Dark Times

I’ve been working on some long form texts recently.  Here is an excerpt from an upcoming book on faith. 

Dark Times

 As a kid in high school in the late 1990’s, the band Linkin Park was huge.  I wore out their Hybrid Theory album in my first car. The writing captured something our generation was feeling at the time.  In the song “Numb” Bennington’s lyrics were about, as you can guess, not feeling or connecting with those he loved. I probably listened to that song a thousand times.  Deep down, I understood.

Chester Bennington himself, as the years passed, married and had a family.  Recently he took his own life in a successful suicide attempt. That happened not long after his friend and fellow musician Chris Cornell did the same.

At West Chester University, as an undergrad, I had a class called Literature and Psychology.  We were a group of mixed majors from the two fields of study.  The professor was my favorite there and ran an enthralling class.  We spent many days discussing the connection between creativity and mental illness.  Was there something about writing that opened the door to deeper issues?  Were the creative out there vulnerable to feeling their anger and depression at such great depth that they could not get out?  We talked about the prevalence of suicide in writers from Hemmingway to Sylvia Plath and Virginia Wolf. Bennington and Cornell seemed to follow suit.

When I was in my late 20’s, I went to my family doctor one night.  I hadn’t been feeling right and I remember her standing across from me.  She asked, “On a scale of 1-10, how do you feel about your life right now?”  I replied, a 4.  She left the room and returned with a prescription for Effexor 150 mg. I took the drug for years.

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Depression was not what the movies portrayed, the feeling more disconnection than anything.  I’d floated above those I loved and valued.  Words seemed to come from a distance.  Thinking itself was a burden.  I remember driving to work, almost an hour each way at that time, pulling in and realizing I just couldn’t do it that day.  I’d call out from the parking lot and drive home.

It took time and effort to get out of the well that took the shape of depression.  The interesting part of the experience came from those in my faith community.  I’d spoken to some about what I was dealing with and it was pushed to the side.  Faith and Depression didn’t mix, in their minds.  It was something else.  It was a mistake.  If you believed, you had no room to feel bad for yourself.

Even later in life, in larger churches, there’d be a message about a mental health support group but it would quickly be glossed over.  We don’t like admitting weakness, even if it is reality.  It is long past time the stigma against mental suffering within churches is removed.

Our son Carter deals with anxiety.  I’ve seen him worry about things large and small.  Part of raising children is not only validating their emotions but helping them through it.  That is not an easy process and I’ve been frustrated more than once.  The same conversations night after night get old.  After the tenth time, logic gives way to yelling and that doesn’t help anything.

Part of an authentic faith life is dealing with the dark and ugly sides. When Val and I experienced the miscarriage we didn’t have a single set of friends from our church that we felt comfortable speaking with.  We had ones outside of church.  That contrast says something.

There are three certainties in life; death, taxes, and the fact that you’ll deal with bad things. Even if you call yourself a follower of Jesus, you will not be immune. If anything, the target on your back will be greater.  People watch when you speak of faith.  They watch you directly and indirectly.  People, in this case, can be friends, family, and coworkers.  They look for moments of hypocrisy.  They want to see where you fall short of “being a good person,” as if faith could be boiled down to that equation.

We need to redefine the term itself.

Faith is not being a good person.  Faith is conviction.  It is knowing you are a work in progress, understanding that suffering is coming, and shaping a response that will help move past the conflict. Faith is showing yourself in good and bad times, in the light and the darkness.  It is knowing that things do not change in an instant, they are works in progress. Your desired future is out there.  It will take a journey of massive effort to make it.

Faith is dangerous.

It calls you to levels you’ve never considered. It makes you face your fears.  You step into conversations you never thought you’d have.  Faith shines a light in the darkness and those things in the shadows are shown in their full radiance.

Faith calls you to enter in hostile places and make a difference.  Innovate.  Come up with something never imagined before and see it to creation. Faith is a catalyst for ideal futures that connect to the dreams of God.  It is a way in to the most dangerous path in the universe with the greatest reward at the end.

Faith redefines the idea of community.  Service. Giving. Support. It transforms spaces into authentic areas of worship. It redefines cities, faces down poverty and hatred, offers hope to those who have forgotten what it looks like.  Faith is love across lines, boundaries, belief and act.  It is a challenge.

Faith is not ignorance.  It is reaching out.

Faith is not silence. It is voice.

Faith is not acceptance. It is transformation.

Faith is not the safe path.  It is a journey into the wild.

Faith is an inferno and a whisper, power and prayer, storm and silence.  It is change and it is here.

Ripple Effect

My dad spent his career in a nuclear power plant.  For a kid growing up with Homer Simpson in his prime on television, this wasn’t a bad thing.  It was always an interesting conversation starter and he has some great stories.

One of the best involves breaking a light bulb.

His job, in the plant, involved many things including keeping reactors and other essential engines running smoothly. He was hired when they built the plant and learned things, literally, from the ground up. One night, a crew of guys needed someone from his department to oversee maintenance on a large machine as an alert had tripped.

My dad followed them to the area where the machine was housed.  After checking things out, he determined that a light bulb needed to be replaced as part of the repair.  He unscrewed the old bulb and placed the new one in the socket.  As he screwed it in, it broke in his hand.

This set off an alarm that tripped to other facilities up and down the east coast and cost Philadelphia Electric a good amount of money.

For every action, no matter how small or planned, there are massive consequences.

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If you are a parent, you know this is true. Try buying two different toys for a pair of siblings, believe me, it does not end well.  If you are a husband or wife, this is also true.  Little things that become routine will pile up until you find yourself buried under them.

