Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Anxiety Part 3: The Return of the King

Part 1
Part 2

Let's talk panic attacks.

This should be fun.

This might be TMI, but I had a panic attack in the shower recently.
It was a Tuesday morning. I woke up and jumped in the shower. About two minutes in, the panic washed over me like the streams of water on my face. I fell on the floor of the shower and began the normal ritual of painfully gripping my face and my hair, and feeling myself hyperventilating and my heart racing. After about three minutes of this hell, I regained control. I laid on the floor of the tub and stared at the scratches on my legs from digging my fingernails as hard as I could into them. I tried to get rid of the kink in my neck from when I pulled my hair as hard as I could to the right.

I laid there and thought about all that I had to do that day.

My Tuesday routine is as follows:
1. Arrive at work/prayer
2. Prep staff meeting
3. Lead staff meeting
4. Work on sermon
5. Meet with our lead elder
6. Do more work on the sermon (so that by Wednesday I know generally where the message is going, and can spend Wednesday doing a lot of visiting/pastoral care)
7. Run 6 miles
8. Dinner/time with family

Tuesday is a busy day. Yet here I am, staring at the scratches on my legs and trying to work the kink out of my neck, and I start thinking, "How can I possibly make it through today? How do I lead a staff meeting? How can I possibly write something to help guide other people in their spiritual lives? I can't even make it through my morning shower without falling apart."

That's the thing about panic attacks.  They make you feel worthless, and ruin the rest of your day.

Until this past year, I had never had a panic attack. I hadn't known of anyone personally who had panic attacks (I've since found out that many of my friends have regular panic attacks; they just don't like to talk about them. I totally get that). I had previously used the term "panic attack" to refer to times when I felt 'panicky,' but I didn't actually know what a real, honest-to-God panic attack felt like.

And then, about a month into my time in therapy, I had one. It woke me up, my heart raced, I was sweating constantly, and I couldn't do anything but dig my fingers into the bed. After what seemed like an eternity, it stopped. For the rest of the week, I was sort-of afraid to go to bed at night, thinking that it might happen again.
I asked my therapist about it the following week. I was predominantly concerned with the question, "Why now?" Did I only have a panic attack now that I was getting help? Did I subconsciously want to suffer more, now that I was in therapy? Had I heard "You have anxiety," and then my brain subconsciously gave myself all of the symptoms of anxiety? (I realize how ridiculous these questions sound now, but at the time I couldn't stop fixating on them).
My therapist said that panic attacks are perfectly normal for people with anxiety, and that sometimes they happen more often when people are in therapy.


I've had quite a few more since then. The thing that's so painful about panic attacks (okay, everything about them is painful), is that I can't predict when I'll have one. They seem to occur most often when I'm having a few days of extreme stress. However, sometimes I'll have them in the middle of a fantastic day. I've had them while playing with my kids. This morning I had one while in a board game store (aka my favorite place in the world). I feel like if I could simply figure out what triggers a panic attack, I could stop them entirely. But they so often come out of nowhere.

Someone I follow on Twitter recently said that he had a panic attack out of the blue for the first time in fifteen years. He said that there's nothing like a panic attack to remind him of his weakness.

This year I've repeatedly returned to the verse from 2 Corinthians, when God says to Paul, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." If that's true (and I really hope it is), then out weaknesses are not the end of the story, because God's power shines in our weakness.

Which is awesome.

Still, the weakness sucks.

I just spoke to someone who said that she used to have panic attacks while driving her car. I can't even imagine...

There's not really a happy ending to this post. Panic attacks are terrible.
If you have them regularly, you have my sympathy.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Anxiety Part 2: Electric Boogaloo

Part 1 here

So, therapy.
Hoo boy, we have a lot to talk about here...

I've been in therapy for about six months.  I'm going to talk about it occasionally on this blog. There's a lot to talk about, and a lot that I've learned about myself and about therapy itself. That said, I'm obviously not going to write about everything that I'm working through. I haven't had enough time and reflection to work through everything. However, I'm going to try to be as open and honest as I can.

Today I'm just going to focus on one particular topic, which is: Why did it take so long for me to get into therapy?

