Saturday, December 13, 2014

Conservative Christians and Mental Illness

I recently read a handout from a conservative Christian college's psychology class likening sending someone with eating disorders to a eating disorder clinic to sending someone with a pornography problem to a pornography clinic. In so many words, it set up vomiting as a sin to be rebuked from Scripture like pornography. It was stunning to read, and my heart immediately ached for those struggling through very real mental health issues who were shamed away from secular medical intervention at that college. Though much good progress has been made on mental health issues and the believer by way of organizations like CCEF, there is obviously still a long way to go.

Here is the key – the brain, like the lungs, the liver, the kidneys, and the heart, is an organ. It is the most complex organ in the human body, made up of blood vessels and tissues and an incredible number of nerve cells. Just as lungs need blood flow, the brain needs blood flow. Just as clots in the blood around the heart cause heart attacks, clots in the blood around the brain cause stroke. The same physical dynamic that causes my mid and lower body to feel exhaustion after a night of missed sleep or a missed meal cause my brain to feel exhaustion. As a type 1 diabetic, the loss of my pancreas' ability to produce insulin that affects my kidneys also affects my brain. The brain is an organ, and as my heart, lungs, kidney, and pancreas can suffer through specific biological issues, so can my brain.

But the brain, unlike my lungs or kidneys, is also the central processing unit for my faith. My liver doesn't consider tempation to sin. My pancreas doesn't consider the truth of God's Word. My lungs are not proud. My kidneys are not humble. But my brain is engaged in all of those feelings and thoughts.

The mix of biological function of an organ and spiritual function of the seat of faith is confusing to say the least. But it seems a lot more confusing for those who have never experienced biological malfunctions in the brain than those who do. My own experience as a type-1 diabetic has helped me. When my blood sugar gets low, I first get depressed. If it gets really low quickly, I lose touch with reality while still walking around. Before getting my insulin pump, I had several scary episodes which included me saying weird things, pushing family away trying to help me, and being rude and angry with a good friend. I hated afterwards realizing how I had spoken to my friend. I owed her a sincere apology. But more than I needed to apologize, I needed to EAT. There was going to be no help for my anger and no chance to repair my relationship with her until my blood sugar was no longer low. 

The thing about the interplay of biological issues and sin issues is that when the biological issues are addressed, much of the sin issues are immediately diffused. It's like the child having a screaming temper tantrum because they are exhausted after a long day of activities. Get the kid a nap, and then addressing the tantrum becomes a lot more effective. When my blood sugar stabilized after the angry conversation with my friend, no one needed to lecture me on how I had treated her. And my temptation to anger with her was immediately removed. Dealing with the biological greatly aided the spiritual.

Going back to the young woman vomitting to lose weight – self harm is a spiritual issue … deeply affected by a biological issue. God's gift of common grace to the world as a whole and His children in particular is growing knowledge of our brain as an organ. Just as new therapies in cancer treatment are gifts of God's grace to us, new therapies in the treatment of mental illness can be too. Anorexia is a mental health issue. Note also that just as some cancer “treatments” are snake oil (we've had a recent case of this in Seattle), some mental health “therapies” are too. Not every idea is a good one. Not every treatment is a helpful one. But some are, and the reformed doctrine of common grace equips us to be open and accepting of mental health treatments that are research based and approved by licensed professionals.

One thing I have noted in my own journey with biological issues that can affect my brain is that there IS a big sin issue that tempts me again and again. The interesting thing is that it is the same temptation that all of us struggle with whether we have mental health issues or not. It is pride.

I am smart. I am educated.  I am independent. And I do not want my mom encouraging me to eat healthy. I don't want my doctor to give me a new treatment plan. I don't want to face my diabetes at all some days, because it makes me feel frail and inadequate. That weakness scares me. It interrupts my independence and self reliance. But, sometimes, my body falls apart and my mind can't engage to fix it. As much as I hate that when it happens, I note that God gives grace to the humble. He gives His common grace to the humble as He does His particular saving grace. Whether it's my mom or my doctor, my friend who read something online or my sister who hands me a glass of orange juice because I'm talking weirdly, my pride rouses up in resentment of the need while I desperately need to accept my weakness and humbly receive their help.

For anyone struggling with mental illness, your biggest temptation is likely self reliance when your greatest need is to humbly ask for help and receive it when it is given. It grieves me to think of Christian institutions heaping shame on those who are doing the right thing by seeking help, pointing them away from the gifts of God's common grace to help them in that moment. It grieves me to think of unlicensed Christian counselors trying to “root out sin” among those seeking help instead of affirming the wise decision of the one struggling to seek help at all. The very fact they are seeking help, listening to doctors and family and pastors, IS the indicator they are rooting out the greatest sin issue that exacerbates mental health issues – being too scared to believe you have a problem and too proud to receive help from those God has given to speak into your life.  May our churches and ministries get this right for the good of those deeply struggling.

