Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Is Jesus Asleep in Your Boat?

Recently I led a Bible study in Mark 4:35-41. To set the scene, Jesus has spent a very long day teaching "by the lake." The lake referred to is the Sea of Galilee, also known as "Lake Gennesaret" or the "Sea of Tiberias."

The Sea of Galilee is currently 13 miles long and about 8 miles wide. At nearly 700 feet below sea level, it is the second-lowest lake on the planet, the Dead Sea (further south) alone being lower.

Today the Sea of Galilee is about 3 feet higher than it was in Jesus' day. Which means it is also slightly wider and longer. But one thing hasn't changed, and that is that the sea is subject to sudden, violent storms, due to its position ringed by mountains (updraft and air flow patterns can cause furious storms, particularly at night ... in 1992 Tiberias, a town on the western shore, was flooded by 10-foot waves. Significant damage was sustained).

In Christ's day, fish in the Sea of Galilee were relatively plentiful. Josephus noted that shortly after the time of Christ some 230 fishing boats regularly plied the lake. Only recently has it been nearly fished out.

At an average depth of over 70 feet, the lake contains a lot of water, and it is this weight that keeps a natural tendency toward salinity (due to extensive water evaporation) at bay. Gennesaret provides most of Israel's water supply, so the government zealously controls its depth to keep salinization at bay.

In addition to teaching some popular parables (related to farming ... focusing on the role of the Word of God, truth, and faith) Jesus spent his time on that day healing and casting out demons. It was a busy day, and by evening everyone was tired. Jesus dismissed the crowds and instructed his disciples to prepare boats to "pass over the lake to the other side."

Fishing boats of the day probably held about a dozen passengers, and Mark says there were several other boats in the party. Jesus probably climbed into the boat with the apostles, and other boats were filled with various disciples. Mark says He promptly fell fast asleep on a cushion in the boat's stern.

As they were crossing, a sudden and furious squall arose. Waves were cascading over the sides of the boats, and the disciples, many of whom were veteran sailors, felt they were in danger of being swamped. Finally, apparently as a last resort after all their best efforts failed, they awoke Jesus.

"Don't you even care that we are perishing?" they shouted in frustration.

Christ's response was to stand up, face the sea, and call out to the winds and waves to "be still!" (or quite literally, to "muzzle yourselves!" ... which was the same language He used when calling demons to silence).

Scripture says the storm immediately ceased and the seas became as still as glass.

He then turned to His disciples: "Why are you still afraid? Do you still have no faith?"

Over and over again, Scripture exhorts us to trade fear for faith. Fear seems natural to us in a situation like the one confronting the disciples, where their very lives felt threatened. One wouldn't have blamed them for retorting, "You obviously know nothing about sailing, and how dangerous a situation we were in." Except that, He had just demonstrated unequivocally that He was Lord and Master over the wind and the waves! So, maybe not.

A couple of observations

First, the disciples were doing exactly what Jesus had asked them to do when the storm arose: they were attempting to cross over the lake. Some "prosperity preachers" teach that if we would only do what Jesus says, all will go well and we will face no storms. Not true for these disciples.

Second, Jesus was in the boat. He was not out walking on the water (this time). And He was not afraid. He had promised them they would cross over. He also shared: "I don't say anything but what I have heard from the Father." So the God of the Universe had promised they would reach the other side. Despite the storm, there was in no reality any danger that they would end up in the drink.

So, what would have happened if the disciples had simply given up? Not bailed? If they hadn't woken Jesus up? We don't know exactly how it would have happened ... but we do know they would have crossed over to the other side. Jesus said so.

And, if the disciples were afraid, why did they wait as long as they did to awaken Jesus? Obviously there was some pride involved. He was a carpenter, they were fishermen/sailors. They ought to have been able to handle a storm. Only when they came to the end of their wits were they finally willing to call out for help. (Sound familiar? I've been there.) The only problem was, by that time they were wracked with fear and far away from faith.

How can you possibly sleep at a time like this?

But I think the most interesting thing about the whole episode continues to be that Jesus slept. Surely He was very tired. But, how could you possibly sleep when the wind was howling and waves were crashing over the sides of your storm-tossed boat?

I don't know about you, but there are certain places I absolutely cannot sleep, no matter how tired I am. One is in a plane being buffeted by storm turbulence. In 1978 I was in a small plane in a storm in Alaska, and the turbulence was so bad I ended up with seatbelt bruises on both hips. Sleep? Fuhgedaboudit. It was all I could do just to keep breakfast down.

Even though we spend approximately one-third of our lives sleeping, most of us have never heard a sermon on sleep. But sleep figures prominently in the Bible. God obviously made us fallible, weak, requiring this resort each day to a very vulnerable state of unconsciousness in order to continue healthy functioning. Writing in the Desiring God blog, Jonathan Parnell says that sleep is "the midwife of humility," and by that he means it is impossible to think it all depends on us and our brilliant activity, and forego sleep so that we can do it all. If we try, we fail miserably. Sleep deprivation is a form of torture. Each of us desperately needs sleep.

