June 30 — not on the calendar

There are special days on the calendar that carry much meaning and joy: birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, moving days, etc. We may likely mark them on the calendar, as if we could forget them. They help define us and shape us.

Other days are still significant, but carry much different meaning. The focus isn’t joy, but something just as profound. We may not mark the date on the calendar, but our hearts know exactly the date. Etched in memory for good or bad.

June 30 is such a date for me.

Background

We were married in early 1971. One of the first things we did was to make sure we had smoke alarms. Second thing: we changed the batteries on April 1 and October 1, every year. I couldn’t do anything on those two days until the batteries were changed. A private joke between us. Little did we know how critical this would be.

In 1998, our son, his wife, and three grandchidlren (ages 3, 2, 1) had been living with us (in the parsonage) for almost a year and a half. A delightful time of love, and adjustment. Many happy memories amidst the challenges and struggles of melding two families.

June 30, 1998

In June 1998, my wife and I took vacation to Minnesota. At the end of that time, my wife decided to stay with her parents for a longer time. I drove home on June 29, a 12 hour drive capped off with joy at seeing our loved ones again after weeks apart. Our DIL’s youngest brother (age 12) was staying with us at the time, too.

At 4:45 AM the next morning our lives changed dramatically. The snoke alarms in the entire house were going off. The initial fogginess quickly dissapated. Replaced by urgency!

Our son instantly grabbed the keys to get our cars out of the garage and driveway. Our DIL and her brother and I began gathering up the grandchildren to get them outside. We had no time for gathering anything but children—no clothes, no extras, just get them out.

We rushed across the parking lot to the church. Since there were no cell phones, we had to get there to call the fire department. We could not even get near the house by that time. I don’t remember the time it took but eventually the police cars and fire trucks were all over the parking lot.

I remember one fireman said they couldn’t even go into the house for the first 20 minutes because the smoke was so bad. Later one of the investigators noted that had we been two minutes later getting out, we would not have survived because of the smoke.

The Aftermath

Later that morning and afternoon, the sudden change in our lives was further highlighted because we had no place to live (for 8 of us). We had no clothing, no food, nothing. We were in survival mode and even thinking about any immediate needs was beyond us.

By that time I was so shelled shocked I couldn’t think straight. But members of the church were arriving and helping us with minute to minute decisions. Including getting some food for the kids because breakfast was not a top priority initially. These people opened their homes—by afternoon we were separated into three different homes. We stayed with them for the next weeks until I could find a house for us to live in.

So grateful to those three families for sharing everything with us. That became our safe haven. We will never forget their kindness and love, their help in our instanteous need. Thankful for many others who pitched in with immediate clothing needs. We lost all of our household goods as well.

I felt really bad for our son and DIL—they had been saving some household items each month for the time when they would get their own place. They stored all of that in the basement —in the center of the fire. They lost everything. My heart was broken for them.

Both our son and DIL demonstrated how strong they were that day and in the following days. Both acted quickly, but never in a panic. I am so proud of what they did and all that they had been through. Love you both so much. 

One Last Effect

June 30, 1998 will be etched in all our minds as the day of the fire. Happily we had no injuries/burns. Our son and DIL eventually had two more children.

For me it marked the 7th major crisis in 9 months in my life. Three weeks later I had my breakdown—and that has affected me every day since then.

June 30 will not be marked on our calendars, but will be seared into our memories. So thankful to God for saving us that day, for seeing us through the long months afterward.

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Depression is Not Due to a Lack of Faith

Originally posted by Pastor Benjamin Meyer, reposted with his permission.

August 14, 2014

There are a lot of false teachers in this world and there always have been. One false teaching that Christians have always had to battle is the idea that once something comes to faith in Jesus, everything will go well for them. There is an idea that as long as your faith is strong, God will give you health, wealth and happiness. Even though Jesus told His disciples to “deny yourselves, take up your cross, and follow me,” and Paul wasn’t healed of the “thorn” in his flesh, but instead he was told “My grace is sufficient for you,” there are still false teachers like Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer who tell people that God’s plan for them is physical and financial blessings in this life.

Physical afflictions are not God’s way of punish us, but a result of the fall into sin. However, they can be used by God for His good because when you are weak, you must look to Christ for strength, just as St. Paul did. I think that most Christians understand this about physical maladies.

