It Sure is Different These Days

And now this word to all of you: You should be like one big happy family, full of sympathy toward each other, loving one another with tender hearts and humble minds.

I Peter 3:8 (Living Bible)

For the past few months, we have been doing human contact differently. We are, of necessity, being more cautious in our interactions. We are wearing masks (many, if not most of us), and we are keeping a bit more distance in conversations, even if not consciously. We are seeing fewer people, as our “safe circle” is not as large as before COVID-19. In short, we naturally curious and socially interdependent beings have become- less so.

Perhaps I am just speaking for myself. If so, please indulge me this space as a therapeutic response to feeling less connected to my brothers and sisters in the world. There were times that I would simply enjoy going up to a complete stranger and engaging them in conversation. Seeing someone I barely knew might result in an enjoyable conversation just for the fun of it. And these are the actions of someone who is just this side of an introvert. Imagine how the extroverts are getting through this difficult time.

I really am not wanting to complain. We all are suffering just a bit, and some are suffering mightily- physically, emotionally and/or financially. I am just suggesting that we take time to look at the social changes being wrought by this maddening Novel Coronavirus.

I recognize that this is a necessary response in order to contain this pandemic. I agree with the plans, however painful they might be. I wear my mask, and I do what I can do to stay healthy and try to ensure that others stay healthy too.

Maybe this crisis time will remind us, in a way that we never otherwise could have understood, how interconnected we are, should be and can be. As I have said before, let’s make sure that we come away with a greater appreciation of one another.

 We cannot let this crisis go to waste.

Prayer: Father, we are grateful for the fellowship of humankind. Give us more appreciation for one another in this difficult time, Amen.

Oases

Oasis (def.)

1: a fertile or green area in an arid region (such as a desert)

2: something that provides refuge, relief, or pleasant contrast

Merriam-Webster

God, when you took the lead with your people, when you marched out into the wild, Earth shook, sky broke out in a sweat; God was on the march. Even Sinai trembled at the sight of God on the move, at the sight of Israel’s God. You pour out rain in buckets, O God; thorn and cactus become an oasis for your people to camp in and enjoy. You set them up in business; they went from rags to riches.                      Psalm 68:7-10

What can be more refreshing than a cool drink of water on a sweltering hot day? I remember as a kid playing baseball in the back yard with my brother, and we would be too preoccupied with playing ball to get a drink from inside the house. So, finally, we would turn on the garden hose, let it run for a while until the water was cool, then we would drink right from the hose. The cool water splashing onto our face made the experience even better. I can still remember the refreshment of that water!

It reminds me that when we face the heat of a busy day, whether or not it is literally hot outside, we need a break, an oasis. I tell my clients that there can be larger oases and smaller oases, but we must build them into our day.

For example, for me, a small oasis might be a fresh cup of tea in the afternoon to refresh me between seeing clients. A larger oasis might be looking forward to a nice long walk at the end of the day, or a show that I can watch with my wife in the evening. An even larger oasis might be that trip that we plan for a few months in advance when we can take a week or two off.

The point is, we need to make room for regular oases to refresh us daily, weekly, monthly. For me, it is the reward for having accomplished what I said I was going to do. Sometimes we lose sight of the need for the oasis because we think of it as a “big thing”. I believe that small and regular rewards keep us going better than looking for the “big thing”. But that’s just me. Whatever your preference, be aware of what your oasis might be. Build them in regularly.

It is that cold water out of the hose on a hot summer day.

Prayer: Father, you give us oases all around us, help us to see then, then use them to refresh us for our mission, Amen.

Speaking Into the Life of Others

Words satisfy the mind as much as fruit does the stomach;
    good talk is as gratifying as a good harvest.

 Words kill, words give life;
    they’re either poison or fruit—you choose.                                                                                                        Proverbs 18:20-21 (the Message)

Yesterday I talked about how people can speak into our lives things that we do not see- potentials that we would not have imagined without the input of others. There are instances that I spoke of yesterday with disciples like John and Simon Peter who lived up to, or into, the lives that Jesus saw for them.

Unfortunately, some people live below their God-given potentials because parents or others in positions of influence did not sow into them the belief that they could do things beyond which they could envision for themselves.

