Suicide and the Enemy of Our Souls

I wrote this blog some time ago, after a friend emailed to share her grief over a family member’s loss to suicide. In the wake of recent stories, it seems appropriate to share this piece again, with the hope that it might bring some balm to those who struggle to make sense of such hard loss:

Some time ago, a friend lost her sister to suicide. She wrote to ask, “Do you think it is possible that the enemy has kept me down and in such a battle for the last year or two so he could keep me from being there for my sister?”

When devastations like suicide drop into our lives, we’re left with far more questions than answers, not to mention the guilt and so often, such a sense of powerlessness. Stretching to make sense of a tragic event, we tend to grab at answers only to find straw. This is how I responded to my friend’s question. Maybe my answer to her will help someone plagued with grief, pain and questions in the wake of such loss:

Dear friend,
So good to hear from you and good to hear your heart. I appreciated so much that you took time to share with me where your thoughts and struggles have been in these last few weeks. I’ve been praying for you and now I know how to pray more specifically. It sounds like you and your family have been under attack in a lot of ways — much more it seems, than your sister’s death. I’m so sorry.

I loved one statement you made in your note. You said that even if you and your family let your sister down, Jesus never did and even his faithfulness didn’t make a difference in her decision. That’s a profound insight…

In your question, I hear the trails of guilt. I wonder if that is an inevitable side effect of suicide. Feelings of guilt among survivors seem to be common. With all the love, respect and grace we can give to those who lose their battle with depression, we must also acknowledge that suicide leaves a huge burden for the living to carry. God, your sister’s circle of friends, your family, you … everyone grieves this loss.

I’ve praying about what is truth in your situation since that’s what you are seeking. I probably only know things you already know, but here’s where my mind has been as I’ve prayed for you.

As her sister, you would have given anything to be more than you were — or more of what she needed — in her darkest days. To know more. Anyone in that situation would feel the same. “If only we had known…” And it would be tempting to find your place in the midst of her despair, even if only to say that the enemy separated you from her when she needed you most. That’s a normal and natural thought, I’m guessing.

Be wary, though, of putting yourself into her equation. This is her story, not yours. As humans, we tend to see things with us at the center, or at least close to it. But what if the realization you’re wrestling with is not that you could have done more (“If only I’d been more present, less busy …”) but that you didn’t have power to do more? What if, no matter what your personal circumstances, your sister’s mental illness was beyond her ability to survive it? In much the same way that a cancer victim’s illness can be beyond their ability to survive it …

It boggles the mind (doesn’t it?) to acknowledge just how little power we actually have in the face of some cancers, some accidents, some mental illnesses. “In this world, you will have trouble,” Jesus said, because the world is fallen and we’re imperfect and it is simply the case that not everything can be fixed this side of heaven.

Some things happen in spite of us and when it comes to mental illness, some things can’t be explained. Reason doesn’t apply. One plus one doesn’t equal two for a person whose mind is ill. Maybe there was no amount of time or energy anyone could have given until your sister was free of the illness that conquered her. Until we’re in the presence of Jesus, I doubt any of us will understand just how personal and complicated that battle was for her.

Thanks for sending the picture of your nieces and nephew. There is family here to love, family here to breed hope. I love that even in the midst of your grief, God is sending signs to assure you that there really is no such thing as no hope. Jesus is our assurance of that. I hope the family in that picture can look around them and see reason for hope in their love and care for each other.

Your sister may be gone from this world, but her life matters. As you continue to listen and look, I believe God will give you signs of assurance — that in ways we cannot begin to fathom, she is in his care. Suicide is not the unforgivable sin; I have to believe that God’s mercy takes special care with those who are not just bruised but mentally broken by this life. His hand is over your sister’s soul, much like his hand was over Moses as he crouched in the cleft of a rock, in search of a glimpse of glory in the midst of despair.

Be at peace. Rest in the mysteries of the Kingdom of God, and as Ranier Maria Rilke once powerfully wrote, “be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart.” God will, in his time, make all things new.

