Let’s Talk About Mental Health

mental healthIt’s been a year. It’s been a year since I quit my job as a special ed teacher one day, flew to Australia and shaved my head the next day, and got a tattoo three days later. I guess you can say, it’s been a year since my 2007 Britney Spears moment. In this last year, I’ve learned a lot about myself, a lot about mental health, and a lot about society. And while the circumstances surrounding the whole situation weren’t ideal, I think it was necessary for me. I think I really needed to lose it in order to really find myself again. That’s what this whole last year has been. And it’s been incredible. Though I wouldn’t say this is the happiest I’ve ever been—I’ve definitely had times in life when I was happier—I can honestly say this is the most peace I can remember feeling. I’ll take peace over anything.

I’ve learned that a lot of people—maybe even most people— place their identity in their job. It’s not what they do; it’s who they are. While I knew that intellectually, I didn’t think I would become one of those people. But I did. And because being a teacher became my identity, the thought of losing that title was synonymous to losing myself. So I stayed. I spent the weeks looking forward to Friday and spent the weekends dreading Monday’s inevitability. I was drowning in a sea of work and stress, along with growing anxiety and depression, all made worse by undiagnosed burnout. I receive a short reprieve on the weekend, but I knew the waves were coming again Monday. It was exhausting. I was exhausted. So I left. Some people may say (and have said), “That’s why it’s called ‘work’. That’s just reality.” Well, I call BS. Life is too short to dread five days out of a seven-day week. Do what you love. Love what you do. If not, don’t do it.

When I came back from Australia, I met up with a lot of different people and communicated with several people via phone and/or social media. I quickly discovered that so many others were suffering alone also, on the brink of their own mental breakdown. And I can’t help but think that we as a society have to do better. Though the stigma behind seeking mental health help is weakening, it’s definitely still there. Especially for men. For example, if someone were to post that they’re going to work on their physical health by eating right and working out, what is the response? Inevitably that statement is met with tons of “likes” and “loves” and “way to go” comments and “we’re rooting for you” comments. Now, if someone were to post that they’re going to work on their mental health by seeking counseling, what is the response? Likely, a post like that would be met with “sad” and “wow” reactions and “hope you’re doing ok” comments and “praying for you” comments. Seeking mental health isn’t celebrated nearly as enthusiastically as seeking physical health. That absolutely needs to change. To be fair, it is changing, but much work still needs to be done.

I saw a counselor for about six months and started taking an antidepressant in January, neither of which I am even remotely ashamed. Nor should I be. My only regret is not doing it sooner. After about a month on the meds I remember telling my counselor, “I can’t believe this is how ‘normal’ people feel all the time!” Now, I can already hear some of the comments from some people. “But shouldn’t you just trust God to heal you?” While comments like that are well-meaning, it’s also comments like that that can cause people to die by suicide. I don’t doubt that God can heal depression, anxiety, or anything else for that matter. And I know He does. But I also know that sometimes He doesn’t. I don’t understand why He chooses to heal sometimes and sometimes chooses not to; maybe that’s something I’ll just ask Him one day. What I also know is that He pointed me to a counselor who was awesome for me. He provided an empathetic doctor who listened to me, heard me, saw me, and prescribed me meds. He gave scientists and pharmacologists the knowledge to create the antidepressants. The fact that the first antidepressant I tried worked for me was a miracle in and of itself—most people go through several before they find one that works for them. So, just because He didn’t “heal” me, doesn’t mean He isn’t at work in my life still. Sometimes we ask for a miracle and He sends us people.

If you or anyone else is in need of mental health help, seek it out. It’s out there. And it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. I went to a non-profit counseling service that was free and just took donations, but donations weren’t a requirement to getting treatment. And my meds cost about $14 a month with no insurance. There is no shame in seeking help. And on the flip side, if someone opens up about wanting to better their mental health, think about how you would react if they were wanting to better their physical health, and react the same way. It’s ok to seek help. In many cases it’s necessary to seek help.

What About Straight Pride Month??

Pride month is here and with all the Pride posts we’re seeing online, we’ll inevitably see those that are against it or wonder “Where is Straight Pride Month”? Unfortunately (at least from what I’ve seen), most of those comments come from people who claim to love Jesus and are supposed to be living a life that honors Him. A life with clear evidence of loving God and loving people. Here’s the thing. Straight Pride Month isn’t a thing because its never had to be a thing. It has never been taboo to be straight. We have never had to question whether or not kissing or holding hands with our significant other in public would be seen as “gross” or “inappropriate”. We’ve never had to question whether we’d be harmed by showing affection publicly. We’ve never had to question it. We’ve just been living our lives in the open. The world was essentially designed with us in mind(ahem, that’s called Straight Privilege). We’ve never been illegal. So Pride is the one month where the LGBTQ+ community can be who they want to be without fear of persecution. It’s a time for them to feel safe. It’s a time for them to be what was illegal for so long (and what still is illegal in many countries).

