Saturday, May 19, 2018

May is mental health awareness month

Many people may not know that May is Mental Health Awareness month.  To be honest, I didn't know it either, until recently.  I have debated for the past week if I was going to write this post.  But in the end I decided that I probably should.  Besides, it couldn't hurt, could it?

For a long time I use to laugh along with everyone else about mental health and "crazy people".  Even though I knew it wasn't really that funny.  I had a aunt who took her own life while in the throws of a terrible depression.  I had another relative I grew up with in an out of institutions because of a serious mental illness.  I have had friends who suffered terribly from mental illness.  So why would I think it was funny when someone pretended to be crazy on the silver screen? Once a pastor of a church I  attended showed a "funny" skit of a psychiatrist (played by Bob Newhart) and a patient who was suffering from a mental illness.  I have to admit that not only did I laugh along with much of the congregation, but I shared the link to the video with other people.  Looking back on it I don't really find it all that funny any more.

I've attended a number of different denominations (different types of protestant christian Churches) over the years.  Some conservative and some very charismatic.  Most attributed mental illness to either complete, or at least partial, demonic influence.  Some would claim that the mentally ill person was "possessed" by demons!  And again, at one time, to my shame, I also subscribed to this view.

What both the humor and the demonism have in common is that they both avoid the true nature of mental illness.  They designate it as something to be laughed at, and therefore not of any real consequence, or as something that is usually the fault of the sufferer because he or she invited the demons into their lives through some wicked thought or action on their part. 

I personally had to come terms with my feelings and thoughts on mental illness over the years.  If my relatives and friends suffering from it didn't do it, my own diagnosis finally did.  About five years ago I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.  I chose then to ignore it.  The doctor didn't know what he was talking about anyway (That is what I told myself) and besides, that was caused by demons and I wasn't possessed.  I was a Christian after all and the last thing a Christian is, is mentally ill.  Right?  Wrong!

Over a year ago I was chugging along just fine.  I was running races, studying martial arts, going to school full time and I had a great career.  I dropped school and went into the ministry instead (after all, what could school teach me I didn't already know?).  I was preaching almost every Sunday and studying what I needed in order to become a pastor.  But slowly something began to change.  The energy started to dissipate.  I no longer could see the point of studying for the ministry.  Slowly, insipidly, darkness started to color everything.  I no longer liked work, I didn't like church, I didn't want to be around people, I didn't want to run or study my martial arts.  I couldn't think clearly. At work I'd just stare at my monitor for almost eight hours, watching the clock for quitting time, begging the hands to move faster, doing only what was required of me and struggling to see the point of it all.

I have always struggled with periods of depression, but this was the worst I had ever experienced.  And it got still worse. Much worse.  At the end of last summer I read my electronic journal that I keep and realized I had been talking about depression in between bouts of high energy and activity, blaming the depression on Satan, and the good times on God, for almost six years!

By this time I was self-medicating with copious amounts of alcohol just to recover from the day.  I couldn't wait to go to sleep at night and I dreaded getting up in the morning.  The summer completely passed me by and I didn't remember much of any of it.  I decided it was time to talk to my doctor. 

My doctor put my on some medicine for my depression and insisted I see someone in the psychiatric  profession who could help regulate my medication.  But the medication had a very odd side-effect.  I started to rapidly cycle between severe depression and euphoria.  In either case I could hardly function.  So I saw someone else who, after a few questions and noting my symptoms while on the antidepressant, diagnosed me with bipolar 2.  She started me on a mood stabilizer and changed my antidepressant out for another.  I started seeing a psychiatrist later on and he recommended I go on an anti-psychotic along with my other medications to help bring the cycling under control.

After a year of doing the medication shuffle and talking to both my doctor and my priest I am doing better.  This time, instead of denial, I finally decided to embrace my illness.  I decided to stop being afraid of what people have to say (thus this post) and own it.  Which brings me to my final bit.  A few things to note, which I hope will help you interact better with those struggling with mental illness.  After all, one in five, struggle with mental illness.  So the likelihood that you know someone who suffers from it is very, very high.  And, unfortunately, the stigma also is still very high.

