Will the Church Care About Climate Change?

A few years ago, I was chauffeuring my teenage son and his friend to an event. They were in the back, telling stories and laughing about how annoying and hilarious young siblings and little children are. I was eavesdropping from the driver’s seat, but couldn’t help sharing an anecdote or two about my memories of my son as a toddler. We laughed and I concluded with, “What they say is that when you’re a grandparent, you’ll be able to enjoy toddlers for awhile, then give them back to their parents before they get annoying.” My son and his friend were silent for a moment. Then she said quietly:

Our generation isn’t going to have grandkids.

There was no sadness or despair in her statement. She said it patiently, as though she were having to explain to the adult in the car that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. There was something else in her voice—pity maybe? She had accepted it, but she was aware that I was still under the delusion that our human species has a future.

She did not have to say any of these other things out loud. It was all in that one statement: Our generation isn’t going to have grandkids. Don’t you know we are living in the middle of an extinction event? That older generations lit the fuse, handed us the climate bomb, and waltzed off into the short story we call human history? That they got to name themselves the Greatest Generation, and Boomers, and other snappy terms for the ones that followed; but that the generations after ours will remain nameless?

I’ve been in ministry for twenty years. I answered the call to ministry because I was convinced God had put a passion in my heart to reach folks the church wasn’t already reaching, and that God wanted me to be part of a Reformation or an Awakening or a Great Emergence that was on the horizon. The vision wasn’t so grandiose (usually) to think that I would lead such a change, but that it was coming whether I participated or not; and wouldn’t it be better to be part of it? I’ve always been partial to the notion that some of the most dynamic, important, world-changing movements of the church have been on the periphery and the margins, or even outside of it, so that’s where I wanted to be, so I’ve often seen myself as a reformer and outsider. Yet her statement made me realize how entrenched and institution-bound my vision remained. Though addressing climate change has always been important to me, I couldn’t feel the existential threat that the next generation takes for granted.

I wondered: as a pastor, what do I have to offer my son’s friend? Certainly not Bill Hybel’s notion that “the local church is the hope of the world.” Not a parental figure’s patronizing cliché that everything will work out. Not a scientific assurance from Jeff Goldblum that “life finds a way.” And if I offer her Jesus, she’s likely to hear the name as institutional Republican Jesus who believes in “beautiful, clean coal,” puts immigrant children in cages, and builds oil pipelines through sovereign indigenous territory and over drinking water.

I retain this conviction that “God so loved the world, the cosmos, that God gave God’s only child.” The salvage project God has been working on since the beginning was never about humans only, but the whole created order. God’s movement both in creation and redemption is about self-giving embodiment, sharing with us the divine breath and walking beside us both in human and more-than-human form.

I’ve also taken to heart Gus Speth’s prophetic words: “I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation, and we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

So when I heard the voice from the back seat say Our generation isn’t going to have grandkids, I heard God say to me, this is on you, buddy. Your job is spiritual and cultural transformation.

But this affirmation and valuing of creation is not the theology I see proclaimed and lived out in the institutional church. And I’m not just pointing the finger at right-wing pastors like John MacArthur who claim the earth is disposable. Instead, my home denomination is about to split over how people should be allowed to have orgasms. 81% of white evangelicals and over half of white mainline Protestants have demonstrated they have no problem with white supremacy and fascism. And although there are wonderful churches full of good people who help the poor and offer vacation Bible schools and tell wonderful heartwarming stories, most of them are too timid to acknowledge that a substantial portion of people under 20 don’t expect human civilization to continue.

A still from Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

(For the record, I think my young friend’s view of human collapse is overly pessimistic, but not because I expect Christians to suddenly start loving the world the way God does. I think God’s plan for human survival has more to do with Jeff Goldblum’s quote than Bill Hybel’s. The Good Lord was crafty enough to make human beings tenacious about survival and sexuality, so I suspect “life will find a way.”)

