How Distracted I Was From God (What I Learned on Sabbatical, Part 2)

19 Apr

Image result for distracted by screens

On January 1st, I started a sabbatical daily log.  On that day I wrote three paragraphs about what was happening in the life of the Kime Family, and mixed in there were these five words:

“I deactivated my Facebook account.”

For those of you who use Facebook, deactivating your account might feel like a big deal.  Especially if you use it a lot, like I did.

For those of you who don’t have Facebook, or rarely use it, you might be thinking, “no big deal.”

I urge you all to stay with me here.  Because there is more to the story.  The next part of the story happened this week.

I was at the pet store this week.  Buying dog food.  Row after row of choices…for my dog.  When we got him, he had been at the Humane League because his previous owners couldn’t care for him.  He was sick from drinking pond water on their property.  So the Humane League put him on special dog food for “Sensitive Digestion”.  In other words, my dog is a vegetarian, and there is dog food for that.

No surprise, though.  That is just like nearly any store, for nearly any product; we live in a society with so many choices.

We have been trained up from birth to be consumers.  We have been told by our society that we should have a lot of choices, that we should get to pick between 50 kinds of chips, or cars, or anything.  And so we have grown up under the influence of Consumerism, what Webster’s defines as “the theory that a greater progressive consumption of goods is beneficial.”

This applies to all of us: we are consumers in a consumerist society. We want our choices, we want to buy things, and when we use them up, we want more and better things.  Our approach to media is no different: we consume media.

We live in a media-soaked world.  I’m not just talking about social media, but also television, radio (especially talk radio), podcasts, sports, movies, publishing, music, and advertising.  Think about how much media you are exposed to in one day’s time.  Seriously, count it up.  How many hours of media do you consume every day?

In my own family, there can be some sort of screen/media, whether it is social media, Xbox, TV shows, Netflix, podcast, playing nearly all waking hours. There are times when we are watching TV on one big screen, working on our laptops with smaller screens, and checking our phones at the same time!

So when I think about the fact that I deactivated my Facebook account on January 1st, it is curious to me that in my sabbatical journal, all I said was those five words, “I deactivated my Facebook account.”

Why is that curious?  Because at the time, it felt like a bigger deal.  I thought there would be sirens or explosions or something.  But there was nothing.  I worried it would negatively affect my life.  But as far as I can tell, not having Facebook in my life, has not affected me negatively at all.  That surprised me.

Why?  Well, I had spent a lot of time on Facebook over the years.  I started in 2008, I think.  Over ten years, all the hours and hours reading posts, liking, sharing, and commenting.  Being in the know.  Posting, wanting people to like my posts, to share my posts.  Checking.  Updating.  Checking again.

Simply put, Facebook was a big part of my life.

That’s why deactivating it felt emotional.  Like I was cutting off something.  I would no longer be in the know.  But I had a sense that I needed to do this for sabbatical, so I did it.

I have been off Facebook for three and a half months, and I don’t think I’m going back.  Yeah, I miss out on things.  But if there is something important, Michelle lets me know. Just last week she told me about friends expecting a baby! She found out on Facebook. But since I deactivated my account, there have been surprisingly few important things that I missed. Instead I feel free.  More on that later in this post.

I feel free from Facebook, but there is more consumerism in my life than just Facebook.

As I looked over my sabbatical daily log, I found another trend. Last week I told you how the first trend in my sabbatical was the month of January as filled with comments about stress and anxiety.  The second thing that filled that first month was commentary about distraction.

I realized that I was a consumer of distraction.  Social media was only one way I was distracted.  How about you?  Are you a consumer of distraction?  And distraction from what?

A few days after I deactivated my Facebook account, I wrote this:

“I think right now, at this early phase of the sabbatical, I am realizing, painfully, how much distraction I have had in my life.  My life has been drowning in distraction. So as I think about sabbatical, what I have found thus far, in the brief moments I have removed distraction, is that I am alone with myself. And I can’t say that I like it.”

In those early days and weeks of sabbatical, once I had cleared away some distraction in my life, guess what I found?  I found a person with anxiety, a bit too cranky, a person looking for a distraction when I really needed to just be present for my family, or be alone with myself and my God.  All that anxiety I talked about last week?  I would use social media, TV, and phone games to try to distract myself from the anxiety.

I was surprised to learn that social media might have made it worse!

One report in the journal Depression and Anxiety, was the first nationally representative study exploring the link between social media use and depression. It looked at close to 2,000 people.

Each participant took an established depression assessment tool and answered questionnaires on social media use. This included the 11 most used platforms at the time: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube, Google+, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Vine.

You know what the study found? The more time someone uses social media, the more likely that person is to be depressed.

Another study said that “all social media platforms use something called intermittent variable rewards.

“Imagine a slot machine. You pull the lever to win a prize, which is an intermittent action linked to a variable reward. Variable means you might win, or you might not. In the same way, you refresh your Facebook updates to see if you’ve won.

“What you are winning on social media?  A new follower, a comment, someone liking what you posted.  And what happens, the researchers found, is that you become more discouraged and depressed when people don’t give you the likes.  Just like slot machines, when it comes to getting rewards out of social media, you often lose more than you win.”

So, for me, what started out as a good way to connect with the kids in the youth group (that’s when I activated and started my FB account, when we were youth pastors here and interacting with the kids in youth group), became too much of a regular part of my day and world. I could scroll through the news feed endlessly. To justify that use of time, I would say that I was I was learning about how things are going with people.  But as I look back on it, I was mostly distracted.

I have no doubt that social media, screen time, talk radio, reading fiction books, or whatever is a distraction for you, is not all bad.  But it can become a major distraction.  What is a healthy balance to use of media?

That is a question each person needs to answer for themselves.  And it starts with simply admitting that you can be distracted.  For me, it was a battle in my mind.  I didn’t want to admit that I was so distracted by social media and phone games.

Ask yourself this: how distracted are you? If you are spending more time watching TV than you do with your family or with God, then perhaps that is a yellow flag for you.  Think about how much time you read books, listen to talk radio, watch movies and Netflix.  Are you giving loads of time to those things, but little to God?  That might be a yellow flag to investigate.

