A Sickness of the Soul

I have decided to share today some excerpts of a column I wrote in the late 1990’s prompted by a raft of school shootings. Unfortunately, those types of shootings have continued, both at schools and in other gatherings since that time.

Yes, indeed, mental illness is a problem now as it was then. Certainly, better early identification of mental illness is crucial. I am encouraged that society seems to be paying some more attention to this critical need.

I believe that my response from those shootings still has validity, if being just a bit dated. Some principles, however, stand the test of time. I think this column bears a repeat, with some minor edits…

A sickness of the soul.  That’s what I think it is that afflicts our country and those lost youngsters who are shooting classmates in the nation’s schools.  We all are looking for reasons for the shootings of the past 9 months so that we can have some answers as to how to deal with this problem. 

I call it a sickness of the soul.

The presence of guns is not really the problem. (Yes, it is a problem, but not the core issue which underlies the chilling social problem of mass shootings). I do not happen to be a gun lover nor a gun owner, but I do not identify guns as the problem.  I think the long and complex answer is in how we see children and how we teach them to fit into our society.           

Essentially, kids feel unneeded-not necessarily unwanted, just unneeded.  We parents of children born in the 70’s and 80’s really do want our children. For the vast majority, they were planned. Indeed, ours is one of the first generations who had reliable birth control to ensure wanted pregnancies. 

Our generation even had abortion to “take care of” unwanted pregnancies. Remember how the abortion rights advocates said that abortion would help cut down on abuse of unwanted children?  Unwanted children? That is not the problem.

These children born in the 70’s and 80’s generally were born into homes where there was not poverty and hunger. The economy was basically decent, or even good, and even though both parents were working, the children were not needed to help sustain the family economically.

 The children were given what they needed, and very often, what they wanted.  What they often did not have was the sense of being needed by the family. Consequently, many have grown up soft and comfortable, with little sense of responsibility.

            I think it is not a coincidence that the strongest, the most responsible, and the most successful generation in our country was toughened by the Depression of the1930’s.  The generation of people who were children between the ages of 5 and 18 in 1930 were the ones who fought and won World War II.  They then went on to rebuild the United States and the rest of the world after the war.  That generation was toughened by the deprivation of the Depression.  They had to work hard early in their lives to help sustain themselves and their families. 

They had gained a valuable sense of responsibility for themselves and for those around them.  They had also learned reliance on God and they did not take their blessings for granted.

We parents who tend to give so much to our children economically often fail to give them food for the soul. We need to teach them to recognize that there is a God to be obeyed and worshipped, and to recognize that God values all people, not some better than others.

 I believe that such teaching feeds the soul.  If the soul is not fed it becomes sick, and then we reap the effects of a generation that longs for literal “soul food”.

We all need to learn that we are not God, and that we are not the center of the universe. 

That is the easiest and hardest lesson to learn, and it is the most important one.

Prayer: Father, give us wisdom as we prepare our children and grandchildren how to make the world a better place than they found it, Amen.

 

The Eyes Have It

 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy your whole body will be full of light.  But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!                                                                                                                        Matthew 6:22-23

This is an interesting passage of the Bible which deals with the eyes. It discusses, I think, the importance, both physically and metaphorically, of how we use our eyes. In the earlier passage, Jesus had discussed the ways that we look at wealth. Is wealth our primary focus, or is our primary focus how we treat other people?

I just heard a podcast about the learning abilities of wolves and dogs. It seems that both wolves and dogs rely heavily on the eye contact of the trainer to learn. The experiment they did involved how well both wolves and dogs learned cues about how to find food. (The wolves won, by the way) The point again drove home the fact to me that eye contact is extremely important in human relationships. Holding good eye contact for communication is an important tool in learning solid communication. We read a tremendous amount into non-verbal communication, like eye contact, to determine warmth and the credibility of other people.

As a counselor, I really like to make as much eye contact as is comfortable with my clients. (Virtual counseling has been a challenge in this new environment, but that is the subject for another day.) I read a lot into eye contact. I look at when people give it, and when they withdraw it. We can tell if someone is “with us” by virtue of the eye contact and other non-verbal cues we get from them.

Jesus in this Matthew account, states that our eyes are the “lamp of the body”. What he meant was that, we read intent and virtue into how we meet other peoples’ eyes. The old saying “the eyes are the window into the soul” likely came from this Bible verse. Indeed, as humans, we rely on cues such as eye contact to validate what we hear. If there is a disconnect between what we hear, and the non-verbals that we see, like eye contact, we will likely rely upon the eye contact as the cue we believe.

I will have more to say on this subject in future blogs. In the meantime, consider how much you value eye contact to determine the sincerity of the person to whom you are talking. We humans require complex mechanisms to communicate, but then again, so do dogs and wolves.

It seems like eyes are indeed the “lamp of the body”.

Prayer: Father, give us eyes to see the important things in life, Amen.

 

 

What Gets Our Attention

When He had stopped speaking, He said to Simon, “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”
 But Simon answered and said to Him, “Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless, at Your word I will let down the net.”  And when they had done this, they caught a great number of fish, and their net was breaking.  So, they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink.  When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”                                                                                                                                                                         Luke 5:4-8

 I listened to a sermon today from a pastor I really like. In fact, he is the pastor of my daughter’s church and we have come to see him and that ministry as our adopted church. He spoke about this passage from Luke 5 and his message was great, but I have always had a different takeaway from it than many people.

This passage involves our friend Peter. Peter was a business man, a fisherman. He depended on fishing for his livelihood. It was not sport or recreation, it was catch fish and eat or fail and not eat.

What I find so interesting in this passage is that it took this particular event to convince Peter about the majesty and authority of Jesus. It was not too long before this that Jesus had healed Peter’s mother-in-law from a fever. Jesus had done a flat-out healing of someone close to Peter- a healing he clearly was aware of. But it took Jesus to get Peter a great business success before he reacted in the profound way that he did to Jesus.

Peter was clearly awed by the power and authority of Jesus after the great haul of fish that day. So, that makes me think, Peter is just like me. Maybe all of us. We are of the “what have you done for me lately?” persuasion.

Yeah, I’m not really proud of that, but I also recognize the humanness of that. We all forget so easily what great things have happened in the past. Great answers to prayer, recovery from illness- whatever it may have been. We remember those things that hit close to home better than some other things. For Peter, that great catch of fish may have rescued him from financial disaster- who knows? It surely got his attention.

What I do know, is that Peter and I are probably pretty alike. Even after a long history of grace and answered prayers, I tend to say, “yes, but what about now? I need you now more than ever!”

I know that God recognizes this in his creation. I note that Jesus did not get upset with Peter in the least. In fact, Jesus told Peter that he would be, from that moment on, a powerful member of his team.

What a great fish story!

Prayer: Father, thank you for the great things you constantly do for us. Help us to remember them even in the lean times, 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.

 

Rhythms

To everything there is a season,
A time for every purpose under heaven:  A time to be born, And a time to die;
A time to plant, And a time to pluck what is planted;
 A time to kill, And a time to heal;
A time to break down, And a time to build up;
 A time to weep, And a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, And a time to dance;
 A time to cast away stones, And a time to gather stones;
A time to embrace, And a time to refrain from embracing;
 A time to gain, And a time to lose; A time to keep, And a time to throw away;
 A time to tear, And a time to sew; A time to keep silence,
And a time to speak;  A time to love,
And a time to hate; A time of war, And a time of peace                                                                                Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

We have certain rhythms in our life that are often so subtle, we simply take them for granted. However, when those rhythms get disrupted, we know it. We feel uneasy, like something just isn’t right. The routines by which we mark time in our life have been disrupted, and we are thrown off course, however slightly. It bugs us.

The COVID-19 pandemic has done just that. It has altered our rhythms. We have, for example, become accustomed to having a rhythm of starting school in late August (yes, it gets earlier every year), and ending the school year sometime in late May. We gear our calendar around that from about age 5 or 6 on, and we keep that more or less, the rest of our lives.

Sports also does that for us. Sports has been described as the “toy store” of life. It is the fun place, the place where we can expend emotional and physical energy, but the end result typically isn’t life or death. It is supposed to be a fun diversion- something that is optional, yet enjoyable, and takes on some level of meaning in our life. We invest ourselves in the outcome of games, look forward to certain milestones, All-Star games, drafts, even fantasy teams. It is supposed to be fun.

And this year, it’s not. At least for me. The excitement of the baseball season is- not exciting. The anticipation of college football? Not happening. High school football? Just ask the athletes, coaches and school administrators.  It is tense and tenuous. Yes, it will likely happen to some degree, but for how long, we do not know.

There is no blame in this. Professional sports commissioners, college administrators, and high school superintendents are asked to make impossible decisions, then they are blamed whichever direction they go. No, the blame is the virus, and we can’t get our hands around it to strangle it.

So, this is one of those seasons. This is the season of COVID-19, our uninvited guest. We recognize that this is a season in our lives, and it can serve a purpose if we allow it. We can redeem it into a learning time and as a time of unprecedented resilience. Our rhythms might change a bit, and we will accommodate to that. Our sports will return, maybe a bit different, and maybe that will be OK.

I am looking forward to next season.

Prayer: Father, give me the patience to see this season for what it is. Seasons come and seasons go, you remain the same, Amen.

Another “Rest of the Story”

After Job had prayed for his friends, the Lord restored his fortunes and gave him twice as much as he had before.  All his brothers and sisters and everyone who had known him before came and ate with him in his house. They comforted and consoled him over all the trouble the Lord had brought on him, and each one gave him a piece of silver and a gold ring.  The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the former part…                                                                                                                              Job 42:10-12

 

The book of Job is one of the oldest writings in the Bible, and it has been quoted, misquoted, and used out of context for centuries.  Don’t get me wrong, my guess is that I too will use it out of context and derive my own meanings, which may or may not adhere to orthodox interpretation. However, I will do my best to give you my ideas on the book.

The Book of Job is about suffering. That is why it has been so quoted and studied over the centuries. The one thing that is constant in the human story is suffering. I have pointed out before that Job’s “comforters” initially were very helpful to him when they simply sat with him and allowed him to share his terrible fate with them. It was when they offered their own ideas about why God had allowed such suffering that they caused Job more pain than ever. They accused him of having done some sin, perhaps something unknown, that God was punishing him for.

Finally, after what seems like an interminable amount of soul searching, speculation, and accusations, God appears on the scene and takes charge of affairs. God lets the men know that he alone was around when he created the earth. God alone has his reasons, or non-reasons for what he does, and because he is sovereign, he can, and will, do what he pleases. He owed the men no explanation for his actions, or for simply what he allows to happen.

After these men- good men by the way, well meaning people- finally got that message, God told them that they owed Job an apology, and he told Job to pray for them. God said that he would forgive them for the pain they inflicted on their friend, Job.

I thought this following sentence was very interesting- After Job had prayed for his friends, the Lord restored his fortunes and gave him twice as much as he had before. It was only after Job prayed for his friends and essentially forgave them that God restored to him more than he had ever lost.

I am not suggesting that this is a formula for wealth or success. It was simply the way God worked. He restored Job’s dignity, then he restored his wealth after he had learned his life lesson.

There is so much to learn in this, but my takeaway is that God is God, and he certainly does not answer to me.

It’s just that I would like him to do that, and I need to catch myself on that one. How about you?

Prayer: Thank you for the lessons you give us. Forgive us when we expect that you, the sovereign God, owe us an explanation, Amen

 

It Was the Summer of ’61…

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.                                                                                                                                           Matthew 19:14

That is the answer to the question, “what was your favorite summer as a kid?”

It was the summer of 1961. I was 11 years old, carefree, and we had the run of the neighborhood. There were four of us who ran around together- my best friend Ray from across the street and his younger sister, Mary Jo; Betty from up the street, and me. We had a club that met in a treehouse which was very cool, and probably by today’s standards, wildly dangerous. Of course, we did not know better, and no one was hospitalized that year. Yes, Mary Jo put her hand through a glass door and was stitched up, but that was pretty much it for serious injuries.

The club was, as society was in 1961, a sexist place. The boys, Ray and I, were President and Vice-President of the club, Mary Jo and Betty were Secretary and Treasurer. That is just the ways things were.

That summer was amazing too because the Cincinnati Reds were in the thick of a pennant race for the first time since 1940. Yes, they did came close in 1956. I remember that because dad was very excited that summer, only to be heartbroken once again in September. However, 1961 was the Reds year, and indeed, they did win the pennant. Just WOW for a kid in his first real pennant race!

I think back to that summer as we encounter some beautiful summer days right now. I also reflect back on this because many children don’t get summers like that. I just recently had a client tell me that, because of childhood abuse, she missed a great deal of joyful childhood memories, forced out of innocent childhood experiences by sexual abuse. She said, “I just wanted to be a little girl a little while longer.

Many children, too many, are deprived of those wonderful carefree memories which I am privileged to have. Many children around the world are in poverty, sexual slavery, or other abusive situations that preclude an innocent, carefree childhood.

There are things we can do to improve the lives of children who are suffering. Fostering children, adopting kids through Compassion International, mentoring kids through church programs- these are just a few ways to help children who need us. I encourage my readers to check out what volunteer program might be calling you to help.

I don’t want to leave on a sad note, but a hopeful one. Think about your best summer memories and celebrate them. Share them with your grandkids or kids who will not believe that back in the Dark Ages, we played in treehouses and had no concept of what an electronic gadget might look like.

Kids love those stories right!

Prayer: Thank you Father for the gift of childhood and wonderful times in the summer. We lift up those children whose summers are not as wonderful, Amen.

Little Children

The Lord is like a father to his children, tender and compassionate to those who fear him.
 For he knows how weak we are; he remembers we are only dust.                                                                               Psalm 103:13-14

 

I love Psalm 103, and I often prescribe this as a reading assignment to my clients. I especially like the verses above, which depict God as the loving father who is drawing his children to him. Years ago, a friend painted a word picture of these verses which has stuck with me. It is that of the father of a toddler, just learning to walk. The father has his arms outstretched to the child, urging him/her on, encouraging the child when they stumble, picking them up when they fall.  The father does not yell at the child for incompetence- they are still a child. He draws them to him as an encouragement, knowing that this is a stage of development.

So, I like to think of God the father as this encourager. He remembers that we are dust, and I am glad for that. I think God wants us to know how much he loves us, and he is pleased when we acknowledge that. You parents who are reading this understand that it gives us great pleasure when our kids know how much we love them.

I see too many clients who question whether there is a loving God, much less one who personally loves them. Sometimes we all do struggle with “lovability”. There are times when we feel unworthy of love, and do not even love ourselves.

That is when we need the experience of being loved the most.

Prayer: Thank you Father for loving us like little children. Indeed, we are children dependent upon you, Amen.

 

 

The Art of Engagement

Paul stood up in the middle of the council on Mars Hill and said, “People of Athens, I see that you are very religious in every way.  As I was walking through town and carefully observing your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an unknown God.’ What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you.  God, who made the world and everything in it, is Lord of heaven and earth. He doesn’t live in temples made with human hands.                                                          Acts 17:16-17

 

In this present era, we experience a type of communication where people are talking across one another instead of to one another. We see Paul as an example of one who knew how to engage people. Paul had a message of good news which he desperately wanted to share with people, because he believed that spiritual life and death were at stake. Instead of demeaning and mocking the primitive beliefs of the idol worshipers at Athens, Paul showed respect for them in their search for truth. He acknowledged their sincere search for truth, and he showed his interest in their culture. He walked around the city and observed what was important to them. He did not judge them, but pointed out and affirmed their own desire to know the “unknown god”. The Athenians were open to the idea of a god that they did not yet know, and they had made idols to various gods. However, in the interest of not leaving any out lest they anger one of those deities, they made an idol to the “unknown god.”

Paul was able to use their own language and concepts to help introduce them to the God that could offer them peace and salvation. He did not mock their feeble attempts to placate the unknown god, he introduced them to the God of their need, the God that they sought and did not yet know.

Paul’s approach is needed today. We need to listen, and understand the language of people with whom we disagree. We need not, and should not, shame and dishonor those with whom we disagree. We need to love them enough to hear their world view. It may be very different from ours, yet people come to a particular world view for a reason. It is arrived at due to a journey different than ours oftentimes.

As we enter the heated environment of political rhetoric which is so visible these days, let us pause to understand that with which we disagree. You will read, if you complete the 17th chapter of Acts, that Paul gained a hearing from the people of Athens because he cared enough to hear their story and their world view, different as it was from his. Let us be intentional in respectfully hearing views with which we disagree.

It is good for our soul, and the souls of those whom we love, and yet do not agree with.

Prayer: Lord, grant us the patience to hear what we do not agree with, and the grace to patiently share your love, Amen.

 

Paul

Meanwhile, Saul (Paul) was uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord’s followers. So he went to the high priest.                                                                                                                Acts 9:1
I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without fault                                                                                                                                                         Philippians 3:6

The last example of the temperament types is Paul. Paul is an example of the Choleric Temperament. The Choleric is one who is opinionated, driven, and strongly committed to a cause. Paul showed that he was this kind of an individual from the time he was a Pharisee who was persecuting Christians. Paul believed that they were corrupting the true faith of his people, and he would not stand for that.

Later, after the famous “Damascus Road” experience, Paul remained the committed and strongly opinionated religious leader, but now he was committed to the Christian faith.

Cholerics have strong opinions, and they act upon them.  They act fearlessly when they believe that their cause is right, and they can be ruthless in their driven nature. They are strong leaders, and they may have trouble with those who seem less committed than themselves.

Paul was present at the stoning of Stephen, an early Christian martyr, because he believed so strongly that Stephen was an apostate who was corrupting the true faith. Later, Paul himself died a martyr’s death because of those same driven commitments to the truth.

Paul’s zeal to do the right thing is admirable, but zeal must be tempered with openness to hearing another side of an opinion. Paul’s message at Mars Hill, where he preached to skeptics of the Christian faith, was a marvel of listening and openness to alternate world views. Paul continued to have zeal for his faith, but his zeal was now tempered by the grace of the gospel.

Paul’s zeal was evident in his approach to living out his faith. All temperaments are beautiful expressions of our created nature. Our job is to recognize our temperament, manage those specific tendencies carefully, and celebrate the gift that the temperament represents.

Tomorrow, we follow Paul at the Mars Hill event I just spoke about. We will see how he handled his views in the hostile environment, and won over the crowd.

Prayer: Thank you Lord for the strengths you bless us with. Help us use them for the good of your people, Amen.