What Do You Talk About when . . .

November 6, 2016

It’s not very of2016_11_04-mamadou-at-gloriasten that you have an opportunity to host an African church leader to dinner.  But Sonia and I had that pleasure last Friday night.  We were rife with curiosity and questions that made it easy to converse.  Here’s some of how it went.

How much rain did they get in their region of West Africa?  You see, they are mostly farmers there, living off the land and depending on the rain for their crops.  Our group left this year just as the rains were coming.  Turns out that they had a wonderful rain in their region this year and will have a full crop of maize.  That’s the good news.  The sad news is that they lose half of their crop to the rodents after they store it in wooden bins.
Here’s a picture of how they store their grain today.  What an opportunity for some outside businessmen to provide metal storage bins that are sealed from critters and the weather!  As it stands, they just storage-bindon’t have the money to build them.

More personally, how does a young man raised as a Muslim come to surrender his life to the person of Christ and become a church leader?  Speak of transitions!  What a story it was.  Fast forward to today . . . what’s it like to be a man in a poor Muslim-dominated country trying to carve out a niche to provide a foothold for the expansion and strengthening of Christianity?  And how can those Christians, poor as they are, make significant positive contributions to the communities in which they live?  How can they build businesses that will provide for their self-reliance? 

Leave it to Sonia to ask some stimulating questions:  What’s the best part of your life in West Africa these days?  “My wife.”  What’s the worst? “Persecution.”

We talked about those things and a lot more which made the evening fly by quickly and left us inspired and full of admiration for this man.  And we learned a lot about opportunities for their growth and development, about what life is like in a place very different than Dallas, and about how God blesses those who are faithful in following Him. 

By the way, he’s seven feet tall.  


Safety and Relationships

September 17, 2016

 

castle

In the 12th century, a man built this castle because he needed safety.  It’s up high on a hill.  It’s walls are thick and sturdy.  But it has two problems.  It can form a prison for its inhabitants walling in as much as it walls out.  This leads to the second problem of isolation from relationships.  So where do we turn to find safety from things that threaten our well-being while at the same time enjoying rich and vital relationships with others?  I think we find the answer in deeper connection with other people and in deeper honesty with God.

Sometimes people are like that castle.  Their body carries the memories of trauma and wounds that are painful.  So they build walls to keep themselves safe and comfortable.  But secrets breed sickness of a kind.  Bottled-up emotions carry an internal heaviness and private pain.  Then the people try to numb the pain by overwork or many other soothing behaviors.  They distance themselves from internal awareness because what’s inside isn’t very pleasant.  Externally, they distance themselves from close relationships because relationships are complicated.  They wall in their own vitality.  Something dies and becomes unresponsive.  In short they wall out and wall in.

Next to the castle is a retreat center here in Interlaken, Switzerland, where I’m one of 12 counselors providing counseling and encouragement for over 55 men working cross-culturally around the world.  Many of them serve in very unsafe places.  Many of them have never had a safe place where they can openly talk about some of their wounds, their struggles, their frustration without being judged.  We’re hearing phrases like “loneliness, pressure-cooker, isolation, and no one to turn to.”  The goal of “Traction” is to provide care and refreshment to fuel these men for the work of their calling.  In addition to worship, teaching, outdoor activities and personal reflection these men allow themselves to “open up.”  The counseling we offer is a tangible way of experiencing safety and relationship together.  As the men risk trusting another human being, they are motivated to trust God more.  And, of course, as they trust God more they can entrust themselves to other people better.  That’s what makes their ministry more effective.

Susan Johnson, an expert in the area of intimate relationships, writes:

“A secure bond is the launching pad for our going out and exploring the unknown and growing as human beings. It is hard to be open to new experiences when our attention and energy are bound up in worry about our safety. It is much easier when we know that someone has our back.”  p. 24

 

In Old Testament times, David experienced the combination of safety and relationship which he expressed in Psalm 61 and 62:

Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer;
from the end of the earth I call to you when my heart is faint.
Lead me to the rock that is higher than I,
for you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy. So will I ever sing praises to your name as I perform my vows day after day. For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him. He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my salvation and my glory; my mighty rock, my refuge is God. Trust in him at all times, O people;
pour out your heart before him;
God is a refuge for us.

As these verses become more experientially real, we find ourselves closer to God.  How is it for you?  Let me know what part of this you struggle with.  Let me know what has been helpful to you in realizing this i n your life.


Common Ground?

April 10, 2016

 

images-2The issue of transgender identity polarizes opposing camps so vigorously that we seem to prefer warfare and judgment rather than understanding and compassion. Everybody’s yelling and no one’s listening. Everyone is right and everyone else is wrong. Most people take a hard position defending their conclusions and no one is learning anything. I am concerned about the stagnation that this polarization creates. How do we soften the impasse that locks up human dialog, as though listening might cause us to compromise our most fundamental beliefs? We tend to hurl critical stereotypic slogans across a chasm of division emphasizing the virtues of our own position along with the disastrous aspects of those who differ with us. Do we need to compromise the principles we hold firmly in order to listen to those who differ with us? I don’t think so. But what we desperately need to do first, before we judge and conclude anything, is to search for and find some common ground between to opposing sides. It’s not finding a midpoint and it’s not finding a compromise. But it’s about finding some points of mutual agreement before we discuss points of disagreement. This is how we start resolving differences while maintaining a measure of dignity as we grow. This is how we begin to learn how to be respectful, loving and kind to the people with whom we differ.

