By / Oct 18

I remember the first time I was the client in a counselor’s office. I was in college and visited the on-campus counseling center as a part of a class assignment. I was in the psychology program, and my professors gave bonus points for meeting with one of their graduate students. It was a win-win; the graduate student was able to practice, and I got bonus points (which I desperately needed after that last psychopharmacology test). 

I didn’t go easy on her. I was actually the type of client that all therapists dread. I stared at the poor graduate student with a “don’t even try it” kind of stare. I gave one-word answers. She had a smile pasted on her face and panic in her eyes. I was determined to get through the session with very little information shared, and I did. 

Despite my opposition, I really could have used counseling back then. Those around me knew it — a chaplain, a coach, roommates, and even a walk-in clinic doctor recognized the signs and approached me about them. Knowing what I know now, I met the criteria for a major depressive disorder. I needed help but was determined to figure it all out on my own. 

Recognizing my own need for counseling

After graduate school, I was fortunate enough to work for an organization where the leadership set an example of caring for their own mental health by talking openly about their personal counseling experiences. It was through this open environment that I finally gave myself permission to seek help. 

The leadership in my organization modeled for me how to be gentle and honest with myself. I didn’t have to be duplicitous, as I had assumed that I did. Through the vulnerability and humility of my supervisors and my therapist, I learned that I don’t have to be perfect or always have it together. And I don’t have to completely disconnect from myself by ignoring my emotional needs, throwing myself into my work at the cost of others and myself, or by distracting myself with mind-numbing activities like binge watching television shows or eating when I’m not hungry. I learned I can press forward in my life, bringing my struggles with me, instead of disconnecting, hiding, or leaving them behind. As I acknowledged the struggle, with the help of a compassionate third party, I was able to heal the parts of me that needed healing.  

Today, in my private practice as a marriage and family therapist and trauma specialist, I carry into my office every day the very important lessons that I once had to learn. The personal healing I have experienced allows me to bring all of me into whatever I am doing. When I sit with someone who is emotional, I can bear to sit in his or her presence because I have learned to be with my own emotional pain. When I hear a hard story, I can empathize and validate their experience, whereas, before, I would have had the strong urge to fix their problem and move on, the same urges I used on myself.  We see these same strong urges in Job when he is lamenting in his suffering and his friends, unable to bear it, suggest the reasons for his suffering and offer suggestions to fix it.  

It is my desire to share the lessons I had to learn with those who share a common interest in helping others through counseling, pastoring, or the like — and equip us all to serve and live in healthy ways within our communities.

Two years of trauma takes its toll on those in ministry

Over the course of my career, I have begun to see an increase in pastors, missionaries, and pastoral counselors reaching out for counseling. The past two years we, as a society, have experienced near relentless, collective, and complex trauma and grief. Ministers have reached breaking points as the weight of the demands by society, local community, and congregation have compounded into insurmountable weight. No one has come through these last two years unscathed. In my own home state of Tennessee, we have lost pastors to suicide. 

Pastors couldn’t catch their breath from one crisis before another was upon them. Church leaders have been forced to make urgent and unprecedented decisions with no road map and guaranteed backlash. They have had to adapt how they minister, learning new technologies and public health best practices. Pastors have had to learn how to disarm internet-fueled hostility among congregation members without the training to do so. Some have lost church members to suicide, drug overdoses, and other self-destructive decisions that pastors feel powerless to stop. 

At the same time, pastors have had their own emotional responses to what has been happening in our country and the world, while also leading people through collective grief. 

Somehow, in years past, many of us ascribed to the idea that to be a Christian meant to appear perfect. As this message grew, ministry leaders have had to work harder and harder to appear as if they have all the answers and have struggled with their own issues in the dark. In doing so, they have unintentionally led the way for the congregations to do the same. This false definition of faith, along with the compounded trauma we’ve all experienced, has led many ministers to lonely places where the choices include duplicitous living, cutting off from self, isolation from others, numbing behaviors, or despondency. 

You do not have to struggle alone. The loneliest place anyone can be is in the middle of their own personal struggles while in a leadership position. Authenticity could potentially either put you out of a job or possibly create a hostile working environment. It is important to understand that counseling is not just for individuals with a mental health diagnosis. Counseling can be a place to unburden, lament, grieve, share the internal struggle, work through conflict, work on relationships within the family, or sometimes, it can be a place of confession. At the very least, it’s a place you can go, where for at least an hour, you know you are not alone.

The hope of new beginnings 

Resurrection after death is a central tenant of the Christian faith. Endings are followed by new beginnings. We see evidence of this truth in the annual “death and resurrection” of the four seasons in nature, but this truth is demonstrated most clearly in the suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. 