Some might say, “What about what the Bible says about homosexuality?” To that I say, What about it? Have your beliefs. Have your convictions. Your beliefs or my beliefs (whether they’re right or wrong) don’t change the lived experiences of the LGBTQ+ community. They’ve lived a life feeling and being discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. Let them celebrate themselves. If you don’t agree with it, stay out of it. But never, never, never allow someone’s sexual orientation to dictate how your treat them. Because before anything else, people in the LGBTQ+ community are people. They’re just people. People that want and deserve love and respect, just like anyone else. And if you’re an ally, love and celebrate your LGBTQ+ friends well. And if you’ve never even had a conversation with someone in this community, I’d encourage you to make it a goal this month to hear someone’s story. Everyone has a story. Empathize with them. Connect. Because when you have conversations with people from a group to which you don’t belong (whatever group that may be), you oftentimes find out that underneath all the labels that society puts on us, we’re all a lot more similar than we are different. We all have insecurities. We all have had challenges in our lives. We all have dreams and hopes for your futures.

Let this month, if nothing else, be a reminder to love the people around you. Love them regardless of what they look like, how they dress, who they love, or how they love. Because in the end, “the greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return.”

So what about Straight Pride Month? We don’t need it. Be thankful that we don’t.

Brainwashed Christians

Many atheists, agnostics, and other non-Christians would agree that Christians are brainwashed. I would have to agree. Sort of. Let me explain. I completely believe that some—maybe even many—Christians who profess a belief and a love for Christ are brainwashed. That is, they are told to believe that Jesus is Lord and to live according to the Word of God because it’s the best way to live. They’re told to do those things. Whether it’s from their parents, church, or community, they are simply told to do so. So they do. Don’t get me wrong; I completely believe all these things they are told to believe are true, but many people are not told why they are true. They just blindly follow what they think they should be doing and to disregard anything else that is contrary to it. Brainwashed.

But when people start to really dig deeply into biblical history and the words and life of Christ, they will start to see why these things are true. When they start to see and understand that the chances that the prophesies in the Old Testament being fulfilled hundreds and hundreds of years later in the New Testament are astronomical, things start to change. When they begin to experience Christ and not just experience church, things start to change. When they are filled with the Holy Spirit and are moved with compassion for the things that they once cared nothing about, things start to change. And this is just a chip off the tip of the iceberg. There is much more depth and richness and beauty in the character of God.

Experiencing Christ is much, much more than experiencing church. Experiencing and being in relationship with Christ is knowing that we have a Father—a perfect Father—who will love and accept us just as we are. Experiencing and being in relationship with Christ is knowing that when we fail to uphold the standards that Scripture lays out, that we are truly forgiven when we repent and turn from sin. Being in relationship with Jesus is knowing that you will always have Someone to talk to and that He will always listen. Being in relationship with Christ is loving Him so much that you want nothing more than to glorify His name and who He is in everything that you do. It’s trusting Him with your life and knowing that He has your best interests in mind. Even if the process is painful and uncomfortable.

Prayer becomes more than just picking and choosing out of an arsenal of Christian phrases to fit any given situation. Prayer becomes a conversation. It is no longer the time that you hope you say the right words. It is no longer a time to impress others with your big Christianese lingo. Talking with the Father becomes no different than talking with a best friend. No different.

Brainwashed Christians. Yeah, they’re out there. But to be in real relationship with the Father is something that I cannot deny to be possible and true. I’ve learned to distinguish between Christ and Christians. Christians are still people. People are flawed. People may not always be the best example of what it means to live a holy, gracious, righteous, compassionate life. Some may be good examples—some even very good examples—but no person is a perfect example. We must only look to Christ for the perfect example of that.

Now, the question that may or may not be on your mind: Will these “brainwashed Christians” go to heaven? Honestly, I have no idea. I am not the final Judge of that. That is for God and God alone to determine. All I can do is pray for them to enter into real relationship with Jesus and for me to live a life that is acceptable and pleasing to the Father. A life that honors Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for me.

Excerpt from “Sex God”

I was reading Rob Bell’s Sex God for a class the other day, and this excerpt really caught my attention. Now, if you’re expecting some juicy, scandalous, hormone-feeding eye candy, I’m sorry; this excerpt has nothing to do with sex. Instead it has everything to do with bringing heaven to earth and seeing everybody as God sees us—as human.