There was a study many years ago with teachers and first graders where students were tested to see the academic abilities they had in preparation for first grade. In one case, the gifted students were placed in a room with a teacher who was told that the students were average to below average students. In another room, less gifted children were placed with teachers who were told that these were gifted children.

In both cases, the children tended to live up to (or down to) the expectations placed upon them. Children who were not gifted, but treated as if they were, tended to outperform their expected outcomes.

I think that people often, for various reasons, perform better than they think they can because someone believes in them. We often hear of students who say that a particular teacher motivated them to do better than they ever had- academically and socially- because of the confidence placed in them, perhaps for the first time, by a caring adult.

I think it is our opportunity, indeed our responsibility, to build up others, not artificially, but genuinely. If may be as simple as an encouraging word, or following through with helping someone be accountable for what they say they are going to do. We have the power to unlock potential in others by simply being an encouragement to them and believing in them, even when people may not be confident in themselves.    

Prayer: Thank you Lord for the gift of encouragement. It is health to the soul, Amen

Reaching Our Potential

He gives strength to the weary, and increases the power of the weak                                                     Isaiah 40:29

Often, other people see things in us that we do not see in ourselves. One of the things that I do as a counselor is get to know my clients, and try to see in them things that they may not see for themselves. Indeed, clients give me permission to speak into their lives, giving them constructive feedback, as well as encouragement. It is an act of humility on the part of a client to give such permission, especially to someone that they do not know. They are showing a level of trust in me before they even know me. I deeply appreciate that trust, and it is my job to honor that by being truthful, holding their best interest at stake, keeping their information confidential, and seeing them as God does as best I can.

As people unfold their story to me, I can gradually get to know how they see the world. I also begin to see strengths in them that they may not see, or maybe they have never given the chance to develop. It is my job to look for those strengths so that we can employ them in dealing with problems, or helping them to manage those strengths better. Remember, strengths to an extreme can become weaknesses, so we must learn to manage those strengths well.

We saw when Jesus chose his disciples that he picked people who were not, in the world’s eyes, the most successful people, or the most learned people. Yet Jesus saw something in them that they did not see in themselves.

John, for example, was called, along with his brother, “a son of thunder” because he had a volatile temper, and an arrogant view about his position in life. Simon, later called Peter, was an exuberant, impulsive, man who frequently spoke before he thought.  He was not the most stable of people in making commitments.

Yet Jesus saw in them characteristics that they did not see themselves. Their affiliation with Jesus transformed them into the men they could be. Jesus had seen that potential, and he spoke that into them.

John later became the loving apostle who wrote such beautiful commentary on how we should love one another. Volatile Simon became “Peter, the Rock”, the one on whom Jesus said he would help build his church. Imagine Simon hearing that he was a “rock”- a solid, capable man of strength. Sometimes, when we hear about the person who we CAN become, we DO become that person.

Of course, this works both ways. Tomorrow we look into more stories of how others can speak into our lives- both to our benefit and to our detriment.

Prayer: Father, Thank you for people who see things in us that we do not see for ourselves. Give us the humility to receive it well, Amen.

Credibility

Now I want to ask a favor of you. I could demand it of you in the name of Christ because it is the right thing for you to do, but I love you and prefer just to ask you—I, Paul, an old man now, here in jail for the sake of Jesus Christ.  My plea is that you show kindness to my child Onesimus, whom I won to the Lord while here in my chains.  Onesimus (whose name means “Useful”) hasn’t been of much use to you in the past, but now he is going to be of real use to both of us.  I am sending him back to you, and with him comes my own heart.                                                                                                                         Philemon 1:8-12

We have all had the experience of asking people to be references for us when we apply for a new job. As an employer, I had to call these references to inquire about the prospective employee. Often, if I knew the person who was the reference, I would not even need to make the call. If the prospective employee was vouched for by an individual whom I knew, and that person was a person of integrity, that would be good enough. That prospective employee already had a foot in the door because I was leaning on the credibility of their reference.

There are two instances in the Bible where I saw that process at work. One was in the book of Acts, when Paul (formerly Saul, the Christian killer) had been vouched for by Ananias. Ananias had been given a vision by God that he was to heal Paul from temporary blindness, and then introduce him to the community whom he had been persecuting. Because people trusted Ananias, they trusted Paul. That was a leap of faith!