For further reading:

Monday, December 08, 2014

The Centrality of the Word in Discipleship

As I counsel others and engage in gospel-centered discipleship, I am sometimes distracted away from the Word, God's self-expression in the form of the Bible itself. Someone struggles to feel a personal relationship with God, and I talk them through prayer and maybe recommend Tim Keller's new book. Someone wrestles through debilitating self-condemnation over sin, and I lead in a discussion of our identity in Christ and recommend Elyse Fitzpatrick's Because He Loves Me. Struggles in marriage? What about Keller's The Meaning of Marriage or Stormie Omartian's The Power of a Praying Wife? If I'm not careful, I forget that these things, while all helpful, are only periphery supports for the infrastructure needed for discipleship. They are helps, but only as support to the better help, which is God's own Word.

I've recognized this in my own life lately. Over the last year, I have received formal therapy from a licensed counselor, informal counsel from my pastor, and much counsel from wise godly friends over meals or coffee. They have pointed me to books that have offered wise counsel as well. While all of those things have been deeply helpful, they help best as periphery support to the essential infrastructure of personal Bible reading. When I pursue those things without reading the Bible myself, there is a gulf in my heart they can not make up by themselves.

Personally, I think of my time in the Bible as just reading, not study. I definitely do study the Bible, but that flows more out of my desire to teach. When I approach the Word for my foundational relationship with God, I just read. And I don't usually read very long. I don't set a goal, because I would be personally offended if a friend approached me like that, and I don't approach time with God that way either. I open my Bible and read, and I stop when something strikes me. I highlight that thing and maybe reread it. Then I close my Bible to think about that truth or concept until the next time, when I pick back up at the last thing I highlighted.

Right now, I am reading through Proverbs and Mark. Each interaction with the Word feels like I'm reaching back and reconnecting to something eternal and timeless. It's bigger than me, and it centers and grounds me. Of course, I don't get that sense EVERY time I read the Bible, and it took a while of plugging through with this basic method to start to feel God's supernatural working through His word. It's a slow marathon, a day in day out walk. But how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

Please hear what I am not saying. I am not downplaying the value of pastoral counsel, Christian books, or licensed therapy. For optimal health during the day, we need exercise. We may need medicine. We could use a nap. But before anything else, we need basic nourishment. We need breakfast. The slow walk through the Word is the sustaining food on which the other helps build. But without that basic sustaining food, we are set up for failure no matter what other well intentioned help we receive.
John 1 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. ... 14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. 
Psalm 18:30 This God—his way is perfect; the word of the Lord proves true; he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Quick Thoughts on Image Bearing Fetuses and Immigration

Often, when I hear others talking about abortion, the focus is on the innocence of the fetus. Moral outrage grows because of the innocence and defenselessness of the child. But I would submit to you that the true reason that abortion is sin is not because the fetus is innocent, but because the fetus is human.

You could make an argument from Scripture that the fetus is not innocent at all. All are guilty before God. Given the opportunity to live, any fetus would eventually act out in ways consistent with the sinful nature Scripture teaches we all have. But that baby in the womb has something that gives it worth, innocent or not. It is human – unlike a dog or horse, or my beloved killer whales, humans reflect God. They bear His image. They are imprinted with something reflective of God that no other entity in creation shows.

We have a word for the actions around the inheritant dignity of being human. We call it being humane. Humane means the sense of being human. The differences in how a lion treats a wounded human and a human treats a wounded lion are pretty big. For humans living in the essence of what it means to be an elevated ruler of creation, compassionate treatment of animals is a concern. It's not that we treat the animal like it is a human. It's that we treat the animal when it is weak or wounded inherently better than another animal would treat it. We treat it humanely. We respond with dignity and care befitting an image bearer of the Creator taking care of creation. And when mob mentality in riots results in people treating others more like animals than humans, we rightfully recoil in horror.
Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him. (Proverbs 14:31)
With immigration reform in the news, I have been thinking again of what it means to be pro all of life, walking day in and day out reflecting the inherent dignity of what it means to be human, what it means to be the one part of creation who bears the image of God. Immigration is complicated because of the legal, political issues, but what is not complicated is our day in and day out obligation to treat other humans in light of their dignity simply because they are human. In my own life, my test is not treating new babies humanely but how I respond to the adult who is down and out. On the outside, they have clearly fallen short of the glory of God that He has called them to reflect. Yet, I remember that, though I look clean on the outside, I too fall short. Then, I can turn to the poor man and treat him in the dignified way God has treated me, and in so doing I call him and myself back to what God created us to be in perfection – reflections of Him.


Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Voice of the Helper

As I work through church dysfunction in Seattle with former and current Mars Hill Church elders, deacons, and members in private Facebook groups, some hard conversations have been had, particularly about the ways the culture at Mars Hill damaged women. We have had painful but beautiful discussions. Early points of the conversation involved a lot of anger and accusation. But over time, as those who have been hurt were heard and their stories validated by the leaders involved, the conversation turned to healing and growth that reflects well on the deep meaning behind the word redeem.

One thing I am processing is why so many women over the years at Mars Hill felt silenced. I think some of it is pathological – serious mental struggles due to childhood trauma by some influential leaders that resulted in over the top reactions to women who spoke up. But I also think some of it was theological, which is why I've hounded again and again the issue of Genesis 3:16. One elder referred to explicit theology – that which was taught – and implicit theology – that which was believed. There was a discrepancy between the two at times. Leadership at Mars Hill occasionally spoke explicitly about women with the assumption that our first root issue was that we would want to take over control from the men in our lives. But the implicit belief outside of what was explicitly taught was there at a fundamental, pervasive level. When that is your foundational assumption, then there is nothing that a woman can say short of complete agreement and affirmation of you in every way that will not be eventually labeled gossip, manipulation, or outright usurping of authority.

As I continue to think through a 3rd way on gender, I am burdened for the voice of the helper that God gave to the man. Was Eve designed only to help with her hands or her body? Or was there something in her words that God designed to be helpful to Adam? The great passage that is used to squelch female voices is I Peter 3, on winning a disobedient husband over without a word. Paul talks of women keeping silent in the church as well, but the context there is the authoritative teaching in the position of elder. I think Peter and Paul's instructions are good, true, and to be obeyed today. But remember that these are not the only Scripture on women speaking. While some verses on women instruct keeping silence, others affirm the use of words as a sign of wisdom and virtue, notably in the classic wisdom chapter on Image-bearing womanhood, Proverbs 31.
Proverbs 31:26 She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
There are many more verses on women speaking in the Bible, but I am not going to give a survey of them right now. The issue isn't whether a woman is or is not to speak. The issue is what she should speak and how she should speak. We are as constrained by James 3:10 as the men in our churches are.
Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. Brothers and sisters, these things ought not to be.
Going forward, I offer this encouragement first to women, and then to men.

Women: I encourage you to cultivate the voice that God intended for you to use when He created you as a strong helper for the man. This means recognizing what tears down and putting that off as the old man. The Bible has strong words for negative speech for men and women, along with a few choice words for women alone. Because of our particular gifting to come alongside a man in aid, the negative words we say in a moment can deeply wound a man, like the nurse you expect to administer pain medicine who instead injects you with poison. Gossip, slander, malice … these are antithetical to the role of ezer, and we must deliberately push into who we are in Christ that we may recognize these words and put them away.

But a big mistake we make as women in conservative churches is that we put off without also putting on, especially in terms of the voice of the Helper. The put off / put on process for women and their words is not to put off gossip and put on silence. It is to put off words that tear down and put on words of life that God intended you to use. The end result of transformation in Christ is that we put on words that aid our churches, aid our families, and aid our friends. 

Men: I encourage you, like the women, to cultivate the voice of women in your life. Thabiti Anyabwile wrote a great article for The Gospel-Centered Woman on the neglect of pastors to disciple and use women in their congregations. If you have women who gossip in your church, the tendency is to preach against gossip and encourage silence instead of doing the real work of cultivating life giving speech among these women. But I add a second encouragement as well – as you encourage women toward better speech, then respect that voice when she uses it! This second step has been a missing link in a lot of homes and congregations. Listen when women speak with wisdom. Respect the role of helper, and value God's image bearing role in women. What if husbands, pastors, and leaders in churches started valuing the voices of women who were speaking into their lives with wisdom?

The main problem seems that some men can't distinguish between women speaking with wisdom and women speaking with authority. They are so afraid of a woman telling them authoritatively what to do that they can't hear feedback or suggestions from them without defensiveness. To be fair, women can and should work on how to say the good things they have to contribute in a way that doesn't create hurdles for the one who needs to hear it. For both men and women, the Bible indicates the same words said in different ways can have very different results. But, men, whether a woman says it exactly right in your estimation or not, don't let yourself be deceived into thinking her tone negates the truth of what she offers you. That particular temptation seems a tool of Satan to undermine the woman as the helper God intended.

I'll end with a positive observation. I am seeing much more evidence of men in the Church respecting the voice of the helper in just the last 6 months or so than I have for many years previously. I appreciate The Village Church's current sermon series on Biblical manhood and womanhood in particular. One thing that has been clear in the series is that Matt Chandler values women in his church speaking into his life. In one particular illustration he gave about his wife, he shared the wise way she pointed out a problem area in his life to him. She spoke with wisdom in a way that was easy for him to receive.

