Spirituality and Mental Health: Faith and Narrative

Painting by Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato

Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn
(Luke 2:4-7)

This is a hard Christmas for a number of reasons. We are simultaneously going through an economic recession, a pandemic, climate crisis, and an unstable political season. It is not unusual for us to experience a “Blue Christmas” during normal times, but this one is particularly fraught.

This is one reason why the Christmas narrative provides comfort. It tells the story of a turbulent, messy time: Mary delivers Jesus in a guest room away from home. The family has to flee as refugees and live for a time in exile. Re-telling the whole Christmas story from both Matthew and Luke (and not just the happy bits) reframes our own experience of an unpredictable world.

It’s also worth noting in the story that whenever supernatural beings show up to announce God’s activity, they start by saying, “Don’t be afraid” (Luke 1:13, 1:30, 2:10; Matthew 1:20). The message once again reframes the context: you are not alone. Though the world may be scary, there are divine beings in our corner.

“Reframing” is also a technique used in therapy, helping folks see a situation from a different perspective. I listened to one therapist do it this way: A woman said she had a tendency to date problem men, that she would initially be attracted to them but eventually find that they were emotionally immature or lazy. She wondered what was wrong with her. The therapist said, “It doesn’t sound like you have a problem picking men. It sounds like you are brave, that you know what you want, and that you would rather end a relationship than settle for misery. It sounds to me that you are actually very good at picking a partner. Have you ever thought of yourself as brave?”

Faith narratives help us reframe life problems in a similar way. We see in our own lives the same crises faced by epic heroes. The personal is often political, spiritual, and cosmic: our lives are echoes of the divine drama.

I said above that this reframing provides comfort, but it does more than that: it is a well of spiritual power and healing. This present crisis is revelatory, both personally and politically. It reveals relationships that are important and social problems that need to be fixed. It exposes hidden intentions and systemic failures. When we see our own stories as reflections of the divine story, we connect with a cause that is larger than ourselves. Reframing it this way helps us recognize our own power that we can exercise together. We may not feel brave, but we are making brave choices all the time.

Prayer:
Though we are afraid, Lord, give us courage in the midst of our fear. Reframe our stories in light of the cosmic narrative you are telling.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

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: Staging Family Holidays

By Dietmar Rabich, from Wikimedia Commons

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother”—this is the first commandment with a promise: “so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.” And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord..
(Ephesians 6:1-4)

For most of us, when we think about how our family will spend holidays, we think about traditions, memories, and the kinds of experiences we want to share with loved ones. I remember gathering at my grandparents’ house for Christmas Eve. The kids would complain that dinner was taking way too long (because we were eager to get to the presents). We would be shuffled into the back bedroom for “Santa’s visit.” We would hear the sleigh bells ring, and then the adults would bring us back into the family room to see what Santa had delivered.

I say this as though it’s something that happened every year, but the reality is that it may have happened a handful of times. In my mind, it became iconic: this was what Christmas “should” be like. It was magical and exciting, and it’s the same kind of experience I wanted to share with loved ones.

I’ve just shared what this experience looked and felt like from the inside, as a participant. But if I view the same experience from the outside, as a sociologist or an alien from another planet, I look at it as a set of practices, rituals, and values. In research on families and holidays, sociologists talk about how family practices are “staged,” or how family is “done.” There is no “right way” to do Christmas or do family, but for participants who value the holiday, there are certain things we want to get out of it. We stage Christmas—we perform it. (And there are certainly practices and rituals we miss in this time of pandemic.)

The process of staging can lead to stress and fatigue. Every year preachers lament the commercialization of Christmas from the pulpit, and we tsk-tsk about missing “the true meaning of Christmas.” There are tropes in movies and TV about spending time with family we can barely stand. We are frustrated when the holiday doesn’t meet our expectations, and delighted when it delivers moments of meaning or spiritual insight.

Family conflict can intensify around holidays. When we are with family more, there are more opportunities for conflict, just as there are more opportunities for bonding. I think it can be helpful to think about how we “stage” family, and how we “perform” celebration of the holidays, and to acknowledge that logistical problems are simply part of this mix. Especially in a time of pandemic.

It can be useful to switch perspectives, viewing the holiday from both “inside” and “outside,” valuing the memories and experiences the holidays bring, but also seeing it as a set of practices and rituals that may or may not meet our expectations. I think if we are honest and explicit about our own expectations and disappointments, our own values and what we want to share with family, we can be more open to receiving whatever good experiences fall into our laps.

In the above scripture, I’m struck that the writer notes that “honoring father and mother” is the first of the ten commandments to come with a promise: “so that you will live long in the land.” The author points out that there is something about family bonding that creates stability and a good quality of life, and they quickly add that parents likewise have an obligation to children.