Yet the institutional church is still too much enamored with the success of white male celebrity megachurch preachers like Hybels, who resigned under a cloud of sexual harassment allegations, or Chris Hodges, who recently had to walk back his affiliation with white supremacists and fascists, to address a difficult and politically divisive problem like climate change. In the face of declining membership and participation even before the pandemic, our denominational leaders decided increasing worship attendance should be our “wildly important goal,” language we borrowed from the corporate consultants and CEOs who have helped engineer the destruction of our ecosystems.

It has become increasingly clear to me that the church can either pursue its dream of Great Awakening or Reform or Renewal for itself, or it can join God’s project of passionately loving the world and healing or salvaging what we can. It cannot be about both. If we are going to be in a different relationship with our planet, we cannot do so without the help of non-Christians, of people well outside what we normally think of as “church.” If we are to love the world with the self-giving love of God, we will have to submit to learning from indigenous people who have been practicing reciprocity with the more-than-human world far longer than we white Christians been practicing our various forms of extractive capitalism.

Yes, it may be possible that in losing our institutional life we will save it. That sounds a bit like our gospel, after all. But whenever progressive Christians speak hopefully about this Great Ecological Awakening, they sound the most Asleep.

Confronting climate change means confronting — well, everything. White supremacy. Patriarchy. The way capitalism doesn’t actually pay for the real costs of energy and resource extraction, but only shifts the burden of paying for them onto the shoulders of the poor and of future generations. For the American church, these taboo topics are more sacred than God. We Christians don’t mind saying “YHWH” out loud, but these other things must be only whispered in church, never spoken from the pulpit.

I’m still following the call of God, but a young prophet spoke the Word of God to me from the back of my car: Will the church care about climate change? Will you love the world so much that you will give yourself for it?

Our generation isn’t going to have grandchildren. I pray that we will hear this young Jonah and repent. Maybe God will spare us after all?


*(I am grateful to Susan Bond for the giving me a new metaphor for understanding “salvation” as “salvage” in her book Trouble with Jesus.

*I am grateful to Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass for such a wonderful description of reciprocity, and to David Abram (whose work I have not yet read) for the notion of the “more-than-human world.”

*I am grateful to Leah Schade for her research and practical work on Creation-Crisis Preaching.)

Spirituality and Mental Health: Critiquing Your Own Religiosity (Even if You Aren’t Religious)

Posthumous Portrait of Martin Luther as an Augustine Monk by Lucas Cranach the Elder, from Wikimedia Commons

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.
(Romans 12:3)

There is a tendency for religious people to get carried away with their religiosity. People have flogged themselves with whips or worn hair shirts to “mortify the flesh” (which is the way the ancient King James language renders Romans 8:13). Monks who fasted sometimes worried that if they swallowed their own saliva, God would hold it against them for breaking their fast.

Sex is one area where religious people get especially carried away. Religious people throughout history, tormented by the idea that sexual arousal or pleasure is sinful, have policed their thoughts for any hint of lust. If they let their eyes linger on a lingerie advertisement or nude painting, they feel they have violated Jesus’s words from the Sermon on the Mount: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:29). They hear these words literally and spend their lives terrified of hellfire, though presumably it was God who created us as sexual beings and, perhaps through some oversight, established sex as the way human beings would reproduce.

People who sought out life in a monastery were often trying to escape their mental torment, but they found they could not escape themselves. The monk Martin Luther would go to confession multiple times a day. He couldn’t feel confident that he was truly sorry, or that his plea for forgiveness was genuine enough. He imagined God as a bright light that illuminated all of his sins. He had a spiritual conversion, though, when he realized that the light was not God: it was the devil. Martin came to understand that Jesus’ work had made his own sinfulness irrelevant—God loved him enough to forgive those sins. Why should he doubt God’s ability to forgive him, or that forgiveness require him to gin up some “real” guilty feelings? His personal conversion transformed not only his own theological thinking, but started the Protestant Reformation.

So it was that many monastics learned to be gentle with these zealous tendencies, because religiosity often masks deep wounds or insecurities. Wise monks wrote about the dangers of “heroic faith,” the tendency for us to try to impress God or win some kind of cosmic virtue contest. Roberta Bondi, telling stories of these ancient monastics, writes,

Beginners in the desert had to learn to be humble, that is, to abandon the heroic image of the self and learn to believe that all human beings, themselves included, were weak and vulnerable. They had to learn instead to take up appropriate tasks, and appropriate tasks for weak and vulnerable human beings are ones that can actually be performed… How much easier it is to daydream about the dramatic acts of love and self-sacrifice I or the church might make to prove our love of God or neighbor!

