Cults, Power, The Rapture and Idols

I’ve just finished reading a beautifully written memoir In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott. It is about the author’s relationship with her larger than life father and his family’s participation in a religious cult: The Exclusive Brethren.  No surprise that it’s well written, as Stott teaches literature at the University of East Anglia in Britain.

The Exclusive Brethren are one of the two major sects that arose when the Plymouth Brethren split in 1848.  Her father, Roger Stott, was at one time a minister in the Brethren, as was his father before him. Today, the Exclusive Brethren number about 45,000 worldwide; they reside mostly in the UK, Australia, the United States and other English speaking countries.

Like most cults, the Exclusive Brethren of the 1950s and 60s had powerful, charismatic leaders ( James Taylor and JT Junior). They had a rigid adherence to dogma and practiced shunning for individuals and families who even minimally strayed from the doctrines promulgated by the father and son Taylors.

The Exclusive Brethren were enormously patriarchal. While women attended church meetings, they were not allowed to participate in the meetings. Women in the sect dressed beyond modest and home schooled their children long before it became popular. The Brethren tried as much as possible to live apart from a world they believed was controlled by Satan, and they believed that Christ’s return in the Rapture was imminent. Many worked in family and cult run businesses that were quite successful. They took care of each other and that made it doubly difficult to exit the cult.

They believed that scripture precluded them from even eating lunch with non-Brethren. As one can imagine, one onerous rule on top of another made for an increasingly strange, idiosyncratic lifestyle.

The Plymouth Brethren came into existence in the late 1820s.  One of their influential pastors was John Nelson Darby.  Darby’s name is not well known except by those deeply into Christian theology or church history– and yet his influence on contemporary Christian dogma is immense.

Contemporary beliefs about The Rapture is largely the result of Darby’s teaching. The Rapture of the Church — and the church being sanctified born-again believers — will occur just prior to the time of the Great Tribulation.  Jesus will be seen coming down from the clouds and all true believers will rise to meet him in the air (I Thess. 4:16-17 ). They will be taken from the earth and not have to endure the seven years of hell on earth that will precede the end of the age. The general public is familiar with Darby’s formulation of the Rapture due to the broad  influence of the Scofield Reference Bible and the Left Behind series of bestsellers by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.

Rebecca Stott was a young girl when her family parted ways with the Exclusive Brethren. The Exclusive Brethren splintered into several factions following a 1970 convention in Aberdeen, Scotland. Over the course of several days a very drunken JT Junior openly hit on the wives of other Brethren men and called some leading men of the sect names — “bastard” being one of them.  His behavior was so strange and uncouth, and yet his reputation so inflated, that many in the audience simply looked the other way. Some thought that he was testing their loyalty. Many tried to excuse or rationalize his behavior. The cognitive dissonance engendered by the strange scene caused some to say it just didn’t happen. Nevertheless, denying the sinful, deviant and often illegal behavior of a draconian leader is a depressingly common practice in Christian cults.

After the splintering of the Exclusive sect, Roger Stott the author’s father, became increasingly worldly. He was a brilliant man, widely read in Shakespeare, Yeats and T. S. Eliot — and deeply immersed in the brooding films of Ingmar Bergman. He pursued acting in a little theater group. He was also a compulsive gambler. He very clearly suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder as well as bipolar disorder. As is typical of so many bipolars his spending habits were excessive and he eventually served a brief prison sentence for embezzlement.

The author vividly and poignantly describes her attempts to cope with the craziness of the cult via escapist fantasies as a child — and the subsequent shock of having to come out into the “real” world around age eight.  However, the book begins with her trying to help her dying father finish writing his memoirs and him trying to come to grips with how so many apparently good people remained immersed in the madness of the Exclusive Brethren. She comforted her father as his life ebbed away and attemptted to get some closure on their strained relationship. Like so many wounded children she sought acceptance and love from a parent who always remained a bit distant. Her story, her family’s and the cult is told in a series of extended flashbacks. It is beautifully written and at several points I found myself welling up.

It struck me as particularly sad that the obvious hypocrisy and madness of the cult caused her to turn away from Christianity and instead to place her faith in science.  She has written and lectured extensively about evolution and Darwin. I suspect the loss of faith happens to many who emerge from Christian cults.