However, mental illness is another matter. In the church there is often a misunderstanding of mental illness. Some believe that mental illness means that the person simply lacks faith. Some think of mental illness as being mentally weak. However, the reality is that mental illness, like physical illness, isn’t because the person lacks faith, but because the person is corrupted by sin just like everyone else. Mental illness is, like physical illness, due to being fallen creatures who live in a fallen world.

Are Christians exempt from mental illness, such as clinical depression? Of course not.

It is likely that Martin Luther suffered from depression. Some of the greatest names in the history of the LCMS, such as the first president of the synod, C.F.W. Walther, and the great missionary and second president of the LCMS, Friedrich Wyneken, suffered from depression. Faithful and devoted Christians can and do suffer from depression. Getting treatment for these conditions is not showing a lack of faith any more than it would be showing a lack of faith to go to a doctor to have a broken arm set. God has given us doctors for a good reason and Christians should make use of them.

If you know someone who is suffering from depression, please encourage them to talk with their pastor. He can help you find a good mental health professional. If you are suffering from depression or any other form of mental illness, please don’t be afraid to get help. It is not because of a lack of faith that you suffer from this and you shouldn’t try to face it alone.

For more information about mental health issues I would encourage you to check out “I Trust When Dark My Road: A Lutheran View of Depression.” This blog and booklet were written by a Lutheran pastor who suffers from clinical depression.

For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
(2 Corinthians 12:10)

God’s wonderful deeds

Stability in unstable times or God’s wonderful deeds. The past few months have been unstable times. An emotional roller coaster of both good and bad. And yet, God…

This Psalm is an appropriate reflection on this time for me.

I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart;

I will recount all of your wonderful deeds.

I will be glad and exult in you;

I will sing praise to your name, O Most High.

(Psalm 9:1-2 ESV)

My brother-in-law had been away from the Lord for more than 40 years. Early this year, the Lord reached him and brought him back to faith in Christ and the Church. He confessed Christ, and the last few months of his life, he regularly received the Lord’s Supper. We saw him on our visit to Minnesota in June. What a delight to be able to read the Bible with him and pray with him each time we saw him. He died (June 21) eight days after we left Minnesota; he was 62. Through his faith in Christ he received the crown of life.

This is one of God’s wonderful deeds.

At the same visit, we were with my mother. She had been faithfully living in the Lord the past 24 years. We also knew that she was declining in health. We knew it would probably be one of the last times we would see her. She died August 23, after being in hospice less than 24 hours. Through her faith in Christ she received the crown of life.

This is one of God’s wonderful deeds.

As I have recounted on this blog, the past 37 years of our life with and without our older son have been challenging, defeating, discouraging. But in late July we received a letter from him. He is in prison, which we expected, even though we had not heard from him or heard anything about him in seven years (and 10 years before that). But the letter was life from death. He confessed his faith in Jesus Christ, and he has been reading the Bible, praying daily.

Then this last week we received another letter from him. He is still reading and praying, but he is admitting the spiritual struggles he has. In a way this is a huge step forward for him. His life in Christ, like for all Christians, is not an emotional high, but a “now and not yet” existence. The best part—he is finding stability in unstable times. Through faith in Christ, he, too, will receive the crown of life.

This is one of God’s wonderful deeds.

Prior to my breakdown in 1998, each of these events would have mounted into crisis for me. I would have stuffed the emotions, tried to care for others, and carry on is if I were okay. But not so, now. I am so thankful for what God has worked in me (and there is so much to work through!) the past 17 years.

Thus, this summer has been a time of lost, grief, loneliness, sadness. But the summer has allowed me to grieve in my own way (we didn’t go to either funeral this summer). And that was best for me and my wife. We each grieved, but not with a heavy weight upon us. This allowed me something I had never experienced. I had nothing to give to others in their time of need, and so I didn’t. Prior to 1998 I would have felt guilty, given into expectations.

But in my grief I needed to be comforted by God, not trying to give something I did not have, felt. And I was comforted by God’s promises. Thus, as I reflected on the deaths and what was lost, I was able to reflect on what God had worked, in rather unexpected ways—grace, as always, from God. And I am comforted. Through faith in Christ I, too, will receive the crown of life.

This is one of God’s wonderful deeds.

So in this unstable time, God’s promises sustained me, us. And so another Psalm reflects my heart at this time:

I love you, O LORD, my strength.

The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer,

my God, my irock, in whom I take refuge,

my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.

(Psalm 18:1-2 ESV)

This is one of God’s wonderful deeds.