I have a new hero. Her name is Lil, and I would guess she’s in her late fifties. I met her earlier this year when she introduced me to her daughter, whom she was pushing in a wheelchair. Early in their marriage, Lil and her husband decided that they would adopt two children. As they became familiar with the family service system, they learned that there were kids in the system nobody wanted. So they went to the local adoption agency and asked for the kids with the most pronounced disabilities, the most traumatic histories, and the most hopeless futures. They asked if they could have the kids nobody wanted. Over the past thirty or so years, they have raised well over twenty children, raising their biological children alongside their adopted children.

When Lil got to this point in her story, she reached down and patted her daughter and said, “This is Crystal. She’s twenty-seven years old but will be about six months old developmentally for the rest of her life. She can’t talk or walk or move or feed herself or do anything on her own. She will be like this, totally dependent on us, until the day she dies. And I love her so much. My family and I, we can’t imagine life without her. She makes everything so much better.”

What is Lil doing?

She’s bringing heaven to earth.

She gives us a glimpse into another realm. Into a better way. The way of God.

She and her family have taken kids who were discarded because of their perceived lack of worth and said, “No, you are not to be rejected and turned away. We are going to love you as an equal, as a human, as one of us.”

They show us how God loves us.

They reflect the image. And when you see it lived out like this, you’re seeing heaven crash into earth.

Instead of seeing labels like, “handicapped,” “reject,” or “invalid,” Lil and her husband and her kids see only one label: “human.”

And so they have only one response: love.

And it makes all the difference in heaven and earth.

This isn’t just about loving the disabled, although that is part of it. This is about loving people, simply because we are all human. We’re all in this together. We were all created in the image of God and are all considered sons and daughters of God. Our Father did not intend for us to label each other, thus creating divides among each other. We all have stories. Some terrible, and some not so terrible. We all have a past, and we all have a future. How are we loving each other in the present? What labels do we place on others? How does that affect the way we treat them and love them? These are all questions that I have yet to answer for myself.

The Kid Within

“Have we all forgotten who we are? When did we all grow up and lose our heart? We gave up our innocence and energy. Remember how we used to be when we were young and running free.” –Chris Rice, Kids Again.

While I was exploring in the woods the other day, my mind started to wander and ponder on the transition between childhood and adulthood. What is it that makes a kid a kid? Is it unconditional trust—the naivety of thinking that nobody will ever betray you? Is it climbing a tree for no other reason than to be high in the sky, closer to the clouds? Is it running, jumping, and skipping the summer days away with your best friend that you met an hour ago? What is it? I don’t know exactly what it is, but I know it’s in me—in all of us—somewhere.

That kid is the one who wants you to race through the woods, dodging trees, squirrels, deer, and spider webs. Wants you to race the wind.  He’s the kid who just wants to lie in the grass for hours, looking at the parade of clouds marching across the ocean above—an ever-changing canvas that God has used to paint some real masterpieces. And as night falls, you can watch the stars appear like magic in the velvety sky. Watch them dance.

Why can’t we all just let go of this “I’m an adult, so I’m not supposed to do that” attitude and do what comes natural? Do what makes us feel alive? You wanna walk around in the woods barefoot? Do it. Kick off those blue suede shoes and feel the dirt and grass tickle your toes. Toughen up those soft feet.  Get dirty. Go exploring and find a cave or two. Hang out with Mother Nature and don’t pay no mind to Father Time. Enjoy what God has created. You wanna splish splash in a river? Go for it. Even if you aren’t wearing “swimming clothes”. Take off your shirt and let that big ole star in the sky brown your winter skin. Let the water cool you off some.

Get lost in a story in the pages of a good book. You don’t have to keep up this adult façade by reading a New York Times Bestseller. God forbid if someone catches you reading a book with a Newberry Award plastered on the front cover. Who cares? Pick up a Jerry Spinelli or Gary Paulsen book, heck maybe even a Roald Dahl. You wanna ride a bike? Take that baby out for a spin—without a helmet, of course. Don’t do it just for exercise; that takes all the fun out of it. Ride somewhere you’ve never been. No planning, just ride. Oh, and grab some ice cream on the way. C’mon folks, it’s time to find that child within all of us. He’s been playing hide and seek for too long and he’s beginning to think that you gave up looking for him. He’s ready to be found. Ready to play some more.

High School Memories By Song

Today’s been a nostalgic kind of day. I drove by my high school and listened to some music I used to listen to all the time while I was a student at good ol’ Waynesville High School. I’m an alumnus. I’ve never said those words before. Weird. Several songs came on that brought me to a specific memory. Songs tend to do that pretty often.

