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

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

Great Writers (and me) on Writing

Tony - Writing

I have some great news for which I am very thankful.  I have accepted a position as a writing instructor at a local community college.  The course is called “Introduction to Academic Writing” and it is primarily designed to teach beginning students to construct well written, persuasive essays.

To make the most of this educational opportunity, however, I want to share my passion for writing as well as the mechanics of how to do it well.  To prepare, I have pulled out part of a post (below) I wrote on writing.

A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song. ― Maya Angelou

The primary purpose of good writing is not to fix a problem, but to make it more meaningful and beautiful to live in a world filled with problems.  This is one reason I don’t read more Charles Dickens and why I haven’t even started Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.  I’m thinking more of fiction here, but even good non-fiction should steer clear of one-dimensional moralism if it is to be effective.  The song must be sung, not explained or advocated or shouted out.  Which leads to my next quote –

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. Anton Chekhov

Again, while this is true for any writing, I find it especially true for songs and poems.  Don’t say you’re depressed because your girlfriend broke up with you and then go on for 500 words telling me the symptoms of your depression.  Pay a therapist to do that.  Instead,  paint a picture of your sadness, like John Prine in the chorus of  “The Blue Umbrella” –

Blue umbrella
rest upon my shoulder
hide the pain
while the rain
makes up my mind
well, my feet are wet
from thinking this thing over
and it’s been so long
since I felt the warm sunshine
just give me one good reason
and I promise I won’t ask you any more
just give me one extra season
so I can figure out the other four.

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. ― Mark TwainThe Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain

Here is where I’m going to put in a plug for self-editing. I read a lot of blogs about writing and I notice that many writers mark their progress by their word count.  Some even set goals of writing 1,000 or 2,000 words a day (or some such amount).  I believe if your goal is good writing, you should lo0k instead at how many words you delete.  I knew of a college professor who set page limits to essays.  If you exceeded the number, he would rip off the extra pages, throw them away and write across the paper, “It seemed a little incomplete.  Try again.”  One right word yields far greater power than two (or three, or one hundred) wrong ones.

One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple. ― Jack KerouacThe Dharma Bums

I like this quote both for its humility and wisdom.  The truth is, we never really get it “right” in this writing life.  Becoming better writers should always be our goal for some distant “one day.”  The direction we should be headed to get there, however, clearly should not involve complex formulas but simple methods of telling it like it is better than we told it the last time, possibly even better than anyone has told it before

Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. ― Flannery O’Connor

In terms of writing material, we have a lot within us into which we often fail to tap.  It’s true if you are writing on any subject, you should do good research and not just sit back in your writing chair (mine is a recliner) and write what is on your mind.  Still, if we just pay enough attention to our lives (and the world around us), we will have plenty to start writing every time.

In old days books were written by men of letters and read by the public. Nowadays books are written by the public and read by nobody. ― Oscar Wilde

What may have been witty hyperbole in Wilde’s day has become almost literal truth today.  I visit many blogs that have few (if any hits).  E-books are being published that sell almost no copies.  You can’t even give them away.  We could debate what is worthy to be read, but I believe three of my primary obligations as a writer are to read, read, read.  Read what others are writing on their blogs.  Read new books being published by known and unknown authors.  And then, to relax before bed, read (or listen to) the classics (including the Bible) to let my mind be refreshed by the gifted wordsmiths of days gone by.

What are your thoughts on writing?  What quote sums up what you believe most true for you as a writer?

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.”

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

A Living Promise (from Delight in Disorder)

This is my comfort in my affliction,

         that your promise gives me life. (Psalm 119:50)

It is so easy when our lives are off balance to lose hope for a better tomorrow.  As we look around at present reality, we are tempted to give up and give in to the voices telling us things will always be just as miserable as they are right now.

In college, when I “came clean” and stopped using the illicit drugs that were in essence holding my psychotic symptoms at bay (yet costing me mental stability), I hit what many addicts call a “rock bottom,” I was living alone in a downtown apartment, lying on a used mattress on the floor, working a job stuffing millions of plastic bags into cardboard boxes.  I had nothing but time on my hands to look within myself and look around and wonder just what I was going to do with my life.  I was lost.  I felt miserable.  And alone.

