viral observations

On July 19, I tweeted:

I always heard that as people aged, they became more conservative. I’ve become much more liberal. Anyone else?

Inexplicably, the tweet went viral. As of this morning, it is approaching 53,000 likes and nearly 10,000 comments, and I am still getting notifications every few seconds. As a relative nobody on Twitter (before this tweet took off, I had around 750 followers), this attention was unexpected and a bit unnerving. I want to offer a few observations on the experience.

First, thousands of people agreed with me, and thousands didn’t, which was not surprising. Each person has their own experience and political trajectory. I was grateful for the number of people who wrote that their experience was similar to mine, and in truth, I was also grateful for people who simply said that they have indeed become more conservative. Many people also expressed that they do not know where they fit these days politically.

Second, I initially tried to keep up with the comments, but eventually, it became impossible to do so. I am certain I will never go back to read them all. It is a good reminder that when I comment on a thread from someone well-known, it makes sense that they do not respond. It is also true that when we throw our ideas out into the world, they can take on a life of their own.

Third, for all of the people expressing their opinions, it seemed there were an equal number of people who were more interested in name-calling, mischaracterization, offering false assumptions, and setting up straw men. Or perhaps their comments were just the “loudest.” This vitriol was launched in both directions. I was told by someone who has no idea who I am that what I shared about myself wasn’t actually true. I was told repeatedly that I have dementia, a brain injury, a mental illness, and that I’m gay. I was informed that I am not a Christian. These things were often shared by those professing to be Christians themselves. It breaks my heart that people feel so free to engage in hate-filled speech on social media.

Fourth, I knew that as a country, we were divided, but the comments solidified these observations. There appears to be a profound intolerance of those who think or believe differently with some people suggesting that those on the other side deserve death. There were blatantly racist comments.

Fifth, I was accused of posting the original tweet as an opportunity to sell my book, Letters to the Beloved. My immediate thought was, “Yes, I decided to write a viral tweet that has very little to do with my book just on the off chance that someone might buy it.” Truthfully, I never expected anything to happen with the tweet, so selling books was not even a consideration. However, I happily used my 15 minutes of fame to draw attention to a project I am proud of.

All in all, social media has its place, but it will never replace sitting around a table with real people having real conversations. Attacking people when you are looking them in the eyes is much more difficult. It leads me to wonder how I can connect with others on a local level in more significant ways.

wild and beautiful

One of my neighbors has an immaculate lawn. His attention to it is constant and uncompromising. The groundskeepers at Augusta would be thrilled to have him on their staff. I look across the street in admiration. There is never a blade of grass out of place.

My lawn looks nothing like his, but I love mine no less. Over the past couple of years, I have been diversifying my yard, adding clover and wildflowers where I can. I would estimate that most of my lawn has at least some clover in it now, and some sections are almost entirely clover. The backyard needs work; I think that’s why my dogs keep digging holes, but we keep at it–adding flowers and trees here and there. Over time, the plants mingle. I find lilies of the valley crossing the border into the lawn. Dandelions stand proudly next to the fescue.

To be sure, some of the plants try to overwhelm, the others, and I uproot them or trim them back, but to my eyes, the diversity brings beauty.

and bees.

reflections on restore 2022-day 2

Yesterday, I got home from Restore 2022 around noon and spent the rest of the day sitting on the couch. I could not do otherwise. I was physically exhausted and my soul was weary; Those two things often go hand in hand. For those who missed my reflections on day one, I attended Restore 2022, a conference dealing with spiritual trauma, with my friends Kelley and Mike. Much like the first day, I benefited from every talk. In fact, I have told several people that this is the only conference I remember where I not only attended every single talk (there were 11 of them) but I actually appreciated each and every one. On day 2, we heard from Lina Abujamra, Wade Mullen, Scot McKnight, Ruth Malhotra, Karen Swallow Prior, Lori Ann Thompson, and Diane Langberg. The day finished with communion. Although it was an emotional weekend, it was the hope of communion that brought me to tears.

A few quotes before moving on:

  • War leaves no victors–only victims.-Lina Albujamra
  • Each wrong must be rightly named.-Wade Mullen
  • I believe in the church, but I don’t believe in toxic church cultures.-Scot McKnight
  • All abuse causes a spiritual wound-Lori Ann Thompson
  • To push oneself into the life of another is a form of rape. Jesus does not do that.-Diane Langberg
  • Sometimes your greatest anger is not against those who perpetrated against you, but against those who did not protect you.-Mary DeMuth

Each of the speakers shared so much goodness (TOV), truth, and beauty, but sharing space with a couple hundred of the hurting and healing was equally a gift. I met Twitter friends. I heard peoples’ stories as they heard mine. I had a chance encounter where a woman stopped and said I looked familiar. Although it’s unlikely that she has ever seen me, we discovered that her college roommate was from my very small hometown.