When I listen to Beck’s “E-Pro” I can’t help but smile at the sound of the introduction. I think back to cruising the streets of Waynesville in my red,  1988 Toyota Celica convertible with Ms. Brandi Gervais, running extraordinaire, as we bobbed our heads in that “Night at the Roxbury” kind of way. We would laugh as we thought of the cars behind us looking at our heads bouncing to the side. Part of the laugh was also because we knew we looked ridiculous, but we didn’t care. We were just having fun.

When Weezer’s “Beverly Hills” plays, my mind jumps to the times when I would drive either to cross country practice or just around Waynesville by myself with my top down and my brown aviators on (feeling pretty cool, I might add). Gosh, why was I so concerned with how I looked in high school? Sheesh. That was a good convertible song. My hand was an airplane and I was the pilot. So freeing.

Queen’s “We Are The Champions” never fails to bring me back to the night we came back from our conference track meet my senior year. We won the meet for the third year in a row—the three-peat—so my friends and I got in my car (some actually got on my car), drove around the parking lot, and blared that song—well, we blared the chorus over and over; that’s all we knew— and sang at the top of our lungs as if it was written about us. We were the champions that night.

And then there’s Brandon Heath’s “Let’s Make It Last.” The only thing that comes to mind when I hear that (awesome) song is Lizzy. I think back to when we were in our giddy infatuation phase of our relationship. She had me listen to that song one day and I loved it. I played it non-stop, partly because I loved the song, and also so I could impress her with how quickly I memorized the lyrics. Isn’t that ridiculous? The next time she rode in my car, that song played (it was on a mix cd she made me for Christmas), and I knew every word. She actually was impressed. Success. While I’m on memories of Lizzy, might as well bring up “A Whole New World” also. That song brings me to that night we watched the play “Miracle on 34th Street.” When we got out of the play, ice covered the parking lot, so after talking until we were alone in the parking lot, we started gliding as if we were professional ice skaters. While ice skating—and falling on our butts several times— we sang “A Whole New World.” Man, I could listen to that girl sing all day. What can I say; I’m a sucker for singers. Just for a few moments I was Aladdin and she was Jasmine and nothing else in the world mattered. That was a good night.

“Stationary Stationary” by Anberlin was my driving fast song. Every time I hear that song, I remember speeding down the outer access road to the high school going way too fast. I was usually either running late for track practice (the track was about a 5-minute drive from the school) or running late for morning cross country practice. In the mornings specifically, I would drive dangerously fast down that outer road. Let’s just put it this way, if a deer—heck any animal for that matter—walked in front of me, it probably would not have been recognizable after I got through with it…I also felt pretty cool going that fast. Again with the cool thing. Blah!

Finally, there’s Chris Tomlin’s “Arrive” cd. That takes me back to driving to youth group, the one semester my senior year I actually went to youth group. I guess I figured God wouldn’t be happy if I was listening to non-Christian music right before I went to learn about Him. Dang, I was sort of an idiot back then. I didn’t dare listen to Chris Tomlin with my non-Christian friends in the car. Didn’t want them to think I was pious or anything. I can’t believe I was actually like that.

Music has a way of allowing us to remember good times and forgetting the bad. I’m ok with that.

The Irony of Freedom of Religion

We hear it all the time (at least in the “Christian World”) of how underground churches thrive in several Asian countries where Christ—the act of following Him or even mentioning His name—is strictly forbidden. We hear countless stories (and I mean that quite literally) of people seeking after God hours upon hours upon hours, reading His word, worshiping Him, calling out to Him in prayer, hungering and thirsting for every drop of Jesus they can squeeze into their souls in a 24-hour period. Hour after hour, day after day. They are desperate for Him. Where’s our hunger? Where’s my hunger? Why do we…why do I not thirst for God and His word? Yeah, I read it a several times a week (on a good week) and I pray about as much, maybe a little more than that. But to honestly thirst for Him is something different. I want to thirst for Him as the psalmist writes in Psalm 42: As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?” (Psalm 42:1-2, NIV). I want Him to be as essential as food and water.

Is oppression the only way to really understand the blessing we have right in front of us, at our fingertips, completely accessible all day every day? I mean, we can study whenever and wherever we  want (for the most part), yet we—at least I— struggle to spend even an hour a day reading, learning, growing, and worshiping the One who saved us from eternal damnation in hell. The One who took my place, your place, on the cross. The One on whom God saw all of our sins, past and future, hanging on that old rugged cross. He took your place. He took my place. That fact alone should be enough to worship Him.