We have the opportunity to see endings and beginnings with deaths and resurrections in our own lives.  When I entered counseling all those years ago, I was in the midst of suffering. I had the opportunity to recognize and put to death several grievances, hurts, and traumas from my own life. Out of that experience came a new beginning for me, and I began seeing the world and people in my life in a new and loving way. It is this hope of new life and faith in the cycle of death and promised resurrection that allows Christians to be resilient in the face of trauma and suffering.

My invitation to pastors is to slow down long enough to process all the pain and sorrow of the last few years and lament with God. It is an invitation to acknowledge, at least to yourself and to God, that you need help. Then, look for a professional in your area who can be an objective third party with some expertise in the area of your struggle. I invite you to begin honest conversations with your congregation about how someone can be a Christian and struggle with emotional and mental health issues. And I invite you to schedule a meeting with local counseling agencies or individuals about how you can work together in your community. 

Extending the blessing of care to others

It is my prayer that pastors realize that caring for their own mental health has blessings that extend into the emotional, mental, and spiritual life of their congregation. It begins by leading with vulnerability and humility, “boasting in weaknesses” like the Apostle Paul. (2 Corin 12:9)  It looks like acknowledging there isn’t always an answer to what is right, and that we can sit in the discomfort of that together without making an impulsive decision or declaration. This emotional patience demonstrates a resiliency factor found in spiritually mature individuals. Spiritual maturity can acknowledge the uneasiness in the question of why our loving God allows evil, hard things, sit in the uncertainty, and still trust and believe in the goodness of God (Job 13:15).  

The call for pastors and ministry leaders is simple, yet often hard to follow. Recognize and acknowledge your own mental and emotional pain. Do your work. Reach out and start down a path of honesty, humility, and accountability with a local counselor. Offer some of your story to your congregation, and extend to them the invitation to be honest. Connect with mental health professionals in your area, and find ways to collaborate to bring spiritual, mental, and emotional healing to your communities.  

I learned an important life lesson all those years ago when the leaders in my agency shared their own stories, talking openly about accountability and the support they needed. Their testimony opened to me a pathway that wasn’t available before — one that showed me that strong and passionate Christians can also struggle with mental health issues and what to do with that reality. A pathway that involves individual work, community work, and community support. Pastors and ministry leaders have an opportunity to introduce their congregations to this pathway, maybe for the first time, that bridges the emotional, mental, and spiritual health together. 

By / Feb 25

If you are like me, you are probably tired of hearing people use the phrase “These are unprecedented times, but we are going to get through it, somehow.” From zoom meetings to social media posts and endlessly repeated by cable news anchors, the phrase “unprecedented times” became the standard method of describing just how chaotic the past year has been. And make no mistake, it was made chaotic by a presidential election in a divided and polarized nation; an unforeseen pandemic that caused economic, social, and medical catastrophe; protests over the unjust killings of unarmed African American men that were the largest in American history;  and not to mention the wildfires that raged across the country and globe and threats of nuclear warfare in January, something I had forgotten until I was reminded by one of the endless “year in review lists.” Unprecedented. Unpredictable. Chaotic. Deadly. Heartbreaking. To look around this past year, the punches just kept coming with no relief in sight. 

What I would have given for some more precedented times. I wanted some normal stability and tranquility. So, it was with some hope that I read the new book by Alan Jacobs,’ professor of English literature at Baylor University, Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind. Don’t think this is a morbid volume; this is a book of hopeful method to guide readers (and all of us really) toward a better way of engaging with the world around us. However, in contrast to those who tell us to be present in this world or to “be in moment” Jacobs points out that this is the very thing that is sapping our souls. We are slaves to the present moment, to constant notifications from our phones or social media feeds, and an endless buffet of choices. Not that we are absent from the moment, but we are much too plugged in. Jacobs calls the reader to step out of their context, and instead, through the time machine that is literature, step into the world of the author. Only by doing so can we develop the personal density necessary to not be tossed about by each chaotic event in our present. 

Personal density and temporal bandwidth

The terms temporal bandwidth and personal density, borrowed from fiction, are Jacobs’s way of describing how much a person is consumed by the present moment. As temporal bandwidth increases, so too does personal density. And what is temporal bandwidth? It is just how much an individual exists in both the past and future, as well as the present. This sounds very ethereal, and in one sense it is—for the future which lies ahead in the vague time of “not yet” and past which lies in the equally foggy mists of time and memory—but it is also practical. Are you consumed by the moment, or do you see the broader story and sweep of history? For the Christian, there is an obvious connection here. Are you consumed by the controversies of the moment, the fleeting images on the screen in front of you, the endless fleeting distractions or do you meditate on the giant sweep of history? Now, Jacobs is not calling us to abandon the present, but rather to step outside of our own time and look at it from the outside, a practice we can do best when we interact with the literature of the past. 

