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Sunday, March 31, 2013

Laughing in the Dark (repost)

Five years ago today, I recovered from what I believe to have been a case of clinical depression. This post was made right here a week or two afterward, when I finally realized what had happened and felt comfortable enough to describe it here. I had also started a private blog to record "good days" and "bad days" - this past week I've re-posted them here (here's the first one). It was my own case of "rising from the dead" - in the throes of clinical depression, you do not feel sad. You do not feel anything. Coming out of it is surely an emotional resurrection! Today as we are all celebrating the resurrection of our Savior from the dead, I am also celebrating the anniversary of the work He did in my life, bringing me back from the brink of disaster. Thank You so much for both resurrections, Jesus!

4/10/2008 12:11am

Not too long ago, after a series of financial challenges, I realized that I was suffering from a pretty severe depression. I looked up "clinical depression" on Wikipedia and a few other sites, and discovered that I was experiencing all of the classic signs of clinical depression with the exception that I was not gaining or losing weight, and I did not want to kill myself (I honestly wonder if the latter was the grace of God sparing me that turmoil). I immediately began to make plans to see my doctor, and then I promoted a book from my "read-it-someday" list to my "read it NOW" list: Laughing in the Dark: A Comedian's Journey through Depression by Chonda Pierce. I had watched one of Chonda's comedy DVDs a few months before, and I don't remember where I first heard that she had gone through a period of depression and written a book about it, but it may have been that DVD.

Anyway, my episode of serious depression ended abruptly one Sunday during worship time at my church. I consider it a miracle healing; I was seriously depressed in a way I have never been before. There is being depressed, and there is clinical depression, and they are similar in name only... clinical depression is far beyond just being unhappy. But even though I believed I had received healing from the Lord (and I still do believe that and I still feel OK!) I went ahead and read the book anyway, and I was not disappointed. Chonda is open and honest about her experience, which was much worse than mine (she had physical symptoms that resembled a heart attack, and was medicated for many months afterward), but in every chapter she is able to add just enough humor to keep things light without becoming flippant. Every chapter focuses on something that was a major stage in her recovery... getting the diagnosis right, getting the medication right, getting back to work (as a depressed comedienne!), getting off her meds too early, and on and on. Each chapter ends with an email sent to Chonda by a fan who heard her talk about her ordeal from the stage, and then a few pages of more detailed information related to the chapter from a psychotherapist. I enjoyed all of the book, but I have two favorite parts. One of my two favorite parts is a section where Chonda learns that just like a sunset is still beautiful whether it affects you emotionally or not, God is still there whether you feel His presence or not (it's the last 8 pages of chapter 4). My other favorite part is a quote from a master of dry humor. This is the quote, which is the lead-in to chapter 8:

I've had a wonderful time, but this wasn't it.
—Groucho Marx

I found the book enlightening, informative, encouraging, and enjoyable. (And every word in that list started with a vowel and the letter "n" woo-hoo!) I was able to identify with all but the worst of her symptoms, and I believe I have a much better understanding of serious depression than I ever had before, after experiencing my own short battle with it and reading about Chonda's longer battle.

I want to add a message to anyone reading this who has been in a depressed fog for more than a week or two. Don't wait to go see your doctor. If you have been depressed every day for all or most of the day for more than a couple of weeks, call right now and make an appointment. Don't be embarrassed, don't be nervous, and don't let yourself feel stigmatized. And don't put it off because you think you can handle it on your own. In recent years I have known two people who fell into the dark pit that had opened up inside of them and took their own lives, rocking the lives of their family and friends and, in one case, apparently inspiring the suicide of a loved one. Clinical depression is very treatable, either via counseling or medication or both, but if you don't see a professional you won't get the care you need. Don't play with your life; get help from someone. I know if I ever enter the fog again, I'll call my doctor right away. If you think you might be there but aren't sure, pick up a copy of Chonda's book. Her prologue description of the gray hotel with the "talking light" may help you get your mind around your own feelings and help you make the decision whether you need to seek treatment, or just a little bit of sunshine and your favorite song on the headphones.

A few final thoughts about my bout with depression. This was not something that attacked me on its own and that I was powerless to resist. I can't speak for everyone who has ever faced depression, but I know that in my case, it started because I was feeling sorry for myself and I chose to wallow in that self-pity. I chose it! I did not choose what came later, but like an addiction where you smoke the first joint or drink the first beer, at first I actually could have turned my back on it. But instead I went deeper in. My depression was self-inflicted, like someone who tries to cure an emotional hurt by physically injuring himself. Later on it was different; I couldn't get out of it without help. Then I was lost... never lost from Salvation in Christ, but emotionally lost. I couldn't find my way. I fully believe that coming out of it for me was a miraculous healing; outside of what God did for me that day, my solution would have required medical/psychological therapy. As I said in the above post: if this resonates with you, don't wait to get help. Pray for God's help, absolutely, but then find a doctor, or a psychologist, or at least an empathetic friend who will find you one or the other. Your miracle may require a little more human intervention than mine did. But however your recovery happens, God is with you in it. Here are a couple of Scriptures you might keep in your back pocket as you proceed with your healing:

For thus says the One who is high and lifted up,
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly,
and to revive the heart of the contrite.” - Isaiah 57:15, ESV

The Lord is near to the brokenhearted
and saves the crushed in spirit. - Psalm 34:18, ESV

If you've missed any of the posts this week, I invite you to start with the first post in this series here and experience the whole week's worth of entries.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Happy April Fool's Day

Five years ago this coming Easter Sunday, I recovered from what I believe to have been a case of clinical depression. This is the fifth post I wrote back then on a private blog about what was going on. For more details, see the first post in this series. And the rest: 2 - 3 - 4

4/1/2008 10:15am

Today I feel tired, but not depressed. No feeling that nothing matters at all; only a feeling that things matter but I would like to sleep through them! It points up for me the fact that last week I truly was in the grip of something really bad. I've heard and read people's accounts of depression (in fact, I'm about to get Chonda Pierce's book about her bout with depression from the library) but until I got a personal taste of depression I'm not sure I really took it 100% seriously. Not that I ever laughed it off... far from it... but the way people describe it sounds pretty melodramatic. My first post here and some of the other "bad day" posts probably sound that way. Trust me, they are NOT being melodramatic. It's really like that.

