Christians and Halloween—Fright, Flight, or Fight?

8BA642DA-3F20-4092-A717-96F5D66EFB5AHappy Halloween? Or wait… should I be wishing you a Happy Halloween? I’m a Christian and a pastor, after all.

So, I’ll admit it, when it comes to major festivities like Christmas or Halloween, we Christians have had our hang-ups and complaints, and Halloween is no exception to the rule.

Depending on what Christian you talk to you about Halloween, you’ll hear various responses ranging from…

  • “Halloween? That’s a completely evil, pagan holiday. We should have nothing to do with it.”
  • “Oh for crying out loud… It’s just a fun day for dressing up, having a good time, and trick-or-treating.”
  • Or… a shrug.

Because I like learning about this kind of thing and then writing on it, I did some research into the origins and evolution of the October 31 festivity we have come to know as Halloween. I wanted to know where it comes from. And I was especially curious about what kind of connections we Christians have to it, since it seems to evoke visceral, cheerful, or nonchalant responses. My findings were quite fascinating and varied!

Want to learn more? Read on with me…

So the first thing I learned is that the origins of Halloween are pretty complex, funkier than a witch’s brew. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) Seriously, it’s a strange synergy of ancient Celtic, Christian, and even Germanic traditions, ginned up in the last nearly 100 years by our American retail and entertainment industries.

From what I can surmise, the earliest roots for Halloween come from the Celtic tradition of Samhain. (That’s the pagan influence which sends some Christians screaming for the exit doors.) It’s actually a beautiful tradition. A friend of mine who practices Celtic-based spirituality described it for me this way:

Samhain has its roots in the end of harvest celebrations around the world, by many different names. On the agricultural calendar it marks the time before the frost when anything in the fields were rendered dead. the dying of the crop- a sacrifice as it were- makes the fields fertile for buried seeds that bring the promise of a new crop to come in the spring- the rebirth. Because of the shorter days and less sunlight, the gate or veil between the living and dead is so thin.

So there it is. Samhain is an end-of-the-harvest celebration and an acknowledgment of the transition from the life of summer to the sleep of winter. This gave rise to the belief that on Samhain, the veil between the living and the dead was particularly thin, which meant that our ancestors along with good and evil spirits would come to visit the living.

Bonfires were lit and turnips were carved into faces to ward off any evil. People would go out mumming– a mix of caroling and gift giving/receiving, disguised, to celebrate the visit of the dead to the living, while attempting to ward off evil spirits. Great feasts were held to welcome the visitation of the dead with the living.

From this you can see some of the early influences of Samhain still at work today– Halloween bonfires, pumpkin carvings, costumes and mask, parties and feasts, trick or treating, and harvest festivals.

But… that’s only half the story.

Once upon a time, the Catholic Church had a fascinating practice of combining Christian and pagan traditions together, in order to make a bridge from paganism into Christianity. They believed that taking something pagan and “baptizing” it into something Christian would be a way to make connections between the church and the existing culture. And they were wildly successful. (Placing Christmas right around the winter solstice is another successful attempt at the same thing.)

In the 9th Century, Pope Gregory IV took the May 13 “St. Mary and All the Martyrs” celebration (which was itself an approbation of a Roman holiday commemorating the dead) and placed it on November 1, calling it “All Hallow’s Day.” All Hallow’s, later called All Saint’s has taken on many meanings through the years, but largely, it is a time to remember and commemorate the saints of God who have gone on before us and to celebrate our ongoing connection and communion with them, as they surround us in the heavens. We give thanks for them, look to their example, and look forward to sharing in their resurrection from the dead with Jesus Christ, joining together in the New Heaven and New Earth at the end of all time.

Major Catholic feast days were always preceded by a day of preparation- an Eve. That made an All Hallow’s Eve on October 31. Since many of our Halloween traditions came to America from the Irish and Scots, All Hallow’s “Even” (“even” is the Scottish word for Eve) came with them. “Even” was routinely contracted to “E’en”. Over the years, All Hallow’s E’en was shortened to Hallow’een and eventually shortened again to our modern day Halloween.

