In Search of an Answer

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Why me?

I have been asking that question for several weeks now. It’s a search to which I may never have a satisfactory answer. No records exist. No old journal or diary to consult. What information I have comes from my memory and that is not always reliable.

Why do I have depression?

The year was 1968. It was during the school year and I was in third grade. Although my oldest brother had taught me how to swim, Mom insisted that I take a course at the YMCA. Everyone was confined to the shallow end until you could swim under water from one side of the pool to the next. I accepted the challenge and gained my freedom to explore the deep. But, I couldn’t take advantage of it.

I got sick. It would take two weeks before I was well enough to go back to the YMCA. However, the course had ended and my opportunity had passed. The sickness came on suddenly. A high fever, spinning rooms, hallucinations, and paranoia gripped me. There were several days I couldn’t get out of bed.

My mother took me to three different doctors. We left their offices with three different diagnoses. As an adult I thought it may have been the Hong Kong flu epidemic, but with more study I found out that it didn’t reach the United States until 1969. No further clues and therefore answers are to be found.

It has been observed that people with the flu often become depressed, but it appears not to last much beyond the illness. I have focused on the high fever and that it caused some brain damage. However, fever with the flu (if that is what I had) rarely is high enough to cause brain damage.

The reason I focus on the fever is because of a long term after effect that troubled me for the next eight years. For lack of a better term, I will call them “seizures,” but they don’t strictly fit the definition. On occasion, I would wake up suddenly drenched in sweat, shaking, disoriented, the room spinning, and crying profusely without a reason. Always, I managed to awaken my mother and she gave me sweet hot tea and stayed with me until I was calm enough to go back to bed. A doctor suggested to her that I was just trying to get attention.  When the next one came on, I didn’t wake her and went through it alone.

At first, they were not frequent enough to rouse any concern, but the older I got the more frequent they became. My mother thought it might be related to my older brothers leaving home and beginning new lives with spouses and children of their own. But, when I had about three in a two week period of time, my mother took me to the doctor mentioned above. This time he referred me to a neurologist.

That doctor ordered a brain wave test. After the test results came back, he informed us that I had a blockage in my brain and put me on medication. I took those pills for two years – they were simply awful. Finally, I told my mother I had had enough and I was not taking them anymore. Mother didn’t object, but she prayed earnestly for me. I have not had another “seizure” from that time to this. The only residual effect I have is the room begins to spin if I have a slightly high temperature.

As I look back on those events, I can see a mood change. I was a happy kid, afterwards I was far too serious. Fear replaced courage. I became melancholy. Thirty years later melancholia turned into recurrent, severe depression.

That is all I know. Was that childhood illness the cause? If so, what was it? I can eliminate heredity as a cause – no one on either side of the family ever had long-term depression. No, I still think that prolonged fever caused a biological or chemical change in my brain. But, if that is true, is it reversible? I don’t have an answer.

The neurologist told Mom that I would never be able to handle much stress. I chose to be a pastor and a counselor – among the highest stress jobs you can take. The doctor was right. I have paid a heavy toll  both physically and mentally because of stress.

Although, I know all of the above information, there are questions still. What illness did I have in 1968? Was the water of the YMCA pool a contributing factor? What do I call those “seizures?” Is this the actual source of my depression, or should I look elsewhere?

I don’t know! So, I am still searching for an answer to the “Why?” question. I can only hope that the search is worth it.

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Time Off and a Mystery

I am taking this week and next week off as I prepare for and recover from surgery. The Lord willing, I will return on Wednesday, September 27, 2017. Thank you for reading my writings.

My next article, I think, will be an attempt to answer the question, “Why?”. As a former pastor and counselor, “Why” was the hardest question to answer. Many times there was simply no satisfactory response possible. I can remember looking into the longing eyes of people who wanted to know “Why” all of these things were happening to them. Often I bowed my head and said, “I don’t know.”

What do you say to a young couple sitting in a maternity room holding a still-born baby? A baby that was alive and kicking a couple of days before. I didn’t have an answer for their “Why”. They asked me to baptize their lifeless child. I did. It was not a day for a theology lesson; it was a day to be a pastor first. Although it brought comfort to them, the unknowable “Why” still hung in the air.

Just this week a person asked, “Why does life have to be so hard?” It’s not a new question. The author of Psalm 73 asked it in a similar manner, why am I slipping and the ungodly and wicked are prospering? Humankind has been asking “Why” for a very long time.

In two weeks, I hope to give some answers. Until then, I am on a quest to solve the mysterious “Why”.

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May the LORD be with you.

He Cared for My Soul

After I was incarcerated, there were several people who came to visit me – my youngest son, my oldest brother, men from one of the churches of my two-charge circuit where I had pastored, and a married couple from the other. They all had such kind words of encouragement. The ones from the two churches expressed appreciation for my ministry among them when they could have shamed or scolded me for bringing reproach upon their individual churches. I remain in touch with several of them and thank God for their support. However, none of them asked about my soul.

There were several who wrote to me on a regular basis – my other brother, two friends from high school, my former boss, and a close friend from Eastern Kentucky. The two or more letters I received each week were a lifeline. I was blessed to have my brothers and friends express trust and confidence in me. At the lowest point of my life, they lifted me up. But, none of them asked about my soul.

On every Wednesday, a local pastor made a contact visit. (In most of my visits, the visitor and I were separated by glass and we had to talk over phones. Our conversation could be listened to or recorded. Not so during a ministerial visit. I could actually shake hands with him, talk to him in a normal manner, and everything I said was confidential.)  During my year in jail, he missed at most only two or three times. He listened to my story without condemnation and shared his story with me. Before I went back to my cell, he always prayed with me.

Another minister came to visit after the Chaplain informed him about me. He pastored the local Presbyterian church and wanted to share with me as one minister to another. I felt free to express some fears and issues with him and he prayed earnestly for me more than once. Both of these men treated me with respect and told me over and over again that my ministry was not finished. Their visits gave me hope as they ministered to my spirit, yet neither asked about my soul.