And when we do sleep, we become vulnerable, don't we? My wife and I recently had something die in the walls of our house, probably a squirrel or a rat, which caused an infestation of flies. We killed as many as we could possibly kill each night before going to sleep, because we thought, Lord knows we don't want any nasty flies crawling on our lips while we slept! We had no fear of such a thing happening to us while we were awake. But when you sleep you give up certain pretenses of self-protection.

We ended up praying, "God, please keep the flies off our lips!" And we slept.

David viewed sleep as an opportunity to trust God. In Psalm 3:5-6 he wrote, “I lay down and slept and woke again, for the Lᴏʀᴅ sustained me. I will not be afraid of many thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around.” Then again, in Psalm 4:8: “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lᴏʀᴅ, make me dwell in safety.”

David knew that sleep was an act of faith in the Lord's protection. In Psalm 2:12 he said: "Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you perish in the way. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.” He committed himself fully into the hands of Him who sleeps not. Jesus, the Son spoken of in Psalm 2, knew this too, which is why He could sleep in the storm-tossed boat.

Parnell ends his message with this beautiful exhortation:
When we sleep we are saying — in that same spirit of faith — that God will protect his Anointed and all those anointed in him (2 Corinthians 1:21). We are saying that no matter how many thousand enemies surround our soul, because of the Father’s commitment to his Son, we will not be destroyed. We will not be condemned. Nothing will ever be able to snatch us out of his hand (John 10:28). Nothing will ever separate us from his love (Romans 8:38–39). When we go to bed, we are saying that.

Christian, life is short. You should get some sleep.
Okay, then! I'm going to bed now. Good night!

Monday, November 03, 2014

Social Media Stress in the Twitterverse (a.k.a., Betrayed by a Close Friend)

Most of my readers know that my work has slowly evolved to place me somewhat smack dab in the middle of the social media space. I launched World Vision on some key social media platforms (blogging, Twitter, and Facebook) back in the 2006 - 2008 timeframe, and since that time have continued to focus on social media and internet tools for the various departments I've worked with.

The focal point of my social media interaction has been Twitter. I launched World Vision's first two Twitter streams (@WorldVisionUSA and @WorldVisionNews) in January 2008, and two months later launched our international Twitter stream (@WorldVision) as well as my own personal stream (@LarryShort). I eventually handed off @WorldVision and @WorldVisionUSA to fulltime social media professionals. The former, today, has over 406,000 followers; and @WorldVisionUSA has 187,000 followers. I continue to manage @WorldVisionNews for the Media Relations team here. We have nearly 17,000 followers, many of them journalists. And I also continue to work to build my own personal stream, @LarryShort, which has over 9,000 followers.

It takes a lot of work to get followed by a lot of people. I mean, you can pay money for this, although the quality of followers you get if you do will be very poor. So, good, old-fashioned elbow grease is what the doctor ordered. You have to leverage your Twitter account through other social media accounts, put out good content on a consistent basis, interact / engage consistently with your followers, and find and follow like-minded people.

I've frequently reflected that Twitter has become a good friend, as it is a key tool through which I've been able to make a mark on behalf of my profession, as well as share my life with friends. With more than a half million people following streams I've created and managed, I also feel like Twitter has benefited from all of my hard work, as well.

Which is one reason I've recently been so thoroughly appalled to be treated like dirt by our friends at Twitter. Late last week I opened up my personal stream to see a stark message posted across the top of it: "Twitter has disabled this account." The message accused me of abuse of some sort, of breaking the Twitter rules, although it didn't specify exactly what that abuse entailed or which rule(s) I had broken.

As I followed the links offered in the warning message, I was led to a place where I could have my account reinstated if I clicked a link indicating that I agreed with the rules. I went and read all the rules carefully (which I had done several times before). None of them had I violated in any way, as far as I could tell. (In fact, I hadn't done anything different than what I always do.) So, I checked the box to indicate I agreed with their rules, and my account was reinstated. Sort of.

Actually, for about a day all of my hard-earned friends ... both people I was following, and people who were following me back ... disappeared. I was warned by Twitter (without any explanation as to why this is true) that it might take some time for my friends to be restored.

And eventually they were. The only apparent residual effects of this negative and stressful episode (other than my wounded ego) appears to be that my Klout score took a nose dive during this period of disablement, plunging 3 full points overnight (from 60 to 57 ... fortunately, today's it's started nosing back up, and stands right now at 58). This was a first in the few years that I've been building and monitoring my Klout score, so I have no doubt it was related to Twitter's punishment of me.

And the question lingers: Punishment for what? What exactly did I do to deserve this treatment? I still have no idea.