Peace to you — Carolyn

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Chosen: Krista’s story

This week, we are listening to stories of redemption created out of the chosenness of God. Krista’s story is one of the profound miracle stories at Mosaic. If you are pursuing recovery, be encouraged. If we can help, call.

“Hi my name is Krista. I am a grateful believer in Jesus Christ and a recovering alcoholic.”

That’s how my conversations often begin these days. I am recovered, and I am recovering … gratefully.

I was born on August 30, 1970 in Washington, D.C. to a school teacher who was single and struggling. I am thankful that while her pregnancy wasn’t her plan, she chose to give me life rather than death.

I was chosen at nine weeks old to be placed in the loving and caring arms of Pat and Jack Hansen. They took me home and officially adopted me on my first birthday, and they are and always will be my mom and dad. They have loved me and raised me well. I was always in church, always involved in a youth group, always in choir, graduated from a Christian school. My parents were actively involved in ministry, teaching young adults and young married couples. My father would occasionally preach and was on all the church committees. When I say we were “in church,” I mean we were in it!

But in spite of a solid upbringing, life happened. Read on.

It started in high school when I began to play around with cigarettes and alcohol. I had no idea I was predisposed to alcoholism, but those beginnings took me down a dark path. I went off to college and experienced more “firsts.” After a year of college I moved home. Things were bad enough that even I knew that wasn’t a good place for me to be. I got a very good job at a bank in D.C., where I started out as a receptionist and ended up as an assistant branch manager.

I reconnected with a friend from elementary school and later with a guy I’d had a crush on since fourth grade. We quickly moved in together, and I found myself in an abusive relationship.

It seems like there was always a guy. After the first, there was a second — that one broke my heart. I married, had kids, divorced, drank, partied, married again (that one stuck, and I am still gratefully married to him today), tried rehab, drank more, another rehab. The spiral was agonizing. I fell into a deep pit of depression and addiction. I hardly recognized myself and for years, couldn’t even look in a mirror. God and my self-will battled with each other daily. Jesus wanted my heart, but alcohol was a stronghold.

Finally, God won. My third attempt at rehab was probably the hardest fought, but it has given me the sweetest victory. God set me in the midst of a recovery community called Renewal in South Carolina. Renewal is for women like me, dealing with addiction. My mother was a volunteer there for years and she and the staff had been praying for me…for years. My admission to their Christian, 12-step program was the direct answer to those prayers, and Renewal was a great fit.

I was there for seven long months. Jesus and I got honest about all the bad and ugly roots of my sin, and I finally kicked the enemy out of my house! I have never felt so free or so alive before. Since I’ve been home I have been able to look people in the eye and make amends with them. I’ve been able to face myself in the mirror. I have reconnected with friends and family — people I’d harmed while I was drinking. I’m now part of the leadership team for our church’s recovery ministry and have led some of the group discussions. I’ve done things I couldn’t do before, like help with the children’s ministry. It makes me feel good to be included. I love to serve!

I do believe I am a chosen child of God. I am able to be the wife, mother and daughter that God designed me to be. I love those apps that keep track of sober days. I’ve learned a lot about just how much that other life cost. I’ve been sober for 439 days and counting and since getting sober, I’ve saved $8,780.

But you know, that’s the least of it. That other life cost Jesus his. But because he was willing to pay that price, I’m free of thirty years of addiction. Thirty years! I thank Jesus every day for his grace and mercy.

Thank God, I’ve been redeemed!

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Jesus is Lord over chaos.

Kathleen Herlo is a passionate follower of Jesus who practices her art in Evans, Georgia. On this Good Friday, may you be inspired by her redemption story:

Jesus is Lord?

What does that even mean? In my other life, this was meaningless to me. It fell in the same cliched category as, “Jesus loves you,” or “How is your walk with Christ?” Code words for Christians, mostly serving the purpose of making the rest of us feel like outsiders. In those days, Jesus was not my Lord. Chaos was.

