Stories Are Therapeutic

“The Spirit of the LORD is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed  free                                                                                                                                                                Luke 4:18

 

In yesterday’s blog, I opened the subject of stories. More specifically, I referenced the parables of Jesus as he went about sharing truth to people in ways so that they could readily understand him. His society was not a particularly literate one. Reading and writing were more for the educated elite, scholars who taught in the temple and synagogues.

Jesus was often angered by the behavior of the educated elites of the day. Many of those teachers and leaders used their power and wealth for the benefit of the few, and certainly not for the poor. That is what made Jesus so radical. He came, as he said to “proclaim good news to the poor”. So, it certainly made sense that Jesus spoke in the language that the poor and uneducated could readily understand. He told stories and parables to instruct and inspire people.

One of the ways to get at the truths in those parables is to have someone get into the place of one of the characters in the story. I have clients sometimes consider some of those parables from the viewpoint of the character, not as the listener of the story. How different is it when someone, for example, can get into the mind of one of the brothers in the Prodigal Son story? Maybe the story of the Good Samaritan. These two parables have transcended time and culture to become part of the literature and wisdom in places where Christianity is not well known. These are human interest stories which can be felt by anyone.

Sometimes it is easier to become aware of feelings when we can distance it from ourselves. We somehow have “permission” to express what that might be like without owning it for ourselves. My goal is to get people willing to just look at what is really going on in their mind and heart. It takes courage to do that.

Stories can help.

Prayer: Thank you Lord for the timeless truths found in the teachings of Jesus, Amen.

Little Stories, Big Truths

A little Jesus story…
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven                                                                                                                                    Matthew 5:14-16

 

Almost everyone loves hearing a story. Stories engage us because we are people. There is an innate draw of attention when some point is personalized with a story by a speaker. A character is introduced, maybe one that we do not even know. We become interested in that character, and we want to know, how the story ends. What happens to the character?

When we were children, we always wanted our parents to tell us a story, often at bedtime. Something about that was comforting, reassuring, grounding.

Jesus told stories all the time to illustrate lessons of wisdom to his hearers. His stories, his parables, have been retold and discussed for centuries. He told powerful stories of redemption, hope, and forgiveness, like the Prodigal Son; the story of the Ten Coins which teaches us about investing ourselves and using what has been given to us; the Lost Sheep, the Laborers in the Vineyard- on and on Jesus told great engaging, instructive stories.

I like to use stories, analogies really, with my clients to help them to visualize some mental health concepts. Sometimes, when a client is just struggling with trying to do everything and feeling overwhelmed, I use the analogy of the swimmer who is drowning. By virtue of their flailing around and aimless, frenzied attempts to save themselves, the swimmer expends the precious energy they have, and they start to sink. When a lifeguard gets to the stranded swimmer, what does he or she say to the swimmer? “Stop swimming! Your swimming is getting in the way of rescue. Hold on to me, I will get you to safety!”

The point of the story is that our continued overwork and striving might just be the thing getting in the way of our health. The paradox of that truth can often be better understood by such a lifeguard story.

Think of a story that has impacted you. Telling it to someone else is good for both of you.

Prayer: Jesus, thank you for your great stories which have given such wonderful life lessons, Amen.

When a Discipline Becomes a Habit

I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified                                                                                                           I Corinthians 9:27

I hear those statistics about how long it takes for some practices to become habits. You know, “continue to do this thing for three weeks and it becomes a habit”. I have no idea about that because we are all different. I do know that habits are not automatic. We have decisions everyday about how we are going to behave that day.

I do know that the discipline of exercise has now become a habit for me. That is, the thing I used to force myself to do became the thing that I miss if I do not do it. It started several years ago when I finally realized that I was not in top physical condition. Yes, my health was good, thank God, but I was not in shape. I was overweight, and my stamina was not what it should have been.