When we do a time study of our lives, will we find that we have been distracted from spending time with God and from spending time with the important people in our lives?

We are consumers who can very readily seek to satisfy the desires of our hearts, our longings, our need for satisfaction through distractions like social media, through sports, through television, through phone games, and we will find that those outlets do not satisfy.  There is one place to find the satisfaction we crave: in the presence of the Lord.

Do you ever feel that desire to be in the presence of the Lord, but it seems impossible or irrational? If we hear ourselves saying, or if we think to ourselves, that we feel distant from God, or that we don’t hear God speak, is it because we are so distracted?

During sabbatical, I read the book Beginning to Pray by Anthony Bloom, and here is a quote that hit me between the eyes, “God could complain about us a great deal more than we about him.  We complain that he does not make himself present to us for the few minutes we reserve for him, but what about the twenty-three and a half hours during which God may be knocking at our door, and we answer, “I am busy, I am sorry.” Or we do not answer at all because we do not hear the knock at the door of our heart, of our minds, of our conscience, of our life. So there is a situation in which we have no right to complain about the absence of God, because we are a great deal more absent than he ever is.”

When I thought about my life, I knew Bloom was describing me.  The way I treated God would have been a relationship-killer if it was a human.  Imagine that was how you treated your spouse, or your best friend.  Imagine you gave them only 5, 10, or 15 minutes each day, and during that short time, all you did was spout off a list of things you wanted them to do.  When you were done with your list, you said goodbye, and you didn’t talk with them again until you read a new list again the next day, and the next, and the next.  During any of these brief daily meetings you did not ask how they were doing, or listen to what they had to say.  How would that work out for your relationship?  It will kill that relationship.  And yet, Bloom says, that is how we can treat God, and have the gall to blame him for not talking to us.  I don’t know if that describes you. It sure did me.

But hear this amazing good news: Because of what Jesus did, through his death and resurrection, we can have access to God our father.  The God of the universe wants to be with us!  Think of Adam and Eve in the Garden walking and talking with God.  Think of the Prodigal Son returning home and his father wrapping his arms around his son in a huge welcoming hug.  These are pictures of what God wants.  And we can avail ourselves of that. We can spend time with him!

In Hebrews we read that Jesus is our great high priest who opened the door for us to have access to God.  That is good news!

In James we read “draw near to God and he will draw near to you.” That is good news!

What do you need to do about the distraction in your life?  What do you need to do to spend time in God’s presence?  I invite you to take action.  For me, Facebook had to go.  Games on my phone had to go.  More distraction still might need to go.  I had to learn about listening prayer, and I had to open up space in my life to make room for it.

Another article I found described a recent experiment where people voluntarily opened space in their lives. “The idea was simple. During the month of January, 2018, participants would take a break from “optional technologies” in their lives, including, notably, social media. At the end of the 31-day period, the participants would then rebuild their digital lives starting from a blank slate — only allowing back in technologies for which they could provide a compelling motivation.

Conclusion: when freed from standard digital distractions, participants often overhauled their free time in massively positive ways.”

The author then shared numerous examples of how people’s lives, freed from distraction, improved:

–> An engineer realized how much of the information he used to consume though social media during the day was “unimportant or useless.” With this drain on his attention removed from his routine, he returned to his old hobby of playing chess, and became an enthusiast of architectural Lego kits (“a wonderful outlet”).

–> A writer and mother of three homeschooled kids, completed a draft of a book, while also reading “many books” written by others.  “I’m recapturing my creative spirit,” she told me.

–>  A retired stockbroker began to spend more time with his wife, going for walks, and “really listening.” He expanded this habit of trying to “listen more and talk less” to his friends and family more generally.

–> A PhD candidate described the experience of stepping away from distracting technologies as “liberating.” Her mind began “working all the time,” but on things that were important to her, and not just news about “celebrities and their diets and workouts.” Among other things, she told me: “I was more there for my girls,” I could focus on “keeping my marriage alive,” and at night “I would read research papers [in the time I used to spend scrolling feeds].”

–> A government worker replaced his online news habit with a daily subscription to the print edition of a newspaper. “I still feel perfectly up to date with the news, without getting caught up in the minute-to-minute clickbait headlines and sensationalism that is so typical of online news,” he told me.

Look at the amazing thing that happened when people removed distraction, and opened space in their lives!  Imagine what could happen if we do the same for God?

Maybe you’re not a social media person, will consider a break from TV?  Author Tim Willard gives the following advice:

First, you must be devoted to getting off your couch and turning the TV off. That’s step one. Stop trolling social media for people talking about the next new great show, ranting about how much they hate basically everything they don’t agree with.

It’s all digital noise, literally. Then shut off your TV for a year. See how that grabs you. One thing I switched up, I watercolor paint with my daughters every single night.

“But Tim, I don’t paint.” Excellent! Neither do I! Been afraid to my whole life. So, I got some good paints, good brushes, good paper, and I’m learning. I’ve missed maybe four days since the first of the year. The girls love it. We play classical music, light some incense, and laugh and compare paintings.

It’s the best parenting move I’ve done yet, I think.

I don’t watch television as it is. But this year, I’m not watching any programming. I stopped watching news channels and ordered a paper. It’s tough, and I’ve had to sacrifice, but it’s been so worth it. Ask my daughters.

Get some ideas, get devoted, and start doing things with real people, with your real hands. Make, create, mess up. It’s quite liberating.

Second, Willard says, Get radical and don’t look at your phone as soon as you roll out of bed. Let your first thirty minutes be making tea or coffee and reading something, like, I don’t know, a real Bible, or devotional, or something inspiring. Perhaps usually something by King David or that murderous chap, Paul.

I guarantee that if you attempt this, it will begin to rewire your brain. It will change your rhythm. And you’ll fight it at first. You’ll think you need to check the weather, or just hold your phone like “my precious.” But you don’t. Just be alive. Walk outside. And breathe deep the real analog world.

Third, Take a walk at lunch, and listen. What do you hear? Probably that’s the sounds of God rolling into your ears.

Fourth, listen to music.  Something quiet. Something that ministers to your frazzled spirit. I listen to Bach while I’m grabbing something to read. But most mornings, it’s just me, my tea, my Moleskine and the quiet blue morning.