Chaos manifested in all my relationships. Chaos is a kind of addiction that often breeds in childhood abuse — mine was sexual — and it serves, ironically, to numb the pain. It is how I coped with childhood trauma, by generating chaos in my life and others. I eventually sought therapy designed to expose and dismantle the safeguards I’d erected but with nothing to replace them I spun even further out of control. I responded by becoming more controlling. The downward spiral was devastating. I became a tyrant, often breaking out in fits of rage. I was unpredictable. My demands changed as frequently as my emotions. My children, teenagers by then, retaliated against the emotional whiplash. The people in my life learned to keep their distance and I did the same, insulating myself against rejection by making people and relationships disposable. I desperately wanted to escape the chaos but chaos is a stubborn demon. It doesn’t give up easily.

But I am an artist. I have an outlet for this pain. I can spread it around.

I learned to communicate my chaos in my art. In art school I did a series of drawings and paintings that I liked to call my “Prozac art.” Each work of art focused on the level of frustration I felt when trying to control the distracting pain. I used the art to manipulate the emotions of the viewer so they would feel the pain I was feeling. Each work of art — the series was officially entitled Distraction Destruction — pointed out to the viewer how easily we allow ourselves to get distracted by the simplest things. I felt the impact of those distractions and how meaningless they were. As an artist, I was allowed and even encouraged to indulge in the chaos which in turn drew positive attention (even respect), which ironically kept me stuck in the very insanity I so needed to escape. I was comfortable there but I was out of control.

But I am an artist, after all. Isn’t this what artists do?

Then I met Ted, a classmate who soon became my study partner. Ted had no filters (still doesn’t) when it came to his faith. In no time, he was asking those Christianese questions. “How is your walk with Christ?”

I don’t know. What does it matter? As long as I am a good person what difference does it make?

As our relationship grew, so did Ted’s expectations of me spiritually. He invited me to church. He didn’t tolerate my chaos. He held me accountable for my behavior. I discovered the comfort of boundaries, of order, of faith. After years of resisting God, I began to give in; we attended a small church called Mosaic and even attended Bible study together. I was shown God’s grace for a chaotic past, including a recent divorce, and gave my life to Christ. Ted and I married and I yoked myself to a man of faith.

Now, rather than listening to the voices of chaos, I was learning to listen to the voice of Jesus. I sought a relationship with him through Bible study, prayer, fasting, and fellowship. It is not lost on me that the path from chaos to love flows through spiritual discipline. When I allowed chaos to “lord over my life,” it was void of love. But now, amazing grace! The Lord God, Creator of the universe, Ruler over Heaven and earth, loves me! And in fact, wants a relationship with me! And in fact, wants to pour his love through me so I can finally love others well without fear of rejection.

Jesus is Lord!

He has redeemed all the relationships I tried so hard to destroy. He walked me through the process of making amends with those I hurt. He gave me grace enough to forgive my abusers and grace enough to forgive even myself. He taught me how to love. He taught me how to hear him.

The process of sanctification is slow and sometimes painful. For a season, I had to surrender my art while I learned to let Jesus redefine me. Now, instead of using my art to define who I am and as a way to manipulate others’ emotions, I am using it to expose Jesus’ love for all of us. The more I listen and follow Jesus and let him be my Lord, the more I see where he is working to redeem my past and guide my future.

I am an artist, but more importantly I am a daughter of God.

I am no longer living in chaos. I am painting again under the Lordship of Jesus Christ — a Lord who loves me, who wants only the best for me, who has proven that by his sacrifice.

This Jesus bled and died for me.

For me.

And I will never choose anything else to be my Lord.

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The Danger of Distraction (and how to find your holy “yes”)

I wonder if there has ever been a climate so ripe for distraction. So much information coming at us from every possible lit-up screen. We are distracted by social media, by our phones, by unwelcome relationships, by our phones, by intruding thoughts and lusts and wants and needs, by our phones … we are distracted.

Listening to a message by Steven Furtick (Elevation Church), I learned something about that word — distraction. In medieval times, there was a barbaric torture tactic called “drawing and quartering.” Each of a person’s four limbs were tied to four ropes, and each of those ropes was tied to four horses, who were then commanded to run in four different directions. It was a horrible practice.