Start with the first post in this series here, or continue with the next post here. 

Friday, March 29, 2013

Great weekend!

Five years ago this coming Easter Sunday, I recovered from what I believe to have been a case of clinical depression. This is the fourth post I wrote back then on a private blog about what was going on. For more details, see the first post in this series. And the rest: 2 - 3

3/31/2008 7:00am

This weekend was wonderful! Outside of the death of our refrigerator (which I mentioned in the post previous to this one) the blessing of being led to the brand-new refrigerator which we bought for a price that even WE could afford, and then an awesome Sunday morning pair of services and a great Sunday School and then a (mostly) relaxing Sunday afternoon (in which I almost finished defeating Paper Mario 2 (that darn Bowser!) have me feeling pretty good this Monday morning. I did not get up and go to the gym today... I got up at 3:30 to give the baby a bottle and turned on the weather, and it was one of those tornadoes-knocking-at-the-door mornings we get in the Oklahoma springtime. Turns out the twisters were in the neighborhood but not ringing the doorbell... I think the closest they came was at least 15-20 miles away. I'm not sure we even got very much rain, although we did get some lightning and thunder. Anyway, I was beat anyway from a kind of late night, so instead of trying to tough it out and passing out on a treadmill or something, I decided to get an hour and a half more sleep. And I'm glad I did.

That late night... I actually got in bed around 9pm or so, which is decidedly not a late night for me and my wife, but then she came in and we talked for a little while. During the day two things happened that she was upset about... the oven isn't working to her satisfaction and probably needs repair (the pilot light is on but it's not heating up like it's supposed to), and I discovered that someone has misplaced the hardware we need to put our crib back together. When my son was 5-6 years old and had clearly outgrown the crib, we actually gave it away to some friends who had a new baby but no baby bed. When we had our new baby girl they gifted it back to us, but it's been sitting up in her room not put together because she's been sleeping in a bassinet. Well, there have been a number of people over at our house messing around in the baby room... my wife is terminally impatient and so I put up with her calling her friends over to half-do stuff in my house sometimes. For example, they painted the walls pink... up to about 2 inches from the ceiling. Nobody has been back to finish whatever the heck they were trying to do. There is an ugly metal rack shelf hanging off the wall, half-attached. Then there's the crib, which was brought back but not put back together. It's been so long since I put it together... in fact, come to think of it, I don't think I was actually the person who put it together in the first place, but if I did it was eight years ago. They didn't bring back the instructions, and either my wife or someone else who was in the baby room apparently threw away the bolts and other hardware we need to set the thing up. Either that or our friends didn't bring the hardware back, but they promise that they did so likely the hardware is either thrown out (seems unlikely that someone would throw away was was probably a pretty heavy bag full of new-looking metal bolts and stuff) or lost.

Anyway, my wife took the opportunity to plunge into a depression. I don't think she's medically depressed, but she is hanging on to a very downbeat view of the world. She constantly says negative things about our neighborhood, our house, people we know, people we don't know, the neighbors we don't know, the few neighbors we do know, people of other races, and the world in general. She talks to people about our neighborhood, and when she recounts the conversations to me, she puts words in their mouth that are far more negative than what the people said (I caught her doing that one time this weekend and called her on it). Anyway, the oven and the crib were apparently enough to plunge her into the depths of despair, even though both problems can be easily remedied with just a few hundred dollars. We don't really have a spare few hundred dollars, but it's not the same as being out on the street. Replacement hardware can most likely be purchased (she actually knows who to call for that) and it's not unlikely that the oven just needs a new thermostat or something. But she was crying, so we talked in bed for a while until she felt a little better. In light of some of the reading I've done lately, I asked her if she had been feeling suicidal... that's the real red light that means you have a problem and need to see a doctor right away. She has not, so I think she's probably just down, not clinically depressed. Unless it gets a lot worse, I won't recommend a doctor.

As for me... I feel so much better today that I wonder if either I was just in a particularly ugly doldrum the other day, or maybe I received a healing from God this weekend. Either is possible. It is also possible that I'm just in a momentary peak that will go away. However, I do still intend to get out to the gym frequently while the membership is there, and I also intend to give myself some more regular diet of the Word of God. It is powerful and alive. It brings life. I think it can bring life to me. If I fall back into depression I will not hesitate to talk to my doctor, but I'm going to wait and see for a while. The last thing I want to do is give my wife ANOTHER thing to worry about.

Start with the first post in this series here, or continue with the next post here.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Refrigerator Sunday

Five years ago this coming Easter Sunday, I recovered from what I believe to have been a case of clinical depression. This is the third post I wrote back then on a private blog about what was going on. For more details, see the first post in this series, and here's a link to the second post.

3/30/2008 5:38am

It's Sunday morning early, and I actually feel pretty good. I feel pretty normal, as a matter of fact. Maybe it has something to do with our refrigerator.

Yesterday morning I woke up feeling NOT normal. I felt depressed. Then our fridge, the one that was in this house when we moved in, tanked on us. It's been having death rattles for a few days, but yesterday morning it defrosted our frozens and we knew it was time to get it replaced. Problem was, we have very little cash on hand... I have like $150 in the bank. Plus we've been having some serious struggles keeping bills paid lately because of some keeping-the-checkbook-current problems (this financial mess is a real contributor to my moods lately) so I figured we wouldn't be able to get credit to get one at a regular store like Sears or Lowe's or Home Depot or whatever. Cathy checked around by phone for some used fridge places, but came up dry, so after my son's soccer game we went to see what would happen if we looked at the stores. On the way to Home Depot we prayed... Cathy prayed. I told her either we were going to have to resolve to take what we could get, or we were going to have to pray for the Holy Spirit's help in finding what we want for a price we could afford.