Bondi, To Love as God Loves, p. 47

An abbott of a monastery prescribed an unusual therapy for one of his monks who was worried about his own sinfulness: he told him to steal small things from his fellow monks. The abbott would then return the items at night. Today, we can see that this was a form of exposure therapy. The abbott was training the young monk to worry less about his sinfulness by prescribing theft.

The human tendency toward heroic moralism is not merely a religious one. I find the same sorts of guilt, doubt, and self-incrimination in activist and social justice circles. The language is often just as harsh and unforgiving. Sometimes it does rise to the level of mental health problem: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder expressed in religious terms is called scrupulosity, which Joseph Ciarrocchi explores in his book The Doubting Disease.

But even if our doubt and self-recrimination doesn’t rise to the level of a clinical disorder, it’s important to recognize that even God doesn’t want us to be too religious. Our job isn’t to become moral heroes. It’s more important for us to learn to be truly human in solidarity with all the other weak and vulnerable humans on this planet.

Prayer:
Author of Life, wherever our religion works against on your desired flourishing for all of creation, help us to humbly critique our own religiosity.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Protect Your Melon

A bike helmet, by Jef Poskanzer, from Wikimedia Commons

But Jael wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, until it went down into the ground—he was lying fast asleep from weariness—and he died. Then, as Barak came in pursuit of Sisera, Jael went out to meet him, and said to him, “Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.” So he went into her tent; and there was Sisera lying dead, with the tent peg in his temple.
(Judges 4:21-22)

On TV, people are always getting knocked out. It isn’t uncommon for a main character to lose consciousness several episodes in a row, or even twice or more in one story. They lose consciousness by getting punched in the face, hit on back of the head, being too close to an explosion, or falling more than three times their body height. Most heroes in action shows are probably walking around with TBI—traumatic brain injury.

In real life, losing consciousness for any of these reasons would mean a visit to the emergency room. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show in which someone recovering from being knocked unconscious got adequate first aid. They just hop up, shake their heads, stagger a bit, and keep going. At the very least, they should be checked out to see if they are alert and oriented. The problem, of course, is that ER visits in the United States can take six hours (sometimes less in countries where there is universal health care), and by the time the patient gets discharged the nuclear codes would have already been stolen or the love interest would have been kidnapped.

This is probably why I’m not a screenwriter.

To protect your mental health, it is important to protect your physical health, and the most important physical piece of you to protect is your brain. Our fragile melons are balanced on top of our spindly necks, like bowls of jello resting on top of a spring. Violent shaking or rapid deceleration are not good for the contents.

This is why we wear helmets when doing construction, or riding a horse or bicycle, or going into combat. I once heard someone ask a cyclist why he wore a helmet, and he replied, “Because my head is where I keep all my favorite stuff.” Indeed, everything that is most important to us we keep in our heads: our hopes and dreams, our memories, our love, and the mental representation of the entire universe. My dad, who is a mental health counselor, has been saved more than once by a bike helmet. I take this stuff pretty seriously.

(There is some debate among cycling advocates about helmets, and whether or not helmet use creates a greater public perception that cycling is dangerous. Some research suggests that cars tend to give more space to cyclists who do not wear helmets, so wearing a helmet actually increases the risk you will be hit by a car. In an ideal America, we would have protected bike lanes and a robust cycling culture, like the Dutch, where cycling is a casual and accepted way to commute.)

There have been major advances in neuropsychology in recent years. We can even see the brain working with fMRI scans. This not only helps us understand TBI, dementia, and other forms of pathology, but also has a cultural impact: More parents are refusing to let their kids participate in football. One study in Arizona found that between 2015 and 2018, youth football participation had dropped by 25%. This mirrors that national decline more broadly. Some pediatricians point out that concussion is not a major problem among kids in contact sports, because they are lighter and have less momentum, but most recommend getting exercise some other way than football. I’m not a big football fan, but I do live in Alabama, and even I have some sadness that the sport will probably mirror the decline of boxing within a generation. Risking kids’ brains just isn’t worth it.