Then years later, Paul returned the favor by taking in Onesimus, a runaway slave, and then asking Philemon, for whom Onesimus had been a slave, to take Onesimus back- not as a slave, but as a brother in Christ. Paul was deft and convincing in his arguments to Philemon, and Onesimus went on to become a leader in the young Christian Church years later.

We give our credibility to causes and people that we care about. As people trust us, they trust our friends and our causes. So, it is a high calling to be a follower of Jesus. As our reputation goes with people, so goes the reputation of Jesus to people who may know of him only through our behavior.

Prayer: Thank you Father for the plan of letting us be the ambassadors for you on earth, Amen

Dealing with Depression – Part 3

I cry to the Lord; I call and call to him. Oh, that he would listen.  I am in deep trouble and I need his help so much. All night long I pray, lifting my hands to heaven, pleading. There can be no joy for me until he acts.  I think of God and moan, overwhelmed with longing for his help.  I cannot sleep until you act. I am too distressed even to pray!
 I keep thinking of the good old days of the past, long since ended.  Then my nights were filled with joyous songs. I search my soul and meditate upon the difference now.  Has the Lord rejected me forever? Will he never again be favorable?  Is his loving-kindness gone forever? Has his promise failed?  Has he forgotten to be kind to one so undeserving? Has he slammed the door in anger on his love?  And I said: This is my fate, that the blessings of God have changed to hate.  I recall the many miracles he did for me so long ago.  Those wonderful deeds are constantly in my thoughts. I cannot stop thinking about them.
 O God, your ways are holy. Where is there any other as mighty as you?  You are the God of miracles and wonders! You still demonstrate your awesome power.
 You have redeemed us who are the sons of Jacob and of Joseph by your might.  When the Red Sea saw you, how it feared! It trembled to its depths!  The clouds poured down their rain, the thunder rolled and crackled in the sky. Your lightning flashed.  There was thunder in the whirlwind; the lightning lighted up the world! The earth trembled and shook.
 Your road led by a pathway through the sea—a pathway no one knew was there!  You led your people along that road like a flock of sheep, with Moses and Aaron as their shepherds.                                     Psalm 77(Living Bible)

We have come to part three of dealing with depression, the spiritual dimension. Really, one cannot arbitrarily separate the physical, emotional and spiritual dimensions of the human existence. Each realm affects the other.

The spiritual dimension is related to our soul- the eternal part of us. This has to do with our very experience of the meaning of life and that is why it is so important. When we are depressed, we can wonder if life is really worth living. Suicide rates in depression can be disturbingly high, especially in certain vulnerable demographic categories.

Without a spiritual approach, we can become hopeless, and then search for quick substitutes to try to feel better and relieve the pain quickly. As I had mentioned in a blog about addictions, anything that makes us feel better right away is addictive. Alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, food, etc. are all quick “make me feel good right now” remedies which can addict us. Many people become addicted to a substance or a practice because they are self-medicating to relieve depression.

Spiritual tools include prayer, music, reading uplifting books, fellowship with other strong spiritual mentors and friends, and any other practice that brings us into the presence of God. Indeed, walks in nature, trips to the mountains, the beach, etc. can be spiritual experiences if we dedicate them to getting closer to God and knowing his plan and love for us.

David, in Psalm 77 described his lonely journey in depression, and found solace only when he contemplated and remembered how God had been active in his life for so many years before.

God knows our frailty, and even David had his very dark nights of the soul. We need to take the deep breath and realize that God did not leave us, he is right there when we call on him.

Prayer: Father, we are prone to difficulties and suffering, yet you give comfort as we recall your goodness to us, Amen.

 

 

Help When Depressed – Part 2

Let him have all your worries and cares, for he is always thinking about you and watching everything that concerns you.                                                                                                                                           I Peter 5:7

Yesterday, I began the discussion about dealing with depression with the first of our three-part response- physical interventions. I mentioned the value of a physical examination, physical exercise, and the difficulty of overcoming the inertia of depression.

One cannot over-emphasize the value of movement and physical exercise. It offers both physiological as well as psychological benefit. Exercise, along with medication, has been shown to be effective in the treatment of many depressive conditions. Add counseling to that, and you have now arrayed a strong plan to defeat depression.

The emotional response consists of first overcoming the denial about depression, and actually considering the fact that “maybe I am depressed”.  The decision to seek help is critical. Next, the attitude must be that there is a solution for every problem. “There are things that I can do to help myself. If the first things I do didn’t help, the next things will be more effective”. Such thinking is key in not becoming a victim, because, if we believe that we are victims- we are.

