What Can I Do To Be Healthier and Happier?

Ice Cream MeltingMost everyone has “down days,” times when they feel depressed or lonely or abandoned.  Then the weather improves, the sun comes out, and they feel better.  Or they get good news, or finish a task, or hear some sweet song from their memory or see something beautiful, and the bad feelings just seems to melt like an ice cream at a July 4th picnic.

Then there are those of us who fight with depression or loneliness like the zombies, orcs and trolls from the World of Warcraft.  No matter how effective your weaponry seems to be, they just seem to keep coming from some pit in the computer: a tireless, endless, undying mudslide of enemies determined to sap your life and leave you staring at a screen that says, “Game Over,” after you lost.

But there is hope; okay, probably not for a gamer; the geeks are just going to keep programming better and better demons until no one can really win.  Never having played an online role-playing game, I can only imagine, which is all I want to do about computer games.  But there is hope for those of us who struggle with real demons, and whose computers are only our brains.

brain gray under waterDid I say, “only our brains?”  Our human brains are so far advanced over other animals, even chimpanzees, that the comparison is like a rocket to a tricycle.  And even a chimp’s brain compared to a mechanical computer is like a skyscraper to a grain of sand!  You have in your three pounds of gray jello about 100,000,000,000 neurons!  That’s one hundred billion!  With multiple connections, up to thousands, between any two adjacent cells, your brain has more connections than there are stars in the observable universe!

Thus when one approaches depression or loneliness of a clinical proportion (that is, depression that does not respond to improved weather or circumstance, or loneliness that isolates a person even when surrounded with many loving family members and lots of friends), there are likely to be several causes, and the interaction and complexity of these factors would baffle even the warlords from World of Warcraft.

Abraham LincolnSince psychiatry has evolved verrrrrry slowly over the past 150 years, there is hope outside this avenue.  Psychiatrists basically treat patients with the same formula with which they treated Abraham Lincoln in the 1830s.  They ask you questions and then prescribe a treatment based on your answers.  The drugs have improved, and the history of their use has afforded more evidence of their effectiveness, but it is still based on self-reported symptoms.  There are many excellent psychiatrists around, caring and attentive doctors who really listen to and effectively treat some of their patients, but I suspect if one has a 50/50 shot at getting a good psychologist for therapy, he might have a 1/50 shot of getting a good psychiatrist.

With such dismal expectations from psychiatry and psychology, then where can we find hope?   The first recourse is spiritual:  we can find hope by trusting that The God Who Is There really cares about each of us.  Sure, He has 7,000,000,000 people on the earth to care about right now, not counting the 7,000,000,000 who have already lived here, but remember the Mind we are talking about: One who tells the stars where to stand in the galaxies, One who can change the DNA of a leper’s cells, the One who created you for His purposes.   Do a word-search of “hope” in the Psalms and see if you do not find good news there!  Do the same in Jeremiah, “the weeping prophet.”  Even there, God promises hope to all who trust in Him.

“Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”  (Psalms 42:11)

“We hoped for peace but no good has come, for a time of healing but there is only terror.
We acknowledge our wickedness, Lord, and the guilt of our ancestors;
    we have indeed sinned against You.
For the sake of Your name do not despise us;
    do not dishonor Your glorious throne.
Remember Your covenant with us and do not break it.
Do any of the worthless idols of the nations bring rain?
    Do the skies themselves send down showers?
No, it is You, Lord our God.
    Therefore our hope is in You, for You are the one who does all this.”  (Jeremiah 14:19-22)

Secondly, there are behavioral remedies.  For many of these it would be helpful to speak with a good counselor, whether psychologist or psychiatrist, but essentially, the recommendations you will get will be designed to help you with your brain’s plasticity, and they can help here!  Though in the past, the assumptions were that your number and size and function of brain cells was set at birth, research has shown that the number, size and function of your brain cells is variable and can be increased no matter what one’s age!  (Beware: poor diet, lack of exercise and behavior modification can also decrease the number, size and function of your brain cells!)

Chemically, we can increase the neural chemical signals occurring between our neurons; this can affect short term memory or short term improvement in motor skills.

Structurally, we can change which neurons are connected to which ones.  This takes longer than chemical changes to occur; this affects long term memory or longer improvements in motor skills.