You should read Tim’s whole article. There’s much more great advice.

What is one way you can remove distraction in your life today?  Then, and this is the exciting part, how will you use your freedom?  Be creative! Include God!

My life with anxiety and panic (What I Learned on Sabbatical, Part 1)

13 Apr

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A week before my sabbatical began, we went to see Star Wars.  It has become a family tradition these past three years.  My dad’s birthday is December 29th, and so he takes my brother, sister, me and our kids to see the movie together.  There were 14-15 of us this year!  I love being with my family, and I was so excited for the movie.  I love Star Wars.  Finally we were going to learn more about Luke Skywalker, and the movie was directed by a guy whose previous work I really like.  It was going to be great.

Except that it didn’t turn out great.  I’m not referring to the movie.  The movie was awesome.  I’m talking about me.  Halfway through the movie, sitting between my dad and sister, I started feeling feverish, shaking and sweating profusely.  I wondered to myself if my dad and sister could notice.  I really hoped they did not notice.  I was dripping sweat, feeling like I could vomit.  I didn’t want them to know.

After 10-15 minutes of this, I got up and walked out to use the restroom, wipe my face, and get a drink.  It helped, but back in my seat, I started shaking and sweating again, and couldn’t focus on the movie. I closed my eyes and tried breathing slowly.  I had grabbed some paper towels in the bathroom, so that helped with the sweating.  I don’t think I fully stopped shaking until hours later at home.

Was it the flu?  A fever?  Nope.

It was anxiety, panic.  Along with the physical symptoms I described, there was a swirling spiral of negative thoughts:  “Something is deeply wrong with me.  Am I about to have a heart attack?  Is this it? Am I going to die?”

If you’re thinking, “What in the world is he talking about?,” let me explain.  I am telling you that I struggle with anxiety and stress, and sometimes it results in panic attacks.  I have mentioned it only the slightest bit over the last few years.  Just a hint in a sermon or two.  But today I am telling the whole story.  Anxiety has been a very real part of my life since the summer of 2015. I’m telling you about it today because anxiety was the defining feature of my first month of sabbatical. I felt it was time to talk about it.

It is one of those parts of life that I am never quite sure if and when and how to talk about it.  It’s deeply personal, and Michelle and I have had to give a lot of thought and prayer into when would be the right time.  From the beginning of my struggle in 2015 I made our church leaders aware, as well as some close friends and long-term confidantes.  But quite frankly we weren’t sure how to talk about it in a public way because my anxiety stems from my role as pastor.  I don’t want to come across as accusatory to the church.  I also don’t want to come across as trying to start a pity party or a “poor me” article.  Michelle and I knew what we signed up for.  Pastoral ministry is fraught with intense situations, and often ones in which the pastor and his family are in the cross-hairs. I found the following stats:

  • 75% of pastors report being extremely or highly stressed.
  • 90% are fatigued and worn out every week
  • 50% report having a serious conflict with a parishioner every month
  • 80% will not be in ministry after 10 years
  • 70% are constantly fighting depression

We also get to experience many joys in being a pastor, pastor’s wife, and pastoral family.  It is a unique role, where you are uniquely involved in people’s lives.  The joy, the happiness, and brokenness, the pain.  All of it.

So in order to avoid coming across as accusatory or like I wanted a pity party, we felt it best not to share publicly.  Until now.  We decided that now is the time to share this for a few reasons. First, I hope I have communicated clearly enough that you already know that I am not perfect, but we felt it was time for you to know this particular struggle. Pastors are people too. Second, for those of you who also struggle with mental illness, with stress, anxiety, depression, and the like, we want you to know that there is hope!

So let’s go back a few years.  Really I need to go back a lot further than that.  Anxiousness and worry is a bit of a family trait.  I come by it somewhat genetically, and I’ve always, from a little child, had struggles with worrying, people-pleasing, perfectionism, and such.  If a relationship in my life was not going well, I took it hard.  In the first half of 2015 there were multiple very difficult multiple-year situations in the church that came to a head.  Our Leadership Team handled them with grace and truth and was amazing, and by June 2015 those situations were resolved.

Then there was the trip to Kenya, which was wonderful.  But as leader, I carried the weight of responsibility, and nearing the end of the trip, as we rode in the bus from Kijabe where Lamar & Janice live and work, headed to the capital city of Nairobi, I had a brief and less intense attack.  I had no idea what was going on, and figured it was motion sickness, or something with altitude change.

In the two weeks after the Kenya trip, I spent loads of time and energy trying to complete all the loan paperwork to get our eldest son money to go to college, another loan for a laptop, and my stress levels had only increased.  One morning, after working out, I dropped our middle son off at soccer practice, and started having pains in my chest.

That did me in.  Pretty much from that day mid-August 2015 for the following two months, I went through a nonstop stress-induced agony.  I couldn’t stop shaking, and I had tightness and pain in my chest.  The chest pains scared me, and the fear kicked off even more anxiety.  It was a vicious cycle.  I saw my doctor, and he ordered tests.  A plethora of medical tests all came up clear.  My doctor also prescribed Xanax, and it was a bit helpful, but the anxiety continued.

After a few weeks, my doc suggested a maintenance med for anxiety, Lexapro.  I started on it, and initially things got worse.  Lexapro caused was a weird burning sensation in my thigh.  I couldn’t sleep for the better part of three nights.  It was one of the worst experiences of my life.  I called the doc in a panic. He said press on, my body was just get used to the medication.  I had started counseling with my seminary prof, and I’ll never forget that first session when I was a mess, crying in his office.

But slowly my body got used to the Lexapro, and little by little, week by week, my anxiety subsided.  I could sleep again.  From time to time the pains continued, and they would get me scared.  I learned to fight those fears.  My heart was fine. The medical tests proved I was fine.  I was just stressed out.  Very stressed out.  And that wasn’t good.

So I continued counseling which was amazing. I learned so much.  I went back to working out after taking a month off.  I started reading books my counselor recommended to learn coping techniques.