But, in the same illustration, Matt also acknowledged that he needed to listen to her input whether she said it exactly right or not. That can be a missing link for men – discounting the wisdom of what was said because a woman didn't articulate it as softly as the man thought she should. Honestly, men, admit that sometimes you just don't want to hear it from a woman, and there is no amount of soft terms that would make her words acceptable to you. For some men, the choice for women's voices seems to be between the negative of gossip and nagging manipulation to the positive, in their heads, of women who don't say anything challenging at all. In silencing, ignoring, or shaming women for speaking, those men lose a valuable gift God has given them for their flourishing.

If you want wisdom from the women around you, and you should, I encourage you to consider the voice of the helper, the ezer, as part of the help God intended her to provide.  Then respond accordingly even if it makes you temporarily uncomfortable. May we all work toward cultivating wise, helpful speech in ourselves and others, and may we listen well when the ezer speaks wise and helpful words to us personally.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

On the Dissolving of Mars Hill Church

Mars Hill is dissolving. There will be no more video preaching broadcast throughout all the campuses, no more consolidating of tithes to be redistributed by central office. Individual campuses will become autonomous churches, merge with another church, or close. Reading the news the last few days, I am reminded again and again of my very first day volunteering in the Mars Hill office back in 2002 when the only church building they occupied was the tiny one on Earl Street. As I walked in, the first thing I saw was an elder packing up his office to move out. I asked around, and it turned out that he was going with founding pastor Mike Gunn to plant a new location south of Seattle. That was my first impression of Mars Hill, a church plant planting other churches. We were learning about Acts 29 at the time and wanted to plant an Acts 29 church in Seattle too. We had read up on all the material about Mars Hill before moving to Seattle. We believed in church planting, and my first experience inside the doors of the Mars Hill building validated that belief.

The rumblings of fundamental change (for me) started in 2006 when Mars Hill Shoreline was “planted” but not with its own preaching pastor. It had a “lead pastor,” but the preaching each week would be done by Mark Driscoll, piped in via satellite. I was uncomfortable with that because I knew that had never been the plan. Mark in the early years we were there had railed against megachurches. Mars Hill informally marketed itself as the anti-megachurch. But here were glimpses of decision making more characteristic of megachurches and empire building than the organic church planting vision we had originally bought into. But the Mars Hill saga is a good mix of various moral fables, like The Tortoise and the Hare and The Emperor's New Clothes. There were many individually who saw something wrong with the desire to grow quickly without taking the time to build supporting infrastructure, but so many were gung ho about the changes that those with concerns often second guessed themselves and didn't speak up.

Then in 2007, as more video campuses were added, Mark and Jamie Munson initiated a rewriting of the church bylaws that would consolidate decision making power among 5 executive elders, which eventually became 3. After teaching us in 2002 about church polity using Alexander Strauch's Biblical Eldership, Mark and Jamie moved in a totally different direction, using words like “triperspectivalism” (which is a really bad teaching that one day I may address) to keep true shepherding pastors out of leadership decisions and “first among equals” to set up an elder hierarchy that completely undermined the point of a plurality of elders. Mark and Jamie fired older elders Bent Meyer and Paul Petry who recognized much earlier than the rest of us naive members did the significance of this change. These changes were justified with the argument that the elders needed to simplify decision making to continue the incredible growth Mars Hill was experiencing. But instead, Mark, Jamie, and the elders who supported them sowed the seeds that would eventually undo the whole thing.

I wonder what would have happened if Mars Hill had expanded as it originally intended – planting new congregations with their own teaching pastors. What if we had grown at a sustainable pace? What if we hadn't allowed the teaching to become entirely Mark-centric? What if we had held to a pure plurality of elders even if it slowed down decision making?

God has disciplined Mars Hill and the end result is that it will continue as it started, a church that planted other churches. Except that the mothership that planted the others will no longer exist. Like Lucy in Prince Caspian, I wonder what would have happened if we had made the right decisions in 2006 and 2007. But I am comforted by Aslan's response to her.
To know what would have happened, child?" said Aslan. "No. Nobody is ever told that." 
"Oh dear," said Lucy. 
"But anyone can find out what will happen," said Aslan. "If you go back to the others now, and wake them up; and tell them you have seen me again; and that you must all get up at once and follow me – what will happen? There is only one way of finding out.” 
― C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian
I don't know what would have happened if Mars Hill had chosen to plant churches in 2006 as they had started in 2002. I don't know what would have happened if they had kept a plurality of elders that slowed down decision making but gave them stable untiy on which to build. We will never know, because it did not happen. But God has disciplined His church, and this is what is happening now. I write this today with hope. The repentance snowball effect is continuing on, and two more current Mars Hill elders in the last few days said deeply healing things as they repented specifically of the ways they contributed to the problems. God has disciplined His church, and He did it because He loves His church. He did it to make her glorious, and I am curious in a good way for what the next years hold for these church plants around the Pacific Northwest.

“There is only one way of finding out.”