Thus, I sent a direct message to Twitter's @Support team, and asked them to please give me details. Nearly a week later and I still haven't heard anything back from them. So far, complete silence.

So, the message I've taken from all this, so far, is: Even if you've been very good to Twitter, and follow all their rules, somehow they can still (apparently capriciously) punish you for something they say you did (without specifying what it was). You suffer away, having no idea exactly what you did to incur their wrath.

Not knowing what I did wrong, I have no idea whether I might incur their wrath again at any moment. And next time, no doubt, they will simply shut me down. No recourse, no appeal, no communication, no nothing -- just bam, you're dead.

Which would be a serious blow to my professional standing as a social media guru, not to mention my social media psyche. I've invested a lot of work building up those 9,000 followers. I definitely don't want to (and won't) start all over again. I'd rather dedicate myself to warning everyone not to use such a capricious social media platform.

Hence, I've become "very nervous" now when using Twitter. I'm far less likely to post, to seek new followers, and to engage. When you don't know which button caused everything to explode, you have a tendency to stop pressing buttons.

Anyway, I'm sure you're probably thinking all this angst over something as frivolous as Twitter is just plain silly. Possibly so. The problem for me is the level of investment I've made in this platform. It might be sort of like a person who has invested all his spare time polishing and preening his antique car, and taking it on the road to car shows, only to have his driver's license suddenly revoked for some reason he cannot comprehend.

No doubt this is an ongoing story, and hopefully I will get some answers from Twitter soon and be able to update you on what you can do to avoid what happened to me. So stay tuned. More from the Twitterverse later!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

My Jury Duty

Douglas McRae, accused of assault with a deadly
weapon, shortly after his arrest.
I thought I should briefly interrupt the flow of my usual blogging to talk a bit about something that has interrupted the flow of my life this week: jury duty.

Yes, about a month ago I received the dreaded "jury duty: you are required to appear" notice in the mail. This is my second jury duty experience since we've lived in the Pacific Northwest (more than 18 years now). Both experiences were similar.

By the way, many of my fellow jurors were responding to their fifth or sixth summons! So, I guess I should be grateful for only two.

Lots of folks advised me to try and do everything I could to get out of it. But, not being one to shirk my civic responsibility, I thought I'd go with it. So I reported as advised to the Superior Courthouse in downtown Tacoma. The first thing I remembered, which I had forgotten after my first experience, is that parking is next to impossible unless you are way early. Which I am never. This is because they have fewer than 130 parking spaces designated for what seemed to me to be at least 250 jurors. Which I suppose is why they urge everyone to use public transportation. (Of course taking the bus means you have to leave for Tacoma from here at least an hour earlier. And I would still have to fight Puyallup traffic to drive to the bus stop.)

The jury assembly room was crammed full that first morning, of course — standing room only as we watched the requisite orientation video. Then came the highlight of the experience, our jury administrator, Connie Janiga. Standing in front of a room full of harassed and helpless citizens wouldn't be my idea of fun, but she made it fun. She communicated clearly, told jokes, and overall was a shining star for the next three days of otherwise utter civic boredom.

She admitted up front that the juror experience was one of "hurry up and wait." This I remembered from my first go-round. It took two or three days to be assigned to a court case, which was some guy accused of selling drugs who had made the (in my opinion highly unwise, but I'm sure he's had lots of time to reflect on this, sitting in his jail cell) decision to represent himself in court. So he, along with the prosecuting attorney, grilled all the prospective jurors. He dismissed me when I think he surmised from my answers to his questions that I disapproved of illegal drugs.

That was it. Three days of hurry up and wait for that one shining moment.

My experience this time was similar, but instead I was assigned, on the very first afternoon, to what sounded like a very interesting case. I can talk about it now that I have been summarily dismissed (again). You can read all about it here. The 59-year-old defendant, a man named Douglas McRae, was charged with first- and second-degree assault after shooting his rifle at a group of female custodians at a middle school near his home. Thankfully no one was injured, but after the shooting McRae was taken into custody by local sheriff's officers at gunpoint. McRae's excuse for the late-night shooting was complicated, but the following statement he made to police showed why the trial will surely be an interesting one:
"The defendant claimed he had arrived home to find a man and a woman leaving his house, carrying his guns, and he fired warning shots. Later, the defendant said a naked woman came to his door and, because of the cold, he had no choice but to let her in. He said he believed she had something to do with the robbery."
Police seized "large amounts of ammunition and muiltiple weapons" in a search of McRae's house. The Sheriff wondered whether mental illness, or alcohol, or drugs, might have played a role. (Or perhaps all three?)

There were 45 of us in the jury pool, and 14 spaces in the jury. Unfortunately I was juror #42. All 14 jurors were selected from among the first 28 numbers, so I don't think they ever even got to considering us poor suckers sitting in the back two rows. Nevertheless, over the course of two days during the jury selection process, each of us had extensive opportunity to answer attorneys' questions about our views of guns, self-defense, stand-your-ground, etc.

