Birthing My Book: Bringing Delight in Disorder to Life

Having conceived and nurtured a memoir for almost a year, only to have it soundly rejected, it felt much like a miscarriage. I went a year without writing a word. It was only when I enrolled in an intensive discipleship training program that I again started to bring words to life, or, more accurately, let the Word come to life by cultivating the soil of stories.

Still, I wasn’t ready to come back to my memoir. It was too personal, too painful, too raw. Instead, I moved onto fiction – drafting a trilogy of short stories – “Life,” “Liberty,” and “The Pursuit of Happiness.”  More than the quality of the narrative (which is still quite unfinished), the discipline of daily writing as I created characters, developed dialogue, and polished plot, gave me increasing confidence that I had a “way with words.”

Then a very tragic thing happened. A young man I had never met committed suicide. He was playing family board games one minute and the next he was in his room shooting himself. The young man’s name was Matthew, son of Rick Warren renowned pastor of Saddleback Church and author of the best-selling Purpose-Driven Life.

My initial reaction was to take to my bed. I didn’t get up for three days. I read what people within the church and outside of it were saying. Some of it trying to be nice and compassion. Some of it downright ugly and mean. Nearly all of it lacking a clear Biblical understanding of mental illness that would drive a person to suicide.

I decided I needed to re-write my memoir. I also knew I couldn’t do it alone. I shared the idea with Leanne Sype, a blogging friend and editor, to whom I had pitched my trilogy. Very soon, she became as passionate about the project as I did. With Leanne’s help, I worked through a second draft, and a third (and in some cases fourth and fifth). With Leanne’s guidance, I pitched it to an agent and went to a writer’s conference to see about pursuing conventional publishing.

We prayed for a clear sign and got it almost immediately. A resounding no. Undeterred, Leanne encouraged me to pursue self-publishing, helped me navigate around some shark-invested waters of vanity publishers. She introduced me to graphic artist Nicole Miller who also has a heart for the Lord and a distinct eye for graphic design. Soon, we had a book cover. Nicole then moved on to a video for our indiegogo campaign where we exceeded our goal.

Along came another young faithful servant, Christina Tarabochia, who took the text and shaped it into various formats uploaded at Smashwords (and soon, for Amazon and Barnes & Noble). Christina helped explain some of the technical aspects of getting our book in the hands of the readers and has been an invaluable resource.

Now that we have a downloadable e-book (soon to be in print), we are only entering another season of the larger “Delight in Disorder” mission. Over the past few days I have been contacted mental health and church leaders from across the country to help us spread the word — to bridge the distance between faith and mental illness. I’ve already received two speaking invitations and am building some very fruitful relationships.

Much has been done — Facebook author page, Twitter account (indy_tony), media kit, business card design, e-mail and phone contact) and much remains to be done (website upgrade, speaking engagements, reviews). I have no idea where God will lead now that the book has been birthed. I only pray I’ll do my part to be a faithful stewardship of the Word calling me to share divine delight in the disorder of the world.

Write your favorite scripture on a canvas for your dorm room. It fills up wall space and it will be a good encouragement.

Birthing My Book: Cultivating the Soil

The years 2009-2011 are pretty much a blur for me. I was on a high dose of psychotropics. I was still recuperating from the effects of E.C.T.. I was dealing with deep depression due in large part to a lack of purpose since going on disability.

After my first attempt to write a spiritual memoir was rejected by publishers, I stuffed it in a dresser drawer and quit writing altogether. I tried some gardening, wheeling aging veterans to worship, painting dairy barns, cleaning furnaces — anything to be somewhat productive and stay out of the pit.

Nothing helped. At least not much. In December of 2010 I enrolled in a partial hospitalization treatment program and was introduced to a relatively new therapeutic approach that was proving successful among bipolar patients. It was called Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT).

I was less than impressed.  I found DBT to be a rather basic blend of pop psychology and generic eastern philosophy.  While I benefited from the support of group therapy and met many compassionate caregivers, I left the program feeling it had fallen short, eager for something more in-depth and, if possible, rooted in my own Christian tradition.

Thanks to the advocacy of a family minister, we discovered a program called Shepherd’s Fold. Originally designed as a re-integration program for prisoners adjusting back to family life, it had become more a discipleship center where men could study deeply the Scriptures, receive Christian counsel, and develop work and personal habits that might carry over for them to become better husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers in Christ.

I enrolled at Shepherd’s Fold in September of 2011 and immediately began to adopt the schedule, the tasks, and habits they had carefully designed to promote spiritual well-being. While I struggled with the structure, and my pace at work and in chores was particularly slow, I found my overall mental health improved. Most importantly, I was able to read and reflect on God’s Word for hours each day.