So we went to two Lowe's and one Home Depot, then we went to a Maytag outlet store that we had passed on the way to Home Depot. We didn't really see anything we were particularly stunned with at the hardware stores, but at the Maytag store we found two identical beautiful blemished-in-some-way-we-couldn't-even-find fridges marked down from almost $900 before tax to just under $600 counting the tax! The signs said financing 90 days same as cash; we figured we could tighten our belts somehow and come up with the $200 each month. But when the salesman ran our credit, not only did they give us a credit line that would have bought any fridge in the store if we had wanted, they gave us twelve months same as cash! I'm pretty positive I can come up with fifty bucks a month (to avoid the 22% interest if we go over teh 12 months WHEW!). We would have had to wait several days for them to deliver it, so we borrowed my father-in-law's truck and brought it home ourselves. My dad helped me unload and get it into the house.

So maybe the reason I feel good this morning is the physical exertion yesterday, in which case I really need to start getting my butt back to the gym. I'm going to try doing cardio every day next week and see what happens (I'll go easy on myself to start... every day but a light workout). Maybe it's partly because God clearly answered our prayer with the fridge, which is even bigger and nicer than the old one. Maybe it's because it's Sunday and time for singing! Maybe I've blown a few days' bad moods out of proportion... I hope that's the case but I think maybe it's not. All I can do is wait and see!

Start with the first post in this series here, or continue with the next post here. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


Five years ago this coming Easter Sunday, I recovered from what I believe to have been a case of clinical depression. This is the second post I wrote back then on a private blog about what was going on. For more details, see the first post in this series.

3/29/2008 2:25am

Tonight we were at a monthly meeting for songwriters that we have with some people in our church worship arts department. My wife and I are active members in our church choir, up in front of people every week, smiling and singing and weeping and whatever else happens in the worship service each week. You would think, considering the mood I've been in for some time, that the "weeping" part would come much more easily to me than the "rejoicing" part, but the fact is that I've had no trouble worshiping God joyfully in all this. In fact, worship times at church are almost the only thing I still have some enthusiasm for... most everything else I'm just like, meh.

Anyway, so here I am at home. My almost-eight-year-old son has been put to bed (he was grouchy because it's late), and my baby went to bed a few minutes ago with my wife. I'm all alone here in the living room, and the empty feeling has rushed back on me. Tonight as we were with friends, singing our songs (I sang two of mine which are both pretty ballads) and visiting and having a good time, I didn't notice it as much, although it was still there if I thought about it. But now alone, here it is again.

You might wonder how I could possibly write anything except melancholy stuff in the state I'm in. Well... keep in mind that I don't feel the weight of depression 100% of the time. There are times (especially during church services) when it lifts somewhat and I get a breath of fresh air. And things that are true are true always, whether I'm feeling numb about them or not. The only problem the moods are causing... okay, maybe this is two related problems... is that I've started second-guessing my own lyrics because I'm afraid I'm writing my depression into them, and I lose confidence in and enthusiasm for my own new songs within days of writing them. An example of the first: in one of the songs I wrote tonight there is a line, sung to God, that says "Only You can cure what I've got." The line is a pretty straightforward thought about salvation/redemption/spiritual healing, that sort of thing. But I keep wondering if I subconsciously wrote my own depression into the song. Seems like I'm taking my lyrics a little too personally, as if I'm reading my own mail to people. Personal lyrics are a good thing, but I almost feel like I'm invading my own privacy.

My recent lyrics, particularly the two songs I sang tonight, have frankly been some of my best-ever work. On one level, I guess an intellectual level, I'm very proud of them. On an emotional level, I'm so not-emoting that I don't really know how I feel about them. I can't tell if I feel happy with them or not. I don't really feel happy about much of anything.

I haven't really written a song that is specifically about being depressed. I did read a book by Michael Card about a year or so ago that had a section about songs of lament, noting how many of those are in the Bible and wondering if there isn't a real void in the art within the modern church that can be filled by them. So maybe I should write something about my depression. I probably will, although it probably won't be tonight. :) I did start a song a few weeks ago when Christian rock pioneer Larry Norman passed away, and if I had known then what I know now about clinical depression, reading my own lyrics then would have set off the alarms:
Another brother has taken flight
Present in a world of endless light
Absent from a world of creeping black
One-way ticket, no flight back

Standing against the evil tide
With all my loved ones by my side
I'm a fortunate man, a favored son
Still, I'll be glad when my time has come
That was intended as the first verse, with the chorus ending with the line "If I could be where he is." The idea was to write a song about the longing every Christian has to be with God. It came off sounding almost suicidal, now that I look back at it. I wrote that on February 25, which was almost five weeks ago. I didn't realize I had been that bad off for that long.

Start with the first post in this series here, or continue with the next post here.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Welcome to the Wasteland

Five years ago this coming Sunday, I recovered from what I am positive was a diagnosable case of clinical depression. This is the kind of thing that people don't just pull out of like a airplane pulling out of a dive... this was clearly a miracle. When I realized that for some time I had been depressed in a way that was different from just having a bad day, or week, or month... that I was depressed in a way that I couldn't just "cheer up" from... I started a private blog about it, with the intention that if I ever became suicidal and succeeded in ending my own life, my family would know why. This week I've decided to finally make those private blog posts public; maybe they will give others hope that there can be light at the end of the tunnel.

Here's the first post on the blog which I had entitled "Up From The Wasteland".

3/28/2008 11:00am

Yesterday I realized that I most probably am suffering from clinical depression.

I knew I had been down for quite some time... a number of years, in fact, probably since sometime in 2002. I had been laid off in late 2001 in a round of massive layoffs as the company I worked for struggled to survive in the wake of a long series of poor choices by management. At first I was pretty upbeat, thinking I would be working again very soon, but by the middle of the year I was crying out to God that I didn't understand why I hadn't found a job yet and wouldn't He help me find one because my unemployment checks were running out? Anyway, that's a story for another post. This post is about the past three days.