Over the next 18 months I improved enough that in the Spring of 2017 I saw my doc again, and we agreed that I could go off Lexapro.  I started doing a gradual draw-down, and by summer I finished taking medication.  But really, while on the meds I had hardly any side effects.  So I want you to hear me clearly on this: for those struggling with mental illness, meds can be a lifesaver.  They were for me, and I would go back on them if needed.

Back to December 2017 at Penn Cinema, watching Star Wars.  That panic attack was a bit of shocker.  It wasn’t the first.  I’ve had a handful of them.  Though it was the strongest one since the initial instances in the summer of 2015.  I doubt it will be the last one.  I’ve learned I can’t totally predict when I will have an anxiety attack. And yet, that is not totally true. If I’m willing to give it some thought, I can read the signs.  For example, in the last month before sabbatical, I had a number of stressors.  Prep for sabbatical was the big one.  I wanted sabbatical to go really well for Faith Church.  So I was nervous about going on sabbatical.  That was on top of the regular, day in and day stressors of what being a pastor entails.

Take the intensity of Star Wars, combined with my excitement about it, laid on top of those work stressors, and there you have the warning signs.  That said, it doesn’t fully make sense to me why an anxiety attack would hit right then.  And it makes me angry because it ruined the movie.   But, one thing I have learned is that when the anxiety comes out it is rarely about what is actually happening when it appears. It has been building, and I have not been pausing and working through stress as it occurs, and then it just erupts. My body is saying to me “enough!”

A few days after the movie, sabbatical started. As I read through my sabbatical journal this in preparation for this sermon, I was blown away by how much I mentioned stress and anxiety throughout the month of January.  If you thought that I went on sabbatical January 1st and was able to have a sigh of relief and peace, you were wrong.  My stress and anxiety got worse when sabbatical started.

Here is what I wrote on January 14th: “I have no reason to feel anxiety, stress, shaking, nervousness.  And yet it is there.  I don’t know what it is like for a person going through withdrawal from drugs or alcohol.  But I’ve seen the dramatic depictions on TV or movies, and I’ve read accounts in books.  No doubt those are different kinds of withdrawal than what I am experiencing.  But I feel something similar.”

I didn’t have another panic attack during those first two weeks, but I had a heightened level of anxiety and stress, a shakiness and nervousness that lingered pretty much the whole time.  And then something eye-opening happened.

We had our small group on Friday January 12.  I felt anxiety most of the day Friday, but as our friends walked in the house, and we sat around our table, the anxiety and tightness in my chest and arm all but dissipated.  Inwardly I recognized it right away and thought, “Woah…what just happened?” You might think it was good that I found peace, and it was.  But to have two straight weeks of stress and anxiousness, and then in a matter of minutes have it be gone?  It was weird.  What was happening to me?

The thought came to mind that in those first few weeks of sabbatical I had been experiencing symptoms of withdrawal.  Actual physical symptoms of withdrawal.  Like I was in a kind of detox.  It was so interesting that my symptoms just about disappeared during Care Group.  Why?

I think it is a combination of things.  First, I think Care Group was a distraction from my thoughts, from being with myself.  During Care Group I am focused on other people, on the conversation, on the study.  And that is okay.  Those are good things. I don’t think all distractions are bad.  And it might not even be fair to call it a distraction.  Care Group is an activity that is healthy.

Second, it could be that Care Group was a brief return to my “job”.  Like a drug addict getting a fix.  It was eerie how fast it happened that night.

What was going on inside me during those first few weeks?  I call it “feeling stressy” or “anxious”, but it is not just a typical kind of feeling stress on anxiety.  Instead it is the downward spiral of thoughts that gets worse and worse.  In the two weeks prior I had allowed too much self-focus can turn to wallowing. It’s good to know what’s going on in my life, but not healthy to be so self-focused.  Care Group, in part, turned my thoughts outward.

Care Group didn’t cure me.  The stress came right back the next day.  As the month of January went on, I had much time to reflect on my anxiety.  What I have learned is that I have situational anxiety.  Meaning, if I have nothing stressful going on in my life, I generally feel at peace.  But if I have stress going on, my body now reacts, and quickly.

The point, then, is learning how to deal with stress in a way that is faithful to God.  There are many ways to deal with stress.  Not all of them are faithful.  Our world is full of unhealthy and sometimes destructive ways to cope with stress and anxiety.  You and I know them and can list them.

For me, I would often distract myself with my phone.  Social media.  Games.  I started sabbatical, though, knowing I needed to bring my struggle with anxiety before God in a new way.   Looking back over the last few years, I can see an arc of progress, healing and hope.  But I also knew that things could be way better.

So on January 1st, I got rid of all the games, and I deactivated my Facebook account.  I had no sermon to write, no meetings, no emails, no visits, no phone calls, no office to get away to.  I had nothing distracting me.  For the first time in a long time, I was alone with myself, my family and God, and my stress.

Don’t get me wrong.  I have had a practice of personal devotions, studying scripture, and spending time in prayer.  So why did experience God in a new way during sabbatical?  What was new was that everything else I was using to distract myself from stress and anxiety was gone.  I was feeling it all the time, and that intensified the battle in my mind.  So I started reading and practicing new prayer disciplines.  Trying to sit more in God’s presence and listen.  A friend from church gave me the book Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An anxious evangelical finds peace with God through contemplative prayer, which gave some very solid advice.  I read The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a world of Distraction, which was so helpful.

Then at on my first three-day personal retreat Twin Pines I had the first deep opportunity to learn and practice the presence of God in a more sustained way.  That retreat was at the end of the first month of sabbatical, and it was the turning point.  I could literally feel the stress subside as I turned the corner and drove onto Twin Pine’s campus.  I realized I should have been doing personal retreats with God for years.  I had talked about doing them, and I never did.

As a result, I can tell you that the second and third months of sabbatical were very different from the first.

Consider with me Philippians 4:6-7 where Paul says “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God, and the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

You read a verse like that and it is easy to think that anxiety is wrong.  Sinful.  Did Paul mean that true Christians won’t struggle with anxiety?  And if we do struggle with anxiety then are we bad followers of Jesus who don’t trust in him?  What Christian hasn’t had at least a little bit of anxiety, stress, worry?  Maybe the rare person?