I began to write again.  My letters home to my wife were often 30 pages and up (and sometimes I wrote 2 or 3 a week). I began a correspondence with a former colleague in ministry who sent me his sermons and I would respond with lengthy replies. In addition to daily journal entries from Scripture readings, I did a number of research papers on issues with which I had been dealing. After eight months in treatment, I was asked to write a “spiritual autobiography” and I filled over 125 hand-written pages. My writer’s voice was returning.

Sadly, my time at Shepherd’s Fold came to an end in August, 2012 as I left the program early.  God only knows the complete story of why it didn’t work out as we had hoped — to promote family reconciliation.  But it is clear that though the soil seemed barren, there was much cultivation.

Cultivating

Birthing My Book: From Conception to Miscarriage

Finger  Lakes Country. An hour or two from Rochester.

On June 13, 2009, I was driving along the scenic shores of the Finger Lakes region of New York wondering what I was going to do with my life.  I was 45.  I had spent most of the last two decades serving as a pastor while battling bipolar disorder. At my best, I had time and energy left to enjoy family life with my wonderful wife and four beautiful children.  At my worst, I either laid under the covers in a dark bedroom or frantically pursued plans ill-conceived and left undone.  I looked out the window and prayed for vision.

Suddenly, it came to me. I would write a book about bipolar and the faith that either fuels us to distraction or saves us from self-destruction.  In less than 20 miles, I conceived of a collection of devotions, inspired by the Psalms and a title — from Sheol to the Highest Heavens: 101 Devotions for Persons with Bipolar (and those who love them).  By the time I pulled into the driveway, I had most of the introduction in mind (which has remained largely the same), and some thoughts on one devotion (which is now the “Epilogue”).

Over the course of the next six months, I poured through the Psalms and wrote 1-3 devotions a day.  Some days as I felt like working more, I would re-write earlier devotions.  By early 2010, I had a manuscript I just knew would be embraced by countless publishers.  I bought a copy of the Christian Writer’s Market Guide, found 15 publishers I felt were appropriate and sent out quickly composed queries.

I waited.  And waited.  And waited.

Out of the 15 queries I sent out, I received a total of one response – a two sentence form e-mail.

It was as if I had a miscarriage.

I stuffed the manuscript in my chest-of-drawers under a pile of junk mail, unfolded underwear and mis-matched socks.

I didn’t write another word for over a year.

The Bible says, “Without vision, people perish.”  I was dying on the vine.  My mind was consumed with grief which actually felt a lot like nothingness.  Each day, I sat in my recliner and stared at the ceiling.  At night, I slept fitfully, listening to BBC radio through my pillow speaker — a reminder at least that life went on — somewhere.

Meanwhile, my wife was fed up.  Understandably.  Here we were, living on a fruitful homestead, financially secure, with four adorable children and nothing to do but delight in the Lord and love one another.  What was wrong with me?

I tried many things – counseling, gardening, volunteering, working with men from the church.  Something was still not right.  We searched our minds for an answer. Was I over-medicated? Did my overdose damage my brain? Or the E.C.T.? Was it my illness? Or just me?

Only God knew.  And for some reason, God was not giving us the answer.

(image above from Jenny Russo)

Was He Only Dreaming?: Hoosier Perspectives on Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the fall of 1975, I opened my fresh new Language Arts textbook and found that some pages had been cut out.  I walked up to my teacher’s desk and his response was,

 ”I did that.  It was a story about Martin Luther King.  I don’t want you reading about some nigger who went around stirring up trouble.”

Yesterday, I was talking with an elderly woman who didn’t realize today was a holiday.

“What holiday is it?”

“Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday,” I replied.

“I swear.  What do you have to do to get a day named after you?  He didn’t do nothing.”

This morning, I was talking to a man in his 70s about King’s legacy.

“I know he preached non-violence,” he said, “but as soon as he’d finish his speeches, blacks would go around breaking into stores and stealing stuff.  I don’t care what the history books say.  I saw it on TV.”

While King is celebrated as a saint by nearly all African Americans and a vast majority of white Americans as well, there is still a pervasive racial attitude among some – perhaps those who find themselves on the wrong side of history – that King was anything but heroic.