I'm guessing I said quite a bit which could probably offend both sides.

Although I'd guess that probably wasn't why I was dismissed. In addition, I wondered if the fact that my wife is a school district employee was the final nail in my coffin.

So anyway, I was dismissed at the end of the morning of my second day of grilling. I got in one afternoon of work, then had to report again on the morning of my third day for possible reassignment. After sitting all morning in the jury administration room, enjoying Ms. Janiga's banter, those of us who remained (about half had been reassigned) were then dismissed for the day. While we were told to check in each night for a possible assignment, Ms. Janiga assured us with a smile that there was a "diminishing likelihood" that we would be called back in again.

So, that was it. Three days later, I'm probably not a whole lot wiser, but I am $70 richer (they pay $10 a day for your trouble, plus mileage). Of course the check is in the mail.

But, it was a nice break from my usual day in and day out responsibilities of saving the world. And, I got an approving nod from Mr. McRae when I revealed (under oath) that carrying a concealed pistol while biking (yes, I have a permit) gave me a sense of confidence that has proven useful against potential muggers.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Fountains of the Deep

A new / old chapter of my life is about to commence!

That may sound like a strange statement, so let me explain a bit. When I was in my 20's, I was convinced I was going to be the next great American novelist. My hugely overdeveloped sense of optimism (I was going to say "hubris") came in part from just having won a national writing award from the Evangelical Press Association. In 1981, the year I graduated from college, I won the EPA's "Best Personality Feature" of the year award for an article I wrote about mountainclimber Tobin Sorenson (a personal friend, who was killed in a fall the prior year) in Campus Crusade for Christ's "Athletes in Action" magazine.

It was the first EPA award that magazine had ever won, so they were quite excited, as was I. (If the name of the magazine sounds unfamiliar, it's because they themselves are now somewhat deceased. And "Campus Crusade for Christ" has now changed it's name to "Cru." Life goes on.)

So I graduated from college and entered my first full year of professional life with all sorts of exciting notions of glory. I spent the next five years planning, writing, and rewriting the Great American Novel, which I titled Fountains of the Deep, and then attempting to sell it to some unsuspecting publisher.

If you haven't guessed by now, I found no takers. While I received very positive feedback from some publishers, and those friends and family I asked to read my masterpiece (unbiased folks such as my wife Darlene) said they loved it, what I had to show for my effort was little other than a growing stack of very polite rejection letters (the novel "didn't quite fit the profile of what they were hoping to publish this year," but of course they wished me the best of luck). and a growing sense of wounded pride.

Eventually I relegated Fountains to a desk drawer where it gathered about 30 years' worth of dust.

Fast forward to 2014, the digital age when printed newspapers are dying left and right, and traditional book publishers are struggling. I was having an elevator conversation with a colleague at World Vision one day, earlier this year, and told him about my novel and my unsuccessful attempts to get it published.

"Do you think it's any good?" he asked.

"I'm not the most unbiased observer," I assured him, as if that was something he could have never figured out on his own. "But, as an avid fiction reader, I do think it's something I myself would really enjoy reading. If I hadn't proofread it 14 times already."

He didn't laugh. "Why don't you publish it on Amazon Kindle, then?" he suggested. "Everyone is doing that nowadays. You are a social media adept, and you could certainly market it online. Price it right and I have no doubt you would find a lot of people who were interested in reading it. If you get a few positive reviews, you're all set. Better than letting it gather dust in your drawer for another 30 years. I'm assuming you put a lot of work into it, and would like to see someone enjoying the fruits of your labor?"

Indeed I did. And that I would.

So, I took his advice to heart. I read a book (available for free on Kindle) about how to publish your book on Amazon Kindle. And it is surprisingly easy. But one thing I realized I needed to do first was get it illustrated.

Enter my niece, Lauren, who is a brilliant and talented artist, along with her husband Josh. (When I was in my 20s, I had tried to find an illustrator, But the guy I wanted to do it was Jewish, and after reading my book, he rejected me in no uncertain terms. (Apparently he disagreed with my interpretation of the Ark as a type of Christ!) And after that I kind of gave up.

I realize now that this, as with many other "death of a dream" experiences in my life, may simply be a matter of waiting for God's perfect timing. If I had found a publisher for Fountains when I was a young man, Lord knows how badly that might have gone to my head!

Anyway, why am I telling you all this in my blog? Well, for one thing, it's something I'm excited about right now, and am eager to share with you. I would also like to see if there is any enthusiasm or interest our there for what I have to offer.

So, what I plan to do with some of my upcoming blog posts is to present excerpts from various portions of Fountains of the Deep. Once the illustration is completed, and it's successfully uploaded to Amazon Kindle, I will share the link so that if you are interested in reading more, you (hopefully) won't be completely frustrated.

