They Get Used To It…

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.                                            John 15:13

Or so they say. I treat a lot of clients who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Briefly, the most common understanding of this disorder is that people who have been exposed to significant traumatic events are prone to be affected in a negative way, and we have diagnosed this as PTSD.

Earlier this century, this phenomenon was identified in soldiers who fought in World War I. The phenomenon became known as “shell shock”. There was good reason for that since high explosive shells were used extensively in that war, not only for their destructive power, but for their intimidation effect. The constant and deafening roar of the explosions caused soldiers to literally become psychotic. Many never really returned to reality. Their system had been completely overwhelmed.

When World War II came around, the term then became “combat fatigue”. Constant exposure to violence, and threat of violence, as well as the experience of seeing people die all around one caused the reaction.

When the Vietnam War came in the 60’s and 70’s, a new term appeared- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Since then, we have come to understand that the definition of PTSD has been expanded to not only those who are victims of violence and threat, but those who are witness to such devastations.

Front-line first responders are, by definition, potentially diagnosable with PTSD.  Even though most first responders would shrug off the label, they nonetheless are affected by those traumatic events which they encounter.

We expect that those servants will continue to serve others despite the trauma they witness. So do they. Those first-responders will say “It’s part of the job, we just keep on”. And they do. But it comes with a price.

So, to our first responders (including my beloved two children who are in the very center of trauma every day), I say thank you. There cannot be love without sacrifice, and they show their love through sacrifice every day.  

Prayer: Lord, protect those who protect us every day, Amen

Marvelous Things

“This is God’s Message, the God who made earth, made it livable and lasting, known everywhere as God: ‘Call to me and I will answer you. I’ll tell you marvelous and wondrous things that you could never figure out on your own.’                                                                                                                                          Jeremiah 33:2-3 (The Message)

So, that is what God said to the prophet Jeremiah. We can’t even begin to understand the marvels of creation.  Every day it seems we learn more about how incredible the human body is designed. Intricacies of animals and insects can scarcely be understood, even by brilliant scientific minds. 

While I was listening to a podcast the other day on my walk (yes, you know I am a podcast addict), I was fascinated by a discussion of the chemical make-up of wasp venom. Yes, I am also a nerd- I like that stuff. At any rate, the podcast host was explaining how there are certain complex enzymes and proteins in the wasp venom that make it incredibly effective. Such detail in the design of a wasp!

We take so much for granted in our creation. Indeed, we get preoccupied with so much noise of bad news around us that we fail to breathe in the wonder of creation and appreciate the most common things in life.

I often tell my clients that the first thing we need to take control of in situations where we feel no control is our breathing. We can take voluntary control of an involuntary function. It helps us to slow down and regain our cognitive control when emotions carry us to an anxious place.

The very act of inhalation and expiration is a complex chemical reaction of enormous proportion. Maybe when we take control of that breathing, we can also be thankful just for the opportunity to do it.

Sometimes I marvel at the innocence of lower life forms who are not sentient and are unaware of their own existence or significance. Maybe, in our own way, we are sometimes just as clueless.

I think that there are marvelous and wondrous things we will never figure out on our own…

Prayer: Thank you Lord for this amazing life you have given to us. We are truly fearfully and wonderfully made, Amen.

Self-Worth

I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvelous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well                                                                                                                                                    Psalm 139:14

I had a discussion the other day with a client about self-worth. This client had struggled for much of his life with pleasing other people to get their approval. He had gotten the message early in life that the approval of others was the key to feeling good about himself. His worth was being determined by the reactions and behaviors of those outside himself.

As we discussed this further, I assured him that this is something common to all. Everyone wants affection and approval to some degree, especially from those people important to us. However, we need to cling to the truth that our worth is not determined by that approval of others. We have inherent worth and unwavering love from our Creator. Yes, the affection we receive from others is critically important to our emotional health, but while it is necessary, it is not sufficient to sustain us.

Healthy self-love is critical so that we can accept ourselves- our strengths, weaknesses, faults and quirks; our accomplishments, failures- the whole package that makes us. We need to remember that ultimately, we need that self-acceptance to maintain our emotional health.

We need the truth and reminder that we are made in God’s image, loved by him, and never rejected.  

Prayer: Lord, you have made us in your image, loved and accepted by you. Help us to truly appreciate this gift, Amen

I Don’t Know…

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.                                                                                             
                                       Isaiah 55:8-9

How easily that sentence can roll off my tongue these days- “I don’t know”. You see, the truth is the secret to wisdom is to recognize that there is so very much that we do not know. We go through life accumulating a fund of knowledge- facts, experiences, even wisdom- yet there is an amazing amount we do not know.