So, I decided to practice the discipline of walking at least 30 minutes per day. That discipline grew as I heard that really, 10,000 steps per day was a goal that we ought to have. I do not know the science of that, if any, but the idea seems right. We Americans simply do not move enough. We are sedentary, and that, by any measure, is not healthy.

I bought a Fitbit and I became addicted to those 10,000 steps/day. That was about 4 years ago. Now, if I don’t get at least 11,000 steps per day, I am not happy with myself. The point here is that the discipline that I started several years ago grew into a habit. Good disciplines make good habits.

All of the literature on depression indicates that physical exercise is equally effective as medication in mitigating mild to moderate depression. I always advise my clients to add exercise into their lives because it is good in every way for us, physically, spiritually, and emotionally. Just to be clear, I am not advocating that people simply stop taking antidepressant medication- it is effective, and sometimes necessary in treatment of depression and anxiety. However, if my clients are physically able to exercise, I always make that part of the homework.

Keeping the promises that we make to ourselves is the basis of healthy self-esteem. I know that regular exercise for me is important, and I plan to continue. That discipline has become a healthy habit.

Prayer: Thank you father for the gift of our bodies- precious gifts that we must nurture and protect, Amen.

Pop

(Because that’s what we always called my dad)

                         

As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. Psalm 103:13

This is a piece I wrote exactly 20 years ago, at a time when I was getting ready to welcome my first grandchild into the world. Well, Jack Hartwell, my first grandson, is now 20 years old. I thought it might be good to share my thoughts about my own dad, and how he impacted those around him. You will note that this was written before social media was a thing. Think about how much more toxic the world has become since this was written in 2000. Here is how that looked in July, 2000:

I can’t help but think about my own dad, who was “grandpa” for so many years that he seemed to own the copyright on the title. He was a great, classic grandpa – warm, smiling, loved kids. He also had a great belly, a hearty laugh, and a warm embrace.

What a grandpa he was! 

My dad was a life giver.  He passed away quietly on November 20, 1997, having lived a generous 90 years.  He was a life giver, not only in the physical sense of fathering four children, but in the sense of affirming people and making them feel better for having met him.

 His way of valuing people was an education for me.  My dad always showed an interest in people, and he always found a way to get them to talk about themselves.  He knew that by developing an interest in people, he showed them respect and affirmation. He did this, I believe, quite naturally because that is the way he thought people ought to be treated.  That’s why people used to like to be around my dad, and why his funeral had such an outpouring of affection from people.

We need more life givers.  There are plenty of people in the world who are life “drainers”.  You know them.  They are people who tend to be critical and cynical.  We live in a cynical world, one which is feeding on talk shows on both television and radio.  Everybody, it seems, has an opinion about everything, and often it is a critical or witty comment which hurts people or damages their reputation.  Listen sometime to a talk show and count how often the comments are critical and hurtful, and how often the comments are uplifting or affirming. I think you will be amazed at the amount of poison available on the airways.

            What can I do where I am to be more of a life giver than a life “drainer”?  First, take an interest in people.  Look for the things in people that are right and good and treat them as if that is how they are.  People tend to begin to act in response to the way they are treated.  Second, set aside a few minutes each day to write an encouraging note to someone (e-mail works too, though it is not as personal), or to make a quick phone call to someone who needs encouragement.  Third, make it a point to laugh with people. Life is too short not to enjoy lots of laughter with people.  Finally, look for the good in a situation.  Most people can easily find the bad in a given situation.  Be the one who finds the good.

            A nod or a smile given away to someone, or time spent talking with someone, can be the “make it or break it” part of the day for them. We may never know how much we have touched people simply by talking with them in the office break room for ten minutes.

            My dad positively affected many people that he encountered during his life with a smile and an openness to share himself.  He didn’t change the world, but he did change the world for the people who knew him and his gentle spirit.  That’s a wonderful legacy that I would like to pass on. 

