Category Archives: Health and Wellbeing

Getting and staying healthy.

The Lies of Suicide

F6C44347-CD36-4D8E-923D-14CB181AEF89Kate Spade. Anthony Bourdain.

Two in one week. Add them to that terribly long, horrific list of people who have taken their own lives— people we have known or knew from a distance.

What scares me is that a report published just this week indicates that suicide rates are climbing all over the country. It’s evident of a medical system unable to adequately treat the number of people who have mental illness, the numbers of people who go undiagnosed, and especially this: the growing cultural acceptability of suicide. It’s glamorized and even rewarded when we say things like, “I’m glad his suffering is over. She’s in a better place now. He’s free. She’s flown away.”

Suicide seems to have an increasingly seductive allure as a final act of escape. In a culture that promotes and celebrates distraction, diversions and get-aways from reality, suicide lurches more prominently within the darker recesses of our shadowy selves. In our compulsive, overly anxious, self-obsessed natures in which we fear and glamorize death with a “who cares” kind of apathy, is it any wonder that more of us are tempted to listen to the “like sucks” “I just want to die” “screw it all” “forget you, world” voices in our heads? Listen to it enough, own it enough, and then we begin to find reasons to act out on it in highly destructive ways. Suicide is ranking higher as a mode of self-destruction.

But suicide is a devilish liar of the worst kind. I should know.
I’ve written before about my own struggles through suicidal thinking. Having climbed through that darkness by God’s grace and presence along with the presence of some loved ones, I know how powerfully seductive suicidal thinking can be.

“Nothing matters.” “I don’t matter anymore.” “If people really knew me, they wouldn’t love me.” “I’m a failure and a disappointment to everyone.” “Everyone will be better off without me.” “Sure, people might be hurt when I’m gone, but they’ll get over it, especially me. They always do. They always have.”

Lies and more lies. Suicide doesn’t take just one life. It drains the life out of everyone else that one life touched. It’s a violent, most awful way to die, no matter how it is carried out. And suicide never delivers on its promises. No one is ever better off dead, and the world becomes a far lesser place without us suddenly not in it, not a better one. Suicide leaves nothing but death and tragedy in its wake. When we accept that reality, we can choose love and life over lies and death.

It could be said that suicide prevention revolves around the choices we all make. We either lovingly choose to make life-giving and saving connections, or we choose death. That is true for the one contemplating suicide and everyone else around him or her.

As I did in my most recent post on mental illness, I’d like to offer some essential ideas for those who might be considering suicide and for their loved ones:

1) As hard as it is, make the choice to reach out. Many of us know how it feels to be so bottomed out that the effort it takes to reach out for help can seem unbearably difficult. We don’t want to bother anyone. Apathy paralyzes us. When that happens— Just. Do. It. Call someone. Text or message someone. If it’s dire enough, Google “suicide” and there you’ll find the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Get yourself to an Emergency Room. Take one step at a time away from the edge and towards life. It’s worth it. You’re worth it. Your loved ones are worth it.

2) Be there. Watch out for the warning signs of suicidal moods in other people- extreme withdrawal, any kind of loose talk of wanting to die or wanting everything to end, or sudden, unexplainable mood shifts. Don’t just say, “Call me if you need anything.” Go there and make the connection. Listen to your gut, and remember that accidental overstepping is better than careful sidestepping, especially if someone’s life is on the line. If you feel someone is in imminent danger, offer to make a phone call or to take them to the hospital. But don’t leave.

3) Make time. At any moment with anyone, making time to slow down and deeply listen to the lives and stories of our neighbors, to hear and non-judgmentally receive their thoughts and feelings, good or bad, to provide a safe place to talk, explore, and “get stuff out” may be the best mental health medicine and suicide prevention we could offer to each other. Many of us suffer from loneliness, real or perceived. The best cure for that I know is the connection of deep listening. It’s been said that the gift of listening is a gift of pure, unconditional love. You don’t have to be a therapist. You’re not there to fix anything or make it better. You’re there simply to be the presence of God who is love.

And love… love is what keeps us alive, healthy, and happy.

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So I Have Mental Illness…

On Sunday morning I shared something with my congregation that I had never publically put to words: “Your pastor has mental illness.”

I began a 4-part sermon series on stress, specifically how to transform stress into happiness. I’ve learned quite a bit about stress management and transformation through my battles with major depressive disorder, also known as clinical depression. So to offer some ethos and pathos to the subject matter, i.e. Yes, your pastor really does know what he’s talking about and can personally relate to you!, I mentioned to my congregation a disease I have which has been with me through most of my adult life. It’s been my number-one health concern.
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There have been several times that depression took me to the depths of suicidal ideation. Several years ago I was even admitted for a week at an inpatient mental health care hospital for debilitating depression and suicidal intentions. Antidepressants to keep my brain chemistry at good, balanced levels have been a regular part of my wellbeing.

Presently, I’m doing really well. I treat depression with a daily morning dose of antidepressants. I watch for the signs and triggers that pull me down into depression— things like extra stress. I surround myself with plenty of accountability from people like my wife and a handful of close friends. And when life throws a vicious curveball or my brain chemistry somehow gets out of whack, I bring my doctor and therapist into my support network, too.