Enough for now. So stay tuned for the first excerpt!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014


One of the things I love about living in the Northwest is the proximity to unspoilt forest wilderness. Each Spring and Fall my son Nathan and I take to exploring the forests of Eastern Washington and Mt. Rainier, respectively, with the excuse of hunting wild mushrooms. (Morels in the Spring, and Chanterelles and other varieties abundant in the Fall.)

The Fall mushroom season is coming upon us now, so we have made two forays so far into our favorite mushroom hunting grounds. (No, I won't reveal exactly where they are. Suffice it to say they are at about the three- or four-thousand-foot elevation level in the forests on the flanks of Mt. Rainier.)

And we are planning another for this coming weekend. Our last trip yielded a large quantity of lobster mushrooms, and also some early chanterelles, a few hedgehogs, and a variety of others. The quantity had significantly increased since the last time we visited, about three weeks earlier.

If you are unfamiliar with the lobster mushroom, it has a fascinating story. It starts life as a very plain and boring white mushroom by the Latin name of Russula brevipes. It's edible, but extremely bland. But then this Russula fungus gets invaded by another predatory fungus, a parasitic ascomycete called Hypomyces lactifluorum. The net effect of this takeover is nothing short of miraculous ... the Russula swells several times its normal size, turns bright orange like a cooked lobster, and develops a very distinctive lobster-like flavor as well!

The photo above right shows approximately 10 pounds of lobster mushrooms that we harvested in our last outing. Nathan, a genius chef, turned a portion of these into a delightful Thai dish called Tom Kha, and I dehydrated the rest to save for a later date.

During our foray we also visited some high country lakes to try our hand at fishing. Supposedly they were stocked with trout three years ago. We didn't have much time to fish, and nobody got a nibble, but when we return next weekend I expect we'll be able to sink ourselves into the task with much greater focus. (In the photo above, my brother Don is sitting on the shore of a wilderness lake, thinking carefully about our spectacular lake of nibbles.)

The weather report for the day we were there called for sunshine. But Mt. Rainier, America's largest active volcano, has a microclimate of its own, and while we were fishing a spectacular thunderstorm rolled overhead. Something about sitting out in the water on a log, the high forested ridges all around, holding a fishing pole, while thunder rolls back and forth across the valley and huge rain drops fall, makes the slight risk of being struck by lightning seem almost worthwhile!

One thing this outing helped me realize was how hungry I was for wilderness. I work three days a week in a steel-and-glass building. My office is in a beautiful setting, but unfortunately I have to crane my neck to see a window. Our home (where I work the other two days) is surrounded by forest, and deer and bunnies wander through our yard; nevertheless nothing quite compares to getting quiet and alone with the wild in a place where you can't see any impact whatsoever from the presence of mankind.

Jesus withdrew into wilderness, to pray and renew and get alone with His Father. Even when life was at its busiest, He made this a premium.

The nearest "wilderness" to you may be a city park, or perhaps even a quiet corner garden somewhere. Nevertheless, I would encourage you to take time out of all the busy-ness to seek and fine some space to "Wait upon the Lord ..." for you know the reward for those who do so: "They will renew their strength, they will soar on wings like eagles!" (Isaiah 40:31).

Like the R. brevipes and its H. lactifluorum invader, may God "infect" you today, as you wait on Him, with something that turns you into someone much more interesting than you would be otherwise!

Friday, August 15, 2014

What I learned from my brush with depression

The last two weeks have been tough. I feel a little like a diver who is just surfacing, his lungs crying out for air.

One of the reasons for this is the difficult news about Robin Williams' depression, substance abuse, illness, and suicide, and all the discussion (most of it, I think healthy) which has followed it.

This has kicked up dust around memories ... of friends who have committed suicide, and even of my own (mercifully brief) period of depression, back in the summer between my freshman and sophomore years at college.

I haven't shared my experience with a lot of people, for one thing because of the stigma, and for another because in many ways it was not nearly as bad as many other people I know who have gone through depression a lot longer and deeper than I did. I never even sought professional help, or took medication, or anything like that; I merely sought some adjustments in my personal life, and prayed they would help. Along with the encouragement of friends and loved ones. And by God's grace I survived.

So I don't feel like I have a whole lot to contribute to the discussion. But, nevertheless my experience has shaped me (and my empathy for people who do go through depression) in certain important ways.

A Wake-Up Call

Most people's freshman years at college are a wake-up call. Or at least mine was. You have made a major transition out of a home you shared with parents and siblings, and now you share your life with a roommate (someone you may not have even known before) and fellow students. You have to work a lot harder at schooling. You have new challenges to your social life. And new financial challenges. In short, you are suddenly "adult" and have to figure out how to start acting like one.