Restore 2022 was beauty wrapped in beauty.

I think the exhaustion and weariness come from continuing to reckon with my own story. As I said in my day 1 reflection, it is no minor miracle that I went to a conference about spiritual trauma with Mike and Kelley, two dear friends whom I once maligned and misrepresented, and I am deeply grateful.

reflections on Restore 2022-day 1

A few months ago, our friend Kelley asked Heather and me if we would like to attend Restore 2022, “a conference restoring faith in God and the church,” with her husband Mike and her. The panel of speakers–experts in trauma, hurt, and spiritual abuse–intrigued me. However, I was concerned that delving into spiritual trauma further might be like picking at a healing scab; it itches, but it may be best to leave it alone. The fact that they would invite me at all as one who had abused and mistreated them was no minor miracle and one for which I am deeply grateful. At the last minute, Heather could not come, but yesterday, Kelley, Mike, and I drove to Illinois with a lively discussion along the way.

Entering the conference space this morning in the chapel at Judson University stirred many emotions for me–excitement, fear, and sorrow, to name a few. Singing was difficult, but the speakers, and the community of the broken (DeMuth) around us, were just what I needed. I won’t summarize all the speakers, but a single quotation from each will give you a flavor:

  • “We are to be a place of refuge for the vulnerable, not a place for their exploitation.” -Diane Langberg
  • “You cannot control someone into recovery.” -Phillip Monroe
  • “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” -Warren Cole Smith
  • “‘No’ is one of the most spiritual words we say.” -Paul Coughlin
  • “You don’t have the right to prescribe a journey of healing for someone.” -Mary DeMuth

As much as the speakers fed a spiritual hunger, I was equally grateful to connect with folks I knew only through Twitter, to share some of my story and hear them share some of theirs. Healing happens in a community, but communities are not always safe, so having space to communicate honestly is a gift.

I do not know what tomorrow will bring, but I am hopeful. For tonight, I am exhausted.

a gray numbness

I’ve been living under gray skies, though I cannot remember for how long. Weeks? Months? Longer? My sense of time is distorted as days and weeks bleed together, a bland landscape laid out before me. My life lacks rhythm and every day feels the same. My alarm is set for 4:45, but I am often awake long before that. I lay in the dark, wondering if sleep will find me again, but knowing that it probably won’t. I spend time at my desk reading, journaling, and sometimes praying–if I can find the words. I shower only because I must. I still go to work every day and I am still good at my job. It’s been about four years since I missed work, but then it was because of unrelenting anxiety. I come home, praying that we do not have anything scheduled because I have to psych myself up even for those things I “enjoy.” I would rather watch re-runs of Derry Girls.

I have had a number of acquaintances reach out lately, wanting to connect. Although I am grateful for them, I am often exhausted by the thought. Responding, even by text, takes considerable effort and I put it off as long as I can, but I am too much of a people pleaser to ignore messages indefinitely. I have a small group of friends with whom I intentionally spend time and who have been good for my soul; any more feels overwhelming.

I am rarely sad. People who have never lived through a depressive episode often assume that depression is a really deep sadness; however, although sadness may be a cardinal feature of depression, it is not a required symptom. For many people like me, anhedonia–a loss of the ability to enjoy what was previously enjoyed–is the principal symptom. Although I still enjoy certain things, my general emotional tone is bland. I have often said that one of the first cues for my depression is a loss of interest in reading.

Depression can also include a variety of other symptoms–guilt, shame, worthlessness, self-criticism, concentration difficulties, thoughts of self-harm, changes in sleep (mine is decreased) and appetite (mine is increased), and a loss of sex drive, to name a few. You see, depression is not a unidimensional construct. Although there are commonalities, how I experience depression differs from how my friends experience it.

I am in the process of switching medications. Last week, Heather asked me, “Do you think it’s time to adjust your meds?” Unhesitatingly, I said, “Yes.” My sertraline isn’t cutting it anymore. I have also been re-listening to the audiobook, An Undivided Life, by Parker Palmer for the umpteenth time. Palmer is one of my favorite authors and his ability to talk about depression from the inside is a welcome friend. On Sunday, after my friends Mike and Josh provided space to talk about my depression, I sent them a quote from Palmer who said “There is no fix here; there is maintaining presence and bearing witness.” My small group of friends hold this space for me.