Prayer: Thank you Lord for the gift of my dad. We are grateful for such examples of your love, Amen

The Rest of the Story…

In yesterday’s reflection, I discussed the pivotal year 1968 and the upheaval it brought. I compared some of the events of 1968 to the so far disastrous 2020, and I suggested that, as my title stated, This Too Shall Pass.

And so, that year did pass, but there were still years of upheaval and strife, mainly centered around the Vietnam War, then later, the Watergate scandal of Richard Nixon. But there were stories of redemption that get lost in the recounting of those years. I mentioned Governor George Wallace, the man who is best remembered for the demagogic statements he made as governor of Alabama- “segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever,”.

He subsequently lost in Presidential races in 1968 and in 1972. In 1972, Wallace too became the victim of an assassination attempt, one that left him crippled and in pain for the rest of his life. What we do not often remember is that late in his life, after he was crippled in the assassination attempt, George Wallace had a spiritual awakening, and he renounced his formerly racist views. He said that – “while he had once sought power and glory, he realized he needed to seek love and forgiveness. In 1979, Wallace said of his stand in the schoolhouse door: “I was wrong. Those days are over, and they ought to be over”. Wallace later personally reached out to African-American leaders and asked for forgiveness.

So, redemption can come from pain and suffering. While Wallace’s racist actions have not been forgotten- and that is a cautionary tale lest they be repeated- but he has been forgiven by many of those whom he wronged and offended.

Let me conclude with one other redemption story of 1968. Three NASA astronauts took our attention off of a broken world as their spacecraft orbited the moon in December, 1968. We needed good news, and three astronauts gave us hope. You might recall the Pulitzer prize winning picture of “Earthrise” that accompanied this mission. It is beautiful beyond description. Here is the transcript of the astronauts’ message to Earth from December 24, 1968:

William Anders
We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

 

 

 

James Lovell

 

And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.
And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.

 

Frank Borman

And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.

And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth

This Too Shall Pass

That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day.  For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever!                                                                                                             II Corinthians 4:17-18

 

Yes, the year 2020 has, let us say, “not been a good year”.  There have been other perilous times in which we have lived. Many others. In my own lifetime, I think back to the famous year of 1968. We didn’t think that year would ever end either. There were uprisings in major cites around the world, including Paris and Prague, as well as nearly every American city at one time or another through the year. Worldwide Communism was in its death throes, but we did not know that yet. In its last quarter century of existence, the USSR seemed formidable and frightening.

The war in Vietnam was only worsening, and for me, it was very close to calling my name. The TET offensive, a huge tactical loss for the Viet Cong, became their largest strategic victory. Walter Cronkite said so.

Martin Luther King was assassinated in April, 1968, followed by Senator Bobby Kennedy in June on my high school graduation day. The Democratic Convention in Chicago that year was a bloodbath in the streets, with demonstrators being clubbed and jailed. It took away any excitement which may have been going on inside the convention itself. President Johnson, in late March of the year, had pulled himself out of the November race for President. Not only had he had enough, he knew he could not be re-elected. George Wallace, an avowed racist governor of Alabama, was running as a third-party candidate. The nation was divided like many had not seen since the Civil War.

At the Mexico City Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved fists on the medal platform, igniting a storm of controversy and backlash never before seen on the world-wide sports front.

In short, 1968 seemed like the year that the world would explode, and in some ways, it did. The current year 2020- well, I need not tell you its woes, and we are only a bit over halfway through.

The writer Paul in the book of Corinthians cautioned his people, who were undergoing serious persecution, that even though the current events were pretty terrible, our spirits are being renewed every day.  

So, let’s keep in mind that crises come and go. We don’t like them, they cause pain, suffering, even death to some. However, in the long run, it is a spirit building event, as long as we do not lose sight of it.

 

Prayer: Father, this year has been so painful to so many. We trust that you have this in hand, and that it can be an opportunity for us to grow in spirit, Amen.

 

Acceptance vs. Understanding

The LORD appeared to us in the past, saying: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.                                                                                                                                   Jeremiah 31:3

Sometimes we just have to learn to accept things before we can begin to understand them. Sometimes, we will never understand. We are wired to be curious, to try to figure things out. That is a good thing. It drives us to learn, to grow. However, there are some things we just need to accept.