1.  Mental illness is not the fault of the sufferer. It is not true, not to mention cruel, to say such things to someone with a mental illness.  We probably wouldn't even say this to someone suffering from another disease even if it was their fault.  So why treat mental illness differently?

2.  Mental illness is just that.  An illness.  Blaming it on demons or a character flaw is not only ignorant, it is cruel.

3.  People cannot just "get over it".  You wouldn't tell someone with a broken leg or diabetes to just "get over it", would you?

4.  Some mental illness can be overcome with counseling and talk therapy.  Some cannot.  Diseases like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, to name two, cannot. There is not talking one's self out of these types of diseases.  Talking can help cope, but these are life-long diseases that, more often than not, must be medicated if the sufferer is going to have any semblance of a life.  Just like other diseases.

5.  We don't want the disease.  Yes, it can help make someone very productive and creative at times.  But the cons far outweigh the pros (If they can be called that).  If you asked most people with mental illness if they wanted to get better, most if not all would say yes.  Romanticizing mental illness is the media's game.  But like most things in the movies, it isn't true.

6  Don't tell me it could be worse.  Think about it.  Telling someone who just lost his legs that it could be worse is kind of obvious but completely inappropriate.   And it doesn't help.

7. Don't tell me it is just a season and everyone goes through them.  You simply haven't a clue if you've never struggled with mental illness.  If by "season" you mean my whole life, then yes, I will agree.  Otherwise don't say it.

8. Don't tell me you have the same mental illness if you've never been diagnosed. It isn't that you aren't struggling with the same thing, per se.  It is just that we live in a "me" culture that thrives on one-upping the other person,  and people are quick to try and "join the club" whenever they can. So forgive me if I don't believe you out of hand.  If you think you have a mental illness then GO TO A DOCTOR. 

9.  You don't have to tell me, "I never knew".   I spent a lot of years hiding it from myself.  I've gotten pretty good at it.  I don't really like talking about it and I'm not ever going to be quick to bring it up (Another reason why #8 seems so out of place).  Most people don't like talking about it mostly because of the stigma it has.  Many of us, even though we know logically it isn't our fault, still struggle with shame and embarrassment because of it.

10. Please do not attribute every weird thing I say or do to my mental illness (or to any mental illness).  How many times have we heard, "Oh she is just OCD" or, "There he goes, getting all schizo again".  Such things are right up there with, "She's a typical hysterical woman" or "He acts like such a girl".  Inappropriate and not true.

11.  Finally, don't tell me I should get off my medication and try this diet or that herbal supplement.  Unlike the latest fad, the use of medication, although far from perfect, is scientifically proven to help.

Anyway,  that's it. It is all I got the energy for.  If you want more information about bipolar 2, or mental illness in general, here is some extra reading:

Mental Health Month information
Bipolar 2 (with some info about Bipolar 1)
Mental health in general
Top ten things not to say to someone with a mental illness
The black dog (A short video about clinical depression)

Friday, May 04, 2018

My Problem with Protestantism

I left the Protestant church over three years ago.  There were a few reasons for this but this post will only deal with one in particular.  Let me first say before I get started that I have absolutely nothing but the greatest of respect for the Christians I have known, served and worshiped with over the years.  I was a part of the Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA) denomination for many years and the love, compassion and missionary zeal are unparalleled in the protestant or Orthodox world. So I only write what I do from a doctrinal perspective and not, in any way, a personal one aimed at my fellow travelers on this journey. Any personal sounding statements should be taken as a generality only.

I have run into people in protestant churches who did not even know they were Protestant.  Mostly it is a matter of terminology, but for some it is a lack of understanding of history.  At one time I didn't know what it meant either.  So for clarity, Protestantism finds its genesis in the fifteenth century as a "protest" against the abuses and doctrinal errors within the Roman Catholic church.  Martin Luther, a Roman Catholic monk, is typically credited with the shot that started the Reformation when he nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the Wittenberg castle church in the early sixteenth-century. This list was simply a call to academic discussion and not intended to be much more. But the political and social climate of the time was ripe for change and change it did. I'll let you google the details of the reformation itself.  Additionally I'm providing you a link an English translation of the theses here.