Do you know what the French called it? Distraction.

When I saw that image and heard that term, I thought, “That’s it!” By making us rush to catch up, by keeping us in mental chaos, by luring us away from life-giving habits like what Methodists call the means of grace, by making us say yes to things we ought never say yes to, distractions rob us of rest and keep us from being formed into the likeness of Christ. No wonder one of the fruits of the Spirit is self-discipline. It is discipline that pulls the distracted parts of us back together.

We want to believe that the means of grace — or what you may know as spiritual disciplines — are for people who have too much time on their hands. Nothing could be further from the truth. Disciplines are precisely for people who have too much on their plate.

Listen: Who needs discipline when you’ve got nothing but time? Disciplines are not for people who have too much time; they for people who have too many distractions.

Let me say that again: Disciplines are for people who have too many distractions.

Disciplines bring the pulled-apart, conflicting parts of us back together again. They help us to live inside our limits so we don’t end up without enough energy to take a shower much less spend time resting in the Lord. They help us become mindful of our day-to-day decisions and how they feed into our spiritual goals. They encourage us to create life-giving habits.

Which of these disciplines sounds completely foreign to you? Which ones might be a source of life and restoration for you? (

  • Bible reading
  • prayer
  • meditation
  • worship
  • community life (including accountability)

These are classic disciplines that shape our thoughts and set the tone of our day. They give us courage to say “no” more often so we can say a holy “yes” to things that feed our life in Christ. After all, God calls us to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, right? The means of grace are ways we can examine ourselves to see if we’re on that track. We know our lives are being shaped into the likeness of Christ when our conversation begins to be transformed by love and our reactions are filtered through the Holy Spirit. We know it is happening when our calendars aren’t so far beyond our limits that we can’t rest in the comfort that God’s got it.

Disciplines make busy people slow down enough to let their souls sink into Jesus. That’s where the real spiritual work is done — in the secret place, where deep calls to deep. Disciplines don’t promise to make our lives easier, but I can attest to this: they result in a kind of rest that pulls all the distracted, chaotic, directionless pieces of our lives together.

  • What are you sure of, and what doubts are creating spiritual anxiety?
  • What is pulling at you, and what distractions are keeping you from spiritual formation?
  • What does your calendar say about your life … and about how much you trust God?
  • How willing are you to make changes to your life not just for the sake of your own spiritual formation, but for the sake of others?

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Pray that we will be kind.

I’ve been the pastor of Mosaic Church for more than fifteen years, so my relationship with many in our community is deep. We are a small but healthy church, with a core (but certainly not a majority) of people who care about the direction of the UMC. After the 2016 General Conference, we began holding listening sessions to help folks make sense of what was happening. In those conversations, we affirmed that we are a diverse group, as most any American congregation would be. We had solid, honest discussions together and many deep one-on-one conversations over coffee.

All this is to say that long before this year’s General Conference, those in our congregation who were interested or invested in the discussion had their chance to work out their own thoughts and our mutual relationships. I’ve been so gratified by our ability to work through differences with kindness and respect.

Placing my own theological leanings within the framework of a “centered-set model” seems to have helped us. Centered-set thinking allows us all to understand how we fit together. As appointed leader of our congregation, I teach an orthodox Wesleyan theology, understanding that others are on a journey, too, that may or may not put us in complete agreement. We all understand, however, that there is a set of beliefs at our center from which we can work. Even among newcomers, centered-set thinking has offered a comfort level for stepping into our community. Guests are welcomed as they are and where they are and don’t have to have it all figured out for us to love and respect one another.

As a church, we pray for the UMC and care deeply about the Body of Christ. Some of us grieved over the bedlam of St. Louis, but we haven’t allowed this crisis to define or control us. Not by a long shot. In fact, Mosaic has experienced a 20% increase in attendance since this time last year. Most of that growth is due to on-going vital ministries that invite new believers, non-believers and frustrated wanderers into a conversation about what they believe about the world and God.