“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”   ―  Martin Luther King Jr.

day 154  Martin Luther King jr. Day by ms.Tea

 from ms.Tea, some rights reserved

{I first posted this on MLK day last year and received a tremendous response. This year, I will be sharing it with my reading and writing classes as I also feature King’s classic book Strength to Love.}

Heaven on Earth

I call to you, God, because I’m sure of an answer.
    So—answer! bend your ear! listen sharp!
Paint grace-graffiti on the fences;
    take in your frightened children who
Are running from the neighborhood bullies
    straight to you. (Psalm 17:6-7)

David often found himself under attack. Rather than comfortably lifting up prayers in a plush temple sanctuary, he called on God from the trenches on behalf of troops faithful but frightened. The only One to whom they could run for protection was God. And God was just the one to save them. Still, they longed for assurance.

Keep your eye on me;
    hide me under your cool wing feathers
From the wicked who are out to get me,
    from mortal enemies closing in.

Their hearts are hard as nails,
    their mouths blast hot air.
They are after me, nipping my heels,
    determined to bring me down,
Lions ready to rip me apart,
    young lions poised to pounce.
Up, God: beard them! break them!
    By your sword, free me from their clutches;
Barehanded, God, break these mortals,
    these flat-earth people who can’t think beyond today. (Psalm 17:8-13)

David and his troops size up their enemies and find them to be cruel and determined to destroy, like lions poised to pounce. It is not a fair fight. On their own, Israel would be obliterated. But they are not alone. With just a word, God can break these enemies barehanded. Indeed, it is not a fair fight.

After taking a moment to daydream about his enemies’ fate (“their bellies swollen with famine food”), David gets to the heart of his desire.

And me? I plan on looking
    you full in the face. When I get up,
I’ll see your full stature
    and live heaven on earth. (Psalm 17:15)

This is our best aim when we are under attack and call out to God in prayer.  Not that we would be protected so we can become self-absorbed in our own desires and comfort, but so we can pour out our lives as Christ did. God rescues us not for a life of leisure but a life of service. Heaven on earth is not a state of getting everything we want, but being all we can be for the glory of God.

Winter Glory.

“Winter Glory.” from Debbie Yearsley Davidson

(Bible quotations taken from The Message)

The Safe and Secure Path

Keep me safe, O God,

I’ve run for dear life to you.

I say to God, “Be my Lord!”

Without you, nothing makes sense.  (Psalm 16:1-2)

Apart from a few encounters with bullies growing up, I’ve rarely faced external threats of violence. My enemies have primarily come from within, as I have battled bipolar disorder. Facing the demons of depression and mania, my mind has turned against me such that I have no longer been safe in my own skin. I’ve posed a distinct threat to myself and others.

At such times, I’ve run to God for shelter and found God already reaching out for me. God has brought me to my senses and led me to secure shelter in which to stand. Once there, I’ve found loving companions to keep me safe.

And these God-chosen lives all around –

what splendid friends they make! (Psalm 16:3)

Through the faithful fellowship of friends and family watching out for me, encouraging me, caring for me in so many ways, I have seen the face and touched the hands of God.

With such loyal companionship as God has provided, one would think I would gratefully and gladly hold on tight. Yet, I am prone to wander. David’s words serve as a warning to me.

Don’t just go shopping for a god.

Gods are not for sale.

I swear I’ll never treat god-names

like brand-names. (Psalm 16:4)

I am fickle when it comes to faithfulness. My lips profess there is one true God who is my Lord and Savior but my heart is often far from Him. I talk the talk yet fail to walk the walk. God help me to be a man after God’s own heart — like David.

My choice is you, God, first and only.

And now I find I’m your choice!

You set me up with a house and yard.

And then you made me your heir! (Psalm 16:5-6)

David enjoyed many blessings in his life. God chose him when he was only a shepherd boy to become Israel’s king. God moved him from the fields to a palace. God prospered him more than he could have imagined.

No doubt God can and does  bring us temporal blessings in this life. More than this, however, God promises us a home in the next — part of His blessed family. In Christ, we are made heirs of God’s abundant life that begins now and lasts forever. In this promise, we rest secure.

The wise counsel God gives when I’m awake

is confirmed  by my sleeping heart.

Day and night I’ll stick with God;

I’ve got a good thing going and I’m not letting go. (Psalm 16:7-8)

God’s gift of adoption into His family should not make us complacent. Instead, with the conviction of faith we are motivated to do more by grace than if we anxiously tried to earn God’s blessing.

I’m happy from the inside out,

and from the outside in, I’m firmly fixed.

You cancelled my ticket to hell –

that’s not my destination! (Psalm 19:9-10)

More than being protected in this life, God has rescued us in Christ from eternal destruction. Without Christ, we are without hope. With Christ, we have all in the world — and well beyond.