We can even effectively alter the function of some of our brain cells: i.e. “use it or lose it” applies here. These are all changes you choose to do; by choosing to learn something new you activate or excite portions of your brain.  Alternatively, by refusing to learn something new you close down the excitation of those areas of your brain, both chemically and eventually structurally and functionally.

Together, these chemical, structural and functional changes, tend to work in concert with each other.  “The bus driver for neuroplastic change in your brain is behavior. There is currently no neuroplasticity drug you can take.” (Dr. Lara Boyd, PhD)  The key is that the amount of behavioral changes needed to produce the structural and functional changes in the brain is very large compared to that required to produce chemical changes.  But it is not impossible!  Piano teachers call it “motor-memory.”  The more often you do something, good or bad, the more easily you can do it next time.

Thirdly, you can challenge your thoughts!  This feature of self-awareness may be the best description of what differs between humans and lower animals.  Without training, if you point at a ball you want a dog to pick up, he will come and smell your finger.  Only by Pavlov’s system of repeated association can an animal learn to respond to directions; there is no evidence of self-evaluation.  However, we do not learn only by repeated association.  Though some human learning takes place in this way, we have the advantage of learning to learn.  We can ask if we are learning, and even challenge what we are learning.

“You say, Dr. Amen. You’ve been a psychiatrist for over thirty years.  What is the single most important thing people can do to improve brain function?  ‘Don’t believe every stupid thought you have.’  Have this little question in your head: Is it true?  When you question your thoughts you live in a more rational world.”  (Dr Daniel Amen, MD, PhD)  By challenging your thoughts, you may find your reasons for depression decreasing in strength, and your loneliness may begin to be alleviated, the orcs may begin losing their numbers and power.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me — put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.  (Philippians 4:8-9)

This was the concept of Socrates’ “unexamined life.”  By examining your life, your thoughts, your behavior, perhaps you will find yourself becoming healthier and happier.  Perhaps you will find hope that the game will not be over until you are ready for it to end. WoW2

 

 

 

 

 

 

How To Improve Your Pastor’s Sermons

We live in a “how-to” world; how-to-install-a-block-window, how-to-lose-50-pounds-in-25-days, how-to-speed-up-your-computer.  There is even a wikiHow called How To Do Anything!  And you can get it Espanol, Cestina, Deutch, Francais, Bahasa, Italiano, Nederlands, Portugues, हिन्दी日本語Русский, العربية, ไทย, or 中文.  And if your language doesn’t show up, they even show you how to start a new wikiHow in your language . . .  provided that you can read English!

Unlike many “how-to” videos that make you listen to their whole spiel before telling you where to send your money for their “ground-breaking” idea, I will tell you right up front that you can go to the last paragraph to find out How to Improve Your Pastor’s Sermons, no fees requested or accepted.  This is just in case you do not want to read my story of how I learned to improve my pastor’s sermons.

When my wife and I moved to Lexington we came with a lot of emotional and spiritual baggage, even though we had only been married a year.  She was a very new Christ-follower, having met Jesus through a friend in our university city.  I was a “recovering” Christian, having just returned to faith in God after a lengthy hiatus away from anything religious.  During our first year of marriage we began to read our Bible and pray tChurchesogether often, and looked forward to finding a good fellowship of Christ-followers in our new city.  “It shouldn’t be difficult,” I thought, “since there are dozens of evangelical churches listed in the newspaper ads every week, and hundreds (yep, in our little city of 250,000!) listed in the phone directory.”

So we picked one with a familiar name, Grace Baptist, and visited.  Then another, and another,  another . . . and on and on, to over a hundred churches in that first year!!  Back then, most evangelical churches still had Sunday night meetings as well as mid-week Wednesday “Bible Study,” besides the Sunday morning worship service.  Sunday nights were very similar to Sunday mornings, and in most cases Wednesday nights were about the same, just a little less formal.  Some pastors did not even wear neckties on Wednesday nights!  In any case, we visited two to three churches a week.

One church was very loud; another had a pastor who read from Time Magazine for his “text;” another was scripted down to words of the prayers; in another, the pastor started yelling the sermon and did not let up till the very end; another had a young woman do some “worship choreography” that seemed a little more sensual than worshipful.  Many were very good, but each just did not “feel right” and we kept hunting for a church where we felt like God was speaking to us.