These days, my prayers for our tribe are focused on theological revival. I believe the coming revival will be theological. If this year’s General Conference has taught us anything, it is that what you believe matters.  Spiritual awakening will happen as folks get serious about understanding what they believe and what makes us Methodist. Methodism is not defined by institutional unity. It is not our affinity for each other that binds us, though that is certainly a gift (I love my colleagues in ministry deeply). It is not our commitment to an institution, though I owe a great deal to the United Methodist Church for helping me live out my call. It is not even our commitment to serving folks, though the United Methodist Church has a marvelous missional arm that serves globally among poor and marginalized people.

What makes us Methodist is what we believe about the nature and role of Jesus Christ, the authority of scripture, our understanding of God’s grace, and particularly the role of sanctification in the life of a believer. This is what connects and distinguishes us. While I don’t believe progressive and orthodox United Methodists can remain in the same tribe due the wide theological gap between us (nor should we; it holds no integrity), I am praying with many others that our separation can look more like multiplication than division and that we can honor one another in the process. I am praying that our separation provides a witness that our staying together can’t. I’m praying that we can be gracious toward one another, finding ways to bless one another (as a colleague has so eloquently said) as we work through the details of a separation.

I pray that we will be kind. I hope you will pray that prayer with me.

I certainly hope this season can birth something new (and soon) that allows us all to move on in ministry with integrity, no longer biting and devouring one another but loving deeply, from the heart. Wouldn’t it be something if this separation/ multiplication actually exposes the Kingdom of Heaven in the process of its birthing? Wouldn’t it be something if we even saw the glory of God?

Wouldn’t that be just like our Redeemer? Beauty from ashes, the oil of gladness poured over our mourning, the spirit of praise instead of a spirit of despair.

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Cast out demons and cure disease (or, what it means to be the Church)

We are the tabernacle of God.

The Bible tells me that when I take Christ into my life, I have the same resources available to me that the Israelites had and the Acts community had. Like them, I have the power of God. I don’t do this on my own steam. When I am filled with the Holy Spirit I receive power (Acts 1:8) —  the same power the Israelites had who fought with enemies twice their size and won, who found food enough to feed hundreds of thousands of people, who received miracle after miracle of God’s provision.

I have those same resources.

We who follow Jesus have the same resources as the followers of Jesus in Luke and Acts, who healed sick people and cured diseases and cast out demons and preached good news to the poor.

So why don’t we act like it? Why don’t I?

When the disciples came back from their first mission trip — having been sent out by Jesus to cure disease, cast out demons and proclaim the Kingdom — they complained to Jesus about a guy they’d seen who was also casting out demons. They wanted Jesus to tell this guy to stop; after all, he wasn’t one of them. You can feel the sense of competition in their comments. They also complained about some religious leaders and had the audacity to suggest that Jesus rain fire down on a few heads.

That’s when Jesus decided maybe it was time to recast the vision.

We find it in a line that isn’t actually there. Or at least it isn’t part of the earliest manuscripts. Somewhere along the way, some scribe felt the need to add a line between Luke 9:55 and Luke 9:56. Scholars give it about an average chance of being an actual word from Jesus and since it doesn’t show up in the earliest manuscripts, you won’t find it in most Bibles, but if your Bible has study notes, they probably mention this line.

As I said, it comes at a point in the story when the disciples are being sort of arrogant about the people who are not in their circle. Most Bibles say, “Jesus turned and rebuked them. Then he and his disciples went to another village.”

That’s the official version.

But some manuscripts insert another sentence so that the passage reads, “But Jesus turned and rebuked them and he said, ‘You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man came not to destroy people’s lives but to save them.’ Then he and his disciples went to another village.”

What a powerful commentary! Even if Jesus didn’t say it here, he said it often, that we don’t follow Jesus not because we don’t know who to follow but because we don’t know who we are. As believers, we do not know what we’re made of. We’ve bought some lie that the spirit of Jesus is a spirit of rules and condemnation and guilt, so maybe that’s why we don’t embrace the Spirit. But it turns out — and this is good news! — the Son of Man did not come to destroy people’s lives but to save them.

