Leaving Self-Harm Behind

TRIGGER WARNING: THIS POST DEALS WITH A SENSITIVE TOPIC RELATED TO SELF-INJURY DISORDER

My habit of hurting myself started young. Emotions became too intense or unfamiliar and I would hit myself, usually on the head. I had received messages of being bad, and bad kids deserve to be punished, so I would punish myself in a twisted attempt to become a better person. On top of this, I was taught certain emotions shouldn’t be expressed, so an entire range of feelings became unrecognizable and overwhelming to the point that I could only vent them in anger and misery.

Interestingly enough, this behavior didn’t make me a better person. As I punished “the bad kid,” I settled more into his role. Destructive relationships and behaviors became the norm, even as I was able to put forward a clean image when it mattered. Eventually, as an adult, those behaviors cost me a career, a sense of calling, and my sense of self at the time.

Now some might have let things end with that loss, but I was fortunate enough to have the support and access to help that enabled me to put some of my personal demons to rest. My behavior improved and I thought I was making real headway… Until my son was born.

Don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled to be his father. I love taking care of him full-time, with some part-time personal training to help pay the bills. I have found, however, that those feelings of not being good enough, that self-perception of being broken and inadequate, were all just waiting for a time to resurface. They did so with a vengeance.

I never hurt my son. Ever. But the hitting started again, and this time I have a couple of knots on my head to show for it. Fortunately, I have an amazing therapist who I was able to see yesterday morning for what became the most powerful step in my healing process that I have encountered thus far.

The thing is, Self-Injury Disorder is far more common than we’d like to think. Maybe you don’t hit yourself. Maybe it’s cutting, burning, scratching, breaking bones, or pulling hair. Perhaps you emotionally wound yourself with harsh words or thoughts, refusing to see the good in yourself but harping continually on any mistake you make. Some of us refuse to take compliments, berate ourselves, put ourselves in abusive relationships, or isolate ourselves from any intimacy, no matter how much we might want it.

My point is that even if you don’t fall within the most commonly held extremes, there is a good chance that you are not loving yourself the way you should. Many of us find creative ways to hurt ourselves, all because we learned somewhere along the way that we are undeserving of love.

But nothing could be further from the truth.

In my session, I was asked to describe the hurt I carry. How heavy is it? What color? Where is it located? Finally…

What shape does it take when you picture it on the couch?

It was my 6-7 year old self. It was a little boy with dark brown hair, bright blue eyes, and a sad smile.

I was asked to talk to this boy. He was asking why he was being hurt. I told him that sometimes those who are hurting hurt others, but it’s not his fault. I was asked what I would do or say. I hugged him and just held on, as words didn’t seem necessary. I was asked how he responded. He cried and settled into me, and I told him it was okay to cry.

I told him I loved him, and I let him go. He needed to go be himself, knowing he wasn’t alone.

At the end of the session, my therapist asked if I would ever hit that boy.

I had never thought of things this way. I’m not big into such exercises, but this one got to me. I would never hurt my little boy, no matter how much trouble he got into. I don’t want to hurt anyone, so why does it make sense to hurt myself?

It doesn’t.

If I truly want to be a good person and live a good life, I can’t keep punishing myself for being human. I’ve made mistakes, many of them, but so has everybody else. It’s okay to feel things, intense things. It’s okay to not be okay, but if I have a habit of treating myself as “bad,” then my behavior will mirror that perception. The time has come for me to change the script of my life and understand that all I can do is be the best person I can be in every moment, and that is going to have to be enough.

I didn’t write this to give you some quick fix for your issues with self-injury, and I certainly haven’t been “cured.” I simply wanted to share my story thus far and let you know that you’re not alone. We all have something we need to heal, to make peace with, so that we can live happier, more fulfilling lives. I’ve decided to get help and make this cycle end with me. This won’t be something I pass on to my little boy, and I hope you will take steps toward wholeness for yourself.