Most of us don’t know how to deal with depressed people. Their misery makes us uncomfortable, so we are quick to offer suggestions. “Have you tried_______?” Many words have filled in this blank: exercise, prayer, meditation, going to church, going outside, drinking enough water, reading the Bible, eating better, sleeping more, sleeping less. Undoubtedly, these are good things to do, but too often, because suffering makes us uncomfortable, we bypass another’s pain to offer helpful solutions. (It has often been said that Job’s friends did their best work in the first week when they simply sat with Job rather than trying to find solutions). In fact, this tendency is so common in certain religious circles that there is a term for it–spiritual bypassing.

Why did I write this? Because for me, writing is one of the most therapeutic things I can do. To share my experience and have another say “me too” has been helpful to me. As a neuropsychologist, I know that I am not alone in my experience, but sometimes, I also need to bring my own darkness into the light.

on first choices

I haven’t always gotten what I’ve wanted. Indeed, some of the best things in my life have happened because I didn’t get my first choice.

After graduating from Northwestern College with a degree in psychology, I wanted to get a PhD in psychology. I applied to several doctoral programs and one master’s program as a fall back. I didn’t get in to the doctoral programs, so I went to Mankato State University 27 years ago, which is where I met my wife.

After finishing my master’s degree at MSU, I again applied to a number of counseling psychology doctoral programs, but I really wanted to go to the University of Notre Dame or Virginia Commonwealth University. My undergraduate mentor had gone to Notre Dame and I had seen the movie Rudy, so it was one of my two top choices. VCU was my other top choice because Ev Worthington, a renowned forgiveness researcher, was a professor there and I wanted to continue my work studying forgiveness. I was admitted to neither. However, I did get into the University of Iowa, which is one of the top counseling psychology programs in the United States. It wasn’t my first choice, but my training was top notch. More importantly, I was exposed to, and then immersed in, neuropsychology, which became my chosen field. At the other two places, I would not have had that opportunity, but at the University of Iowa, the neuropsychology tradition was among the best.

When I applied for internship, my first choice was the University of Florida. I even bought a Gators hat because I was sure that I would get in, but UF chose other people. Instead I went to the Ann Arbor VAMC/University of Michigan, and again the training was top notch. I was able to work with a number of great mentors, but I was especially grateful for Kenneth Adams, who was not only a top notch neuropsychologist, he was an exceptional clinical psychologist and was board certified in both. He taught me the importance of a broader psychological understanding in my work as a neuropsychologist.

Finally, my first choice for residency was a functional imaging fellowship at the University of Michigan. It would have allowed me to pursue a research career in functional imaging, and to stay in the Ann Arbor area, which I loved. But I didn’t get it. Instead, I was accepted into the neuropsychology residency at the Medical College of Wisconsin, and I cannot imagine having had better training. The strength of the faculty, the breadth of opportunity, and the friendships developed were second to none.

Looking back, I am grateful for each and every “second choice.” I cannot imagine what my life would be like if I had always gotten my first choice. My life is proof that the Stones were onto something when they sang, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need.”

wretched theology

Earlier, today, I posted the following thought experiment on my Facebook page.

Do you believe it is a good parenting technique to tell your children they are wretched and that it is a damned lucky thing that we are such loving parents that we accept them anyway? Or that everything they do is bad, and the only good thing about them is that we love and accept them?

Some of the first comments suggested that people may be questioning my sanity, or at least my psychological stability. Regardless, let me be crystal clear–I do not believe these ideas represents good parenting, nor do I say them to my children. I proposed the scenarios as a reflection on how a theology grounded in depravity understands God’s parenthood, what some have referred to as “worm theology.” Briefly, according to this theological understanding, what is truest about us after the fall (see Genesis 3) is our sinfulness. According to the doctrine of total depravity, everything we do, think, feel, or say is tainted by sin (though to be clear, it does not say that we are as bad as we can possibly be). Unfortunately, this theological understanding often skips past the deeper truths of Genesis 1 that say that all people were created in God’s image and that God called his creation very good.

