An Open Letter to Christians

“Dear Christian friends:

I want you to know that I spend a lot of time with people who are not Christian, and with Christians of many political stripes. Some are fundamentalists and some are eco-warriors. Some are pro-gay and some are anti-gay. Some are conservative black preachers and some are liberal white preachers. I have had meaningful conversations and life lessons from tree-hugging pro-choice social justice warriors and from end-times-believing hellfire-and-brimstone Trump voters.

We know that secular culture is hostile to Christianity and to the notion of One True God. Secular culture has many gods: Hollywood celebrities, New Age gurus, nature spirits, and so on. And because people believe and follow these gods, that’s why their morality is all over the place—why they change lovers like they change their socks, why they pursue pleasure first and reap the consequences later.

But look: Can you say you Christians are any different? Look at the sex scandals and the abuse that have rocked religious institutions. Why should anyone trust the church? Why should anyone listen to you? Did you read the headlines this summer of the ways Christian boarding schools collaborated with the government to kidnap, kill, and forcibly reprogram indigenous children? Why should anyone trust organized religion? It’s just as the Bible says: “God’s name is blasphemed because of the people who claim to be God’s people.” (see Ezekiel 36:20-22)

The question you have to ask yourself is this: Does my faith in Jesus Christ change my behavior in such a way that people want to know more about him? Or does it make them turn from organized religion in disgust?”

Here’s the thing: *These are not my words. They are Paul’s. If you follow the argument of the above paragraphs, you’ve just read through the structure of Paul’s letter to the Romans, 1:14-2:24. Go and read it. Also, stop using two verses out of context from this letter as justification for anti-gay attitudes. If you do, then YOU are the reason people don’t want to hear anything you have to say about God (Romans 2:24).

Catharsis and its Alternatives

“Catharsis” is the word we use for the expression and release of a strong emotion. The catharsis of confession, for example, leads Christians to experience their repressed guilt and the relief that comes with forgiveness. For many “big E” Evangelicals, the catharsis of conversion is the most important spiritual experience of their lives. They want to tell others about it so they can have the same experience.

The unfortunate thing is that this confessional catharsis becomes the benchmark experience for white evangelicalism, and if you are trying to tell someone Good News about Jesus and they aren’t carrying a load of repressed guilt, the rhetorical strategy becomes to make them feel like crap so they can accept Jesus and then feel better.

I think lots of us progressive Christians see the problem with this. Many Christian folks have written about it. This approach leads to threats of hell and harping on favorite individual sins while ignoring systemic and corporate sins. What I think progressive Christians tend to lose sight of, though, is that this catharsis is still a legitimate spiritual experience. It may be that not everyone needs to experience salvation in the same way, but confessional catharsis is still an important part of human spiritual experience of a loving God.

Evangelicals don’t see this as abusive or cruel — they see it as loving. There are other forms of catharsis — recognizing and repenting from white privilege, for example. Leaving behind shame that others have heaped on you and accepting a God who loves you as you are. Recognizing that your implicit core belief that you have to earn your worth through work or performance is a lie (that would be me).

And catharsis is not the only kind of salvific spiritual experience. Awe, wonder, irony, mystery, humor, grief, silence — all can be responses to or part of a saving encounter with God. My hope is that a “small e” evangelical Christianity that sees the good news as GOOD and recognizes all these forms of saving encounters would emerge from this 500-year theological rummage sale*.

In saying this, I want to emphasize that Evangelical Methodists do not neglect the “experience” part of the quadrilateral at all. In fact, I think they implicitly make it MUCH more important than tradition.

(*The 500-year rummage sale is a concept Phyllis Tickle borrowed and wrote in The Great Emergence.)

Yes, the Bible is Full of Contradictions

This remains my favorite contradiction, from Proverbs 26:4—”Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself.”

It’s great advice for arguing with people on the internet. The more you engage with their foolishness, the dumber you feel.

But the verse immediately after gives the opposite advice: “Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.”

“play nice” by nosha, CC, found at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Play_nice_-_Flickr_-_nosha.jpg

When I ask Christians to explain this apparent contradiction, most come to summarize it this way: “How or if you answer or argue with foolishness depends on the context.” But the authors didn’t write it that way, did they? They slapped two contradictory proverbs down side by side because they expected the reader to do the work of interpretation.

The authors, editors, and compilers of the Bible *deliberately* included contradictory and paradoxical truths like this one because they expected readers to understand that life is messy and the application of wisdom requires discernment. This is why we have four gospels, two histories of the Israelite monarchy, and two creation stories.

This is one reason why “inerrancy” is such a silly word to describe the Bible. Wisdom isn’t about avoiding mistakes: it’s about understanding the simplicity and complexity of human life and history, about how awe is the beginning of wisdom and gratitude the beginning of spirituality.

The word “inerrant” isn’t found anywhere in the Bible, and people who wield it as a club against others harm themselves. It reminds me of this one: “Like a thornbush brandished by the hand of a drunkard is a proverb in the mouth of a fool.” (Proverbs 26:9).