There is no shame in telling a friend or family member what’s going on. If they make you feel ashamed, they weren’t much of a real friend/relative anyway. There is no shame in seeking professional help from your clergy, a counselor, or psychotherapist. There is no shame in therapy, medications, coping strategies, or other forms of self-care.

The only shame would be if you kept yourself from experiencing the beautiful soul you already are.

In my spirituality, you are precious and worthy of love because you exist. There is nothing to earn, punish, or harm that will make you more lovable because you yourself, as you are, are a beloved creation and a beautiful part of this world. The only thing left is to get the help needed to help you understand this basic, fundamental, and powerful truth. It may seem daunting, but rest assured that you’re not alone, and there is always hope.

Peace be with you!

** If you are having thoughts of harm or suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255; if you need immediate help, call 911. Don’t wait.**

 

 

 

When Love Hurts

Time and again he rescued them, but they went on defying him deliberately and plunging deeper into wickedness; even so, he took pity on their distress each time he heard them calling. — Psalm 106:43-44, JB

We are surrounded by an idealized, misleading, unrealistic culture of love and it sucks. It sucks for people like me who have needed a lot of grace and do-overs to become a supportive, loyal partner. There’s no room in this culture for mistakes, forgiveness, personal growth, or compromise. If it hurts, it isn’t love.

I can’t help but feel that we are setting ourselves up for failure. Standards are good, and you should never accept hurtful behavior. If, however, your partner is flawed (they are, as are you), that doesn’t mean things can’t work… Unless you’ve already decided that’s the case.

In any relationship, romantic or not, pain comes standard. Those we dare to love will always have a higher chance of hurting us, precisely because they mean so much to us. To expect anything different is foolish, and to withhold grace in those moments is cold and hypocritical.

With emotionally or physically abusive relationships being obvious exceptions, love is going to hurt and we need to accept that if we actually want to experience it. Parents, spouses, friends, children, siblings, all of them are going to mess up at one point or another.

So will you, by the way. If you wouldn’t like being given up on, should you give up on others?

As a person who has fouled up most of his relationships in one way or another, I can tell you that love is what changed me. It wasn’t overnight, and it wasn’t romantic. Love came in the form of not being dumped or abandoned, but also not being enabled to continue my destructive behaviors. It was grace with duty, forgiveness with responsibility.

That kind of love is real, and it’s what changes you.

It’s the kind of love God exhibits in Psalm 106 (and throughout the entire Bible). God knows humans will mess things up… but He still loves, forgives, and shares Himself with them. This is the kind of love Jesus exhibits in his ministries. He knows it will get him killed, but we are considered worth it.

The truth is that love, in any form, is risky. It’s an opening of the heart, and because love occurs between humans, you should know right now that there will be times it hurts like hell… But that’s okay. The question is whether or not this person is someone worth hurting over from time to time.

The biblical answer is that everyone should be treated as “worth it.” Because God (and Jesus) love us in the full knowledge of our shortcomings, so we ought to do for one another. To do so is to “be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect” by loving even those we consider “enemies” (Matthew 5:48, 44). This kind of love is radical and unsafe, and it will lead to being hurt or taken advantage of.

Without such openness, however, we would have a hard time connecting at all. Now again, does this mean endlessly accepting abuse or harm? Of course not. But it does mean we should never let pain close our hearts and snuff out the light of our love.

My wife, friends, family, and I have hurt each other many times over the years, but we chose to be stronger for it, and that love has produced real change in all of us. We are living in a time when every relationship is considered potentially disposable, and I believe we are far less gracious than we should be as a society. This must change if we truly want to witness the emergence of a better world that we can leave behind for future generations.

Love hurts. It’s risky, frightening, and it will open us up to all manner of unpleasantness… It’s also the most worthwhile endeavor in which we could ever hope to partake.

Peace be with you!