As things moved along it became clear that a break from the Catholic church was needed.  Which sounds like a brave decision except the church was more than ready to excommunicate these malcontents anyway. In the end a lot of people left the Catholic church, Luther got married, and the true church was being recovered. They were even being persecuted for it.  For a Christian, this David v. Goliath scenario is absolutely perfect.  We revel in it!

One of the major tenets of the reformation of the Church was that of authority.  Previously authority was to be found in the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church and, more specifically, the Pope.  For the proponents of the Reformation that would simply not work. After all it was through the authority of the Pope that came indulgences, Purgatory and Papal remission of sins  (All of which formed the majority of Luther's theses)! Things had to change and Luther knew how.

Luther, when brought to Worms (pronounced "Vorms" or "Varms", before some of you start giggling) in hopes of his recantation, gave the following defense:

Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason-I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other-my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.
"Sola Scriptura" (Scripture alone) was soon taken up as one of the most remembered cries of the Reformation.  From this one doctrine came all of the other "Solas".  Grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone.

Sounds pretty good so far. Unfortunately, Luther had made one rather large oversight: The propensity for people to be very creative in how they interpret basically anything.  And Scripture was no exception.  Sure, the boy in the field pushing the plow would soon be able to read the Bible. Sure, every Christian was a priest and had God living in him or her.  This was all good. But this is also where everything began to unravel.  Luther was soon horrified to find out that not only were various groups forming based on their individual interpretation of Scripture, but some of them were even identifying themselves using Luther's name (i.e., Lutherans).  But it was too late.  The genii was out of the bottle.  Groups formed, then fractured and formed new groups.  And these new groups soon fractured, forming more new groups.  All this happening, almost exclusively, based upon their interpretation of Scripture.  Until we arrive in the twenty-first century where there currently exists over 8,000 distinct denominations (Some say over 20,000, but this is a misreading of the statistics and just plain wrong).

This brings me to my major problem with Protestantism: Sola Scriptura.  I'm not going to discuss the irony of the fact that such a concept cannot be found in Scripture. Go ahead and try and find anything even close that, in context, means the sixty-six books we have, called the Bible, is to be our only and final source of authority in the Church and the formation of Church practice and doctrines. You'll no doubt quote (or have someone quote to you) some of the usual standbys. But before you do, read them again and ask yourself, a) is this really what it is saying and b) how much of the Bible had been written and brought together when this passage was written.  You might be surprised at the results.

Don't get me wrong.  I (and the Orthodox Church) believe that the Scripture is the Word of God and is to be at the foundation of all that the Church teaches and practices.  And certainly nothing taught by the Church must ever contradict the canon of Scripture. I think, for the most part, Protestants and the Orthodox church agree on this.

However, that is as far as we can travel together on the same road.  Eventually we must part ways.

Probably the beginning of the end for me was when I was helping to lead a leadership prayer group that consisted of pastors and leaders from a number of different denominations. I came to see that we all believed some very different things. And these differences were all rooted in our interpretation of Scripture. Intelligent (much more than I), godly, loving men and women had come to some very different readings of Scripture.  Sure, some of the basic tenets of faith we could agree on. Jesus is God, Jesus died for our sins, we are sinners in need of salvation, etc. But there were also some rather major differences.  Differences that made me wonder at times if we should even be praying together.  Differences that some other Protestants might call anti-scriptural and even demonic!