Put all of that together, and as I mentioned earlier, the Halloween of today is a very odd mix of old pagan and Christian traditions, greatly expanded by American commercialism, leaving these pagan and Christian traditions weaved together into this strange– and at times– uncomfortable hodgepodge of culture and religion. Of course, today, most people, even many Christians, are unaware of the Christian roots of Halloween.

So what can be done about that?

It begins by looking at our modern celebration of Halloween. It seems to be made up of several key things:

  • Community. This is the one night of the year that kids happily go from door to door collecting candy from neighbors they might not otherwise talk to. People gather together for parties, community bonfires, and harvest celebrations. I see in all this our ongoing need for connection with our neighbors.
  • A festive burlesque of death, evil, and the things that frighten us. Why do we go after all this stuff? Why so many ghosts, vampires, zombies, witches, and tombstones? I think it’s our attempt to laugh at and even mock the things we fear the most. Death, evil, and our shadows lurk in the outer wings of our lives. At least we like to keep them there as long as we can. But once in a while, we feel an innate need to face our fears and shadows and to parody, mock, and play with them. It seems to me that Halloween has become a major vehicle folks use to do that very thing.
  • An embrace of the changing seasons. This time of year is an ingathering time– something we felt much more profoundly when more of us lived agrarian lives. It’s a time to say goodbye to the life, light, and warmth of summer and to greet the deep, dark, cold sleep of winter. Perhaps this moves us to think of our own lives, specifically how truly thin the veil is between this life, death, and the next life.

I think we Christians can embrace Halloween in a whole new way, very intentionally, without running from it or heedlessly partaking in it without any consideration to our beliefs and unique witness.

First, we must share and live out the truth that through every season of our lives, God is faithful. It’s just a matter of fully embracing the season we are in and trusting that God is fully present in that season (Ecclesiastes 3:1-15). This includes, of course, the passing of summer and our transition into winter, in nature and over the course of our human lives, too.

Second, we can join in the community! Halloween stuff is fun. It’s a special time that people get together, enjoy one another, and hopefully build relationships. It’s within these human connections that the good news of Jesus is shared, both by our gracious speech and the good news of our lives, filled with the goodness of Christ.

Third, we do indeed have good news to share. Death and evil are defeated foes! Through Christ’s sacrificial love on the cross, we have the freedom to resist evil and to move through death into resurrection. Halloween may be one day of the year to laugh off evil and death. But every day we Christians all over the globe openly defy the powers of evil and death through the unstoppable power of God’s Holy Spirit within us and in the world. This segues very nicely into the celebration of All Saints, after the revelry of Halloween is over and packed up. There are so many creative ways to share this awesome good news with an anxious, bitterly divided world. How could we Christians do that, authentically and creatively, without being obnoxiously preachy, during this time of year?

So… Happy Halloween! See the presence and good news of God, even within the strange, growing darkness of the day. It’s the kind of hope and peace that will carry us through all the seasons of our lives.

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All of Us Must Answer the Kavanaugh Questions

E0E9942E-331C-4672-91B5-9A992258D630Did he do it? Do we believe her? Does it matter?

These are the questions swirling around the confirmation proceedings of Judge Brett Kavanaugh as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Beyond partisan politics, these vital questions not only pertain to Kavanaugh and his confirmation, but they also reflect and shape our national collective conscience, too.

What is the truth? Do we listen to and believe Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation? Does this have any bearing on Kavanaugh’s fitness for office?

First, let me expose the terrible hypocrisy sitting in the middle of the room. Republicans who were quick to denounce the likes of Senator Al Franken and President Bill Clinton for their sexual misbehavior have been making every perceivable excuse for Judge Kavanaugh. And of course, Democrats who turned a blind eye to Franken and Clinton are now piling on Kavanaugh. Sexual misconduct and abuse is what it is. It either matters and brings to question the offender’s qualification for the responsibility of public office, or it doesn’t. Plain and simple, Democrat or Republican. (Of course, I don’t expect the partisans to agree with me. I’m sure they’ll respond with their regular barrage of worn-out, deflective talking points. Nevertheless…)

Now that the partisan smokescreen is out of the way, what do we make of Kavanaugh?