Blessed in the Bad

I need only say, ‘I am slipping,’ and your love, YHWH, immediately supports me; and in the middle of all my troubles you console me and make me happy. — Psalm 94:18-19, JB

It’s been a trend for quite some time that the Christian world, particularly in the U.S., has associated blessedness with ease of life. When we have faith, our lives should become easier, right? After all, to consider one’s self “blessed” is to acknowledge the smooth ride life has been and/or all the material blessings one has accumulated.

Or not.

Take this quote from Psalm 94. For me, it hearkens back to the Beatitudes in Matthew 5. In both of those texts, a person is considered blessed right in the middle of their suffering.

Why?

“Blessedness” has to do with one’s connection to God’s love, not the abundant or enjoyable nature of one’s earthly life. Scripture regularly assumes that life is going to be hard, perhaps even more so for the faithful. This is precisely why being “blessed” can’t be related to our comfort. Rather, it refers to our state within our discomfort.

If, when sh*t hits the fan, we consider ourselves to have lost the blessing of God, the situation ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy because we are blinded to the activities of Divine love in the midst of our struggles. When we get stuck thinking God is absent or angry with us, we fail to utilize what befalls us as an occasion to lean on and share the love of God. Our tragedies and failures become means of humiliation rather than transformation.

Does that mean God makes bad things happen to teach us lessons? I don’t believe so. But bad things do happen, and we can either be destroyed by them or educated/transformed through them. This is the choice before us, and whichever one we embrace determines whether or not we are truly blessed.

To connect with God is to choose hope in the face of tragedy, kindness in the face of evil, love in the face of hate. This is the example Jesus leaves us, and to imitate it is to embody the powerful love of God in our own lives.

That, dear reader, is what it means to be blessed.

“Stand Your Ground” Law: Why I Stopped Killing Spiders

I used to kill spiders, often on command. Spiders or insects of various kinds would enter our dwelling and someone would yell, “Kill it!” I’d do it, usually with no thought at all.

After all, people I love are scared of those things. I have been scared of them. Therefore, I am justified in taking life from them, right?

Our country even defends this behavior with humans. The Zimmerman and Martin case in Florida is a good example. It turns out you can pick a fight with someone, lose that fight, and shoot that someone because you made a stupid decision.

Totally makes sense, yes?

In pre-historic times, sure. Killing things that seemed threatening kept our species alive. The problem is that civilization doesn’t function well under those parameters. That’s A LOT of death when you take into account how often we tend to fear or hate difference. Yet many states are totally fine with validating our fears to the point of violence.

I get the idea. We want people to legally be able to defend themselves, which is great until you factor in prejudice (in the form of unequal threat association based on race or appearance) and a set of lawyers out to manipulate juries for a win. Also, humans get scared of a lot of things, and that fear is subjective, which is not a sound basis for law. Juries are supposed to consider evidence precisely because empathy can interfere with justice because of shared prejudice.

After all, if we legally excuse people based on their mindset at the time, NO ONE would pay for their crimes. There is ALWAYS justification available. We humans can rationalize anything.

When we justify violence based on fear, we set ourselves up for more violence, not less. This works against what I would say is the goal of laws against murder, manslaughter, assault, etc.

But what is the alternative?

Well.

What if we cared more about life (all life) than possessions or our own illusion of safety? What if we as individuals decided ahead of time to act with love and kindness toward others, no matter how others might act toward us? What if we as a society recognized the inherent value of all living creatures as part of this interconnected natural world?

There is inherent risk to this idea. It’s a scary, idealistic approach to complex, dark, and real issues. However, things can’t change if we keep responding “in kind.” You can’t kill your way to peace. It takes an entirely different response to affect change, and I think we can all agree that change is something we need.

So I stopped killing wasps, spiders, roaches, all of it. I catch them, and I move them. I take precautions, but those precautions are selected with love and appreciation in mind, not fear. It’s a small thing, but perhaps we as a society would benefit from finding such a “third way” for how we deal with each other.