I mention all this, not to garner sympathy or to create a stir, but to continue my work of casting a luminous light on the most shadowed, closeted, and one of the most prevalent health concerns many of us face. We see the terrible effects of it when someone like Kate Spade takes her own life or when someone violently acts out, causing massive human carnage. We see it in the lives of most of our homeless neighbors. Mental illness affects community and world leaders, celebrities, stay-home parents, teenagers, corporate executives, and yes, clergy like me.  It takes the shape of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, PTSD, eating disorders, schizophrenia, mood disorders, and a whole host of other diagnoses. For far too long now, mental illness has been badly misunderstood and unfairly scrutinized, resulting in a social environment in which critically needed support for those suffering from mental illness and and their caregivers becomes extremely difficult to find.

That is especially true in the church. In the church, much shame surrounds mental illness.

I’ve often called depression a disease of double shame. There’s the inward shame of worthlessness, hopelessness, apathy, emptiness and nothingness. Then there’s the outward shame, the things explicitly said or subtly  implied that depression is a result of spiritual and moral failure: “Just give it to God in prayer and you’ll feel better.” “True believers always have joy.” “Real Christians don’t get depressed.” “Depression is a separation from God.” “Just be grateful. Just keep your chin up. Trust God.”— implications that I can’t do or haven’t already done those things.

It’s time to come to grips with the truth that mental illness of any kind is not spiritual or moral failure. It doesn’t indicate innate character, moral, spiritual or emotional flaws any more grievous than anyone else’s. It is, quite simply, bad brain chemistry brought on sometimes situationally, most often as a chronic condition, or both.

So how can faith communities and any other forms of human community care for people with mental illness and their loved ones? Several key things come to mind (no pun intended):

1) Put aside your assumptions. Listen and learn. Misinformation has created the stereotypical perceptions we commonly use to frame mental illness. Throw those out, and offer the gift of deep listening and a willingness to learn. What’s it like? What does it mean and not mean? How do we cope and live? Let us, we who have mental illness and our loved ones, show you our world and how we struggle.

2) Abandon judgmentalism. (See #1.) In addition, avoid finger pointing and fault finding.

3) Be a companion on the journey. Attempting to give advice, thinking that the right words will make it better, or coming with any attitude that you’re “here to help” only makes things worse. Think of it as coming alongside as a friend. Deeply listen. Listen to understand. Give us space when needed. Show compassion in simple, practical ways. But remember: we’re not your problem to fix. Only God can do that through a whole network of supportive care. And you may be blessed to be one of those people.

4) Be an advocate. Look out for people with mental illness. When you can, speak up to protect our dignity and correct misperceptions. Help others to understand what mental illness is and isn’t.

The healing balm for mental illness is the persistent, gentle light of understanding love, quality medical care, time and space. I know this full well. I’m here today because of it.

And I can also say that we who have mental illness can live happy, productive, deeply spiritual lives. I’ve learned a lot about light and darkness, life and death, pain and healing, salvation and redemption through my ups and downs with mental illness. Those are lessons I would never give back, and for which I am deeply grateful. These are gifts that can richly bless the world, too. That’s my hope.

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Lessons from Pain

IMG_1513Right now I find myself in a deluge of tragic circumstances. Just a few days ago, a 29-year-old woman, a member of my congregation, died from an unknown staph infection leaving behind a bewildered, devastated family and scores of friends. A very good friend admitted his mother dying of cancer into hospice care, and then just a few hours later, she passed away. Another very good friend just told me that his mother is not doing well in her battle against cancer. I have a pretty high number of parishioners also battling cancer, grieving losses, and more.

As a pastor, I try very hard to be fully present with people in pain without shouldering their pain upon myself. I simply have too many people to care for and too many other leadership responsibilities to allow myself to be saddled with all the wounds and sorrows people carry. Yet that’s a fine line to walk, and after almost 20 years of ministry, I can’t always clearly see where that line is because it’s constantly moving. So if there’s a place to err, I’d rather be under the yoke of sorrow rather than hiding behind a shield of emotional distance.

That’s a choice I make, however, and sometimes it comes at a personal cost- one that I’m paying now. So, this post is just as cathartic for me as any chance it may have of being a blessing to someone else. Like most, I’ve had my own seasons of loss and pain along with the lessons I’ve learned. The following are some of my reflections and insights about the nature and redemption of pain.

1) Presence, not words.
When someone is in pain, the knee-jerk response is an urge to “say something to make it better.” That’s natural. We’re human beings. Made in God’s image, we’re creators, builders, and fixers. So when confronted with the inexplicable invasion of pain, our instinctual drives to create, build, and fix kick into high gear. Make the pain go away. Replace it with something else.

There’s one problem, however: pain can’t be undone or circumvented. For example, when someone dies and we’re filled with the pain of grief, no one’s words or any other attempt to fix it, manage it, or mask it can take away the pain from the unalterable fact that a loved one is permanently gone. Any attempt by others to fix, manage, or mask that reality can easily result in the unintended consequence of making the pain worse.
The true act of consolation is presence. When Job lost his children and all he owned, his friends Eliphaz, Bilbad, and Zophar came to visit. They wept with him and sat with him in silence for seven days. (This is the biblical precedence behind the Jewish custom of “sitting shiva”, a period of seven days when Jews in mourning welcome visitors to console them.) After losing my first fiancée Diane, the best consolers I had were those who just sat with me and listened. They said little. They held my hand, gave me hugs, and even shed tears with me. One church woman kept fresh flowers on my desk for several months after Diane’s death. I do remember getting lots of cards and notes from people, but I don’t remember anything the cards said. Their words did nothing to comfort me. But the act of remembering me and reaching out was the true gift of all those cards and notes.