However you are staging Christmas this holiday season, I hope that you will be gentle with yourself and others. This COVID Christmas will not likely meet our expectations of Christmases past. But if we are able to release some of those expectations and acknowledge our disappointment, it may surprise us with gifts anyway.

Prayer:
Lord, hallow our days and let them truly be holy-days. Help us to find beauty and meaning in unexpected places, and give us memories of our beloveds that we will treasure.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

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. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 14—When I’m Sick of Gratitude

Signs of gratitude for firefighters fighting the Grizzly Creek Fire, by White River National Forest (U.S. Forest Service). From Wikimedia Commons.

I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart;
before the gods I sing your praise;
I bow down toward your holy temple
    and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness;

for you have exalted your name and your word
above everything.
On the day I called, you answered me,

you increased my strength of soul.
(Psalm 138)

During the month of November, we are bombarded with admonishments to “be thankful.” Sometimes I find the constant barrage of sanctimonious advice irritating. It can actually put me in a foul mood: I don’t want to be thankful, and I don’t particularly want to be reminded and told and preached at by greeting cards, shared memes, and news articles on the mental health benefits of gratitude addressed to everyone and no one in particular. This year, in the midst of a pandemic, reminders to be grateful grate on my nerves!

This irritation is actually a reminder of how gratitude works, because gratitude is a function of attention, and in our advertising-saturated world, our attention is commodified. Billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg make money by manipulating our attention, capturing our eyeballs and measuring our attention in milliseconds. Facebook and Twitter and Instagram know exactly how fast you scroll, and use algorithms to make you linger over advertisements. Advertisers may use the word “gratitude,” but they make their money on our restlessness, boredom, and dissatisfaction.

The irritation I feel at having a multibillion-dollar company tell me to slow down and smell the roses is more than mental anger at its hypocrisy. My frustration is biological. My Grinch-like attitude is the function of a distracted mind.

It doesn’t change the truth of the importance of gratitude, though. David Steindl-Rast says that gratitude is the foundation of spirituality. In order to be thankful, to feel gratitude, we have to refocus our attention. It is difficult to be grateful when we are in a state of distraction.

This is why simple disciplines like meditation and keeping a gratitude journal are so effective. They are the complete opposite of the endless scrolling of social media. They are tools that help us to refocus our attention on the simple pleasures of being alive: I woke up today. I can take a deep breath and smell the air. I can see beauty in a fallen and decaying leaf which leaves behind a fragile, skeletonized system of veins.

The author of the psalm above says that an answered prayer “increased my strength of soul.” We don’t know what the prayer or the answer was, but pausing to be grateful, to focus our attention on the goodness of the gifts we receive—bidden or unbidden—makes our souls stronger. Gratitude increases our resilience and helps us make it through tough times.

If we want to feel grateful, it helps to go somewhere quiet and away from screens. I invite you to do it now.

Prayer:
Giver of all gifts, Source of all grace, I am grateful.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 13—Religion and the Brain

image by Mikael Häggström, M.D.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
(Psalm 139:14)

I’ve been interested in the neuropsychology of religious experience since I first read William James in college. As a pastor, I’ve talked to plenty of people who wonder if their mystical experiences, transcendent visions, or sense of calling are “genuine” or simply “all in their heads.” “Did God really speak to me, or am I going crazy?” is a common question.

It doesn’t help that so many mental health problems are related to religion. People do have religious delusions. Sometimes their anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder attaches to a religious idea, and they fear that they might accidentally sin or incur God’s judgment. People who are depressed may feel that God hates them or is out to get them. LGBTQ people have been subjected to so-called “conversion therapy” that leaves lasting trauma.

But religion can also be associated with good mental health outcomes. People who have supportive religious communities are often more resilient in the face of trauma. Adolescents have lower probabilities of risky behavior. LGBTQIA folks who have supportive religious communities often report high levels of life satisfaction. And William James pointed out that having “saints” and mystics to emulate and aspire to benefits humanity as a whole.

There are certain ways that religious practice changes your brain. We know from studies of Buddhist monks and Carmelite nuns that contemplative prayer and meditation—what the researchers call a “self-stimulating brain reward system“—can alter the function and even the physical structure of the brain. Mindfulness meditation is often prescribed as an intervention for anxiety and depression.

The prefrontal cortex, responsible for attention, is one of the places most clearly affected by prayer and meditation. Some areas of the parietal lobe respond differently: they relax. These areas are responsible for the distinction between ourselves and the rest of the world, the barrier between “self” and “world.” When this area relaxes, it may help us feel connected to the rest of the universe or to God. Attention and connection are two areas of our brains we can train with practice.