Creative outlets are extremely helpful. Anything that can make our world “larger” is helpful. Depression tends to make our world “smaller”. We can become inwardly focused and that can lead to brooding. Inward focus and retreat can be initially helpful, but that cannot be our on-going response to feeling depressed. I tell my clients that they can “visit there, they just can’t live there”.

So, writing, painting, making or listening to music, volunteering, connecting with others even (maybe especially) when we do not feel like connecting with others- these are extremely helpful attitudes in overcoming depression.

Depression is a serious problem, but it can be treated with a full armory of resources. Please understand that I am aware of the depths to which depression can bring people, and I admire those people who are struggling through it. I simply want people to be aware that help is available, and asking for that help is a strong statement.

Willingness to deal quickly and directly with depression, with all the resources available is the way to overcome it. As noted yesterday, a physical examination, possible medication, exercise, taking a “solution for every problem” approach, asking for help, and prayer are the resources which we have. As they say in the recovery community, the program works if you work it.

Tomorrow, I discuss the spiritual dimensions in dealing with depression.

Prayer: Father, we know that you have a spiritual solution for every problem we have. Help us to persevere in seeking you, Amen.

 

Looking for Help When Depressed

      I cry to the Lord; I call and call to him. Oh, that he would listen.  I am in deep trouble and I need his help so much. All night long I pray, lifting my hands to heaven, pleading. There can be no joy for me until he acts.  I think of God and moan, overwhelmed with longing for his help. I cannot sleep until you act. I am too distressed even to pray!                                                                                                                   Psalm 77:1-4

 

David, a man who was called a “friend of God”, wrote the passage above. Even David, a man close to God’s heart, got to the point where he felt isolated, devastated, and alone. It can happen to anyone.

Clinical depression is different than periodic down moods that we all experience from time to time. Listed below are the diagnostic criteria for Major Depression from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5th edition (DSM 5).

  • Depressed most of the day, nearly every day as indicated by subjective report (e.g., feels sad, empty, hopeless) or observation made by others (e.g., appears tearful)
  • Markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities most of the day, nearly every day (as indicated by subjective account or observation)
  • Significant weight loss when not dieting or weight gain (e.g., change of more than 5% of body weight in a month), or decrease or increase in appetite nearly every day
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia nearly every day
  • Psychomotor agitation or retardation nearly every day (observable by others, not merely subjective feelings of restlessness or being slowed down)
  • Fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day
  • Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt (which may be delusional) nearly every day (not merely self-reproach or guilt about being sick).
  • Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness, nearly every day (either by subjective account or as observed by others)
  • Recurrent thoughts of death (not just fear of dying), recurrent suicidal ideation without a specific plan, or a suicide attempt or a specific plan for committing suicide

In order to have a diagnosis of Major Depression, one must experience five or more of these symptoms in a two-week period, and it also must represent a change from previous functioning. At least one of the symptoms must be depressed mood, or loss of interest in things that formerly brought pleasure.

You will note that some of these symptoms are subtle, and could be attributed to other conditions. You also note that there are significant physical symptoms, such as loss of (or too much) sleep; significant weight gain (or loss); and agitation.

As I suggested in dealing with anxiety, depression too must be addressed in the three dimensions in which we live- physical, spiritual, and emotional. For today, I am only going to briefly discuss the “physical” dimension, and I will address the others in subsequent blogs.

The physical dimension of overcoming depression consists of exercise, reaching out to at least one other person (communicating and initiating connection), and evaluation from a doctor. This is to rule out possible physical causes as well as to potentially initiate medication evaluation. Many physical conditions can cause symptoms which mimic depression- diabetes, thyroid disorders, neurological disorders, and a host of other physical ailments. If you are experiencing several of the symptoms below, I suggest a physical examination first. Your doctor may well refer you to a counselor as a follow-up, and I, of course, recommend that as well.

The hardest step is always the best step. The malaise of depression causes inertia which is very hard to overcome. That is why engaging a partner in the battle against depression is so important. Do not try to do this alone! The insidious part of overcoming depression is that motivation has been eroded. People experiencing depression also have a tendency to isolate, which makes the condition worse. People who are seriously depressed must find the spark to overcome the inertia that seems overwhelming. Here is where the spiritual comes in. At this point, I will add just one spiritual dimension. Pray a simple prayer to “just help me take one step”.

