Monday, April 29, 2013

Why Do I Care?

If you have just stopped by or haven't read my blog in a while you probably haven't noticed that I have been on a mental health kick, spurred by the suicide of Rick Warren's son. What I haven't talked directly about, although I've hinted towards it in my last couple of posts, is why.

First I want to make clear that I'm not trying to take advantage of someone else's personal tragedy to promote my point of view. Rather, I saw Matthew Warren's suicide as an opportunity to complete posts that were already half-written and prayed that God could use this event to help others. I'm not alone in this. Adrian Warnock over at Patheos.com has been doing the same. I can't speak for his motivations, but the way I look at it is if the son of one of the most recognized Christian pastors in America suffered from depression then that means the best-selling author struggled as a parent. And if he struggled, then chances are pretty good others are struggling as well. It would be easier for me to say that since I'm struggling then others probably are too, but that is a self-centered assumption. And although I want to relate and be as open and vulnerable as I can on an open forum such as this, I am very self-conscious not to make this about me.

So how did I get here?

My posts on counseling and depression were originally going to be part of a series of posts as I read through Sheila Walsh's book, God Loves Broken People: And Those Who Think They're Not. (Which won't happen unfortunately, but if those posts resonated with you then I strongly recommend that book)

My post on suicide has been in the pressure cooker for some time, most recently following news of the spikes in military suicides.

And my most recent posts on Autism and ADHD obviously come about from personal experience, but also relate back to the post The Impossible Child over at The Psychotherapy Network. (If you didn't get the hint in my last post I'll say it again: if you're a parent at your wits end YOU HAVE TO READ THIS POST!)

And as I've mentioned before, there are still a couple of posts to come.

So that explains the posts, but still doesn't fully answer the question why I personally care. So deep breath, here I go.

 www.parentingwithhope.com

Yesterday I taught my son's Sunday-school class. Things were going relatively well when we got to snack time and he started obsessing about a cup of water. I was just about to have him share with the rest of the class from his picture Bible but my wife and I could not bring him down off this obsession. It got so bad we had to remove him from the class. Once class ended and he settled down, it occurred to him that he never did get to share and that spun him up all over again. He calmed down by the time we got home, but the tension and anxiety was still under the surface. So we had another blow up as we were getting him ready for bed. This is just one example from one day.

My son doesn't fit in any particular category, crossing and blending diagnoses, which makes accommodations extremely difficult. It is hard for him to feel loved and accepted. It is hard for us as parents to be patient and work with him. And my ongoing fear that does at times literally keep me up at night is that this pressure and anxiety will someday lead to something catastrophic.

The numbers don't help. One article claims that 3.4 percent of the US population has Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and 60 percent of suicide victims suffered from MDD. A study in the Archives for General Psychiatry found that 39 percent of children with ADHD suffered from depression and 18 percent had attempted suicide. Studies suggest that 30 percent of children with autism are also diagnosed with ADHD. Add to that the recent studies that show rates of autism and ADHD are increasing in children.

Link these all together and hopefully you understand how I can jump from depression and suicide in one post to autism and ADHD in the next and why I feel, as a parent, a blogger, and a Christian that I need to share for the sake of others who may feel the same. Yes, a percentage of a percent is a much smaller percent, but I still struggle with that fear. Maybe you do too.

I cannot change my son. I can only trust God and be as open as I can. And if only one person reads these words and finds comfort and hope in them, then this series of posts was worth it.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Not Autistic Enough

I have a new supervisor at work who calls all of us his Aspergers cats. I guess you could imagine a workplace environment full of Sheldons from Big Bang Theory. While I can see that in many of my coworkers I struggle to see that in myself. Yet I'm not very social, I can perseverate on subjects, I am borderline obsessive-compulsive in my habitual routines, and when things stray from my expectations my world is completely rocked.

These are things I have come to recognize as I've gotten older, but looking back I can now see some hints. According to my mom, when I was young parades would scare me- the loud noises would bring me to tears. I remember one Christmas receiving a fireman's helmet, complete with a light and siren on top, that was the coolest thing in the world. That is, until I turned it on. When I got married, my wife and I lived in a little apartment. One day steam from the shower caused the smoke detector to go off which sent me into a panic attack. (Are you sensing a theme?)