You cannot turn on the news without being launched in the midst of the gun control debate. I remember being in high school when Columbine happened.  That day we realized that the world was changing.  Now, things that we hadn’t experienced until teenage years are happening at younger and younger ages. Bullying and suicide has become an epidemic.

Pain is real, ready for consumption on social media, and broadcast for all to see. In years where we may have battled our anger by riding our bikes across town, kids are finding sharp objects and turning the pain inward.

We spent the last weekend in Ocean City, Maryland.  I booked the days after Val’s miscarriage, in hopes that we could get away.  We found some seashells, as a family, and are planning on planting something in the yard and decorating with the shells in memory of what happened.

The boys each had a balloon and we stood by the ocean, white caps painting the waves and wind whipping through our hair.  I asked them to send a prayer up to heaven for the baby and, one by one, they did.  Carter and Aiden each said their own thing and they did it with authentic faith, emotion, and sincerity.  As they finished, one by one, they kissed their balloon and let it go.

We were frozen by the breeze at that point and, when they ran to the car, I stopped for a  moment and watched the red and blue balloons as they twisted on the air currents and made their way into the sky.

We are not a perfect family by far.  We have our issues. The boys fight like cats and dogs.  The rest of the trip had its own turbulence that comes with vacations, too much boardwalk food, and an overload of swimming.

In that moment, though, we had peace. We had a ripple of hope and the prayer of two little boys that made its way to Heaven. We had the chance to release pain and heartache, put it on the wind, and watch it rise.

We had the chance to be whole and we will walk forward, together, into whatever may come.

 

 

A Light in the Darkness

Yesterday I had a fairly deep conversation with a friend.  We don’t often have deep talks but he started with this question, “If we believe that God knows the past, present, and future and we have free will, then why does choice matter when it has already been decided in God’s plan?” Take a second and read that again.  We worked on refining the issues at hand (the whole thing could be the basis of a philosophy class). We talked about a person actively not making a choice.  I said that we are all making choices, that choosing to abstain from a decision is a choice in itself.  I said that we are all moving towards something, trying to fill a void in our souls left for reconnection with the creator.

This attempt to fill the void comes in many forms.  I watch my oldest son, who turns six in six days, and can see the battle.  He spans the gap between playing with his brother and beating up on him, listening to us and doing his own thing.  He is working out his identity before our eyes. He is shaping his wants, needs, and emotions. He is starting to understand choice and consequences.  He begs us for every single toy on television! This fatherhood thing is still a mystery to me.

As the nation processes the death of Robin Williams, the issue of suicide comes to the forefront.  More information has come out about his struggles and time in rehab.  Depression is a serious disease, I’ve dealt with it before, and without help it can be fatal.  I can only imagine the conversation in his head Sunday night. How did it sound? The debate, the causes and effects of taking his own life? Or maybe it wasn’t even a question. Failure is such a powerful word and the weight is too much for some people.

In 1999 I was a junior in high school.  I still remember the day Columbine happened.  I remember watching the news at school horrified that two kids would commit such an act of violence.  These young men had their own issues and anger and chose to take it out on others.  We look at tragedies and death and question why.  Much like my friend, we wonder about free will and the big picture.

Darkness provides an opportunity.

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It can make the light of God shine brighter. It can ignite the fire of faith in the coldest of hearts. I believe God is moving in this world every day. I’ve spoken to people who have experienced the touch, the intersection of the trajectory of our lives with his divinity.  Tragedy draws us closer on spiritual ground.  We pull together as family and friends. We become aware of suffering.

Maybe, today, one person who read about Williams decided to walk into a hospital and get help for suicidal thoughts.

If we as believers can recognize that need, that void that demands fulfillment, we can see the open door.  One time I was talking to a friend who is a counselor.  He asked me what was my biggest fear.  I thought about it and said “not being in control.”  He replied that God meets us in our biggest fears and he was interested to see what would happen as I dealt with my fear of losing control.

He was right.

I’ve dealt with losing a job, gaining others, having children, starting a business, following my dreams, and struggling to make ends meet. I’ve looked in the mirror in praise and heartache. I’ve seen myself as a success, failure, and work in progress.  The procedure isn’t over.  God is still working me through my fears and I know he will carry me to the other side.

He will do the same for you.

~Matt

When the Laughter Stops

Yesterday we had a great day, a powerful time of worship at church, and a fun evening with friends.  Today was brutal.  It was a typical Monday dealing with the issues of work and life. I came home and told Val that the hardest thing is to get so refreshed on Sunday and dive back into the grind for the week. If only we could hold it over. We try our best, stay in the Word, pray, listen to worship music, and spend time with God.  Our struggles continue and our worship must follow.

This evening the news broke that Robin Williams was found dead in an apparent suicide.  According to the press, the comedian was struggling with depression and relapse of his addictions.  He was married and left behind children. It is sad to see the loss of an actor responsible for so many amazing roles.  He spent a career making people laugh and, behind the jokes, battled his own demons.

One of the hardest things I ever had to see while working in the emergency room was the suicides. In the two years I spent there, more than one came through. You would find out the details and my heart always broke for the families. Suicide is not a victimless crime and mental illness is very real. If you or someone else you know is dealing with depression, reach out for help. Go to a hospital or doctor, stop in a church and talk with clergy. Tell a family member or friend.  There is always a reason to fight.

I believe, even in our struggles, that help is coming. Through the night we keep our eyes upward and know that the sun will rise in the morning. Robin Williams had a gift to make people laugh and he did so through his own darkness. I pray his family can find some peace.

We’ll miss you Robin Williams. You played a huge part in all of our childhoods.

~Matt