This is great news! The spirit of Jesus is a spirit of redemption!

This means that if you have received that glorious release from shame and guilt, then it becomes yours to give to the next person. You have that spirit. If you’ve been healed, then you are healed to become a healer. If you’ve been set free by knowing the truth, then you are free to share it. If that place inside of you that’s been dead for years is being brought to life again or if that relationship that was left for dead is being restored then you have received this as a gift. And the Word says, what we have freely received, we freely give.

We don’t even have a clue what kind of spirit we have, what kind of power we have to go out and change the culture, change the community, change people, change the world — to give what we’ve been given so that by the authority of Christ and under the power of the Holy Spirit the very spirit of Christ overflows from us.

We have forgotten that this good news is not ours.

This is ours to share.

 

(The image used at the head of this blog is the artwork of He Qi)

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The difference between repentance and saying you’re sorry

Forgiveness is the centerpiece of our gospel. It is half the gift God offers through the cross, the other half being an invitation into the fullness of life.

Repentance is how we receive that gift. The word has a bad reputation these days. It has been yelled far more often than taught, so it has gathered more shame than freedom as it has rolled through the Church. Which is a shame in itself, because repentance is a far cry from shame-producing. To the contrary, it is yet another freedom word in the vocabulary of Christ.

To repent means to make a conscious decision to change behavior away from immaturity and repentance2toward maturity. It is a decision to walk out of dysfunction and toward health. Repentance frees us up to more joyfully live into our created design as it shakes off of us the destructive behaviors that cling so tightly and hold us captive.

In its most spiritual sense (which is its deepest definition), to repent means to turn away from something that offends a good, holy, loving, wise God. We do this not because God will strike us dead if we don’t, but because offending a good and loving God is not life-giving. To repent means shifting gears, making a genuine choice to practice life so that we (our whole selves) become an offering pleasing to God. We become no longer our own, but His. That thing we did becomes no longer ours but His.

True repentance releases us from shame and guilt that too often distort our decisions and behaviors and send our lives down dead-end paths.

But here’s the thing: for real repentance to happen, there has to be a willingness to let something go. There has to be a death to our self-centered tendencies. Humility (the primary personality trait of Jesus, always characterized by self-sacrifice) is the fruit of genuine repentance. It is very much what Jesus meant when he advised his friends, “If anyone wants to be my follower, he must take up his cross and follow me.” There is more to repentance than just saying, “I did it,” or “I’m sorry.” When practiced, authentically, there is a transformation proven by a character shift. What happens after we repent proves the sincerity of repentance itself. Humility surfaces, showing up beneath the words in some unmistakable way. In an honest act of repentance, the watching world sees a spiritual shift in one’s relationship with God, with others, with oneself.

Let me say again: In genuine repentance, something has to die. 

You see the point in Jesus’ story about the prodigal son. When the rebellious son first went to his father, he was bent on getting something for nothing. He said to his dad, “I don’t want to wait until you die. I want my share of the estate now.” Somehow he wanted to receive death benefits without death, but there is no shortcut.

Even Jesus asked (remember? on the night before he died?) if it could be done any other way. The answer is no. In order for true forgiveness to happen something has to die. Jesus said (John 12:24), “I tell you the truth, unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” This is the great news on the other side of repentance. If we’ll fully submit to the act of it, we will find such progress on the other side. But as Psalm 23 teaches, we can’t get to the feast on the mountaintop without first walking through the valley.

There is no shortcut to fruitfulness.

That’s what I’m waiting for in stories of people apologizing for things misspoken or for misbehavior that doesn’t honor their best or benefit anyone. I am looking for a spirit of Isaiah, for a deeper understanding of Paul’s truth. There is something to be said for sober judgment, for falling down before God in an honest recognition of our imperfect state, with a less arrogant defensiveness. There is something attractive about a sincere acknowledgement that we’re on a journey … and not there yet. I’m not talking about self-flagellation (a false humility that belittles us). I’m talking about eyes-wide-open reflection on the distance between our current reality and what is true, noble, pure, lovely, admirable.