Now you’ve got my feet on the life path,

all radiant from the shining of your face.

Ever since you took my hand,

I’m on the right way. (Psalm 19:11-12)

With Christ leading us by the hand, we are no longer lost. More than this, Christ shines through us to light the way for others to follow.

As I write this, snow is falling here in the Midwest. The roads will be hazardous. I pray for travelers’ safety along the way. In a larger sense, I also pray for all travelers that they find the Way that leads to Life.

Snowy path

Be More Like a Child at Christmas (and beyond)

smiling children

… Christmas is not only the mile-mark of another year, moving us to thoughts of self-examination: it is a season, from all its associations, whether domestic or religious, suggesting thoughts of joy. A man dissatisfied with his endeavours is a man tempted to sadness. And in the midst of the winter, when his life runs lowest and he is reminded of the empty chairs of his beloved, it is well he should be condemned to this fashion of the smiling face. Noble disappointment, noble self-denial are not to be admired, not even to be pardoned, if they bring bitterness. It is one thing to enter the kingdom of heaven maim; another to maim yourself and stay without. And the kingdom of heaven is of the childlike, of those who are easy to please, who love and who give pleasure.  (from “A Christmas Sermon” by Robert Louis Stevenson)

Sometimes we think we are doing good when we are our own worst critiques.  We count ourselves “noble” to set unattainable goals then feel miserable when we fall short (and repeat the cycle, or do even worse the next time).  We see this a lot this time of year, with new year’s resolutions, promises we make to ourselves or vows we make to others that this year things are going to be different.

I have a number of regrets in my life.

– I regret I’ve not been a more loving father.

– I regret I’ve not been a more attentive husband.

– I regret I’ve not been a more effective pastor.

I have so many regrets and now, perhaps foremost among them, I regret most that I have so many regrets.

In his “A Christmas Sermon”, Stevenson shows that this human instinct to become embittered with ourselves when we fail only leads us to be even more critical of others.  This was precisely the thing Jesus accused the Pharisees (the religious leaders of his day) of doing.  Trying to live not only by the letter but by the brush strokes of each letter of the law, they wound up enforcing it on others and overlooking ways they could improve themselves.

So what do we do instead?  Does this mean we set no goals, have low standards or no standards at all.  I don’t think so.  It means we re-direct our focus away from ourselves and to… children.  Children, says Stevenson, are easy to please.  They love.  And they give pleasure.  (I would only add that children properly raised display these “natural” qualities.  When you see a child whining about getting clothes for Christmas instead of electronic toys, you have to wonder what’s going on.)

But children can be good teachers.  Not that they are innocent, but they are more at ease being in a dependent relationship, being grateful for what they are given, sharing love freely instead of trying to bargain for something at a price, being pleased and giving pleasure.  Laughing for the sheer joy of laughing.

As I celebrate this Christmas season and look forward to a new year, I’m still going to set some goals, but I’ll base them on the right models.

Goal #1:   I’m going to be more grateful for what I’ve been given.

Goal #2:  I’m going to love more freely.

Goal #3:  I’m going to be pleased – in God, in others, and in myself.

How about you?  What are your goals this Christmas season (and beyond)?

(photo “Smile” from  Literally Photographysome rights reserved)

Coming Up From my Bipolar Basement

I’ve been lingering in the basement of my bipolar mind for some time, waiting for some storms to pass before rising to the surface. I’ve taken some risks. Due to a transition in prescription drug coverage and a financial shortfall, I tried to conserve on a couple of my medications to make them last through the end of the year (when the expensive one goes generic). I’m struggling to be productive in a new work environment.  I’ve veered from much creative writing to spend time promoting the indiegogo campaign for my mission. Not surprisingly – with fewer corrective chemicals in my blood, added external stressors, and less therapeutic releases, I’ve experienced a low-grade depression. To cope, I go into the basement.

Some people look negatively on those who escape to the basement.  They picture n’er-do-well not-so-young adults who still live in their parent’s basement, smoke weed, sleep away the day and watch television through the night. The basement becomes more a tomb than a womb.

For me, the basement of my bipolar mind is where I go when the warning sirens are sounding. I think.  I pray. I read and write, though not as much.  I stay connected to the world around me through social media. When the clouds lift and the “all clear” sounds, I take the steps upward one at a time.

As I write this, I’m noticing the sky is much clearer.

God has provided the resources for my medication for the remainder of the year and I am back on my prescribed dosages. My body chemistry is approaching equilibrium.