Wednesday night as I was listening to my pastor's message I realized that I didn't care if I lived or died. Not that I wanted to die, because I absolutely do not. In the past few years I have seen the aftermath of several suicides, and I don't want to be the cause of that kind of suffering for my loved ones... again, that's for another blog post. But the idea of some horrible catastrophe happening and me being wiped off the face of the earth, or some illness doing me in... except for the pain that would likely accompany those things, the idea of dying didn't bother me any more. Now, as a Christian I know that death is a defeated enemy and not to be feared, but death is an enemy and is to be at least resisted. I think that's the problem... I don't know if I have the resistance in me. It was like I was ready to go, and I wasn't even sick.

Then yesterday I got to thinking... maybe I WAS sick. I hopped on the Wikipedia article about clinical depression... that van Gogh picture is positively creepy to me, which maybe is another sign that I need help... and made myself an informal checklist of the list of symptoms they have there. Of about 15 symptoms I found listed, I have all but three, one of which is the "converse" of one which I have so that one probably doesn't count, so I appear to have twelve out of the fourteen symptoms. From there I went to the National Alliance on Mental Illness Web site and read some of their material, then I went to my health insurance provider's Web site and read about what they have for depression (which may have been a poor move if they are monitoring what their customers do on their Web site, but oh well). They had a link to The Reawakening Center, which I followed and took their little self-assessment tool. I scored a 16; the results page says that if your score is higher than five you may have clinical depression. It's hard to ignore the signs: if I go to someone who is qualified to make a diagnosis, I almost certainly will be recommended for treatment. The only bright spot is that I honestly am not suicidal.

The key question here is: for how long am I not suicidal? I read yesterday that the reason drug treatments sometimes result in suicide is that the willingness to take action returns before the depression abates... so the person who has been sad but lethargic is suddenly sad and ready to do something about it. If I get on antidepressants, will that happen to me? I don't know, and nobody really does until you try. That's why you have to be closely monitored if you start taking that stuff.

And back to the how long aspect... as a child and teenager I did have thoughts about suicide from time to time. I never made an attempt; I don't know if that was because of good sense or because of lack of courage, but for whatever reason, I never actually tried anything. But like a recovered alcoholic, that aspect of my personality may still lurk somewhere, and if that beast still lives, I don't want to go into its cave and wake it up without backup.

This blog is, at this writing, private. Nobody but me can view it (well, me and probably the techs at Google, I suppose, if they wanted something to chuckle about). I hope that one day there will be a happy ending to the story and I am able to make it public. That's why I've called the blog "Up From The Wasteland" and why I've put the lyrics to the AD song by the same name in the sidebar. Call it a "faith statement" if you will. It's my way of reaching out for some hope. Also, if the worst should happen and I descend into a mental illness that drives me to something terrible, I will myself to remember to make a final post and make this blog public then, too. If I don't make it through this, I want the tale to be told. I'm being totally honest here, and this world needs all the total honesty it can get. Maybe, one way or another, my story will help someone deal with the spectres in his or her own mind.

Be sure to come back all this week to read the rest of this story. Fortunately for me, it has a happy ending! Continue with the next post here.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Religion, Relationship, and Stolen Shows

'Notre-Dame de Reims' photo (c) 2010, troye owens - license: too long ago I read an article that says that according to a new Gallup poll, confidence in organized religion has hit an all-time low. My reaction to that was: "I blog about the Bible, and I don't care much for religion myself!" When I think of the word "religion" I think of a set of requirements I must meet. I must go to church, I must pray every day, I must read the Bible every day also, and so on and so on. Basically, that's what a dictionary will tell you "religion" is. There is certainly a place for that, and there is value to it; if there wasn't, you wouldn't find me spending several hours of my week every single week hanging around my church. But I don't think the answers to the major questions that we all face... Why am I here? What am I supposed to do with myself while I'm on this planet? What happens to me when I die? Does anyone love me, really love me? ...those questions are not answered by going through the motions of religion.

And maybe that's why people have lost interest. Maybe after 9/11/2001 they tried the whole showing-up-for-church-making-everything-better route, but then they figured out that if they show up for church on Sunday, on Monday they still have problems and they still have questions and they still have doubts. Maybe they discovered that closing their eyes reverently when someone else prays only lasts as long as the prayer lasts. Maybe they wondered why reading some verses from a Bible promise box doesn't always provide much reassurance, or prayers issued in panic mode often seem to bounce off the ceiling.

The reason is because the actions without a real personal connection are just actions.

How long does a marriage last when the husband and wife have all of the motions down pat, but there is no passion? No spark between them? It doesn't last long. We found out last week that God clearly sees His relationship with mankind as something very similar to a romantic relationship (actually, my theory is that God created romantic relationships to give us a model of the relationship He wants with us) - if a romance doesn't do well when the participants are just going through the motions, why would a relationship with God do any better?

Don't get me wrong - although a human relationship may end in divorce, God has said in His word that He will not "leave or forsake" us (see Hebrews 13:5-6), so once you and God have a relationship, I'm confident that even if you turn your back on God, you can't really "walk away" (how can you walk away from someone who is omnipresent? How can you turn your back on someone who is in front of you and behind you? But just as a marriage that lasts until the death of one partner is empty and joyless if there is no love, no heart behind the actions of birthdays and anniversaries and holidays and Valentine's Days, your relationship with God can seem empty if religious actions are the only thing that you put into them.

Being present in a specific place, church or not, is not the answer all of those big life questions. Opening a book every day and reading it is also not the answer to those questions, and neither is speaking into the air to someone you cannot see. According to the Christian faith, any of those three activities might lead to you finding some of those answers, but if "religion" is the actions itself, religion provides no answers.  Religious activities are, in themselves, empty.

So if people are becoming disenfranchised with religious actions, maybe that's a positive thing. Maybe people are figuring out that the "religion" part of Christianity isn't the real thing. The real thing is that God loves you; Jesus gave everything He had for you; God accepts you into His family. And not only accepts you, but welcomes you with open arms! You are the object of His affection! It's about love, not about actions.

Even more mind-boggling is the fact that once you have lost yourself in that loving relationship with the Father God, the actions come naturally. When you understand how much God loves you, you want His will to take control. Check out this video from Christian rap/pop star tobyMac explaining the meaning of his song "Steal My Show":

What's your take on the whole "religion vs. relationship" debate? How much religious activity is enough? How much is too much? What do you do when going through the motions just doesn't cut it? Sound off below by clicking the "comment" link and join the discussion!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Hard Worship (Worship, Part 5)

'Father Lopez Statue' photo (c) 2010, Cliff - license: it's hard to worship God.