I think we can ask interesting philosophical questions about whether the brain is the same as the mind, and how we compose our sense of “self.” We discuss brain health and mental health most often when there is some kind of pathology, like dementia or chemical imbalances. But brain health should be important to everyone with a brain. One of the best ways to preserve our mental health is to protect our brains.

Prayer:
Thank you, God, for this amazing network of neurons. I don’t know where I’d be without it.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Starting Over (And Over)

The late leaves hanging on the plum tree, by cogdogblog, from Wikimedia Commons

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
(Isaiah 43:19)

One thing most spiritual traditions share is an openness to the possibility of starting over. We experience time as a succession of moments, and each one is new. This means we have the freedom to create and explore new possibilities in our lives. We can create new habits or extinguish old ones. We can change our lives. While nature, nurture, and the systems around us shape our behavior, we experience the freedom to create new behaviors and relationships.

This is one reason the New Year is a popular time to make resolutions. The first day of the year, or the school year, tends to be a hopeful time of change, and we can, in the language of yoga practice, “set an intention” to do something. When we set an intention, we are acknowledging the moment’s newness and possibility. It may be an action, or it may simply be a frame of mind. We are experiencing this. It is happening now.

Forgiveness is one such possibility. That’s an expression of interpersonal freedom. We can remake or transform our relationships. We can let old grudges go and start over.

In common discussion, we often speak about forgiveness and accountability, or forgiveness and ending a bad relationship, as if they were opposites. But they are not opposites. Both are expressions of the freedom we have to remake or transform how we relate to other people. I can let grudges go. I can also let abusive or toxic relationships go.

We can also extend this same grace to ourselves and our past behavior. Although we may make resolutions to change habits in the New Year, when we fail or don’t meet our goals, we get discouraged. But if I approach each moment as new, I am always free to start over.

My father likes to say, “If you start over often enough, you eventually begin to look consistent.” One way to change our behaviors and relationships is to see every moment as new, and the possibility of starting over as always before us.

Prayer:
Author of all things new, help me to see the newness of this day.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Spiritual Bypassing and Clergy Leadership

They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
    saying, “Peace, peace,”
    when there is no peace.
(Deuteronomy 6:6-7)

“Spiritual bypassing” is a way of avoiding or repressing uncomfortable emotions. It’s using spirituality or spiritual practice to side-step hard internal work. While the term was coined by a Buddhist psychologist, it has become more widely used to describe ways that (usually white) folks retreat into religious or spiritual clichés when confronted with social analyses or interpersonal interactions that make them uncomfortable. As in, “we just need to love more” or “judge people by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.” These are fine words in context, but when used to sidestep hard issues, deny the lived experience of marginalized persons, or deny oppression, they become spiritual bypassing.

Lots of Trump-voting folks who are mortified by what happened yesterday are doing spiritual bypassing right now. It’s easier than reckoning with cognitive dissonance or simply being wrong.

Spiritual bypassing is the rhetorical ally to bothsiderism and generic complaints about the human condition. It provides an enabling smokescreen for privilege. It is behind most calls for “unity” without repentance or a change in power relations.

And spiritual bypassing it is regularly modeled by pastors and preachers who are reluctant to address issues of justice from the pulpit.

It is a hard and very fine line to walk when you are trying to hold a polarized community together (like the United Methodist Church), and I am glad that I have the freedom to be as plain-spoken as I want to be with my own congregation. But many leaders in our denomination could give a master class in spiritual bypassing.

It takes a personal toll. I suspect for clergy, it may even be form of “moral injury.” It leads to burn out. Like cheating on a test, the person who employs spiritual bypassing is denying themselves the opportunity to grow. But when you have to internalize it for a whole community, it hurts like hell. I’m afraid that a lot of our language about leadership for clergy normalizes this feeling. But we can resist and heal by naming it. It’s called spiritual bypassing.