For many years I had a mindset that Christians should not struggle with anxiety to the point of taking meds or seeing a counselor.  There is within Christian circles an unwritten expectation that we have to put on a smile and give a false expression that things are okay.  No doubt, as Christians we are called to rejoice, be joyful, glad.  But does that mean we should never feel anxiety?

There have been Christians through the ages that have committed the heresy of docetism, denying the humanity of Christ, saying that his perfection meant that that he didn’t feel pain, didn’t have stress or anxiety.  That is heresy.

Consider Hebrews 2:14-17 which teaches that Jesus “…shared in [our] humanity…” and that “he had to be made like [us], fully human in every way…” and that “[b]ecause he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”

I would submit to you that that was one reason Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane right before he was arrested was purposefully included in the Bible to show us in very clear terms that he too went through anxiety and stress.

Philippians 4:6-7 doesn’t mean, therefore, that the presence of anxiety and stress and worry in your life means that you are sinful.  Jesus had it in his life too.  We certainly saw him frustrated with people and showing that emotion, and stress usually comes with frustration. Instead Philippians 4:6-7 is a wonderful teaching for those in the middle of anxiety, that there is hope, that we can do something about it.  We should take our concerns to the Lord, with thanksgiving, and seek him for peace.

Peter says something very similar in 1 Peter 5:7, “Cast your cares on him, because he cares for you.”

When you lose a loved one, for example, you will still feel grief and anxiety. It doesn’t mean that you are not a true Christian or a spiritual person.  Take your situation to the Lord and seek peace in him.

Another wonderful teaching is James 1 which says, “consider it joy when you face trials of many kinds”.  Consider it joy?  I hate hard times.  I want them to stop.  Why would I ever consider them joy?  Well, James is saying, in other words, use your mind to control your emotions.  That is nearly identical to a therapeutic method called CBT – Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Basically it can be summarized as “Tell yourself the truth.”

That one is hard for me.  Anxiety is a battle in my mind.  Just ask Michelle; she’s needed to be a teller of truth in this area to me for most of our marriage, and certainly for our 15 years here at Faith Church. I have learned, though, that telling ourselves the truth is possible.

Psalm 46:10 is another classic reminder of how to tell ourselves the truth: “Be still and know that I am God.” The psalmist tells us that we can trust in God.  Sometimes we just need to stop what we are doing and reflect on that.  In the midst of stress and anxiety, we tend to be very frantic and forgetful of reality.  But to be still means that we need to sit with God.  It takes time, it takes effort and it takes work to bestill before God and to tell ourselves the truth of who he is and what he has done.

In conclusion, let me say that I am not perfect.  I am not healed.

Sabbatical didn’t cure me.  That wasn’t the purpose of sabbatical.  But I do think I learned a lot.  In particular that I need to “be still and know that God is God” on a regular basis.  I need to get away and spend time with God.  My two personal retreats at Twin Pines were so good.  For years I said that I needed to do that, but never took it seriously.  Now I plan to take a personal retreat at Twin Pines every six months.

I also learned that I need to practice prayer disciplines of sitting before God daily, still, quiet, listening.  I certainly was a pastor who prayed.  But I need to become a pastor, a person, who is praying differently. For sabbatical I got rid of all social media and games on my phone to rid myself of those distractions.  I am committed to not bringing them back, and to replacing that time with more prayer, especially listening prayer.

Another helpful practice is to learn about anxiety. I started reading the book The End of Worry, and I encourage you to do the same.  Learn about stress and anxiety.  There is nothing to be ashamed of.

Also, exercise!  God made us to move!  And when we move, it has scientifically proven emotional benefits.

Finally, if you are feeling like you are losing the battle with anxiety and stress, please talk it over with your doctor, about the possibility of medicine as part of the solution.   Get in touch with professional counselors.  Some of you may need to change your view on the importance of medicine and counseling.  And, sit with our God.  Sit with Jesus.  Learn to rest in Him in a new way.

So, I am back…and there will be and there will be more difficult and stressful situations, as ministry is hard. But I feel excited about what God has taught me about this battle and I am excited to jump back in with these new habits and lessons He has graciously taught me. Thus I invite you to join me in addressing stress and anxiety in your life.

Why I am Going on a Three-month Sabbatical

3 Jan

I started sabbatical January 1st.  For the first three months of 2018 I will put my pastoral duties on pause.

I have so much gratitude to Faith Church for allowing this, and for facilitating it.  Over the last few years, as the church considered and planned for the sabbatical, there have been numerous people in the congregation who have invested much time and energy to make it a reality, and I deeply appreciate it.  Now, as I begin my sabbatical, I look at how many people in our church family are serving in new and different ways just so I can go on sabbatical.  That is incredibly meaningful to me.

As I start the sabbatical, I am keenly aware that most people don’t get a sabbatical and could never dream of one.  Sabbaticals seem most common in the educational realm, especially in higher education.  But in my congregation, filled with hard-working professionals, a sabbatical is unheard of for most.  So I’ve wrestled a lot with whether or not I should even want one in the first place.  When so many people in my church family work in fields that don’t offer sabbaticals, maybe I shouldn’t get one either.  Like me, they work long hours in sometimes difficult jobs.  What makes me different?

In most ways, I’m not different.  In other ways, very different.  For example, my denomination recommends that pastors receive a sabbatical from their church every 7 years of ministry.  I started full-time at Faith Church as Youth/Associate Pastor in October 2002.  Then in July 2008 I became Senior Pastor.  I started talking about sabbatical in 2009 when I hit the seven-year mark of full-time ministry.  But having just become senior pastor the year before, my wife and I decided to hold off on that discussion.  Once I reached seven years as senior pastor, I brought it up again.  So I am within denominational recommendations for taking a sabbatical.  But again, I question, should I?

Here’s why I pursued the sabbatical.  We Americans tend to have a very individualistic mindest, and with that, we’re loathe to admit weakness.  I often succumb to both of these tendencies.  I just don’t think of it as a succumbing. Instead, and maybe you think this way too, when I am successful as a lone ranger, I can feel so affirmed. I did what I was supposed to do. I was responsible and accomplished and strong. It’s easy to become prideful, under a guise of being responsible.  But the reality is that deep within, I feel much less certain, individually strong and accomplished than I might give off.  To reveal more of what actually goes on inside my mind, I need this sabbatical.