Let’s reverse the original order of my questions and first ask, “Does it matter?” Answer: it certainly should.

We’re about to confirm Kavanaugh to a lifetime appointment on the nation’s Supreme Court where he will render decisions that will affect our lives and the lives of generations to come under the provisions and protections of United States Constitution. That’s heavy stuff. It takes women and men of the highest character, the clearest thinking, and with the firmest grasp on the truth to faithfully render just decisions.

There is now an accusation of sexual assault raised against Kavanaugh. If he cannot render the full, whole truth of himself in the face of a question regarding sexual conduct and ethics, that says two things. First, it says that he cannot be trusted to see and render the truth. And it says that his character is essentially flawed; he cannot recognize and take responsibility for the choices he has made.

Now there are many who are arguing, “Kavanaugh was a teenager. That was a long time ago. We all did stupid stuff as kids. If he even did that, why should he be punished for it now?” It’s true. Kids do dumb things. Then they grow up… hopefully. And part of growing up is taking responsibility for what we do and have done.

Let’s suppose Kavanaugh called for a press conference or confessed under oath the following: “The allegation brought forward against me by Dr. Ford are regrettably true. As a young man, I did sexually assault her, and I am deeply sorry for what I have done. Since making that terrible, injurious choice, I have grown to respect the dignity and value of every woman. Thus I ask Dr. Ford’s forgiveness. I am willing to make any necessary amends to Dr. Ford and her family. Meanwhile, I continue to commit myself to the highest standards of professional and personal boundaries, ethics and accountability.” After a statement like that, I think most of us would find ourselves moving towards forgiving Kavanaugh, even if on other grounds we still oppose his nomination.

But if Dr. Ford’s allegation stands as credible and Kavanaugh in any way denies or evades the question, he disqualifies himself. Furthermore, if Kavanaugh is content to sit passively, allowing the Republican majority to scuffle the allegation while pressing forward his confirmation, we would have every right to continually question its validity. Truth and character always matter. One informs the other.

That leads to the second question: Do we believe her? The #MeToo movement has done much to expose sexual assault and misconduct for the grave injustice it is, holding the perpetrators accountable, no matter how powerful they are, and making room for victims of assault to come out of the shadows and tell their stories without fear of retribution or incrimination. We have much further to go. Yet we are finally moving to the higher moral ground of saying to these precious neighbors, “What happened to you was not your fault. It was wrong, and we believe you.”

The case of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh is another hurdle in this revolution of truth and consequence. By all accounts, we have every reason to listen to and believe Dr. Ford, regardless of how her case has been handled thus far by the Senate. We’re all entitled to know the facts. We have an obligation to openly listen to her story without suspicion. And then, we must carefully watch and evaluate how Judge Kavanaugh responds.

This raises the last question. Did he do it? Hopefully we’ll soon know. It seems that Dr. Ford is open to the idea of some form of testimony. And yes, there should be an open investigation into the facts. Let’s apply every effort to understand what happened.

At this point, the truthfulness and character of far more than Judge Kavanaugh is on the line. The truthfulness and character of the Senate is also in the dock. And so is ours. Let’s hope and pray, for our country’s sake, and for sakes and the lives of victims and perpetrators of sexual assault, that we get this one right.

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The Faithful Struggle

Several weeks ago after my church’s Tuesday morning prayer time, I asked one of our participants how she was doing. Just a few months ago she had suddenly lost a very close cousin, also a member of our church. Her answer was a short two words, “I’m struggling.”

For some reason, her answer really got to me. Part of it was her authenticity. She had the sincere courage to tell me how she was really doing beyond the typical, protective “I’m fine” blanket response. But the other part of it for me has to do with the kind of person she is. This woman is a wonderful Christian with a deep faith and a true Christ-like love. And yet, she struggles.

That conversation lingered with me for a while and has since then become the impetus for a series of sermons I’m sharing next month called “The Faithful Struggle.” I purposefully left that title a bit vague, as in the words faithful and struggle could be read as different parts of speech. Now just in case your grammar skills are a bit rusty, let me help you out a bit. We could read “the faithful struggle” as “our struggle defined by faith” or “faithful (people) struggle”. Truth be told, it means both things.