In Stott’s recounting of the various Brethren sects and their innumerable spits over doctrine of no great importance I was struck by how much it resembled a history of Christianity itself with its endless heresies and schisms — and also how my own experience of the faith has been a microcosm of that endless ripping apart of Christ’s Body.

My early indoctrination was both as a Lutheran and a Roman Catholic and at various times as an adult I have attended Nazarene, Congregational and Presbyterian churches. I found my church “home” 25 years ago in the new paradigm for evangelicalism: the Nondenominational Urban Megachurch. Seven years ago, feeling progressively unsatisfied with the megachurch, I started also attending a small fellowship that met in homes. It seemed a wonderful change until the home church started splitting over doctrine — the pain of Christ’s greater Body being reflected in the microcosm.

Around the same time I started attending a 12-step para-church organization called Celebrate Recovery (CR).  A three hour CR meeting echoes a church service but unlike most churches the folks attending CR are far more transparent about their struggles and not as dogmatic in their theology.  Accepting Jesus as one’s savior and progressively drawing closer to him is the key. Healing and sobriety is merely a byproduct of that relationship. Theological details beyond that relationship are of secondary importance. Participation in CR for those struggling with “hurts, habits and hang-ups” offers folks much more in terms of relationship and support than most any individual church and certainly any denomination.

Today, I tend to identify myself as a Jesus-follower instead of a Christian.  My personal journey from church to church reflects the restlessness of contemporary Christianity.  However, in most every manifestation of believers I’ve observed the work of cultish dynamics — powerful, charismatic leaders, rigid adherence to dogma, top-down control and an attitude of scorn or fear to those with different beliefs.

I have written about cults and cultish behavior in my book Jesus v. satan: The Message of the Wilderness Temptations. One of the three temptations Jesus faced (Luke 4) was that of power and control, and control is what cults are all about. The leader imposes his paradigm of reality onto his followers using various methods of power and coercion. He usurps their reality and free will and imposes his own.

Jesus, however, after the 40 days in the wilderness rejects the offer of a shortcut to power and glory. He refuses to worship Satan.  Jesus quotes scripture: “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.'” He thoroughly rejects the idol of power and the devil’s offer of it.

The first couple of the Ten Commandments are about idolatry. Being first, presumably they are the in some sense the most important, and it is very evident that seeking power and control over others is an enormous idol for most people –the spectrum of control ranging from the angry outbursts of the “terrible twos” to the pettiness of a micromanaging spouse or boss, all the way to Hitler, Stalin or Mao.  Idolatry is an ever present temptation in the life of a believer — and perhaps the greatest of idols is that of power and control — the all-too-common sin to usurp another’s freedom.

Contemplating the inherent evil in cults and cultish behavior brings Jesus’s message of setting people free into sharp focus (John 8:36, Gal. 5:1).  The abundant life and the freedom Jesus promises is the polar opposite of the idolatry at the very heart of all cults. If not to the leader, there is likely a idolatrous belief in some idiosyncratic interpretation of scripture. In other words, the Lord revealed some truths to only them that left out the other 99% of Christians. But even beyond that, some folks plainly make an idol out of scripture. I find it terribly sad that they are more in love with their interpretation of the words than they are with the author — and as the wilderness temptations illustrate, Satan knows scripture quite well and is very capable of using it against mere humans.

One of the unifying beliefs of all the Brethren sects is of avoiding Satan’s worldly snares so as to be found worthy of being taken in the Pre-tribulation Rapture. Much of Darby’s Rapture doctrine is based on a few verses in I Thessalonians, and I pretty much bought into it too until I read eminent theologian N.T. Wright’s book Surprised by Hope. Wright casts that passage into the context of the First Century. The intent of folks meeting Christ in the air was not Him taking them away but one of them welcoming Him back to earth. It was a custom of that era for people to greet an important emissary outside of the gates of a city and accompanying them in. In other words, Darby, Tim LaHaye and myriad other Bible expositors misinterpreted the passage and likely engaged in the wishful thinking that true believers will escape the horror of the Great Tribulation. Most mature believers experience of Christ is not that He will spare us from trials and tribulations but that He will accompany us thru them.