Please don’t take this as being ungrateful or condemning in any way. All of them were concerned about me spiritually and prayed for me repeatedly. They were aware that I was seeking God, reading the Bible and other Christian literature, attending chapel and Bible study, and maintained a profession of faith. Besides, what do you say to a person who has been a Christ-follower for forty years, studied the Bible in depth, and had been a pastor/teacher for 36 years. All of them helped me when I most needed it and were pillars of strength when I was so very weak.

There was one, however, who consistently inquired about my soul. Several times during my year in jail and the years that have followed, he would ask, “Have you repented of your sins?” “How is your relationship with Jesus?” “Are you having daily devotions?” “Are you telling those you hurt how sorry you are?” And more than once he would repeat, “Are you sure you are right with God and know that you have been forgiven?”

He was direct. Fearless. Uncompromising. Persistent. Probing. Unsatisfied until I had explained my answer thoroughly.

I have known this man his entire life. He has overcome a great many genetic, mental, physical, and social issues. Under-educated, he works at Wal-Mart. He could stay home and draw a government disability check, but he chooses to work and support himself the best way he can. He is happy, smiles broadly, and laughs hardily. Most of all, he is a dedicated follower of Jesus Christ. From things he has done and said, I have come to believe that God talks to him in a very intimate way.

As I walked down the jail corridor with a guard escorting me to the visitation room, I heard a whisper, “It’s him.” Sure enough, it was him. He told me about his struggle to know if it was right and proper to visit me, but a lady at his church encouraged him to do so. It was during that first visit that the inquisition began. Each visit afterwards eventually led to the same set of questions.

After being released from jail, he called me one day with more of the same. At first, I was offended and weary of the searching. I had given him the same answer each time he asked. Why was he being so dogged? A few minutes later my attitude changed. Thankfulness replaced offense. Awareness followed. He was holding me accountable for my walk with Jesus.

A few months ago, he asked me again. I gave him a ready answer. He has made himself my spiritual accountability partner. He is welcome to do more of the same.

18447112_10155492554207867_5806284590722023497_nOh, by the way, that man is my oldest son, Adam, and he cares for my soul.

I love you, son.

Harvey is Depressed

About three weeks back, I was brainstorming with my wife regarding writing prompts.Image result for hurricane Harvey at sea There was one that particularly caught my attention: “What would it look like if nature was depressed?” I began jotting down several ideas and planned to post it today. Then Harvey happened, and the thought about nature and the natural event merged into a single idea.

We live about 170 miles north-northwest of where Harvey came ashore. It was forecast that our community could be hit with 70 plus mph wind gusts and up to 12 inches of rain. We made preparations to evacuate, if necessary. The coastal region was hit fiercely, resulting in destruction and damage to infrastructure and property. Flooding has devastated Houston. People have lost their lives, families are separated, and many are missing. And, Harvey is not finished yet.

We were spared the worst. Winds reached the mid-50 mph range and we received about six inches of rain. As I was walking Monday during the waning hours of Harvey in our area, I noticed the north side of all the vehicles was covered with leaves while the south side was clean. Evidently, we were on the downward side of the counter-clockwise storm rotation. Limbs are everywhere, some trees are down, and shingles from roofs are scattered about. But, nothing more serious happened here. Please continue praying and helping the people along the coast.

The reason all this happened started with nature being depressed. The evolution of a hurricane is something like this: a tropical disturbance occurs followed by a tropical depression, tropical storm, tropical cyclone, and finally a hurricane. It all started with disturbed and depressed pressure.

Those are the facts, but allow me, with respect and sensitivity to those who have paid and are paying a high price because of Harvey, to explore the idea of nature being clinically depressed.Image result for dark and rainy clouds blocking out the sun

Depressed nature’s day begins in darkness. Tears drip from its cloudy pillow upon the sheets of grass covering the earth. The night lingers, resisting the presence of light. When at last the sun prevails, it emerges clothed in pajamas of black and gray. The light mopes through the day unable to stop its forward motion and uninterested in trying. There is no struggle against the dimness of dusk. Rather, it is strangely welcomed. The skies moan as another day ends with little hope that tomorrow will be different.

It appears nature is trapped in a state of perpetual fall and winter. Things are either dying or dead already. Plants are in various stages of drooping and wilting, the grass is turning brown. Trees that once stood as towers of strength and grandeur are now denuded, slumping toward the earth. Creatures of the earth roam aimlessly in search of what they know not. Some are thin for want of appetite, while others are fat but never satisfied.

The caretakers of the earth worry about its prolonged sadness, decreased production, and low birth rates. The perpetuation of species is so disturbed that many are endangered. Park rangers and visitors are finding neglected and abandoned offspring. At other times, they observe the little ones being over-protected to near suffocation. Fear is thick in the forests and glades.

If one pauses to listen, silence meets them. Birds are not chirping against real or imagined danger.  The creatures of the earth fail to communicate with each other where food can be found or a pleasant resting place. There are no sounds of snorting deer or howling coyotes. Buzz is absent from the ear. The would-be-listener longs for the annoying gnat to appear, but alas it too is silent.

Frisbees lay undisturbed and balls gather dust as our companions lose interest in playing. The purr of pleasure is silent against our gentle strokes.

Batteries die as solar panels and wind mills are unable to collect energy from the unmoved wind and shadowed light. Coal and oil refuse to burn, atoms will not split. Thermal energy weakens as the core of the earth grows cold. The earth is too weak to quake.

Geysers are less faithful. Springs become temperamental and artesian wells sputter. The dysthymic morning mist that gives the Smoky Mountains its name lapses into depressive fog. The tide whimpers ashore. Nature appears to have lost its will to live.

The caretakers of the earth paint and decorate artificial masks of splendor in an attempt to both hide nature’s sadness and in a pretense of normalcy.

None of this, of course, describes Harvey. He is angry and violent. Anger is widely accepted as a symptom of depression in men. Dr. Michael J. Formica wrote, “Show me a mad guy and I’ll show you a sad guy.” Harvey came ashore in southeast and south-central Texas full of rage. Where he has been is evidenced by the destruction and misery he’s left behind. Although Harvey is weakening, he is still very capable of violence as he heads toward east Texas and western Louisiana.