2) There are no answers, only realities.
Why did this happen?
We human beings hunger for meaning and purpose, and pain is a deafeningly silent force that offers neither of those things. Sitting with the family and friends of the 29-year-old woman who died, so many have asked and will continue to ask, “How could this happen? Why did it have to happen? Why her? How could life (and God!) be so cruel?” I think we ask these questions as a way to gain some kind of power over a pain we did not ask for or deserve. Perhaps if we could understand the pain or explain it in some way, we could gain some mastery over it.

Try as we might, that struggle is an illusion. We’ve heard it said- and it’s very true- that many times we just don’t know. Yet all is not lost. I have learned that peace comes when we accept the wisdom that there are mysteries we do not know and do not need to know. We can find healing and meaning even with unanswered questions. I also came to a practical realization that even if I was able to find an answer to my questions of why?, those answers would not somehow lessen the pain or make it more bearable. That same pain would still be there, even if I possessed all omniscience into the rhyme and reason of my own circumstances.
Instead of answers, there are realities, and these realities bring about hope.

As a disciple of Jesus, I have the realities of God’s presence, God’s faithfulness, the cross, resurrection, healing, and abundant life in the here and now to stake my life on. The presence of pain invites me to claim these realities in a new way to fit a new circumstance. Like lighthouses in treacherous waters or guide rails in a dark hallway, they are there for me to claim as I muddle my way forward. These truths are not mystical antidotes to the pain I carry, but they shepherd me through pain to the healing I seek.

3) Grief is a friend, not an enemy.
Grief is the byproduct of a great loss. Like an unwelcome guest, grief shows up in the place of what or who went missing. During times of loss, I remember at first hating grief, avoiding it, and doing all I could to beat it back. My grief became the great enemy to my happiness, which I felt could only be had if my loss was restored. Yet the losses we suffer can never truly be restored. Once we come to terms with that, then grief becomes our guide to letting go of who or what we lost. Grief guides us through all the necessary places of anger, sorrow, guilt, shock, and denial. Eventually grief leads us into a place of living well even with the pain of loss.

Over time, I have found grief to be a trusted friend. I don’t have control over grief. Grief often arrives unannounced and with no pre-arranged agenda. When grief arrives, however, it takes me where I need to go, and the result is one step closer to wholeness. With grief, wounds become scars. Deep sadness becomes joy. The cross and tomb burst open to the limitless possibilities of resurrection.

4) We can choose what to do with our pain.
This is the most difficult lesson to write about because in no way do I want to suggest that there are definite things to do with pain, or that what one person decides to do with their pain is necessarily better or more admirable than another person’s choices. However, I think it’s safe to claim that we do have the power to decide how to navigate through pain and what we want the legacy of our pain to be.
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That said, I’d like to gently suggest one avenue of navigating through pain. We could choose a life in which our places of pain become the very places where others find comfort and healing. People have transformed their pain into advocacy movements, ministries, non-profit organizations, support groups, charitable foundations, books, seminars, music, poetry, and so much more. People have chosen to insert their own sense of meaning and purpose into their pain by using it as the very thing that would bring life and vitality to other people.

I have often said that while I am not at all grateful for the pain I have endured, I am grateful that with God’s help, I could find some wisdom, empathy, faith, love and strength I did not have before. I have allowed God to redeem my pain by deepening me to become a more authentic person and pastor. For all of that, I am eternally grateful. Yet I had to make the choice to do this, and my choices along the way did not always manifest themselves in the most gracious or endearing ways. Working through pain is always a messy process- an intentional slog, at times murky and perilous- but always forward-looking and stubbornly hopeful.

This post is written in loving memory of Meredith Mahr-Edmunds (3/25/88-7/29/17) and Doris Rodbell (10/15/37-7/31/17) and in honor of their loved ones. May God shepherd them through the valley of the shadow of death to the green pastures of healing.

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Life in the New World, 20 Years after a Death

img_205020 years ago on this day, February 8, 1997, my fiancée Diane Michelle Thompson died in a car accident while driving to work. It was in the early morning, and the roads were icy. Diane lost control of her car when she slipped on a patch of black ice. Her car crossed the road and slammed into a telephone pole killing her instantly. She was just 22-years-old. I was a month away from my 23rd birthday.

Diane and I had been engaged for almost 2 years and were 4 months away from our wedding day. In fact, we were just about to start addressing our wedding invitations when she died. We had already purchased our wedding rings.

I distinctly remember that morning. At around 8 AM, Diane’s work called to see if I knew where she was. (She sometimes went to work from my house, and I was an emergency contact for her.) That call concerned me a little, but then again, Diane was never known for her promptness to much of anything. Still that was late, even for her. I told them I hadn’t heard from Diane, but to please have her check in with me when she got there.

A little while later, the phone rang again. It was Diane’s father.

“Chris,” he said. “It’s Mike. Listen, I’ve got some really bad news.”

“Really? What’s wrong?” I asked. Mike had a stoic, matter-of-fact way of talking about most things, but I could sense tension in his voice. This call was for something quite different.

