Category Archives: Reflections

Self-Care is Hard for Me

Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash

You would think self-care would be easy right? Doesn’t it seem logical that that you would do things and spend your time in such a way that makes you happy and energizes you? And that you would avoid doing things that make you miserable and drain your energy? That you would organize your life in such a way that you wouldn’t need to regularly escape it through drugs, alcohol, sex, porn, binge-watching, or some other unhealthy coping mechanism? Yet, on the one hand while self-care seems like one of the most logical and easy things to do, on the other hand I have found it to be one of the most difficult things to do as I continue to work on recovering from my chronic-stress-induced-depression. And I think I have found it difficult primarily because it means that admitting things I have found enjoyable are actually harmful to me.

What do I mean by this? Well let me give you an example.

Sleep is an area in which I need to improve. Starting in 2016 and continuing up until about a month or so ago really I did not find sleep to be very beneficial. 2016 was really when all my stress issues started. At first I had problems sleeping more than 4 hours a night. I would bolt up wide awake after about 4 hours of sleep and then I would have to read for an hour or so in order to be able to go back to sleep and get maybe 2 more hours of sleep. It wasn’t enjoyable or refreshing. I did not wake up energetic and eager to start the day. I tried all sorts of tricks and supplements and nothing really worked. I was able eventually to get up to 7 hours, but it wasn’t a restful or restorative 7 hours. In fact it really didn’t feel much different from the 4 hours I got when my stress issues started. So having tried all manner of things to get good sleep, and not finding success with any of them, I gave up on good sleep habits since they didn’t seem to make much of a difference anyway.

But, as I hinted at in the beginning of the last paragraph, I now find sleep beneficial once again. The first step in restoring the benefits of sleep was to get on the correct medication and dosage for my burnout-depression (the initial dose was too low). Now that I have the correct medication and dosage I have found sleep to once again be refreshing and restorative. And since it has become beneficial once again I have had motivation to actually take advantage of it and maximize its potential. For me this means doing something I have not done in a long time: wind down in the evenings. In seminary, as in most grad schools probably, my routine was work all day until absolutely exhausted and then go to sleep. If there is something due the next day then work until it is finished, even if it means downing a pot of coffee at midnight and dealing with caffeine jitters. Now though I no longer have such a pressing workload and I am able to relax in the evenings and not worry about deadlines.

I have found that for me reading for fun is the best way to wind down in the evening. But in the process of making this discovery I have found other things that I enjoy to be harmful to recovering sleep. Primarily I have found things like televised sports and gaming, things where there are images moving quickly on screen that I am required to process the movements of to be too stimulating late at night (I use blue light filters on my computer monitors and phone, so my guess is that it is the rapidly moving images that are causing issues for me, not the blue light). Now, I enjoy all of these activities. I enjoy reading a good and/or interesting book. I enjoy watching a good football game. I enjoy watching hockey. I enjoy watching certain shows and movies on Netflix. I enjoying raiding with my guild in World of Warcraft. None of these activities are inherently bad either. But I’ve discovered that most of them are so stimulating and give me such an adrenaline rush in the evening that they end up harming my sleep, one critical area of my life that I have been trying to get on track for several years now.

This brings me to the reason why I have found self-care so difficult: I have to remove from my life things I enjoy that are harming me for things that I enjoy that will benefit me. Admitting that something that you enjoy is actually harming you is not an easy task in itself. Breaking your habit of engaging in whatever that activity happens to be is an even more difficult task. I suspect that depression makes this task yet even more difficult because depression is so devoid of joy and hope and happiness that you want to hang onto anything that gives you even momentary relief from it. Or at least that is what it feels like to me. I think many of the habits I currently have are the result of trying to deal with my burnout induced depression and get some sort of relief from it, not because I know they are beneficial to my overall well being.

In any case though, self-care for me feels a lot like eating vegetables. I do not like most vegetables. Not because they taste bad, but because they have no taste at all. Most of them for me taste like water, and the ones that do have a taste to me I usually find to be unpalatable (like green beans). However I force myself to eat things like broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, carrots, spinach, and lettuce because I know they are good and beneficial for me. Over time I have learned to prepare and eat these things in ways that taste good and flavorful for me so that I not only get the nutritional benefits from them, but enjoy eating them as well.