I'm pretty Type A, and my response to some of these challenges was to burn the candle at both ends: Work harder, study later, get less sleep than I needed. Before the end of my freshman year, these bad habits contributed to me coming down with a serious case of the flu, one which I had a tough time healing from due to the pit of exhaustion I had dug myself into. I was still sort of healing from that, about the time finals occurred, in all their nastiness. Then school was out and I went back home for the summer. I went from a mad, careening kind of existence to a very slow-paced, lounge-around-the-house, do some yardwork, not-know-what-to-do-with-yourself kind of lifestyle. The transition really threw me for a loop.

Something snapped. By "something," I mean I now realize some sort of chemical reaction occurred deep in my brain which affected my sense of well-being very negatively, and plunged me into the depths of a black depression. It was sudden, it was something I had never before experienced. And it was absolutely and utterly terrifying.

The fear of it had a unique taste or a smell (sort of ... it actually wasn't either, but that's the closest way I can explain it) which was overwhelmingly unpleasant. This sounds subjective, but it was very objective to me. I remember one day I was driving my car up this street in my hometown and approached a signal, which had turned green. I was crossing this major intersection. As I entered the intersection, everything was fine. But something descended on me like a cloud of lead right as my car was traversing the intersection. And when I came out of it, several seconds later and 100 feet further north, I was in a black pit of despair.

And there was absolutely no rhyme or reason to it. It was utterly terrifying.

I tried to reach out to those I was closest to in the world ... my mom, and my girlfriend (who is now my wife). Both were sympathetic, but I knew with terrifying clarity that they didn't REALLY understand what I was going through. How could they? When someone tries to describe what I just described, what more can you do other than look at them with pity and lay your hand on their hand and assure them of your love and prayers and that everything will be okay. Which is what they did.

And I'm sure it helped ... but it wasn't enough. For I had the utter conviction (caused by whatever chemical imbalance was going on in my brain) that the demon that had descended to smother my used-to-be-peaceful-and-normal life would NEVER leave. When I was in the blackness, I could never conceive of being out of it again. It's hard to conceive of light when you're surrounded by total darkness. It was as if I was paralyzed and floating face-down in inky black water, holding my breath as the seconds ticked by and my lungs screamed out for air. In those moments I could not conceive of ever feeling normal again.

And may I say that, even after I did (after a few months) finally feel "normal" again, I could still taste or smell that lingering fear just behind the frontal lobes of my brain somewhere. It hasn't completely left, to this day, nearly 40 years later.

Lots of Questions

So, I'm sure you have questions. What helped? How did I come out of it? Did I ever consider suicide? What role did my faith in Christ play?

What helped? How did I come out of it? I did make a decision, which I now feel was the right one, to change venues. I discovered that someone associated with Biola was looking for a housesitter for the summer. The house was an hour away from my parents' home. It was a fearful decision to take such a move, which looked a little like isolating myself, but it really wasn't. I did stay in good touch with friends and family, plus added a layer of new friends, my fellow students at Biola who were sticking around town for the summer and working on various projects. I got a summer job at the school working on just one such project, and busied myself with that ... but not TOO busy. (I had learned that lesson from earlier.) I made sure and left plenty of time to breathe deeply and smell the roses.

I ate nothing but my favorite foods (I practically subsisted on watermelon and bean soup), cleaned up after myself, earned money, enjoyed my new friends, and suddenly began to realize I could be a productive member of society on my own as an adult, out from under my parents' supervision. (I'm not blaming my parents, mind you -- they were wonderful and supportive. There just comes a time when you need to do life on your own. God wired us that way.)

And, I got lots of rest, which I really needed. I'm not talking about sleep-in-til-noon rest, but sit out in the sun and get a tan and enjoy watching the hummingbirds kind of rest.

And slowly I began to improve, and I rejoiced in that improvement because it meant my previous feelings (that I would never get better) must be a lie. I realized (and cherished the realization) that whatever was afflicting me was not primarily demonic, or spiritual, or a result of my own sinfulness ... it was physical, it was chemical. As Jim Daly said in an excellent Focus on the Family article today, "A Christian is no less susceptible to mental illness than to diabetes." (Now that I have diabetes, nearly 40 years later, that struck me as particularly apt.) But even then, I realized my depression was a (mercifully brief, although it didn't feel that way at the time) mental illness.

The Temptation To End It All

Did I ever consider suicide? No, I don't think so, at least not seriously. I've always believed the fundamental truth that God gives life, and God alone has the right to say when it's over. Someone else I read recently made the important distinction between depression (and other forms of mental illness), which are amoral (just like diabetes), and the actions we might be tempted to take, which have entirely moral implications ... like intentionally hurting ourselves or others ... even things like lying, which you might be more prone to when in the throes of some mental illness. I'm sure there are people with sexual addictions that might be caused by some hormonal imbalance. The tendency itself is not sin, just like temptation is not sin. It's the act of yielding to the temptation that's sin. As someone once said, "You can't stop the birds from flying over your head ... but you can decide you're not going to let them build a nest in your hair."