This is a solemn piece, I know, but clinical depression is a grave condition. In the days before I became clinically depressed, my family and I laughed at the way I shuffled on days I had a depressed mood. I couldn’t replicate that shuffle when I was feeling good. Then came the day when it ceased to be funny and became frightfully chilling.

Texas will recover from Harvey. Nature will rebound. In a few years, scars left behind will exist in memories alone.

Most people who become depressed will eventually go into full remission and never have another episode. For a small minority, partial remission is the best outcome we can expect.

The greatest technological advances of humankind have yet to find a way to control the Harvey-like eruptions or dark and teary moods of nature. This is not so for most people who have a major depressive disorder. For all, but a limited few – 1/1000 of a percent of the population – depression is treatable.

Harvey is dying. By the end of the week it will likely be no more. The wind and rain, and all the other weather events a hurricane can spawn will be gone. The sun will shine again.

Unlike Harvey, you and I who fight depression do not have to die – either physically or emotionally. There is hope for a better tomorrow. You and I have a reason to live.

Letters from Jail #2*

Began on 05/23/2013

I have made the local TV news for two days now. The paper reported that I was doing very good against the two police officers before being tasered. Those two whipper-snappers should have thought twice before picking on an old, fat man. Honestly, I remember very little. (I had a dissociative episode and didn’t know what I had done until the police told me.) I guess all that fighting I have done in my sleep all these years finally paid off. Laugh or cry, you have to laugh or cry.

Reportedly, my reputation is known. The chaplain knows me as the well-educated minister. The guards know me as the guy who took on two policemen. My cell-mates know me as the naïve rookie. I just pray that Jay is not lost and the Jay in Christ overcomes all the other reputations.

I’ve been thinking about my jail experience. The conclusion I’ve come to is, jail experiences can be placed into three categories: noble, accidental, and nefarious. People who go to jail for a cause – persecution, political, or civil disobedience – can be called noble. That is true regardless if we agree with their cause or not. Accidental is obvious – the innocent, misidentified, etc. The criminal element, like me, would be the nefarious.

It’s hard for me to think of myself as criminal or to take responsibility for my actions alone. What I did was wrong, but there were so many mitigating circumstances that few, if any, could not imagine themselves responding in the same or a similar way. Am I making excuses? Am I avoiding responsibility?

If I could’ve proven my side, I could’ve walked away a free man. But, they had all the evidence on their side and my “victims” looked more pitiable. I took the deal, not because I was guilty of all they accused me, but because I had no defense. (I asked my lawyer to plead me “not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect,” but he told me it was almost impossible to prove in Kentucky.)

Rather than being in jail for a crime, I’ll think of it as “forced rest.” This will be the Years of Jubilee I have missed. After 39 years of ministry, I needed a sabbatical. Also, I could think of jail as “Club Madisonville.” My very own weight loss program. Exercise, proportional meals, no snacks . . . that ought to equal 50 lbs. of weight loss over a year

I have prayed for forgiveness. Forgiveness for not being strong enough to walk away. For attempting to direct my treatment when others could see clearer than I. For holding the material possessions of this world dear enough to fight over. (I don’t know how to pray about the fight, because I have almost no memory of it.) For not respecting God-ordained civil authority. _____

I had a real battle with pride yesterday. During Wednesday night Bible study, I couldn’t decide whether to use my knowledge or stay mostly mute. Finally, I decided to embrace who God has made me in Christ Jesus and use my talents for Him. It was a palpable moment for me, but I think I made the right choice.

Sunday is coming. I love the Lord’s Day – celebration, worship, festival, and holiday all in one. The services here have not been professional or well done. It appears a lot who go are looking for “friends” or to just get out of the cell for a while. Wednesday Bible study was chaotic and shallow.

Church today was the same as last week right down to the sermon. The man seems to care, though, and is upbeat. _____

I received a termination letter today from the agency where I worked. As firing letters go, it was the best I’ve ever received . . . It’s the only one I’ve ever received. They were nice and caring.

I received two cards today. One was from my brother and the other from my former boss. He said he was praying for me and offered to help in any way he could. _____

A couple of nights ago it got real quiet in the dorm, just in time for me to start talking in my sleep. “We’re not talking about it anymore,” I said. Everyone laughed and the quiet did not return for some time. One guy told me I better never do anything serious because I talk too much in my sleep.

Pray with me that I will learn the jail culture without losing myself. I need a conscience for this road I’ve never traveled. One guy is “mentoring” me. He said I was very naïve.

My day at a glance:

12-12:30 AM      Blood pressure checks. We all march down to the nurse. Like the rest of me, my BP has been near perfect. (A small attempt at humor.)

4-4:15 AM           Morning meds. I think the Risperidone I’m on is really helping to stabilize my mood.

5-6:00 AM           Breakfast . . . pancakes, oatmeal, or biscuits and gravy with fruit and juice.

6-7:00 AM           Devotions. Right now I’m in Mark and Psalms of a morning and Proverbs at night.

7-8:00 AM           Clean-up. Shower, brush teeth. We don’t change clothes but once a week. Although I change my skivvies more often. (TMI)

8-12:00 PM         I rest, read, and write. I’m rereading The Jesus I Never Knew by Phillip Yancy.

12-1:00 PM         Lunch

1-4:00 PM           Rest, read, and write. On MWF we are allowed one hour of recreation in the “yard.” Oh, the feel of the sun.

4-4:15 PM           Evening meds.

4:15-6:00 PM     Rest, read, and write.

6-7:00 PM           Clean-up. Sweep, clean restroom, mop.

7-8:00 PM           Supper

8-12:00 AM        Rest, read, and write. Reading from Proverbs.

Sunday is church and visitations.   Monday and Friday is court if you have a date before the judge.   Wednesday, I receive a visit from a local pastor. Bible study. Library night.   Wednesday and Saturday is wash day for whites.   Thursday and Monday is wash day for uniforms. We all sit around in our boxers until the uniforms are cleaned and returned. Uncomfortable!   Mail and concessions come in the morning, M-F. _____

Sometimes, I can’t help but think that much of my life has been a mistake in light of the way things have turned out. But, I must trust in the LORD. Some of it has been my failure. Some, the failure of others. Some, a combination of the two.