Prayer:
Author of Peace, grant real us peace — peace with justice — personally and socially in our world.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Becoming Aware of Cues

Bellender Chocolate Labrador Retriever, 2016, by Wald-Burger8, from Wikimedia Commons

Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.
(Deuteronomy 6:6-7)

People had been training dogs for nearly ten thousand years before Ivan Pavlov described a “conditioned response.” He observed that if you ring a bell before you feed a dog, eventually the dog will associate the bell-ringing with getting fed and begin to salivate before the food even arrives. This is called “classical conditioning,” and it is one building-block of behavior change. We animals easily link one stimulus (a bell) with another (food) and it can cause us to respond, consciously or not, to our environment. When I hear the mail slot on our house open and close, I associate it with getting mail, and I feel a sense of curiosity. I’ll probably go check to see what the mail carrier has brought us. We call the sound a “cue” or a “trigger.”

The other building block is “operant conditioning.” If a rat pushes a level and receives some food, it learns that its behavior is linked to a reward. It is likely that when it is hungry, it will push the lever more.

These simple principles—classical and operant conditioning—are responsible for most of our daily behavior. I wake up in the morning and feel groggy, but the scent of freshly-ground coffee hits my nose and I start to crave it. Here’s the crazy part: I don’t even have to drink the coffee to feel more awake! I’ve been conditioned, like Pavlov’s dogs, to have a certain response to the scent of coffee. And through cues, repetition, and rewards over many days (wake up tired -> drink coffee -> feel refreshed) I’ve used operant conditioning to create a habit in my morning routine.

I think of this process in both behavioral and theological terms. The author of Deuteronomy in the passage above knew that it was not enough to say, “Keep these words in your heart.” The author added, “recite them when you lie down and when you rise.” They knew repetition was key to making something important in your life, and building into a morning and evening routine was the most certain way to give it priority.

We human beings are animals, and we learn things through repetition, by forming and strengthening the neural pathways along which electrochemical information moves. Ideas and experiences don’t just float around in the ether—they are embodied in proteins and neurotransmitters, incarnate in sound, smell, saliva, and morning routines.

This is why we don’t form or break habits through sheer willpower. I usually can’t simply decide to change my routine behaviors. I have to set up cues and rewards to train myself in that direction. For example, if I want to run in the morning, I may set out my running gear the night before. If I want to remember to set out my gear, I may need to create a reminder on my phone.

Or maybe my phone is the habit I’m trying to break. If I want to be less distracted and check my phone less often during the day, I may need to reduce the cues in my environment that cause me to reach for it when I’m bored or curious. If standing in line has become a cue to check my phone, perhaps I can carry a book with me when I know I’m going to be standing in line at the grocery store or the DMV. Part of this process is simply learning to recognize the cues that cause our automatic behaviors.

Becoming aware of our triggers and rewards is key to changing our habits. For all our lofty thoughts and goals, we humans are still animals. Our complex behavior is built on fairly simple principles.

Prayer:
God, may you be my first and last thought of the day.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Making New Year Resolutions “Sticky”

Photo of German mountain biker Kai Saaler in Finale Ligure, Italy, from Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Finale_Ligure_2018.jpg)

The appetite of the lazy craves, and gets nothing,
while the appetite of the diligent is richly supplied.

(Proverbs 13:4)

We generally don’t notice our habits. They happen so automatically that they barely register. They can be helpful or annoying, but our language reflects how strong they are: we talk about “breaking” bad habits, as if they were wood or stone. Our ability to create automatic behaviors is actually a superpower.

That’s one reason I think the scripture above can be misleading. A judgmental person will read it this way: “The world is made up of two kinds of people: the “lazy” and the “diligent.” If you work hard and have willpower, you can achieve your desires. But if you are lazy, you will be in want all the time.”

But this is a naive view of human behavior. Here’s the critical question: How does the author know? How does the author know the experience of a lazy person, and the strange feeling of wanting something, but not feeling strong enough do something about it? Paul was more introspective: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:19).