Sometimes I'm tired when I get to church. Sometimes I had a hard time with my kids right before we got there. Sometimes I had a tough day at work before an evening service, or a tough week of work before a Sunday morning service.

Sometimes I don't like the songs the worship leader chose. Sometimes I don't know the words very well, or I don't like the way the song is written, or I don't care for the rewrite.

Sometimes the bass guitar is too loud, or I don't like the voice of the person who is leading a particular song, or the guy standing right behind me is singing really out of key.

Sometimes there are a lot of people and I feel crowded. Sometimes there aren't very many people and I feel self-conscious. Sometimes it was hot outside and I feel a little sweaty - sometimes it's too cold inside and I just want to put on my jacket and put my hands in my pockets.

Sometimes it's hard to worship God.

But sometimes, it's easy to worship God.

Sometimes I feel good when I get to church. Sometimes every song is one of my favorites, the band sounds good, the singers are showing us how it's done, they're playing them in my key, and I couldn't be happier if I was in the front row at a Chris Tomlin concert.

Sometimes it's easy.

But then I start to wonder: am I really worshiping God they way I want to? Really communing with my Savior? Really reaching my heart out to him? It can actually be pretty easy just to enjoy singing for singing's sake, like singing along at a Beatles concert, but never actually open your heart to God.

And sometimes, when it's so hard to worship that you feel like you might have turned into that stone statue up there, although you may not feel good or you may be distracted by any of a zillion little things, you may be doing your level best to stretch your heart out to touch God.

In the one case, you can think you succeeded in worshiping God when you actually haven't. In the other case, you may feel like you've been an utter failure at worshiping God, but God may be saying "Well done!"

My perspective on musical worship services has been the same since I was in college. I attended Oral Roberts University (which is a great school... look into it if you're a high schooler!) and was required to attend chapel services a couple times a week. The music could tend to be repetitive. Sometimes it seemed like the chapel band only knew about five songs, and we sang them again and again, every service, the same arrangement, even the same order. I'm sure it wasn't actually like that, but it certainly seemed like it! It got a little monotonous, and after a while I found myself sort of checking out during the music part.

Then one day when I was sort of standing there watching, maybe even rolling my eyes a little bit, I could sense a small voice inside of me saying something like, "Your worship doesn't depend on what song is playing."

That was a revelation to me, and like an explosion or like a blooming flower, the whole concept began to open up and expand until it filled my whole perception of what worship is all about. Worship is NOT about anything going on in the physical world. Worship is all about what is going on inside your heart. Suddenly I realized that I could worship God, and sing that song I was bored with, and my worship could be pleasing to Him!

So when it's hard to participate in the physical part of worship, or when you kind of don't feel like doing it, do your best. This is God we're talking about here. He created you, He gave you life, and then when you threw it away, at tremendous cost to Himself He bought it back for you again. All worship is, is taking the time to love God. If you don't feel like it but you do it anyway, that's worship. And if you do feel like it but then you're just expressing enthusiasm for music or happiness with your life - well, maybe it's worship or maybe it's not. In those situations when participation is easy, sometimes real authentic worship is not.

But no matter if you feel bad or you feel good, authentic worship is always possible. So do it. Love Jesus back! You do know He's loving you already, even right now as you read this, right? Worship is just reciprocating that love from deep down in your heart. Sure, you should sing, you should raise your hands if you like, you should dance if you are so inclined. But while you're doing that, don't forget to worship God.

After all, it's not so hard, is it?

I hope you've enjoyed this week worth of blog posts about worship! I actually did not start out with much of a plan in mind, but I did know that I had a few things to talk about, so I decided to go the mini-series route and see what happened. As it turned out, some themes did emerge. Here's the rest of the series, in case you missed it:

Disobedient to the Songs - in which I confessed that sometimes I don't do things I am singing about
Oddly Sexual - in which I explained that Jesus is not our girlfriend, but we are His (sort of), so using relationship metaphors in worship is not creepy
Hand Raising Styles - in which I worried that a comedy bit by Tim Hawkins has the potential to distract people from worship
Sloppy & Wet - in which I threw my hat into the ring on a controversial lyric in a popular worship song, and then said it doesn't matter anyway

Take a look at all four of those, if you haven't already, and then sound off in the comments section of any or each. And don't forget to add your comments to the discussion about this post! Just find the link that says "COMMENTS" or "POST A COMMENT" and click it to tell me what you think!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Sloppy & Wet (Worship, Part 4)

'Jesus holding earth' photo (c) 2005, Kim Scarborough - license:
Heaven Meets Earth, Like
Shaq Palming a Basketball
There's been some controversy surrounding one line of the song "How He Loves", which was written by John Mark McMillan and recorded by, I don't know, everyone on the planet, and also David Crowder Band. I've already mentioned it on this blog, in this entry from a year and a half ago. If you Google the phrase "Sloppy Wet Kiss", you will find that a lot of people have weighed in on it, and even John Mark has explained how the David Crowder Band "Unforeseen Kiss" version came to be. And although if you've been reading all week, you've already found out that I think sexual metaphors can be appropriate in worship music (God uses them Himself, all through the Bible), I'm not here to defend or condemn either version. I think it's a beautiful, expressive song, and if one way or another is how you worship best, then by all means, sing it that way.

But I do have an opinion. And in my opinion, as much as I love David Crowder's music, the line "Heaven meets Earth, like an unforeseen kiss" doesn't make any sense.

In the song, when Heaven and Earth meet in something with qualities similar to a kiss, is it an accident? Did they simply bump into each other? "Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't see you there. Sorry about kissing you like that. My bad." Of course not... the song is about how much God loves us, and there's no love in something that happens by accident. The words "Heaven" and "Earth" are used metaphorically for God and mankind, and I guess the idea is that the kiss was unforeseen by mankind, but nothing is unforeseen by God. Someone always thinks about a kiss before it happens; there's no such thing as an "unforeseen kiss."