In my experience so far breaking old habits and attempting to establish new, more beneficial ones has been a lot like eating vegetables. It feels distasteful, and even unpalatable at times, but it is good for me to get rid of old harmful habits for new beneficial ones. Eventually I might even learn to practice these new beneficial habits in ways that bring me even more enjoyment than my previous harmful habits. Perhaps one day I will look forward to eating vegetables, instead of just eating them out of sheer discipline.

The Return of Dreams

Sometimes we just need to rest and heal our tired and broken hearts.

Up until a couple of weeks ago I couldn’t have told you the last time I had dream while sleeping. I could have told you that it was sometime during seminary (most likely around 2016). I also could have told you that it was in response to a prayer. I had prayed earlier that day asking God why everything was so difficult right now. That night I dreamed that I exited the single student on campus housing parking lot, and turning my head right to check for cars I see a burned out Suburban still on fire. I get out of my car and start walking towards the Suburban. But as soon as I take a couple of steps I see a couple of mean Dobermans whose territory I apparently just encroached on. I freeze upon seeing them because I am expecting them to starting running towards me to attack. My expectations were realized. As soon as they started running the dream ended. When I woke up the next morning I heard from God: “You’re suffering because you decided to help.”

In a similar vein, it has been quite a while since I have had any dreams or ambitions in my waking life also. When I started seminary I had all sorts of ideas and goals and dreams that I wanted to pursue. Even by the end, despite all the things that had gone wrong, I still had dreams. But after graduating and moving back home and experiencing my health actually decline instead of recover my dreams died for me in my waking life also. I realized that I would not be able to pursue any of the opportunities I wanted to post-graduation because my health was in such bad shape and had actually gotten worse.

I think most people will be okay with the second paragraph. But I suspect some will have issues with the first one. The notion of God answering a prayer through a dream and then basically confirming it the next morning might seem too mystical or magical to be true. That is understandable. Unless you, like me, have had several such experiences like that I suspect that it will seem foreign to you. To be sure, such experiences aren’t common, or even normal. In fact I am fairly certain that there have been less than a dozen of these experiences in my entire life. But they do happen.

One thing I have learned to appreciate over these past few years is the link between the spiritual and the physical. I’ve come to realize that it is impossible to separate these two into neat little realms because they are linked together. I had no hope of ever appreciating anything spiritual in the depths of depression. Everything was bland, common, and meaningless. There was nothing magical or mystical about life. Even God Himself seemed distant and apathetic towards my situation; perhaps like a watchmaker who wound up my life and let it go never to check on it or intervene in it again. It has only been quite recently with the return of physical health that I have been able to once again recognize the spiritual and transcendent in everyday life.

In about a month we will celebrate what is perhaps the clearest example of the link between the physical and spiritual: the Incarnation. God will take on flesh and unite our corrupted human nature to his perfect divine nature. In my cynicism I hope and pray that for the first time in a long time I will be able to appreciate and meditate on this event once again.

Forgotten Elements of American Christianity: The Contest

PC: James Pond on Unsplash

As I remarked in a previous post American Christianity tends to avoid wrestling with the Wisdom literature in the Old Testament (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs). These books challenge us to think and contemplate the complexities of the world God created, and the truths presented in them are sometimes uncomfortable and hard to accept. However, this is not the only element of Christianity that America has forgotten; we have also forgotten that Christianity is a contest.

The Christian life is a contest; a struggle; a fight; a battle. But it is not one that you can pause or put on hold or retreat from; it continues on whether you want it to or not. And not only are we unable to withdraw from this battle, it also demands all our energy in order to win. Consider the following saying from Jesus:

He went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem. And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ (Luke 13.22-25, ESV)

There are two things that are opposed to each other in this passage: striving and seeking. Notice above that it is those who strive that enter through the narrow door, while those who seek do not. If we are going to be saved we must strive, we must struggle, we must fight our way through the door. If we do not fight or struggle we will not make it through the door and we will not be saved. Seeking will not get us through the door; in this passage it is passivity, laziness, indolence, and evidence of uncertainty regarding Jesus as the only way to salvation. Seeking here is apathy regarding salvation. It is double-mindedness. It is wanting to simultaneously be friends with God and friends with the world, something which is impossible (e.g. James 4.4: “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God”).

