THE PLOW An Ash Wednesday Reflection

THE PLOW An Ash Wednesday Reflection

Every summer, we enjoy another of the benefits of living in a rural community: garden-fresh fruits and vegetables. I thought I knew what a fresh tomato was before I moved to the country. But then I ate an Abbott tomato. I thought I knew what sweet was, but then I tasted a Turbeville cantaloupe.

One such garden was across the street from our house. But none of its fruit would’ve been possible without Mr. Rice from down the street. He didn’t water the ground. He didn’t plant the seed. He didn’t even help in the harvest. He just appeared on his tractor every spring with the thing every garden needs: the plow. 

The plow is hard and sharp. It rips through weeds, punctures the hard surface, and breaks up the clotted dirt. The plow prepares the ground for the beginning of life-giving things.

The spiritual life has a parallel in the plow: repentance. Repentance penetrates hardened hearts, breaking up clods that clog our souls. Repentance opens the way for the word of God to work down into the soil of personality and bring forth the sweet fruit of a life empowered by the Spirit. Repentance is the first step in ‘putting off the old life’ and ‘putting on the new.’ Nothing happens without it.

Today is Ash Wednesday when some Christians mark their heads with an ashen cross to begin the season of Lent, a concentrated period of personal repentance before Easter. That’s good if it helps. Like an unused plow in an abandoned field, repentance has rusted away in our “self-esteem is everything” culture. But repentance is a spiritual discipline that requires regular practice if it’s to do us any good.

Nehemiah shows us how to do it.

Repentance Reviews the Offense

Repentance calls sin, sin. Nehemiah said, “I confess the sins…we have committed, including myself.” Neh.1: 6b-7.

There goes that plow blade, right into the toughest part of the ground, the hardened surface of self. We come before God and say, “Lord, I did it. It wasn’t my environment, it wasn’t my job, it wasn’t my family, I did something wrong, and I’m responsible for it.”

Repentance Is Specific 

Nehemiah confessed sins of commission, doing what we know is wrong. “We have acted very wickedly toward you,” he said. We might say it this way: “God, I have been corrupt in my dealings with you. I’ve played the religious pretend game. On the outside, I look fine. On the inside, my heart is far from you.”

Corruption is a heart hardening thing. It needs a sharp plow.

Nehemiah also confessed sins of omission, failing to do what we know is right. We have not obeyed the commands… you gave to Moses.”

Finally, Nehemiah confessed to group sins. He used the plural pronoun, “We.” We don’t imagine ourselves responsible for what our culture is doing. But when we fail to speak up for the defenseless unborn, are we not responsible? When we fail to care for the poor, are we not neglecting our responsibilities?

Repentance reviews the offense and takes responsibility, putting everything out on the table between God and us. That is essential if we want a response.

It has been a long time now since we ate the fruit of the garden across the street. The neighbors who tended it died or moved away, grass and trees now fill the lot. I chatted with Mr. Rice about that. He said, “I’ve been plowing gardens for folks in town here for decades. At one time, there were thirty-five that I plowed every spring. Now there are less than five.”

When I observe our culture and see the poison it produces, I wonder if the reason is that we have stopped tending the garden of the soul, we have stopped turning over the soil of the spirit with the plow of repentance. 

READY-MADE PRAYERS Spiritual Meat for Hungry Souls

READY-MADE PRAYERS Spiritual Meat for Hungry Souls

Some days my mind is scattered as a caffeinated squirrel, and my heart is as flat as a pancake. Ready-made prayers are helpful then.

Growing up Baptist had some definite advantages for my spiritual life. The clarity and importance of personal repentance and faith in Christ alone for salvation remain paramount. Add to that the emphasis on singing in worship and participation in choirs. The songs I sang then still bubble to the surface today. And eventually, personal Bible study, the conversation with God one develops when digging deep in the word, became important. The fried chicken (aka gospel bird) wasn’t bad either.

But among the things that my spiritual development lacked was a robust prayer life. We Baptists were great at potlucks. But if prayer is like chicken, we were getting the skinny bird every time. “Lord, we just want to praise you for this. And Lord, we just want to ask you for that, and Lord, we ask you to bless so and so.” That kind of praying will leave you spiritually hungry after a while.