Worse still, I don't think "unforeseen kiss" carries the same weight of emotion as "sloppy wet kiss". I think the original line wakes a person up, challenges them. Why not step back for a moment and consider how the love of God for mankind could be so passionate that it was like a REALLY smooshy, undignified kiss between two people who are lost in each other? Even the word "sloppy" grabs your attention because it's so  awkward to sing. Why shouldn't it be left in there? It's a shame to take something that could challenge people's idea of what God is like out of the song, and put in something that is not challenging at all, and that doesn't even really make that much sense.

I think your worship music should challenge you. It should draw you closer to God, and it should encourage you to think about God. As an exercise, even if your worship leader goes the "unforeseen" route, maybe for the next few days you could think about both versions of the lyric, what they mean, how each is appropriate or inappropriate. You might take a look at the passage from Psalms which I quoted in my earlier blog post in reference to the "sloppy wet" version. Maybe one or both versions of the lyric will become more meaningful to you as a result. You might also be interested to take a look at this video/post about how the song originally came to be written. It was a messy situation indeed.

Then, once you've looked at the line from all angles, when you sing whichever one you sing, sing it with all of your heart. Because He does love us. He really, really does.

Does God love you in a "sloppy wet" way, or in more of an "unforeseen" way? How do you feel about the original lyric, the David Crowder altered version, or even some other version you've heard and/or sung? Is "sloppy wet" too raw, too sexual, too human, too gross, or just right? Or am I just beating a horse that died a year ago when people moved on to some other song in their worship services? Sound off below in the comments!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Hand Raising Styles (Worship, Part 3)

Maybe I'm too sensitive. I mean, I think it's really pretty funny, but... well, take a look for yourself and I'll save my comments for after:

The Cliff's Notes Version

Tim Hawkins is hysterical. And this bit is lots of fun; people have a great reaction to it. I've seen it on Facebook a number of times. It really does cover a lot of the "poses" you might see in church; Tim Hawkins clearly has been in a lot of those hand-raising type services (although I'm not sure he was the first one to give the poses names). I don't at all want to throw cold water on Tim's comedy bit or spoil anyone's fun. But this routine makes me a little bit nervous.

Nervous? Why? It's all humor, right? Of course it is, and if Tim reads this, I hope he understands that I've laughed like a nut at his stuff, and I laughed at this video too. But it makes me nervous because I find that I tend to be self-conscious.

There have been times when I was in worship, way before I ever saw this comedy routine, that I consciously thought about how I looked when I was raising my hands. What message am I sending, I thought, to the people around me? Do I look like I'm worshiping God right? Am I praise-y enough? Maybe I should raise my hands another half-inch or something so people know I'm really worshiping. I don't want to look like I don't love God enough! I know that was silly, and probably a little self-centered, but I'm being real with you here. Maybe no thoughts like that have ever gone through your mind, but they went through mine.

And they were totally ridiculous! Who am I raising my hands for, anyway? If it's not for God, then I should probably keep my hands in my pockets and just sing or pray or say "thank you Jesus" or whatever. Raising your hands shouldn't be a signal to those around you; it should be a sign of your love for God. It should be for Him. If that's not why you're doing it, then all you're really doing is making your arms tired.

But what does that have to do with a comedy routine? Well, the first time I saw this, after I stopped laughing (or actually, it might have even been while I was laughing), something occurred to me. The next time I am in worship, which pose will I be doing? Will I be carrying the baby or signaling a touchdown? Will the palm of my hand be pointing the right way? I've actually been present when people were debating the merits of having your palm facing forward ("surrender") or upward ("Abba Daddy!") Does it really matter? Of course it doesn't matter... except that it matters if you are thinking about the angle of your hand instead of communing with your Savior. I think there's a danger that having this in your head during worship time might present a distraction that folks just don't really need.

Of course, just the act of writing a blog like this one means that I'm probably doing the same thing. My post from a couple of days ago, for example, might wind up having you analyzing song lyrics during the service instead of just singing them and enjoying time with Jesus. I guess my point is that worship is a time that you should be spending worshiping, and anything that distracts you from that is something you need to kind of deal with. I broke away from worrying about whether my hands were at the right elevation by just realizing that I have no reason to care if someone likes where my hands are! So now,  raise when I want to raise, and I pocket when I want to pocket, and I do my best to have my love aimed at Jesus either way. Hopefully this whole blog post sounds like nonsense to you and you've never been self-conscious in worship - but if you're the person who still is, I encourage you to just forget about anything bu Jesus when it's time to praise Him. Because who cares what someone else things when you're loving Jesus?

Am I off my rocker with this? Is my Asperger's Syndrome getting the best of me? I'd like to hear from people who have wrestled with being self-conscious during worship, and people who never do have trouble with that. Join the discussion below in the comments section! 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Oddly Sexual (Worship, Part 2)

Have you ever heard someone say that a song has "Jesus is my girlfriend lyrics"? The first time I heard that said was back in the 1980s, when some Christian pop and rock artists appeared to take the approach of writing songs that were about God (wink, wink!) but that didn't actually mention Him by name, and were written in such a way that they could be misunderstood as being about a romantic relationship. The idea was to still perform music that would appeal to a church crowd, but also to perhaps attract a wider audience. The graph on this page is a commentary on this, ironically saying that almost all Christian music is like that.

I disagree with the graph on two points. First, I disagree that almost all of Christian music is like that; I think there's plenty of Christian music out there that talks about things other than a "Jesus is my girlfriend" relationship with our Savior.

Second, I disagree that there is anything wrong with describing our relationship with God using metaphors that are sexual in nature. I think that's perfectly fine!

Now, don't get me wrong. There's a limit to how far you can go with that, and obviously describing the sex act itself is crossing the line a bit. But God described His relationship to His people that way many times; the story the Bible tells is about God reaching out to mankind, mankind stumbling and ultimately failing God, and God reaching out again and ultimately restoring His relationship to His people, and God often uses male/female metaphors to help us understand it. And God apparently doesn't mind being a bit graphic. In fact, there are a few places where, if I were the editor of the Bible, I would have been like, "Woah, God... you're crossing the line a little bit with that one!"