A Condensed Reply to my Critics and Would-be Dialogue Partners

Because it has gone viral several times over the last few years. I’ve gotten a variety of replies to my short social media post on “The Unborn” from 2018. Some are indignant, claiming that I’m unfairly characterizing pro-life people. (Sometimes people put scare quotes around their words when they call me a “pastor” or a “Christian.”) Some are more measured and say that there are pro-life people who are advocates for other forms social justice. I appreciate these nuanced interactions.

Some of these replies are in the same style as #notallmen and #notallwhitepeople. They say that my words are unfair, and that “lots” or “most” people who are pro-life are also advocates for immigrants, the poor, etc.

I’m going to condense my replies here.

First, I do have deep respect for people who have a consistent sanctity-of-life ethic, whether they be Roman Catholic or Mennonite or Jain or atheist vegetarian. I love talking with people of integrity who live out their values, even if we disagree on abortion policy.  

Second, if you read my words carefully, you’ll see that my beef is not so much with people who are pro-life as people who co-opt the term “advocacy.” People who do real advocacy, whether it’s for disabled persons, formerly-incarcerated persons, children, immigrants, women, or black and brown people ALWAYS recognize that their advocacy is part of a much larger intersectional web. You can’t be an advocate for formerly-incarcerated persons, for example, without recognizing how many people in prison suffer from untreated mental illness, so you wind up dabbling in mental health advocacy. You can’t be an advocate for homeless teens without meeting many who have been kicked out of their homes or run away because they are LGBTQIA, so you wind up learning about the importance of Family Acceptance.

Real advocates often try to figure out how to make their lives consistent with valuing the people for whom they advocate. They try to eliminate ableist language from their vocabulary, for example. They try to center the voices of the people most affected, or to approximate as nearly as possible. Advocates for black and brown people fund organizations led by black women. Real advocates, allies, and accomplices, in other words, are always doing intersectional work. Every oppressed group has their pain magnified by other forms of injustice.

This is not the case with most self-styled advocates for the unborn. When I’ve argued with pro-life pastors that contraception and comprehensive, medically-accurate sex education are effective ways at reducing abortion, they consider these “separate issues” or “red herrings.”

See the difference?

As some pro-life folks have pointed out, the unborn do not have their own voice to be centered. This is true. All the more reason that people who want to claim the mantel of “advocate for the unborn” should be advocating for parental leave and universal health care for parents; because we shouldn’t leave newborns without the full and available care of their caregivers. Their parents are the closest voices we have to the best interests of children, a principle widely recognized in our laws. Yet it is parental voices opting for abortion that get silenced by “advocates for the unborn.”

Which brings me to my third point: we have data and five years of recent historical experience which indicate that it is certainly not the case that “most” or even a small fraction of pro-life people embrace an ethic consistent with biblical mandates to care for “the alien, the widow, and the orphan.” 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump and Roy Moore, and a majority supported the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh, even though all of these men were serial harassers of women. 75% of white evangelicals continued to support Trump as he imposed severe restrictions even on *legal* immigration. They continued to support him even as his Attorney General embraced a punitive policy of tearing families apart at the border when they applied for asylum, creating a whole new generation of orphans who may never be reunited with their parents.

When people get indignant over my words, I point them back to this recent history. Appeals to “family values” or “an ethic of life” simply don’t hold up to the historical facts. We all saw who got thrown under the bus just so that pro-lifers could stack the Supreme Court.

For context, I wrote my original piece in 2018, during the US Senate campaign in Alabama, when Roy Moore was running against Doug Jones for US Senate. The dominant public discussion among pro-lifers was that Doug Jones, an attorney who prosecuted and put away the white supremacists responsible for the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, supported of the non-existent practice of “partial-birth abortion.”

When it came out that Roy Moore was a well-known creepy guy who harassed teenage girls at the Gadsden Mall, one local official even defended him because “Mary was a teenager when she had Jesus.” In spite of all that, 80% of white evangelical voters who showed up at the polls still voted for him, many because they just couldn’t bring themselves to vote for someone who supported abortion.

So I still stand by the words I wrote in 2018 on historical, demographic, and logical grounds.

If you believe you are the exception or you know people who live a life consistent with and ethic of the sanctity of life, I am happy for you. We need more such people with louder voices. We need more people who seek peace who have diverse opinions and beliefs to do justice in the world.

But let’s not be dishonest with each other. Being an advocate for the unborn costs most conservative Christians nothing. And I have no desire to offer to God sacrifices that cost me nothing.

Spirituality and Mental Health: Renouncing Anti-Sleep Prejudice

The church of the São Pedro de Alcântara convent is decorated with azulejo panels depicting the life of the Spanish saint Pedro de Alcántara, born Juan de Garabito y Vilela de Sanabria (1499-1562). His extreme mysticism suggests a number of psychological pathologies, exacerbated by the practice of constant sleep deprivation. From Wikimedia Commons

How long will you lie there, O lazybones? When will you rise from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want, like an armed warrior.