The prayers of the Bible are much meatier, as are the prayers of many other denominations. For example, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (1928 edition) has some wonderfully deep and theologically robust prayers. But as a young believer, I thought written prayers were for people who lacked a real heart relationship with God. They can be abused. Reciting a written prayer will not save an unrepentant sinner or deepen a spiritual life through the mere repetition of elegant prose. But that doesn’t make them useless.

That became clear when I learned that scripture contains many formal prayers and praises. Everyone is familiar with the Psalms and The Lord’s Prayer. But it happens in other places in the New Testament as well. 1 Peter 1:3-5 is a good example. With the help of his friend Silas, Peter begins with an expression of praise that is almost identical to the wording of 2 Corinthians 1:3 and Ephesians 1:3. Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.[1] Push on down through verse 13 of Ephesians 1, and you find the same themes Peter stressed: Election or choseness, redemption through Christ’s blood, our spiritual inheritance, and hope in Christ’s return.

From that foundation, Peter builds out his prayer and links it to his readers’ specific situation. So he isn’t just repeating empty words. He is taking a form of praise widely used in the Church and building it into his prayer and exhortation to his readers.

As I got older, I realized that C.S. Lewis’s experience on this topic, provided in an essay whose title I borrowed, reflected mine. Some days my mind is scattered as a caffeinated squirrel, and my heart is as flat as a pancake. Trying to pray spontaneously on days like that was “counting on a greater mental and spiritual strength than I really have,” he said. I was making “what Pascal calls Error of Stoicism; thinking we can do always what we can do sometimes.”[2] The latest news headline or political crisis will always loom larger if we let it and have us praying about only those things instead of the strategic mission of the Church. And, left to the vagaries of our weary minds and momentary emotions, we can easily drift into some pretty shallow spiritual puddles. Praying the ready-made prayers of scripture and the great traditions can help us stay on the right path.


[1] The New International Version. (2011). (Eph 1:3). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[2] Ready-made Prayers. C.S. Lewis, The Joyful Christian: 127 Readings

GENESIS 2021 Building Our Future on Stable Ground

GENESIS 2021 Building Our Future on Stable Ground

Fans of the first Star Trek movies remember that in The Wrath of Khan, the villain tried to destroy the Starship Enterprise by detonating an experimental terraforming device called Genesis. We learned in The Search for Spock, that the planet that emerged from that explosion was beautiful but unstable, doomed to devour itself in earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. David Marcus, a key scientist on the project, revealed the reason. He had used a restricted substance, “proto-mater,” to speed up the process. What should have been a utopia was doomed from the start by the hubris of its creator.

By 1984 standards, the special effects were excellent. But that is not what made me think of Star Trek movies at one o’clock this morning.

2020 has been an epic disaster. People will make movies about it. Heroes and villains will emerge. Everyone hopes 2021 will be better than 2020. But the biblical worldview warns us that we dare not anchor our hopes here. It tells us that God made us good, but in our hubris, we inserted an element to make life better. We rebelled and corrupted all our capacities in the process. We took earth with us when we fell, and because of the fall, we can count on two things.

First, the earth itself, in the form of earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, and yes, pandemics, will oppose us. “Cursed is the ground,” God said to our first parents and earth’s first stewards. “Thorns and thistles, it will produce for you till you return to the dust from which you were formed.”  

Second, our best Utopia-building efforts will be fatally flawed because we are fatally flawed. Like Dr. Marcus in Star Trek, we cannot resist the temptation to hurry-up success. In our hubris, we add ingredients to life guaranteed to produce catastrophic, if unintended, consequences.

We need a savior, someone who can break the curse and reverse the consequences of the fall; someone who can cancel our corruption and restore true goodness to men and women. And the good news is, we just celebrated his arrival at Christmas.

The babe of Bethlehem became the man on the mountain who began his ministry by saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” His recipe for success, called The Sermon on the Mount[1], has no shortcuts, no place for hubris, only humility, faith, and love. He ended that sermon with this practical application.

“Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”[2]

The vaccines may work. Life might return to something like normal. But because of the fall, we can count on two things: something else will come along to destabilize the world, and in our hubris, it might be us!   Build your house on the rock. Put your hope in Christ in 2021. He is the only savior.


[1] See the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7.

[2] The New International Version. (2011). (Mt 7:24–27). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

THE PARABLE OF VANNA WHITE

THE PARABLE OF VANNA WHITE


Vanna White needed a new transmission. I guess I should explain that.