I've helped quite a few people get into therapy over the years. I've recommended therapists, I've collected phone numbers for people, and I've generally championed therapy during conversations, sermons, etc. I've never considered it weakness when people seek therapy, and have never judged those who are in therapy. Quite the opposite, actually. I've admired the strength of those who want to heal, want to better learn themselves, or simply need support to make it through a difficult moment in their lives.

Therapy is good. I've long thought so.

Why, then, did it take so long for me to say out loud, "I think I need therapy?" If I'm supportive of the practice, and if I'm consistently trying to move people in the direction of therapy, why was I so resistant?

I think there were a few reasons...

1. I had a hard time admitting to myself that I needed therapy. Before I started therapy, there were noticeable signs that something abnormal was going on in my life. I would have repeated physical shutdowns, I never was able to sleep through the night, and I would start hyperventilating seemingly out of nowhere. These were all physical symptoms, however, and they all seemed like symptoms that could be overcome by willpower. It was about a year before I could admit to myself that these problems were beyond my capabilities.

2. I wanted medication, not therapy. My best guess was that I had depression, and I wanted to take care of it. However, I didn't want to shake up my life or my work schedule in any way, and I didn't want to make the time commitment for therapy. I figured if I could get a nice bottle of antidepressants (Is bottle the right word? What are those orange cylinders with the white cap called?), I could keep my schedule exactly as it was while also taking care of my symptoms.
Yep. Self-medication for an illness that I thought I probably had. That was my plan.
Good choices, David.
Thankfully, I did my research, and it turns out that you can't purchase antidepressants over the counter.

3. There's no other way to say it than this: it's embarrassing to tell other people, even family members (especially family members?), about mental health problems. It was for me. I assumed that nobody would understand. Honestly, how do you explain mental health problems to people?
"I hyperventilate a lot, and it comes on out of the blue."
"Have you tried breathing into a bag?"
"No...I....never mind."
That's how I assumed every conversation would go (and basically how a few actually did go). It's weird and strange and odd and bizarre to talk about mental health problems. Physical things are much easier.
"I have a bone sticking out of my leg, and it's bleeding everywhere."
"Why yes, you do. Let's get you to the hospital. Please don't bleed on the rug."

I didn't know how to talk about my own need for help with my mental health, so for a long time, I just...didn't.

4. It's expensive. This was less of a reason for avoiding therapy, and more of an excuse. I knew it might be difficult to pay for, but I also knew that we could make it work.

I had quite a few reasons for avoiding therapy. Maybe you do too. If you've been thinking about therapy, I'm here to say that it's great, it's wonderful, and it's helping me greatly. Absolutely get into therapy if you're thinking about it. I know it's easier said than done, but if you're on the fence about it, seriously, look into it.

In the coming weeks, I'll actually talk about therapy itself. It's going to be fun, mostly because therapy as a practice is kind of odd.
"Hi, complete stranger that I've never met. Let me sit down and tell you about the deepest, darkest parts of my life that I've never told anyone else and planned to take with me to my grave."
Good times.

If you have topics you'd like me to discuss in the coming weeks related to mental health, faith, or anything related, leave me a comment or shoot me an email at
I'm not a mental health expert or anything, but I've had some experiences and made some observations.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Anxiety Part 1: The Phantom Menace

Let's talk anxiety.

I'm a pastor, and I suffer from anxiety. Before this year, I never would have called it by that name. I never would have said that I had a mental illness.

In my mind, other people had mental illnesses. I did not have a mental illness. I may have low self-esteem, or difficulty with high amounts of stress, or problems with general overthinking and extreme worry at times and in certain situations, but I don't have a mental illness.

Except I do.

Two years ago, I started having physical and mental shutdowns, usually after I had a difficult conversation with a friend (I wrote about this more here). It affected my work, my home life, and my friendships. After all, it's hard to be an available pastor, a good husband/dad, or a devoted friend, when you often have mental and physical shutdowns that can last over an hour. It's hard to function as a dad when you have a panic attack while playing hide and seek with your kids. It's hard to help people with their struggles when you're simply trying to keep your head above water, day after day.