(Proverbs 6:9-11)

It’s important to set the verse above in context: it follows an admonition about getting out of debt to a moneylender. It is not a condemnation of rest. Even so, there are frequent Proverbs about “laziness” being an obstacle to wealth, and there is a consistent anti-sleep prejudice in many religious works and traditions.

I think it’s important to set this kind of anti-sleep prejudice apart from the tradition of vigil-keeping and self-denial. Many observant Christians stay up all night for an Easter vigil, atoning for the way Jesus’s own disciples couldn’t stay awake to pray with him (Matthew 26:40). Occasional fasting from sleep is a form of spiritual discipline, and some forms of mystical sleep deprivation may be part of our spiritual growth.

What we have learned over the last few decades, though, is that “laziness” is not necessarily what it seems. Even procrastination and energy-conversation are not character flaws. They are often responses to trauma or indicate a brain dealing with a complex and contradictory set of goals. In fact, poverty and the fear of poverty are part of what create sleep problems. Worry about money keeps many of us awake! But in our capitalist society we often think it’s the other way around: laziness begets poverty.

Whether we see sleep as lazy or virtuous largely depends on our cultural frame of reference. In societies where afternoon naps are the norm, people often live longer and have a higher quality of life. Western white supremacy and colonialism has often described such siesta practices as lazy, but sleep science has shown that napping can boost creativity and well-being. A famous study of a Greek island that phased out its afternoon nap time saw rates of heart disease rocket upwards.

It is also important to remember that the Biblical proverbs about laziness were written 2000 years ago, way before the invention of the electric lightbulb. People likely slept much longer in pre-industrial agrarian societies. We have artificially lengthened the day with electric lights and glowing screens. While there is considerable debate about the best way to structure sleep (in one long chunk or divided into different cycles), it is hard to deny that many modern people are chronically sleep deprived, and that this deprivation compounds other mental and physical illnesses.

I think it is important for us to renounce anti-sleep prejudice for what it is: moralistic and colonizing. Regular, regenerative sleep is part of our incarnate life. All animals sleep in some way, and denying the importance of sleep is a way to deny our creatureliness. Theologically, anti-sleep prejudice is a misguided attempt to be God, to be “all-knowing and ever-present” by rejecting sleep, and it is driven by our fear of missing out and our fear of being unproductive.

For people whose identity is rooted in capitalism and doing, sleep represents a sin against our way of valuing human activity. We should take a page from Jesus, who had no problem simply being, and even took a nap in the back of a boat during a thunderstorm.

Prayer:
Forgive us, Creator of Sleep, for trying to be God.
Sing us a divine lullaby when we lay down our heads in peace.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: The Importance of Sleep

Sleeping Buddha, Oriental Gardens, Monte Palace Tropical Garden, Madeira, Portugal, by H. Zell, from Wikimedia Commons

It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives sleep to his beloved.

(Psalm 127:2)

I grew up hearing that our essential needs were water, food, shelter, and clothing. Research in the last decade has shown that sleep is just as important as these, and may be second only to water. Going without sleep will kill you faster than fasting from food.

Most of America is walking around chronically sleep deprived. Our sleep deficit shortens our lifespans, diminishes our creativity, makes us more susceptible to disease, reduces our emotional intelligence, increases the risks of depression, anxiety, dementia, and diabetes, and causes more traffic accidents than drunk driving.

Some Christian leaders of previous generations valorized going without sleep. A properly sanctified person, they argued, would only need four or five hours of rest. They believed too much sleep was a sign of laziness or sloth, one of the seven deadly sins. The urgency of saving souls or working for the kingdom was more important than sleep. Here is an excerpt from a sermon by John Wesley:

“I am fully convinced, by an observation continued for more than fifty years, that whatever may be done by extraordinary persons, or in some extraordinary cases (wherein persons have subsisted with very little sleep for some weeks, or even months,) a human body can scarce continue in health and vigour, without at least, six hours’ sleep in four-and-twenty.”

The consensus of sleep scientists is that an eight-hour sleep opportunity is ideal. Six is far too little. John Wesley concedes that when some of his contemporaries advocate three or four hours, they are being a little bit extreme.

I’d like to say we know better now, but capitalism and the Protestant work ethic continue to praise those who work late into the evening and into the next day. “Pulling an all-nighter” is a sign of dedication—even though the quality of our study and work gets worse the longer we go without sleep.

I believe sabbath rest is supposed to be a reminder of the importance of rest, not just once a week but every day. Nearly a third of our life is spent in this state of altered consciousness, when our brains store and rearrange information and regenerate their learning and feeling capacity. But like fussy infants, we refuse to sleep because we don’t understand the suffering we are inflicting on ourselves.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be drawing from Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep, and sharing some reflections on the Bible and other religious texts.

Prayer:
Creator of Sleep, God of Sabbath Rest and Restorer of Life, help us to sleep well. Change our society into one that values the importance of sleep.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

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 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.