Moreover, prayer and meditation seem to quiet the “default mode network,” the systems in our brain that are often responsible for the story-telling function of our brain. The DMN is what keeps us thinking about the future and the past and often keeps us ruminating or worrying.

When stimulated, the temporal lobe sometimes creates a sense of presence, as though someone is in the room with us. People who are about to have seizures sometimes report this feeling. It’s not clear to me that this is necessarily a particularly religious experience, but it certainly could be.

Certain neurotransmitters are also associated with mystical-type experiences. DMT (dimethyltryptamine) is a psychedelic compound that appears to be produced naturally in our brains. It may be responsible for some of our more trippy spiritual experiences, but it, too is associated with changes in our default mode network, feelings of connectedness, and heightened attention and fascination.

So when people ask me about whether their religious experience is “real” or “all in their heads,” I shrug. ALL spiritual experiences are also brain experiences—at least for human beings. We cannot imagine having an experience without our brains. When you see a beautiful painting or fall in love, your brain gets involved. You may even feel it in your body, as a warmth or pressure in your chest, or goose bumps on the back of your neck. It is a biological as well as a spiritual experience.

We still have so much to learn about spirituality and the brain.

Prayer:
Creator of the Cosmos and my brain, I give you thanks that I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 12—Being Outside

Two Paths Diverged… by Ché Lydia Xyang. From Wikimedia Commons.

On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
(Revelation 22:2)

The pandemic has forced more people to stay at home, but it has also forced more of us outside. We are going outside to lessen the monotony of being indoors. Meeting others outside lessens the chances of passing on covid-19. The sun disinfects us.

Collectively, we are experiencing the benefits of being outside at a time when a flurry of research is pointing to how nature-deprived we are. It turns out we needed this healing for a long, long time. Covid-19 has forced us to confront it.

Below is just a sampling of the recent research into the physical and mental health benefits of being outside. We’ve learned that bacteria in the soil and aromatic aerosols from trees affect our brains and bodies. We’ve learned that forests communicate and act as one large organism. We’ve learned that interacting with that organism gets us out of our patterns of ruminating and into our sense in the here-and-now. We’ve learned that being outside and getting our hands dirty lowers our heart rate and stress levels. We’ve learned that walking in forests boost our immune systems, increases our ability to pay attention, and even fights cancer.

All of these mental and physical health benefits are important. Most of us could benefit by spending more time outside. But nature is not just something that we take, like a drug, so that we can increase productivity and be more effective indoors.

As we intentionally spend time outside, a more profound shift can happen in our state of being. We begin to understand that human beings and nature are not separate. Our culture tends to think of “human beings” and “nature” as two distinct realms, in part because of the way we objectify the earth and conceptualize our place in it. But the truth is we are part of both a tamed “human world” and a wild “more-than-human world.” This term, coined by author David Abram, helps us consider ourselves in relation to the rest of the planet.

I am currently in training to be a Nature and Forest Therapy Guide, in part because I believe it is my responsibility as a pastor to help the 21st century church turn away from a toxic theology that treats the earth as if it were disposable. I take very seriously these words about protecting life on this planet:

“I used to think that top global 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 these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

Gus Speth

Spiritual and cultural transformation is my job. It’s what I’ve been called to do. And too often, Christian pastors have scorned the creation God loves. This toxic theology has practical consequences, leading not only to terrible policy that harms the planet, but to a population of people who increasingly feel sad, alone, and hopeless.

If we want to develop a public health policy that takes mental health seriously, I believe we need to help people fall in love with this planet and with the more-than-human world. I think the authors of the Bible knew that the leaves of trees could heal the nations.

Prayer:
Creator and Lover of the World, we tell the story of how you so loved this creation that you would even enter it yourself. Help us to do the same thing, to enter creation fully and bodily, so that it can teach us how to be more human and more alive.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Are You Religious?

I’m teaching a class at UAB called “America’s Religious Diversity.” One of the themes of the class is that it is difficult to define religion. Not all religions have scriptures. Not all have supernatural beings. Not all have dietary laws. Not all have clergy. Not all focus on beliefs. Not all focus on practices. It is unlikely to find a definition of religion that accurately encompasses them all.

This becomes clearer as you study world religions through history. Before contact with European colonizers, most indigenous people in the Americas and in West Africa didn’t think of what they did as “religion.” It was/is simply part of culture. It’s what your people do. Have a life question? Visit the wise woman and consult your ancestors. Have an ailment? Consult the herbalist for physical and spiritual medicine.

On contact with colonialism, many of those religions were forced to adapt, to re-organize themselves in order to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the dominant culture. Even “Hinduism,” some argue, is an invention of British occupiers of “Hindustan,” the Persian name for residents of that country.  