I would consider my social skills and obsessive-compulsive behaviors to be personality quirks. But sensory overload- that I think is a real issue.

You'll notice I didn't mention the "A word" in last week's post, God Made Me Broken [ed. note: this has been sitting in draft so long this used to read "yesterday's post"- I apologize for the delay getting this out]. At the time we were dealing with my son's speech issues we worried about how this would affect him socially. The "A word" was always in the back of our minds, with my wife being a special education teacher and me with my quirks. Yet my son would make eye contact and would respond to his name- traditional rule-of-thumb tests in a toddler or preschooler.

But... He had his struggles socially. He couldn't understand why he couldn't maintain relationships. He would find things to perseverate on. And he did not adjust well to change. (Sounds a lot like his father). But he managed for the most part. That is, until a little over a year ago...

We noticed at school he was getting into trouble more and his grades were starting to slip. It wasn't long before it felt like he was tanking school completely. (And there were some environmental issues that contributed, but I won't go there) Everything seemed consistent with that dreaded A word: Autism.

We went to our medical provider and had him checked out. To be diagnosed for autism, one needs to show deficiency in three areas: social, language, and play. To us, this was a no-brainer. I mentioned his language issues before. But I didn't mention that as part of getting his IEP (Individualized Education Plan) for speech he was evaluated by a occupational therapist and we concluded that he had Sensory Integration Disorder. This explained why he didn't like to swim, would only run if he could touch something next to him (a fence or a wall), why he needs his snuggles every night, why he freaks out when his sister orders mac and cheese at a restaurant, and also why he cannot sit still in a chair to save his life. (More on SID at the end of this post...) And his struggles in preschool and kindergarten appeared to be socially related.

In addition to these evaluations he also underwent a series of tests whose score would help determine where on the Autism Spectrum he would fall. My wife and I also had to fill out a form describing our impression of his behaviors and what stimuli would set him off.

When we returned to the pediatric psychologist to hear the results we were eager to finally have an explanation, that we could finally receive the help we needed, that prayerfully someone would finally understand.

But we were wrong. My son scored just short of the limits defined by the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) for autism. (Important note: soon the DSM-IV will be replaced by DSM-V which limits the range of the Autism Spectrum even further, which is subject to much debate.) And he showed that although he had struggles in language skills and sensory processing, he was not deficient socially.

So what was this? I wish I could've understood all the psychobabble as the psychologist spoke, but I was too much in shock. I heard Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS, which is a fancy way of saying it looks a lot like autism but isn't and we don't know what to call it) and Juvenile Bipolar Disorder which can be confused with ADHD+ (not just ADHD, it's ADHD Plus!). As he was speaking I was picturing my son, reviewing the tests in my mind, and trying to filter what the psychologist was saying through the definitions of autism as I understood them.

And a light went on.

I should note at this point that I am not a psychologist. I am not an expert in brain development or gene-mapping. In other words, I don't really know what I'm talking about. But I do know what I've seen and it occurred to me that many of these diagnoses overlapped, which explains why autism is so difficult to identify and is often misdiagnosed. Remember the three areas that help define autism- social, language, and play? Imagine any two of the three overlapping: social and language for example and how those behaviors would be different than if language and play overlapped. And I saw a pattern in my head- ADHD, Bipolar, and Sensory Integration are each overlaps of two out of the three. Autism would be an overlap of all three. Again, I am not an expert and this certainly isn't definitive, but it fit my son to a T.

And sure enough, there was something to this. A few months ago a study was released that claimed there was a genetic link between many of these mental disorders.

Vindication? I wish. My wife and I still joke about our son being "Not Autistic Enough" during good times, and we get discouraged when his teachers cannot understand him, or his diagnosis, during the bad times. We wish we could just slap a (relatively) well-understood label like autism to defend him. We're still struggling through this and learning a lot. And yes, this means there is another post (or two) coming.