In addictions, the addicted individual may never really understand the biological dynamics of their addiction. Understanding the addiction won’t likely help to overcome the addiction. Only abstinence from the substance will give the addict the needed space to heal and get some recovery under his/her belt, but they may never really understand why they became addicted. They simply accept that their best efforts left them addicted, and that acceptance of the help of friends, family and sober support is what they need to stay clean.

Only after acceptance can understanding begin.  Grace works that way. We do not really understand grace, we simply accept that it has been given to us. If we can accept the beauty of grace, unmerited favor, we can enjoy its benefits.

I’m not sure that we will ever understand why God loves us as he does. But just because we don’t understand it doesn’t mean it isn’t true. (Yes, there are a lot of double negatives here, but hang with it!) Some people try to overthink this because they feel unlovable. “How can God love me when I don’t love myself”, some may say.

I say, don’t try to understand that- just accept it.

Prayer: You have made us to be curious, to try to understand. Thank you for that. More than that we need to accept your love for us, extravagant as it is, Amen.

 

Start from Right Here…

Don’t be afraid, for I am with you.
Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you.
I will hold you up with my victorious right hand                                                                                       Isaiah 41:10

 

When I speak to groups about leadership, I often start off with a story. I talk with the group about the story of Theodore Roosevelt Jr. His father, of course, was the 26th President of the United States. Roosevelt Jr. has a lengthy back story, but I will mention only this- he was not supposed to be on Utah Beach on June 6, 1944, and he had to fight to get there.

Finally given permission to directly lead his men into battle, Brigadier General Roosevelt was confronted with the chaos and terror of D-Day. He was the highest-ranking officer in the first invasion wave, and he would have it no other way. He would personally lead the way.

In the confusion of the landing, everything went wrong. His landing crafts had drifted far from their designated landing site, the promised air cover had not done the job of clearing the beach and providing craters for cover, and they were under heavy enemy fire. When asked by his lieutenants about orders for what to do, Roosevelt calmly said, “Gentlemen, we’ll start the war from right here!”

I love that. Roosevelt showed calm and clear leadership under extreme pressure. He had fought with his superiors to even be with the troops – Generals no longer were on the front lines with their troops by World War II.

The mental health concept I also love is this- when we are confronted with difficult situations, there is no time for self-pity, blame, and inaction. Roosevelt spoke the obvious truth that, if the troops did not rally and move forward immediately, they would be wiped out. They had to rally together and be united in the effort. They also needed the belief that they could still be effective warriors, and that they could actually do something. They were not defeated just because the odds were so against them.

Roosevelt Jr. gave his men hope, courage, and direction that day. He would be dead just 5 weeks later of a heart attack. That was one of the reasons that his superiors had not wanted him in the front. His health was that poor. Later, Roosevelt would win the Medal of Honor for his actions that day.

I tell that story at times to my clients as a reminder that no situation is hopeless unless we deem it to be so and then quit. When we quit, it is hopeless.

So, whatever you are facing, have the hope and courage to take action Don’t wait for something else to happen- start the war from right here.

Prayer: Thank you Father for examples of hope and courage. Give us that strength right when we need it, Amen

Everyday Mission

No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good,
and this is what he requires of you:
to do what is right, to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God.                                                                                                                 Micah 6:8

This is a story that is an addition and expansion of the account of the three wise men recounted in the book of Matthew. It tells about a “fourth” wise man, a priest of the Magi named Artaban, one of the Medes from Persia.