Sometimes religion would offer to people the idea that we can have knowledge of God and understanding of his plans. I think that such an idea is hubris at its worst. There is so much about God that we do not know, and can never know, and it is the height of pride to pretend that we can.

Job and his friends tried to understand why Job was suffering, and they used all the knowledge that they had to figure out the puzzle of human suffering.  In the end God told them that essentially, He is the author and creator of life, and that their job was not to understand his ways, but to trust his ways.

Isn’t that the truth that we try to tell our young children? They do not understand why we give them certain directions and guidance, but we do it for their good. They were too young to understand the reasons for our decisions, they just needed to trust us as loving parents.

I think that is how it is with God too. We cannot see the full picture of his master plans. We try to understand because we are curious and are made to seek understanding and knowledge. But God’s plans are bigger than our minds can understand fully. Our job is to trust him, knowing that he has our best interest at stake.

“I don’t know” is a perfectly fine phrase to say. It is especially good if we can follow it by saying, “but I trust Him”.

Prayer: Lord, we do not always understand your ways, but help us to trust them more and more, Amen.

Changing Our Response

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. Romans 12:2 (New Living Translation)

I read a book by Erik Larson titled The Splendid and the Vile. I love history, and I read just about any book about Winston Churchill. This book covers both bases for me. One of the facts that stuck out to me was the response of Londoners during the horrible bombing we have come to know as “the Blitz”.  During those awful days early in World War II, in summer and fall of 1940, London was being bombed daily. The physical and emotional toll was dreadful, yet Churchill managed to provide strong, courageous leadership to all of England, and London in particular.

One passage of the book discusses the frustration of people who were being bombed, and their feeling of helplessness to fight back. Indeed, the RAF was heroic and even successful in turning back the Luftwaffe, but all wondered how long this small air force could continue to stand against the might of Germany.

Churchill heard people questioning, after another terrible raid on London, why the anti-aircraft guns were mostly silent. Churchill knew that the efficiency of those ant-aircraft guns was miserable. It was estimated that it took 6000 rounds of fire to score one hit on a German aircraft. The air ministry had decided to save ammunition for an anticipated invasion of England, and they did not deploy the guns in every German raid. But people questioned Churchill about fighting back. They could endure the attacks- their courage and tenacity still strikes me as amazing- however, they could not stand those attacks unless they felt that England was fighting back.

Churchill realized this, and he ordered that the anti-aircraft guns once again blaze away during those attacks on London. People took heart in hearing those guns. The pounding shocks of the firing and the dazzling bursts of fire they put into the sky gave people hope- they were fighting back.

The idea is a sound principle of psychology. If we feel that we are doing all that we can during very difficult times, we can endure that suffering much better than if we feel helpless and vulnerable. That is why I tell my clients that good behavior beats bad thinking- that is, doing something to relieve our anxiety is a much better remedy than trying to think our way out of it. Good behavioral disciplines give us the energy and hope to overcome our thoughts which can feel overwhelming.

Prayer: Lord, help us to change our mind about things in this life that make us feel powerless. Give us the renewed mind to push ahead, even when we cannot see the enemy, Amen

Mistakes vs. Sins

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to.Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form,
he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.                          Philippians 2:5-8

The essential tenet of Christian belief is that Jesus came to earth, was conceived in a miraculous way, and died to save a sinful people. He was a divine being who gave up the privileges of Deity in order to save a mankind that had turned its back on God. He took on the humility of being a human being, and gave up the privileges he owned and deserved.

This is a very hard concept for us, and understandably so. It involves miracles and faith, and it stretches our understanding of both God and man. That Jesus was fully human and fully God is a theological concept that is way beyond my ability to explain or even understand. Yet, in so many ways it is a beautiful way of understanding the world. It is an elegant explanation of how God loves his creation, and it also challenges our humility to say, “I accept this, but I do not really understand it”.

It also, for me, begs the question, “so, if Jesus was fully human, did he make mistakes?”  My answer is yes, he certainly did. He made mistakes but he didn’t sin (Hebrews 4:15). Sins involve deliberate behaviors with selfish or prideful motives. Mistakes are, well, mistakes.

In 1973, the eminent psychiatrist Karl Menninger wrote a book titled Whatever Became of Sin? The book discussed the moral decline of America which had taken place over the preceding decades before the publishing of the book. As a psychiatrist, Menninger was keenly aware of the moral dimensions of human failures and the price that people pay emotionally for such failures. He took to task the society which had excused moral excesses in the name of freedom. He asked the simple question, “Is anything considered to be wrong anymore?”