“Chris, listen… Diane was on her way to work. Her car slipped on the ice and she got into an accident. She didn’t make it,” he said.

I paused a moment, not sure how to gauge what he just said. “Didn’t make it? Well, what do you mean? Is she alright?”

“No, no, you don’t understand,” he said. “She. Didn’t. Make it.” Suddenly the ominous weight of what Mike just said sunk right into my skull.

“You mean… She’s dead?” I asked. Those words fell out of my mouth lingering there in a vacuum of disembodied space.

“Yeah…” he mumbled. I closed my eyes. I don’t remember the rest of the conversation.

The life I had known up until that moment quickly vanished. When I opened my eyes again, it was like I found myself vaulted into an alternate universe. I had no idea where I was or what to do. The same people and surroundings were still there, but with Diane suddenly gone, it was all a mere shell of what used to be. I was scared, paralyzed, lost. Before me was a dark, murky future I didn’t know and didn’t want. I was taken captive into a whole New World, and at first, I did all I could to break free from it. It was a world without Diane, without all my hopes, dreams, and plans. It felt like a barren wasteland of vague memories and shattered expectations.
I wanted to wake up and go home.

†††††††

20 years later, I find myself in this same New World. I have since learned to embrace it and thrive in it, and I’ve received the unique gifts it has offered me, most especially its lessons about life and death. This New World reminds me how fragile our existence is and how uncertain our tomorrow is, if it even exists at all. This New World insists on doing whatever is most important Today, while it is still Today.

And like the cherubim who guard the way into Eden with flaming swords, my New World doesn’t let me enter the Old World gardens of What If, Should Have Been, and Could Have Been. Once in a while I find myself wandering over to see if I can catch a glimpse into those Old World gardens. I think about where Diane and I would be if she were still alive. What would she look like now? What would our children be like? What memories would we have made together?

But then the phone rings. I get a text. My wife or one of my children calls my name, and just as quickly, I find myself back in the New World where I belong. It’s certainly not perfect or ideal. (Then again, taking off my rosy lenses of reminiscence, the Old World with Diane wasn’t exactly perfection, either- far from it.) 20 years ago, I wanted nothing to do with this New World, but now, I can’t fathom my life without all that God has given me since. I have a beautiful wife, companion and partner named Blairlee. I have three beautiful children- Kathryn, Grace Elizabeth and Jacob, all gifts from God in this world into which God had a hand in bringing me.

With that said, I have a strange confession: in a way, I will always love and miss Diane. At first glance, that may seem scandalous, even pathetic. How could I love and miss a person who is dead while being a happily married husband and father?

The most powerful lesson this New World has graciously taught me is this: love, true love, never ends. Love adapts and changes, as it should. Love brings about different ties and obligations over time. For example, I will always love my children, and I’m imagining that I will miss them when they venture out on their own to begin their adult lives. Yet my love for them, properly evolved, cannot keep them from living as full-fledged adults. In a similar vein, that’s where I find myself with Diane. I still love her for the woman she was and for the enormous impact she has had on my life, before and after her death. I miss that she’s still not here among us, most especially with her parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. And while not teetering too far into Old World longing, I recognize the truth that if Diane were still alive, we would be married, our lives looking quite differently than they do today.

But that’s where New World love and grief meet a healthy conclusion. I do not long for a ghost to jettison me from the life I have inherited as a result of her tragic death 20 years ago. (She wouldn’t tolerate that foolishness anyway.) As we say, “Life goes on.”  At times, it is a stoic determination to keep one foot in front of the other, and at best, a grand celebration that death has been swallowed up in the victory of life. Either way, as Peter Gabriel once wisely sang, “life carries on, and on, and on.” Indeed it does.

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The Treasure of a Human Life: Lessons (Re)learned

As a pastor, I have conducted so many funerals for both older people and younger people. I’ve lost count of how many. People ask me how I manage to do that, especially for someone I don’t know. The answer to that is another story. But the one thing that continually compels me when I memorialize someone is the effort to capture the existential substance of their being, the worth and reason of their life. I look at each life as a stained glass window through which God can shine. The questions: how did God shine through this person? Who benefited from that light? How does this person reflect who I know God to be? The answer to those questions become the substance of what I share at a funeral.

Justin Kurlychek

Justin Kurlychek

Admittedly, all this can come to be routine until I’m smacked in the face with the death of a friend like Justin Kurlychek. Justin died early Tuesday morning. We were just 7 months apart in age. We graduated from high school together. We sang and acted together. We shared a wild and crazy senior beach week together. (Tales untold!) We spent many hours on the phone together in recent years. He left behind two beautiful daughters. As I mentioned in a tribute I wrote, he was a beautiful, creative soul, even with all his troubles and demons.

As many times as I’ve gone through grief like this- I’ve lost several good friends to death including a fiancée almost 20 years ago- I’m always awed at how one person deeply affects the world around them. My tribute for Justin went viral in a matter of hours by hundreds and hundreds of people who were grieving Justin’s death. On top of my own grief, I felt both honored and inundated by the number of people who reached out to me in the last couple of days. But the sheer magnitude of the response to Justin’s death was something I had not anticipated. It has affirmed how many people loved Justin, how many people he loved, and the ways he sincerely impacted us all with his presence and his gifts.

I only wish Justin knew how valuable his life was and how people would respond to his untimely death. That’s the value and power of one life. Just one.