Nevertheless, one of the things my experience did for me was create a significant reluctance to judge someone who does succumb to the temptation to take such actions. I had a friend at church who committed suicide following a very painful brain malfunction and mental illness. Because I've been there (just a little bit), empathy makes me very hesitant to judge someone who has been subjected to a level of pain I will never know. You would obviously have to be very desperate to do what Williams did, to end it all because you cannot see a way out (and on top of that are paralyzed by the fear of an incurable physical illness which is descending upon you).

People say, "Suicide is the ultimate act of selfishness," and that's probably true. But I'm not sure a person in that level of pain sees it that way, at the time. Mental illness prevents you from seeing truth clearly, from holding right attitudes.

But, while I don't want to judge people who may be in that situation, I also don't want to encourage others who may be confronted by such pressures to consider suicide as an option. I do take comfort (and believe it is true for all people at all times) in the Scripture which says: "No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it."

I'm so grateful that God knew exactly where I was in my mental illness, and provided a way out. Claiming His promise helped me hold on.

The Role of Faith

Which leads to the final question: What role did my faith in Christ play?

That to me is one of the most interesting questions. While there were certain lifestyle choices that I had made (like staying up late studying and not getting enough sleep) which contributed to my condition, I honestly believe there wasn't a significant "spiritual" component to my illness. My life with Christ was as strong or stronger than it had ever been, when I entered my depression. There wasn't any huge hidden unconfessed sin I was struggling with. That's one thing that made my depression so terrifying at the time, there really didn't seem to be any reason for it that I could identify. Life was good. Why was I so anxious?

Something very interesting happened after I began my housesitting assignment. In the midst of my illness I had been trying very hard to keep to a regular "devotional" schedule, reading the Word and praying. But every time I opened the Bible, it just felt like homework, and it made me feel literally sick. So finally I said, "I'm sorry, God, this is just not working" and I stopped (temporarily) opening the Bible. Instead I just focused on pouring my heart out to God. "Lord, I definitely want to hear from you about this ... but right now, I'm just in a lot of pain, and I need to know You are listening, that You understand."

Amazingly, when I stopped reading the Bible, my prayer life actually improved immensely. Then, in a month or two, after my healing had really taken hold, I slowly began picking the Word up and reading it again. This time, it seemed full of life! God began speaking back, slowly and gently. And my healing progressed. (I remember some points, later that summer, when I could barely stop reading the Bible!)

This all led me to a conclusion that has since been reinforced by many other life experiences. The Christian life is not formulaic, it's not about finding the right structure. A personal relationship with God really is that -- a personal relationship. While it's principle-driven, it's going to look different at some times than at others. Jacob wrestled with the Angel of the Lord all night, until finally Jesus wounded his hip! That's not exactly normal devotions, is it?

(And, by the way, it's exactly this kind of "wrestling" event, about eight years later, that really pointed my life in the direction God wanted it to go, when I was in the midst of a crisis of another sort. But I'll save that for another time.)

Well, please just let me end with a couple of conclusions that I hope will be helpful ...
  • Mental illness can strike anybody at any time, just as physical illness can. We all live in a fallen world and are all susceptible. As compassionate people of Christ, we should respond accordingly: With compassion, praying for healing.
  • When suicide occurs, it's extremely UNhelpful to talk about whether the person committing suicide is "going to hell" or not. I've heard Christians claim that because "suicide is a sin you can't repent for," it's unforgivable. Such arrogance has no foundation in Scripture, and in fact belittles the grace of Christ. Jesus has already forgiven all our sins, past and present (with the exception of "the unforgivable sin" which is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, repudiation of the grace of God and the sacrifice of Christ). The Apostle Paul was a forgiven murderer. I fully look forward to seeing my friend, who took his life in an act of desperation, in Heaven someday. We will praise God together for our total healing and deliverance from pain.
  • If you are struggling with depression, be smarter than I was and seek some help! Professional help is most advised. There are so many God-given paths to healing nowadays that can come through a good Christian counselor or psychiatrist. At least talk with a trusted pastor or friend. Don't let the stigma hold you back.
As always, I'm grateful if you've read this far! I don't think I could have made it even through my brief illness without the love and help of caring friends and family, and the gentle guiding hand of my Savior. Scripture says to "comfort one another with the grace with which we ourselves have been comforted." Let us be grateful for another opportunity to be the hands and feet of Christ to one another!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Link Arms Across the Planet

I am constantly amazed that, out of all the periods of time when I could have been born and lived on Planet Earth, this is the particular moment when God chose to place me here.

Think about it. Any of us could have been born in the dark ages, in some godforsaken hovel in primitive Europe at a time when the Bubonic Plague was raging. Or in Northern Africa during the height of the slave trade. In China during the Communist Revolution. Or a Jew in Germany during World War II.

