Thursday, December 27, 2007

Darkness Is My Only Companion

At first, I was puzzled as to why this might be on the the "required reading" list for my upcoming theology course at DTS. However, having completed the book, I must admit that although the theological insights were meaningful, the practical application of a Christian's response to mental illness was most enlightening.
Unfortunately (I presume), many Christian leaders will not give this book the attention it deserves. However, let me encourage you to put aside your gender and/or religious bias and listen to what the author has to say. Reserve judgment until you have read the material. I personally believe you will be glad you did.
The book, written by Kathryn Greene-McCreight, is a first person account of the author's own struggle with mental illness. Her story is honest and the questions posed during her struggle are ones we most certainly all ask (whether we have mental illness or not), but rarely admit to them as she has in her book. I appreciate her balanced perspective as she shares her own story, discusses the theological implications to her questions and offers advice in how best to care for and comfort those going through mental illness. I benefited from all 3 sections of the book.
If I were to suggest that we all deal with some level of physical illness in our lifetime, no one would disagree. We have all had our share of colds, flu, infections and the like. Some more serious than others, some more frequent than others, but we are all afflicted by the corruption of a sin cursed world this side of heaven. But what if I suggested (and I do) that we all suffer from some form of mental illness as well. Perhaps it as simple as an issue of self-esteem or loneliness, maybe depression or anxiety - some more serious than others, some more frequent than others, but to some degree we are all afflicted by the corruption of a sin cursed world this side of heaven. I for one will be the first to admit that I could relate to much of the author's discussion of her bipolar disorder. Evidence of this personal struggle for me can be seen in previous posts (, Don't misunderstand me...I am not self-diagnosing myself or minimizing the true struggle of the author of this very good book. I am only suggesting we all have something to learn from her insight and should therefore take up and read.
This book helped me understand what I do to help others that is not all that helpful. You know how uncomfortable it is when someone is struggling with depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts. What do you say? Or perhaps the better question is, "What do you not say?" I found this book to give very thoughtful insight for those who have a sincere desire to help others through their dark night of the soul.
Yet, since I have my own dark nights as well, I found the counsel of the author very helpful as she asks and answers the questions we all face. Her writing style allowed me to process her questions, my questions, along with her and find similar conclusions. This particular conclusion regarding the spiritual condition of a person struggling with mental illness was particularly helpful:
The soul is not the seat of sickness in the mentally ill; it is the brain, its synapses and receptors and so on, that renders the mind broken. The soul, as the self in relation to God, continues healthy in anyone as long as that person is in Christ, relating to and witnessing to God.

Throughout the book, the author maintains this high view of God and His sovereignty over His creation. It was helpful to look beyond the emotion and stigma of mental illness to witness the loving hand of God protecting the soul of the believer in Jesus Christ, even when the believer did not trust his or her own "feelings" of God's presence.
Ultimately this is a book of hope as the author leads us to the conclusion that God is even now in the process of making all things new. A time when we will all be made right. A time when the mental and physical consequences of living in a sin cursed world will all pass away. Until then, God gives hope to the weary and strength to the weak. I am thankful for having read this book to be reminded of this truth.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Measuring our Motvation (Part 2)

Tested by the Pharisees, Embraced by the children, and now...

The next account in Mathew's gospel describes a curious encounter with Jesus. Not unlike the disciples who stiff arm the children, I think we often discount this next individual with equal disdain. But should we?

He is the Rich Young Ruler and by piecing all the gospel accounts together, we learn 5 important characteristics about this person.

  • First, and most obvious, he is wealthy. So much so that both the author and the people seem to know this about him.

  • But he is also young. Probably not more than 40 years old. So the wealth he has accumulated seems to have been acquired by some level of expertise and early success over a relatively short period of time.

  • And his early success has brought prominence. He was a man of high reputation, some suggesting he likely served as a religious leader since they most certainly held the balance of power and wealth in this culture.

  • Yet despite his success, he was still virtuous. His response to Jesus's inquiry indicates he was diligent to keep the letter of the law.

  • And he was humble as reflected in his reverent posture before Jesus when he runs to kneel at the feet of a great teacher.

So before we relegate the young man as decadent fool, unworthy to approach our Savior, let us appreciate his posture. For, despite his wealth, he still had the good sense to know that there was more. His search for the assurance of eternal life could not be found in his wallet. He was aware of his spiritual poverty, he was seeking truth and he rightly assumed Jesus would have the answer. He was eager to learn from the master even at the expense of his high reputation, kneeling in humility before a man who, by the world's standard, was not fit to tie his sandal.

And also notice he wasn't looking for a list of things to do. He asked for "one thing". His life was complicated enough and he seemed to understand that the answer he was looking for was quite simple. Perhaps he learned this from being open and attentive to the message that Jesus had been sharing with the people. Maybe he heard Jesus tell the disciples that the kingdom of heaven belongs to children. Maybe he was listening so intently that he understood the answer given by Jesus better than the disciples themselves. "If children can enter the kingdom of heaven, then what must I do to receive this same assurance?" With childlike eagerness he runs to kneel at the feet of Jesus.

Jesus responds with gentle tenderness. He leads the man to a predetermined destination intended to reveal his true motivation. A motivation likely imperceptible by the man himself and so Jesus gives him a list to examine - a mirror to self examine the heart. He instructs the man to keep the commandments to which the young man replies, "Which ones?" Jesus then lists commandments 5-9 and then adds a verse from Leviticus 19:18 as a summary.