I mentioned I was going to revisit Sensory Integration Disorder. This was another revelation for us as parents. It explained so much and helped us immensely. A a parent, if you've never heard of this and cannot figure out what is wrong with your child, I'd recommend checking out The Out of Sync Child. I also recommend everyone read this article, The Impossible Child, from the Psychotherapy Network. It is long, but necessary to help understand what these kids and their parents fight through. To be perfectly honest, the first time I read this article I cried because that was me narrating. That was my son being described. Maybe it will also shed some light for you. And like I said, I still have a lot to say about this, so I encourage you to come back (and I promise it won't be so long between posts this time!)

Monday, April 22, 2013

I'm Not Alright

I'm "pinning" my post You're Not Alone to the top of the main page for a while and I'll be adding more material as this continues to be a hot topic for me and other bloggers.

But why am I making such a big deal out of it, after all Matthew Warren's suicide was a couple of weeks ago and there have been bigger headlines since?

I'm staying on this subject because for me, it is personal. Some of what I'm writing about I relate to within the four walls of my home. Some of this is happening right now within the four walls of my congregation. And it continues to be an issue outside of those four walls, even if they don't make national headlines. Last Monday a local school was on lockdown as a student was reported missing and was assumed to be armed. Later that day he shot himself.

The truth of the matter is, I'm not alright. My family is not alright. You are not alright. We need to get beyond the superficial "fine" when asked how we are doing. Some of us are hurting inside. Some want to hurt themselves or others. The Church cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the struggles associated with mental health. (And you'll see in these posts that "mental health" ranges from severe depression to autism- two extremes that if we're honest, we really don't know what to do with.)

I'm not alright. Are you?

If weakness is a wound
that no one wants to speak of
then cool is just how far we have to fall




Thursday, April 18, 2013

God Made Me Broken

I'm proud of my son for many reasons: he's an expert Lego builder, he has deep spiritual insight, he has a heart to serve, and he has nearly photographic memory to just name a few. But a story I love to tell as my badge-of-honor so to speak is the fact that he got expelled from preschool. (I take comfort in the fact the Albert Einstein was expelled from high school)

The reason he was expelled was because he was a biter. A lot of kids are, but you want to make sure you don't bite the wrong parent's child. We learned that at that age, biting is an expression of frustration because the young boy or girl cannot yet talk to communicate their wants and needs. That described my son perfectly- he didn't communicate... for a very long time.

Once enrolled in elementary school, we started him in a speech program. It was several months later during a meeting to review his IEP (Individualized Education Plan) that his speech teacher dropped this bomb.

"He told me 'God made me broken!'" My jaw dropped. He understood that he was different. He knew he struggled to communicate and that affected his friendships and his performance at school. He knew something was wrong.

As a parent, the temptation is to question what you might have done to cause it. I tore myself up over it. Did I not show him enough love? Did I not roughhouse with him often enough? Did I not take enough time every night before he went to bed to read to him?

Of course while I was busy kicking myself, I forgot that there were physical issues as well- he had torticollis (a strain in the neck that keeps one from turning their head all the way or holding their head up straight) and he had ankyloglossia (was tongue-tied) which required a frenulectomy (to cut the tissue under his tongue). The latter was so bad that he could not completely chew his food and would sometimes choke. Both, obviously, contributed to his late speech.

But he wasn't a doctor, so how was he supposed to know that this was relatively common? He was my firstborn, so how was I to know I didn't do something wrong? The stress and struggle we went through as a family during this time felt immeasurable. And it set the stage for later (yes, you're going to have to come back and read another post).

What did I learn through all of this? I wish I could say something as lofty and noble as "trust God!" but I can't. I learned a lot about myself, actually. I learned I stress out over my family way too easily. I learned that I really have no idea what I'm doing as a parent. But I also learned that I'm just like everybody else- no one really knows what they're doing, they just rely on the best information they have, and everyone stresses out about their children.

My son thought he was "made broken" but on the contrary, he was made special. That requires me to listen to him more carefully because he communicates in his own special way. It calls me higher to encourage him more when he gets down over things he cannot control. And if it's even possible, you might say I love him more.