The dialog on my thought experiment was rich (Really, you should go check it out here) and overwhelmingly, people thought that the scenarios I described were unhealthy and even abusive. Even when people acknowledged helping children to understand that they are sinners, or that their behaviors or character need correction, no one agreed with the questions as I presented them. And yet…and yet, many of have no trouble with assigning this language to God, whom we allegedly believe is infinitely loving. As Christians speak or sing about God’s love, it is common to refer to themselves as “wretched sinners.” When we use that language for ourselves, at what point does it begin to negatively affect our understanding of who we are as God’s beloved children? How does it affect how we begin to treat others?

How might things be different if we started from an earlier place? What if we believed that the truest, most essential thing about us is that we are God’s beloved children, regardless of anything else? What if, in light of a more compassionate self-understanding, we were comfortable acknowledging the brokenness in our lives, but realize that it is not our sin that defines us? What if God is absolutely, relentlessly wild about us? What if God’s anger is about those things that damage and disintegrate God’s image bearers and not about people themselves?

some thoughts on the rise and fall of mars hill

I finished listening to the final episode of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill today. Over the past few months, I have slowly worked my way through each of the twelve episodes and most bonus material. For those unfamiliar with this podcast, Mike Cosper tells the story of the meteoric growth and eventual death of one of the most influential churches in the United States, Seattle’s Mars Hill. Whether or not you are familiar with Mars Hill or pastor Mark Driscoll, this podcast is well worth the time it takes to listen.

Previously, I have not said much about it, but after listening to “aftermath” today, I wanted to share a few thoughts, perhaps as a part of my healing. I was once on the Mark Driscoll bandwagon–I listened to his sermons and read his books. He drew me in by his brashness and cool exterior. I also had friends who joyfully shared sarcastic Mark Driscoll quotes, aligning themselves with him. Whether we would have said so or not, Driscoll, like many other hypermasculine pastors and pundits, justified being an arrogant asshole. At the time, I was also a part of a denomination whose heroes were often outspoken and narcissistic, though they often talked about how humble they were as they encouraged people to be like them.

The thing is, many of us eventually become like our heroes. I did, at least. I remember leaving a meeting with a church member where I was the “bad cop,” and I felt proud. It was only much later that I was able to look back and see how unhealthy beliefs and behaviors like this began to affect the people I valued the most. As I have previously written, I became what I hate.

What struck me today is that I have had many of the same questions and felt many of the same torments that the staff who left Mars Hill felt. I have felt guilt and shame at the ways I mishandled others, and at the ways I overlooked how we treated people with contempt but called it love. I have felt angry at how I harmed and manipulated people in the name of Jesus. I have felt confused about who I have been and who I am becoming. I often don’t know where I fit. I don’t know if people are trustworthy, myself included. I weep for those who ignore warning signs because they believe they are protecting leaders and systems.

Many people have used the term deconstruction lately. It may describe people who have left the church, people who are trying to go back to the basics, or people who are just taking one step at a time on wobbly legs. I can be any or all of those people on any given day. Regardless, my prayer is that the way of love emerges from the rubble.

grateful for becoming myself

This morning, on the best five minutes of the day with my friend Mark Halvorsen, he began by asking the question, “What is one thing you’re thankful for this year?” He was surprised when I didn’t mention the release of Letters to the Beloved. To be sure, I am grateful to see that project come to fruition, but that isn’t what I said. I told Mark that I was thankful for the difficult inner work I’ve been doing this year. Quite coincidentally, I came across this quote from Richard Rohr in his excellent book, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps:

The more you are attached to any persona (“stage mask” in Greek) whatsoever, bad or good, any chosen and preferred self-image, the more shadow self you will have. So we absolutely need conflicts, relationship difficulties, moral failures, defeats to our grandiosity, even seeming enemies, or we will have no way to ever spot our shadow self. They are our necessary mirrors. Isn’t that sort of a surprise? And even then, we usually catch it out of the corner of our eye—in a graced insight and gifted moment of inner freedom.

As I survey the past year, it has been among the most challenging in my life. Like many others, the 2020 election, the January 6th insurrection, the pandemic, and national unrest have taken their toll. Amid this broad-ranging disintegration, I have continued to work on knowing and loving myself. This inner work involves pulling ideas and beliefs off of the cluttered bookshelves of my mind and carefully examining them for elements of truth. Every person has a unique story with different shaping influences, some healthy and some toxic. I find it uncomfortable to confront my core beliefs and presuppositions, but in my experience, standing confidently in the truth is much more challenging, especially when it leads to conflict and relationship difficulties.

Looking back, there has been a cost to living from my most authentic self as I currently understand it. Some people have criticized. Others have misunderstood. Some relationships have grown cool. Some people have checked out. Others have called me names. Still, others have questioned my beliefs and even my salvation. As a life-long people pleaser, all of these encounters have been challenging, but I’m still standing.