Jay

*I have edited and arranged the material from my letters for readability.

 

Another Look at the Parable of the Prodigal

x-the-older-brotherIt has been called the pearl and crown of all the parables. The gospel within the Gospels. The Christian world’s most loved story. The parable of the prodigal son, Luke 15:11-32, is the story of a young man who tires of being under his father’s authority, leaves, and returns to the welcoming and loving arms of his father. His older brother? Not so much.

The story, however, is not really about either the wayward son or the bitter son. It is about the lavish love of the father.

The father loves his sons enough to allow them to make poor decisions – the younger son leaves, the elder son sulks. Neither one is coerced nor cajoled into doing the will of the father. They are left to decide for themselves.

The father loves his sons enough to suffer insult at their hands. Asking for one’s inheritance before the father’s death was extremely offensive. It was against every standard of decency. In essence, the younger son was saying, “I wish you were dead.” In a case like this it was the elder son’s responsibility to help his father save face. He didn’t.

The father loves his sons enough to give generously to them. He gave the younger his inheritance and when he came back home, he returned his authority to him by giving him the family seal. To the elder he said, “All that I have is yours.”

The father loves his sons enough to embarrass himself for them. In the Ancient Near East, an elder did not run. It was beneath his dignity. Yet, the father runs to welcome the younger son home. When the elder son refused to attend his brother’s welcome home party, the father left to talk to his son. It was considered very rude behavior for the host to leave his guests.

The father loves his sons enough to dismiss the charges he has against them. The prodigal son sold the land he inherited, therefore it was forever lost to all the family’s future generations. The elder brother assumed the worst about his younger sibling and wanted nothing to do with his restoration.

What if this is NOT a story about a life-long sinner who makes his way to a loving God? And, what if it is not about a bitter man who feels neglected, overlooked, used, and unappreciated? What if it is really about two faithful and obedient sons, one of whom rebels against the rule of the father, and the other who grows cold and indifferent to the heart of the father?

Allow me to suggest a different story. Oh, the character and the love of the father does not change, but the sons are wearing different clothes.

A second century Jewish scholar, R. Judah ben Tema, gave a list at what age it could be assumed a man was ready for certain responsibilities. He wrote that 18 was the age for marriage, 20 for work, and 30 for authority. Perhaps, then, the “prodigal” was over 30 years old since he already was wearing the father’s signet ring. He is a man who has faithfully served the father his entire life – not the young teenager we often picture. Rather, he is married, hard at work, and has gained authority in his family and community.

If so, this second son becomes a once faithful man who has willingly fallen into sin. A faithful husband who leaves his wife and family for the tawdry pleasures of brothels. A faithful worker who quits his job for bar parties. A man of authority who gives it all up to chase some youthful fantasy.

The first son was an equally faithful man. He was faithful and committed to his wife and family, but it was more to garner favor with the father than out of any sense of personal conviction. He was a faithful worker and served the father well, but he expected public acknowledgement and recognition in return. He was a man of authority and never abused his position, but he guarded it fiercely against all rivals.

The vast majority agree that the “father” of Jesus’ parable is a picture of the Heavenly Father and His great love for all humankind. If you accept my possible image of the sons, then the younger is not a lifelong sinner, but a faithful follower of Jesus who falls in the most dramatic and public way. The elder is a faithful follower of Jesus who trades the soul of the Gospel – redemption and restoration – for sanitized reputation and disinfected community.

There is something unusual about this parable – Jesus leaves it unfinished. Is the younger son kicked to the curb to appease the elder? Does the elder son recognize the all-encompassing joy of the father over a lost and dead son being found and restored to life? The story is left for us to finish. How are you, how am I writing the ending?

A Face Behind Suicidal Thoughts

I’ve had training in suicide prevention. I know the statistics.* It is the tenth leading cause of death. Firearms are the number one method. Men complete suicide more than women. Men over 80 years of age and those between 15 and 24 are at the greatest risk. White men kill themselves more than any other race. The Golden Gate Bridge over San Francisco Bay is the most popular place to end one’s life. Reasons vary from loneliness and illness among older people and relationship troubles among the young. Only about 30% of people leave a note.

I know something else. All these statistics are sterile. They are gathered from death certificates annually, calculated by people who like numbers, and published for public consumption. There are no faces to go along with the stats. No mention of the psychological pain that would cause one to make such a permanent decision. No names of friends and family left to grieve, forever accompanied by the unsolvable mystery of WHY. No impact statement about the immediate and lasting effects. They are boneless, fleshless numbers that mean nothing to most and are too late to do any good for suffering survivors.

I cannot show you the face of someone who has completed suicide; their voice is silent. But, I can show you the face of someonePanther Canyon (3) who has seriously thought about suicide. It is my face. As I write this, I am fighting back tears as I think about the only difference between them and me is, I didn’t pull the trigger.

I have walked beside a river fighting the strongest urge to jump in. The thought of my brother, who was walking with me, drowning trying to save me was my only restraint. I have heard the whistle of a train speeding through town and wished I could stand in front of that giant diesel-electric locomotive, and be released from my pain.

I have looked at a pistol I owned, held it in my hand until I knew the feel and grip of the gun.  Purchased ammunition, loaded the clip. Over several weeks I practiced with the unloaded gun until it felt comfortable against my temple. I got as far as putting in the clip, but before I chambered a round, I called a friend for help.

For four-and-a-half years, from the spring of 2000 to the fall of 2004, I thought about suicide every day. I prayed earnestly for death to release me from my physical and emotional pain. In the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, I drove too fast for the winding, twisting, climbing, and falling narrow roads. Sometimes, in the back alleys and lanes of Appalachia, I entertained the silly notion of being hijacked. The scene rolled through my head something like this: the perpetrator would force me to drive. Along the way I gained speed and slammed into some unmovable object that results in both our deaths. Thus, intentionally ending my life, but leaving my family and others to think otherwise. It was a boyish fantasy, but I was searching for some way to die in a way that appeared legitimate.