"As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, 'Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?' 'Neither this man nor his parents sinned,' said Jesus, 'but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.'"
(John 9:1-3)

I also learned that God has a purpose in all of this. I may not yet know what it is (I'm praying for the next Einstein, or as he now likes to say the next Tony Stark) but I know that this is all so that His glory may be revealed.

This also created in me a greater sensitivity to other children and other parents. I cannot judge because I don't know what they're going through. I have learned to empathize with families who are down in the dumps who struggle to understand that whatever they are going through is beyond their control, that they do not need to blame themselves.

What kind of struggles have you had as a parent; have you ever felt like you 'failed' in some way?

Are there times you struggle because you feel like you don't understand your son or daughter?

I love how Veggie Tales close out their shows: "Remember kids, God made you special, and he loves you very much!"

Friday, April 12, 2013

Suicide is Painless

When I was in college I remember debating with a friend at church about the eternal destiny of those who commit suicide. My position at the time was that our life, our breath, every heartbeat, is an undeserved gift from God so to commit suicide was the ultimate affront, rejecting God's gift.

My friend didn't like my answer. Not long before this conversation there was a string of suicides in her hometown, something like three within a few months of each other. All, as I recall, were friends. One I remember distinctly was found hung in his bedroom with the Jeff Buckley song "Last Goodbye" repeating on his CD player.

My convictions and emotional insensitivity have evolved in the years since. I better understand depression, and I've learned how to better deal with loss. Every time I hear that song on the radio, or
the Michael Andrews/Gary Jules version of "Mad World" I have to fight back tears, remembering that specific conversation.

"The dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had" (Mad World, 1982)

Last year in the US Military, active duty suicides exceeded deaths in combat. While one of the main factors is the reduction of combat deaths due to drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, it doesn't change the fact that the rate of suicide increased 16% from 2011 and has nearly doubled in a decade. January opened the year with a spike in suicides in the Air Force, prompting a "down day" across the Service in an effort to boost morale and emphasize the importance of a "wingman".

There are many reasons for this increase in suicides- difficulty in adjusting to life back home which includes reestablishing relationships that had become self-sufficient and self-reliant while on deployment, rejection from friends/family/community because of political stances towards war, depression exacerbated by alcohol or drug abuse, and probably most commonly Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) resulting from their experiences in battle.


Obscure television trivia: the theme song to M.A.S.H. is called 'Suicide is Painless" and the lyrics were written by director Robert Altman's son, who was 14 at the time.

While depression carries its own stigmas and misunderstandings, PTSD is a relatively new diagnosis, so many do not recognize it or know how to manage it if and when they see it. But it is not new, it is just now becoming more understood.

For example, it may be easy to relate PTSD to traumatic flashbacks to warfare as is often depicted in movies or on TV- think of a car backfiring reminding someone of gunfire. But did you know that victims of sexual abuse, children who were moved around through the foster system, or children who experienced the death of a parent early in their lives will often show symptoms of PTSD when they get older? For adults, mothers who suffer miscarriage or parents who lose a child in a traumatic incident can also develop symptoms consistent with PTSD. Withdrawal and an inability to relate to situations that would otherwise be "normal" (relationships within a family, sexual intimacy with a partner, sometimes even holding down a job for 40 hours a week) are the common symptoms. Subconsciously, their particular trauma creates a barrier to allowing emotional responses to events, actions, or relationships that remind one of that trauma. Eventually these emotions build up. In addition, a person with PTSD will feel confusion because they don't "feel" when they respond to those triggers and cannot understand why they react to certain things in a socially inappropriate way, if they respond at all.

The end result, for adults who suffered childhood abuse as well as the soldier returning from a theater of war, is the overwhelming sense of rejection. This then can lead to a downward spiral into depression and in some cases suicide.

They say when someone commits suicide in hindsight you can see the warnings: giving away valuable possessions, an increase in affection towards those closest to them while withdrawing from others, and the vaguely described melancholic mood. But hindsight is too late. We don't recognize the "cries for help" as they happen because we don't know what we're looking for.