Tradesmen often name their trucks. The maintenance crew I worked with in the early nineties was no different. The ancient, white Ford Econoline 150 panel van that the carpenters used was so reliable, doing the same simple tasks day after day, well past her prime, that they called her Vanna White. Only now her transmission was slipping. It was time for a rebuild.

I put her on the lift, removed the big automatic tranny, dismantled it, cleaned it out, installed a rebuild kit in the case, and hoisted it back into place; a six or seven hour job. Then I filled it with transmission fluid and took it for a drive. It slipped, right between first and second gear.

So I did it again, looking carefully for mistakes, and it slipped again. So I did it again. And again. And again. And again. It kept slipping! I was ready to drive it off a cliff!

Now let’s pause this parable and ask a question: Is there some part of your spiritual life that isn’t working? Are you continually disabled by a slip into sin whose source is invisible to you? Have you gone over the details again and again, tried as hard as you can to solve your problem, and failed?

Good. Coming to the end of our resources is the best place we can be because only then are we ready to receive the power to overcome the “sins that so easily entangle us.” The Apostle Paul explained it as the difference between living in the “flesh,” translated “sinful nature” in the NIV, versus living in the “Spirit.” (See Galatians 5:16-25). Jesus spoke similarly in John 6:63 when he said, “The flesh counts for nothing. The Spirit gives life.”

Everything about us, our bodies, our minds, our emotions, and personalities were permanently weakened by the power of sin. We “slip between first and second.” Until the day we die that power will remain. In fact the only way to conquer the power of sin is through death. 

That is the beautiful thing about the gospel. In Christ we did die, not a physical death, but a spiritual one. We died with him to the power of sin. When the Holy Spirit baptizes us into Christ his death and his resurrection become ours in spiritual fact (See Romans 6). The trick is to learn how to live in the power of those things.

Remember Vanna White? The sixth time I pulled the transmission from the old van I remembered another Ford E 150 in our fleet. The engine had died and we junked it, but not before harvesting all other usable parts, one of which was the transmission. Automatic transmission casings are cast with hydraulic control circuits inside. If the case cracks in the right place, a place invisible to the naked eye, those circuits will leak under pressure and the transmission will slip. I pulled the new parts out of Vanna White’s original transmission case and installed them in the one from the van that had “died” and Viola! No more slipping between gears!

The problem most of us face in overcoming sin is that we try to stuff new parts into our old life. We need new parts in a new life. By the power of the Holy Spirit within us we can overcome by exchanging our life with Christ’s.  Only when we have given up on trying to improve ourselves by our own will power are we able to begin operating in the power of the Spirit. Only when we have exchanged Christ’s life for ours are we able to know his power to overcome. 

FOUR STEPS TO SPIRITUAL STRENGTH

Multiple months of isolation are not good for anyone’s spiritual life. Because of that, I spent the summer—and I’m not done—visiting one-on-one with the men in our church, asking several diagnostic questions. Among other things, I’ve been trying to measure the impact of the pandemic on our spiritual lives and figure out how to help. The first two questions are 1. How has the virus affected your spiritual life? 2. What do you do to keep yourself spiritually healthy?

The answers have sometimes been encouraging, occasionally concerning, and always informative. So, I’ll take a moment here to thank the men for sharing their valuable time as well as their transparency.

The stronger our spiritual life—defined as growing confidence in God and a willingness to follow his lead—the happier and healthier we and those around us will be. But the number one takeaway I’ve gathered from these interviews is how hard it is to maintain spiritual growth in isolation. With that in mind, I offer four practical steps to a healthy spiritual life.

Pray Every Day

Nothing is more important than the ongoing conversation you have with God about yourself, his world, and your place in it. Find a quiet place where you can maintain privacy and engage with God every day. It doesn’t take long. I seldom spend more than twenty minutes praying but rarely less than ten.

Three things are essential with this practice, consistency, reflection, and listening. Do not let feelings distract you. Emotional satisfaction comes and goes. Ignore it. Give God permission to shine his light into every corner of your life. Block out external distractions.

Consume Scripture Daily

Some folks do very well with the Bible In One Year app I recommended last year. I didn’t, and neither did some of the men. “I got lost in Leviticus,” said one. I can relate. If the One Year Bible is not your style, find a different path. For me, deep reflection in one chapter, or even one paragraph, of scripture is much more instructive. Caveat: If you’ve never read the whole Bible, you should. It will provide context for the deep dive. But if you don’t have time or find it challenging to absorb, there are several devotional aids available.