Sputnik 1 in orbit (artist's depiction)
But no, here I am in the lovely and wonderful Pacific Northwest of the U.S. My own birth was almost simultaneous with the birth of the space age (the first manmade object, Sputnik I, was lifted into orbit 6 short months after I was born, and the first human, Yuri Gagarin, went into space when I was just 4.) I had no sooner entered the workforce when the Internet became a thing, and I was even privileged to be one of its first pioneers in the nonprofit space, back in 1997.

Guy Kawasaki himself (the social media pioneer and one of the principles of Apple) told me about Twitter when it was just newly birthed, and I got in on that marvelous new phenomenon when it was just a few months old.

So one of the things I've also been privileged to witness is the evaporation of national borders which has occurred, if metaphorically, with the dawn of the Internet and social media age. My Aunt Dorothy, my mom's oldest sister, left for the mission field in deepest, darkest Africa (Niger, one of the world's poorest countries) when she was in her early 20s, and worked there for about 50 years. In addition to being a nurse, she is a gifted linguist and translated Scripture into local dialects. My brother and I operated a typesetting business in Southern California in the late 1980s, and she would slow-boat handwritten translations to us from Africa; we would meticulously type up galleys of Scripture using a font negative that we had modified by hand, then slowboat them back to her for proofreading. The process took several years but ultimately produced a version of the New Testament in the local language she was working in.

Today, on the other hand, just a few short years later, I check my smart phone when I wake up in the morning and I usually have several messages from friends in Africa. It is evening where they are, and we often chat for awhile before I officially start my day (and they end theirs).

Boaz (top row, center) and the orphans of Ttamu.
One of those friends I met several years ago. He is a young man named Boaz, and lives in Mityana, Uganda. He has a passion from the Lord to help rescue children who have been orphaned in the AIDS epidemic, and in his late 20s runs an orphanage with 28 beds. He employs a schoolteacher/helper with the kids and several volunteers, and together they seek to raise up these disadvantaged boys and girls, ages 6 through 17, in the hope and knowledge and grace of our Savior. It's a marvelous ministry, but it is VERY hand-to-mouth. They are always praying for where their next meal will come from, or how they will replace worn mosquito nets, or where they will find money to buy badly needed medicine to combat yellow fever, malaria, or tooth decay. Theirs is truly a life lived on the knife's edge of faith.

Mandy and Gracia in May 2006.
One of the huge blessings in my life has been the privilege of sponsoring a number of kids in various countries. My wife and I are not wealthy (by American standards), but we are well off enough to be able to tithe to our church and also contribute to a variety of international and domestic causes. Our first sponsored child was with World Vision in Haiti, and then for a long time we were able to sponsor a girl named Gracia in the Democratic Republic of Congo. My daughter and I even got to spend a day with Gracia and her family in 2006. Next came a little boy, in the Congo's Ubangi Province, an AIDS orphan sponsored through the Evangelical Free Church of America's TouchGlobal mission; and then another girl in the Congo. And then Moses.

That's right, we're sponsoring Moses! Not the one in the little ark made of reeds, hidden in bulrushes, but his namesake, an 11-year-old boy in Boaz's orphanage in Mityana. Here's his photo and basic information, at left.

I've worked with a team of others here in the U.S. to help establish a sponsorship program for Ttamu (the orphanage in Mityana), and by God's grace more than half of the children are now sponsored at $35 per month. This has provided hitherto undreamt-of resources for Boaz and his team -- to be able to prepare healthy food for the children and ensure they have good bedding to sleep on; to get them uniforms and supplies for school; to purchase firewood to cook on; and to be able to provide important medicines or health care when they are sick. What a privilege it is for us here in the U.S., who have so much, to be able to participate in the lives of people in such great need in a place as faraway as Uganda!

Jesus said (in Luke 6:38), "For with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you." He spoke in the context of giving ourselves away, of loving others. If we love others with a large heart, then our generosity will be rewarded with largeness of blessing from God. This isn't speaking of financial blessing, which is the least of the various kind of blessings that exist. God blesses us with peace, with tranquility, with a sense of joy in the fulfillment of His purposes for us. Do you want to be blessed? Be sure your heart is big enough to give generously.

I'm grateful for the opportunities this day and age affords to partner in ministry with brothers and sisters in Christ, like Boaz and his team, in Africa and across the planet. And I would like to challenge you to consider joining me! $35 a month is less than many people pay for the privilege of enjoying an occasional latte at Starbuck's. And yet it can mean fullness of life for an orphan child in a place like Mityana, Uganda.

As a companion piece ot today's blog, I've prepared a Buzzfeed article displaying the photos and basic details about 13 children at Ttamu who are yet to be sponsored. Please pray over these photos, and if you would like to help, click here. Also reply and provide me with the name of the child you would like to sponsor. And I'll make sure it happens!

You will be able to correspond with the child and invest more of your life in them, as well as receive regular updates of their progress. So please take a moment and click on this Buzzfeed link:

Together we can link arms across the planet and demonstrate Christ's love for all children everywhere!