Yes, we are free, but not free to do as we please. To think otherwise is to completely miss the point of true community.

I guess what I’m looking for in those who lead, in those who serve, in those who live in Christian community is a little holy humility. I’m looking for a death worthy of repentance. And what I’m asking of others — I realize even as I’m writing this — I must also be willing to do within myself.

Lord, have mercy.

Are you practicing the art of repentance, transparently confessing before God areas of offense in your life, so you can experience freedom?

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Transformation: when Jesus gets hold of us

Today’s post is a celebration of lives transformed, as we at Mosaic also celebrate the opening of a new building and the expansion of several key ministries, including The Mosaic Center, which focuses on employment, education and empowerment of those who live with disability. Thanks for supporting us as we figure out together what it means to BE the Church. Watch, and be inspired.

 

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Triggers, Urge-surfing and the God Who Heals Us

I have triggers. When I hear an ice cream truck, something in me immediately goes back to 1205 Eisenhower Drive, my childhood home. When I smell popcorn, I’m in National Hills Theater and in my happy place. The picture of a margarita will send me a craving. I haven’t had a drink in 25 years, but the picture of a margarita still sends me back. What are your triggers?

Think of an emotional trigger like a little internal tether. It links us emotionally to something behind us. Sometimes that thing is good (like the smell of coffee in the morning) and sometimes it is not so good.

I often equate triggers with the struggle of the Israelites out in the desert, with Egypt on one side and the promised land on the other. They seemed to live in a constant internal tension, trying to press forward while Egypt called them backward. That seems to be the human condition. We tell ourselves little lies all the time that head us back toward Egypt. We romanticize slavery. That other life was simpler, less stressful. Or maybe it wasn’t so fun, but at least we didn’t have to work as hard. And those tiny internal justifications stir us to head back toward things that enslave us.

Once in the midst of Israelite complaints, God did a miracle. He turned bitter water sweet and then gave them this revelation: “I am the LORD who heals you.’” They named that place “Marah.” It became the place in their story where God spoke the kind of healing that turns bitter things sweet.

That makes Marah an important place on the spiritual map. It is the place we pass through that is hard, like the bitterness that settles in after the initial shock of divorce or the loneliness that follows rejection. Or the emptiness that follows loss. It is that place after a blow or temptation when we don’t quite know what to do next. When we aren’t aware of what is going on inside, we will struggle to press forward. We’ll long for Egypt, for old familiar territory. Virginia Satyr says that most people prefer the certainty of misery than the misery of uncertainty. We’d rather head back to Egypt than learn to live as healthy people, but Egypt is diseased while “I AM the God Who Heals You.”

Out in the desert, God explains to the Israelites what they are dealing with. “When you begin to do holy, you will tempted to go backward but there is no healing for you in Egypt. And there is no healing for you in the place you’re headed if all you do is drag your enslaved mentality with you to that new place. Freedom is in the God who heals you” (see Lev. 18). The trick, God seems to tell them, is to understand their triggers so they can get control of them. 

Learn your triggers. Folks who have dealt with addictions and messy lives find they are much more successful in recovery when they learn what their triggers are. Heather Hill, once an addict and now free from that life, gives some powerful advice about triggers:

Being triggered does not make me a bad Christian. It doesn’t mean I lack faith or that I am somehow less than. And the moment I start believing it does, I am that much closer to giving in to it. Triggers are simply remnants of my old self hanging on for dear life, because the old me doesn’t want to die. They are my thorn, reminding me of who I once was and reminding me how much I will always need God. My triggers are not in control. They don’t drive the bus. The most dangerous thing about a trigger is the urge that follows. And it’s tough, because it usually includes a physical reaction I cannot control.

The urge that follows my trigger only last about three minute. It used to last longer. I have found that the harder I fight the urge, the longer it lasts. When I rail against it in anger or disgust (because I believe the above point), I am thinking about it harder than I ought. When I am triggered to the point of an urge, the best thing to do is absolutely nothing. Pray it out. Wait it out. Don’t DO anything. Focus on God and pray until it is over. In rehab, we called it “urge surfing.” Because it comes in like a wave, peaks, and rolls out again.