A list follows in the footnote. [1]


Absorb Practical Teaching

Helpful books, podcasts, and sermon series are out there on every conceivable topic. Some months I put the Bible aside and read a good book during my quiet time. Search the Books tab on Christianbook.com  or visit your church library. Aim for a chapter a day, and you’ll cover a lot of ground.

Listen for Specifics

God is speaking to us through his word, but what he says to you might differ from what I hear in the same verse. That’s because we are different people at different stages of life. Listen for things specific to your life. Write them in the margin of your Bible (I often date mine) or in your journal. Go back and review them from time to time.

Put it into Practice  

Take one thing you hear in your time alone with God and try to apply it that day. Take one thing you hear in the sermon that Sunday and practice it that week. Nothing pleases Him better or helps us more than when by faith, we follow his path.

One of the books I’m reading this year is Dr. Robert S. Miller’s Spiritual Survival Handbook For Cross-Cultural Workers. It is only one hundred pages and, as the title indicates, written for missionaries. But it’s lessons apply across the board. Here’s his take on personal spiritual growth.

“The Holy Spirit longs to establish a solid sense of self in every one of us. Talents, skills, charisma, and training are wonderful tools…but if we have not graduated from the identity school led by the Spirit of God, then all our…efforts are built on sinking sand. God’s identity classes are held every day. They are twenty-four hours long. All the classes are practicums. We learn by watching our Teacher and following His example.”


[1] Daily Devos Online – Our Daily Bread has an app! Read, listen, and join in the conversation online. Pastor Rick Warren, author of the bestseller, Purpose Driven Life, has an excellent daily devo at pastorrick.com. Pastor Greg Laurie is one of my favorite evangelists and teachers. J. D. Greear is the leader of Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham and a great teacher.

PRACTICE THESE THINGS J. P. Moreland’s Story of Overcoming Anxiety

PRACTICE THESE THINGS      J. P. Moreland’s Story of Overcoming Anxiety

J. P. Moreland is one of the 50 most influential living philosophers in the world. He is a distinguished professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, has degrees in philosophy, theology, and chemistry, has written numerous books, and taught all over the country.

He has also fought and won a lifelong battle with anxiety and depression.

Moreland’s new book, FINDING QUIET: My Story of Overcoming Anxiety and the Practices That Brought Peace (Zondervan, 2019), is a treasure trove of practical wisdom for those who suffer from anxiety or depression. It is also another example of science “catching up” with scripture.

The Apostle Paul taught the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord, stop indulging anxious thoughts, pray about everything, and, most importantly, practice thinking about excellent and noble things. Do that, he said, “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”[1] FINDING QUIET provides many biblically sound, practical steps for putting Paul’s instructions to work.

Some evangelicals will find Moreland’s recommendations on antidepressant medications and other therapies controversial and dismiss him out of hand. But they will be doing themselves and anxiety-suffering saints a great disservice. Moreland does not ignore the necessity of growing in grace, but as a committed, obedient believer and major anxiety sufferer, he recognizes the value of medication when necessary. As vitamin D supplements are to people who cannot get enough sunshine or insulin to diabetics, these medications are to people who suffer from anxiety and depression. They are a blessing from God, supplying what the body cannot or is not currently producing on its own.

Moreland offers a novel but biblically based and workable model of humanity that helps us see how body, soul, and spirit interrelate and influence each other. He explains the importance of the heart organ in the Bible and science. He records the latest findings from brain science, psychiatry, newer therapeutic approaches like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and HeartMath exercises, and shares their efficacy in his life.

But FINDING QUIET is not only about the latest science. Moreland reaches deep into the Church’s past to explain how the practice of contemplative prayer helped him learn to acknowledge God in every moment. Dallas Willard fans will find much to like. He concludes with a chapter you won’t find in many Christian books: how to deal with disappointment when God seems silent in your suffering.

At seven by five inches and 220 pages, the book will fit in a pocket as a ready resource for anxiety sufferers. It’s accompanying appendices, notes, and bibliography, also make it user friendly.