That was a good question then, and it still is today. It brings to mind to me the important distinction between mistakes and moral failures. I will share with you that a pet peeve of mine is the juxtaposition of the term “mistake” for what are obvious moral failures.

One does not have to look too far to see this subtle refuge for those who have crossed a moral boundary, and who cover it by claiming the innocence of a “mistake”. After all, everyone makes mistakes, right? Allow me to expound.

Let’s say you file your income tax and you have made a math error on the return. As a result, you are due a refund of an extra $100. That was a mistake.

Your friend also files his tax return, but he deliberately fudges a number which results in his receiving an extra $100 on his tax refund. That was cheating, a moral failure. The results were the same, but the intent was different. That is the difference between a mistake, and a moral failure, or, if you will, sin.

How many times have we heard athletes or actors, or politicians, caught in a transgression, plead that they have “made a mistake” and ask to be forgiven. The politician is caught in an affair, becomes contrite and accepts that he “made a mistake.” The athlete takes steroids, gets caught, and then pleads that he “made a mistake” and asks the public to embrace him again.

Let’s be clear that the above examples are NOT examples of mistakes. They are wrong behaviors watered down to “mistake” so that the behavior can be mitigated and the crime minimized. My mere suggestion is that we be clear about what is a mistake and what is a sin.  I believe in forgiveness, no matter if it is a simple mistake, or if it is a moral failure. However, for the sake of the individual who needs the forgiveness, it is crucial to understand that “sin” is of deliberate intent, and it needs to be acknowledged as such.

As a counselor, I try to help people get moral clarity. I do not judge people, but I do help them to take a moral self-inventory (the 4th step of 12 Step programs) so that they can move ahead from past failures.  Acknowledging our failures, as well as differentiating them from honest mistakes, is important in the healing process- it is the start of it.

 We all indeed make mistakes, and we all make wrong moral choices at times. I believe that if we can understand the difference, and own what we do, we are then able to heal and move ahead.

Prayer: Thank you Lord for forgiveness, no matter if we make mistakes or sin. Help us have the discernment and humility to know and own the differences, Amen.

Peacemakers

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.                                                                       Matthew 5:9

In his sermon on the mount, Jesus spoke about what later came to be called the “Beatitudes”. One of those beatitudes was the one mentioned above- peacemakers. Jesus obviously valued peace, stating that the peacemakers were to be called “sons of God”- indeed, a high calling.

I think we are all called to be peacemakers, wherever we are. Think about situations where you have a choice to escalate a tense situation with an opinion, or to deescalate the situation by remaining silent. Or, you see an injustice happening, and you have the opportunity to take up the cause of someone being oppressed.

In my role as a counselor, I have the responsibility to evaluate situations, and try to bring healing and peace, as best I can into the situation. That does not mean that I cannot call out behaviors which are destructive or harmful. On the contrary, I am compelled to speak truth into situations as I see it. Yet, how does one bring peace into situations where there is strife and conflict?

Recently, I was on a phone call where there was much pain and anger, and indeed, some yelling and raised voices. My job was to deescalate the emotional overload, and be the voice of reason since I could be objective. My role was to try to restore a sense of calm as best I could. I found myself speaking very slowly and deliberately. I tried to listen empathically since it was clear that the person on the phone was in a great deal of pain at the moment. I asked that the person just give himself some space for a while, making sure that he was going to be safe.

I continued to speak slowly and calmly, trying to model the sense of calm that the caller desperately needed. I knew that time could give this person the needed space to regain his own sense of peace. Until then, he needed me to have a sense of peace and hope that he currently could not get to- understandable in his current situation.

I mention this because at times, we all can and do play the role of peacemaker. We can only do that if we ourselves have a sense of peace that God is in control. Whatever the situation, there is a solution. Our job is to be present, physically or emotionally, until that peace that passes all understanding can be felt by those whom we are trying to comfort.

Above all, the thing we all need is peace, the peace that comes from God.

Prayer: Father, thank you for calling us to be peacemakers. Give us the strength and opportunity to be your ambassadors of peace, Amen.

Lift Up Your Eyes

I look up to the mountains. Where does my help come from?
 My help comes from the Lord. He is the Maker of heaven and earth.

 He won’t let your foot slip. He who watches over you won’t get tired.
 In fact, he who watches over Israel won’t get tired or go to sleep.

 The Lord watches over you. The Lord is like a shade tree at your right hand.
 The sun won’t harm you during the day. The moon won’t harm you during the night.