Struggle. So often that word is synonymous with failure. We hear of struggling people, struggling sports teams, struggling churches, struggling communities, and we know the implication. It’s a roundabout way of saying that failure is probable, if not imminent.

But I would venture to say that struggle is how most of us would define our lives, if we’re honest with ourselves. (I know I do!) Life is hard… very hard! Life is patently unfair and unjust. Things rarely go according to plan. We live with a degree of pain we didn’t ask for and don’t deserve. Mistakes and regrets checker our successes. None of this is a cynical “half-glass full” view of life. It’s reality— one we don’t admit very often for fear of looking weak or pessimistic.

Nevertheless: the faithful struggle. The faithful do indeed struggle. And our struggle brings true definition to a life of faith. I would say that this struggle defines the terrain of the entire biblical story. The biblical story is born in struggle, carries forward in struggle and ends with a great struggle that gives birth to a new heavens and a new earth. In this sweeping narrative of the Bible we find our own struggles affirmed and defined. Then we know we’re not alone. Our personal struggles are both unique and universal. We do not struggle by ourselves, and more significantly, there is always hope for better things.

*******

On a personal level, it seems like struggle has defined most of my life, especially my adult life. Words like victory, achievement, conquering, winning don’t mean as much to me. It’s not that I haven’t had a good share of victories and successes. I have. But they are high-rise markers on a much larger map, a map shaped by hills and valleys, muscle-aching climbs, back-breaking, steep falls, thick marshes, and dense forests with scant paths. Those things, to me, are the defining moments of my life, not the summits themselves. It’s the struggles— the broken relationships, devastating losses, depression, life stresses of familial, professional and financial demands, inner battles, and health ups and downs— that define the real contours of my life. The dirty, nitty-gritty of everyday living. It’s there, mired in those struggles, where I’ve learned to love, to believe, to trust, to grow and mature, to strengthen, and to learn through failure.

*******

So where do we go from here? My sermon series is in five parts:

1) Accept where you are. We will never grow or improve unless we take an objective, sober look at where we are and accept it for what it is. Note: that doesn’t mean we stay here. But we won’t get very far with any degree of success unless we name our place. In naming it, we also may find that a better life is not as far away as we may think.

2) Struggle to pray. I’m a pastor, but let me admit: prayer is tough. Yes I pray, but it never seems like I pray often enough or deeply enough. Sometimes we make prayer more difficult than what it is, but the nature of connecting our minds and hearts with God can be a challenge, especially in the heat of struggle. Yet without this vital connection with God that only prayer can provide, we will never see the road ahead or have the strength and wisdom to take it, even if we do get a glimpse of it.

3) We have a future with hope. God always promises that our future is one with the hope of restoration and blessing. Granted, we do not know what shape our restoration and blessing will take, this promise of God can be the source of so much creative impetus in the now of our lives.

(on the other hand…)

4) The struggle is step by step, only in this day. Crystal balls are over-rated and they don’t work most of the time anyway. As much as we desire to know what tomorrow brings and worry about preparing for it, most of it is a fruitless endeavor. Truth: we simply do not know what the next moment holds. Period. That truth sets us free to live fully in the moment we’re living right now.

5) Struggle with the cross. The cross of Jesus is the ultimate sign of the faithful struggle. It’s there on the cross that God faces and achieves the struggle of all humanity for reconciliation and life. Jesus makes clear that the cross takes center stage within each of our lives, too. It defines and shapes our lives of struggle and offers us our path home through Jesus, who promises to be our Way, our Truth, and our Life.

I anticipate that these series of messages will be some of the most important I have ever shared. They are part autobiographical and universal enough that I’m confident anyone can find themselves in what I will share. So, I hope you can join us at Trinity UMC starting on Sunday September 2, 2018!

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#GreaterLoveAnnapolis

268FA8B7-F952-49BB-B0CB-2EC1AE6C4608A week ago today, a man armed with a shotgun walked into the office of the Capital-Gazette newspaper, opened fire and murdered 5 people, wounding two others. This kind of atrocity is unthinkable for a warm, charming town like Annapolis. Annapolis is my hometown and the place where I now serve as a pastor. Violence like this quite literally- emotionally, spiritually- hits home deep within me.