You can find the beginning of the story in Ezekiel 16. Speaking of when God first chose the nation of Israel to be His people, it says " were cast out on the open field, for you were abhorred, on the day that you were born. And when I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’" A little bit graphic, isn't it? But it gets more graphic. Don't read these parts of the Bible to your kids!

Continuing: "I made you flourish like a plant of the field. And you grew up and became tall and arrived at full adornment. Your breasts were formed, and your hair had grown; yet you were naked and bare. When I passed by you again and saw you, behold, you were at the age for love, and I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness; I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord GOD, and you became mine." This is a reference to betrothal, God becoming "engaged to be married" to His people. But wait... the engagement happened while God was looking at her "naked and bare" and considering the state of her breasts and whether she was at "the age for love"? Scandalous!

God and His bride, the beautiful girl He had rescued as an infant, became married. But things went downhill from there. "But you trusted in your beauty and played the whore because of your renown and lavished your whorings on any passerby; your beauty became his." The beautiful wife decided to become a prostitute. And not a reluctant prostitute, either: " built yourself a vaulted chamber and made yourself a lofty place in every square. At the head of every street you built your lofty place and made your beauty an abomination, offering yourself to any passerby and multiplying your whoring." Later on it says that she actually had sex with some "lovers" whom she "loved", and some she didn't even like but "hated"! Apparently she didn't care if she liked them or not, as long as the action was happening.

I'll leave it to you to read the chapter and see what God says will happen to His wayward bride and her lovers. Warning: Rated PG-13 for violence and sexual themes.

If the PG-13 violence of Ezekiel 16 isn't enough for you, maybe you'll enjoy the even more graphic descriptions of the conduct of God's people in Ezekiel 23 (Warning: Rated R for Graphic Sexuality): "She did not give up her whoring that she had begun in Egypt; for in her youth men had lain with her and handled her virgin bosom and poured out their whoring lust upon her." "She lusted after the Assyrians, governors and commanders, warriors clothed in full armor, horsemen riding on horses, all of them desirable young men. And I saw that she was defiled; they both took the same way." "Yet she increased her whoring, remembering the days of her youth, when she played the whore in the land of Egypt and lusted after her lovers there, whose members were like those of donkeys, and whose issue was like that of horses."

"Members like donkeys"? "Issue like horses"? Are you kidding me?? Maybe I should have rated this chapter NC-17! (Fortunately, this does not qualify as an "oddly sexual" metaphor, as the graph indicates. This metaphor is blatant and graphic!)

The poem in Hosea 2 carries on the theme of Israel being an unfaithful wife who has taken up prostitution, with God saying to the (illegitimate) children of the woman, "Plead with your mother, plead—for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband—that she put away her whoring from her face, and her adultery from between her breasts..." This time, though, there is a gleam of hope at the end: "...behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her... And in that day, declares the LORD, you will call me ‘My Husband’... and I will make you lie down in safety. And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness."

God has always sought to restore the relationship with His wayward Bride. Isaiah 54 is God's longing vision of this restoration:
    “Fear not, for you will not be ashamed;
        be not confounded, for you will not be disgraced;
    for you will forget the shame of your youth,
        and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more.
    For your Maker is your husband,
        the LORD of hosts is his name;
    and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,
        the God of the whole earth he is called.
    For the LORD has called you
        like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit,
    like a wife of youth when she is cast off,
        says your God.
    For a brief moment I deserted you,
        but with great compassion I will gather you.
    In overflowing anger for a moment
        I hid my face from you,
    but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,”
        says the LORD, your Redeemer.
Isaiah 54:4-8 ESV
There's more... it's a beautiful chapter. I invite you to click over or open a Bible and read through it; a lovlier and more heartfelt description of a loving husband's forgiveness of his wife's unfaithfulness has not been written. It will bring tears to your eyes.

God has not abandoned this metaphor in the Church Age. Paul said to the church in Corinth, "For I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ." (2 Corinthians 11:2 ESV) In Ephesians 5:25-27 he makes it clear that the relationship between a husband and wife is just like the relationship between Christ and the Church, and is almost certainly referring to that chapter in Ezekiel 16 that I mentioned earlier in this post.

So what does this all have to do with worship? Well, you may find that the songs you sing in church services talk a lot about loving God, embracing Him, Him being "beautiful" or "lovely", etc. Since Jesus walked on Earth as a human male, this kind of language might sometimes be easier for a woman to fully buy into than a man; what man walks up to a buddy and says, "Hey man, you look beautiful today!" But it is fully OK to use man and wife imagery as a reference of the relationship between God and mankind, and I think it's OK to use that kind of intimate language to refer to the relationship between each of us and Jesus.

Because even though Jesus is not our girlfriend, as it turns out, we are His!

I've said some pretty controversial things in this blog post, and I've included some passages from the Old Testament prophets that are quite graphic. Do you think that sexual imagery is appropriate in a worship setting? Should it be as overt as the metaphors in these passages, or should it be a little more understated? Do you disagree with my analysis that the people of God are indeed thought of as His "girlfriend" (okay, I'll go with "bride")? Join the discussion in the Comments section below! Also, don't miss Part 1 of this one-week series on Worship!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Disobedient to the Songs (Worship, Part 1)

'THE SIMON SAYS TRAFFIC COP' photo (c) 2012, KarmaCat_SF - license:
The Worship Police
I have been disobedient lately. And maybe a bit of a liar.

These are things I have said that I was doing, but I actually didn't do them at all:
  • Fall on my knees
  • Lift my hands and spin around
  • Stand with arms wide open
  • Running to your arms
  • Bow down before you now
  • Shout out, sing loud
  • Find myself here on my knees again
But it gets worse. Much worse. You see, I didn't lie about doing these things while sitting on my couch with my wife, or at Starbuck's with a friend, or even on Facebook with who-knows-who. I said these things... in church.

And it gets EVEN WORSE.