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Oscars, Red Sparrow, etc

Well, the 2017 Academy Awards were last night and I was pleased to see that the ceremony’s ratings were an all time low.  It suggests that perhaps TV viewers are getting smarter. It’s been a while, but I’ve seen a few Oscar extravagances in the past and I still read about them every year.

It’s difficult for me to see them as anything more meaningful than the terminally self-absorbed engaging in flattery, sycophancy and politically correct jaberwocky.  I go to 50 or more movies a year, and so I saw all the major films except the one about the two gay guys — and if that one stays in the theaters long enough I’ll see it too.

Anyway, for me, who gets an Oscar is equivalent to who gets to be the king and queen of the average 8th grade prom — pretty much just a popularity contest driven by what happens to be trending in H-wood or Pinewood Middle School at the moment.

While the Oscars were on I went to see Red Sparrow. Oh my, it should have been called “Dominika Goes to Whore School.”  I don’t particularly like Jennifer Lawrence due to her outspoken pro-abortion stance but I actually felt sorry for her that she was in such an abomination of a film.

She plays a Bolshoi prima ballerina who gets injured and is then recruited by her uncle to be a spy — a spy who is schooled in how to mainly use her hot bod and feminine wiles as the vehicle for espionage. She does this because she needs the rubles to keep her aging mom in the nice apartment furnished by the ballet. She and mom were going to have to move down-scale because she was no longer making big rubles as a prima ballerina. To me, mom still looked pretty good, but she appeared emotionally fragile, or perhaps on the edge of early dementia.

Anyway, there are tropes aplenty: spy flick tropes, Russian tropes, Cold War tropes, CIA tropes, etc — and enough Boris and Natasha fake Slavic accents to flot a bot.  I thought it was interesting casting that Matthias Schoenaerts (the uncle) looks like a younger taller Vladimir Putin, who was indeed a colonel in the KGB.

The film was loooong and the pacing glacial. It was sort of a love story between her and Joel Edgerton (CIA guy). It mostly seemed to be about getting J-Law into one nude or scantily clad scene after another. There was some full frontal nudity plus several graphic scenes of gore and the stuff of S&M.  I would not recommend it for the faint of heart — or anyone for that matter.

I enjoyed the opening ballet sequences and the music — for me the best part of the film. The ending was the second best part of the movie. I’m easily confused by movies with convoluted plots and double crosses and triples crosses and I got lost in this one. I thought the ending was delightfully ambiguous. Or maybe I just didn’t understand it.  Anyway, then I got up and went home so I could watch PBS and not watch the rest of the Oscars.

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Philippians 4:14

“Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles.”

The verse before this one is one of the great one-liners in all of Holy Scripture. Millions of believers can whip it out like a six-shooter at a gun fight.

And yet at the moment 4:14 speaks louder to me.

It is about what we can do for each other, and perhaps in some sense it makes real the previous verse about what Christ can do for us.  After all, He did say that we should love one another — and love is a verb. It means far more than a nice, warm feeling. It means actively sharing in another’s troubles — empathizing yes, but tangibly sharing resources as well. Paul was after all thanking the Philippians for sending money

Sometimes Christ strengthens us thru the loving actions of others — the active generosity of other people. But sometimes we just need to reach out and say, “Hey, I was thinkin’ about you today. So howya doin’?”

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“I, Tonya” ~ A Review

“Americans want someone to love and someone to hate!”

The above line is uttered by the Tonya Harding character in the new mockumentary I, Tonya.  Tainted figure skater Tonya Harding was clearly a celebrity Americans chose to hate.

I had previously written that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri was the best movie of this holiday season — and then I saw I, Tonya. I thought it was breathtaking cinema — brilliantly written, directed and acted. Like Three Billboards it is dark humor par excellence — but it differs from Billboards in being a pretty much true story. It pivots on the January, 1994, incident in which Harding’s figure skating rival Nancy Kerrigan was assaulted at Cobo Arena in Detroit during the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. A bumbling assailant whacked her on the knee with a police baton and Kerrigan wailing in pain and shouting, “why, why!” was captured on video.

In spite of the assault Kerrigan made the Olympic team, as did her rival Harding. Of course, during the Olympic trials and the Olympic competition the world was focused on women’s figure skating, and the Olympic ratings skyrocketed. Remember this was the early-90s when 24/7 news and sleazy infotaiment was just ramping up — Inside Edition, Hard Copy and A Current Affair were busy morphing into the insidious TMZ.