Pastoral ministry is difficult, and yet as I type that, I hate to admit that.  On one hand I’m concerned about coming across as saying “my job is harder than your job.”  There are many jobs that require a lot from people.  Pastoral ministry is not alone in that regard.  But I do think it is fair to say that pastoral ministry is a difficult profession.  Plenty has been written about the rigors of being a pastor.  Here is an example.  And another.  (Furthermore, being a pastor’s wife is a uniquely difficult role.)

As I have served for 15 years, I see the value in my denomination’s recommendation that pastors take a sabbatical every 7 years.  I am ready for this sabbatical.  I feel the strain of those 15 years deep within, and I feel it bubble up to the surface, all too regularly.  Don’t get me wrong, I am so thankful to God for bringing us to Faith Church, and I love my church family. I am very much looking forward to many more years pursuing the mission of God’s Kingdom together.  And I am convinced that this sabbatical, and another one in seven years, and another in seven more years beyond that, and so on, will enable us to have a healthy future serving the Lord.

I recently read an article saying that the pastor can be the greatest hindrance to the church’s growth.  Those words “church growth” can mean many different things to people.  The kind of church growth I am talking about is not more bodies, buildings and bigger budgets.  Instead I am talking about people experiencing transformation in Jesus.  That transformation looks like people stopping a selfish sinful life and learning from Jesus how to live what he called the abundant life, and after having been changed, helping more people get transformed too (which we call discipleship). I’ve written about that elsewhere on this blog.

Deep down I worry that, in my role as pastor of Faith Church, I can be the greatest hindrance to people in my church family actually experiencing that kind of transformation. I wonder if my personality, preaching and leading abilities (or lack thereof…in all three areas) are the biggest hindrance to the church’s growth.  At various times I think I don’t pray enough, visit enough, sacrifice enough.  The balance to all those concerns is that no one is perfect, and I do work on personal growth in all those areas, and know I have much learning to do.  Surely I can be a hindrance to the cause of discipleship to Jesus, because of these areas.

But that is not what the article was talking about.  The article was talking about how pastors too often do the work of ministry for the people.  In the church family people do serve and give quite a lot.  But there exists a line where that serving stops.  When people get to that line (and the line is different for every pastor), the people think “I’ve done what I can do, and now I’ll hand it off to the pastor, because it is his or her job to do the rest.”  I suspect you know what that line is for your church and your pastor.  You know what the result of the line is?  The pastor feels fulfilled because he has pastoral work to do, but the people never grow beyond the line.  If the pastor always takes over at the line, the people will only grow up to that point.

What if Jesus has transformative work he wants to do in people’s lives, but it will require them to go beyond the line of pastoral ministry?  I am convinced that Jesus does have that kind of work he wants to do, and by maintaining that line, we pastors hinder the growth of our people.

So during my sabbatical the line at Faith Church is about to be crossed.  People in the church family will be stepping across the line to do nearly everything that the pastor does.  I’m nervous about that, and I’m excited about that.

Will I be out of a job when I get back?  I don’t think so.  What I hope, though, is that perhaps I’ll need to change my job description. Maybe I have been preserving the line, when I should be pulling people over it.  I can’t say for sure.  My sabbatical has just begun.  I don’t know where it will lead.  I do have some goals.  One is to learn to recognize the voice of the Lord.  Some other goals are to read a lot, write a lot, and get away to quiet.  I’ve already deactivated my Facebook account.  Weeks before that I deleted all the video games from my phone and my laptop.  I want to learn to be more present.  I want to learn to not be hurried.  That one I learned from Carey Nieuwhof’s podcast interview with John Ortberg (it is episode 168), who was very close with Dallas Willard.  Ortberg said Willard was wholly unhurried.  That amazes me.  I’m always hurried. Always checking the notifications on my phone.  Always wanting to do not just one thing, but usually trying to do two things at the same time.  “Redeem the time” can be an excuse for all sorts of poor use of time.  I want to learn all these lessons so that they are not just for sabbatical, but so they can flow into whatever pastoral ministry will look like starting April 1st.  (Which is Easter, by the way.  I know it is April Fool’s Day too, but I have a feeling Easter is going to take precedence.  And on Easter, we talk about new life!  Very interesting juxtaposition of themes for this sabbatical.)

So this will be my final post until April 2018.  I wish I could write about Psalm 148, which was the text for my final sermon before going on sabbatical. It is so joyful, and needed after four weeks of lament.  Just read it and you’ll see.

A Guided Lament you can use right now

21 Dec

Image result for lament

Do we lament when life is so rotten and dark that we have no where else to turn?  Yes.

Do we lament when there is still hope, but much work yet to be done?  Yes.

What we have seen this Advent as we’ve studied psalms of lament, is that lament is a faithful, clinging to God, an emotional plea asking him to intervene.

When we lament, we pray, “How long O Lord?” because we are waiting for him in the midst of our pain.

When we lament we are asking God to restore and revive us.

As you read this post, you may be at your wits’ end.  And you might not be.  No matter if you are going through a difficult time, or if things are relatively good, I encourage you to practice lament.  Include lament as a regular part of your prayer.  So what I’ve created below is a guide that you can use to help you lament.

Maybe even take the guide and use it to lament with your family or small group.  When we used this guide during our worship service at Faith Church, I read a section, then gave a few minutes for people to lament.  I invited our church family to lament out loud if the wanted.  Some did!  Most prayed quietly to themselves.

You’ll notice that the guided lament below starts broadly, lamenting for our world, and then gradually narrows, finishing with a lament for yourself.  Feel free to read over the brief description I’ve created ahead.  You might want to personalize, add to it, totally change it!  What I have listed below is just a guide.

So find a quiet place, away from distractions.  You might want to put your phone on airplane mode, light a candle, and take a few deep breaths.  Maybe read Psalm 126 again.  And then when you’re ready, address your lament to God.

Lament for our world

Lament for our world.  Lament for the refugees without a home, often scraping together an sparsee existence in a war-torn camp.  Lament for the families around the world who have lost loved ones because of terrorist attacks. Lament for fractures that run deep between people and nations in our world.