“Lazy” and “diligent” are character judgments. The words don’t actually describe what motivates people or how they change their automatic behaviors. Moreover, everyone has the experience of wanting something, but being frustrated at changing their own behavior to achieve it. “Lazy” is a word we apply when we are frustrated at someone’s behavior, whether that person is someone else or ourselves. We don’t generally change our behavior by simply gritting our teeth and applying willpower. I can shout “Be diligent!” at myself all day long and only succeed in shaming and demotivating myself. Unfortunately, this is often people’s experience with New Year Resolutions: they set goals for the things they want, but don’t consider the steps needed to achieve them. When they experience a setback, they become judgmental of themselves: “I just don’t have enough willpower.”

Most of us also have the experience of mastering some kind of automatic behavior, but these are easy to overlook once we’ve achieved them. After nearly fifty decades on the planet, I don’t have to exert “willpower” to brush my teeth—I just do it. I’ve mastered the complex set of behaviors involved in driving a car so well that I can daydream, or listen to an audiobook, or carry on a conversation with a passenger at the same time, all while paying attention to traffic patterns and following the relevant laws (usually). And though it took me a while to normalize only eating during an eight-hour window, I no longer have to think much about fasting. Habits fade into the background and we no longer notice them. If we took the time to make a list of our good habits, most of us would probably find we are very diligent about some things.

“Diligence,” then, is about becoming adept at creating good habits, programming ourselves for automatic behaviors that help us rather than hinder us. The processes for making New Year Resolutions that stick is the same for any goals we set for ourselves. I’ll look at these processes more in the next few devotionals.

Prayer:
We are fearfully and wonderfully made! Thank you, Creator of Life, for endowing me with the ability to program my own brain.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

The Christmas Mistake

People make a frequent mistake about Christianity, and it’s most often perpetuated by Christians themselves. It’s this idea that the notion of God is self-evident, and that we somehow deduce the divinity of Christ because he checks off the boxes on some pre-determined set of prophecies and characteristics. Works miracles? Check. Born in Bethlehem? Check. Obviously, you *should* believe once we’ve *proved* it to you.

This is baloney.

The biblical authors were not hanging around to see who matched all the checkboxes and who they could declare “The Chosen One.” What happened was that people with a set of religious and political expectations met this character named Jesus, and he stunned them with the way he loved people and moved through the world. And they realized, or rather it was revealed to them, that the character of God *must* be like this dude, or the whole concept of God and religion (among other things) is trash.

(They were *not* completely unique in this experience — there was already plenty of precedent in Jewish tradition that was critical of religion and practice.)

So when I meet folks who believe that the whole concept of God and religion is trash, or who have been convinced that Jesus is made up, my perspective is that *they* *actually* *get* *it* *better* *than* *most* *Christians*. That God is already present and God’s kingdom already active is hardly a self-evident truth. It is not obvious that all the struggle we experience, both as individuals and society, is the labor pain of something new being born in our midst, and when you learn these truths they come upon you not as an insight you’ve worked for and earned, something you’ve gritted your teeth to believe in, but something revealed to you, hidden from the beginning of time.

The forces of domination and oppression in this world—which includes many forms and instances of Christianity—reject this revelation of the character and personality of God, and their goal is to distract, delay, deny, or destroy. (But that’s the Good Friday story.)

This Christmas story is about the incarnation and the image of God. We tell it as if it is frozen, like a snapshot in time. But it is an ongoing revelation, echoed in the birth of every child in the midst of human struggle and in camps that cage refugees, an unfolding that tells us as much about who and what God is *not* as about who and what God is. The Ground of Being, God, our Source and Mother and Father, the Great Mystery which defies definition — has a character, a “personality,” and it has broken through to us in the life of Jesus.

That, from this preacher’s perspective, is the story of Christmas.

(Originally posted on Facebook, December 2019).

A Changing Spiritual Ecosystem

I do not think most people in the majority-white institutional church have any idea what is coming. Things are going to be radically different post-COVID, and not just because Trumpism has exposed white evangelicalism for the sham it is. Climate change is going to force a reckoning with the toxic theology of creation promoted by Christian colonizers and crusaders. The role of clergy is going to change because both economic reality and the mission of the church will make our jobs increasingly tenuous. New research into the nature of consciousness and religious experience is revealing the wisdom of non-Christian traditions that church leaders have shunned and condemned as heresy. As in the Great Reformation, people are claiming their own spiritual power and authority and the validity of their own experience outside of the church. The Southern Baptist church rejects critical race theory the way certain church leaders rejected the heliocentric model of the solar system, but the message is the same: white Christian men ain’t the center of the universe.

