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Antidepressants, Six Months In

Friday, January 14, 2022

Last summer, as the reality of my terminal diagnosis was dawning on me, I experienced a mental-health crisis.  In response to this crisis, I began taking two antidepressants, Trazodone and Lexapro.  Now that six months have passed, I thought it would be worthwhile to revisit that decision and its consequences.

I’ve never had a problem with other Christians using mental-health meds, but it wasn’t something I had wanted for myself either.  I’ve been prone to depression throughout my adult life; looking back, I count at least seven major depressive episodes.  However, last July was the first time I sought professional help.  Before that, I hadn’t wanted to acknowledge my struggles to anyone, and I’m strong-willed enough that I figured I could muscle through on my own.  That worked OK until last summer, when it clearly wasn’t working anymore.

Once I started my medications, though, my improvement was swift and dramatic.  I don’t think this is typical; I’m probably something of a poster child for chemical intervention.  Nonetheless, the Trazodone quickly suppressed the nocturnal anxiety attacks that were depriving me of sleep.  Because I was better rested, I was able to get a handle on the depression with the Lexapro’s help.

That help proved to be more modest than people often think it is.  I’ve heard brethren say that they don’t want to take antidepressants because they don’t want to be numb inside.  That’s not how I felt.  Instead, the meds felt to me like touching something while wearing thin knit gloves.  I still had the same sensations, but the edges weren’t as sharp.

On the flip side, the antidepressants didn’t do the work for me either.  They gave me a ladder, but they didn’t haul me out of the pit.  I had to redirect my own thoughts down healthier paths. 

Interestingly, one of my most powerful tools in this was prayer, but not prayer for myself.  When I caught myself dwelling on my dreadful future, I started praying my way through the roster of members at Jackson Heights in considerable length and detail.  I found that my prayers benefited me as much as the recipients!

Conversely, if I had sat back and waited for the pills to do their thing, I don’t think I would have improved much if at all.  Antidepressants aren’t magic potions, and when people take them expecting an easy fix, they’re going to be disappointed.

Today, despite my grim prognosis, I find that my mental health is as good as it has ever been.  Looking back, I see that I didn’t realize how much depression was affecting me not just in the midst of emotional crashes, but all the time.  If I had been willing to seek help 25 years ago, I think my life would have been much sunnier.

I’m certainly not going to dictate to anybody else what they should or should not do about their mental health, but I do believe that antidepressants can play a useful role in the emotional life of the child of God.  Yes, Christians 2000 years ago got by without them, but those Christians also got by without eyeglasses, antibiotics, and knee replacements.  When these blessings exist today, why not take advantage of them?  All of us will experience more than enough suffering in this life without adding to it needlessly.

The Online Face of the Kingdom

Friday, December 10, 2021

Marshal McLuhan, one of the greatest communications theorists of all time, is famous for saying, “The medium is the message.”  In other words, the way in which you present information is fully as important as the information itself. 

This would not have been news to our brethren in the early church, who adopted the new-to-them format of the codex for the gospels and epistles of the New Testament.  Codices were different than scrolls (and both, of course, were equally different from oral tradition).  Compare, for instance, the ease of flipping back and forth in a codex with the laborious unrolling and rerolling of a scroll.  You’re a lot more likely to use a codex as a reference work, and Bible-as-reference work versus Bible-as-narrative was a truly titanic paradigm shift!

We live in a time that has focused attention on the medium as never before.  During the late pandemic, many churches engaged with the Internet in a way that they never had before.  If in lockdown, either you were livestreaming services somehow, or you weren’t feeding your people at all! 

However, now that life has more or less gone back to normal, the impact of the livestream seems to have faded somewhat.  There are still a dozen or so people who tune in regularly to the Jackson Heights livestream:  shut-ins (who I’m sure are thrilled that they now have a robust connection to assemblies), the sick, people who are traveling but want to worship with the home folks, and so on.  Most of us, though, have reset our assembly and worship experiences to 2019.

I tend to believe the livestream has had only a transitory impact because we weren’t asking what new and different thing we could do.  We wanted to do the same old thing:  church, except virtual and not quite as good.  As we might expect, the medium of “in person” is ideal for many spiritual pursuits.  The question that we ought to be asking, though, is whether there are things we can do better online, especially with online video.

I don’t claim to have the answers here, but I did have a fascinating recent experience that led me to conclude that some interesting answers exist.  Throughout my adult life, I’ve been involved with a weeklong hymn-writing seminar called the Hymninar.  My first year was 1997, and in the time since, I’ve gradually taken on a teaching and mentoring role in it.

This is something with which I am well familiar.  I was teaching hymn theory and analyzing students’ hymns before I started preaching the gospel.  However, like all other familiar things, the Hymninar got COVID-canceled in 2020, and in 2021, Sumphonia decided to hold the Hymninar virtually over Zoom.

In practice, though, Zoom Hymninar proved to be about as much like in-person Hymninar as a Bible codex was like a Bible scroll.  More people participated, in many cases because time, health, or financial constraints would have prevented them from attending in person.  Singing was inevitably nonexistent.  Teaching was harder.  I don’t know why, but it’s a lot harder to pull interaction out of faces on a screen than from people in a classroom.