Thanks to the generous support of people around the world, we have exceeded our mission goal to publish Delight in Disorder.  Now, every dollar donated in the time remaining for the campaign will be used to promote the book on-line and provide seed money for a book tour. 

My responsibilities at work have shifted so I can better use my writing skills and my boss has shown a great deal of grace in accommodating my schedule to optimize my mental health.

I received an e-mail tonight which may be an indication that God is opening doors for me to discuss mental illness within faith communities throughout the state.

Yes, I believe the basement door has opened a crack and some light is shining in. It’s time for me to climb the steps.

Steps

Delight in the Works of the Lord

Praise the LORD!

I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart,

in the company of the upright, in the congregation.

Great are the works of the LORD,

studied by all who delight in them. (Psalm 111:1-2)

Praise is personal, but it is best expressed publicly. When people say. “Faith should be kept private,” I was to yell out, “How can I keep from singing?” If I hear a great song, see a marvelous movie, read a gripping novel, or encounter a compelling work of art, my gut reaction is to share the experience with others. How can I keep from praising?

Today I went to an extended family gathering. Not being a social butterfly, I typically observe others and wait to speak until I’m spoken to. I noticed the flow of conversation was about physical ailments – everything from excessive flatulence to herniated  discs to heart conditions.

In time, I was asked what I did. I talked about my memoir and mission to share hope with folks like me who have a mental illness as well as foster compassion within the faith community.

One woman seemed genuinely interested. (I was later told her ex-husband had bipolar disorder and had committed suicide.) She tried to engage others in a conversation about faith and mental illness but everyone uncomfortably looked down at their food. Very soon someone changed the subject to something more socially acceptable. Hemorrhoids, I think.

Mental disorders like mine can be intensely uncomfortable, even agonizingly painful at times, but there is delight to be found in the midst of the disorder. This delight flows from the Spirit of the Lord, who deeply desires that we share our delight “in the company of the upright, in the congregation.”

thumbnail image
Visit our mission site and help us reach our goal by 11/20!

Higher Education (from Delight in Disorder)

Photo is loading
 
 

College was a time for experiments.

Mixing songs with sex, ideas with drugs.

The God I had come to know went up in smoke.

I replaced the living Word with words from lives

That thirsted for truths to absorb the Truth

And hungered for rights without Righteousness.

 

I wrote a book my senior year called,

Life (in obvious places)

Filled with family stories and ones I’d conceived.

At the end, a coquettish Claudia Matson asks the narrator –

“Why don’t you write any love stories?”

“I don’t know any,” he replies.

 

I took a job at a plastics factory.

And started going to a country church.

Grammar Presbyterian.

Filled with farmers and grandmothers

Who made room for me in my stained Salvation Army clothes.

Smelling of smoke, looking for a God of substance.

 

Easter Sunday, on my way to church.

I saw a grey-haired woman in a tattered coat wandering.

I pulled over and tried to help.

She didn’t know where she was and I didn’t know where to take her.

We were both lost.

 

I drove her to a downtown church.

Dressed in his Easter best, a usher gave her a donut and some coffee.

He sat with her and helped her find her way home.

I left the church in tears.

Finding strength to be weak in a community of grace.

 

I went to seminary to serve God with my mind,

Hoping my body and soul would follow.

In class we looked at the language of Scripture

And discussed how not to talk about God.

 

In my pastoral work, I found God…

… in the joy of boy who would never speak.

… in the songs of prisoners longing for freedom.

… in the tears of a man praying beside his dying wife’s bed.

 

I say I found God, but really God found me, and I didn’t run away.

 

I met Alice in the office of a friend.

She was arguing with the phone company about a deposit.

She won.

I said to myself, “I want her on my side.”

Within 6 months, we were engaged.

 

We moved to a 3-room row house in South St. Louis.

The heat was unbearable,

Steam rising from the asphalt.

We passionately loved and more passionately fought.

From this conjugal clash, a child was conceived.

 

We moved to the countryside,

And I became a pastor,

A shepherd of a frozen flock.

I preached sermons on Sunday,

And took out the trash on Tuesdays.

 

Sarah was born in early Spring.

There was a chill in the air and ice on the roads,

But we barely noticed.

We brought her home to balloons and signs

A Noah’s Ark nursery.

We made her first week a music video

with Sandy Patty singing –

You are a masterpiece
A new creation He has formed
And you’re as soft  and fresh as a snowy winter morn.
And I’m so glad that God has given you to me

After a week, I was spent (or so I thought).

I retreated to my office and didn’t come out

Even when I came home.

thumbnail image
Visit our mission site and help us reach our goal by 11/20!