As I have written before, my melancholia turned to clinical depression in the summer of 1999. By October of that year, I was in agonizing pain from Irritable Bowel Syndrome. I didn’t have constipation or diarrhea, I had incapacitating pain. For the next 12 months it was relentless. Some days it was moderate, other days it was severe, but I was never without it. Two trips to the hospital, multiple med changes trying to find relief, a referral to a Gastroenterologist, and participating in a clinical trial for a new IBS “miracle” drug resulted in no change.

Pain was the direct cause for my thoughts, but the consequences added to my despair. For 26 years I did nothing but prepare and serve as a pastor/teacher. I didn’t want to do other things. I had planned to be in full-time Christian service for life. I was poorly prepared to work in the secular world. However, it was plain to see by my worsening condition that I wouldn’t ever pastor or teach full-time again.

The church I pastored was virtually trouble free and growing rapidly. We were quickly running out of space and had recently purchased 12 acres for relocation. When the IBS and depression sidelined me, it all came to a screeching halt. My wife tried to hide the stagnation and decline from me, but on the rare Sundays that I was able to attend the evidence was all around. I had become a roadblock to progress; resigning was inevitable.

At some point, we decided my wife needed to get a job. My pain and depression brought an air of uncertainty into our family that never existed before. At 17 our daughter announced she was pregnant. I blamed myself for causing the family to destabilize and fear. The tight father/daughter relationship we had became strained. Eventually, my depression became too much for my wife and she pulled away from me, too.

By the spring of 2000, I was having suicidal thoughts, but it wasn’t until a summer family camping trip to a southern Indiana park that I told my wife. The two of us were strolling along in the camp grounds on an evening walk when I told her I wanted to die and was thinking about killing myself. She told me how hurtful and harmful it would be, but neither one of us spoke about it to anyone else. It was our family secret.

The longer the pain and depression lingered and the more loss I experienced, the more I wanted to end my life. My wife was taking me to another doctor’s appointment when I told her that I had reconciled in my mind leaving her and our children, leaving my aging and ailing parents, and leaving all others. The only thought preventing me was the spiritual destination of my soul.

Again in 2007, 2008, 2013, and 2014, I had briefer, but as or more intense suicidal thoughts than before. I voluntarily hospitalized myself four times.

Today, I can say I have had no suicidal thoughts since November of 2014 – the longest period I have gone since 1999. IBS hasn’t been an issue for several years now and I am at peace with my depression. For years afterward I grieved the loss of the church I pastored and my full-time ministry, but I have come to accept it. God answered my prayer to die with a, “No,” and I am very thankful. Life is worth living.

I taught my wife to ask the question, “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” when I appear deeply depressed. She had to ask it a few weeks ago. I thanked her for asking, gave her a hug, a kiss on the check, and gratefully said, “No.”

If you are contemplating suicide, please call someone or go to your local emergency room. Give hope a chance. I am alive today because of hope. Sometimes it was as thin as a spider’s silk, but it never left me.

The LORD is with you.

*Some of the statistics were verified from the CDC. All statistics are for the United States.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline     1-800-273-8255

Controlling Expectations

Image result for controlling expectations“Expectations” can be defined as the belief that certain things are going to happen.

Expectations can be negative, positive, or indifferent.

We all have expectations. They can be elementary like Annie sings, “The sun will come out tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar there’ll be sun.” They can be grandiose and complex or small, underwhelming, old, and ordinary.

Expectations can be goals and dreams for the future. The lack of expectations can be an admission of defeat.

You can manipulate the outcome of your expectations in a negative way by sabotaging your success. All of us have a way of bringing about the results we expect.

Expect poor results, and the odds are you will get poor results.

Manipulation does not have to be a bad word. Dr. Keith Drury said,

“The person with the plan is the person with the power.”

Expect good results, and the odds are in your favor to get good results.

You are disappointed when your expectations are not met.  When I married, I expected it to be easy. We both were from Christian families and reared in church in sister denominations, attended the same Bible college, shared the same belief and value system, loved music and performance, and were devoted Christians.

What could go wrong?

Plenty!

We soon discovered we had many and significant differences. She was a spend-thrift, I was a saver. She was an emotional thinker, I was a logical thinker. She was always on the go, go, go, I was a homebody. She was spontaneous, I was a planner. She was gregarious and recharged her batteries by being with lots of people, I was an introvert and recharged my batteries by being alone.

Our adult daughter observed, “Everyone can see you have nothing in common.”

There was frequent conflict.

She wanted a gentleman, I wanted a wife who could play the piano and sing alto. We both got what we wanted, but from the beginning to the end it was not what we expected.

I have learned something about expectations:

  • The only expectations you can control are the expectations you have of yourself.
  • Good, bad, or indifferent outcomes depend upon your level of control.
  • The expectations you have that you cannot control is a recipe for disappointment.

Before my second marriage, I remembered the words of a former pastor,

“Do not have any expectations of her.”

That is exactly what I set out to do. I wrote down the expectations I had of myself and read them frequently. It is working thus far.

If you are measuring others by your expectations, you are using the wrong yardstick. Use the one closer to home.

The LORD be with you.

Letters from Jail: #1

The following is excerpts from letters I wrote while serving a 360-day sentence in county lock-up. I edited and arranged the material for readability.

Began on 05/18/2013

Image result for letters from jailIt is my first opportunity to write; I had no paper until now. It is in pencil because that is all we’re allowed – they are those little golf pencils that are too small for big hands.

My first few days have been uneventful. The dorm holds ten men and has one restroom and one shower. I can change my clothes and bed sheets once a week. With that, I’m not sure what the point of a shower is, but I guess some semblance of civilization must prevail.

There are eight other guys in here. One is a reader, cites and writes poetry, and appears very intelligent. Another controls the T.V. remote, changing the channels frequently. The rest sleep much of the day. If I could record the variety of snores coming from this room of men, perhaps I could produce one of those Jingle Bells recordings – you know, like the dogs barking. I can’t lay in the bunk all day, reading and writing have become my refuge.

The tedium is suffocating – three meals, morning and evening medication calls, and a midnight walk down the hall to get my blood pressure checked. The only break in the monotony of the day is when the guards come through the dorm on their hourly bed check. I hope to get involved in work, church, and/or Bible study.