During times like these, it’s only natural and necessary to mourn our loss. It is a horribly painful thing to lose a person like Justin Kurlychek. Many have said that he is finally at peace. That may be so, but I mourn the fact that he knew so little of it while he was alive. I mourn the terrible time Justin had valuing himself for the beautiful gift he was. And I mourn the unfulfilled wish of having spent more time with him in the last few years of his life.

But if there is a gift to pick up from the ashes of our grief and regrets, it’s the reaffirmation that each of our lives is a sacred gift to be lived, treasured, and shared. Since that is true, what will we do in the aftermath of Justin’s memorials and tributes? Will we return to life as usual? Or will we make more of a concerted effort to value each life in our network, love them, spend time with them, and at the same time, give away the best of what God has made us to be as a blessing to them?

How many times have we said, “Yeah, we need to get together and hang out!” only to find that months later, nothing has happened? Or how many times have we held back from giving our very best to the ones we love out of fear, pride, misplaced priorities, or even shame? For me, Justin’s death has brought those questions into a much brighter spotlight.

I think that it’s a wonderfully divine irony that the shadow of death can invite us into the endless treasure of life. I hope you and I can discover and claim this treasure for ourselves.

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My Tribute to Justin: a Beautiful, Troubled Life

Justin Kurlychek (10/15/74-8/23/16)

When I was in high school, there was this guy, Justin, who always seemed larger than life to me. He was incredibly creative, offbeat, funny, musical, dramatic. He was not a part of the super “in” crowd, but nevertheless, everyone- and I mean everyone!-  liked and appreciated Justin. And I’ll never forget the moment I realized that Justin liked me, too, and considered me a friend. I was very humbled by that, and I still am today.

I met Justin Kurlychek in South River High School’s drama club. For two years I played in the spring musical pit band, supporting people like Justin up on the stage, but then encouraged on by some friends I auditioned and got parts in the fall play and spring musical right alongside Justin. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do. He could act, sing, and dance. And no matter what he did, he knew how to own an audience’s attention. Justin took the stage and kept it. All eyes were on him.

Justin also played in bands and was a natural front man singer and guitarist. He wrote and performed his own music. After high school, I participated in a local battle of the bands. The band I was in lost to his band by a landslide. I wouldn’t say they were more talented than we were, but Justin was the magic ingredient. He could gather and keep a crowd on their feet. That alone won the day.

In our senior year of high school, I began to get to know Justin better. I began to see that underneath all of his wacky charisma and charm were troubled waters. I never knew how troubled or the causes of his turmoil, but something always haunted him and never stopped. This darker part of Justin gave him the capacity to love anyone, to be compassionate, and to remain completely non-judgmental. I had just hoped that somehow he would extend this troubled beauty to himself, but I don’t think he ever did.

After high school, decades went by and I had always wondered what happened to Justin. No one seemed to know. And then Facebook came along. A few years after that, there was Justin on Facebook. Precious little about him had changed. He was still the same Justin I knew in high school.

Life, however, had taken its toll on him.

Justin became a father, married, divorced, and also suffered a few strokes that debilitated him. Even with all of that, his same humor, passion, love, and crazy creative talent were still there. And so were his demons. I spent hours talking to Justin, especially during his times of crisis. My heart would break at the depth of his pain and his inability to forgive himself, love himself and to think that God could do anything else than torture him.

Eventually though, through time, the love of others, and yes, the love of God who loved him more than Justin would ever know, he was able to get his strength back, get back to playing music, and have meaningful relationships. Things were always tipsy turvy for Justin, but I could see that he was getting better, and above all, becoming more happy with himself.

And then this morning, I heard the devastating news that Justin had died from a heroin overdose. I had no idea that Justin had a drug problem. If he had, he seemed to be getting stronger. It was the end of a beautiful, tumultuous life that ended much too soon leaving wonderful memories and tragedy in its wake.

It’s far too easy to look at Justin Kurlychek’s life and make our judgments. “If only he had done [this], he would be happy and alive.” “If he had not done [that], he could have had a better life. What a screw up.”
When I reflect on my friend Justin’s life, I’m reminded again that life is hard. Life is hard for everyone.

For reasons I don’t understand, some people have it a lot harder than others and suffer through a lot more. Whether that’s due to things that have happened beyond a person’s control, decisions a person has made, or both, I’ve come to see that it doesn’t really matter as much as we think it does. What matters is doing the most good and being the greatest blessing to others with the gifts and opportunities we’ve been given. In that respect, each of us are both accomplished and guilty, productive and wasteful.

So who are we to be the ultimate arbiters of another person’s life? Each of us has our own to life to live with our share of victories, defeats, broken relationships, bridges burned, moments of grace, gifts of magnificence and decisions for good or ill that will determine how each of us will die one day. Ultimately we will all stand before God our creator and redeemer, and he will make the final evaluation. And God has far more capacity for mercy, justice, and truth than you or I have.

My friend Justin blessed my life with his love, his respect, and his loyalty. I’m a better person and a happier person for having loved and been loved by Justin. Many of us could say the same. I am devastated that this blessing has died far too soon. But I cherish the times I did have with Justin, and I pray for God’s peace and healing to embrace Justin’s loved ones, his children, his family and each of us.

Justin used to say to me, “Owens, I love you buddy.” So I say to my friend and brother, “Kurlychek, I love you back and always.”