In the church, if we see someone's life falling apart we attribute it to a lack of self-discipline. If someone stops showing up to things they're not committed. If they are depressed then they are missing the joy that is in Christ. We point our fingers and then act surprised when someone takes such a desperate step. We are critical and judgemental. I know. I've seen it. I've been guilty of it.

So what is the church to do? We can't expect everyone to become experts in recognizing mental illnesses. But at the same time we can encourage deep relationships. Get beyond the typical answer of "fine" when you ask how someone is doing. Don't be afraid to get into someone's life- find out what is really going on- and allow others to get deep with you. But probably the biggest step of all is not to judge or criticize when someone is going through a rough patch in their lives; there is likely a reason behind it. And if it is something over your head, don't feel stigmatized by encouraging counseling.

And I cannot say this enough. If you're feeling like this, if you feel alone and isolated and don't know where else to turn, it would be easy to say turn to Jesus but it might take more than that. Confide in a friend. Seek help wherever you can. And most of all be assured that you are not alone, that there are others who do understand.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Wrong Tool

Have you ever tried to turn a screw with a hacksaw? Or pound a nail with a drill bit? Of course not. But we do this all the time in the church- use the wrong tool to fix spiritual problems in one another.


It seems so simple to point at a scripture and shout REPENT! But for some sins it's just not that straightforward. My church just concluded a series from Andy Stanley's Enemies of the Heart covering the root-sins of anger, jealousy, greed and guilt. Do you notice a glaring omission? Stanley dedicates the last chapter, and we devoted our last lesson, to lust. The reason lust isn't listed as one of the four core emotions that lead to sin is because the desire to lust is God-given and not sinful. When taken to the extremes of pornography, affairs and so on, this God-given desire is typically driven there by one of these core emotions (often anger or greed). Yet we approach the person addicted to pornography the same way we'd deal with someone who struggles with cussing. It is one thing to tell someone just to stop lusting, it is something else entirely to dig deep to the root cause of a brother's addiction to porn.

The same is true in dealing with chemical addiction. I help lead a recovery ministry that has been ongoing for ten years now. But it was an uphill battle to get that ministry started in the first place. "Can't you just tell them to repent?" was the conventional wisdom. It wasn't until ministry staff saw first-hand the nuances involved in counseling someone enslaved in their addiction that this ministry received a green-light.

Last year the couple who lead this ministry attended a workshop on counseling. Another taboo. Another problem in the church being fixed by the wrong tool. From what I heard, most left that workshop still skeptical counseling works, or at least works any better than the traditional way of beating someone over the head with the Bible.

I already wrote about how the church needs to overcome the stigma of medications for mental health. The church also needs to overcome the taboo of psychotherapy as a means to holistic healing.

A couple of years ago one brother was brave and humble enough to seek out a professional counselor for something that normally would be dealt with the usual rebuke of "repent!". I say brave because it took a lot of courage to step away from the church conventional wisdom; humble because he realized that the personal demons he was fighting against required more than faith and willpower to overcome. A year ago another person started seeing the same counselor. It was entirely a coincidence- the first brother found him through a list provided by his insurance, the second followed a recommendation from a school psych. Since then, between the two of them, at least a half-dozen brothers and sisters in my congregation have been referred to this one counselor and another half-dozen, roughly, are seeking therapy elsewhere. We joke about getting referral discounts. But it has spread like this because we've seen that it works.

There is a somewhat famous quote attributed to Viktor Frankl that goes, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.” The application to counseling versus rebuke is that the latter focuses on the response while the former identifies the stimulus and the habits that have formed in the space between.

Many addicts, be it chemical (drugs, alcohol) or behavioral (gambling, pornography), have evolved their lifestyle around their habits and routines in that space between. To tell one to simply stop will not change those patterns, and if the stimulus is not identified they are bound to fall into the same temptations, struggles, and failures all over again. Addicts literally need to be retrained on how to live in that space between. The Word of God is a great guideline, but the counselor, discipler, accountability partner, etc needs to know how to apply it. This is the nuance mentioned above. And every person is different. There is no one-size-fits-all fix.