After midnight blood pressure check, the dorm comes to life with activity. Showers, T.V., visiting with each other, card games, and reading. This goes on until 1:30 or 2:00 AM or until the guard in central control turns off the T.V.

One of the men gave me a Bible until the chaplain sent me one I could have for myself. It’s an NIV (New International Version), which was what I was reading at home. Reading is tough amidst the constant noise of the T.V.  Prayer is even tougher. Sometimes God seems close, but most of the time He feels far away. I’m trying to read a Psalm and a chapter from Proverbs each day. I’m also reading from Mark.

I’ve been writing a list of events and happenings over the past 35 years for which to repent of, ask forgiveness for, and to forgive others for. The act of writing them all down gives me an opportunity to pray about each one and to release any anger that I may have about them. I need forgiveness, a sense of release from my guilt, and peace in my heart, mind, and soul. Pray with me that “no root of bitterness” will spring up in me. I don’t want to hate or despise anyone.

My mood yesterday was depressed. It seems I overcome one battle of forgiveness only to face another. Two more things came up in court. I didn’t contest either one, although I thought parts of the first were unfair; and all I can say about the second is, “Good luck!” (More was disclosed here than I feel free to share for the sake of others.) You see my struggle to forgive when hurt keeps coming, but forgive I must. Yesterday morning I felt free, today I am attempting to break free of these chains.

Why can’t it be easier, but then again, if forgiveness was easy God would not have required the blood of Jesus. Battle must be part of the victory. In battle you discover both your weaknesses and strengths. What can I say? I must march forward. I dare not go back or stay stagnate. I’m reminded of what Jesus told Peter, 70 times seven. Seventy times seven, Jay.

I don’t know how I got here. I was too weak, too emotionally drained, too mentally spent, too sick to walk away. I broke one of my fundamental principles – don’t fight over material things. Too tightly did I hang onto the loaves and fishes and missed the message of Jesus as He passed by. It begs the question; do we own our possessions or do our possessions own us? Help me pray.

It is the Lord’s Day and I just got back from church. There is no singing, but one man gave a really good testimony. I’m not sure where the chaplain got his training, but he leaves a lot to be desired. Today, he had The Lord’s Prayer at the end of Matthew and Pentecost on Thursday. I feel sorry for the men in here if that’s all the spiritual instruction they get. Whatever his faults, though, he appears to have a good rapport with them.

My brother came to see me today. If we’d had a gavel it could have been a real business meeting. There are so many things to do. So many decisions to make.

Goodbye for now. Pray for hearts to be softened towards me and that I would forgive and be forgiven.

Sincerely,

Jay

One Day’s Struggle Against the Dragon of Depression

July 15, 2017

Today is starting well. It is 5:30 and I’m ready to get up and start my day. But for the sakeImage result for dim light in darkness of Charity (my wife), I will read the news and check out the posts on Facebook until 8:00. Although my night was short, it was five hours of sound slumber without any PTSD dreams to disturb my sleep.

9:30 finds me in the shower getting reading for the day and anticipating brunch.

10:00. On the weekend, Charity almost always fixes a nice brunch on Saturdays. Today it’s pancakes and bacon. While I’m eating my breakfast a cloud of darkness descends and engulfs me in its blackness. I finish the meal with my head in my hands. My plans of putting baseboard down will have to wait.

Why am I suddenly sad? Every reserve of energy has evaporated like the morning mist does when introduced to the sun. My strength is failing as an abyss of sorrow overpowers me. Any will I had mustered for the task ahead, any determination and resolution, and any excitement and joy is being replaced with paralyzing fear and disabling weakness. Why is this happening? Is my tendency toward perfectionism causing me to question my ability? I have been undaunted about taking on projects that I previously had no experience doing. Why has my confidence left me now?

10:30 The night of restful sleep is consumed by my dragon of gloom until I am left chained to the desire for isolation and helpless against my eyelids forcing out the light.

2:00 Nearly four hours have passed. As I slump in my chair in various stages of sleep and wakefulness, my sleep is not deep enough to escape from Saturday’s normal house noises – our grandchildren playing, and Charity coming in to check on me and ask a question or two. Yet, my wakefulness is not enough to move beyond my four-legged dungeon. Only the call of nature makes the foreboding door open, but freedom is not within reach. A tether of sadness does not let me stray far.

2:30 Trying to chase away my dragon with numbing noise, I turn on the T.V. For a few moments as a story unfolds I climb upward, but with each commercial or the end of a story I fall off my ladder of escape. This repeats itself for the next eight hours.

4:00 Charity comes in again as she has done throughout the day. She comforts me with an engulfing hug, a tender and empathetic kiss, and a reassuring, “I love you.” Her kindness and supportive gestures are appreciated far beyond my ability to reciprocate. The bars of the dungeon are too strong and I remain trapped in the dragon’s lair.

Could it be a crisis of confidence? I wonder, looking for answers where there seems to be none. Has my fear of failure reduced me to inaction? Are my perfectionistic tendencies crippling my mind with a fog of mistakes? Bedtime releases me from the dungeon to walk two steps to my bed where the sense of gloom and sadness has me ensconced still.

10:00 As I prepare for the unknown night, the 25th day of my battle with the dragon comes to an end. It has won the day and gained ground. What will tomorrow bring – more defeat, a draw, or a little victory?

As I settle into the bed and pillow my head, I see a ray of light. It is the same Light that has always been there through nearly two decades of battle with the dragon.  It is sometimes so dull and faint the darkness threatens to shut Him out; sometimes bright, shining rays of hope into my despair.

Hebrews 6:18 reads, “This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast . . .” Hope is the best medicine for despair. If all of the things I treasure are suddenly gone and I still have a dose of hope, I can survive. I can thrive. Someone said, “There is nothing left but to bury a man when all hope is gone.” But, for the Light, however dim, I would be that man. Hope has kept me alive. It is when hope is fed that the shadow of death must give way.