Why does this matter? Because by expanding our temporal bandwidth, our sense of “now,” we are less likely to be rocked by every controversy that comes along. We become more stable. And Jacobs is not the first person to ask us to look to the past for stability. In the exilic period of the Hebrew people, they returned to the promises of the past and the hope of the future to make sense of the present. The same God who had brought them out of Egypt (Ex. 20:2) and who would bring them home again (Ezra 1:1-5) was also the same one that told them to take root in the cities where they were planted and seek its welfare (Jer. 29:4-9). What if they were to think only of the events of the moment? A sense of despair would have been natural. By looking beyond their present moment to the wider story of what God is doing, they were able to know what tranquility looked like. It did not look like peace in their circumstances, but peace within their souls, something that only can occur when you have a vision that stretches back to Eden and into eternity. The promises of eternity are an anchor to the soul in the chaos of the temporary.  

How the past can teach us

As we journey into the foreign country past, and make no mistake you are a stranger and sojourner in that land even if you read from the comfort of your recliner, what can we expect to learn? Well, first we learn that the past is a foreign country for “they do things differently there.” And sometimes that difference is appalling. The land of Huckleberry Finn as written by Mark Twain is to enter a world where racial epithets are common and slavery is the norm. To read Aristotle is to hear of the inferiority of women and that some are made for slavery. And the same Shakespeare who wrote of love and beauty with eloquence also relied on anti-Semitic tropes for his depictions of Shylock in the “Merchant of Venice.” For modern readers, it is reasonable to object to these depictions of our fellow human beings. As Jacobs reminds us, we should not bracket our morality when we read. 

However, we should recognize the inconsistencies of the past and that should help us in the present. The human condition is one of contradictions and imperfect application. If I can recognize in myself a lack of full consistency, why would I not extend that to the literature I read, and those I interact with on a daily basis. If Thomas Jefferson, the defender of those inalienable rights endowed by our Creator, could fail to fully apply those to those closest to him, most clearly the enslaved African Americans at Monticello, why would we think that we are exempt from the same inconsistency? We don’t ignore the inconsistency, but we don’t give into the sense that we are defiled by it either. Our journey into the past is a journey to a foreign country, but one that occurs on our terms. Or, in the language of the breaking bread metaphor that forms the heart of the book, we can leave the table at any time. We have no obligation to stay at the table, but Jacob reminds us that we will be better if we choose to sit longer and chew the meat before, even as we leave the bones of the other time and place. 

In reading, we should seek to find what Jacobs calls the “authentic kernel,” the moment in a book that speaks to an experience that you can share, even amid the swamp of deplorable sentiments in which it is mired. For even as broken as you may think an author is, authors are human. They share in our inconsistencies, but also in our common graces. Just as we must not silence our morality, neither should we silence those moments of joy and shared experience. I cannot share in every experience that an author or her subjects has, but there are fundamental experiences common to all of humanity ranging from questions of identity, longing for community, fear of loss, joy in the midst of grace, or forgiveness for wrongs committed. In wrestling with the sins of the past, let us also rest in those moments when God’s grace breaks through, across the ages and across pages, to remind us that they, like us, are fellow image bearers. 

Communing with the dead as an act of neighbor love

It is in those moments of grace that breaking bread with the dead reminds us of our need to do the same with those around us. Jacobs writes, as have others, that we are often completely fine breaking bread with those like us, whatever that category is. Most of us are willing to extend grace to those who are so foreign as to be strange or only conceive of us as “out there” somewhere in the ether. But it is those who are not like us but close that pose the greatest conundrum for us, and provoke the most visceral reactions. The family member who voted differently than we did but who we meet around the Thanksgiving table or the friend from high school who has suddenly become “woke” evokes a stronger reaction than the random individual on the internet. What are we to do with them? 

Reading literature reminds us that when we are asking these questions of the past, we are also asking them of the present. To ask, “Is Shakespeare like me” is to ask it of the overly political uncle and be reminded that he is. To put it another way, it is to ask, just as the lawyer did of Jesus “Who is my neighbor?” As we gather around the table and break bread with one another—whether literal or figurative—we can’t help but note that all of them are our neighbors. 