 

*Note: The crown of life of Revelation 2:10 is στέφανος (stephanos), not diadem. So also the crown of righteousness used in 2 Timothy 4:8.  Hence the image I used is one of Christ’s victory, namely the crown of thorns.

How long, O Lord?

The Psalmist wrote: “How long, O LORD? Will You hide Yourself forever?” (Psalm 89:46).

For many Christians that refrain becomes not just a lament of the moment, but a searing reminder, day after day, year after year. “How long, O LORD?” A sense of abandonment by God. Perhaps you are thinking such a thought is unacceptable for a Christian to utter. For one who has been through the agony, the thought is a frequent companion, and the words express the painful, long, unending wait.

The person calling out to God does so in a loud wail and in a soft whimper. The intensity is not shaped by the volume but by the breaking heart.

Sometimes the plea is met with a bargain, “God if You… then I…” Other times with a complaint, “What have I done to go through this?” And even with a condemnation, “Yes, Lord, I have sinned and this is my punishment.” But even that does not remove the plea.

It can be hard for others to minister to a person who has the ache of “How long, O LORD?” The drain can be overwhelming just listening to it, let alone living it. It is little wonder that many feel the loneliness even among Christians. I treasure each person who walked with us at various stages of our own 37 years of uttering the cry within our hearts.

Having lived that cry of “How long, O LORD?” for 37 years, I have a few observations to make about myself and others. See Too important and The ugliness of the missing. At times the intensity of my cry was such that a full day was too much to handle. If I could make it to mid morning… if I could make it to lunchtime… if I could make it to bed time… if I could only get to sleep, one night.

Tears, anger, frustration, pity, edginess, sadness, helplessness, yes, they were part of my diet for 37 years. Sometimes the periods of relief (no calls from the police, etc.) were so welcomed that I would feel guilty for the break.

Time was measured, waiting for an answer to “How long, O LORD?” For years it seemed as if time stood still. Looking at the clock seemed the obvious solution, as if the time would pass more quickly. But for what benefit? My own discomfort, angst, relief? Yet, measuring time only amplified the sense of “How long.” Yet 37 years gives me a perspective of Paul’s desire for the unbelieving Israelites in Romans 9:

I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh. (Romans 9:1-3)

That, too, was on my heart.

Not “How long?” But “How Amazing!”

A little over a week ago our son sent a letter to us, confessing his faith in Jesus Christ. He wrote about this being the first time he had peace in his heart. Bible reading has become a staple for his daily spiritual life. Not only has he received forgiveness from God, but he is learning to forgive himself—as Paul wrote: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…” (Romans 8:1). Knowing what he had been through physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, this is monumental!

In the letter he also thanked us for always loving him, even when he was the worst. He had often said over the years that he could not figure out how we could still love him after all he had done and said. I told each time that it was because of God’s love in Jesus that we could love him. (We love, because He first loved us. 1 John 4:19). Now he is believing and receiving it.

Paul also wrote,

for He says, “at the acceptable time I listened to you, and on the day of salvation I helped you.”
Behold, now is “the acceptable time,” behold, now is “the day of salvation” — (2 Cor. 6:2)

So what has changed? We obviously are rejoicing. But as I do so, I am quietly reflective on all this. Was the 37 years of pain, uncertainty, fear, heartache worth it? Absolutely! Was it a living hell? Many times it was, but I would not trade one minute of the 37 years for the joy now of our son confessing Jesus Christ as Lord. In other words, I no longer think in terms of “how long?” But rather, how each moment was part of God’s working in his heart, even unknown to us. Indeed, how amazing!

Our son is learning this truth every day:

For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation. (Romans 5:6-11)

“How long, O LORD?” is now answered with: “Forever!” Because of our common confession in Jesus Christ, we have an eternity to share with our son. I won’t even have to count minutes, hours, days, weeks, years, or decades, as I had been. Now is the time, today is the day of salvation.

And we give thanks to God for His patience, love, mercy, and amazing grace—to all of us! The plea changes to praise in song!

Amazing Grace

Book Review: On Edge

Kansiewicz, Kristen, On Edge: Mental Illness in the Christian Context. 2014

[Note: This is the longest book review I have written, but the topics are critical and the discussion is important for the church.]

If someone is looking for the definitive guide and be-all-end-all book on this important topic, this book is not it (I don’t think such a book exists). But if you are exploring this topic, then this book serves as an excellent starting point in the discussion.