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Robin, You Are Never Alone

Robin WilliamsI was at band rehearsal last night when I got a text message from a friend saying that Robin Williams was dead. It about took my breath away. In fact, a few of my band mates had to chide me to get focused on our rehearsal. One of them said, “Jeesh, it’s like you know him or something.”

Strangely enough, I feel like I did. How? It’s not that I knew him as a whole person. Of course not. But somewhere inside me, I knew how he died, even before reading about it. It was depression-related suicide. I knew it because I’ve been there before, far too close to the edge.

Like so many other people of my generation, we were raised with Robin Williams- Happy Days, Mork & Mindy, and all those great movies he made. In my childhood home, Robin Williams was staple entertainment… well, at least the cleaner stuff he did. As I grew up, he never ceased to entertain me and later my children… again, sticking to the cleaner stuff.

I also knew about his struggles with depression and addiction, often devilishly dark conjoined twins. The part of me that knew Robin Williams knew that side of him all too well. I’ve never been addicted to any kind of substance or alcohol, but I do come from a family of addicts who struggle with depression. Through genes and upbringing, you could say I inherited my fair share of depression and addictive personality.

Depression is double shame. First there’s depression. It’s a painful, shame-induced inwardly turned anger, hopelessness, crushing low self-esteem, and soul weariness. Add to the shame of depression the shameful social stigma of depression and other illnesses of the mind, and you’ve got the double shame of depression.

It’s no wonder then that a good number of people who suffer depression are also suicidal. When you feel completely isolated from yourself, from God, and from others, why bother going on? When you live utterly alone under the smothering void of depression, what’s left?

Or so we think.

The healing balm of depression is presence- the presence of others and God through others. I keep thinking about Robin Williams. Had he allowed someone to simply be with him, even without saying a word– and actually for those suffering depression, that is preferable– he would still be alive today. Or if someone had noticed his condition and insisted on being with him, even against all of his angry protests or empty apathetic gazes, he might still be here.

I know that’s true because I’ve lived it. Three years ago after donating my left kidney, I suffered a deep depression. Coupled with the enormous physiological changes my body had gone through, I kept suffering from chronic feelings of inadequacy, being a burden and bother to my loved ones and church, feeling helpless and trapped, and more. All of that plunged me into a depression, so bad that I seriously contemplated suicide. I first justified why everyone would be better off without me. I began to say my quiet goodbyes to my wife and kids, and then I began to research ways of dying.

I’m here today because my wife Blairlee noticed a grave shift in my behavior and insisted on knowing what was going on. I said that nothing was wrong (a lie, but easier than talking about the truth). She gently pushed more. And then I spilled it all out. We decided that I would more openly communicate how I was feeling, especially if I had thoughts of hurting myself. Shortly afterwards I underwent a long round of medication and therapy.

I share these things because I’m not alone. So many other people suffer from depression and suicidal ideation, but we never talk about it. It’s a hidden disease. I could have cancer, a heart condition, diabetes, or any other disease of the body, and openly talk about it. But the moment I mention depression, I’m looked at differently as a broken, weak, unstable, even immoral person who obviously can’t manage his life properly.

Here are several facts about depression:

  • It does not indicate character, moral, or spiritual defects.
  • Depression does not indicate weakness. In fact, some of history’s strongest people suffered from depression. I’m in good company with the likes of Abraham Lincoln.
  • Depression is a medical condition to be treated like any other medical condition– therapy, medication, and self-care.
  • Depression does not have to define who a person is, but it can bring about the opportunity for tremendous growth, healing, and strengthening.

I truly hope that Robin Williams’ death will shed some more light on the reality of depression while sweeping away untruths and misconceptions. Robin, you are finally not alone. There are many of us who suffer like you did, and we will choose to live on together in hope, healing, and in God’s love and light. Rest in peace, my friend, and thank you.

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Living Terminally

(This post is written in honor of my dear friend and brother in Christ Alvin Dickerson who is in his last stages of terminal brain cancer. Brother Alvin, you have shown me the truth of what I’ve only begun to understand in the words that follow…)

Once in a while I pick up one of those books that is impossible to put down until I’ve plowed through the whole thing at once. In this case, it was Ed Dobson’s Seeing through the Fog: Hope When Your World Falls ApartFar from a moralistic treatise on how to find hope, the impetus of Dobson’s book is his deeply personal story of being diagnosed and living with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). It was a stunning, captivating story right from the beginning.
Seeing through the FogA healthy, successful 50-year-old pastor is diagnosed with ALS and effectively given a hideous death sentence of slowly dying to a witheringly painful disease. How does one truly live in the shadow of death? Where is God and what is God up to? How can we honestly pray for healing when we’re all but certain of the inevitable outcome? How can we discover hope and gratitude when each day brings about a further symptom that pushes us closer to death?

Ed Dobson struggles through each of these questions in a humbly convincing way that left me both haunted and closer to the God of life and healing. I want to share and briefly reflect upon a few of my favorite quotes from the book. I hope they are also a blessing to you, too.

…I find there is a vast difference in being grateful for something and being grateful in something. In the midst of my struggle I can still be grateful.

I loved Dobson’s honesty and realism concerning thankfulness. We don’t have to be thankful for crap. Thank God for that!