At the Olympic competition Kerrigan earned a silver medal — and after a badly botched performance, Tonya finished fifth. In the spirit of the times it seemed like justice had prevailed.  The wholesome, lovely All American girl Nancy Kerrigan bested the conniving villainess Tonya Harding.

It was subsequently revealed that Harding’s abusive low-life husband Jeff Gillooly masterminded the assault. Harding denied prior knowledge and in court was more or less exonerated of helping plan the assault. However, she was convicted of obstructing justice. She served no jail time but was punished by an onerous probation and the stipulation that she could never participate in competitive figure skating again.

In the media and popular myth Nancy Kerrigan became the All American girl on her way to Disney World, and Tonya Harding was forever consigned to a nether world of trashy conniving villains. So why nearly a quarter century later should we care about Tonya Harding enough to bother with a pseudo-documentary that reconfigures her in a somewhat sympathetic light?

For one thing, it’s no longer Harding who is on trial, we are — the celebrity obsessed America that conflates what’s essentially gossip with “news” of very questionable “human interest.”  We are a people who demand heroes and villains — and once someone is cast as a villain the facts be damned, their villainy is forever.

And another reason to care is that I, Tonya makes some powerful statements about the dynamics of victimhood and social class.

At the beginning of the movie we see four year old Tonya being pushed into figure skating by a physically and emotionally abusive mother. Her redneck waitress mom, LaVona Harding, is brilliantly played by Allison Janney. It will likely win Janney an Oscar. Other than Joan Crawford I cant recall any mothers on the big screen being quite so cynical, evil and controlling.  Also, the film strenuously makes the point that the Hardings are lower class — about the level of trailer trash — and that Tonya with her crude mom and home made outfits doesn’t quite fit in.  Lady figure skaters have typically come from upper middle class white collar families.

But little Tonya can skate like a demon and is soon beating girls twice her age — and the tykes that play young Tonya are adorable.

At the age of 16, Tonya starts having an affair with Jeff Gilooly who is three years older. Her mother objects to the relationship but not because Gillooly is unsafe but because he might affect her career and also mom’s control. Like many abused children Tonya turns to an abusive partner. It’s what the abused are familiar with, and from a psychodynamic perspective the abused spend their lives unconsciously trying to rectify the earlier relationship.

The mockumentary narrative is moved forward by a succession of interviews with all the principles: Tonya, Gillooly, her mom, her coach, etc.  Bobby Cannavale at his smarmy best plays cynical Hard Copy producer Martin Maddox and lardy Paul Walter Hauser is hysterical as Shawn Eckhardt Tonya’s bumbling “bodyguard.”  Both he and Cannavale should be nominated for some supporting comedic award.

To this writer figure skating is the most beautiful of all sports and in this film the skating sequences are flawlessly done– and breathtaking.  Harding was the first female skater to perform a triple axel in competition, and seeing it performed on the big screen made my heart leap. Tonya is played by Australian actress Margot Robbie. While athletic, prior to the film Robbie had no significant skating experience. Her performance is Oscar-worthy.  The pain in her narrative cracks the granitic cynical façade of the film thru which light flows. This is a movie that while hysterically and darkly funny was also very moving. The tragic arc of Tonya’s life brought me to the edge of tears.

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The Spot on the Carpet

I have two offices. The one in Orange City is all mine — and I think it’s rather nice — but the one in Longwood, where I work Thurs and Friday afternoons, I share with another therapist. That office’s maintenance leaves a lot to be desired. The landlord provides no cleaning. The carpet was dingy when we moved in four years ago and its only gotten worse.

Now there is a gigantic coffee stain in the office’s group room/waiting area and it’s been there for over a year — no doubt, attributable to one of my partner’s messy court-ordered clients. They tend to be self-centered sociopaths and not terribly concerned about keeping another’s space tidy. This stain is on an industrial type carpet that was already worn and dirty.  When I enter that room all I see is the stain, and I imagine that a new client’s eyes are also drawn to that same spot as well. When I usher them thru that area into my office I do not look at the stain and I try to distract them with small talk in hopes that they won’t look down and see the giant blot.