Lament for our country

Lament for our country.  Lament for the homeless who wonder how they’ll survive the winter.  Lament for damage that sexual predators have caused.  Lament for the pain caused by mass shootings.  Lament for communities devastated by flood and fire.

Lament for your community

Lament for your community.  Lament for the hungry coming to food banks for help.  Lament for the people living in motels.  Lament for broken families and how deeply it affects children. Lament for the many in our community who do not know Jesus.

Lament for your church

Lament for your church.  Lament for those in your church family who have been experiencing physical pain for many months and years.  Lament for the families that have dealt with a different kind of pain, the pain of loss and brokenness in its many forms.

Lament for your family

Lament for your family and all the difficulties you’re facing.

Lament for yourself

Lament for yourself.

How to lament: keep holding on to God

20 Dec

This week we have been studying Psalm 126 which reminds us that when you plant seeds of sorrow, God can give you a harvest of joy.

In my previous post, I talked about the difficulty of gardening, and how the psalmist uses that as a metaphor for life.  But after all the clearing, tilling, weeding, and watering, when you finally get to reap a harvest, what happens?  You are bursting with joy!

In the garden of life, this process might actually occur quite rapidly.  You sometimes receive very quickly an answer to your prayer of lament, for example, and that fills you with joy and even laughter.

But other times the answer to your prayer requires long months of waiting.  Remember Jesus’ parable of the widow who went before the judge, in Luke 18?  The widow had an adversary, Jesus said, and she wanted help from the judge.  Because she was a widow, in that society it meant she was in a fairly unprotected position.  Normally her husband would help, but as a widow, her recourse was to ask the judge to intervene.  Jesus doesn’t tell us the specifics of the problem the widow was having with the adversary, but he doesn’t need to describe the situation.  What he wants us to know is that the judge wouldn’t hear the widow’s concern.  He dismissed her.  So she came back, and the judge dismissed her again.  This went on for days, until finally the widow wore the judge down, and he helped her.  Jesus’ goal, Luke tells us, was to teach the disciples to pray and not give up. We call that prevailing prayer.  And sometimes lament can feel like that.

One of the most common refrains in the psalms of lament is the anguished question: “How long, O Lord?”  Just like gardening can take a lot of hard work, and require a lot of patience, prayer of lament is sometimes an act of prevailing before the Lord, going back to him over and over.

Sometimes you don’t see the answer to that prayer until after you pass away.  In those cases, God answers it posthumously.

This psalm reminds us that lament is like that.

Lament latches on to God and it doesn’t let go.

That kind of clinging to God is easy for some of us.  Hard for others.  If you have a more independent personality, you might struggle with asking God for help.  You don’t ask hardly anyone for help.  Most often you can figure it out on your own.  And when I say that, please do not read me as accusing you of being arrogant.  Instead yours is a genuine concern not to impose on others.  It is a concern to take responsibility for your life, which is good.  And so you rarely ask for help.  Let me say to you that you need to learn to lament.

Or maybe you are the kind of person who is well aware of your lack of ability, and maybe you have gotten tired of lamenting, asking God for help.  You can feel like all you do is lament, and it is getting you nowhere.  Like the image in the psalm, you are sowing seeds of tears, but unlike the image in the psalm, you are not harvesting joy.  You feel like giving up.

No matter where you are in your relationship with God, I encourage you to lament.  And to hold on.

 

What to do when life is hard and filled with tears

19 Dec

Related image

A friend of mine has graciously allowed me to borrow his tiller each year to get our garden ready for planting.  It is a monster of a tiller.  You have to grip that thing with all your might, lower your center of gravity, and hold on for dear life. I am not kidding.  It is a workout.  Then if you hit a patch of hard ground, where the tiller blades might not be able to dig deep, the blades bounce off the ground, and the tiller lunges forward dragging you along, like the guy in the photo above.  It is a scene.  But as you muscle the machine back around for another pass, and another pass, that hard ground eventually gets broken up into smaller and smaller pieces.  Until finally, the tiller runs through earth smoothly, the dirt ready to be planted. And I’m sore for a few days.

Gardening and farming, done well, usually involves hard work, doesn’t it?

In my previous post, I talked about how our next Advent psalm of lament is a psalm of ascent.  It includes uplifting songs of joy, but it also talks about the hard work of growing produce.

We can see both of those emphases in the two sections of the psalm:

  1. Verses 1-3 Joyful Memory
  2. Verses 4-6 Tearful Lament

There is a phrase at the beginning of each section that serves as a marker, helping us know that there are in fact two sections.  That marker is the similar statement “brought back captives” or “restored our fortunes”.  In the original Hebrew these are nearly identical.

So let’s look at each section.

Section 1, verses 1-3 – Joyful Memory

The word “captives” in verse 1 reminds us that the psalmist is referring to the Babylonian exile.  The powerful Babylonians had attacked and defeated Israel, and carted them off.  They lived in Babylon for 70 years.  Then the Persians attacked and defeated the Babylonians, and Cyrus king of Persia allowed some Jews to return to Palestine.

My seminary prof, Dave Dorsey, taught that likely only 5% of the captives returned to Israel, 95% remained in Babylon.

But those 5% who returned, the psalmist tells us in verses 1-3, were like men who dreamed. One alternate translation I read says that this could be saying “Men returned to health, given new life.”

Imagine the wonder of that moment.  For 70 years they were in captivity.  You are taken into captivity.  If you were about 30 years old when you are taken into captivity, you probably have a young family in captivity.  Think about what happens in 70 years?  Likely you pass away, and it is maybe your kids, or even more likely, your grandkids, who return.

We talked about this last week.  The kids and grandkids have been hearing stories of the glory of Jerusalem and the temple and how wonderful the Promised Land was.  And now they get to return.

And they are laughing and singing.  They are praising the Lord!

You can see why this would be a great Pilgrimage song.  Just as the original exiles returned excitedly to Palestine and Jerusalem, singing songs of joy, each year as people all over Israel journeyed to Jerusalem for the various feasts, they would re-enact the original pilgrimage of those first captives who returned from exile.

So the psalmist is excited.  But his joy turns to lament.