And it got me to do some soul searching.

For far too long, most people would chalk up our societal challenges as cultural or political struggles. In a way they are. However, on a much deeper level, our problems are spiritual problems. I’ve always known that, but in the last week, I’ve relearned that powerful truth.

Spirituality centers around four main questions: Who are we? Whose are we? What is our purpose? What’s our destination?

To simplify things even more, I believe that spirituality centers on our ability or inability to love and our ability or inability to do good and avoid evil. Increasingly more of us are at a loss for how to do these things. We see our shortcomings, not just in the physical violence some people commit, but in the verbal violence, self-centeredness, and apathy many more of us struggle with.

The answer to our dilemma, quite simply, is love.

Also running in the soundtrack of my thoughts has been a deep desire to connect with people to talk about deep things and to do meaningful life together, but so often barriers like religion (I’m a Christian and a pastor) get in the way. Cultural and political differences throw their weight around, too.

While we cannot whitewash those differences or pretend they don’t exist— they most certainly do!— could there be a common ethic which could form new community for the purpose of inner- and interpersonal change and transformation? Could we learn to recognize and treasure our differences and diversity, all the while sharing in the greatest yearnings of our common humanity?

I firmly believe that the answer is yes– a resounding YES. That yes is the basis of Greater Love Annapolis.

With Greater Love Annapolis, I envision the establishment of a network of neighbors committed to something I call “the ethic of Greater Love”. That ethic is centered on four main principles:

  1. Unconditional Love
  • Living by the Golden Rule: loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, and expressing that love in thoughtful, intentional, practical, and ongoing ways
  • Seeking to build relationships of cooperation and friendship with all of our neighbors, regardless of culture, race, nation of origin, sexuality, economic status, religious or political affiliation
  • Offering our neighbors the gift of deep listening for the purpose of understanding and empathy
  • Striving for forgiveness and reconciliation wherever there are broken relationships
  • Operating out of a profound respect for the dignity and worth of every neighbor, recognizing in them our shared humanity
  1. Personal Integrity
  • Safeguarding ourselves from self-harming behaviors and addictions while actively seeking healing from any of these personal defects
  • Nurturing a spiritual life that leads to personal growth, wisdom, and greater integrity of character
  • Honest dealings with ourselves and others, both publicly and privately
  • Making our lives fully accountable to a network of trusted friends
  1. Humility
  • Considering the dreams, aspirations and welfare of others before ourselves
  • Speaking only that which builds up all of our neighbors, refraining from language that tears down and belittles them
  1. Solidarity with Our Most Vulnerable Neighbors
  • Raising awareness of the attitudes, systems and powers that marginalize and prey upon the most vulnerable members of our community and all those whose voices are not heard.
  • Peaceful, loving, and persistent confrontation of those attitudes, systems, and powers.
  • Establishing new community and systems that protect and empower our most vulnerable neighbors

From here, I anticipate conversations and discussions about what our network would look like and do. I see an organized effort to create community Greater Love Annapolis groups for the purpose of hanging out, conversation, learning, accountability, and planning for advocacy/community organizing. I see a movement of transformed and transforming people of mercy and justice, lived not in tribalism and self-righteous anger, but with loving passion and fearless strength for greater equality, dignity and opportunity for all people.

I see an Annapolis community with a deeply spiritual, shared conscious.

I see awakening and revival, rooted in love.

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
‭‭John‬ ‭15:13‬

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The Flurry and Fun of Baptizing a Toddler

Toddlerhood. I think it is the most magical time of childhood. I use the word “magical” quite intentionally. For figuratively speaking, magic can result in amazement and wonder, laughter and joy, or wholesale destruction, all at a moment’s notice and with nary a hint of warning.

Toddlers, fueled by wellsprings of energy have the wide-eyed curiosity of a thousand cats, empowered for the first time by upright mobility, the beginnings of fine-motor dexterity, language and their first inkling of independence. They’re unpredictable, moody, perpetually playful, and offer us adults the gift of re-experiencing the world with fresh wonder. (I’ve often said that toddlers and teenagers are strikingly similar, but that’s a subject for another post.)