Peace be with you!

All That’s Wrong with “Love”

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. — John 15:12, RSV

Do you ever get tired of hearing about “love?” I do. As someone who has spent most of his time in mainline denominations (and surrounded by people who espouse more liberal theology), I was hammered on the head for YEARS about the supposed “love” of God that we were supposed to share with one another. Often, the verse above was cited to make sure we understood the importance of this.

Now why am I bashing on the idea of “love?” Also, why am I putting “love” in quotes?

For starters, the “love” that is often peddled in the religious mainline is not real love. It’s a form of passivity that keeps us out of confrontation. When we “love” one another, we blandly accept each other in a way that keeps everyone feeling comfortable. Preachers don’t really say anything because they don’t want to alienate anyone by declaring certain beliefs and practices to be inconsistent with the Gospel, so you get a lot of “spiritual” sermons that just tell you God “loves” you and it’s going to be okay.

People “love” each other, so they don’t call one another out for being total jerks. Parents “love” their kids, so discipline falls to the wayside. We “love” our country, so we don’t question its practices or heroes. God “loves” us all, so we can basically do whatever we want.

Welp. I’ve had it.

I’ve been as guilty of this as everyone else, but sometimes, you just have to change. Why? Because this form of “love” is a slap in the face to God. I will repeat.

This type of “love” is a direct, violent, and dismissive slap in the face to God.

Referring back to the selection of John 15 I used for this post, it is true that Jesus’ commandments ultimately boil down to “love one another as I have loved you.” But how did Jesus love us? Read the next verse. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (15:13).

Oh, SNAP!

Yes, as it turns out, real love is costly. It hurts. It is confrontational, takes no prisoners, and can end up costing us our very security, comfort, and lives.

God doesn’t “love” us. God loves us. God came in the flesh to show us the extent of that love, even going so far as to accept a horrific, torturous, and humiliating death to make sure we understood what love really is.

To love God means to love one another. To love one another means we are willing to speak the truth to one another and to ourselves. We are willing to point out what’s wrong and our own participation in those wrongs. We are willing to face our darkness so that our lives may be life-giving and a blessing to those we encounter. Further, love also means that we are willing to change in order that we might grow in our ability to honor God by truly loving our neighbors and enemies as ourselves.

I openly admit that this post is a lot of frustration with myself. I used to live a life that was rooted in “love,” a fickle feeling that justified the crappy things I did while paying lip service to God in how I treated His people. I’ve recently come to the point where I am much healthier; physically, mentally, and spiritually. With that health comes the full knowledge and recognition of all the wrong that I have done in the name of “love,” and I am writing in the hopes that the rest of us can avoid learning this lesson the hard way.

I am also writing, however, that you may know just what it means to love. Love is sacrifice. Love is fierce. Love transforms our hearts, minds, and lives into something utterly beautiful. Love is what God has for you. Yes, God is just, holy, and “other.” But all of that is rooted in the reckless love God fosters for every aspect of His creation. It’s a love we are reminded of when we look to the cross and see how far He was willing to go for our sake.

This was a pretty heavy, passionate post, I know. It at least felt that way to me. But my own revelations over the last year or so (my entire life, really) have come to a head and I just feel this urgency to let you know that love still has power for us today. No matter how often it gets watered down or misused, the power of love is the power of God, and it is offered to you and me. It is my prayer that we will accept it.

Peace be with you.

Simple, Not Easy

My vows to thee I must perform, O God; I will render thank offerings to thee. — Psalm 56:12, RSV

One of the themes I’ve been touching (harping?) on frequently in recent posts, such as the one on Islam, is the idea that we are only responsible for our decisions to love God and our neighbor (or not). This life is short and full of opportunities in which we might witness to the love of God with our lives, but we often make that process more complicated than it needs to be.

Take the conversation about homeless persons, for example. Many of us don’t give money to panhandlers because “they might go buy drugs or booze with it.” I definitely appreciate this concern, as fueling someone’s self-destructive habits is certainly not something I want to be guilty of.