Several weeks ago I brought a brush and some fluid from home and made the stain somewhat less intense. . . but it’s still there, and every time I walk into that room all I see is coffe-stain brown on dirty beige that fairly screams “Slob!” at me. With my particular form of OCD once you see an imperfection you can never look away.  My particular form of OCD is a companion condition to my Dysthymic Disorder — the sadness that never ends. Very likely, the inability to look away from a problem contributes to the sadness that never ends.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a type of problem solving gone awry.  OCD-ers tend to go over and over a problem in their thoughts — spinning and spinning their cognitive wheels like crazed hamsters — but seldom finding any resolution.

Being obsessive about imperfections has its pluses and minuses. Sometimes it motivates me to transcend my innate sloth and to try harder. However, more often than not it just makes me miserable. And if I commit an error or a sin — and who doesn’t– I dwell on that torment as well.

However, another plus is that my obsessiveness makes up for having a fairly average IQ. When I get onto a topic I usually examine it over and over.  I research it in depth. I mull it over in my thoughts like a hound gnawing a good bone.  And I generally tend to savor every morsel of knowledge no matter how far afield. I have a head chock full of irrelevant assorted facts. But having a somewhat synergistic intellect I occasionally stumble upon things tangentially related and I’m able to create an apparently new paradigm — at least new to me.

Age twelve was a big year in my life. It was at the age of 12 that I lost my cognitive virginity. From that tender age on I had an obsessive curiosity about life’s big questions. The truculent onset of sexuality shocked me out of a somewhat idyllic childhood innocence. When I realized that nobody bothered to tell me about puberty, I wondered what else the adults in my life had not informed me of and what other unpleasant surprises might await me.

And so by age 13, I had become an obsessive searcher for knowledge about the world and about life’s big questions. I officially became an agnostic. I did not deny the existence of a Supreme Being but I was skeptical about everything I’d been taught up to that point.

But I digress. This is not primarily about how I became an agnostic at age 13, and then was “born again” at age 36. It’s about the spot on my office carpet, and how I cannot look away from that imperfection or assimilate similar blots that confound the maps in my mind and other folk’s minds about how life ought to be.

One of the occasional “unwelcome blessings” of OCD-ers is that some become highly paid consultants due to their expertise in one particular field. They know more about something than most anyone else in the world. — and industry and government beat a path to their door and pays them highly for that knowledge — they’re wealthy asbergerish nerds of the world. That’s not me.

But sometimes those afflicted with OCD — and the imperfection called sin — change the world. That would be Martin Luther, the stubbornly obsessive Augustinian monk who 500 years ago this past Autumn challenged papal authority — and within a decade the world had changed forever. We know that Luther in his lonely cell beat himself over and over mentally and physically, both literally and figuratively. In his torment he came to realize the impossibility of self-atonement, and in the study of scripture he was led by the Holy Spirit to the doctrine of grace and the completed work of Jesus on the Cross.

And so the spot on the carpet can have an upside.


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Hearers, Doers and John 17

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  John 13:34-35

Question: For Jesus-followers is correct doctrine, the ‘right’ belief, aka: proper theology, more important than Christ-like behavior?

My encounters with believers at every level informs me that dogma generally trumps behavior — that checking all the correct boxes in the doctrinal inventory guarantees an E-ticket into The Kingdom more surely than how we treat (love) our fellow man.  Yup, the Pharisees beat the heck out of the Samaritans in every annual Faith Bowl.  At least that’s how I’ve perceived believers around me talking and behaving — not just in person but in books and blogs as well.  Seems to me there are far more “hearers” of the word than there are “doers” (James 1:22).

For me the chasm between belief and behavior was highlighted about two years ago following a split in my home church.  It started innocently enough. One of the members in our men’s group threw out a question for discussion: What is the Gospel? His intent seemed to be for each of us to share what we personally thought was the essence of God’s good news.

Some thought it was strictly the forgiveness of sins — that Christ died for our sins. Others took a broader view. They maintained that the good news was also inclusion in God’s Kingdom and gradually being conformed to being more like Jesus, etc. They did not disagree that that forgiveness of sins was majorly important but just maintained that there was even more to the good news.