A second thought entered my mind before I went to sleep. What can I learn from this depression episode? Here I confess my independence and the efforts to conquer my dragon by my own power. I need help – the help of God, my family, and my support network. When I humble myself and admit my weakness, that is when I grow in strength. May the lessons I learn be put to good use to help family, others, and myself.

11:00 Sleep joins my hope and willingness to learn, which together provides a peaceful slumber.  My last thought of the night is that tomorrow will be a better day.

May the LORD be with you.

WITHOUT DEPRESSION, I WOULD . . .

A person sent me a note last week that read in part, “I am so sorry you have to suffer from the illness of depression.” Immediately I responded with a “Don’t be sorry for me.”

The 19th century pastor, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, had a mega-church before that phrase was coined. By age 22 he hadImage result for charles haddon spurgeon crowds that surpassed the 10,000-seat capacity of the largest auditorium in London. Yet, he was plagued with disabling depression. However, he credited his depression with making him a better minister.  “The way to stronger faith usually lies along the rough pathway of sorrow,” he said.

“I am afraid that all the grace that I have got out of my comfortable and easy times and happy hours, might almost lie on a penny. But the good that I have received from my sorrows, and pains, and griefs, is altogether incalculable.… Affliction is the best bit of furniture in my house. It is the best book in a minister’s library.”

At another time he wrote, “I would go into the deeps a hundred times to cheer a downcast spirit. It is good for me to have been afflicted, that I might know how to speak a word in season to one that is weary.”

Since I received that note, I have thought about what I would have lost without depression.

Without depression, I would not have the understanding or insight I possess today. The food of despair, the drink of hopelessness, the bitter cup of feeling forsaken by God, the acrimonious prayers to die, and the dish of suicidal ideations have plagued my soul. I can sit with people who lounge in the cellar of darkness and understand the depth of their agony. I have more authority than most to speak to them in their misery, because I sat where they sit.

Without depression, I would not have discovered my capacity for empathy and compassion. Because of the losses I have experienced I can sit at the table of sorrow with others and weep with those who weep. It brings a modicum of comfort and mollifies the feeling of aloneness when someone who has hazarded the treacherous waters before you enfolds you with arms of mercy.

Without depression, I would not be able to effectively advocate for those hidden and forgotten by society. I was homeless four times, penniless – without a cent to my name – for seven months, without transportation, unable to get housing or employment because of my criminal record, prevented from being near my fiance’s grandchildren, slandered, shunned, and denied a path to ministerial restoration without a hearing. Many doors were bolted against me because governments erected hundreds of barriers for the criminally convicted that prevent housing, employment, and stability. The floor attachment of a vacuum is being used to clean the fine furniture. As a result the beautiful upholstery is being sucked in along with the intended dust. The resulting damage far outweighs the harm the dust could ever have done. Federal, state, and local governments demand science based outcomes, but they are guilty of ignoring that same science when it comes to making laws and regulations. I have experienced the injustice and can now give voice to righteous causes.

Without depression, I would not know the need to fight against the stigma of mental illness. I become angry when I hear others define the life and character of an individual with a mental illness diagnosis, “He is schizophrenic” or “She is autistic.” In every other health discipline stigmatic vocabulary has been eliminated. “He is a dwarf,” thankfully has passed from formal usage. To say, “She is retarded,” is considered cruel. There would be a rousing chorus of fervent criticism against any hospital staff that referred to its patients as “the heart attack at the end of the hall,” or “the cancer in room 303.” The purveyors of kindness in our society have overlooked the labeling, prejudice, discrimination, and separation experienced by the mental health community. This needs to change.

Without depression, I would not have experienced the freedom that came inside a jail cell. Imprisonment was the only thing that stopped me cold on the path of personal destruction. A year of confinement gave my mind and body the rest it desperately needed after nearly forty years of abuse. Most importantly, it gave me an opportunity to renew my relationship with God.

Without depression, I would not be on the path to becoming the man I always thought God wanted me to be. Gone is the uncontrolled anger and yelling. In its place has come a capacity and ability to love others unconditionally, forgive, humble myself, and grow as a husband, father, and grandfather. What I had aspired to be all my life is becoming a reality and the boundaries of who I can become are being moved higher.

Without depression, I would not know the joy of being in right relationship with Jesus Christ. Beyond elevated emotions, beyond a rule book and a uniform, beyond correct dogma and doctrine, and beyond creeds and rituals; I have come to know that abiding place in Jesus where I as a branch receive nourishment from Him as the Vine, submission of myself and the desires and plans I may have to the Lordship of Christ, and a desire to know God in His revealed character and attributes, the splendor of His creation, and the grace of His redemptive work.

Spurgeon professed, “This depression comes over me whenever the Lord is preparing

a larger blessing for my ministry; the cloud is black before it breaks, and overshadows before it yields its deluge of mercy. Depression has now become to me as a prophet in rough clothing, a John the Baptist, heralding the nearer coming of my Lord’s richer benison (blessing).”

Do not be sorry for me. Without depression, I would not have the experience, knowledge, and wisdom I have today. Several years ago I quit praying for healing. My prayer now is to learn the lessons God is trying to teach me through each depressive episode.

May the LORD be with you.

 

GRIEF and the FAMILIES of PERPETRATORS

Image result for suzanne hodgkinson“I get up every morning feeling guilty because I didn’t stop it,” said Ms. Susanne Hodgkinson, the wife of the man who wounded Congressman Steve Scalise and three others during baseball practice for a charity game between Republicans and Democrats.  She continued, “I wake up with hot sweats, thinking: ‘You should have known. You should have known,’” writes JULIE TURKEWITZ for the New York Times.

The families of people who perpetrate mass or serial shootings, murders, rapes, or child abusing/molesting crimes have a very different experience than anyone else who loses a loved one.

While supply-pastor at a church in Jackson, Mississippi, I walked with a family through a similar experience. It was heart wrenching to see the complicated grief of this family whose son had killed another person. He was not dead, but it felt very much like it. This dear Christian family, who I will refer to as the Johnson’s, traveled through some very different, dark, and troubled waters.