It is, however, important that we ask ourselves a question in this scenario. If, at the judgment, God asks us how we responded to someone’s apparent need, what will we be able to say? Sure, that person may choose to waste our kindness, but that is something for which they will have to answer. For me, the only choice I face is whether or not I meet a perceived need when I am able to do so.

This consideration is true for virtually any risky situation in which we are challenged to give of ourselves, especially when we may not be assured of any discernible positive effects. In Psalm 56, quoted at the beginning of this post, the speaker is being pursued by those “who seek to injure my cause,” and those “whose thoughts are against me for evil” (56:5). These people “band themselves together, they lurk,they watch my steps,” and yet the Psalmist’s decision is not to turn tail and flee (56:6). Instead, the speaker insists, “My vows to thee I must perform, O God; I will render thank offerings to thee” (56:12).

The proper response to any situation, even one in which we may be taken advantage of or “pursued without cause,” is faithfulness. Being faithful to God is found in following His commandments (1 John 3:22), and all commandments and prophets may be hung on the Christian calling to love God with all we have, and our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:34-40). It’s certainly not easy, but it is rather simple.

This is a world in which we want assurance and security regarding the people and place in which we invest our kindness. Some of this comes from a good place, other times it’s mere selfishness. Therefore, it is my prayer that you will join me in practicing the Great Commandment. Jesus leaves us His example, healing and bringing the Good News to all, even those who would eventually crucify Him, and the invitation to follow is extended to us. Just remember, regardless of the uncertainty of the world, God’s faithfulness is something we can certainly depend on.

Peace be with you!

 

 

My Relationship to Islam

Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. — Romans 14:4, NRSV

My relationships with and appreciation for Muslims has always been rather controversial. This is a world in which battle lines are not supposed to be crossed, and the battle lines between Muslims and non-Muslims have been drawn deeply for a long time here in the United States. Obviously, the events of September 11, 2001 have a lot to do with that (despite the fact that Muslims died in those towers as civilians and first responders), but so do the various campaigns overseas (in which many Muslim-Americans have fought) that have left far too many people dead and wounded. Since the forces American troops are facing over there are Muslim (at least in name), many choose to center their opinion of Islam in general on the experiences of the religion’s most violent and fanatical adherents.

I get it. Kinda.

What I don’t get is how my relationships with Muslim people make me a traitor or misinformed liberal. I certainly am not a supporter of terrorism, as others have said. Oh, I have also been told that I am “condoning the wholesale slaughter of thousands of innocent people.” That was a neat conversation.

Oddly enough, I don’t get asked questions as to why I have the stances and relationships I do, regardless of the topic. I suppose that is an indication that those I am speaking with don’t really care about my reasons or logic, but they just want to fight and tell me I am wrong. So thanks for that.

Even more troubling is that all of these reactions have come from rather proud, self-described Christian people. Those who claim to have received and been transformed by the grace of God in Jesus Christ as undeserving sinners have always been rather quick to pour forth condemnation from their lips toward various people in various times, but I think now is a good time for explaining why I can’t get on the anti-Muslim train… And there are biblical reasons for this.

I met Ekram through the interfaith program at Perkins School of Theology. I was just starting my World Religious course, and part of that course was spending time in weekly dialogue with members of another religious tradition. I was assigned to meet with a group of Muslims at the Islamic Association of North Texas.

Throughout the course of our meetings, Ekram and I were found to share similar views and goals for interfaith work. Though we both acknowledged that we are from different traditions that cannot be reconciled, we also knew that we could help bring people together for the greater good of society by resisting the popular narratives and facilitating the building of bridges between people, rather than broadening the chasm. So we planned an event.

Ekram came to the church I was serving at the time and led a presentation on Islam. This included general facts, misconceptions, and a question/answer session that got quite tense when parents got involved. But overall, many came away with a different view and a more curious perspective. The next event was at Ekram’s mosque, when I led a presentation over Christianity to the youth at that location, and the results were similar.