Section 2, verses 4-6 – Tearful Lament

He laments because there is much yet to be sorrowful about, much restoration yet to take place.  In this lament, he uses the image of farming, talking about how sorrow leads to joy.

Planting is hard work, which is why he calls it tears of sorrow.

We have a garden in our back yard, and we like to plant some vegetables each year.  When gardening, the first thing you have to do might be clearing away old growth and weeds.  And then there might be the tilling, as I described in my experience with my friend’s monster of a tiller.

But tilling is only the beginning.  Next you do the work of planting, and then you do the work of protecting your plants, putting up fences to keep out the rabbits and groundhogs.  Then there is weeding, and then regular watering, and more weeding.  Day after day after day.  Week after week.

To be fair, we are spoiled here in Lancaster.  Our soil is astoundingly rich.  And we get regular rain.

In a dry climate like some parts of Israel, farming can be extremely difficult, and could even appear to be pointless.  How do you know if rains will come?  Will this be a waste?

That is possibly what is going on in the minds of the exiles.  They will not only be doing physical, real farming.  They will also be tending the figurative land, seeking to rebuild the city, the temple, and in a more important way, seeking to rebuild their nation and their relationship with God.  For the psalmist, the idea of planting tears, with the hope of reaping a harvest of joy, has deep, deep meaning.

That’s where we can take a look and examine our own lives.

What is the hard work of planting tears that you are doing in your life? What ground are you tilling?

It could be parenting.  Grand-parenting.  Reaching out to neighbors and friends.  You are investing time and energy in people, especially in your family and friends.

It could be a ministry in church, serving, teaching, using your gifts.

What other kinds of planting are you doing in your life?  What is hard?

Think about what you are praying for.

Is it a broken relationship, healing from physical pain and illness, financial hardship?

When you are praying, and when you are waiting, you are planting seeds of sorrow. That is lament.  Lament is prayer in which you are planting seeds of sorrow.  You are crying out to God, saying “Lord, this is hard work!  I need you to intervene.”

Israel was crying out to God for salvation, to send a savior.  The land was in bad shape.  They wanted God to come and save them.

That is what Advent is all about.  Advent means “the coming”.  In the season of Advent we remember the first coming of the savior, the Messiah, Jesus.  And we examine our lives and seek to make our lives ready for his second coming.  He came once and he said he is coming again.

In the midst of the difficulty, the darkness, in the midst of the hard work of planting tears, God entered the world.  Do you need God to enter your world?  Perhaps you’ll consider lament.

What is a song of ascent? (the next U2 album?)

18 Dec

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For years the rock band U2 has been hinting that they are going to release an album called Songs of Ascent. What might “Songs of Ascent” refer to?  Why would U2 think of that title?

As the years went by, U2 changed directions a bit, first releasing an album called Songs of Innocence, and just this month, a companion album titled Songs of Experience.  Might there by a trilogy in the works, and Songs of Ascent is forthcoming?  Time will tell.

While there is no U2 album called “Songs of Ascent,” when I first heard they were considering that title, I took interest because there are psalms of ascent in the Book of Psalms in the Bible.  I wondered how these psalms might have sparked U2 to consider an album with that title?  So what are these songs of ascent?

During Advent 2017 at Faith Church we are learning to lament, and the psalmists are guiding us.  During this third week of Advent, we are studying Psalm 126.

Here it is.  Psalm 126

A song of ascents.

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
    we were like those who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
    our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
    “The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
    and we are filled with joy.

Restore our fortunes, Lord,
    like streams in the Negev.
Those who sow with tears
    will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
    carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
    carrying sheaves with them.

What do you notice first?

That it is short?  That there is no author named?  Both true.

What I want us to focus on is its subtitle: a song of ascents.  What is that?

An ascent is an upward movement.  We ascend the stairs.  I know, we don’t normally talk like that.  It sounds kind of fancy to talk like that.  We tend to say simply, “go upstairs”.  But that is what the word “ascent” refers to, a moving upward.  In Acts 1 we read about Jesus ascending to heaven, and thus we celebrate his Ascension Day.  On that day, Jesus, we believe, physically ascended, flew through the sky, upwards, to heaven.  His disciples, we are told, looked up and watched him fly higher and higher, apparently, until they could see him no longer.  That is an ascension, a movement upward.

So why is this called a psalm of ascents?

Actually all of Psalms 120-134 have this title, “A song of Ascents”.  The Hebrew word for “ascent” could refer to stairs, and even specifically the stairs leading up to the temple.

So the title could be translated “song of the stairs.”  Scholars tell us that these songs of ascent were used in worship in the temple, maybe sung by priests standing on the stairs.  Maybe even as people were ascending those stairs to enter the temple.  Scan through Psalms 120-134 and what do you notice?  They are all very short, and thus could fit well within the short amount of time it would take for people to walk up stairs.

If that is true, that the psalms of ascent were used in temple worship, then perhaps we could say that songs of ascent are a kind of preparatory songs to help people get ready to worship.  You can envision groups of priests and worshipers singing these songs together.

But scholars also tell us that these songs of ascent were used as pilgrimage songs.  There were a couple feasts each year in which Jews made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship at the temple.  Scholars believe that the pilgrims would sing together as they journeyed on foot or on the backs of animals, on their way to the city.

Almost certainly, this group of songs of ascent was written after the Jews returned from the Babylonian exile.  That is the same time period as Psalm 85 last week.  In fact, psalm 85 and 126, as I think will be very obvious, are often grouped together because they are so similar.

Take a look at the text of the psalm again.  Read it through a couple times.  What do you notice?

My first thought when reading Psalm 126 was, “Wait…Is this a lament?  The word ‘joy’ is repeated four times.  Laughter is mentioned.  The people proclaim, ‘The Lord has done great things for us.’ How is this lament?”

Just like last week in Psalm 85, what we see in Psalm 126 is an eruption of joy because the Lord has restored their fortunes in returning some of the people of Israel from exile in Babylon back to Palestine.  But right there in the midst of joy is also lament as they realize how far they as a nation have to go in order to keep the restoration going.

So this is a lament.  Starting with our next post, we’ll take a closer look at how this song of ascent is crafted and how we can learn more about lament from this psalmist.