Moreland concludes, “The most important point I learned is this: anxiety and depression are significantly formed habits residing in the brain and body (especially the heart muscle and nervous system), and these habits can be largely replaced with peaceful and joyful habits by regularly engaging in the right repetitive habit-forming exercises.” Or, as the Apostle Paul taught us, “Practice these things and the God of peace will be with you.”[2]


[1] Philippians 4:4-9

[2] Philippians 4:9

AN ALIEN IN YOUR DRIVEWAY

AN ALIEN IN YOUR DRIVEWAY

Imagine an alien from outer space landed in your driveway and asked, “What are all those buildings in your town with pointy spires and crosses on top? What is that about?” Could you answer accurately?

That’s the question C.S. Lewis—author of the Chronicles of Narnia—and Oxford College Chaplain, Walter Hooper, knocked around one day. “We wondered how many people, (who did not flee) apart from voicing their prejudices about the Church, could supply them with much in the way of accurate information. On the whole, we doubted whether the aliens would take back to their world much that is worth having.”

Hooper and Lewis were speculating because at that time, in the mid-twentieth century, several autobiographies of former bishops and preachers had flooded the market, explaining why they could no longer accept the faith. Lewis believed the ignorance of true Christianity was due to the flood of “liberal writers who are continually accommodating and whittling down the truth of the Gospel.”

Not much has changed. Today, many people reject Christianity because of prejudice or personal failure that seemed to disqualify them from the faith. Others were injured by fraudulent Christians and left the faith out of anger. A spate of recent books by former evangelicals such as the late Rachel Held Evans, and ex-pastors Rob Bell and Joshua Harris contribute to the confusion. “If professionals can’t follow it, how can I?”

But as Hooper writes in his preface to God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics by C.S. Lewis, “…it is impossible to decide whether Christianity is true or false if you do not know what it is about.” Spiritually hungry skeptics must ask themselves, “Am I rejecting something I fully understand? Or am I using negative examples as an excuse not to investigate it?”

That is why we offer the Alpha Course every fall. It’s a ten-week introduction to basic Christianity that’s designed to encourage questions and build friendships with others on the same journey. It covers the ten most common questions people have about Christianity, including Who is Jesus? Why Did He Die? Can I Trust the Bible? How Does God Guide Us? What Does the Holy Spirit Do? Why and How Do I Pray?

Our Church is hosting its ninth Alpha Course this year. If you’ve never attended one, I encourage you to find a course near you and go. Click here to find one in your area: https://alphausa.org/try.

HUNGRY FOR COMMUNITY?

HUNGRY FOR COMMUNITY?

I have a confession to make. I hunt for reasons to leave my office and run errands. I spend too much time on Facebook. I linger and chat with the grocery clerk and the guy at the gas station and just about anybody else I can find out in public. I like people. I don’t like being alone. AND I’M REALLY SICK OF SOCIAL DISTANCING! 

If you can identify, and I know most of you can, I want to encourage you to find a friend and bring them to our Alpha Course that begins September 15. Why? Alpha does four things that most of us need right now.

First, Alpha ignores politics. It seems that every four years, we find ourselves in “the most contentious political climate ever.” Politics is a necessary evil, but it need not consume all of our attention every day. Alpha is a beautiful break from the political storm.

Second, Alpha is not trying to sell you anything. Marketing expert Dr. Jeffery Lant developed something called The Rule of Seven. The Rule of Seven states that “to penetrate the buyer’s consciousness and make significant penetration in a given market, you have to contact the prospect a minimum of seven times within an 18-month period.”[1] My dad, who sold life insurance, among other things, summarized it thus: “It takes six NO’s to get a YES.”

Alpha is not a sales pitch of the gospel. It is a course, Christianity 101, if you will, founded instead on two fundamentals: Process and Community. Those two make up the third and fourth things Alpha does for us: create community and allow us to process some of life’s most profound questions.

Covid-19 is forcing many of us to sit still and ask serious questions, some for the first time in our lives. Questions like: Is this all there is? What is life about? Why do bad things like this happen? What’s my purpose? Where is it all headed? Am I ready to die? Alpha provides ancient wisdom on those topics as well as a safe space to process them.

And finally, friends! Alpha helps us meet that gnawing need for community. That is what makes Alpha so enjoyable and encouraging. No one will pressure you, and all questions are welcome in a fellowship of friends who’ve gotten to know one another through shared time and laughter.