While this was happening, Ekram and I became friends. He and his wife invited us over for loud, delicious, and filling dinners with them, their children, and grandchildren. We shared life stories, talked politics, religion, and the inconvenience of supermarkets always leaving just two lanes open.

As time went on, we did more events, continued sharing life together, and even led a counter-protest when armed protesters showed up outside the Islamic Association of North Texas to stomp on copies of the Qur’an and shout obscenities while Muslim mothers and children came for afternoon prayer. We are close friends and co-authors, as Ekram asked me to write the forward for his latest book, and we are currently planning an interfaith devotional that we will put together in the near future.

This all constitutes the first reason why I cannot take on the anti-Muslim character that has become fashionable in many circles. I know Muslims. I am friends with several, have met many more, and I love Ekram and his family. They are good, faithful people, just trying to make life work, not unlike everyone else.

I don’t deny the experience of our troops overseas, nor do I discount the violence of fanatical Islam, but I also can’t deny what I have experienced personally. I have found that those who espouse “Islamophobia” don’t really know any Muslim people. They wonder why Muslims “don’t say something” about terrorism, yet they don’t have any way of knowing what is said. They have no real relationship to the religion or its adherents. I suppose it is easier to hate or distrust something unfamiliar, but that is a chosen, subjective path, not a fact of life.

The second reason is that I cannot justify a sweeping, negative attitude and treatment toward a religion based on its most violent actions. Why? Because Christianity has a horrific, violent history. Yes, Christians were persecuted by Jews and Romans early on in their history… But the tables soon turned with a vengeance. Over the last two thousand years, Christianity has done great things and horrible things. Conquests, forced conversion, slavery, witch hunts, anti-intellectualism, the anti-civil rights movement, white supremacy, homophobia, and acts of terrorism can all be laid at the feet of those who subscribe to extreme Christian ideology.

But we don’t want to be judged based off of what violent adherents to our faith have done. So… why do it to someone else? Because they are newer? Christ teaches, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12). Further, He says, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged…For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (7:1-2). If we want to be seen in light of the best our faith has to offer, shouldn’t we look to do the same for others?

Finally, on a related note, I know that I am not the Judge. God is. Paul asks the Roman church, “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall” (Romans 14:4). In this context, he is talking about Christians judging Christians for their choices on food and holy days, so he says “The Lord is able to make them stand” (14:4). But his teaching stands alone and is applicable in this case.

I am answerable to God only for what I decide to do. I disagree theologically with much of Islam, and Ekram is aware of this. Likewise, I am aware of what he finds problematic with Christianity. At the end of the day, though, being fair, open-minded, and loving toward each other is not based on our agreement. Rather, God will ask us both what we did when faced with the choice to love or hate, judge or show mercy, and we want to be able to answer correctly. If Ekram or I are wrong, God will correct us. But as Paul and Jesus imply, judgment on others is not a task to which we are called.

So there you have it. You may not agree with me. This might have just made you like me less. I don’t really care either way. My goal with this post was to explain why my relationship with Islam is what it is. My hope is that my personal testimony will at least move some hearts to get out and explore personally what they might fear or hate, no matter what it is. The life of faith is not a call to fear and mistrust, but love and reliance on God as final Judge and authority.

My prayer is that those of us who struggle with a narrowed perspective rooted in fear might cry out to God that His Spirit would fill our hearts with the faith and love of Jesus. Hatred, fear, and judgment are not the call of the Christian. We are to love God and our neighbor (including perceived enemies) in a self-sacrificial way, as God has shown His love for us in Christ. Whether it’s based on religion, race, economic class, or social status, prejudice is something the faith is designed to heal, not encourage. May we all lean on the One who is our comfort and strength, and may we all reach across boundaries to make for a better world.

Peace be with you!