I started going to therapy, and my therapist explained anxiety to me. She helped me understand how normal all of my body's responses were, despite how abnormal they felt. As I continued therapy and worked through some of my mental health issues, I also started talking and writing about it. I didn't feel like I had a lot to say; after all, I'm in no way a mental health professional. I didn't really have an agenda when I started sharing these things, either. I wasn't trying to start a conversation about mental health or anything. I just decided one day that I wanted to share this part of my life with people.

What surprised me after I started opening up about my anxiety was the response I received from other pastors. A number of people reached out to me and told me about their own mental health problems, and said that they don't know how to talk with anybody else about them.
One pastor said that if a pastor talks about his or her own mental illness, it can be career suicide. To that person (and anyone else who feels that way) I would say: if your church doesn't want you because of your mental illness, that's probably not a church for you.
Honestly, a church that doesn't want you because of your mental illness doesn't seem like much of a church to me.
Rant over.

All of these responses got me thinking that maybe if I talk more about my own mental illness, other people may feel less stigma about their mental health problems.

So that's what I'm going to do. I think I'll do about 13 of these-probably one per week (I say "probably" because I'm not the most consistent blogger...I'll do my best).

To start this series off, I'll give a couple of false thoughts that I often have about my own anxiety, and then mention a couple of ways in which the church can do better at helping those who have mental health problems.

First: False ideas I have about my own anxiety:

1. I just need to be stronger. Tough it out. Power through. This is all in my head. I'm just being weak, and can overpower this.

It's not that simple. I've never been able to overcome my anxiety on my own. In order to overpower my mental illness, I have to fight my brain. But the thing I use to fight my brain is my brain. I have to fight my mind with my mind. The mind, the brain, is the problem itself, so it's impossible to fight it.
Do you see the difficulty?
In my first therapy session, my therapist pointed out that powering forward only gets me stuck more. Catastrophic thinking usually leads to more catastrophic thinking. That's where meditation practices and such can help divert my mind and attention away from the destructive, catastrophic cycle in which I so often find myself.

2. I'm weak. I'm not normal.

In one sense, sure, this is a weakness, just like a broken leg is a weakness. But it is not at all abnormal. Mental illness is actually incredibly common. However, there is such a stigma around mental illness that it makes people who suffer feel like they're alone, or abnormal. I actually haven't been able to call my anxiety a mental illness until this week, because admitting that I suffer from a mental illness made me feel like a mess and a failure.

Finally, how can the church do better at helping those with mental illness?

1. If you suffer from mental illness, be honest about it. The stigma around mental health will always remain in society and in the church until those of us who suffer become comfortable speaking freely about our own experiences.

2. Be present. Often in the church, folks will see each other once a week. We'll ask those who we know are having a rough time, "Are you feeling better?" Any care and concern that people show one another is a good thing, but what the church really needs is those who will listen to and support those who suffer from mental illness-more than just on Sunday mornings.
We need people who we know won't pull away from us or abandon us because the things we're going through seem awkward or weird or different or uncomfortable. Personally, I constantly feel like my mental health problems are abnormal and uncomfortable and wrong.
It's difficult to talk about our own mental health if we fear rejection or abandonment from others. We can only experience true Christian community when we know we won't be rejected.

That's it for this week. Again, I'm not a mental health professional. All I have are my experiences, and the hope that maybe by talking about them, it will free some of you to talk about your own.

Is there anything related to mental health y'all want me to talk about? Leave a comment or shoot me an email and let me know.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Where We Should Begin

A sermon preached on July 1, 2018

I have heard a lot of heated words over the past few weeks. Many of these words appear to be based in fear, or frustration, and whenever things happen in the world, that's to be expected. But today I'd like to try and take us back a bit. I'd like us to reintroduce ourselves to the story that we're all a part of. I'd like us to reclaim the story of which we're all a part.