There are two important points here. First, “religion” is an idea, a framework, a mental model or a lens we use to look at culture—especially a culture different from our own. Like imagining light as a wave or a particle, what you see will depend on what you are looking for. Second, you can practice a religion *without ever recognizing it as a religion.* To you, it’s just your way of life, one you share with your community.

This is why I find it fascinating that among both conservative and liberal folks today, “religion” is almost a universally negative term. “I’m spiritual but not religious,” is the phrase preferred by many who don’t go to church. But someone who does go to church is likely to say “Jesus is about relationship, not religion.” Stephen Prothero writes that “One of the most common claims among Hindus of the West is that ‘Hinduism is a way of life’ rather than a religion,” but what I observe is that nearly every sincere religious practitioner would make the same claim about their own beliefs and practices. People don’t practice their religion in order to be religious. They practice in order to find God, or enlightenment, or meaning, or connection.

If I’m following a typical progression of human faith development, by the time I’m an adult, I don’t do things just because my parents or neighbors did them. I do them because they are meaningful to me — not to someone else.

In other words, “religion” has come to mean what OTHER people do—people whose beliefs and practices don’t hold sway over me. Calling something a religion is a way to delegitimize and mock it, as Michael Pollan does in his book Second Nature when he describes the absurd cultural symbolism of American lawns: “Think of nature as Spirit, the collective suburban lawn as the Church, and lawn mowing as a kind of sacrament.” This tremendous waste of energy, he says, reflects an aesthetic and cultural belief in democracy. We all have to pitch in and work to create this unbroken fake prairie that is the American lawn.

I often do the same thing when I compare sports to religion. At sporting events, we have collective singing and chanting, rituals and superstitious practices offered to the gods of chance and fairness (like the coin toss), animal-headed gods (mascots) who function as symbols for our team (just like the ancient Egyptians), and the sport itself, which echoes the ancient Greeks and Aztecs offering their ritualized combat to the gods.

But I think both of these things—sports and lawns—DO represent a civil and cultural religion. It’s just not one we question or regard through a religious lens, because alien colonizers haven’t shown up on our doorstep and told us how strange these practices are. They haven’t told us what we do is quaint, or primitive, or backwards, or barbaric.

So while I think “religion” is a particularly Western and colonial idea, I also think it is practically inescapable. It is a trap we have created for ourselves. We want to believe our particular rituals, practices, and beliefs transcend our culture, that they have universal significance; but it’s so easy to see other people’s spiritual striving as mere religion.

Heroes and History

The far right has few heroes.

That’s why so many of these climate-change denialists act like they are Galileo. All these jingoist Christian nationalists try to claim they are like Martin Luther or Dietrich freakin’ Bonhoeffer. Many closet white supremacists use the name of Dr. King or Rosa Parks. Co-opting the names and messages of great people is necessary to present terrible ideas as palatable.

In private they may praise the name of Hitler, or Nathan Bedford Forrest. But publicly, they have no inspirational fighters for truth and liberation, and that’s why they have to appropriate the words and images of famous people they would have burned, shot, or hanged.

Whenever they try to lay claim to some aspect of inspirational history, some selfless act of bravery that made humanity better, they whitewash and obfuscate. (This is why John Merrill had the temerity to justify voter suppression in the same breath as he mentioned Dr. King and Rosa Parks, claiming that automatic voter registration “dishonors their legacy”.) Their rhetorical acrobatics tell a funhouse mirror version of history. They envision a world where statues of slave owners teach history, but actual curriculum that teaches about slavery is “divisive.”

(This is pretty much the same thing they’ve done with Jesus: Worship the man. Ignore the teaching.)

And that’s why their name dropping of heroic figures stops with the top tier, with the Dr. Kings and the Galileos. They don’t talk about Oscar Romero, or Angela Davis, or Sojourner Truth, or Hypatia, or Martin Niemoller, or Dorothy Day, or Bayard Rustin, or Cesar Chavez.

And this is why we need to lift up the voices and names of those who are not instantly recognizable, to broaden our scope of heroes, to move away from the “Great [white] Man” approach to history.

Have yourself a lot of heroes. And make sure most of them *aren’t* famous.

Link

1) The linked article is for those who choose to engage.
2) Frequently it is not worth your time, energy, or mental health to engage.
3) I continue to resist the false, often implicit claim that persuasion is the only value of rhetoric on social media, or that the only merit in engaging is converting someone to your point of view. As Jesse Williams said, it is not your purpose in life to tuck ignorance in at night. Vituperation is an ancient and important rhetorical form. 
4) Still, it’s important to know how to talk to someone who has gone off the deep end, especially of that person is important to you.
5) And I persist in the belief that everybody can be saved from our tendency to harm ourselves, each other, and the planet.
6) And I persist in the notion that people with certain forms of privilege are the best suited and most obligated to speak to those who will listen.