I look again to the Asian countries and other countries where Christianity is forbidden and begin to question, “Why is the forbidden so attractive?” It seems as if we will only really enjoy doing something if it is forbidden. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard phrases like “Smoking was fun and entertaining until I turned 18,” or “Drinking was awesome before I turned 21. Now I have to find something else illegal to do,” or even “Sex was more exciting before we got married.” We have a sinful nature. We naturally want to do what’s forbidden. We want what we can’t have. Freedom of Religion. Hmm. They don’t have it, yet the passion and fire they have for the Lord is absolutely incredible. Admirable, really. We have this freedom, yet we’ve become so jaded to Jesus. We, as a body, are lacking this passion. Ironic? I’d say so. I feel that we take the freedom of religion for granted because there’s nothing at stake. I mean, honestly, what are we really sacrificing in going to church every week, reading our Bibles at the local coffee shop, having Bible studies at the park, etc.? Cool point? A little bit of sleep? A show on TV? When we aren’t sacrificing much, we don’t appreciate much. I firmly believe that sacrifice, appreciation, and growth are all positively correlated. You can’t have two without the third. We’ve lost our appreciation for this freedom and sacrifice is quickly becoming an archaic practice in Christian circles. With a low appreciation of this freedom and an almost non-existent amount of sacrifice, how much can we really grow?

I know these thoughts were a tad scattered today, but I just had these thoughts and wanted to get them down and out.

Treasures in Heaven

“I give because I know my reward is in heaven.”

“Sell all your earthly possessions because your rewards in Heaven will be so much greater.”

I give because I know my reward is in heaven. This is a phrase (among a plethora of others) I hear all the time, and have even used myself, in and out of Christian circles. It hasn’t been until the last year or so that I started to question the implications of this statement. Something just didn’t sit well with me whenever I heard it. I would wonder, “Should that be the reason we give? To receive our treasures in heaven? Or, should selflessness, humility, and love be the catalysts of our giving? Love for God and love for people.” After all, those are the two greatest commandments. Right?

36“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”37Jesus replied:  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38This is the first and greatest commandment. 39And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. 40All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matt 22: 36-40, NIV).

Right. If we sell all we have to the poor and “give of ourselves” in the form of money, gifts, time, etc., because we know we’ll have more treasures in heaven, isn’t the focus still on ourselves? I mean, when we truly dig down to the basic idea of this overused Christianese phrase—no polite tones and gestures, no Churchy jargon, no BS—we are essentially saying, “I give because I get.”

We as Christ followers, as people, need to come to a place in our lives where we can take the focus completely off of ourselves and truly learn to love others for the sake of loving them. No other reason. No ulterior motives. We should love because we love. It should be that simple. It should come as the overflow of the love we have for God. We should be moved with compassion and want them to have the things we offer, even if it means giving up that brown coat that goes so well with those brown shoes.

I feel like we mask our selfishness by saying it’s for our “eternal wealth” as if that changes the fact that we’re being selfish. As if it’s just dandy to make that our motivation. Maybe I’m wrong. Is it ok? Is it ok for our “treasures in heaven” to be our motivation for giving and loving people? I don’t see why it should be. To me, giving with this motivation takes away a lot, if not all, of the authenticity of the sacrifice. It’s as if we’re saying, “Here, you can have my stuff. I really don’t want to give it to you, but I know I’ll be rewarded for this in heaven. I know God is watching me and is proud. But man, I really don’t want to give this stuff away.” Yuck.

Why do we always need a reward for sacrifice? What if there was no reward? Would we still sacrifice? Now, this doesn’t apply solely to giving to the poor; it also applies to tithing. We should tithe out of our generous hearts. Scripture states in 2 Corinthians 9:6: “Remember this, whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.” Here again, Paul (whose writings, we must remember, are theopneustos, or God-breathed, as is all of Scripture) promises that we will “reap generously”, but that should not be our motivation. Tithe to honor the Lord as we’re commanded in Proverbs 3: 9: “Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops.”

I mean, look at Jesus. He died on the cross for sins he didn’t commit simply because he loved God and loved us. He didn’t receive anything other than the joy of knowing that he was obedient to the Father and that he saved those who choose to live for Him from eternity in hell. That’s it. There was absolutely no selfish ambition or ulterior motives.

Now please, do not here what I am not saying. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t look forward to our treasures in heaven or that we should disregard the idea of treasures in heaven all together. It’s going to be awesome when we finally do experience that.  But what I am saying is that our treasures should not be our motivation for giving, befriending, loving, and caring. Love and only love, love for God and love for others, should be our sole motivation.