Now, what I am referring to here is not salvation by works. Scripture is very clear on this matter. No, the striving I am referring to here is done by the Holy Spirit working in us; it is not done in our power.

Consider the Parable of the Sower [Matthew 13.1-23; Mark 4.1-20; Luke 8.4-15] in this regard: the seed that was sown is the word of God and the 4 soils are various types of human hearts. The path represents those who reject the Gospel, and so nothing grows in them. The seed that was sown on rocky ground and among thorns represents those who did believe the Gospel initially, but they were either afraid of persecution or loved wealth, fame, honor, etc more than God. So while something initially grew in them it amounted to nothing in the end. The seed that was sown on good soil represents those who believe the Gospel wholeheartedly and do not love anything more than God. So what grows in them produces fruit, unlike the other 3 soils. But where did the growth of the seed in this final group come from? It came from their belief in the Gospel! Not from anything they did!

So why do we need to fight and struggle then if we are not saved by works? Because God does not compel us to love Him and we must love God more than anything else to be saved. We are constantly being attacked and tempted by Satan every day, and if we love something more than God these attacks will eventually succeed and we will show that we are not good soil and thus not saved. Our fight then is within our own heart. To be constantly examining it for things that threaten to steal our love for God. To be constantly orienting it towards God through daily prayer and meditation on Scripture.

I originally wrote this post in the middle of my last semester in seminary (March 2018). At that time I considered things to be bad spiritually, but I was expecting them to get better. I only had 7 hours that semester and had quit my job, so I had much less to do than previous semesters. Graduation was not far off and I was looking forward to being done with my studies and finally getting some rest. I even had a ministry opportunity I was looking forward to pursuing post graduation. If you’ve read some of my recent posts though about the various health issues I’ve faced recently you know that things did not get better. In fact they went from bad to worse and have only recently started to improve (and I hope and pray that they stay on this trajectory).

In light of my experiences since writing this originally I’ll add the following comment in closing: appearances can be deceiving. It doesn’t matter how distant or absent God seems from a situation. It doesn’t matter how beat up or defeated you feel. It doesn’t matter if you feel God doesn’t love you or has abandoned you. It doesn’t matter if you’ve given up on praying or Scripture reading or any other sort of spiritual discipline or exercise. It doesn’t matter if songs about God’s goodness make you angry.

What matters is what you believe about God. Do you believe in the Father, maker of heaven and earth? In Jesus Christ his only son who took on flesh and was crucified and raised on the third day for our salvation? In the Holy Spirit who indwells everyone who believes and trusts in Jesus? If you believe these things you have not lost the fight, but are still very much in it. God is with us, even when it doesn’t feel like it.

If you enjoyed reading this post please like and/or share it. I am trying to decide what to focus on post seminary now that my health is returning and your feedback on my writing is an important part of this decision.

Being Taught by Trees

PC: Imat Bagja Gumilar | Unsplash

I believe that God has created the world in such a way that we are constantly being taught about Him by it. Unfortunately these days we live in forests of concrete and steel, rather than of trees and plants and so I think we miss many of these opportunities for creation to teach us.

Ancient people however were very much in contact with the natural world that God created and were thus able to be taught by it. I suspect then that the reason agrarian imagery is used frequently in the Bible is not only because society at the time was agrarian and such images would have been easily understood, but also because it is accurate.

Think about it for a minute. When you plant something either it prospers and grows and produces something good, or it doesn’t grow or produces something rotten; there is no intermediate state. This is really the truth illustrated by the parable of the four soils: in the first three the seed, the word of God, doesn’t really produce anything, but it does in the fourth because they understood and believed the word of God. So, either we are growing spiritually, or we are dying spiritually; there is no intermediate state.

Another agrarian image frequently used to illustrate the spiritual condition of people are trees. If a tree is producing good fruit, or leaves or flowers you know that the tree is healthy and growing. But if a tree is producing bad fruit, or no leaves or no flowers you know that the tree is unhealthy and dying. So I don’t think it is surprising then that Jesus used tree imagery to describe people:

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.