I wasn't just in the vestibule of the church talking about doing these things. I wasn't at Men's Breakfast on a Saturday morning, or chaperoning some Youth Group event, or even confessing to the pastor.

I was right in the sanctuary. During worship. Singing those phrases.


Yes. I lied, directly in God's face, during a time specifically intended to show Him love and respect. And what did I do? I sang to Him that I was "running to His arms" when in actuality, I wasn't running at all. I was standing still not even walking. Arguably, barely moving. I wasn't shouting out, or falling on my knees (ouch!), bowing down or spinning around. I may not have even had my hands lifted or my arms wide open.

Why do people who write worship songs put this kind of stuff in them? Certainly, everyone is supposed to be participating, and singing (loud or otherwise) and even lifting hands are appropriate in many churches. Bowing down, yes, if the situation is appropriate and the mood strikes. But most churches don't do that much spinning and running during services. So why do these songwriters force us to lie like that?

I'll take it a step further. I would be surprised to find out that any of the people who wrote those lines were actually doing what they were writing, as they were writing it. Although I would like to see someone trying to write "I'm running to Your arms" on a sheet of paper while actually running, or "lift my hands and spin around" while actually lifting their hands and spinning around. Those folks were making liars out of themselves as they wrote the lines on the paper! I guarantee that each of these songwriters, as they wrote those lines down, was sitting somewhere with a pen or pencil (or a laptop, or whatever) and not doing any worshippy actions at all.

I'm not particularly a person who likes to be told what to do. I don't consider myself rebellious, but I like to be authentic... if I raise my hands, I want it to be because I felt love for God well up in me and my body wanted to express it that way. If I shout, I want it to be because a shout built up in me until keeping it in wasn't an option anymore. Once upon a time, I would kind of feel guilty if a song said something like "I wave unto God" and I didn't wave. Or "Shout to the Lord" and I didn't shout (by the way, who actually does shout during that song? Nobody!) I would feel like I was being disobedient, and on one level, I suppose I am.

But that's not the important level.

Worship, I've learned, comes from your heart. Not from your hands clapping, or your feet jumping or dnacing, or even from your voice singing. Worship, like everything else that matters at all to God, occurs long before it is visible to the naked eye. Things that you do during the worship service are only the physical sign of something that has already occurred on the inside. So you don't have to fall on your knees, earning yourself a visit to minor emergency because you've fractured both of your kneecaps. You can worship God standing up.

But don't refuse to lift up your hands just because you want to be difficult, either. Because you know what else occurs in your heart before the action occurs on the outside? Rebellion. Resistance to authority. If you're refusing to play Worship Simon Says on principle, then you're actually being counterproductive to worship... you're distancing yourself from God.

Make sure the next time you are in worship that you are offering your heart to God. Not your hands, although they are His, not your clapping or your singing or your running or jumping or standing on your head, but your heart. That's what God really wants. If you've got that going on, it doesn't really matter if your voice shouts to the Lord or not. Your heart does the shouting for you.

This week I have several posts planned about worship - I hope you enjoy them! What are your thoughts about worship songs that tell people what to do? Are they like playing Red Light, Green Light... or do they actually provide a useful structure for people to worship within? Sound off in the comments below and join the discussion!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Who's Doing The Work Around Here?

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. - Ephesians 2:10 ESV
We've been studying the first few chapters of Ephesians in Wednesday night Bible study, and last week we were talking about this verse. The verses before say that we are saved by faith in God, not by our "works" (doing the right things), but then this verse turns around and talks about us doing good works. Isn't that strange? So should we do good works, or not?

George's Dance Class
When I read the verse, two things came to mind. One of the things is the stereotypical dancing class you used to see on old TV shows, where the instructor lays down pictures of footprints on the floor so that the students can be sure to put their feet in the proper places to do the appropriate dance moves. So in a class like this, is it the student's dance, or the teacher's? Well, maybe a little of both, but the student is not yet capable of making the dance happen on his own. The student is doing the moves, but the teacher is the one who laid out the dance.

The other thing that I thought of when I read this verse is Lowe's Build And Grow. If you don't have children, it's likely you haven't heard of Lowe's Build And Grow. Basically, you walk into a Lowe's hardware store with your child on specific Saturdays at the right time, they hand you a little kit to make a wooden toy of some kind, and your child gets to make the toy. The kits usually are made up of pre-cut pieces of wood, a dozen or so nails, and a sheet of stickers to spruce things up. Lowe's also gives each child an apron (just like the ones the grown-ups wear at Lowe's!) a pair of safety glasses, and a little hammer (you have to give back the hammer when you're done). My son who is now twelve used to go to them all the time, and now my daughter who is five has started going to them. They're popular events, because the kids have a great time, and they get to go home with a free toy!

When my little girl goes to the event, I have to open the package, lay out the parts, help her look over the instructions, line up the pieces, and hold the nails while she hammers (this can be quite dangerous, but during my son's run I learned to be an expert at keeping my fingers clear!) Usually I even start the nails for her, and often I do the final whack or two, too. So who's building the toy? Is it her, or is it me? Well, I let her do as much of the project as she can - and hopefully, as happened with my son, she will eventually be doing the projects completely on her own, with no help at all from me. For now, though, most of the work is done by Yours Truly.
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. - Ephesians 2:10 ESV
Curiouser and Curiouser!
When we are doing God's good works, and doing them by the prompting of the Holy Spirit, we are doing a job God has lined out for us. Like I do for my daughter, he has provided all of the things we need to successfully complete the project, laid them out, given us the instructions, and maybe even started a nail or two. Like a dance instructor, He has laid out the steps for us to walk in. We are both the workmen, and the project. In the end, as it turns out, the job was actually being done by God all along. We may be doing the dance or building the project, but really, the work is done by God, and the glory goes to Him. The greatest part is that we're the ones who get to go home with something for free! "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast." (Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV)

How do you know what "good works" God wants you to do? Do you pray and then sit and listen until you hear something? Do you ask a pastor or other trusted Christian? Do you set your Bible up on its edge and let it fall open to a Scripture that tells you what to do? Join the discussion by clicking the Comments link below!