 The Lord will keep you from every kind of harm. He will watch over your life.
 The Lord will watch over your life no matter where you go, both now and forever

Psalm 121

This beautiful Psalm is one of the Hebrew Songs of Ascent. I understand that it was sung by pilgrims as they made their way up toward the heights of Jerusalem for holy worship. These travelers might become weary on the long trek, and they encouraged one another by singing these Psalms that they had committed to memory.

The King James translation renders that first line “I will lift up my eyes unto the hills…” That catches my attention, not only because of its poetic beauty, but because of the literal value of the idea- I will lift up my eyes. There is a specific value in deciding to look up. It talks about a decision to look up when we are weary, not to hang our heads.

Have you ever seen athletes on the basketball court or on football sidelines put their hands on their hips? It is a sure sign of fatigue. Many coaches caution their players, even when fatigued, to not give in to a gesture that might give others the idea that they are exhausted.

Deciding to look up when the journey gets hard is a good concept. After all, the Psalmist reminded the pilgrims that their help comes from the Lord- the one who made the mountain that they were trudging up. God would give them strength if they looked up to him.

So, fellow travelers, when the journey gets hard, lift up your eyes to the Creator who gives strength.

Prayer: We are weary Lord, but our strength is renewed in you alone, Amen

There Is Room at the Table

“Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me.  There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am.  And you know the way to where I am going.”                                                                                         John 14:1-4 (New Living Translation)

As we get close to Thanksgiving (yes, it is already November 1), I began to think about family and the idea that there is always “room at the table” for family. This idea of family around the table came from several directions. Mostly, I was just thinking about Lori.

As I write this blog, my own family is preparing for another funeral. My faithful readers may recall that just over two weeks ago I wrote a blog titled “Lou”, about the passing of my cherished brother-in-law. Just 20 days later, his daughter, my niece Lori, succumbed to cancer as well.

I was reminded of the promise that Jesus made to his disciples as he was preparing for his own homecoming to his father in heaven. He essentially said- “There is room for all of you in my Father’s house, after all, we are family”

Lori had been a 40-year survivor of a different type of cancer. This last cancer ravaged her body too quickly, and despite a valiant, even heroic fight, she went home to be with her father all too soon. We will all miss her terribly. Her large heart had room in it for many people too. Now she is at home with her own father, and her heavenly Father as well.   

I cling to this promise, and I am sure that my big sister, Lois and her own daughters Linda and Leanne do too. Lori’s two children, Matthew and Becky, and her husband, Doug, are an incredibly strong and supportive family, sustained by a positive and abiding faith in Jesus.

Jesus told us of the promise of rest in his own Father’s house- big enough for an untold number of families. We indeed need that kind of assurance. He also knew that here on earth, we need the strength of our physical families to survive the crushing grief that accompanies such loss.

So, as this Thanksgiving season rushes up on us, remember that there is always room at the table for those we love, and even those that we don’t know yet.

The ones who have left us are still at the table with us in our hearts.  

Prayer: Lord, thank you for the promise of room in your house. We are heartened by it, Amen

The Responsibility of Leadership

After this a lot of his disciples left. They no longer wanted to be associated with him. Then Jesus gave the Twelve their chance: “Do you also want to leave?”

 Peter replied, “Master, to whom would we go? You have the words of real life, eternal life. We’ve already committed ourselves, confident that you are the Holy One of God.”

There is a now famous saying that President Harry S. Truman had on a little plaque on his desk- “The Buck Stops Here”. The saying is perhaps a bit trite nowadays, but the principle is still relevant. Back in those days, the early 1950’s, the idea resonated bit more than it does today. We had just come through the great conflict of World War II, and military type thinking was still much more accepted. Radical responsibility said that the leader took full ownership of anything that happened under his/her watch. If there was a mishap, a failure, a problem, the leader took responsibility for it, even if the specifics of the problem were not directly attributable to the leader.

President Truman had to make some very difficult decisions. He had to decide upon dropping the atomic bomb on Japan. He had to decide proper actions on a national steel strike. He had to decide on firing General Douglas MacArthur when MacArthur defied orders. Truman made some important, and often unpopular decisions, but he owned them and accepted the consequences. 

Perhaps this is harsh, but it points out the ultimate nature of responsibility. The leader does not get to blame underlings or others for failures that happen on his/her watch. Blame is not projected onto others, and the leader cannot act like a victim. Real leaders accept that they are ultimately responsible for the organization they lead and, by extension, the lives of those people in that organization.

People can follow a leader whom they trust. People can trust leaders who accept responsibility, and those who own the consequences of their decisions. Casting blame onto others for failures is not an option. Yes, leadership is hard, and often unfair. But that is the cost of leadership.

Prayer: As Peter replied to Jesus, you are the only leader who has the words of life. Help us follow, Amen.