The story begins in the desert. There's a guy taking care of some sheep. He's on the lam because he killed a guy and doesn't want to be prosecuted for it.
He's taking care of sheep, and a nearby bush catches on fire, and the voice of God speaks from the bush (like you see everyday). And the voice of God says to the man, "I've seen my people being oppressed in Egypt and I've heard their cry for release from their slave-masters, because I know their pain. I've come down to rescue them from the Egyptians." And the voice of God says that he's going to use this man, Moses, to bring these people out of slavery. He's heard their cry, and he plans to save them.

So he pulls them out of slavery. It's a miracle. And then...well...where do they go? They're in the desert. Nothing's really nearby, and they're a bunch of former slaves. They don't have a homeland. So they begin life as a free tribe, wandering together in the desert, with God as their leader. This kind of life was actually pretty normal. In the world at the time, each nation or group or tribe had their people, their identity, their security, their ideas, their ideals, their understandings, their leaders, their worldviews, and in many cases, their god or gods. Your nation or group or tribe was your entire life. They were your identity. You understood the world through your nation, your tribe, your group.

God uses this shepherd to bring the people out of slavery and makes them into their own nation/tribe/group, and now they have to learn how to live together as a free people. They haven't done that before. Sure, they were free before slavery, but that was generations ago. None of these people have never known each other as free people. So how do they live together? Well, God gives them a bunch of laws. People need laws, rules, and guidelines to know how to live with one another. And most of these laws involve how people within the group interact with one another. They're interpersonal laws. These laws appear barbaric, and yeah, they are barbaric. But they were how the early Israelites understood how they were to live with each other in their own world, at that time, as a part of the larger group. The laws helped the people know that their society was just and fair. The laws also helped the people understand that their society was safe.

Safety laws were important, not only between people in the group, but because other groups often wanted to defeat and kill your group. If you got into battle with another group, one of your groups would win and the other would lose, and the losers would usually be annihilated. Why? Because you had to annihilate them if you wanted to make sure that they wouldn't come back and get revenge. So people weren't only concerned with safety from those in their own group; they were concerned that other groups wouldn't come in and destroy their entire civilization. Outsiders were threats. If they came in to your group, it could be because they're spying, or because they want to do some damage to your way of life. So every nation, every tribe, every group, needed to have a plan about those outside of their group.

Most nations would do one of two things when dealing with foreigners: either 1. steal from/enslave them in order to gain something from them, or 2. kill them so they are no longer a threat. This is why it's so shocking when Leviticus 19 says "Don't take vengeance on or bear a grudge against any of your people; rather, love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD" (Lev. 19:17-18), but shortly after this says "If a foreigner stays with you in your land, do not do him wrong. Rather, treat the foreigner staying with you like the native-born among you--you are to love him as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God" (Lev 19:33-34). The command to 'love your neighbor' is expanded to include the foreigner and alien among the people. This is a radical law from God, since foreigners were seen by most as dangerous.

"But David, who exactly is a foreigner? Don't words in the Bible sometimes have different meanings than the ones we use today?"  Why yes they do. Thank you, fictitious question-asker. The closest analogue in our world to this word "foreigner" or "alien" is a refugee. Someone who had to flee their land because of famine or war.

Repeatedly, God tells the people to assist the poor and foreigners among them, saying "When you harvest the ripe crops produced in your land, don't harvest  all the way to the corners of your field, and don't gather the ears of grain left by the harvesters. Likewise, don't gather the grapes left on the vine or fallen on the ground after harvest; leave them for the poor and the foreigner; I am the LORD your God" (Lev. 19:9-10, also Lev. 23:22, Deut. 24:19-22). Foreigners were to be included in celebratory feasts as well. In most situations, they were given equal or even better treatment than the Israelites. This is radical stuff. And God isn't messing around when he says it. Early on while giving these laws, God says "You must neither wrong nor oppress a foreigner living among you, for you yourselves were foreigners in the land of Egypt. You are not to abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them in any way and they cry to me, I will certainly hear their cry" (Ex. 22:21). When God's people called out while in slavery, he heard their cry and saved them, destroying the Egyptians in the process. Now he's saying if a foreigner, widow, or orphan is mistreated and they cry to him, he will hear their cry. You can assume the threat behind this statement. "Remember when I saved you from the bullies in Egypt? Don't become those bullies to other people, or I'm going to save them from you."

