day to day, but keep the goal ever before you and press on! Nine times out of ten, the people who succeed are the people who refuse to give up.

Finally, one last word from those of us who can see you in our rear-view mirrors: we believe in you, we believe in God’s good purposes for you, and we look forward to the day you go whizzing by us in the fast lane.

 

TO MAKE A GROWN MAN CRY

Bob Hughes stood on the porch on a sunlit November Saturday morning, looking out over the gathering of about fifty people who had come to celebrate, and choked up as he tried to finish the ceremony. The longtime director, and sole (part-time) employee of Tri-River Habitat for Humanity was reading off the names and organizations that helped build Tri-River’s fifteenth home in twenty years.

It wasn’t the names that brought the tears, just the gratitude. Bob knows better than most what a struggle, what a team effort it takes, and how many hurdles have to be crossed every time our small local chapter of this global ministry cuts the ribbon and hands over the keys to another harassed family. Permits, weather, coordinating volunteers, smoothing over misunderstandings, securing materials donations, following up endless details, and making sure that everyone gets properly recognized in the end is a process programmed to stretch the patience of Job. And though he will no doubt deflect this praise, Ole Bob, as he often calls himself, is better at it than most.

Bob’s aw-shucks, self-deprecating style and twinkle-eyed grin, combined with his white goatee, and somewhat Santa-Clause shape, make him easy to like. But underneath that cheerful, ever-encouraging demeanor is a truckload of smarts and quiet determination. The only thing Bob loves more than fishing the Outer Banks is seeing the words of Jesus fulfilled: “When you’ve done it unto the least of these, you’ve done it unto me.”  When it all comes together and a family of six can move in before Thanksgiving, well, that’s better than the icing on the celebratory sheet-cake. It’s enough to make a grown man cry.

I served with Bob and a half-dozen others of Halifax’s finest in his first few years with Habitat. We are blessed to have citizens like him and all the others who serve the boards of our volunteer organizations. As we enter the Thanksgiving season, let’s take a few moments not only to give thanks for their leadership, but to consider how we might follow in their footsteps.