So imagine centering a toddler within the sacramental rite of baptism. Baptism is an orderly, highly scripted, predictable ritual. For babies, youth and adults- no problem. For toddlers? Well…

AAA2CAA4-D249-4E6C-9139-47FABF1BE536When some parents from my church approached me with a bit of cautious trepidation about baptizing their almost two-year-old son Graham, I told them, “You know, we’ll make it all work somehow.” Inwardly, however, I was nervously wondering how adaptable and flexible the parents, congregation and the ritual would be to the temperament of a toddler. That was the big question.

Yesterday, Sunday morning, came, and the parents arrived with their son Graham, their pre-school daughter (who was insistent that her little brother should not be getting wet for this whole baptism thing), and a whole gaggle of family and friends. Graham was the epitome of cuteness- a white dress shirt, tan-colored vest and slacks, a tie and black shoes. He seemed to know something big was afoot, so he was extra primed with nervous, curious energy, toddler-style, of course.

I’m not always the most conscientious pre-planner, but something told me to make a few strategic adjustments. So first I switched out the cold, room temperature water in the baptismal font with warm tap water. Granted, that wouldn’t make Graham’s big sister any happier, but perhaps warm water would soothe his nerves a bit more. And then I gave Graham’s parents the baptism certificate before the service began. That way, if a quick getaway was needed after the baptism ritual, his parents wouldn’t leave empty-handed.

Well, the moment we had all anticipated arrived. Right on cue, as soon as we had gotten underway with the baptism ritual, the game of “Pass the Fidgety Child” commenced between the boy’s mom and dad. That game quickly lost its charm, and then Graham’s impatient chattering and complaining ramped up, quickly accelerating towards a 5-alarm nuclear meltdown.

Now I’m pretty calm in a storm, and that includes being in the presence of crying or screaming children. In a worship setting, I just carry on as if nothing is happening, trusting that the child and parents will work things out. My operational value in all this is let children with families be themselves. But when Graham’s protests were clearly distressing his parents while my congregation stirred with uneasy laughter, clearly it was time for a tactical change on my part.

My paternal instincts kicked in, and in a split moment I asked myself, “What would Pope Francis do?” He’s an amazing example of allowing children to be children, and in unprecedented and impromptu moments of grace, he unflinchingly finds ways for children to be included in his leadership of highly ritualistic Roman Catholic liturgy. So, in Pope Francis style, I improvised.

I found myself stepping closer to the father who by then had broken out into a visible sweat and was hoisting his son at the waist in one arm. Graham was facing out kicking and protesting. I showed Graham my hymnal and the words of the liturgy I was reading, and instantly, he stopped fussing, followed my finger in the text and went back and forth between looking at me and looking at the words of his own baptism liturgy.

I then adjusted my voice a bit from my normal boomy “this is the Word of the Lord” public speaking voice to a quieter, side-by-side reading inflection. I’m sure he had no idea what I was talking about (or maybe he understood more than I give him credit for, especially the all important non-verbal stuff of communication.) At any rate, for the first time in that service, I think Graham felt included in what was going on, and during the next several minutes of liturgy, he was as well-behaved as any watching adult.

It’s ironic. This was the church’s and his rite of baptism, and yet we were about to unwittingly leave this highly aware toddler completely unengaged in it. Why shouldn’t things be such that a child like Graham could fully involve himself and have his own sense of ownership of this tremendous gift of God’s grace that he was being given?

Then the time came for the administration of the water. By then, it seems I wasn’t a threat, so Graham came willingly into my arms and enjoyed the gift of his baptismal waters. It was truly one of those authentic, natural moments of grace for Graham, his family and his new congregation of brothers and sisters in Christ.

35BBEE0F-33CC-4C5F-B07C-F7D2E1CCDBF9While I suppose there are many lessons to be learned from an instance like this, one stands out for me. Be fully present in the moment. Being fully present allows for maximum connection with those around us and the greatest opportunity within our connection for God to show up and do things that clearly demonstrate God’s power, God’s grace, and God’s amazing love. And yes, as we all learned, that can even include a toddler.