I have a personal interest in the topic. I have battled depression for a long time, and I have an immediate family member who has been diagnosed bipolar since 1987; little to no help for us, on the spiritual side of things. When I experienced the worst years of depression, the church had really nothing to address it for pastors or congregations. In the past 15 years that situation is beginning to change for the better. And I have a professional interest as a pastor of a congregation and as seminary professor teaching future pastors. Thus, I am looking for ways to equip them to be aware of developments in mental health issues.

My approach is to go through the book, chapter-by-chapter, and offer thoughts.

Part 1: Foundational Concepts: Understanding Mental Illness in the Church

Chapter 1: The Church and the Mental Health Revolution

Having grown up in the 1950s through mid 1960s, “mental health” was never discussed. In our family, to admit a problem such as that was an admission of weakness and failure. I remember how some WWI and WWII veterans struggled because they suffered PTSD (before it was recognized as such). They were ostracized, told to “get over it,” etc. As for mental illness in the broadest terms, the colloquial phrase was “they are nuts” and they needed to be confined. Yeah, there wasn’t any recognition of the problems, and if they were recognized, it was to be swept under the carpet to avoid facing it (in someone else).

When I served in the Navy (intelligence office) I came under the influence of a chaplain who was wholeheartedly supportive of Jay Adams and his approach to such issues (p. 10 ff.), namely that anything that could not be detected by medical tests was only the result of sin. I went through Seminary 1982-86, and that seemed to be somewhat the accepted stance (I’m sure that I missed some nuances in seminary training on this). During that decade my battle with depression began to surface. But I had no framework to deal with it.

As I began to serve in a congregation, it became apparent that such a simplistic division of problems was not matching what I saw. I ministered to people whose loved ones had committed suicide. They were looking for answers, and while I ministered and cared for them, I also realized I was not prepared for the more complex reality.

Kansiewicz describes the history (and my own journey) when she writes:

Average church attendees, who are likely unaware of this historical debate with the church about how to respond to mental illness and emotional problems, may find themselves caught in the crosshairs. In his book Grace for the Afflicted, Matthew Stanford shares his surprise and dismay in encountering Christians who did not believe mental illness—in this case depression—could happen to “true” Christians… In the American church culture, many have been taught that emotional problems are only a spiritual issue. (pp. 11-12)

The typical pastor seems to have followed my own path, giving some help, but not really understanding some of the inter connectedness of mental health and Christian care.

Kansiewicz offers the Church Therapy model, “a professionally trained, licensed Christian counselor works on a church staff alongside and in conjunction with the pastors” (p. 13). While I see the advantages of such an approach, it is not realistic in most parts of the US (let alone other cultures). I serve a congregation in an area in which the nearest hospital is 50 miles away. We have one doctor at a clinic, so only basic medical care is available, let alone a Christian counselor. So while I agree with the concept, I think a broader approach needs to be taken if the majority of congregations and pastors can be helped.

Chapter 2: Is Mental Illness Real?

The author notes that great strides have been made in science, and it is beginning to influence how to treat some mental illness. A simple blood test or brain scan cannot be used to accurately deal with mental illness, leaving only observation as a starting point medically. “However, because we have not yet developed objective measures, doctors and counselors are currently forced to rely on their observations of mood and behavior.” (p. 18)

Kansiewicz offers an accurate assessment of where we are as Christians: “Because of that in-between place of embracing the kingdom of God while we wait for it to be fully realized with Christ’s return, we fall victim to disease like the rest of humanity.” (p. 18) Accordingly, she notes “The church must be a place where hope resides, where love endures, and where emotional safety flourishes, for it is Christ alone who offers a way out of our present suffering. Christ alone will walk alongside us as One who has also suffered.” (p. 19)

Although this chapter is short, it is perhaps the most important for the current state of Christians and mental illnesses.

Chapter 3: Should Christians Take Psychiatric Medicines?

This chapter hit close to home because the example offered deals with depression. When I hit bottom, a breakdown, medicine was really necessary for me. I would never have considered it, except I had no choice. My treatment also involved sessions with a psychologist (3x week for a while).

The encouragement Kansiewicz offers is that the integration of all: psychiatrist, psychologist, and medical doctor are critical. And of course, the church/pastor. “Medication is simply a tool. It is one piece of the treatment puzzle that actually works best when combined with counseling, as numerous studies have shown.” (p. 29) That balance is critical. It is good that the church is finally entering team approach to mental illness.