Which leads us to mental illness, the theme of this last series of posts. For the mentally ill, retraining that space between is even more delicate. If done unprofessionally, or inappropriately, one can do irreparable harm. Identification of the stimulus (or trigger in popular counseling parlance) also requires specialized skill that most church-goers do not possess.

So the church needs to overcome its bias against professional counseling. It needs to let go of its monopoly on pastoral counseling. The caveat of course is that one has to carefully choose their counselor- there are bad-apples everywhere (I know of one specific instance of a marriage counselor having an affair with the spouse of a couple he was counseling! Although it is cliche and not much of a surprise, it is different when witnessed first-hand.) Ideally one would choose a Christian counselor, not because they are better since they share the same label I do, but because they counsel in the context of God's sovereignty. But even then, one must be careful. I don't recommend opposite-sex counseling for obvious reasons. And you want to make sure the counselor has experience in the area in which you are seeking help. A Certified Drug and Alcohol Counselor (CDAC) is less likely to be able to help you with pent up rage toward your parents than a Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT).

If nothing else, I hope the takeaway from this post is to reassure you that professional counseling, outside of the church, is ok. In fact it may be necessary. And to continue what I've been saying since i started this series of posts, if you are struggling with some form of mental illness (even if that label makes you flinch) you are not alone, there is help, and you do not need to feel judged.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

This Kind Can Come Out Only With Prayer... And Drugs

I had a conversation with a woman at a conference a few years ago who was shunned within her church because she suffered from depression and required medication. She was told that her faith was not strong enough and that there must have been some hidden sin that she was refusing to repent of. She was in near-tears as she described how hard it was to even continue in a church fellowship.

Photo credit: Alaina Abplanalp Photography
Although I couldn't specifically relate, I did know from experience that some things require more than just prayer and fasting to overcome. When I was in campus ministry, there was a brother who was bi-polar (oh how that word means so much more to me now than it did then). He was joyful, serving, and although socially awkward he wasn't unpleasant to be around... so long as he was on his medications. When he'd go off he would typically disappear for a couple of weeks only to turn up again as if nothing happened. Except one time.

I lived only a couple of blocks away from our campus minister on a fairly busy street. Late one night I was working on homework when I heard outside my window someone cussing and cursing and threatening to kill our campus minister. He called him out by name. I was scared, worried he thought our house was his. Because it was dark outside we couldn't see who it was or tell from where it was coming from. Turns out it was this brother, off his medication. Thank God nothing happened, but it just goes to show how quickly these conditions can lead to violence.

Another, more tragic incident, occurred when someone chose to stop taking their medications because of how it made this person feel. When off, this person was more outgoing and more joyful, but was almost amped up too much. One Sunday morning we were waiting for this person to show up to help usher, but this person never did. This person passed away in their sleep. (And there is much, much more to tell of this story- but it hits too close to home still, so many years later)

And if those personal anecdotes don't drive home the point, I strongly encourage you to read this post from Wendy Murray over at Patheos. She has similar stories, similar experiences, but they are her own- a pastor's wife who relies on medications to get through the day.

Ed Setzer in his terrific post on CNN, notes that churches need to embrace that medications are ok. In fact, I like how he puts is: "we should not be afraid of medicine." Mental illness is not solely a spiritual affliction and taking medication is not a sign someone is weak. I do believe there are spiritual components to it, but that does not negate the genetic, biological, chemical, and neurological imperfections that measurably exist. "This demon can only be driven out by prayer [and fasting]." (Mark 9:29, HCB) I believe if Jesus were alive today he might add "and strong psychotropic drugs".

But drugs are not the only answer. A lot of research has gone into the effects of food additives and the body's positive reaction to natural vitamins and stimulants like vitamin B, omega 3s, and caffeine. (A sampling from my family's bookshelf: What's Eating Your Child and Potatoes not Prozac)

Besides nutrition faith, hope and love are also necessary to provide a supportive environment to those suffering from mental illnesses. Talk to any parent having to deal with their child coming down from their ADHD medication at the end of the day and imagine them persevering without love. Relate to any parent fighting their local school districts for accommodations for their child with ASD and wonder how they can do so without faith. And for those suffering, it is impossible for me to understand how anyone can survive these maladies without hope.