— Matthew 7:15–20 (ESV)

But what is good fruit? And what is bad fruit? In Paul’s letter to the Galatians we find out that what is good fruit and what is bad fruit are the types of actions and attitudes in our lives. The bad fruit produced by someone who is spiritually diseased or unhealthy is:

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

— Galatians 5:19–21 (ESV)

But the good fruit produced by someone who is spiritually healthy is:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

— Galatians 5:22–23 (ESV)

The good fruit comes because:

And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

— Galatians 5:24 (ESV)

Regardless of where someone is spiritually, whether they are healthy and producing good fruit or diseased and producing bad fruit, both need to be nourished by the living waters found in Christ:

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ ” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

— John 7:37–39 (ESV)

The spiritually diseased person becomes healthy and begins to grow and produce good fruit. And the spiritually healthy person continues to be healthy and grow and produce good fruit. Those who are nourished by the living waters in Christ will endure whatever trials or hardships come their way:

“Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD,
whose trust is the LORD.
He is like a tree planted by water,
that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,
for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
for it does not cease to bear fruit.”

— Jeremiah 17:7–8 (ESV)

So next time you see a healthy tree (the bigger the better) perhaps take the time to say a quick prayer and ask God to make you like it, rather than simply passing on by. Just as many animals benefit from a healthy tree, either by finding food, shelter, or whatever, so will many people benefit from you being spiritually healthy. They will benefit from your love for others; your peace in the midst of hardships; your patience with their faults. We need to produce this sort of fruit in our lives. Not for our own personal benefit, but for the benefit of others.

The City of the Soul

PC: Aniket Deole | Unsplash

I think we are all afraid of God. Whether we are the most devout Christian on the planet, or the most hardened atheist, I think we are all afraid God. The difference I think is in to what extent we have gone to insulate ourselves from our fear.

Some of us have built massive sprawling metropolises in our souls to deafen them to the voice of God. We have used concrete and steel to construct buildings and skyscrapers in order to feel safe and secure in our pleasures, whatever they may be. Whether it’s in fine food. Or sex. Or athletic ability. Or professional accomplishments. Or money. Whatever they are we don’t want to hear the conclusion of The Preacher:

I did not restrain myself from getting whatever I wanted;
I did not deny myself anything that would bring me pleasure.
So all my accomplishments gave me joy;
this was my reward for all my effort.
Yet when I reflected on everything I had accomplished
and on all the effort that I had expended to accomplish it,
I concluded: “All these achievements and possessions are ultimately profitless—
like chasing the wind!
There is nothing gained from them on earth.”

Ecclesiastes 2.10-11 (NET)

The roads in our cities are paved. The reasoning, we tell ourselves, is so that we don’t have to walk in dust and get dirty. The real reason though is that we don’t want to be reminded that we came from dust and will one day return to it. We don’t want to be reminded of our death. Our death that comes about because we rebelled against God:

But to Adam he said,
“Because you obeyed your wife
and ate from the tree about which I commanded you,
‘You must not eat from it,’
cursed is the ground thanks to you;
in painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
but you will eat the grain of the field.
By the sweat of your brow you will eat food
until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust, and to dust you will return.”

Genesis 3.17-19 (NET)

Finally, we artificially light up the darkness of our souls with false hopes. Political parties. Technology. Economics. Sciences. Philosophies. Whatever we think will set the world right we put our hope in and light up our souls with. However by doing so we blind ourselves to Jesus, the true light:

The true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was created by him, but the world did not recognize him. He came to what was his own, but his own people did not receive him. But to all who have received him—those who believe in his name—he has given the right to become God’s children —children not born by human parents or by human desire or a husband’s decision, but by God.

John 1.9-13 (NET)

And so we insulate ourselves, whether consciously or not, from the voice of God. We don’t hear or see what He is telling us. We don’t see the stars at night. We don’t see the animals during the day. We don’t see the crops we get our food from. We’ve closed ourselves off from any and all reminders that we made neither ourselves nor the world we’re living in. We don’t hear what creation is telling us:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the sky displays his handiwork.
Day after day it speaks out;
night after night it reveals his greatness.
There is no actual speech or word,
nor is its voice literally heard.
Yet its voice echoes throughout the earth;
its words carry to the distant horizon.

Ps. 19.1-4 (NET)

I don’t like cities. I don’t like what happens to my soul when I don’t hear the voice of God because other concerns are crowding it out. For all the loneliness and isolation that may come from being in the desert it is a far more profitable place spiritually. In the desert there is no concrete or steel or artificial light to distract you from the voice of God. And I think this is why we don’t like being in spiritual deserts: because when we are in such a place we cannot get away from God even though we want to.