From now on each chapter includes a case study and then the Counselor’s Response. Very effective and helpful approach in presenting the concepts.

Chapter 4: Is Faith a Feeling?

This is an interesting chapter, examining Dave as a case study. Feelings/emotions are an important part of who we are as people. But “sometimes our feelings can not be trusted…We must cling to truth to provide stability through all of our emotional states.” (p. 37) Obviously mental illnesses can exaggerate the disparity between healthy feelings and those that do not respond to the reality of what is happening.

Perhaps the most powerful statements in the book:

Equally important to note si that feelings cannot define truth. God alone can define reality, and His word creates truth. All humans must humbly acknowledge their inability to feel and perceive truth accurately. (p. 38)

Emotions are a tool for us that can enable us to experience life and God. Beauty, interconnection, and a sense of need for a Savior are all understood through emotional senses. But this tool does not provide a definition of reality—God alone can set reality in motion. Feelings must always remain in proper alignment to the One who sets truth in order. When we find that any of our senses lead us astray, we must cling to the truth of the God who is greater than all things. (p. 39)

Part 2: Specific Mental Health Disorders

Chapter 5: The Bipolar Experience

Again, this chapter hits close to home because our son is Bipolar. Kansiewicz offers the insight that the highs and lows can be deluding, and so systems need to be in place to help with each.

The hardest part is forcing yourself to keep these systems in place at your highest high and or lowest low. When you are on a high, you will be convinced you do not need grounding. When you are in a low valley, you will wonder why you should even bother to try. (p. 47)

And that is exactly the problem our son faced, and still does 30 years later. The systems she offers are: feedback, focus on truth, and “routines of obedience to God.” In my experience with Christian members in the congregation, someone who is bipolar presents perhaps the most challenging aspect of ministry in the congregation. Certainly extra grace is needed in such ministry.

Chapter 6: Can Real Christians Be Depressed?

I have already mentioned much on this topic. One helpful observation from the author highlights this chapter:

When true clinical depression has taken over the brain, removal of one’s life stress does not remove the depression symptoms. Even those things that led to the onset of depression do not need to remain for the depression to continue. (p. 55)

For me, I discovered that there are triggers that instantly bring about memories (even unconscious) that feed depression. It took many years to recognize this problem. This chapter is well worth reading many times.

Chapter 7: How Can I Trust God When I Worry All the Time?

Until 15 years ago I had not really encountered anxiety as a problem (or at least was not aware of it). Anxiety was generally considered just another emotion, but nothing to do with mental illness. But I have ministered to people who deal with this daily.  GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder) is defined as “when a person worries excessively about a variety of everyday problems for at least 6 months.” Reading through the case study was helpful for me.

Often the extreme form of fear and worry leads to avoidance of activities and encounters with others. Responding to GAD requires medicine as well as psychology, and spiritual care. As the author states: “Counseling, medication, books on anxiety, prayer, and mental repetition of important biblical truths all play important roles for those with anxiety each and every day.” (p. 67)

Chapter 8: Schizophrenia: Didn’t Jesus Just Call It Demon Possession?

I am thankful the author included this chapter. Especially helpful was the six guidelines to help distinguish between schizophrenia and demon possession by Steven Waterhouse. One quote from Waterhouse: “Authors who have clinical experience both with demon possession and mental illness believe those who claim to be possessed are very likely not possessed.” (p. 78)

In 1989 I had the privilege of interviewing a world recognized authority on demon possession. He advised taking a slow approach in consultation with medical specialists before claiming a person was demon possessed. In other words the tendency among some Christian movements is to automatically assumed demon possession. Unfortunately other Christian movements deny any possibility of demon possession of a Christian. This chapter provides the pastor and congregation a good starting point for assessing someone’s condition.

Chapters 9-10 ADD and Addiction

I only note that each chapter is important, and need attention. I think addictions within the Christian church are bigger problems than we want to admit. The key in addictions is that there is often a change in the brain that makes stopping the addiction more difficult. Note that such a statement is not an excuse for sin, but that sin combined with other changes complicate the interaction of physical and spiritual connections.