Yet despite healthy doses of faith, hope, and love plus counseling, medications, and changes to diet there are still casualties like Matthew Warren. I cannot minimize his loss with a hand-wave of "if Pastor Rick had only done such and such or so and so..." So again I bang my drum: mental illness is real; so how can the church help the many of us who are affected?

Monday, April 08, 2013

Suicide, Mental Illness and the Church

My wife read the headline to me from across the living room. "That can't be right," I thought, "it is probably some hoax on Facebook or something." But as I walked over to the computer to look I saw it was not some random link on social media, but was in fact a real headline.

I don't know the Warrens. I don't have any personal contacts at Saddleback Church. Yet the headline made my knees go weak, forcing me to sit down.

Suicide has that effect on me. A few months ago a childhood friend of mine that I hadn't talked to in many years committed suicide and it put me in a funk for over a week. (Chalk suicide up as news you don't want to hear about on Facebook) When my uncle committed suicide a couple of years ago, it affected me for months. I'm not sure why this hits me so personally, but it does. My heart and prayers go out to the Warren family.

When Adam Lanza opened fire at an elementary school in Connecticut, there was a brief, strong push to bring mental illness more into the limelight. Unfortunately those voices were drowned out by the movement for stricter gun control. (for the record, this is not a political statement, rather a lament that we are missing the forest for the trees) Maybe this time those of us calling for our country, and now specifically our churches, to acknowledge this growing epidemic will finally be heard.

I thought attention might have been grabbed when just a few months ago a landmark study linked autism, ADHD and depression. One headline from Yahoo read "The Surprising Link Between Depression and ADHD". Another from the Raw Story went further: "Autism, ADHD, bipolar disorder, depression and schizophrenia share common gene problem". (two of the top links from a Google search) But for those of us affected by these "categories" of mental illness, this news did not come as a surprise. (And I have more to say about in a future post later this week)

April is Autism Awareness Month. I don't know if Matthew Warren was diagnosed to be on the Autism Spectrum, but the news does state that he had a history of mental illness and depression. Regardless, this is an issue that our society and our churches need to learn to deal with. Ed Setzer wrote a great article over at CNN that covers many of the bases I planned to so I encourage you to read that whole post. A highlight:

Matthew had the best medical care available, a loving church that cared for him and his family, and parents who loved and prayed for him. Yet, that could not keep Matthew with us.

I'm going to talk more about mental illness and the church this week. My prayer, besides comfort and healing for the Warrens and the community at Saddleback, is for those of you dealing with depression, ASD, or other mental illnesses, personally or relationally, to know that you are not alone. And although headlines such as this may make it feel like there is no hope, there is.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

The End of the Pursuit

As we conclude Brennan Manning's book The Furious Longing of God, I'm left thinking and feeling, "well, what does it look like?" Manning gives us plenty of anecdotal examples from a father reconciling with his son, to Don Quixote's pursuit of Dulcinea; from his own story of redemption to Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree. But as Manning often cites as an obstacle for these experiences, my head gets in the way of my heart.

It is easy to understand Manning's description of "being in that boat as the storm hits" (pg 130) just as I can read about the disciples' fear with Jesus napping in the boat- the moment forced them (and us in our storms) to call on Jesus' name.

But personally have I ever experienced anything like "a certainty of God's longing for intimacy unlike anything you've felt in hand-clapping worship or anointed Scripture studies"? (pg 130) I struggle to identify with that. Even as I reflect upon My Story, I "know" God was reaching out to me through my circumstances, my relationships (and lack thereof), in spite of my choices at the time. I know he was breaking up hard ground in order to receive a seed that could grow.

I remember as I was visiting different colleges for graduate school the strong feeling of I had as I was driving home from one: I have to go here- God wants me here. Little did I understand at the time, at the same time on the other side of the country another young man was questioning God over drinks at a bar, determined to find him on his own terms not his family's, and as he was resolving this in his heart he looked up and saw a neon sign for Boulder Beer and knew where he was going to go to school.