So why is God making all of these special concessions for people outside of his chosen group? It says in the book of Deuteronomy that God "secures justice for the orphan and the widow; he loves the foreigner, giving him food and clothing" (Deut 10:18). There's the answer. God loves them. Just like he loved you while you were in Egypt, he loves those in other groups and tribes and nations as well. And God is making clear that he expects the people to have the same heart as he does. "Therefore, you are to love the foreigner, since you were foreigners in the land of Egypt" (10:19). When God's people truly turn their hearts to God's desires and thoughts and purposes, they will care for the foreigner as well.
Because God cares for the foreigner. He loves them.

And when we care for the poor, the orphan, the oppressed, and the foreigner, we are following God's leading and living out the image of God that we were made to be.
Because caring for the poor, the orphan, the oppressed, and the foreigner is what God does.

God is setting up a new standard here; a radical standard. For God's people, for this new group/tribe/nation, when someone comes in fear or trial, you will welcome them as a neighbor. You will not see them as a threat, like you're accustomed to doing, but you'll welcome them as neighbors. You will not kill or rob or enslave them, but you'll provide food for them, and welcome them in to your community.

So here's where I think that many of us Christians today have missed the story. When we begin talking about those who flee death or war or gang violence or rape or violence or famine in other countries, many Christians begin the conversation with talk of safety and security. Are safety and security important? Sure. That's why I have a lock on my house. That's why my car locks. That's why I don't walk around Pier Park at 2 AM. Safety is an important concern. But it should not be the beginning point for God's people when talking about immigration or refugees.

God commanded his people to love their neighbor, then expanded that love to include the foreigner. And this wasn't in a world that was predominantly safe. For the Israelites, it was a considerably more dangerous world than the one in which we find ourselves. They were on the move, and their "Homeland Security" was just a bunch of people in the front of the group hoping they could protect the rest of the group.
It. Was. Dangerous.
And God, in that dangerous world, called his people to welcome the refugee, to welcome the stranger, to welcome the foreigner, and not to oppress them, going so far as to say that he'd hear their cry if they did oppress those who were weak.

God's command for love of neighbor and love of foreigner should cause us to grieve when we see families being divided at the border. We should grieve when we see refugees fleeing war-torn areas with nowhere to go (and even if they do find a country that takes them in, they have a language barrier, no money, and no history in the country that will enable them to find jobs and housing).

If our immediate, first response to these stories is "Hey, we need to keep our people safe," then we've missed the story.
We need to reclaim the story.

The story begins with a God who found his people in slavery in a foreign land, and saved them because he loved them. The story continues with a God who loves people of other lands so much that he commands his people to care for them. The story culminates with a God who loved his people so much that he died for them, in spite of their propensity for evil.

"But...the people...they could be evil."
Yep. Jesus died for them. Because he loves them.
That's the Gospel.
Our job is following God. God loves the foreigner, and calls his people to do so as well.
Our job, then, is actionable love for the people that God loves.

This is where we should begin. We don't begin with fear, and we don't begin with political posturing. We begin with the understanding that God loved those who were in need and saved them. And God calls his people to do the same. If we want to live lives that follow God's leading, we need to pursue loving those who are in need, who are orphans, who are widows, who are foreigners, because God's love reaches to those people.

Remembering how God includes the foreigner in the command to love our neighbor, let's look at 1 John: Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

God's love is in us and made complete when we love one another. We must begin with love. We cannot begin with fear. As John says later:

This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: in this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us.
(1 John 4:7-12, 17-19)

It's fine to have a conversation about safety. Again, safety is important. But if fear for our own safety overrides our desire to love our neighbor as ourselves, we've missed the story.
Let us reclaim the story.
Let us love our neighbors.
Let us love those outside of our borders.
Let us love refugees.
Let us love immigrants.

Is there danger in love? Sure. True love is always dangerous.

But there is no fear in love, because perfect love drives out fear.

More Bible stuff for you Bible nerds: Ezekiel 16:49, Malachi 3:5, 1 Kings 8:41-44, Job 31:32, Matthew 25:31-36, Luke 10:25-37, Galatians 5:14