Then we read in the magazine, Christianity Today,  an article by Billy Graham in which he called the Christian And Missionary Alliance evangelicalism’s best-kept-secret.  The CAMA had about three million members back then, but less than 200,000 of those were in the USA.  We happened to have one in Lexington so we decided to visit there.  Unfortunately, the pastor was on vacation the Sunday we chose to visit, and we did not know what the church would be like for us, since our main purpose in attending was to get some good Biblical teaching.  http://www.cmalliance.org/about/

So we visited several other churches, and still never quite felt at home in any of them, and we decided to try the CAMA church again.  We called on Friday to make sure the pastor was back from vacation.  When we entered, the songs began, the choir sang, a “special” was sung as the offering was collected (classic evangelical liturgy for churches that claimed to not have liturgy emo wink).  Then one of the leaders of the church introduced a guest speaker with the explanation that the pastor had called in ill that morning and would not be able to speak.

So we visited several other churches, and still never felt at home in any of them.  We decided to visit First Alliance Church again, and this time called on Sunday morning.  Back then, anyone near a church office would answer the church phone.  It was a very different culture from the current one with locked up offices and “official greeters.”

When a gentleman answered the phone, I asked if the pastor was speaking that morning, and was told yes.  Then I asked what was apparently an odd question,”Is he actually there this morning?  Have you seen him?”  There was some pause on the other end, as I suspect the answerer was wondering if I was a nut job from the Kentucky hills who had a grudge against his pastor.  Was I going to show up with a rifle?  In any case, he informed me that he had seen the pastor a few minutes earlier and yes, he was there.  I wonder if he warned the pastor about our coming visit?

When we visited that morning, the regular non-liturgical liturgy was followed, and then a small built man with sharp eyes and a sharper mind came to the pulpit and presented a sermon on seeking the kingdom of God.  As we sat in the second of some 25 rows, he seemed to look directly at us when he said, “You have to wonder about people who jump from church to church just looking for whatever spiritual goodies will tickle their ears, seeking what they want in a church, instead of seeking the kingdom of God.”

We squirmed as low as we could in our bench (back then theater seats in a church were considered sinful emo-huh!) and figured we had found where we belonged: a church where the pastor spoke directly to our hearts and the Holy Spirit confirmed his words in the center of our beings.

Since then I learned how to improve my pastor’s sermons, even over that first one.  Though that pastor retired, my how-to-knowledge carried over to the new pastor, so his sermons are almost always “on the mark” and teach me how to live for God’s kingdom and less for c.a.’s.  You see, I began to pray daily for my pastor and it was amazing how quickly his sermons improved, and how much more clearly God used him to speak into my life!

First Alliance WorshipNow before you mistake my meaning, it is not only because God hears my prayers and gives our pastor wisdom.  It is certainly not because my prayers are so special or God is in any way obligated to do what I ask.  Let’s remember Who is God and who I am.  I am not special, but God is!  And yes, He sometimes answers prayer with a direct line to others whose hearts are seeking His will.  So sometimes He may actually direct my pastor to address a subject other than what he might have chosen, just in order to teach me.

But more importantly, my daily prayer for my pastor cleans cobwebs out of my heart so that I am able to hear what the Spirit says to the church . . . and to my heart . . . when the pastor speaks.  After all, God spoke through a godless high priest, simply by virtue of his title on one occasion (John 11:49-51), and in Moses’ time He even spoke through a prophet’s mule (Numbers 22:21-31), not the only time God has used an ass to get His message across emo-embarrassed.  Thankfully, the pastors I have been privileged to hear walk on two legs and spend time in study and prayer.

So if you want to see your pastor’s sermons improve significantly, pray for him.  And by this I do not mean to just pray about him.  These prayers should not be your attempt to get the pastor in trouble with God, nor to get him to teach what you want to hear; certainly not a complaint list about him.  Pray simply that God will bless him, give him wisdom, and use him to deliver the LORD’s message to your heart.  Then trust God that He heard and will answer your prayer.  And that is a sure-fire way for How To Improve Your Pastor’s Sermons.

 

 

 

 

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Three Memories on a Lonely Blue Marble

Earth and Moon1. I remember overhearing the mother of a college friend of mine discussing his upcoming marriage to a wonderful girl he had met there.  Both were devoted Christians and were planning on working in religious fields for which they had trained at the college level.  This mother was dismayed because her son and his fiance had announced they were going to premarital counseling.  Her comment, “They’re both Christian; what do they need counseling for?” reflected a popular disconnect of religion and life.