My life looks far different than it did five years or even one year ago, perhaps especially on the outside. My journey has been upsetting for some people. If I am honest, it is often unsettling for me. Still, my journey is my own. One thing that is increasingly true is that my path is not to live to appease others but to become more deeply myself, which involves pressing into my discomfort and standing firm in the truth of who I am. I have been working with two counselors who are helping me to become who I am. I am also attending a 12-step meeting, which has also helped me on this journey to know myself. Let me conclude with the adaptation of the Serenity Prayer that we use in our weekly meetings.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change,
the courage to change the one I can,
and the wisdom to know it’s me.

listening to my life

A few days ago, I shared this on Twitter:

I spent several years training for the culture wars. The Christians I was learning from were clear that secular culture was the enemy. So I trained in logic, apologetics, and worldview studies. I learned the answers to confront the evil out there. Over the past five years, it has become clearer that “my team” also harbored considerable evil. Several of my faith heroes were credibly accused of gross misconduct, which they uniformly denied. I witnessed friends defend evil to protect the church. I profoundly harmed and shunned others on behalf of the church. In 2018, my eyes were opened to my complicity and I couldn’t stay. I wish I could say all has been clear since then, but I remain disoriented. I have been in good churches since then, but the confusion and internal disintegration have continued to have profound effects. I want to be involved in a faith community. And I don’t. What is true is that the evil that I naively believed was “out there” was inside as well. That is partly why I am less interested in the us vs. them approach. The church isn’t exempt. I am not exempt. We’ve all been wrong. So for now, I am trying to do my own work uncertain where it will lead.

To be clear, I know too many outstanding Christians to name. I have seen churches and Christian organizations pull together to do amazing things. For example, my friend Perry is a pastor of a small congregation and also the founder of Touched Twice United, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. My friend Peggy is the founder of Teamwork Africa, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. Both of these are amazing organizations. Countless believers have done and continue to do miraculous things around the world. I am grateful for every one of them.

However, over the years, I came to accept ideas that were not necessarily accurate, which were cultivated in the soil of an us versus them mentality. It is hard to say how much my thinking was shaped by those I was listening to and how much was shaped by my own mental life, but the fruit was division and arrogance. If I am honest, I believed Christians were better than non-Christians. The blogs and people I was reading suggested that if gays, liberals, atheists, or Muslims did something that benefitted the greater good, it was inconsistent with their own worldview. I even recall one blogger asking whether someone who was not a Christian could genuinely love others. The culture war mentality prepares soldiers to fight evil, and enemies are required, even if we have to create them.

At the same time my confidence in faith heroes was growing,[1] evidence was accumulating of abusive behaviors among more than a handful of them. I still do not believe that the majority of Christians or Christian leaders are abusive. I do not think that most churches are evil. Still, it became increasingly apparent that many of the thought-leaders who shaped my thinking, both nearer to home and afar, could be harmful. Once I became willing to listen to stories of hurt, I also began to pay attention to my own story and listen to my own questions. I actively started to look for things like goodness, beauty, and peace wherever I could find them. I have also been sensitive to hatred, violence, and divisiveness[2]– in the world, in the church, and in myself. And here’s the thing: the common divisions that many of us accept tend not to be particularly good predictors of goodness or evil, beauty or ugliness, peace or violence.

Having written all of that, I remain confident that many people who love me are concerned about the state of my soul or doubt whether I am a true Christian.[3] The 2011 me would certainly have questioned the eternal security of 2021 me. Still, a large part of my own spiritual journey has involved coming to a place where I am comfortable in my own skin and believe that God’s love is far more expansive than the divisions and categories I previously believed.

I am currently filled with both confusion and clarity. I have wondered if I am experiencing a dark night of the soul. I don’t know my destination, but I am trying to pay attention to where the Spirit leads.

[1] Some will point out that as Christians, we should not have faith heroes, but in truth all of us have learned about Jesus from someone. Even the apostle Paul said “follow me as I follow Christ.”  

[2] People will point out that I have often been critical of certain ideas and people. Granted. In some cases, I have acted in the very ways that I have tried to dispute. At the same time, I believe one of our tasks as humans is to speak out against divisiveness and hatred, which perhaps is divisive in and of itself.  

[3] Yes, please pray for me, but also sincerely pray that if your understanding is wrong that the Spirit may reveal truth to you.