I once pastored a faithful, godly woman who often said of her terminal cancer, “This really sucks.” It certainly did. Cancer still sucks. (I’ve since found other choice words to describe it, which I’ll withhold from sharing here.) And at the same time, we could laugh and smile over the good things she still enjoyed. Sometimes, that’s enough.

There is nothing noble, high or holy about giving thanks for bad things. But, there is always cause to give thanks in those bad things for the gifts and blessings we do have. That perspective keeps us real about our pain while rescuing us from being victimized by it.

I needed to shift my focus from myself to my creator. And I shouldn’t focus on God’s power to heal me, either; I should focus on the all-around wonder of God and spend more time with Him each day without the goal of receiving healing for my good behavior. I needed to trust Him with my life not because I was sick but because I should trust Him that way always.

Dobson addressed a dangerous strain of unchristian thought that says if I have faith enough and am good enough, God will deliver what I want. Conversely, if I don’t have what I want, it’s because I’m not faithful or good enough. This is theological travesty at its worst. The reality is that the Bible is filled with stories of God blessing people whose faith was lacking at best and in the same breath saying “no” to the most holy, faithful people- the prime example of the later being Jesus.

So rather than egocentric prayers, Dobson learned to focus himself and then fully immerse himself within God’s wonder. That led to trust, assurance, and an affirmed identity of being God’s beloved child, no matter the outcome of his life or death. All of this reminded me that above all other things, you and I were created to be loved by God and to love God with our worship.

On healing:

The Bible seems to indicate that there is a vast difference between being cured of a disease and being healed of it. It is possible to be cured, but not healed. And it is possible to be healed, but not cured.

The difference between healing and curing may seem like a clever game of Christian semantics. It’s not at all. The Bible describes healing as wholeness, peace, and reconciliation. So yes, a person could be cured of a disease but still need true healing. And a person may never be physically cured of a disease but could die, having been fully healed.

Lastly, here is Dobson’s beautiful definition of healing:

So we see healing is made up of finding peace in three areas of life: with God, with others, and with yourself and your circumstances. This is very similar to the definition of the Hebrew word shalom, which would substitute the word wholeness for peace. Shalom is wholeness with God, with others, and with yourself.

More compelling than Dobson’s definition was his personal story of how he found this healing- between God, between himself and others, with himself and with his painful circumstances. It’s one thing to offer a definition of healing. It’s quite another to illustrate it with his arduous journey into healing.

It’s often been said that the best sermons are stories. I agree. I know I’m not always in the mood to be preached to, most especially when I’m feeling beat up and bedraggled. But an authentic story is always good preaching. For these reasons, I highly recommend Ed Dobson’s book, no matter the season in which you find yourself. There is always more room to live, most especially since we are all effectively terminal. Perhaps it takes a story like this one to encourage us to live, love, persist, and worship more passionately and intentionally.

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Thank You and Goodbye, Brennan Manning

Brennan ManningI just learned that yesterday, April 12, 2013, Christian author, speaker and evangelist Brennan Manning died. He was 78-years-old. He had been in severely declining health these past few years, so in one sense, his death isn’t a shock. But on the other hand, I’ve been in state of saddened joy today, pained at his parting but so thankful for Brennan’s life, his witness, and the huge impact he has had on me.

I first encountered Brennan Manning’s writing when a dear, sweet lady from the church I was serving gave me a copy of The Ragamuffin Gospel. She enthusiastically told me that this book had changed her life, and as a part of her ministry, she gave away copies to people she knew would appreciate it. Well, when someone gives a book with the preface this changed my life, I’m going to read it. And read it I did. I consumed it. It was a tremendously healing, landscape-opening book for me that invited me into the depth and power of God’s grace, the gospel of Jesus Christ, in a way I had never seen before. It was rugged and gentle, uplifting and earthy, orthodox and un-orthodox all at the same time. The essential message is simple: Jesus came for ragamuffins, and we are all ragamuffins, tenderly and furiously loved by God, no matter the degree of our fallenness, self-loathing, doubt, or the damage done to us by the Pharisees from without and within.

But the most compelling aspect of Brennan Manning’s message was the reality that he, himself was the poster boy par excellence for the gospel of grace he preached. Of all the authors I have read and respected, Brennan’s life is one of the most enigmatic and scandalous. As a young man, he became a Franciscan priest and scholar. Then he succumbed to alcoholism. After entering into treatment, he left his ordination and got married. 25 years later he divorced, his life riddled before, during, and after by alcohol, depression, and deception. He was always a Roman Catholic, and yet preached an evangelical gospel of grace by faith. He was a priest with and without the cloth, a vagabond preacher, saintly, a desperate sinner, an outcast, yet loved and admired, a failure, and still an astounding picture of a life saved and kept by grace. That’s why I will always love and admire Brennan Manning.

Through all of this, Brennan struggled to affirm and preach that yes, God loves and embraces us ragamuffins just as we are, not as we should be. If anyone’s life was a testimony of radically clinging to this grace of God in the midst of pain, shame, victory and defeat it was Brennan Manning.
Brennan and meWell, the story continues for me. In March of 2004, just a few months after reading The Ragamuffin Gospel, I had the chance to hear and meet Brennan Manning. I took a group of youth from my church to a youth conference in Ocean City, MD. Brennan just happened to be the keynote speaker for the adult leaders. I soaked in every word he spoke, surprised at the sheer intensity of his demeanor. He spoke of God’s tenderness with such forceful resolve, hoping to crack through our calloused fortresses of an intellectualized version God’s love to the near total exclusion of truly knowing this awesome love for ourselves. He spoke of the tender, furious love of God. As he spoke, his voice captured the very essence of it, too.