The most significant differences, though, appeared in collaboration and critique.  In an in-person Hymninar, after the class spends a couple of days going through a manual on how to write good hymns, each attendee is asked to write a quality original verse.  They write where they please, either in the main classroom or smaller rooms elsewhere.  Teachers circulate and offer suggestions.  When a verse is far enough along, it gets projected on a screen in the main classroom, and the assembled class provides more critique.  Hopefully, by the end of the week, the verse of each student attains the requisite level of quality.

As much as we could, we tried to imitate that format online, with a main Zoom room and breakout rooms where mentors waited for those who wanted help.  However, the online version didn’t function like the real-life version.  Rather than passively waiting for doom to descend, online attendees actively sought help.  The main Zoom room, rather than being sepulchrally quiet like the brick-and-mortar main room, became a place where students engaged in reciprocal editing without prompting from instructors.   

Normally, we expect the last day of the Hymninar to be a race against time, with a last few students struggling to finish verses.  Some never get there.  Not this year.  All the writers were solidly done by early afternoon.  They did so well, in fact, that they left us scrambling for things to fill the final few hours of the seminar!

Clearly, then, Zoom is a better venue for collaborative hymn editing and critique than a traditional classroom is.  Of course, this breaks down spectacularly when it comes to testing hymn tunes, which must be sung, but for text editing, Zoom is superior to real life.  Though I can’t say for sure, I suspect that the layer of unreality imposed by Zoom engages people but makes them less inhibited in sharing and receiving criticism.

I know that the intricacies of hymn production aren’t of interest to most Christians.  However, this parable has a point.  Rather than only asking how the Internet can solve our churches’ huge, pressing problems (like COVID), we should ask how it might solve our low-grade, frustrating problems too.  Are there things we want to do that don’t seem to work very well in real life?  Maybe they’ll work better in a virtual venue!

To put things another way, we spent 2020 using online media to do almost as good a job because we had to.  In the years that follow, we should ask what we want to do with the electronic tools we have because of the very real possibility that they might be better than what we’re doing now.  If the medium is the message, it’s time we started investing thought in the medium.

This article originally appeared in _Pressing On_.

Spiritual Thoughts, Spiritual Words

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

The fundamental question of our faith is whether the Bible is the inspired word of God.  If it is, we can rely on its contents.  If it isn’t, everything we believe in, from the creation to the resurrection, is built on a foundation of sand instead of rock. 

Not surprisingly, then, those who are opposed to the Scripture often either deny its inspiration or attempt to limit inspiration’s scope.  Those who adopt the latter approach will say that the Bible is inspired in its broad outlines, but its details are the product of human understanding and reflect the wisdom of the time in which its authors wrote.  This position seems to be much like ours, but in practice it leads to very different results.  We insist on obedience even to the commandments that we don’t particularly care for (Matthew 19:9, anyone?) because we believe they express the will of God. 

However, if we believe instead that not everything in Scripture is necessarily inspired, that gives us freedom to reject the hard sayings as anachronisms.  Surely Paul’s comments about women in 1 Timothy 2 and the practice of homosexuality in 1 Corinthians 6 are echoes from an unenlightened, barbaric past, mere expressions of the apostle’s own human prejudices!  Surely our wisdom has evolved beyond such things!

This perspective allows us to have our cake and eat it too.  We get to celebrate the risen Lord and cherish the hope of eternal life while also rejecting every commandment that we find difficult or inconvenient.  Only the ones that are amenable to the spirit of our own time need remain.

As convenient as this would be, though, it simply doesn’t align with what the Bible itself says about inspiration.  In particular, we must take into account Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 2:10-13.  Here, he makes two strong claims about the involvement of the Holy Spirit in his work.  First, the Spirit has revealed truth to him.  Second, he expresses that truth in words taught by the Spirit.

This does not mean that Paul was a Scripture-writing robot.  If inspiration deprived human authors of their authorial voices, every book of the Bible would sound alike.  This is not the case.  The Pauline epistles don’t sound like the Johannine epistles, and neither sounds like the Petrine epistles.  All reflect the personalities of the apostles who wrote them.

Instead, it describes a subtler process.  In some way, the Spirit of God worked with the spirits of the prophets, allowing scope for human individuality yet precisely expressing what God wanted to be said.  Because inspiration operated at the word level, nothing that the inspired writers recorded strays from the will of God.

Thus, we can have great certainty about what we read in the Bible.  We don’t have to wonder whether any miracle or commandment is a human invention.  None of them are.  However, it also imposes a weighty responsibility on us.  If God has said it all, we must obey it all.  To do otherwise represents a failure to honor Him.

Justification by Works in James

Friday, October 29, 2021

Earlier this week, I posted about Paul’s discussion of justification by works in the first four chapters of Romans.  In it, he says that justification by works requires perfect obedience to God, which no one but Jesus has achieved.  Thus, Christians must seek salvation by faith apart from works.  Similarly, baptism for forgiveness of sins is an expression of faith, not an attempt to justify oneself by works.