Anyway, what ensued were several heated debates followed by a plethora of back and forth emails featuring dueling scriptures — each backing up their points from the Bible. Most of the participants in this debate have a better command of scripture than I, and so in some sense it was enlightening.  However, I followed this back and forth till my eyes glazed over and my interest waned. For me it made about as much sense as arguing the merits of the Porterhouse vs. the Maine lobster when the Surf and Turf was a ready option. It was plain to me that the debate was solving nothing and that the rancor was creating hurt feelings and ill will. However, the controversy did cause me to somewhat rethink what was essential about the gospel for me personally.

The doctrinal debate left pain and anger all around — and in spite of sincere apologies for hurt feelings four families eventually dropped out of the church. Their rationale seemed to be that worshiping and having fellowship with possible apostates or heretics was in some way hazardous to their salvation — and to their wives and children’s salvation as well.

Witnessing the re-enacting of the schisms that have haunted Christ’s Body for the past two millennia was interesting in some clinical sense but personally very painful and discouraging.  Some of the folks I no longer have fellowship with I care about. In some sense we remain friends but we do not meet together to honor Christ.  The five hundred pound gorilla in the room that we dare not acknowledge are the fine points of doctrinal divergence.

For the past month I have been slowly rereading my favorite book of the NT: the Gospel of John. In chapters 13–17 Jesus both demonstrates and narrates His will for us personally and for The Church. In washing the disciples feet He gives us the supreme example of serving (loving) others, and in Chapter 17 He prays for his disciples and for us:

“I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be ONE, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one —  I in them and you in me — so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and I have loved them even as you have loved me.”  v. 20-23

What Jesus didn’t say is that we should debate endlessly about the fine points of something Moses or Paul wrote instead of sharing God’s love.  Earlier in His ministry He affirmed the apostate Samaritan “woman at the well” (John 4) and He told a story about the “Good” Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).  The important point is that Samaritans were looked down on by Jews and fellowship with them was forbidden. That did not seem to bother Jesus — and without endorsing their theology He affirmed them in love.

He didn’t say that we have to have the correct theology and recite the right scriptures in the right sequence for God to be in his heaven and everything right with the world. He told the Samaritan woman that the time was coming when they would worship the Father in both the Spirit and in truth — and that he (Jesus) was the fount  of “living water.” His witness was direct and positive — He was the ultimate Truth, and presumably she was a changed person after her encounter with Jesus.

It is apparent from the chapters of John 13-17 called the “Farewell Discourse” that Jesus’ supreme wish is for us to be both united in love and to share His love with the world thru acts of service. And when Jesus speaks about love He’s not talking about a warm feeling. He’s talking about loving behavior — like washing the the dirty and weary feet of another.  Also, within the same context of the meeting in the upper room Jesus institutes the holy sacrament by which we are to remember Him: communing with Him and other parts of His Body in partaking bread and wine.

It is readily apparent from the Farewell Discourse that love and service should always trump any focus on dogma or doctrine. And John reaffirms Jesus’ wish for us in his epistles: “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3:18) and in his second letter: “As you have heard from the beginning, His command is that you walk in love.”  2 John 6  And this is insight from the man who knew Jesus better than any other human.

It is personally painful for me to hear Jesus’ words in Chapter 17, and in John’s letters, in the knowledge of how Christ’s Body has been fractured again and again thru focusing on dogma and doctrine to the detriment of Christ-like behavior. We have observed it for two thousand years and many of us have experienced it up close and personal. I believe that in every gathering of believers Chapter 17 of John should be read aloud at least once a month. I believe a solemn restating of Jesus’ supreme will for us, His Church, is far more important than another upbeat praise song.  The Lord’s Prayer is a part of many liturgies and services. It tells us how to pray — John 17 tells us how we are to act as brothers and sisters in our Lord and Savior.


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“La tristesse durera toujours!”

No, I don’t speak French.  Even though I am part French, like many Americans my French is limited to a dozen or so words and phrases.  The above quote is Vincent van Gogh’s last words: “The sadness will last forever!”

His birthday, March 30, is World Bipolar Awareness Day.  It was designated March 30 in honor of him. He was most  likely Bipolar Type II — a condition characterized by a lifelong depression interrupted by short spells of hypomania.