For a reminder, look no further than that first Lord’s Supper with saints and sinners gathered around a table breaking bread with one another. We may not have the same animosity with Mark Twain that Simon the Zealot (a Jewish nationalist) may have previously held for the tax collector Matthew. But gathered around the table we are invited to break bread, drink the wine, and enjoy the community. And in that moment, remembering Christ and looking to the future when we will share it with him in person, our sense of the present is stretched just a bit more. When we read literature and don’t bracket our morality, but acknowledge the deficiencies of the past and see them also in ourselves in the present, we learn how to better love our neighbors. Our feasts with the dead and journey to their land being a step toward meals with those closest to us in our own country. 

By / May 7

An early childhood memory of mine is of sitting by a window on a rainy day, watching the drops splash against the pane. Like all normal children, I spent most of my life racing around. But at this particular moment, I was still, and my mind had time to drift. I remember a series of questions popping into my head:

Why can I think?
Why do I exist?
Why am I a living, breathing, conscious person who experiences life?

I don’t really remember where the questions came from. Neither do I remember my exact age. They were just there. Unprompted.

I know I am not the first to have this kind of “moment.” When we sit still for long enough, all kinds of things bubble to the surface of our consciousness. But where exactly do our thoughts come from? Some of the loudest voices to answer this question come from neuroscience. They respond, “Your thoughts are merely the firing of neurons. End of story.” In other words, “You are your brain.”

Machine, muscle, or more?

Sir Colin Blakemore, Emeritus Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Oxford, said in 1976:

“The human brain is a machine which alone accounts for all our actions, our most private thoughts, our beliefs. All our actions are the products of the activity of our brains.”

If true, this view has implications for ethics, AI, and religious belief and experience.

But surely the mind is also important in this conversation? Surely, we don’t think with our brains but with our minds? But what exactly is the mind, and how does it relate to the brain? Herein lies the rub. The relationship of mind to brain has been disputed for centuries, because, as Marilynne Robinson, has pointed out,

“Whoever controls the definition of the mind controls the definition of humankind itself.”

The view of Blakemore and others, is that the mind is the brain. Mind and brain are identical. In other words, there isn’t really such a thing as the mind, but only the activity of the brain.

Poking at the dominant theory

What can we say about the view that reduces a person entirely to the workings of their brain? The following questions are helpful:

First, is it internally coherent? Is this a watertight position, or are there internal inconsistencies? If we were to dig deeper, we would see that this view deeply undermines human rationality and even our ability to practice science.

Second, does it have explanatory power? Does it make sense of the world we live in or merely add to the confusion? This view fails to explain the inner “me.” A large part of who I am comes from an unseen inner life consisting of thoughts, memories, emotions, and decisions, none of which are captured by cell voltages, neurotransmitters and blood-flow changes.

Third, can it be lived? Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984), was convinced that true beliefs line up with our experience of life. And what is our experience? We live as though we do the thinking, not our brains. Neurons do not think: people think. Mindfulness, self-help, counselling, autobiographies, child-abuse scandals, or indeed anything that requires introspection, all assume that the first-person vantage-point is real. We live as if there is far more to us than simply our brain.

Some alternative ideas

The voices that espouse this view are loud but are by no means the only ones in the choir. There are several alternatives espousing a mind that may interact with the brain but is certainly not at the mercy of it.

One alternative view is that the brain generates the mind. Neurons coalesce into thoughts. We know that a film is produced when a number of components pull together: the cast, script, camera crew, soundtrack, director, and so on. Similarly, when the components of the brain combine and reach a certain level of complexity, they give rise to something new and distinct: the mind. Once formed, the mind cannot be reduced back to its original components, just like the film that we watch is more than the sum of its contributors. It has become an experience. According to this view, the mind is more than the brain but is inextricably bound to it. But what happens to the mind when the brain dies?

A second alternative is that the mind is beyond the brain. Thoughts are beyond neurons. Mind and brain are two distinct substances that interact but can also operate independently of each other. There is a physical brain and a non-physical mind. But how exactly does a non-physical mind interact with a physical brain? Especially since neuroscience shows a strong connection between the two.

Thinking bigger

A great deal of time has been taken up in trying to answer the question of where our thoughts come from. Perhaps a question to break the stalemate is to ask, what they are for? In other words, why exactly can I think?

Scientists ask, can we trace consciousness back to its origins? The question is a good one. Of course, beliefs determine how far back we look. If we believe the natural world is all there is, then our search for the origins of consciousness will remain within nature. But what if there is more to this world than simply animals, vegetables, and minerals? What if the origins of consciousness are more ancient than this? If so, then we must expand the scope of our search beyond the natural world.