Kansiewicz offers wise words:

Addictive behaviors are sinful, but they can be different than other types of sin in that they require different and more complex steps to stop. (p. 96)

Most of the time, Christians struggling with addictions were at one point in their lives facing a lot of emotional pain that they did not know how to process. (p. 97)

Professional treatment is required through either medication or therapy. Understanding the root of the addiction is also critical to treatment and relapse prevention. A professional Christian counselor can help you explore the reasons that you became addicted in the first place, and can help you create strategies for quitting. (p.99)

It is in this area that I have appreciated a Christian counselor who can provide much more than I as pastor can provide. I have referred several people to Christian counselors for addictions. But I have also continued to meet with them for spiritual elements related to addiction. That combination is essential.

Kansiewicz makes a critical observation about addictions (but also true for other mental illnesses):

Some believe, “Once an addict, always an addict.” While it may be true that relapse prevention and recovery strategies need to be a permanent part of your life, it is important not to define yourself as something you once were. God certainly did not create you to be an addict, and your sense of identity should reflect what His designs are for your life. (p. 100)

Part 3: Other Challenges: When the Christian Life Isn’t Rosy

Chapter 11: Why Do I Still Hate Myself When God Loves Me So Much?

I can readily identify with this problem as well. Kansiewicz identifies causes, which can be verbal, physical, emotional abuse, as well as many other things. However, this is the one chapter in which I think the “Counselor’s Reponse” is wrong-headed. When someone says, “I hate myself,” she offers these words:

I have never heard someone who grew up in an emotionally stable, nurturing environment with a healthy family make that bold statement.(p. 106)

Now why is it that people in that happy circumstance does (sic) not come to the conclusion one day that they just aren’t worth it? My answer: they truly know themselves. They have been told about the beauty and wonder of just being themselves. (p. 107)

You entered this world with beauty. You entered this world with potential. …Maybe if you had been encouraged rather than told to conform you could have discovered that truly unique and beautiful self. (pp. 107-8)

If you were to ask the first century Pharisees they would have had a well adjusted view of themselves, but were sinners. So, what is wrong with this approach? I think it fails on two points: 1) It contradicts several Scripture passages that state that we were born as sinners, not neutral people with potential, and 2) it takes away from the true freedom, comfort, love, joy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Ephesians 2:1-3 And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. (NAS)

Psalm 51:5 Indeed, I was guilty when I was born; I was sinful when my mother conceived me. (HSCB)

There are many other passages that support this idea. I think part of the problem might be that in the book, sin is presented as only sinful actions and thoughts. But sin is deeper. Committing sinful actions does not make a person a sinner, rather sin causes the person to commit sinful acts and thoughts.

Romans 5:12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, in this way death spread to all men, because all sinned. (HCSB)

This is critical when considering how the New Testament presents the change that God works in the Gospel, namely through what Christ has done for us.

Romans 5:6-10 For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die.  But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be savedby His life. (NAS)

Galatians 2:20 I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. (NAS)

Notice in that Romans passage, it is not the “truly well adjusted person who has a healthy esteem” that Christ died for, but for those who fall short of God’s demands, hence everyone. That is the good news, that no matter where anyone started as a sinner, Christ died for him or her, in other words, he only died for sinners, and that includes every person. And that is the worth and value of a person.

Chapter 12: How Does Christian Deal with Grief?

Chapter 14: Life or Death? When Mental Illness is Fatal

As a pastor I work with people in all stages of grief. I have found that everyone expects to recover quicker than they actually are. A doctor once told me that for every day you are down with sickness or surgery, it takes seven days to recover. So if someone is in the hospital for 7 days, it takes at least 49 days to recover. Many people laugh at that. But after surgery they discover how true that is.

So with grief, it takes time. No matter how many steps people identify, the time is non-negotiable. And here again triggers can present setback (each event in life after the loss: 1st birthday, 1st anniversary, 1st Christmas, etc.

I like how Kansiewicz adjusted the Kübler-Ross stages, especially the last one: “Acceptance with Prolonged Depression.” This is a very good chapter and offers help to the person, but also the church and pastor in continuing ministry to those who grieve.

Chapter 13: Submission or Abuse? Facing Domestic Violence

This is a topic very near to my heart. The abuse is bad enough, but the church’s often silent acceptance, or worse, indifference to those who are abused. I preached about this topic (The Silent Epidemic) about three years ago. You could hear a pin drop during the sermon.