I felt a call to ordained ministry nearly 30 years ago, and answered it with the understanding that part of my role would be to reach folks the church wasn’t already reaching, to provide alternatives to the dominant and dominating theology of the South, to help people meet Jesus in community and in their neighbors in new settings. In many ways, the change that is coming has been one that I have been advocating for my whole life.

And now that it is here, I greet it with fear and trembling. I’m having to rethink my own ministry and how to keep doing the things I feel God calls me to do. I do believe that what is being born will be a better version of “church” than the capitalist suburban Americana we’ve been taught to expect. But the spiritual ecosystem is changing, and what will emerge is anyone’s guess.

Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 15—Seasonal Affective Disorder

A sun pillar forms as the sun rises over the Arctic plain, by Harley D. Nygren, from Wikimedia Commons


Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.

(Exodus 20:21)

You may remember “rods and cones” from high school biology. These are the photoreceptors in your retina that absorb light and transmit signals to your brain. You can think of them like the pixels in your eye camera. Rods absorb low light and let us detect brightness. They are most effective for our night vision, and when you walk by the light of the moon, you see everything in shades of silver and gray. Cones detect color and more subtle differences; when the sun rises, the world is crisper and colors pop.

In addition to rods and cones, your retina contains the melanopsin system. Melanopsin is a photopgiment that was first discovered in light-sensitive frog skin, before we discovered receptors in our eyes that use the same chemical. It is crucial to the function of clusters of nerves called “intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells” (ipRGCs).

These nerve clusters transmit directly to parts of your brain responsible for your circadian rhythms, interrupting the production of melatonin (which makes you sleepy). One of the odd side effects of this system is that some people who are image-blind can still regulate their sleep cycles to the sun! In other words, they can’t “see” images, but their brain knows when the sun is shining.

There has been a lot written about the way light—natural and artificial—affects our sleep cycles and moods. We are spending more time inside, not only because of the change in the weather but because of the pandemic. Human biology evolved to be outside, and many of our modern psychological problems are made worse by exposure to screens. As our physical activity level goes down (and it’s usually lower in the winter), we get fewer opportunities to produce natural mood boosters. We are not sleeping as well. We are stressed. We are in brain fog. And the darkness exacerbates all of it.

A lot of this seasonal moodiness is natural. Our bodies are responding to a change in the seasons, telling us to conserve energy because wild forage will not be as abundant. We feel more drawn to carbohydrate-heavy foods. We want to snuggle with loved ones, not just for warmth but for comfort. All of this is natural and helped our ancestors stay alive. But it becomes a “disorder” when it makes it hard for us to function.

I think it’s important not to pathologize these natural experiences of being human, but at the same time to recognize some of us are especially sensitive to this seasonal change. There are some things we can do to help, and you may be familiar with them: getting outside, especially in the morning, to let the morning sun regulate our melatonin production. Staying off screens a few hours before bed. Using special bright lights to give us an artificial “sunshine boost” —again, especially in the morning. We purchased a “happy light” last year and I think using it makes a difference.

But I think it’s also helpful to reframe the darkness, to see it as a friend. There has been a trend in theological circles lately to rescue “the dark” from its religiously negative connotations. In the passage above, and in several Psalms, the authors describe God as dwelling in “thick darkness,” a darkness so deep you can feel it. These mystics describe the darkness as the place of germination, where buried seeds send out their first tender filaments to probe the rich, dark soil. It is the darkness of the womb, where we first hear our mother’s heartbeat. It is a place that forces us to rely on other senses besides sight. Darkness can be healing. Darkness can be welcome. It is in the “valley of the shadow of darkness” where the author of Psalm 23 says God guides us with rod and staff, giving us comfort.

If you feel thick darkness around you this season, in this winter of COVID, remember that it’s in the darkness that God does some of God’s best work.

Also, put on a coat and get outside.

Prayer:
Dweller in Darkness and Source of All Light, walk with us in both night and day.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr.