Depression is Real

As far as topics go that Christians have a hard time discussion, three stand out more than the rest to me: sex, doubt, and mental illness. Of the three, we at least skirt sex by discussing purity, we handle doubts discreetly in closed meetings, but mental illness is closed off in its own box locked with steel reinforced doors.

Depression is a very real issue many Christians face. These very concerned individuals are often told that depression just doesn’t happen to people with real faith. Of all the damaging things Christians say, this might be the worst. Where in the Bible does anyone get the idea that people of faith are never depressed?

Sure, some people will point to Philippians’ “rejoice in the Lord always” as proof that Christians shouldn’t be depressed. “The joy of the Lord is my strength,” is another phrase that pops up in Christian circles when discussing depression.

If I sound angry or frustrated, it’s because I am. I have watched faithful people get thrown under the church bus because dealing the depression is hard, messy, and often a long process. It’s hard to admit that sometimes depression strikes even small group leaders, Sunday School teachers, and -gasp- even ministers. (Check the statistics of depression in pastors and you’ll have a wake up call to what your pastor may be dealing with.)

I’ve dealt with depression myself. I had a rough period in college where I struggled with doubt and depression. I wondered if I were really on the right path and following God, or if I were just kidding myself and not worthy of God’s love. This stuff is real. I was in a ministry training program at a fantastic school. I was serving as an intern at a church in the Children’s Ministry. Despite this, I was depressed, lethargic and wondered daily whether or not to even get out of bed. And, no, it’s not the same thing as wanting five more minutes. This was a debilitating struggle because I seriously considered that what I did meant nothing. So what happened? Did I pray it away? No. Did I have a miraculous healing? No. I talked with a doctor and was given antidepressants. And you know what? It helped.

Here’s what I cannot stand in many church circles. We like to tell people who are struggling, “Just trust God and pray and everything will be all right.” It’s a nice thought, but often times God will speak (if we’re listening) and tell us to get up off our duffs and do something about it. “But Jesus healed people who couldn’t help themselves,” you’ll say. And my response is how many of those people crawled, were carried, or cried out at the top of their voice – who had an active role in seeking out help? Almost every single one.

My favorite story in the Hebrew Bible is the one that has helped me deal with doubts and reminds me to treat others problems with respect. In 1 Kings 19, Elijah has  just witnessed God calling down fire from heaven and end a multi-year drought. God has fed him miraculously many times,and yet Elijah runs in fear of his life and crumples into a heap under a small tree and asks to die. Yes, you read that correctly, one of the great prophets felt despair, depression, exhaustion and had suicidal thoughts. God leads him to a cave and meets him there, and whispers in the silence. God addresses Elijah’s fear and worry, and encourages him, giving him a new mission.

So when you have someone in your life, or even yourself who feels depressed, seek professional help. Do not struggle alone. Do not let anyone tell you your problem isn’t real. Don’t hide your doubts and depression. Call a friend, ask for help. If you or anyone has suicidal thoughts, that’s an immediate call to professional help. Do not play, do not wait. Do not keep that a secret – someone’s life is on the line.

Trusting God includes going through depression. Paul experienced it, Peter felt it, Jesus even felt alone and despair. Who are we to say that Christians have to be happy all the time? Life is hard, but the reason faith is practiced together is so we can pick one another up and keep walking, no matter how slowly. No man gets left behind, and whether you’re carrying or being carried, we all have the same race to complete, so don’t give up hope. We have a Lord who is alive, who is King, who has overcome.

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Batmeh V Supermeh (A movie Review)

I feel… conflicted about this movie from a personal standpoint. I feel like the actors did well with their roles and didn’t overact too much. (Except for Lex Luthor, who they turned into the Joker.) The special effects in this Wagner-esque saga were quite well done, even if the camera work looked like a middle-school film project. (Can we please be done with the shaky-cam trend, now, please?) And about an hour of the run time could have been cut and very little would have been lost.

Usual bits here: violence (punching and stabbing and shooting), bit of language, some sexuality (bathtub scene), and an overall dark and oppressive tone that might be a bit much for some kids.

So, the main conflict here advertised heavily in advance of Marvel’s Civil War film with a similar premise felt shoehorned and forced. Superman and Batman had very little reason to actually fight, even though their ideals differed… that’s kind of the point of having the two characters together. Anyway, I haven’t been the biggest fan of DCs latest trend of gritty re-imaginings of their characters turning them into sociopathic murderers to pad out the tension. I won’t tell you who “wins” the fight, but let’s say that by the time you’ve sat through the build up, you’ll find yourself mentally shouting, “What’s the point!?”

I think the real issue here is that the production company is trying to create a franchise similar to the Marvel films, but doesn’t quite know how to set up future movies without being confusing. Then again, DC comics is no stranger to confusion, having to restart its entire comic book line several times because its own fans and creators couldn’t keep up anymore.

So why even bring up this joyless, gritty, forced confrontation between two beloved heroes? Because there’s some deep thought from the writers/director that you should know about!

And by deep thought, I mean some philosophical pondering by the semi-insane Lex Luthor. Having been turned from the traditional presentation of put-together, self-made businessman with an ego the size of Asia, Luthor is now a wacky, loose-cannon inheritor of a technology company and a self-stated abuse victim. Why mention this? Abuse is serious business and it needs to be discussed. Often times it gets tossed around as a short-hand excuse as to why a character has so many moral or mental flaws. And here, it feels that way. There’s no nuance, there’s little struggle, and it gets a halfhearted mention during a standoff with Superman.

The thought that stuck with me is the idea that because of the abuse he suffered, “God cannot be both all-good and all-powerful.” And this is an idea that gets tossed around a lot in today’s society. If God is all-good and all-powerful, he’d straighten everything out and no one would ever have anything bad happen. Conversely, because bad stuff happens he either doesn’t care or cannot act.

And this is where the big sticking point is for your family if you watch this film. How do you discuss this? Does the Bible even talk about this?

Part of this movie centers around the idea that humans would begin assuming Superman is some kind of god or messiah-like figure. (Hard to miss with all of the Christ imagery the director throws around like party confetti.) We see scenes of people bowing, reverencing, and treating Superman as if he were a holy being. Luthor’s scheme then is to “prove that god can be killed or corrupted.”

The Bible is clear that bad things happen to everyone. Why? Each day we make choices, and if we’re honest, many of them end up hurting others. We can justify our actions, but it doesn’t change the fact that we hurt people. And if the way we purchase, speak, or act causes the suffering of others, can we then ask the question, “Why me?” God makes the rain fall on the righteous and the unrighteous – God shows love to those who follow him and those who don’t. (Matthew 5.43-45) We all have good days and we all have bad days. Life is tough and full of danger and pain, but also full of joy and love. To blame God for every problem we have is a little short-sighted and selfish.

God has worked, is working, and will work to set things right. At the moment all of creation waits, groaning in anticipation of the day when God renews the world. (Romans 8.20-25) God also often chooses to work through His people who have caught a passion for His mission. So when I hear, “Why doesn’t God do _______?” My first reaction is, “What are you doing about it? Maybe you’re the one to do it!”

Think about the kind of conversation you might have with your child as you watch movies together. Anticipate what questions they might have. Look for the moments where you see echoes of Jesus’ story to latch on to and use.

Hope and Sickness

So, it’s the week leading up to Easter, and I had my own little brush with despair. Nothing really life-threatening, mind you, but enough to have me questioning life choices.

There are several strains of stomach illnesses making the rounds in this area (protect yourself!) and I was one of the lucky ones to win that lottery and contract it. Beginning at 10:30 Sunday night and continuing into 5:30 Monday morning, the toilet and I were very close friends. And compound that with being feverish and chilled, it was a very rough day. I still haven’t eaten much more than a few bites of broth and a piece of toast in about 24+ hours, but I’m keeping fluids in.

Why give you this update? Because this is often life. We go through spells of frustration, despair, sickness, and in the moment it seems like it will never end. Loss, need, betrayal, pain, disease, and fear tend to color our world with grays and blacks that block out the bright world we live in. Depression and anxiety set in and turn music into white noise.

But I did mention this is Easter week, which means that, as Christians, we have hope. Hope that good will come out of the bad. Our entire worldview is based around Jesus rising from the dead against all odds, finally striking down sin and death in one swift action! And sometimes I feel like we don’t focus on that enough. We weekly focus on the death of Jesus, pointing out the suffering and pain he dealt with on the cross, but I don’t hear us celebrating the victory as we talk amongst ourselves.

Maybe we just relate to the pain more. Maybe so many of us have those difficult problems weighing over us that we simply look at Jesus on the cross and think, “Yeah, that about sums it up.” And while that part was necessary, shouldn’t we be looking at the risen Jesus, in his power and glory, and saying, “That makes more sense!”

We are not a people of pain. We struggle, we hurt, we suffer – but not in vain. We have a hope in that Jesus has already overcome the world and its problems. We are part of a mission and a Kingdom that seeks to bring new life into the world.

Remember even in the darkest moments, we still have the light of the world guiding us through. Though sorrow may last for the night joy comes with the morning. And what a glorious morning Easter is!