Christians believe that the origins of consciousness and human thought can be traced to a conscious being known as God who has always existed. “Why can I think?” We have a mind because God has a mind. We think because he thinks. We are conscious because he is conscious. And our minds, our thoughts, our conscious awareness of self and world—though real enough—are only the beginning.

In Am I Just My Brain, neuroscientist Sharon Dirckx lays out the current understanding of who we are from biologists, philosophers, theologians and psychologists, and points towards a bigger picture, that suggests answers to the fundamental questions of our existence. Not just "What am I?", but "Who am I?"—and "Why am I?"

By / Jun 12

On February 11, Danny Cortez preached an hour-long sermon to the congregation of the New Hope Community Church. The title of the sermon was “Why I Changed My Mind on Homosexuality.” In the sermon, Cortez argued that the clear prohibitions of homosexual conduct in the New Testament do not really apply today. He claimed that he attempted to immerse himself in ancient homoerotic literature “with a latte in hand.” In the process, he discovered that ancient homosexuality always involved violence, abuse and domination of a subordinate (boy, slave) by a superior (older man, master). By contrast, modern homosexuality is genuinely loving and does not involve such abuse. Using the New Testament to condemn homosexual conduct is wrongheaded. It is simply comparing apples to oranges.

Cortez is certainly right to oppose abuse. But he is wrong in claiming that this is the driving concern of Romans 1:26-27 and terribly wrong in his charge that the traditional Christian rejection of homosexuality is paramount to the very abuse that Paul condemned.

I am puzzled by Cortez’s portrayal of ancient homosexuality and by his interpretation of the New Testament. I admit that I have not chosen to immerse myself in ancient homoerotic literature like Pastor Cortez says that he has. On the other hand, I majored in Classics at a state university and remain a student of the history of the New Testament era preserved in the writings of the ancient Roman historians like Tacitus and Suetonius. Many ancient texts and quite a few ancient artifacts portray homosexuality in Paul’s time quite differently from what Cortez would lead us to believe.

To find an example of a homosexual who willingly adopted both dominant and passive roles in homosexual relationships, one need look no further than the infamous emperor Nero. He castrated a boy named Sporus (not to torture him but to prevent the onset of puberty and thus preserve Sporus’ femininity) and then publically married him in a ceremony with dowry, bridal veil and all the trappings. After the wedding, Nero had Sporus dress as an empress and treated him in every way as one would a queen. But this is not the entire story. Later Nero later fell in love with an adult free man named Doryphorus and publicly married him. Yet this time Nero chose to act as the bride and have Doryphorus act as groom. Then Nero played the feminine role in their homosexual acts. Suetonius portrays Nero’s relationship with these two men as characterized by genuine affection. Nero’s willingness to marry the men publically and confer royal privileges on them suggests that the relationship had remarkable similarities to the relationships of gay couples today. It certainly shows the fallacy in Cortez’s claim that in ancient homosexuality “The dominant would penetrate the passive, but it would never be reversed.”

One might also mention Aristotle’s description of the relationship between two Corinthian men. Aristotle described Philolaus, a famous philosopher and political thinker as “a lover of Diocles, the Olympic victor.” The two homosexual men lived together until the day that they died. They even chose to be buried side by side. These are only two of a plethora of ancient depictions of homosexual relationships in the Greco-Roman world demonstrating that Cortez’s portrayal of such relationships is mistaken.

The error of Cortez’s argument should be obvious to any careful readers of Romans 2, even if they are not familiar with ancient descriptions of homosexuality. Cortez interprets the text as if Romans 1:27 referred to men committing shameful acts with boys or abusers performing shameful acts on victims. But Paul actually wrote: “Males committed shameful acts with males.” The translation in the HCSB is very accurate and precise. The sexual act was a shameful act because it involved two people of the same gender, two males, and was thus a perversion of the Creator’s intention for sexual relationships (Gen. 2:24). Paul was not making assumptions about the act involving violence, abuse, or domination. The preceding statement in the verse actually implies that one male was not imposing his desires on another male, but rather the males “were inflamed in their lust for one another.” The reciprocal pronoun translated “for one another” implies mutual desire and reciprocity rather than violence, force and abuse.

I share Cortez’s concern for comparing apples to oranges. Things that are vastly different should not be equated. When I consider Cortez’s interpretation of Romans 1 and then read what the Apostle wrote under the inspiration of God–that’s when I see apples and oranges. Cortez’s interpretation is vastly different from what Paul wrote. I suspect that the Apostle Paul would be appalled by it. I hope Southern Baptists will be too.