There were the legal issues – acquiring a lawyer who was willing to defend someone whose guilt was without question. Guardianship over him was established in order to conduct necessary business on his behalf. Bank accounts were accessed and a new one established. Outstanding loans needed paid or arrangements made for the property to be repossessed. Anything remaining was invested. There was also the question regarding the custody and rearing of a child left fatherless, but whose father was still alive. Social Services came in to protect the interest of the child. The court appointed an advocate on his/her behalf and a trust was established to protect the child’s assets. The Social Security Administration and insurance companies got involved.

For the families of perpetrators who died while committing their crimes, Ms. Turkewitz writes, “There is the question of how to mourn. How to dispose of a body that everyone else wants to forget.” She reports that the funeral home that accepted the body of one of the Boston Marathon bombers had protesters outside their place of business carrying signs that said, “Bury the garbage in the landfill.” The pastor that conducted the small private funeral of Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine shooters, was forced from his church because of it. The relatives of the San Bernardino killers were refused burial in California cemeteries and had to be interned in another state.

The Johnsons knew and were close to the victim and grappled with what to do or say to the victim’s family. At first the conversation between the two families was civil and forgiving, but it soon turned to hostility. Accusations and condemnations were thrown about. The Johnsons absorbed the vitriol without offering a defense because of their own feelings of regret, guilt, and shame. The family debated the propriety of attending the funeral, and at last a few decided to go. They still wonder, after over 25 years, if it was the right thing to do.

Ms. Turkewitz tells the tales of “hate mail, death threats,” and other dangers that the families of perpetrators endure. Ms. Hodgkinson was slapped in the face by a stranger while in a grocery store parking lot. Her neighbors now get her groceries, mow her lawn, and take “out her trash, dispersing it around town to evade snoops.” She is worried about the treatment her granddaughters will get when they return to school this fall.

The Johnson family had their share of troubles, too. Mr. Johnson was shot at from an unknown shooter that shattered the driver’s side mirror while he was getting out of his car. The social worker recommended against placing the child with the Johnsons solely based on them being the parents of the perpetrator. The court-appointed advocate was especially cruel with cutting remarks, a constant air of suspension, and an attitude of guilt by association. Fortunately, the judge saw a different image of the Johnsons than had been painted and awarded them custody. Today the child is an adult with multiple emotions of his/her own. S/he had a difficult introduction to adulthood, but has since overcome and is doing well.

The Johnsons grieved for the son, father, and brother who was capable of doing such a heinous thing. Mr. Johnson mowed his yard several times a week; it was when he could cry alone. Mrs. Johnson was filled with shame, remorse, and guilt that she never quite got over and took to her grave. His three children carry the stigma of being the offspring of a perpetrator and have a very complicated relationship with him. His brothers grieved hard, but had to mask their grief with strength in order to take care of all the multitude of things that resulted. They shared their grief with each other and with their wives, but few others.

As a pastor no thought of my reputation entered my mind. There was a family that was hurting and I rushed to be at their side. I took every opportunity available to be with them through it all. It was unchartered waters for me and all the other ministers who visited; they do not teach this kind of thing in seminary.

Through this experience I learned a few things. . .

  • The families of perpetrators grieve for both their loved one AND his/her victims. It is a pain that shakes them to the core. Their moral and ethical belief system is challenged. The “Why” question haunts them through the night and all of the day. They carry a tremendous load of stress and question over and over again every move they make. The victims and their families weigh heavily upon their collective conscience.
  • The families of perpetrators are filled with regret, guilt, and shame. Regret is sadness and disappointment coupled with repentance. Repeatedly they will ask for forgiveness for what their loved one has done as if they are somehow culpable. Guilt is the feeling one gets when s/he does something wrong. “How did I miss the signs?” “What could I have done more?” are questions they ask themselves repeatedly as if on a recorded loop. Shame goes beyond regret and guilt and attacks a person’s beliefs, values, and who they are as a human being. “Where did I go wrong?” “What is wrong with me?” Beliefs and values are challenged and they feel responsible for their loved one’s actions.
  • The families of perpetrators come to believe that they deserve the severe treatment and hatred of others. After all it was their son, father, and brother that did this awful thing; they may have felt the same way were the roles reversed.
  • The families of perpetrators grieve long after it leaves the consciousness of the public. Long after the haters and despisers become silent. Long after their ministers and the other members of their network cease their extra visits and support. Alone, in the middle of the night, perhaps years after the event, they still cry.

Ms. Turkewitz quotes Sue Klebold, “When you lose a loved one who has hurt other people, one of the struggles you have is the ability to focus on your sorrow, because your grief is so complicated by all these other things.”

Since my experience with the Johnson family, when I hear of these terrible incidents, I pray not only for victims and their families, but also for the perpetrator’s family. Of all the victims, they may be the most pathetic.

May the peace of God be with you.

*Italics separate my contribution and that of Ms. Turkewitz.

*Photo by Kaly Johnson

Quotes on Restoration

Restoration to fellowship is the fallen Christian’s immediate need . . . The whole purpose of restoration is to get the person back to where s/he was . . . Eventually a fallen Christian who clearly repents (placed under a loving, spiritual mentor for accountability and growth) and reforms should be restored completely . . .

From the sermon: Restoring Fallen Christians and the Ministry of Reconciliation, by Jim Miller on August 20, 2002.

Quotes on Restoration

Image result for galatians 6:1“Brethren, if any person is overtaken in misconduct or sin of any sort, you who are spiritual [who are responsive to and controlled by the Spirit] should set him right and restore and reinstate him, without any sense of superiority and with all gentleness, keeping an attentive eye on yourself, lest you should be tempted also.”

Galatians 6:1 Amplified Bible

Quotes on Restoration

Image result for God fixes the broken

“God is able to fix that which is broken so that what stands repaired is immeasurably greater than that which stood before it needed repair. Therefore, the most staggering brokenness conceivable is in reality the greatest opportunity imaginable.”
― Craig D. Lounsbrough

Quotes on Restoration

Image result for restore the fallen“You demonstrate biblical love when you take steps to restore a fellow-believer overtaken in sin. This not only encourages a fallen believer to return to his first love of Jesus Christ, but it also gives others involved in the restoration process on-going opportunities to examine the depth of their love to the Lord.”

– John C. Broger