Had he not made that choice, we would not have been teaching assistants together. We would not have become great friends. And he would not have been there to share the Gospel with me after he found what he was looking for. Had I chosen to go somewhere else, who knows what God would have done in His pursuit of me?

Or I can relate to how my wife and I got married. Often we describe courtship as either chivalrous, showering with gifts and bending over backwards to win our love, or aloof and mysterious, not showing too much emotion, not giving too much away, leaving the other longing for more. I fell in a third category- the clueless. My wife knew even before our first date that I was "the one" and was utterly convinced by the second. I needed a bit more time.

I think of God's longing not like my clumsy uncertain pursuit of my wife, but rather as her love for me. She knew all along, but she waited for me to recognize it for myself. Isn't that how it is with God? He chose us before the creation of the world, but he patiently waits for us to come to our own convictions, to fall in love with him on our own.

Maybe he reaches out to each of us differently-some with a booming voice from heaven, others with patient silence- knowing to what exactly we will respond. But there is no doubt in my mind that God pursued me, and continues to do so.

Looking back, how do you see God pursuing you? Would you describe that pursuit as "furious"?

This post concludes our discussion on Brennan Manning's book, The Furious Longing of God. Please check out Jason Sasyzsen's and Sarah Salter's blogs for more discussion.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Fools, Baseball, and an Empty Tomb

Today is April Fools' Day. It is also baseball's opening day. (No, I don't count the Astros debut in the American League last night. In fact, I don't count the Astros much at all... Just kidding!) And in an odd twist of the calendar (and the cycle of the moon) it is also the day after Easter, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus.

So today is a day of new beginnings, tricks and treats.

I haven't done the research but I wonder if Easter has ever fallen on April 1st. It would be easy fodder for the skeptics who doubt the existence of God, no less the resurrection of his Son.

The empty tomb is one of the most controversial events in all religion. Besides rationalizing how a God can die, one also has to accept that a person rose from the dead. Obviously miracles defy scientific or even logical explanation, but this miracle is particularly challenging.

Yet it is fundamental.

Paul argues that if there is no life after death [as evidenced by Christ's resurrection] then our faith is "useless". For this reason skeptics and those who oppose Christianity have tried for centuries to explain away the empty tomb.

One of the best ways to attack this foundation of the Christian faith is to question the reliability of the Gospel accounts and the objectivity of the writers.

Before I head down the rabbit hole of apologetics you're probably wondering, I thought this post was going to be about baseball? Ok, let me relate this to one of baseball's more infamous legends.

Grover Cleveland Alexander was one of the best pitchers in his era, if not all time. But he was also an alcoholic, suffering from PTSD from his service in World War I. Legend has it that he came in relief to pitch in the 7th inning of the 1926 World Series. He struck out Tony Lazzeri of the fabled Yankees with the bases loaded and two outs; and he did so drunk.

Great story, but is it true? Check out this article from a couple of years ago (halfway down). Notice how the commonly accepted legend is attributed to a single witness, catcher Bob O'Farrell. Meanwhile, two other witnesses gave nearly identical accounts contrary to the myth. Now notice the dates- the accounts from player/manager Rogers Hornsby and third baseman Les Bell came 27 and 52 years after this event is said to have taken place respectively. The source of the legend, O'Farrell, gave his testimony in the 1966 book The Glory of Their Times: The Story of the Early Days of Baseball Told by the Men Who Played It by Lawrence Ritter. Yet whose is the more reliable account? (If you have the chance, read the entire linked article- there's a lot of anecdotal evidence that works in favor of both sides of the story)

Now relating this back to the empty tomb- the Gospel accounts were written 30-60 years after the life of Jesus. Although there are only these four (technically two- Mark was a contemporary of Peter and Luke interviewed witnesses) eye-witness written accounts, in the letters written to the early church as well as other apostolic writings there are also several witnesses described. At any point, someone could have come forward to say it was all a hoax- that Jesus "swooned" or that the event didn't happen at all.

But there isn't.

So what does that tell us? I'll leave it for you to come to your own conclusions, but I implore you not to be an April Fool.

(I also recommend this blog post from Think Christian relating baseball to faith, also in the context of Easter and also appropriate for April Fools')