 

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The Lies of Suicide

F6C44347-CD36-4D8E-923D-14CB181AEF89Kate Spade. Anthony Bourdain. Two in one week. Add them to that terribly long, horrific list of people who have taken their own lives— people we have known or knew from a distance.

What scares me is that a report published just this week indicates that suicide rates are climbing all over the country. It’s evident of a medical system unable to adequately treat the number of people who have mental illness, the numbers of people who go undiagnosed, and especially this: the growing cultural acceptability of suicide. It’s glamorized and even rewarded when we say things like, “I’m glad his suffering is over. She’s in a better place now. He’s free. She’s flown away.”

Suicide seems to have an increasingly seductive allure as a final act of escape. In a culture that promotes and celebrates distraction, diversions and get-aways from reality, suicide lurches more prominently within the darker recesses of our shadowy selves. In our compulsive, overly anxious, self-obsessed natures in which we fear and glamorize death with a “who cares” kind of apathy, is it any wonder that more of us are tempted to listen to the “like sucks” “I just want to die” “screw it all” “forget you, world” voices in our heads? Listen to it enough, own it enough, and then we begin to find reasons to act out on it in highly destructive ways. Suicide is ranking higher as a mode of self-destruction.

But suicide is a devilish liar of the worst kind. I should know.

I’ve written before about my own struggles through suicidal thinking. Having climbed through that darkness by God’s grace and presence along with the presence of some loved ones, I know how powerfully seductive suicidal thinking can be.

“Nothing matters.” “I don’t matter anymore.” “If people really knew me, they wouldn’t love me.” “I’m a failure and a disappointment to everyone.” “Everyone will be better off without me.” “Sure, people might be hurt when I’m gone, but they’ll get over it, especially me. They always do. They always have.”

Lies and more lies. Suicide doesn’t take just one life. It drains the life out of everyone else that one life touched. It’s a violent, most awful way to die, no matter how it is carried out. And suicide never delivers on its promises. No one is ever better off dead, and the world becomes a far lesser place without us suddenly not in it, not a better one. Suicide leaves nothing but death and tragedy in its wake. When we accept that reality, we can choose love and life over lies and death.

It could be said that suicide prevention revolves around the choices we all make. We either lovingly choose to make life-giving and saving connections, or we choose death. That is true for the one contemplating suicide and everyone else around him or her.

As I did in my most recent post on mental illness, I’d like to offer some essential ideas for those who might be considering suicide and for their loved ones:

1) As hard as it is, make the choice to reach out. Many of us know how it feels to be so bottomed out that the effort it takes to reach out for help can seem unbearably difficult. We don’t want to bother anyone. Apathy paralyzes us. When that happens— Just. Do. It. Call someone. Text or message someone. If it’s dire enough, Google “suicide” and there you’ll find the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Get yourself to an Emergency Room. Take one step at a time away from the edge and towards life. It’s worth it. You’re worth it. Your loved ones are worth it.

2) Be there. Watch out for the warning signs of suicidal moods in other people- extreme withdrawal, any kind of loose talk of wanting to die or wanting everything to end, or sudden, unexplainable mood shifts. Don’t just say, “Call me if you need anything.” Go there and make the connection. Listen to your gut, and remember that accidental overstepping is better than careful sidestepping, especially if someone’s life is on the line. If you feel someone is in imminent danger, offer to make a phone call or to take them to the hospital. But don’t leave.

3) Make time. At any moment with anyone, making time to slow down and deeply listen to the lives and stories of our neighbors, to hear and non-judgmentally receive their thoughts and feelings, good or bad, to provide a safe place to talk, explore, and “get stuff out” may be the best mental health medicine and suicide prevention we could offer to each other. Many of us suffer from loneliness, real or perceived. The best cure for that I know is the connection of deep listening. It’s been said that the gift of listening is a gift of pure, unconditional love. You don’t have to be a therapist. You’re not there to fix anything or make it better. You’re there simply to be the presence of God who is love.

And love… love is what keeps us alive, healthy, and happy.

 

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So I Have Mental Illness…

On Sunday morning I shared something with my congregation that I had never publically put to words: “Your pastor has mental illness.”