Why do pastors and leaders as well as churches ignore this topic? Kansiewicz offered this assessment from John Shore,

Shore suggests that part of the problem may be that if you are not living in an abusive situation, it is hard to truly understand the systemic ways in which abuse festers. He also points out that abusers are very good at manipulating others, and may easily convince pastors to minimize the reality or severity of the wife’s report. (p. 129)

Do we need any more indictment of us as pastors or churches? Thankfully Kansiewicz offers several steps to move ahead in dealing with abuse. Here are a couple essential guidelines for pastors:

Pastors must also connect both abusers and victims with separate Christian counselors, and pastors should remain involved in this treatment by maintaining frequent contact with the counselors.…Pastors may be too personally involved to judge when it is or is not appropriate for a couple to reunite after an abusive situations. Christians counselors can offer a trained, objective insight into the appropriateness of reconciliation in a given situation. (p. 131)

I would modify that last sentence to “can offer a trained, more objective insight” since no one can be truly objective. But the advice? Every pastor ought to heed her words here.

Chapter 15: How Do I Talk to My Pastor About My Mental Health?

Another good chapter for advice on the one seeking help regarding mental illness. Also, a reminder for pastors to not avoid such conversations. If you don’t know the resources, then find out. Ask other pastors, visit Christian counselors to see what they recommend. Find out about psychiatrists who accept Christian pastor’s involvement.

The goal is not for the pastor to be all, serve all, but to work within a larger framework than just the local congregation. Some of these issues are far beyond out abilities, training. It is okay for us to seek out additional help and resources, for you as pastors and you as members of the congregation.

Conclusion

Excellent book that raises the right issues. I would add that Word and Sacraments as part of the liturgy become an essential environment for continued ministry to people, especially “on edge.” I found it challenging and had to read the book twice to make sure I was understanding it correctly. I recommend pastors especially, other leaders, and members in the congregation read this book. Even with my objections to the foundation of Chapter 11, this is a worthwhile resource.

Who Am I? Reflections

I take this opportunity to thank my friend for writing the five part series: Who am I? The range of human sin and emotions, overwhelmed by the grace of God, the love that sustains. We rejoice in his story, and even more in God’s story. As I reflected on this series one thing stuck out:

Ten years—no visitors

That is hard for me to imagine, and yet not so hard. We went ten years without any contact from our son. He was in prison most of that time. We know he had no family visits, but maybe a couple friends. So, yes, I can imagine. No family, no friends, just prison and fellow inmates—in the image to the right, not even one of those impersonal contacts.

That is the epitome of loneliness. How does one deal with such isolation? What impact will that have on the person’s life?

Frequent visitors

This last week I came across another blog that presented a view of imprisonment from a family member’s perspective (a role I am very familiar with). Shannan reveals her frequent visits to her son who was in prison. Most of the contact was over the phone. But now the visit was face-to-face.

Shanna’s story: Reconciled

I threw it out often, “Ask us anything! We’ll answer!”

But he hung back at the ropes, listening to all our stories, sharing his own. Never asking.

Until, one night, he did. “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” he asked across the crackling prison line.

Her answer, unexpected by her son, the prisoner, began a new (positive) phase in their relationship.

The Hard Question

This brings me to my own reflections about our older son and his many times in prison. [Read the story here] This last week I mentioned that we have seen our son only one time in almost 17 years. The pain is there, the hurt is never far away.

Someone then asked me whether we had hired an investigator to look for him after all this time. I appreciated the genuine interest and concern. But the question stopped me for a moment. How do I answer this? Am I responsible for the continued gulf between us?

In all honesty I responded, “I’m not sure I (or my wife) could handle trying to search for him. That sounds almost uncaring, but for our own protection we are not at that place.”

We are concerned about him and yes, we still love him. But we have a history going back to 1978 with him and the deepening pain in living with him, without him, not knowing about him. I admitted to myself: Can we endure opening that door and exposing our selves not only to the painful memories but also to new pains, concerns, and agonies?

Right now for me that is a protective measure on my part. Is that appropriate? I have read the Prodigal Son parable for many decades. As I studied in detail in the 1990’s, one thing I noticed. The father in the parable does not seek everywhere to find his son. Rather, after the son has reached bottom, and the son returns to the Father, the father runs to meet him at the edge of the village to protect him from the ridicule and scorn of the villagers for what he had done. If our son were to contact us, then we would respond like the father.

I do know that in my ministry I have (and still do) minister to families who are going through some of the anguish that we endured from 1978 to 1998. And some who may be facing the not-knowing that we have faced from 1998 to the present. Every time it is a reminder of pain with flashbacks to knowing what people are experiencing, but also a reminder of God’s faithfulness to us, even when we were not.