I hope you’re ready to talk about Islam

If you need me, I’m currently in my internet bunker ready for the inevitable responses to this one. This is a sensitive topic, but with the political and social issues surrounding us at this moment, it’s a good time to discuss this stuff. And I mean you and your kids having a discussion about Islam.

With the refugee crisis still strangling Europe, Islam is a huge issue worldwide. Daesh (IS) is still fighting for control in the Middle East. Islamophobia is gripping the US through political candidates continually bringing up how they will end the threat, often using strong language to make their point. We are in a position where we should discuss this with our children.

Why would you discuss Islam with your kids? Honestly, because if you don’t know someone who is Muslim, your child probably does. Your child is hearing about Islam, about terrorism linked to Islam, about kids in their class who are Muslim. Your child is encountering people from other faiths, why wouldn’t we discuss it with them?

One thing I have found that the church struggles with is actually having open discussions about other religions and even other Christian denominations. Often, Christians are more likely to demonize fellow Christians who belong to another denomination than we are to discuss the tenets of Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism. I find this distressing and a little odd, especially since we’re supposed to be agents of unity and known by the love with which we treat one another.

That aside, what about Islam? What should we say about it? Well, it’s a monotheistic religion that grew out of visions of their chief prophet Muhammed in the 7th century (600s AD). Most Muslims also trace their beliefs through Muhammed and Ishmael to Abraham, meaning that belief-wise, Muslims are close cousins with us and Jews. The history of Islam is long and varied including persecution, war, kingdom, and diaspora. The religion rests on a belief in one deity – Allah – that has revealed himself through the prophet Muhammed. The practice of this religion includes belief/faith, prayer, charity, fasting, and pilgrimage.

We can also attribute a lot of good to Muslim culture. Their refinement, culture, and record-keeping partnered with Western culture, and Catholic monks, to create the environment necessary for the scientific explosion that followed the Medieval period. And, not to be glib, but they also have some delicious food that has become flavorful and diverse based on dietary laws. Constraint is often the catalyst for creativity.

Lately, though, Americans in particular and now Europe have come to see Islam and its adherents as a threat. But, for their part, the majority of American and European Muslims want many of the same things we do: safety, prosperity, and peace.

The following analogy has been used before… but it bears repeating. Consider that judging the entire Muslim community by their extremists is as if the world judged Christians by Westboro Baptist Church. Yes, Christianity has its own extremists and most of us cringe when we hear what they’re up to.

Regardless of your thoughts on this issue, please consider this: if we read our Bibles honestly, are called to treat others with love. Love does not equal attraction or fondness. Love is a commitment to the good of others. We are called to look out for those around us.

Understand, I am not advocating for one political stance or another. I am advocating for us as individuals to rethink the way we speak and act toward those around us. Muslims in our country are becoming worried, concerned, and frankly a little scared. Violence against Muslims is growing, and that should concern us.

Remember, children pick up on the way you speak and act. If they hear you speaking angrily or with fear about another group of people, they will pick it up. They will internalize it, and they will continue the cycle of fear. When we are afraid, we lash out. When we lash out, others become afraid and do the same. Someone has to end the cycle – maybe it’s you. Maybe… just maybe it will be your child.

How have you talked about Islam at home? Have you read about the religion and its adherents? Do you speak calmly and directly about these issues at home?

Why your church can be a great place for kids. Or, why Andy Stanley had to apologize.

Ok, let’s be honest, Alex is behind the curve again. I didn’t hear about this Andy Stanley calling small church people “so stinkin’ selfish” or something like that until today. Understandably, all of the videos I tried to hunt down have been removed by North Point Ministries. Since the video went viral and generated so much vitriol on social media, Stanley has apologized stating that “even [he] was offended.”

First of all, Andy Stanley is a human being. He also makes mistakes, like the rest of us, and as Christians we should forgive and let go. (And, really, the high pedestal we put ministers on crushes more of them than it helps. Another topic, another day.) He’s already going to have to live with that statement for a while and has lost credibility with many that looked up to him. The least we can do is try to understand where his mind was. As I mentioned in a previous post, being happy that a successful church made a mistake is about as un-Christ-like as it gets. We are better than this as God’s children.

Secondly, he has a point. The point he was trying to make is that children need a healthy environment with other children to help them along in their journey with Jesus. Sure, we often like to cite the fact of “where two or three are gathered,” but try asking a child if they’d invite a friend to a 3 person party. Then ask if they’d be willing to be the new person at a 3 person party. Does that shed some clarity?