You have to understand the times, the early 1970s, that among evangelical Christians, psychology and psychiatry were viewed with substantial suspicion, and with some valid reasons.  Most psychologists and psychiatrists of the era were trained in irreligious university settings with disdain for God or anything Biblical.  However a growing cadre of young people in Christian colleges and universities were recognizing that God works with human minds and that some observations of psychology and psychiatry held significant validity.  Along with these, many “shrinks” from state and private universities were coming to recognize the importance of faith and religious training in matters of marital fidelity and other areas of life that transcended simple psychobabble and drug treatments.

2. I remember sitting in a clinical psychologist’s office in the mid-80s and wondering how I had wrecked so much promise of my life.  The damaged lives I left littered behind me, in the decision to leave the religious training of my youth, had taken me to the brink of suicide.  I even planned several scenarios so it would look like an accident, ensuring that the “double-indemnity” clause of my insurance would be activated and my beneficiaries would get more cash upon my demise.

CounselingSo there I sat and told my counselor what I was planning, effectively nullifying any double-indemnity, as he would be able to testify to my intent.  This served as the first of several steps to evade the deadly ambition to which my depression had led.  As I mentioned before, one has about a 50/50 chance of getting a good professional counselor (see February 7, 2016) and I was among the fortunate who found a good one.

He asked what seemed an odd question in one of our early sessions:  “Do you want to change the way you think or just change your behavior?”  At the pit of my depression I wondered how could anyone change the mental habits of 30 years?  So I told him I would be satisfied if he could just help me change my behavior, which to my amazement, he did!

3.  I remember one of my two favorite nieces (I only have two emo wink) talking about her job as a pediatric psychologist who helped children dealing with unexpected grief.  Many years after my experience with a clinical counselor, I nodded silently as she commented to my mostly mentally healthy family that everyone could benefit from professional counseling at one point or another in his/her life.

So these three memories bring me to this time, as I consider going to a professional counselor again.   I am not suicidal at all, having passed that bridge many tributaries ago.  But there are days when I cannot see the sun shining, even though the weatherman says there are no clouds.  It is difficult to get out of bed, and I feel like I am just waiting for the day to pass, so that I can count one less day of having to stay on this Lonely Blue Marble, the only planet we know of where someone may care about us.  Memories of other less pleasant days haunt my mind and try to pull me back into that morass of self-pity and depression that sticks to my heart like gooey molasses to the sole of your shoe on hot pavement.

Then comes a wise friend who has overcome obstacles that make me ashamed of how little it takes to depress me.  He recommends Change Your Brain, Change Your Life by Dr Daniel Amen, a clinical psychiatrist.  I do not recommend his book as thoroughly as my friend; it reads too much like an infomercial with lots of “testimonials” written up like case-studies.  However, many of the chapter summaries, such as the 12 Principles to Change Your Brain, and his four circles of treatment (Biological, Psychological, Social, and Spiritual) have a ring of truth to them;Crystal Goblet Ping you know, that ping when you snap a finger on crystal as opposed to the clunk when you do the same to plain glass.

Some of Dr. Amen’s advice is just common sense.  The unfortunate truth Dr. Donald Johns so often lamented in college classes was, “The trouble with common sense is it just isn’t common enough!”  My sorrow here is that even when one feels endowed with a significant degree of common sense, there are biological, psychological, social or spiritual factors that may obscure that sense from you.  And there is where a “life-coach” or counselor can come along side and provide valuable guidance.

So if you feel the need for a “life-coach” or counselor or psychiatrist, find someone you trust implicitly and explicitly, someone wiser, more successful in dealing with the problems life throws at all of us, and get a recommendation to a good counselor.  He or she may have insights that can help you deal with the devils, the world, and the flesh that would keep us from enjoying the life God intends for us to have.

In any case, there appears to be hope that a good clinical counselor can actually change a brain, the way one thinks.  And if that is true, it may bring a brighter light in our lives that we will be able to carry on this Lonely Blue Marble.

 

IMPACT!!

One of Dictionary.com’s definitions of Impact is: “influence or effect.”  Along with the definition of “a forceful contact,” impact brings to mind a meeting that has significant effect.  Of the people who have had the greatest impact on my life, aside from my immediate family, four men come immediately to mind: Elwin Mack, Larry Smith, Keith Carlson, and Ron Gifford.

These men came along side me at critical junctions in my life, and to a large part I owe my life to them.  The first two should be partially credited with saving me from suicide although they were unaware of it at the time.  The latter two provided further wisdom and guidance through the transformation that has brought me to where I am today.  ShadowsIn fact, all except Keith are still influencing my life with continued interaction and communication that encourages me and provides a shadow over my life (see Acts 5:15).

Three of them know everything there is to know about how far from God I had run when I wanted to live my life without accountability and without consequences.  Along with them are my wife and a few friends, who know more about me than I wish, but without whom, I would fall back into the abyss, and it is dark and lonely in that abyss.  In the next few weeks, I will add a professional counselor to their ranks, in hopes that the abyss will be left further and further behind me as I move closer and closer into God’s grace.

Last week I wrote about confession, and closed with some challenging questions: So what do I confess of my sin?  How much detail is needed to be a true confession?  To whom should I confess?  How public should confession be?  I also promised that I would discuss this along with some of my own confession, as appropriate on the internet, next week.   Well, next week is now here, and I find myself struggling with these questions, although the caveat, “as appropriate on the internet,” makes this much easier.  This is a very open forum and accessible to anyone in the world with a web connection.  So this confession will only be in the broadest generalities, but with enough information to give hope to someone who is struggling with similar problems.  How much detail and depth of confession will be addressed a few paragraphs later.

Seven Deadly Masks LustSeven Deadly Masks AngerThe main areas of the Seven Deadly Sins with which I struggle are Anger and Lust (see November 23, 2015 and November 23, 2015).  Of course, there are five others that are really bad!   (Like a friend of mine said, the worst sins are the ones with which I do not have any problems! emo wink )  If you do not have any problems with anger or lust, you may think, “oh, c.a. must really be a bad person!”  Actually, if you knew the dimensions of my sin, you might not want anything to do with me!  Lewis noted in The Weight of Glory that “the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.”  And in all likelihood, if anyone knew the depth of your corruption he might not want anything to do with you.

We are all fallen and in need of forgiveness, and how far we have fallen may depend on where we began.  A child born with an inherited addiction to drugs because his mother was a regular user may appear to be a serious sinner compared to one raised in a Christian home.  But only God knows how seriously injured the hearts of people are, and what their choices would have been if circumstances had been different.  I do not carry a gun and try to shoot every driver who does stupid stuff in rush hour (though the thought has crossed my mind!), nor do I try to seduce every woman who appears attractive to me, but only God knows how much of that is fear of getting caught, how much is moral strength from a godly home, and how much is love and fear of God.  I am not even sure which influence is greater! (Jeremiah 17:9)

Certainly having some friends who know everything about the temptations I face and the weaknesses of my heart helps.  There are those among my closest associates who know everything in as much detail as they asked, and for whom no question is “out of bounds.”   Any question they ask will be answered with as much honesty as my deceitful heart can muster, and with as much clarity as they call for.  Although God is the main plaintiff in His court, against whom we have most offended by our sinfulness, a great source of strength comes from confessing our sins to each other.

So some confession should be made, far beyond our comfort zones, that really challenges us to live above “the sin that so easily entangles us.” (Hebrews 12:1)  Having a Hebrews 12:1 “cloud of witnesses” here on earth helps keep us on track for living life the way God intends us to.  How much detail needs to be confessed should really be left up to the one to whom we are confessing.  There should be someone, at least one, to whom we are completely open.  This may be a spouse, a trusted friend or a professional counselor.

As to how public a confession should be, we must simply answer the question, “how public was the sin we are confessing?”  This may serve as a guide for public confession.  Beyond a general confession with very little detail, as you are finding here, the idea is that if a sin was well known, a more public confession may be required.  If the sin was a private matter, only private confession may be called for.  There will be exceptions to this rule-of-thumb, but we should rely on the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, to give us guidance beyond this.

Who has the sin impacted, and can confession impact in the reverse direction?  This also calls for wisdom from the Holy Spirit, because some confessions could actually compound damage from sin.  If a confession may cause more damage than good, we may be called on to humbly confess only to God and our counselor, and leave the earthly offended party in God’s care.

Then, once we have confessed, the most important aspect of repentance still lies ahead of us: turning around. Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy.” (Proverbs 28:13)  The Bible clearly expects a transformation to occur once one trusts his/her life to Jesus.  For many that change is immediate and amazing.  For others the change is more of a process and an evolving of the life of Christ in us.  In either case, it is the IMPACT of His life and character on us, that in turn, causes us to make an IMPACT on those around us.   Who will your life IMPACT this week?