The commands Jesus reveals all refer to our obligation to one another. They represent the horizontal relationships with other people. It seems that what Jesus is telling the man is echoes by John when he writes, "If we say we love God yet hate a brother or sister, we are liars. For if we do not love a fellow believer, whom we have seen, we cannot love God, whom we have not seen." (1Jn 4:20)

At first glance, it appears as if Jesus is giving a prescription for entrance into the kingdom. A list of things to do in order to gain God's favor. But closer examination reveals a principle, not a prescription. He is leading this man to place of introspection where the motivation of his heart will be revealed. And to his credit, the young man is following. Jesus knew this individual and he even knew how he would respond to the question. In fact, I believe he wanted him to look at the list and check each one off and yet still be confronted with his dissatisfaction. Notice the other part of his response to Jesus, "All these I have kept...what do I still lack?"

It's as if he is telling Jesus, "I have done everything I am supposed to do. I have followed the commandments diligently. My life must be pleasing to God...but I am still empty. What am I missing?"

Jesus has brought the man to a place of true confession. He is seeking truth and Truth is staring him in the face. He has sought the "one good thing" and Jesus desires for him to embrace the only One who is good. The man is looking for a practice and Jesus is introducing him to a person. His practice has left him empty, but Jesus can make him full. Here is the offer:

"Sell all you have, give it to the poor and come, follow me."

The moment of truth. The man now sees himself as he has never known before. Jesus has led him to a place of introspection where he can truly see what is required. In his mind, he must have realized, "It's not about the list is it? ... That is why I am still empty. ... I must abandon all I have and trust Jesus alone...................I cannot."

On one hand, we must respect the honest response of the man. On the other, we must weep for his hardened heart. The Savior has offered Himself...the man has turned to go his own way.

The man wanted his treasure and the kingdom too. He was unwilling to relinquish his control and trust in the unseen provision promised by Jesus. That is the difference between him and the children. His security was in his hands. As for the children, their security was in His hands.

Where do we find out peace and security. At least the young man was honest...are you?

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Measuring our Motvation (Part 1)

Jesus Blesses Little Children
Then some children were brought to Him so that He might lay His hands on them and pray; and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, “Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” After laying His hands on them, He departed from there.
Mt 19:13.

God has used His word recently to cause me to evaluate my motivation in following Him. I would like to share what I trust His Spirit is teaching me in recent weeks as I continue to pray that it will penetrate deeply into my heart - the source of my motivation.
In Matthew chapter 19, there are two powerful verses which describe a seemingly simple scene. These verses are ones we are all familiar with since they often conjure up feelings of warmth and tenderness as Jesus welcomes the little children who are brought to Him on this day. Just the simple fact that families are entrusting their children to a perfect stranger should tell us something about the developments of Jesus's ministry at this time. In fact, it seems that His popularity has reached a fever pitch and crowds are gathering from all the surrounding cities in response the the rumors that He is passing through. Even His disciples are energized as they are active in ministry, seeing miracles and wonders by the man who has called them by name. I suspect they even have a sense of pride in their own growing popularity as they walk in close association with the "miracle man".
Yet along with the excited popularity, we also see the heated opposition. Perhaps the only thing surpassing the love and adoration of the people is the hatred of the Pharisees. There has got to be something about this man they can nail down to discredit His unprecedented influence among the people. They seethe with the desire to ridicule the new rabbi.
I suppose Jesus could feel the anger of the opposition just as much as he could the warmth of adoration. For we know He has now begun to set His face toward Jerusalem and He knew well the suffering that was before Him. This had to touch Him deeply in His human heart. And yet, the deepest pain would not be felt in the cut of the thorns or the rake of the whip. Instead, it was the wound of betrayal that would penetrate deepest. For many, if not most, of those who now stood before him in excited praise would soon stand tall, with mouths on fire, demanding His crucifixion.
That is...except for the children. Their hearts would not know enough to understand the choice of betrayal. They would see only the gentle touch of the one who embraced them and maybe this is why Jesus welcomes them into his arms. They brought Him comfort in the wake of what is to come. An innocent embrace and sincere adoration. It must have been a warm and refreshing blanket of love to our Savior.
Yet the disciples had duty and destiny before them. The children, although cute and cuddly, were inhibiting progress toward the goal. Miracles are worth waiting for - they bring popularity and awe. Children, although sweet, do not draw crowds and impress people. They were better things to be done, namely, the move to Jerusalem where Jesus, the Messiah, will finally assume His rightful reign. With such growing popularity, they would soon take Jerusalem by storm and like David, they will dance into the new city of hope as peace and freedom will be established across the land. If only they had eyes to see.

Two verse - Three groups - Three perspectives. Where do you see yourself?
  • Are we like the Pharisees? "How could this be?" you might ask. "I certainly don't stand in angry opposition!" But perhaps it is more subtle. Do we stand aloof? Just far enough away from Jesus to study, the examine, to test. But rarely close enough to embrace Him in adoration. Has he become a subject to be studied more than a person to be known. If so, perhaps we share more in common than we would like to admit.
  • What about the disciples? Are we more interested in being known as a follower of Jesus or is it more important for us to be known by Jesus himself? Be honest. Are you motivated by reputation or relationship?
  • Maybe it is the children. Do we need to cultivate this simple trust, this child-like faith, this humble belief in Jesus. Not a theological treatise, a convincing apologetic or a persuasive sermon. A person! A person with whom we are completely satisfied when we crawl into His lap and simply rest in His presence. A Savior with whom we are more inclined to sit His feet than we are to the busyness of His service.

Two verses - powerful message. Thank you Jesus!