Final thoughts

If nothing else from my story and the story of this friend, and Shannan’s story, that we live with life as we experience it. I wish that life were easier, that the pain would stop, the questions would not arise. I wish that families would not experience the loneliness of imprisonment, the fear and uncertainty of the missing, the sleepless nights of worry. But it is God who is the greater One, the One who sustains us in the deepest valleys. The One who reassures us that He will never leave us or forsake us. And that makes living worth living.

Who Am I? Pt 5

Part 4 (with links to parts 12-3)

Forgiveness and justification were life-giving words to me. But the forgotten twins of guilt and shame frequently haunted me on my journey. Through the wounds that I have experienced and suffered some stand out boldly to me in almost every conversation regarding faith. Forgiveness and being justified, contrary to the world view, are true words of freedom. But these deep running wounds often resulted in feelings of guilt and shame, which clung to the memory of my sins.

From my own personal experience the weight of guilt and shame hung around my neck like a millstone. Guilt overwhelmed me in two ways: false guilt (guilt for something someone else had done), and true guilt (guilt for my own sins).

False guilt came through the physical abuse that I suffered from my father’s hand and the berating of my step-father’s words. I continually felt guilt that I had done something wrong, even when I had not. These feelings of guilt affected how I viewed myself.

Genuine guilt (from my own sinful words and actions) often arose by asking the “if only” questions of life. (“If only I would have not said that…, if only I would have behaved…, if only I would have made better choices…, if only I would have stayed in the military…”). Both types of guilt only served to sink deeper into the pit of despair.

Even more I learned the hard way that a life full of regret and disappointment fosters a sense of shame, shame before others and especially before God, for what I had done.

The burden of guilt and shame weighed heavily on me. With every job application, interview, and personal meeting I had with people, the shame of my choices became my constant burden. Even now I struggle with guilt and shame as my poor decisions resurface to drive me back into a pit of despair. The message of the scripture for us to, “…let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water,” (Hebrews 10:22 NAS) was often lost on me in dealing with these emotions.

In my limited ministry experience I have encountered these feelings of guilt and shame on numerous occasions. Going back into prisons and jails to minister to others, I fight the “if only” statements ring resoundingly like being stuck in a bell tower at the noon hour. “If only I wouldn’t have gotten caught…, if only my parents would have loved me more…, if only the cops wouldn’t have been so quick to get there…, if only I would have made better choices…”

While every circumstance and situation in this environment is different, I discovered a common refrain: the heart felt plea/question of the individual is like my own. This is not limited to a prison life. Recently I sat with my best friend who was taken to the ER for a serious blood clot. Sitting by his side and with his family their words echoed in my head, “If only we would have eaten healthier…, if only I would have gone to the doctor…, if only I wouldn’t have yelled at my dad….”

The separation that sin causes that robs us of the peace, comfort and hope that only Christ can offer; and guilt and shame rise up to push harder against the gospel.  I have also learned that two passages help me deal with the guilt and shame:

Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the pledge of a good conscience toward God) through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 3:21 HCSB)

Note that Baptism saves, and cleanses the conscience. Further, my battles with shame were not unique as expressed in the Psalms and Isaiah prophesied (fulfilled in Christ, therefore mine by faith in him):

Guard my soul and deliver me; do not let me be ashamed, for I take refuge in You.  (Psalm 25:20 NAS)

“Fear not, for you will not be put to shame; and do not feel humiliated, for you will not be disgraced; but you will forget the shame of your youth, (Isaiah 54:4 NAS)

In Christ, everything is given freely in Christ: forgiveness of sins, cleansing of conscience, and freedom from shame.

In the wounded healer ministry the gospel alone serves as the sole source of comfort to me or anyone who if feeling the weight of sin.

“A minister is not a doctor whose primary task is to take away the pain….When someone comes with his loneliness to the minister, he can only expect that his loneliness will be understood and felt, so that he no longer has to run away from it but can accept it as an expression of his basic human condition…No minister can save anyone. He can only offer himself as a guide to fearful people.” (Wounded Healer)

The wounded healing of the wounded healer is comprised of making his own wounds a hospitable place for those who are wounded and looking for understanding and consolation. Understanding my own wounds and healing serves as the starting point of ministry with others. It is only when I begin to look at the miraculous restoration and healing that Christ has worked in my life that I can begin to understand that in my woundedness that I can become the source of ministry for others.