 Like the other Magi, he sees signs in the heavens proclaiming that a King had been born among the Jews. Like them, he sets out to see the newborn ruler, carrying treasures to give as gifts to the child – a sapphire, a ruby, and a “pearl of great price”. However, he stops along the way to help a dying man, which makes him late to meet with the caravan of the other three wise men. Because he missed the caravan, and he can’t cross the desert with only a horse, he is forced to sell one of his treasures in order to buy the camels and supplies necessary for the trip. He then commences his journey but arrives in Bethlehem too late to see the child. The child’s parents have fled to Egypt to escape the evil plans of Herod to kill the possible rival King. He saves the life of a child at the price of another of his treasures.

Artaban then travels to Egypt and to many other countries, searching for Jesus for many years and performing acts of charity along the way. After 33 years, Artaban is still a pilgrim, and a seeker after light. Artaban arrives in Jerusalem just in time for the crucifixion of Jesus. He spends his last treasure, the pearl, to ransom a young woman from being sold into slavery. He is then struck in the head by a falling roof tile and is about to die, having failed in his quest to find Jesus, but having done much good through charitable works. A voice tells him “Verily I say unto thee, inasmuch as thou hast done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, thou hast done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:40). He dies in a calm radiance of wonder and joy. His treasures were accepted, and the Other Wise Man found his King.

From a short novel by Henry van Dyke (cited in Wikipedia)

I always loved this story, because of its beauty, and also because of the truth it explains. The fourth wise man went about his life seeking to fulfill his mission- to find and to honor Jesus. All through his life, he believed that he had failed in the mission because he could never deliver his precious gifts to Jesus. Of course, he had been serving out his mission the whole time. He had been serving Jesus by serving other people. That IS the mission.

So, I think often we miss the fact that our lives have great meaning and purpose to the extent that we humbly serve others. Nurturing mothers and fathers are serving out their calling by caring for their children as best they can. Teachers are serving out their calling by dedicating themselves to the betterment of their students. Medical personnel are doing healing work. First responders are saving lives, often at the expense of their own.

The list goes on and on. You fill in the blank of how you are serving and playing out your mission. Is there more for you? Do you feel that there are things that you still want to do, must do?

Good. We never stop living out that mission. We never “retire” from our calling. If you have somehow decided that you have nothing more to give, think again. We need to LIVE until we die, not exist until we die. If there is that one more thing that is in front of you, pursue it. Because that might be the voice of God prompting you to seize that moment with your unique set of skills and passion to impact another.

Prayer: Thank you for the plan of mission, of significance, of honoring you with our life, Amen.

 

 

 

Our Mission

Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.                                                                                                                                                                               Matthew 6:33

I often talk with people about life mission- their purpose for existence. I have discussed Viktor Franklin past columns and his ideas about significance and purpose as a therapeutic tool. I think that living out a life of purpose is critical in having good mental health. We are meant to have high purpose in life. Yet people often struggle with the thought that they have any means to impact the world around them.

Some people are overwhelmed with the idea that they must struggle to “find God’s plan for their life”. I understand that this struggle can be real, even crippling for some. I talk with people about my belief that there is not just one elusive “God- plan” that people must work hard to find. I believe that life mission for us is really right before us, and that there is not just one direction that we can go to be obedient to it.

We all are born with certain gifts and strengths. Often, we see these early in life in children, and such gifts, of course, need to be nurtured. Such gifts are typically part of the preparation for our life mission.

Next, we all have life experiences- milestone events that are significant in shaping us. Those include any event that, when we are asked about describing our life journey, come to mind pretty quickly. They are both positive and negative experiences, but they are part of forming our unique story.

Finally, there is our passion. Sometimes I will frame this as, “If you win the lottery tomorrow and never had to work for pay for the rest of your life, what would you do?” Indeed, “What might YOU pay to do?”

By putting together these three “life streams”, we begin to see a very distinct pattern about life direction, desires, and abilities to do the mission. So, I do not believe that figuring out our life mission is an elusive plan that we must labor to find.

I believe that as long as we honor God first, in whatever we do, we are in the mission he calls us to.

Tomorrow, a little story about life mission. Stay tuned.

 

Prayer: Father, thank you for calling us to significance and purpose in this world. You count on us to carry out your plans, Amen.