That is more powerful than you can imagine.

 

Prayer: Father, be with those who are feeling overwhelmed with depression. Help them to take one step, Amen.

 

Anxiety + Time = Depression

 I reach out for you. I thirst for you as parched land thirsts for rain.  Come quickly, Lord, and answer me, for my depression deepens; don’t turn away from me or I shall die.  Let me see your kindness to me in the morning, for I am trusting you. Show me where to walk, for my prayer is sincere.                                                                                                                                                                                  Psalm 143:6-8

I often ask my clients to describe if they are feeling more depressed or more anxious. Frequently, they have trouble distinguishing between the two. That, I think, is because the two conditions are so closely related. We know that we are feeling bad, but it may be hard to describe the difference in these two common emotional disorders. I think that anxiety over time, chronic anxiety, leads to depression.

There was a study many years ago where experimenters electrified a grid and placed rats on the grid. The electrical stimulation was not harmful to them, but it was irritating, and, of course, the rats scrambled to get away from the mild shocks given. Over time, the grid was electrified in different areas, and the rats scrambled away, as was expected. Gradually, more area of the grid became electrified, and there was finally no space where the rats could get away. They had no escape from the irritation of the mild shocks.

Finally, the rats simply gave up, laid down where they were, and slept. Upon dissection of the brains of the rats, experimenters found that their brains were highly depleted of serotonin. The chronic exposure to the stress of the shocks had caused the rats to shut down production of this vital brain chemical- the one associated with mood elevation.

The analogy is pretty obvious. When we are subjected to chronic stress, such as anxiety, the long-term effect is depression. We shut down, and sometimes then just give up.

Fortunately, we are not rats, and we can find some remedies when we are anxious and stressed. But the lesson is clear. If we are in a prolonged stress situation, depression can well be the result. Our bodies become depleted of serotonin, and we get to a place of anhedonia- a condition where we cannot find respite or pleasure in anything.

Tomorrow, more about depression and ways to deal with it. In the meantime, recognize that there is always a spiritual solution to problems, no matter how hopeless it feels. There is help, but ask for it. Please, ask for it.

Prayer: Father, you have given us the support of one another when we are hurting. Thank you for the plans you have for us, Amen.

 

 

Salt

 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.                                         Matthew 5:13

I am fascinated by chemistry. Had my math strengths been better, it is possible that I might have even majored in chemistry in college. However, I realize that while I have an interest in chemistry, at best I could only be considered a chemistry “spectator”, or maybe admirer. I do not think I had the academic rigor to pursue the hard sciences professionally. Call me a science “groupie”.

At any rate, I am fascinated by the chemical elements and compounds. One of them is salt. Common ordinary table salt. There are many types of salts, but the one we are most familiar with is sodium chloride.

Salt has been valued for centuries, mostly, in the past, for one thing- its preservative qualities. Before refrigeration, people needed to find ways to preserve precious food supplies, such as fish. In the time of Jesus, salting fish was a common way to preserve them. Another was drying the fish, and still another was smoking the fish. All produced the result of allowing the fish to be kept much longer than in its fresh state.

Through the centuries, salt was sought after and wars were even fought to ensure steady supplies of it. Cities grew up around salt mines, and the word “salary” even derives its meaning from salt, since workers often were paid in allocations of salt. It was that important a product.

In the sermon on the mount, Jesus used the analogy of salt. He told his followers that they were to be the salt of the earth. This meant that they were to be the ones to deliver the message of grace and redemption in order to “preserve” the earth. If they failed to be “salty” they would fail in the mission.

In order to live out the full mission of being “salty”, not only are we to preserve the earth with the good news of the gospel, but we also need to display other qualities of salt- making things taste better, and making people thirsty. People will not hear our message of hope if we are not making the world “taste better”- that is, be more of a palatable place to live. If we do not make people thirsty to hear about the hope of the gospel, we will not be effective.

So, consider how you can make the world around you taste a little better. It is only then that we can get a hearing for people to know how grace can be freely given to them.

Prayer: Lord, thank you for the creation that you have spoken into existence. Even salt is part of your plan for our benefit, Amen.