In response, I received a question about justification by works in James.  In his epistle, James appears to directly contradict Paul.  After all, in Romans 3:28, Paul says that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law.  In James 2:24, James says that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.

What gives?  How can it be that two inspired writers would say such different things?

The key to resolving the question is to recognize that Paul and James don’t mean the same thing either by “works” or by “faith”.  In context, this is obvious.  Throughout Romans, Paul uses “works” as shorthand for perfect Law-keeping (or perfect righteousness by a Gentile).  In Paul’s terms, justification by works requires a lifetime of perfection.

James, however, doesn’t use “works” to mean a lifetime of perfection.  Instead, he uses it to refer to specific righteous actions.  In his discussion of the issue, he cites two examples of justification by works:  Abraham offering up Isaac (James 2:21) and Rahab saving the spies (James 2:25). 

Neither of those people was justified by works in a Pauline sense.  Abraham lied because his faith was weak.  Rahab also lied, and she was a prostitute besides.  Both sinned and therefore fall short of the glory of God.  However, both also revealed their faith through their behavior, and by those faith-filled works, they were justified.

Interestingly, James’ definition of justification by works is quite similar to Paul’s definition of justification by faith.  Paul’s two examples, Abraham and David, were justified by faith (David being fully as imperfect as Abraham was), but neither was a spiritual do-nothing.  Both believed the promises of God and acted in accordance with those promises.  Indeed, Paul goes on to make the point in Romans 6 that our receipt of grace through faith requires us to transform our lives.  Pauline faith works.

Not so with Jamesian “faith”.  His two examples of faith without works are the Christian who doesn’t help a brother or sister in need (James 2:15-16) and the demons (James 2:19).  Both acknowledge that God exists; neither honors Him as King through obedience. 

James’ most telling comment about them appears in James 2:14, where he observes that such a one “says he has faith”.  Though he’s not going to debate the point, James doesn’t really think that the non-worker has faith either.  The Pauline analog, as per Romans 6:15, is the one who sins because he is under grace, not law.

As we would expect, there is no contradiction between Romans and James.  The two epistles address two different problems.  The former is concerned with Judaizing teachers who bind circumcision even though doing so only makes sense as part of an attempt to justify oneself by works.  The latter is concerned with Christians who don’t think they have to follow Christ.  Additionally, both epistles have the same bottom line.  We must seek salvation through faith, but we also must live lives of obedience that show that our faith is genuine.

Natural Relations

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Though the battle is over these days (at least as far as wider American society is concerned), the past couple of decades saw a great deal of strife over the practice of homosexuality.  In their ultimately successful assault on Biblical morality, gay-rights proponents adopted three main strategies:  rejecting the authority of the Bible altogether, redefining Biblical ethics to make same-sex relations acceptable, and critiquing the Biblical arguments against the same.

In the third category, critics liked to attack Paul’s claim in Romans 1:26-27 that homosexual intimacy was unnatural.  They pointed out, correctly, that various animals, from our supposed cousins the bonobos on down, engage in male/male or female/female sex.  Still other animals are hermaphroditic or able to change their sex.  Because these things exist in nature, they reveal that same-sex sexual behavior is natural and that Paul is just a big dumb ignoramus.

As satisfying as such a conclusion is to opponents of traditional morality, it fails to reckon with Paul’s argument or what he means by “natural”.  Romans 1:26-27 is far from a prooftext.  Instead, it is part of his famous description of the degradation of the Gentiles that takes up the back half of Romans 1.

According to Paul, this decline began with the failure of the Gentiles to honor God.  As per Romans 1:19-20, this failure is their fault, not God’s.  In the physical creation, He gave them all the evidence they needed to see His power and divine nature.  They saw and recognized the truth, but they put it out of their minds because they didn’t want to thank and glorify Him.  They chose the gods they had made over the God who made them.

Similar logic is at work in vs. 26-27.  The women who burn for women and the men who burn for men aren’t operating in the absence of evidence of divine intent.  Instead, just like the idolaters of the preceding verses should be reasoning from the evidence of the creation but have refused to do so, those engaged in unnatural relations should be reasoning from the evidence of natural relations but also have refused.

We are the handiwork of a wise, intentional God who expects us to honor His intent for us.  That intent isn’t evident in bonobos or oysters or any other members of the animal kingdom.  We don’t live like animals live or eat like they eat; why should we take our guidance in sexual matters from them either?

Rather, we learn what is natural for us by reasoning from the evidence of our own bodies.  The body of the man is clearly made to complement the body of the woman, and vice versa.  That is the sexual union for which we have been created.  It is equally clear that women aren’t meant to go with women or men with men.  It is not our natural purpose, and it is not what God wants us to do.  If He had wanted us to behave differently, He would have created us differently.

It is possible to endorse same-sex relations, and it is possible to submit to the will of God as revealed in His creation and His word.  It is not possible to do both.  The world around us has made its choice, sure enough, but before we decide to walk the same path, we ought to remember what God has said about where it leads.

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