While struggling with this it started to dawn on me that the Bible doesn't teach Sola Scriptura. I realized that before the Reformation, the Church had existed for 1,500 years and never taught this doctrine nor believed anything close to it.  I started to get just a bit anxious!  Note that I have been a protestant Christian for over thirty years. I had been a serious student of the Word for almost all of that time. At one time I was studying for the ministry. I was at one time a Charismatic (google it) but "repented" of that and became what some call "Reformed".  Scripture was EVERYTHING to me.  I read systematic theologies by people like Berkhof, Hodge, and Erickson and loved any doctrine founded in Scripture.  I spent an entire year preaching almost every Sunday at my local Church and loved the study and preparation to share God's word with God's people.  There was nothing casual in how I approached Scripture, the Church or her teachings.  So when this all began to happen my world didn't just start to shake.  It begin to disintegrate.

My problem with Protestantism and what I had been taught and believed wasn't Scripture itself.  It was the interpretation that unsettled me. Who's interpretation was correct?  Did it matter?  It certainly does (if you are any sort of serious follower of Christ). What were we to do with all of the denominations?  Start new denominations as our "interpretation" became more perfect?

Suddenly I realized  that everyone one of us believed our interpretation infallible. Just like the Pope! We had all become little popes (An accusation leveled at the fledgling movement fairly early on).  Don't believe me?  Go to your pastor or seminary prof. and disagree with one of their pet doctrines.  Not one of the core ones.  You argue that Jesus is not God or something and you'll get what you deserve (Unless you attend a liberal seminary, in which case ignore this entire paragraph).  Rather disagree with their views on hell, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, Heaven, women in ministry (and other elements of Church polity), baptism, the law, Sunday worship or even church liturgical practices (Almost EVERY church has them). Make sure you root your argument in Scripture and sound exegesis or you'll be shot down immediately.  But you will find a whole array of reactions, from indifference to peevishness all the way to something bordering on rage.

Ask yourself what you believe and why.  I realize that some people don't care.  But as Christians we should care.  To not care is to resign yourself to being tossed about by every wind and wave of doctrine.  The person who believes nothing is likely to find him or herself believing anything.

Some (I know I did) overcome this accusation of papal infallibility in our interpretations by quickly injecting into almost every discussion of doctrine safe phrases like, "I could be wrong", "You pray and ask God and come to your own conclusion", "Take what I say, throw out the bad and keep the good", "I'm only human", etc, etc, etc.

But none of us really believe this, if we are being honest with ourselves.  What is the point of believing something as important as an interpretation of what Scripture is saying if we are likely, probably, maybe completely wrong?  We believe what we do because we believe our interpretation is right. And that we have heard from or been guided by the Holy Spirit to handle the Word of God aright.  When the day is done we all know that when someone says, "I may be wrong" what they really mean is, "I may be wrong...but I'm not".  And when someone says, "Pray and ask God to show you and draw your own conclusion", what she really means is, "Pray and ask God and he will show you I am right".  After all, if we really thought God would show someone else something completely antithetical to what we believe, then one or both of us would have to be wrong.  Right?

Ok, enough already.  Wipe the tears of boredom from your eyes and thank God for an end to this diatribe.  I am...almost done.  I want to leave you a quote from one of my personally favorite Saints, St. Justin of Popovich (I will talk about the Orthodox view of Saints in another post. That is really an interesting topic).
We must not be mistaken...Papacy, is fundamentally Protestantism since it removed the foundation of Christianity from the eternal God-man [the Incarnate Christ Jesus] and placed it in the finite man claiming this to be the measure and criterion of all.  Protestantism did nothing more than to simply accept this dogma and to develop it to the point where it has reached horrendous proportions and particulars. Truly then, Protestantism is nothing other than an abstract papism being applied to everything, that, the basic principle of the infallibility of one man has been applied to every individual human being.  According to the example of the infallible man of Rome, every Protestant becomes infallible since he claims personal infallibility in matters of faith. From this it can be said that Protestantism is a popularized papism lacking however a mystical dimension, authority, and power. ("Highest Value and Last Criterion in Orthodoxy", Justin Popovich.  Italics mine)

But now I had a new problem: Where was my authority for what I believe to come from?  That ultimately led me to the Eastern Orthodox Church.  But that will be a post for a different time.