Why van Gogh spoke his final words in French is a bit of a mystery.  His native language was Dutch. However, brilliant fellow that he was, he was fluent in German, French and English as well. Another lesser known fact about this monumentally gifted artist was that he studied theology and worked in ministry for a year in a community of impoverished miners.

Another factoid: van Gogh created almost 900 painting and yet only sold one in his lifetime.

In 1890, at the age of 37, during a prolonged siege of deep despair he shot himself in the chest and he died two days later.

“The sadness will last forever!” is a statement with which I can identify.  I have at the very least Dysthymic Disorder: the sadness that lasts forever — and like van Gogh, I am also Bipolar II.

Mood disorders are in my genes. Both of my parents struggled with Bipolar Disorder. My mother had many hospitalizations over the course of her life. Her illness was very apparent. However, my father’s extreme mood swings were likely obvious to only a few. He always held it together enough to continue to work and to perform routine activities.  When he was down he spent most of his free time on the couch dozing or watching TV — and he was generally pleasant but quiet and sad. However, when the pendulum swung he became most uncomfortable to be around for those closest to him. He was very critical and sharp-tongued toward me. He talked much more than usual, slept little, made grandiose plans and generally just seemed too full of himself. Once again, he was fortunate to have enough self-awareness and control to only show this side to those closest to him. I suspect his coworkers and casual acquaintances were clueless.  His moods played out with amazing regularity over a three year cycle that commenced and ended in late Sept or early October.

It is not fun having the eternal sadness of Dysthymia or the roller-coaster ride that comes with being a short-cycling Bipolar II.  However, my personal belief is that God had a plan in shaping my extreme moods. I believe that our disabilities, our shortcomings and our struggles light the path God wants us to tread in relating to others, in loving others, in ministering to others — uniquely ministering as only fellow sufferers can.

Twelve years ago I wrote The Unwelcome Blessing.  The book is a sort of manual for Christians coping with clinical depression. It looks at the problem from three perspectives: clinical, biblical and personal. As best I can tell, The Unwelcome Blessing’s multiple focus is fairly unique. I weave my story in and out of its chapters and I believe telling my story makes the clinical and biblical content more understandable.

Since 2010, I’ve attended Celebrate Recovery (CR).  CR is a Christ-centered 12-step program that focuses not only on addictions but also behaviors such as anger and codependency. Working thru CR’s step-study inspired me to compile an as yet unpublished 12-step workbook Blessings Restored.  It employs most of the traditional 12-steps of every addiction recovery program. However, I modify a few of the steps to adapt them to mood disorders. Though mood disorders and addictions have much in common, they also have essential differences: For one, addictions are somewhat more intentional, whereas one rarely chooses clinical depression or Bipolar Disorder. These are conditions that are largely the result of one’s genetics and physiology.  Even if one accepts the disease model for alcoholism or drug abuse, there remains a strong element of intentionality in addictive behavior.

I identify considerably with van Gogh’s life and struggles. Seeking an understanding of God has been one of my preoccupations since very young, and although I do not have one iota of his talent, I do have a creative impulse, and my art (writing) likely has the same therapeutic function for me as painting did for him. I have not lived in abject poverty as he did, but I think I feel the same sense of isolation and frustration. I’ve published four books and several hundred blogs, but I have had minimal success — maybe I’ve sold 500 or 600 books and over a dozen years that doesn’t amount to doodly squat.

Self-published authors are like graphic artists in that they must rely on their own ability to self-promote.  I’m not able to blow my own horn very effectively and I suspect van Gogh had the same problem. Beyond the numbers that define success, there is the frustration of feeling like one’s work could enrich so many more people than it has if only they could see it. Van Gogh must have wondered why others did not experience the world with the same vibrancy as he and felt alone because of that. I’m in no danger of putting a gun to my chest but it has certainly crossed my mind. Being a psychologist and understanding my bipolar heritage gives me an advantage.  However, the greatest coping mechanism for me is that I can see God’s grace and blessing in my life — and the certain knowledge that He sustains me.

I also believe that the torment of the “sadness that lasts forever” — plus any and every addiction or affliction can be the impetus for a closer relationship with both the Infinite and our fellows voyagers on this journey.

Understanding that, and writing about it, gives me hope.



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