Still, Brennan was a quiet, shy, yet open man. He took time to talk to me, sign my books, and even posed for a picture with me. I was so very grateful that God had led our paths together at that time, little knowing what was to come just days later.

Three days after getting home from that retreat, my wife Rebekah left me, taking our daughter Grace with her. That precipitated two of the darkest, most uncertain years of my life. If you’ve been through a divorce, you know the personal damage: a shattered self-esteem, self-loathing, guilt, anger, loneliness, regret, fear, and for me, depression. Through that hellish ordeal, I learned in the barest of terms that indeed I am also a ragamuffin loved and embraced by my Father God, whom I learned to trust as Abba.

Years later, I still turn to Brennan’s words. It’s funny. All of his books preach the same basic message, and yet he fills page after page trying to express it. If you’ve read one Brennan Manning book, you’ve read them all. Still, my bookshelf holds almost all of them.

In closing, I’d like to share some words found near the end of Brennan Manning’s last book All Is Grace: a Ragamuffin Memoir. These are some of the last words he penned:

     My life is a witness to vulgar grace– a grace that amazes as it offends. A grace that pays the eager beaver who works all day long the same wages as the grinning drunk who shows up at ten till five. A grace that hikes up the robe and runs breakneck toward the prodigal reeking of sin and wraps him up and decides to throw a party no ifsands, or buts. A grace that raises bloodshot eyes to a dying thief’s request– “Please, remember me”– and assures him, “You bet!” A grace that is the pleasure of the Father, fleshed out in the carpenter Messiah, Jesus the Christ, who left His Father’s side not for heaven’s sake but for our sakes, yours and mine. This vulgar grace is indiscriminate compassion. It works without asking anything of us. It’s not cheap. It’s free, and as such will always be a banana peel for the orthodox foot and a fairy tale for the grown-up sensibility. Grace is sufficient even though we huff and puff with all our might to try to find something or someone it cannot cover. Grace is enough. He is enough. Jesus is enough.

Amen, Brennan. May you rest in the arms of our Abba, enjoying for all times the embrace you shared with the world and with me, a fellow ragamuffin.

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Guns Are Not the Problem– Broken Lives Are

Newton, ConnAs I write this, the horrors of yet another mass shooting are unfolding before our eyes, this time at Sandy Hook Elementary school near Newton, Conn. It happened again. Someone armed himself, entered a public place, and opened fire on innocent people. In a split second, lives were taken, and many more loved ones suddenly lost a child or another loved one in a horrific act of violence. 18 children woke up this morning to go to school. They never got home.

And when this happens, we’re shocked in disbelief. I am sickened at the thought of it. The horror overtakes us. We get angry and we demand an explanation. We need something or someone to blame– some deranged sicko. Society. God. And of course guns. It never fails that when a shooting like this happens, immediately the cry for greater gun control or even gun elimination goes up. I sympathize deeply with all of this.

But as always, I find myself concluding the same thing: guns are not the problem. You can control and regulate guns to the nth degree, and I guarantee you, this kind of thing will still happen, even as regularly.

Now, before you lampoon me as some kind of right-wing, card-carrying NRA nut job who worships the Second Amendment, calm down. I’m none of those things. I think the Second Amendment is a good thing. I support peoples’ right to lawfully possess fire arms, and I believe in reasonable gun control and regulation. At the same time, I do not own a gun, and I probably never will. That’s a personal choice.

But every time a shooting like this happens, and the gun control cries go out, I think of 9/11. On 9/11 nearly 3,000 people died, and not a single gun was used. What caused those deaths? Box cutters and airplanes. But actually box cutters and airplanes didn’t murder nearly 3000 people, either. People did.

Guns or anything else used as a weapon are not the problem. The people who would use them to commit an act of evil are the problem. We’re seeing an uptick in the kind of desperation, alienation, anger, and depression that lead to these kinds of awful killings. We see desperation, alienation, anger, and depression all around us, don’t we? We see it acted out in a number of ways to varying degrees of ugliness. I saw it at a gas station today. I even see it in good church people.

It’s the human heart that needs healing, and no increase in gun control laws or any other kind of law will cure that ill. Only God can, either through direct intervention or through you into the lives of those around you. That’s the cure.

We’re nearing the Christmas season and the yearly reminder that God has not left us on our own to our own violent ways. God was born to us as our Emmanuel, as Jesus Christ. God is surely among us, and Jesus promised to never leave us or forsake us. He promised us the way of peace and joy. God has not forsaken Newton, Conn. God is clearly there now in ways we can see and not see, and that gives me a great deal of solace.

How can we prevent things like this from happening again? The answer: by making sure we love the unlovable. When we know of lonely, difficult people, don’t leave them there. Love and care for them. Let them know they are important to you. Dry their tears. Let them vent their anger. Go out of your way to do intentionally nice things for them. Most of all, let them know they are not alone.

Then maybe, just maybe, we might prevent more of these violent acts of desperation from happening again. God only knows we cannot fathom any more of them.

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Filed under Cultural Trends, Mental Health, Politics