Give me the desert over the city.

 

Forgotten Elements in American Christianity: Ecclesiastes

American Christianity is unbalanced, I believe. This is not a uniquely American problem though; no culture will ever have a perfectly balanced expression of Christianity. Cultures have a certain set of values and those values inevitably help shape their expression of Christianity, for good and bad.

In America we tend to value practicality. We focus on making things productive and efficient. We focus on things that get results; that help us accomplish our goals. We are a goal-oriented society. This naturally leads to an emphasis on work, which is good because God created us to work:

The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. — Genesis 2.15

God expects us to work:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. — Exodus 20:8–10a

The Apostle Paul also expects us to work:

For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. — 2 Thessalonians 3:10–12

We also tend to value idealism. We’re eternal optimists. We’re always envisioning and imagining a better life, a better country, a better world. We differ quite vastly over what that ideal world looks like, but we are always imagining it. When we combine this with our emphasis on work it naturally leads to the conclusion that we can make our ideal world a reality. And this also is not a bad thing. The single mother, for example, who wants to get out of her minimum wage job and earn more money so she can work less and spend more time with her children should try to make that ideal a reality; it’s a good thing.

What isn’t good is when a healthy dose of the futility of life is not injected into the marriage of these two values. I think this injection is missing in American Christianity and I think it is missing because we have neglected the perspective of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes. I suspect if I surveyed 100 American Christians and asked them what their favorite book of the Bible is that Ecclesiastes would have less than 5 votes, in fact it might not get any. It is a sad thing to think about, and I think also indicative of why American Christianity is the way it is.

It requires us to think and reflect on some of the cold hard truths about life, and we don’t like to do this. It isn’t productive. It doesn’t produce results. It doesn’t help us reach our goals. So why bother with it? Not only this, but it also undermines our idealism with fatalism. Consider the following:

I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. — Ecclesiastes 1.14

Why would we want to acknowledge this? If this is true we reason, then why bother doing anything? Why bother standing up for the rights of the unborn? Why bother trying to eliminate racism? If it’s all useless then why bother? And so our thoughts stop there and we move on to the nice friendly passages that make us feel warm and fuzzy inside.

However once we come to grips with the perspective of the Preacher we can conclude along with him:

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. — Ecclesiastes 12.13-14

When we recognize that all our striving after the actualization of our ideals is useless and in the end doesn’t matter it frees us from carrying that unnecessary burden and allows us to focus on what does matter: keeping the commandments of God. We recognize that God will judge each of us individually. Were we covetous and never content with what we had? Were we adulterous and consistently involved in sexual promiscuity? Did we spread false lies about others for our own advantage? Did we love something more than God? How well we loved God and loved others is what we will be judged on.

The reason why I write this is because I have noticed a tendency over the past couple of years within the church to think that we need to solve the social injustices in our country and world. I think this is dangerous because it is placing an unnecessary burden on the church and I think it will eventually be too much for us to carry and will crush us. We are not called to solve all the problems and injustices of the world. We are called to be salt and light. Living testimonies of the love of God to all humanity. If we first look at the state of our own soul and work to purify and cleanse it, then the societal change we want to see will naturally flow from it. It does not work the other way around. This is what Christ taught us:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. — Matthew 23.25-28

 

 

 

Empty Spaces

Christ is the light of the world, whoever follows him will not walk in darkness, but have the light of life

“I am the light of the world. He that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”

I was offered a free desk yesterday afternoon while I was walking into my building after arriving home from church. I noticed the desk was an L-desk, something I had been looking for for a while, and so I quickly agreed to take it. When I moved my old desk out to make space for my new desk it occurred to me that I had a lot of space to play with. The question before me was, “What will I put in this empty space?”

The season of Trinity in the liturgical year poses the same question to us: “What will we put in this empty space?”  Will we put Christ in it? Will we allow Him to purge from us our sinful and evil ways? Will we do the things He commands us to do? Will we love Him more than the world?

Trinitytide is a season of growth, so let us allow Christ to grow in us, so that everyone may see His glory in us and be drawn into His kingdom. Amen.