Alpha is for everyone. If you’ve been a church member all your life, you will enjoy it. If you have never entered a church or considered Christianity, you will enjoy it and come away enriched with new understanding and new friends. Want to register yourself or a friend? Click here: FIND AN ALPHA.


[1] http://www.businessinsider.com/how-many-contacts-does-it-take-before-someone-buys-your-product-2011-7#ixzz3kaienRL6

TOP TEN MENTAL HEALTH TIPS

TOP TEN MENTAL HEALTH TIPS

In 2007-2009, my middle daughter, Emarie, passed through a time of deep testing. By God’s grace, she came through with her life and faith intact. She now works as an architect and Jiu Jitsu instructor in Billings, Montana. As I am at a conference this week, I thought you would appreciate her insights.

1) Find the balance between a healthy amount of time to reflect and too much introspection. Do you never slow down long enough to hear the silence? Or do you tie yourself in knots over-thinking? Develop habits that help you strike a middle-ground and pay attention to how you’re doing every now and then.

2) Journal often. It will help you do step one.

3) Take care of your body. Drink water, sleep, eat your veggies! Move yourself!  I know you know how, but are you DOING it? It might take discipline and accountability to develop healthy habits, but you’ll never get there if you don’t go for it. Your brain feels better when you feel better.

4) Talk to people you trust regularly. If you can’t come up with 1-3 people you’re close enough to do this regularly, consider a counselor. Professional talk therapists are better for preventative maintenance than crisis management; they’re objective, they don’t have to be your best friend, and they won’t be part of your life forever.

5) Do something productive. Change the oil. Clean the house. Mow the lawn. Savor the accomplishment of a small job well done.

6) Cry. Everybody does, and there are things in life that merit it. If you can’t grieve, you can’t heal. In retrospect, I find it interesting that my deep-dive into depression involved no tears. I wouldn’t let myself cry, and for a long time, I didn’t heal. The frequency of a need to cry varies from person to person and across the seasons of life, but it’s safe to say that you’re overdue if you can’t remember the last time. I keep a playlist of sad instrumental music, and when I’m feeling down, I turn it up and sit in the feeling until I figure out why. Usually, it merits a good cry.

7) Sing. I learned this from my younger sister, and it works! When her bedroom door slammed, and the soundtrack to Sweeney Todd started at full volume, there was no doubt she was upset. There’s music to suit most any feeling; head out in the car alone, turn it up, and sing along.

8) Get straight with your creator. If you feel like you’re bent double under the weight of something you can’t even see, go to the one who accepts burdens. Go screaming, go fighting, go doubting, but go.

9) Worship. Once you know who God is glory in it. Meditate on it. Sing about it. If you’ve never done #8, this may seem silly, but participating in worship has never failed to change my day regardless of my mental/emotional state, attitude, energy level, or even intention.

10) Put yourself on a brain diet. I’m not talking about food. Pay attention to the information, images, and implied messages you are consuming, especially through social media and entertainment. You KNOW the stuff that’s junk-brain-food. Junk-brain-food is just like junk food-food, it tastes good, at least for a moment. It strokes your ego, suits your fantasies, and captivates your attention. Stop taking it in. It may seem harmless, but it’s poison for your brain. Unplug entirely if you have to.

For example, I like country music (not all of it, but, you know, more than 50%); however, I won’t listen to some THEMES of country music. The feelings/attitudes those songs generate aren’t worth it. I also don’t watch horror movies. I know they’re dumb, I don’t believe any of it is real, and I know many of them are funny, silly, suspenseful, thrilling, or well-written. But I don’t watch any of them because I find them disturbing and unenjoyable. Further, I think that if I liked a horror movie, I would like it the same way I like the third piece of chocolate cake, more in the having than the actual eating and not at all once it’s finished. It’s junk-brain-food, and my mental health is better without it.

LAST RIDE WITH BIG MIKE

LAST RIDE WITH BIG MIKE

Dealing with Covid-19 has been hard on all of us, but especially those with mental health issues. Since today is the tenth anniversary of his passing, I thought I would re-post this story about my brother, who fought a great battle for his mental health and won.

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 that works fine for millions, but not for him.

Big Mike, his nickname in the neighborhood, was always bigger and stronger than most of my friends and me. 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 has a mental disorder.

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

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. Stopping the meds 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 medication and visited a therapist now and then 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.

The second thing was his 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, he kept his courage up. 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.