I began a 4-part sermon series on stress, specifically how to transform stress into happiness. I’ve learned quite a bit about stress management and transformation through my battles with major depressive disorder, also known as clinical depression. So to offer some ethos and pathos to the subject matter, i.e. Yes, your pastor really does know what he’s talking about and can personally relate to you!, I mentioned to my congregation a disease I have which has been with me through most of my adult life. It’s been my number-one health concern.

4BA14C90-4F39-4843-B992-47F130771228There have been several times that depression took me to the depths of suicidal ideation. Several years ago I was even admitted for a week at an inpatient mental health care hospital for debilitating depression and suicidal intentions. Antidepressants to keep my brain chemistry at good, balanced levels have been a regular part of my wellbeing.

Presently, I’m doing really well. I treat depression with a daily morning dose of antidepressants. I watch for the signs and triggers that pull me down into depression— things like extra stress. I surround myself with plenty of accountability from people like my wife and a handful of close friends. And when life throws a vicious curveball or my brain chemistry somehow gets out of whack, I bring my doctor and therapist into my support network, too.

I mention all this, not to garner sympathy or to create a stir, but to continue my work of casting a luminous light on the most shadowed, closeted, and one of the most prevalent health concerns many of us face. We see the terrible effects of it when someone like Kate Spade takes her own life or when someone violently acts out, causing massive human carnage. We see it in the lives of most of our homeless neighbors. Mental illness affects community and world leaders, celebrities, stay-home parents, teenagers, corporate executives, and yes, clergy like me.  It takes the shape of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, PTSD, eating disorders, schizophrenia, mood disorders, and a whole host of other diagnoses. For far too long now, mental illness has been badly misunderstood and unfairly scrutinized, resulting in a social environment in which critically needed support for those suffering from mental illness and and their caregivers becomes extremely difficult to find.

That is especially true in the church. In the church, much shame surrounds mental illness.

I’ve often called depression a disease of double shame. There’s the inward shame of worthlessness, hopelessness, apathy, emptiness and nothingness. Then there’s the outward shame, the things explicitly said or subtly  implied that depression is a result of spiritual and moral failure: “Just give it to God in prayer and you’ll feel better.” “True believers always have joy.” “Real Christians don’t get depressed.” “Depression is a separation from God.” “Just be grateful. Just keep your chin up. Trust God.”— implications that I can’t do or haven’t already done those things.

It’s time to come to grips with the truth that mental illness of any kind is not spiritual or moral failure. It doesn’t indicate innate character, moral, spiritual or emotional flaws any more grievous than anyone else’s. It is, quite simply, bad brain chemistry brought on sometimes situationally, most often as a chronic condition, or both.

So how can faith communities and any other forms of human community care for people with mental illness and their loved ones? Several key things come to mind (no pun intended):

1) Put aside your assumptions. Listen and learn. Misinformation has created the stereotypical perceptions we commonly use to frame mental illness. Throw those out, and offer the gift of deep listening and a willingness to learn. What’s it like? What does it mean and not mean? How do we cope and live? Let us, we who have mental illness and our loved ones, show you our world and how we struggle.

2) Abandon judgmentalism. (See #1.) In addition, avoid finger pointing and fault finding.

3) Be a companion on the journey. Attempting to give advice, thinking that the right words will make it better, or coming with any attitude that you’re “here to help” only makes things worse. Think of it as coming alongside as a friend. Deeply listen. Listen to understand. Give us space when needed. Show compassion in simple, practical ways. But remember: we’re not your problem to fix. Only God can do that through a whole network of supportive care. And you may be blessed to be one of those people.

4) Be an advocate. Look out for people with mental illness. When you can, speak up to protect our dignity and correct misperceptions. Help others to understand what mental illness is and isn’t.

The healing balm for mental illness is the persistent, gentle light of understanding love, quality medical care, time and space. I know this full well. I’m here today because of it.

And I can also say that we who have mental illness can live happy, productive, deeply spiritual lives. I’ve learned a lot about light and darkness, life and death, pain and healing, salvation and redemption through my ups and downs with mental illness. Those are lessons I would never give back, and for which I am deeply grateful. These are gifts that can richly bless the world, too. That’s my hope.

 

 

 

 

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