There are practical ways to avoid my triggers. There are the obvious ways, like avoiding people, places and things. But when that isn’t possible (like when my family member is a trigger), the best way to overcome them is to understand them. Understanding why someone or something triggers me is the best way to move towards healing.Understanding removes the aspect of fear and confusion from the equation. And it gives me a point of focus for my prayers. I am triggered because I am a broken human being who needs healing.

Understanding my triggers helps me understand my brokenness. My best defense against triggers has always been gratitude. Remembering what God has done for me, how far he has carried me, all he has redeemed in my life, keeps me moving forward.

Healthy, life-giving relationships are key to recovery. We may always experience triggers, but we never have to face them alone. We are surrounded by a community of people who love us and want to see us healed. God is for us. His people are for us.

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Do the Hokey Pokey (and other messages that will screw up your life).

The day they decided to make “The Hokey Pokey” into a staple in roller skating rinks was the day our country went downhill. Who thought it was a good idea to put wheels on the feet of a circled-up group of six-year-olds, then tell them to pick one foot up and shake it all about?

That person who thought of that was a special kind of demented.

Nonetheless, here’s what the hokey pokey gets right. When you’re putting your left foot in and taking your left foot out, you’re going to end up going around in circles. You’re unstable. It is exhausting to have yourself in two different places at once and almost impossible to keep your balance. When you’re putting your whole self in but then turning around and taking your whole self out, that’s not productive, either. That’s tough, not just on you but everyone around you.

When “Hokey Pokey” living is your default mode — “I’ll do this halfway, on one foot” or “I’ll be in until I’m not comfortable” — you never get beyond a two-foot radius of yourself and you create chaos for everyone else (I still have nightmares of being at someone’s skating-rink birthday party, standing too close to someone who fell while doing the Hokey Pokey).

Hokey-pokey postures are not for followers of Jesus. Our call requires us to be all in. Surely this was beneath the question John Wesley asked of ordinands: Are you resolved to devote yourselves wholly to God and his work? In other words, are you all in This is a question about wholeheartedness. Wesley wants to know of those signing up to spread the gospel if they are willing to give themselves completely to this work. Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly? In your study and worship and fellowship and serving and in the truth you share, are you passionately committed to the pursuit of wholeness so you can be in passionate pursuit of the presence of Christ?

Are you resolved to devote yourselves wholly to God and his work?

This is like the anti-hokey pokey question. When Wesley asked this question of his pastors, he wanted to know if the people who resolve to be church leaders are all in or if they plan to put their left foot in then take it out when things get rough. Folks who can’t be all in not only exhaust themselves; they exhaust us.

What does it mean to become whole, by biblical standards? Surely it begins with Paul’s advice to work out your own salvation daily with fear and trembling. Stay in it, Paul advises, and wrestle with what it looks like in your life. Wholeheartedness begins with a commitment to spiritual/emotional/relational healing. Let the daily wrestling expose the cracks and wounds. Deal with the unholy fears that paralyze you, leaving you stranded out there in the desert, unable to make the journey into the promises of God. Acknowledge your doubts, and dare to believe God can handle them. Become accountable to someone else who will ask the tough questions.

To become wholehearted, we must deal with our wounds and hesitations, fears and doubts even as we develop eyes to see what God sees. Then pursue the Holy Spirit. Allow the voice of the Spirit to teach you the values of God so they sink in and become part of you. Pursue the art of holiness, which goes so much deeper than good behavior.

Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly? Not half-heartedly. Not with your spare change and spare time. Not only as far as your comforts will take you. Not fearfully, but wholly to God and his work? This is the natural end of wholeheartedness: it is to be whole, holy and all in. Without that kind of vulnerable, wholehearted faith, it is impossible to please God.

(Portions of this blog are taken from my book recently published by Abingdon Press. You can find The 19 here.)

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