The church where I currently serve and worship has been my church home for nearly 14 years now. I grew up here. Much of my Christian formation was here. My youth minister from that time is a big part of why I decided ministry was where God was leading me. (Trust me, very few choose ministry – it chooses them. It’s a scary position – read Jesus and Paul talking about a teacher’s role.)

The reason my family stayed at this church? My brother and I. We were 4 and 10 respectively and we immediately fell in love with the other kids and the leaders in our groups. While we were visiting churches, both of us would beg to go back to this church because experiencing Jesus was fun and engaging.

The point I want to make is this: your church home will be a part of shaping how your children grow and develop as disciples. If your church is not equipping you and your children for faith development – ask your leaders about it and get something started. If you feel strongly about it, you may have to be the one to create children’s programs. You may be the one to ask for space for a nursery, or for children’s rooms. You may need to be the one to find volunteers and invite parents. As a very, very final last resort, after everything else has failed – if the leaders don’t act, maybe it’s time to find a church that considers children a priority.  (I’m very biased as a children’s minister as to the importance of Children’s Ministry, which means that as I write this I am keenly aware of what these statements mean for myself and my team.)

Can smaller churches provide the kind of environment where children can thrive? Of course. Can they do it with excellence? Of course. Does it take effort, time, and dependence on God? A thousand times yes. Could you be the one to lead the charge? It’s very possible.

I am not advocating that you leave the family that you worship with each Sunday. I am not advocating that you find your nearest mega church and be overwhelmed.

I am, simply, asking you to evaluate your church family. I am asking you to fight for your church family and challenge the leaders to step up to the issues facing kids, preteens, and teenagers – if they haven’t started already. I am asking you to think, love, and act like Jesus when it comes to bringing about needed change.

And if you’re church-hopping right now… maybe take some time and listen to where your children want to go.

Lusting and Loving

Recently, we had a discussion in our Preteen age group about a section of the Sermon on the Mount that discussed desire and divorce. I’d rather we title the talk “love and marriage,” but Jesus knew his listeners better than I.

(Verses quoted will be from The Kingdom New Testament, unless otherwise noted.)

So, the verse itself starts off: “‘You heard,’ Jesus continued, ‘You shall not commit adultery.'” (Matthew 5.27)  And most people in the crowd inwardly patted themselves on the back. They had already been told that everyone is welcome in the Kingdom (the Beatitudes), that life in the Kingdom would be dramatic and attractive (salt and light), and that they should put a damper on anger and contempt (Matthew 5.21-26). They were probably challenged by the passage on anger and contempt, as we all are, but were willing to make a change. And now, Jesus was talking about one of the, for some, easier commandments to keep. And then Jesus goes and addresses the heart of the issue.

“But I say to you: everyone who gazes at a woman in order to lust after her has already committed adultery with her is his heart.” (Matthew 5.28) And this is the verse that has caused many to live a life of guilt due to a misunderstanding. The act of lust is looking at someone or something with the intention of using or possessing. In other words, finding someone attractive is one thing, staring and memorizing for later is something different altogether.

Here’s how we covered it with the Preteens, so imagine yourself younger. You’re at the grocery store with your mom and dad and you see your favorite candy bar on the rack. Is that wrong? Of course not. You’re in the same situation on a different day and decide to steal the candy bar. Is that wrong? Yes, that’s theft. What if between the first and second day you thought about that candy bar and plotted different ways you could sneak it into your pocket? Is that wrong? You didn’t technically steal the bar, you just spent time thinking about how you could.

And here’s what Jesus is talking about in the famous “pluck out your eyes and cut off your hand” bit in Matthew 5.29-30. Jesus is more concerned about your character, your heart and who you are becoming than just following the letter of a rule. Jesus is joking here that if you think that setting a rule is going to make you a better person, you might as well remove all parts of your body capable of participating in breaking the law. But we all know we can still think some pretty evil stuff and be a stump.

Jesus wants to change the attitude, the thought, the intention in order to create a new kind of person: a Kingdom person. This new person can appreciate beauty without desiring to use or possess it. This person can see a rule, note the spirit behind it and seek to be the kind of person who avoids bumping up against the rule in the first place.

We often like rules because they’re easy to keep and give a clear boundary. But as we grow, we begin to mature and not need certain rules because we understand the spirit behind them. Remember “keep your hands and feet to yourself?” That’s a rule to avoid injury and distraction. As we mature, we understand that the spirit of the rule is to respect others and treat them with self-control and honor their time.

What kind of household are you creating? A household of rules only, or a household of developing character? How can you help your children to understand why certain rules exist and what they’re trying to teach?