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. 

Understanding a “Sacred Covenant”

One of the favorite commonplace arguments of the Good News crowd has unfortunately been taken up by the Council of Bishops: that performing the wedding of a same-sex couple is “breaking a sacred covenant” made at an elder’s ordination. But is it? Here is the relevant section of the ordination service. Read it through, and consider carefully what kind of covenant an elder is making at his or her ordination. I’ve put some possibly relevant sections in bold. At the end, I’ve appended some questions for your consideration.

Ordination is a gift from God to the church, and is exercised in covenant with the whole church and within the covenant of the order.

…As elders, you are to be coworkers with the bishops, deacons, diaconal ministers, deaconesses, home missioners, commissioned ministers, local pastors, and other elders.

Remember that you are called to serve rather than to be served, to proclaim the faith of the church and no other, to look after the concerns of God above all.

An elder is called to share in the ministry of Christ and of the whole church: to preach and teach the Word of God, and faithfully administer the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion; to lead the people of God in worship and prayer; to lead people to faith in Jesus Christ; to exercise pastoral supervision, order the life of the congregation, counsel the troubled, and declare the forgiveness of sin; to lead the people of God in obedience to Christ’s mission in the world; to seek justice, peace, and freedom for all people; and to take a responsible place in the government of the Church and in service in and to the community.These are the duties of an elder.

Do you believe in the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and confess Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?

Are you persuaded that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain all things necessary for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ and are the unique and authoritative standard for the church’s faith and life?

Will you be faithful in prayer, in the study of the Holy Scriptures, and with the help of the Holy Spirit continually rekindle the gift of God that is in you?

Will you do your best to pattern your life in accordance with the teachings of Christ?

Will you, in the exercise of your ministry, lead the people of God to faith in Jesus Christ, to participate in the life and work of the community, and to seek peace, justice, and freedom for all people? [note that this is the second occurrence of this phrase].

Will you be loyal to The United Methodist Church, accepting its order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word, and committing yourself to be accountable with those serving with you, and to the bishop and those who are appointed to supervise your ministry?

Will you, for the sake of the church’s life and mission, covenant to participate in the order of elders? Will you give yourself to God through the order of elders in order to sustain and build each other up in prayer, study, worship, and service?

May God, who has given you the will to do these things, give you grace to perform them, that the work begun in you may be brought to perfection.

After reading the above language from the ordination service, what is the covenant that is broken by officiating a same-gender wedding? Is it:

  1. The covenant to seek justice, peace, and freedom for all people?
  2. The covenant to teach the Bible as the unique and authoritative standard for the church’s faith and life?
  3. The covenant to accept the order of the United Methodist Church? The liturgy? The (small “d”) discipline? The doctrines?
  4. The covenant to participate in the order of elders, and to build each other up through study, worship, and service?
  5. The covenant to defend the United Methodist Church from “all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word?” The belief that the scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the unique and authoritative standard for the church’s’ faith and life?

Here are some follow-up questions:

  1. What in the above oath might suggest to you that covenant means accepting the incompatibility clause and subsequent prohibitions because they are in the (large “D”) Discipline?
  2. Given the oath to seek peace, justice and freedom for all people, what is an ordained clergy’s covenantal responsibility toward gay and lesbian persons who wish to marry?
  3. When the incompatibility clause was approved in 1972, did its authors violate any part of the above covenant toward their ordained gay and lesbian clergy peers? What about when additional punitive language was added regarding ordination and same-gender marriage?
  4. The Discipline rejects ordination for “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals,” which has often been called “don’t ask, don’t tell” for clergy. It implies you can be self-avowed, but not practicing (i.e. celibate), or practicing but not self-avowed (i.e. “in the closet). What does this language do to a covenant of mutual accountability among clergy?
  5. Since every General Conference committee that has “studied” the issue of homosexuality has recommended removing the incompatibility language, yet the General Conference has voted to retain it, what does that do to our covenant to “build each other up in prayer, study, worship, and service?”
  6. Finally, when only 67% of General Conference votes to uphold the idea that “God’s grace is available to all, [and] that nothing can separate us from the love of God,” language borrowed from both John Wesley and Saint Paul, how qualified is that body to address what is or is not compatible with “Christian teaching?” What percentage needs to vote on something for it to be a clear sign of the witness of the Holy Spirit? 51%? 100%?

Growing up in the church, I learned that “covenant” was different from a “contract.” A contract is a legal agreement that says, “if you break this, such and such happens.” A covenant, though, is based on the character of the participants and the shalom of the community. God was faithful to God’s covenant with Israel even when Israel was not faithful, because God’s character was one of “steadfast love.” Opponents of LGBTQ rights would have everyone believe that the covenant to uphold the order, liturgy, discipline, and doctrine of the church is actually a contract. It legitimizes homophobia, heterosexism, and a culture of ecclesiastical coercion using the language of sacred covenant. Using the language of “sacred covenant” to mask thin Biblical interpretation, bad theology, and lousy ethics is itself more harmful to that covenant than any alleged violation of the incompatibility clause.