Then I started reading the Bible.  Again, but like it was the first time.  The promise of God’s Word is that the life we often settle for is so much less than the abundant life we are promised in Christ.  New life is experienced in the person of Jesus Christ, in his healing touch and saving hand.  In a world filled with broken promises, this is a promise we can rely on – now and forever.

New life in the resurrection of Christ is more than just a pie-in-the-sky hope for a future resting place for our disembodied souls called “heaven.” The new life we gain in Christ impacts how we live each day, each moment.  Our lives, even as we go through ups and downs, become more abundant, richer, more full of purpose and meaning.  Life begins to make delightful sense in the midst of the messy disorder within and around us.

With this hope in hand, I began to make the most of the present and envision a better future.  I left the factory and did a summer mission stint in a Christian community in South Georgia called Koinonia (Greek for “fellowship” or “communion”).  Time I had spent escaping with drugs I now spent communing with God and others through prayer and worship.  Instead of packing plastic, I was planting vegetables.   Instead of isolating myself on an assembly line, I built relationships with children in Bible study and older adults over community meals.

The promise for better days ahead in Christ, when properly received, does not cause us to give up and let the world go to pot.  Quite the opposite.  Knowing that God cares deeply about redemption, restoration, resurrection, and renewal, we can look beyond ourselves and join God at work making the world a better place – for generations to come.

Working at Koinonia did not magically heal me of past hurts or remove present temptations.  But while I was there, God set me on a course of away from seeking self-comfort to looking to serve others.  I’ve taken many detours along the road, but I’m still moving forward towards that heavenly fellowship, that divine communion, the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

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For Hurting Hearts and Barely Burning Spirits

Behold my servant, whom I uphold,

my chosen, in whom my soul delights;

I have put my Spirit upon him;

he will bring justice to the nations.

He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,

or make it heard in the street;

a bruised reed he will not break,

and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;

he will faithfully bring forth justice. (Isaiah 42:1-3)

The prophet Isaiah portrays God’s chosen One – the coming Messiah – as one who will set things straight in such a way that no undue harm is done – no “collateral damage” (to borrow a terrible euphemism). He brings justice to the nations faithfully not through fanatical force, but through spiritual sacrifice.

When Jesus of Nazareth entered Jerusalem, people formed a spontaneous parade — waving palm branches and crying out “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Matthew 21:9). They believe Jesus was their kind of Messiah – one who would lead an army to conquer Roman rule with military might and re-establish Israel as God’s kingdom on earth.

But the kingdom of Christ was not of this world. His mission was not to overthrow a government and his method was not to kill. His mission was to release captive hearts and his method was to die.

God does not force faith on anyone. God knows our hearts are like bruised reeds, our spirits like faintly burning wicks.  Instead of compelling us to believe and thereby destroying our souls, God gently offered up His son to accept the punishment for our sin. Christ died so we might live.

As we begin our Delight in Disorder mission in the coming days, it is essential to keep Christ’s Messianic mission and method firmly in our minds.  People with mental illnesses have been bruised by false accusations and wrongful judgments not just from the world, but from Christians as well. The Bible has been used as a weapon against already deeply wounded souls — and there has been terrible harm done in the name of Christ.

Please pray with me that our Delight in Disorder mission would bring the the healing of Christ and not break hurting hearts or quench barely burning spirits.

Jesus
from Ethelyn

Finding Victory Through Surrender

Psalm 6 begins with a plea to God to bring relief from suffering. God, who is the Source of all things, is the first One we should turn to when we are in trouble. As the psalm progresses, we find the Psalmist near the point of breakdown.

6-7 I’m tired of all this—so tired. My bed
    has been floating forty days and nights
On the flood of my tears.
    My mattress is soaked, soggy with tears.
The sockets of my eyes are black holes;
    nearly blind, I squint and grope.  (Psalm 6:6-7, The Message)

To read more, click on the title below —

“Victory Through Surrender”

Spiritual warfare

“Spiritual warfare” from Lara W. in For Lara