My own identity is based in three camps, none of which are doing a very good job of clarifying issues or trying to find any common ground. I identify with the scientific camp, having a couple of engineering degrees and enjoying the objective aspects of the scientific method. I also identify with the psychological camp, having spent the past 40 years as a counselor and having earned a Ph.D. in that specialty. Most of all, I identify with the theological camp which emphasizes timeless and universal Truth (with a capital T), which is primarily relational and absolute in a way that promotes humility and grace rather than arrogance. OK, let’s see what each of these camps present.

The Scientific/Medical Camp is beginning to weigh in on the issue with facts, opinions, and proposed solutions. Scientific American  featured an article in the January 2016 issue entitled “Young and Transgender: How Best to Help Them Thrive.” The American Academy of Pediatrics  led off their statement with a clear declaration of their conclusions: “Gender Ideology Harms Children.” Here are the highlights of what they said:

Lost and Confused Signpost

 

  • Believing that someone is something they are not is a sign of confused thinking.
  • Human sexuality is an objective biological binary trait
  • Everyone is born with a biological sex.   Gender awareness is a sociological and psychological concept and is subjective by nature.
  • Puberty-blocking hormones can be very dangerous. As many as 98% of gender confused boys and 88% of gender-confused girls eventually accept their biological sex after naturally passing through puberty.
  • Rates of suicide are 20 times greater among adults who use cross-sex hormones and undergo sex reassignment surgery.
  • Conditioning children into believing a lifetime of chemical and surgical impersonation of the opposite sex is normal and healthful is child abuse.

 

The Psychological/Sociological Camp position is best expressed by and article in my favorite journal in the field, Psychotherapy Networker. In their March/April 2016 issue, they featured “The Great Escape: Welcome to the World of Gender Fluidity” by Margaret Nichols which paints a clear picture of the current views of this camp.  Here are the highlights of what she said:

  • Beginning in 2013, the diagnosis “Gender Identity Disorder” no long exists. The DSM-5 renamed the diagnosis “Gender Dysphoria.” Thus, distress is now the salient feature of the diagnosis rather than identity.
  • Social intolerance, not gender diversity, is the basic problem. Thanks to the Internet and television, great progress has been made in providing a tribal sense of belonging for transgender individuals. More forward-thinking therapists, as well as more permissive parents, now create a healthy atmosphere of acceptance and advocacy for these individuals.
  • There is no such thing as “the opposite sex.” More accurate new terms are coming into existence such as a gender continuum, a gender spectrum or a gender web.
  • Mental health professionals have the responsibility to affirm the self-determination of transgender clients. Parents should take their minor children only to gender specialists for help.
  • It remains to be seen if there will be an increase in surgery and hormone treatment. As society changes, our view of what is normal will change and we must all come to terms with this change.

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The Conservative Theological Camp

Bryan Fischer, American Family Radio host, took a strong position against transgenderism as though there is nothing more to learn. Like many of my Evangelical, Bible-based friends (and conservative politicians) the strong rhetoric is primarily what is wrong, bad, detrimental, and evil. This position not only polarizes people but also fails to offer well-informed positive alternatives to the problems. Thus, good people with whom I agree theologically tend to marginalize and isolate the bigger and deeper Christian perspective on issues. We are inclined to emphasize what’s wrong with other people more than what we have to offer them to make their lives better. Here are the highlights of what he said:

  • “Accepting transgenderism is child abuse.
  • “No nation that truly loves children would allow this alarming and disturbing trend to continue for another day.”
  • “The biblical truth about gender identity is confirmed by biological science. Human sexuality is binary by design.”
  • A person’s view of his/her own sexuality that differs from biological truth is a delusion.
  • It’s a criminal act in four states to help a gender-confused teen reconcile his sexual identity with his biological identity. If this trend continues, it will be a blight on the health and strength of our nation.

So what is a guy like me to do? I tend to think analytically like the scientific camp; I treasure the richness of interpersonal relationships like the psychological camp;  I am grounded in a biblical worldview so strongly that I’d be willing to die for my faith. Rather than emphasizing the superiority of my point of view and harshly condemning others for their ignorance or evil, I simply ask, “Is there any common ground?” This is not “compromise.” This is not finding a midpoint between positions. Perhaps if we pause to find some common ground, we could stop hurling insults across a chasm of ignorance and begin a more respectful dialog as we discuss our differences.

Here are some of my suggestions of where common ground might exist where all sides could agree as a starting point.

  1. Life is difficult. Every human being struggles with some internal issue(s).
  2. Compassion toward other human beings should guide our attitudes more strongly than judgment and condemnation.
  3. Many issues, like gender identity, are complex and difficult to understand. This should motivate us to seek more understanding of why some people believe differently than we do.
  4. We have choices in life, which result in both positive and negative outcomes. Some things are not a matter of choice, like what period of time in history will we be born, in what country, to what parents?
  5. In addition to standing firmly on issues on which we disagree, it’s beneficial to offer some solutions to the problems that we see.

Would you join me in looking for additional common ground between these warring camps? Then we can clarify our contributions in light of our worldview (which also needs to be clarified). Only then can an intelligent discussion result which might contribute to our edification and dignity as human beings?

PS: If you are interested in an intelligent response to those who object to “binaries” (i.e. polarized right-wrong points of view), click here and listen to a 3/14/2016 message by Tim Keller in New York City.


									

A Good Person Doing Good Things

October 29, 2015

Why don’t we hear more about good people doing good things in our communities? This bothers me, so I keep my eyes open for noteworthy people who aren’t in the news. Dr. Michelle Woody strikes me as one of these people. I’m getting to know her as one of my LPC Interns and here’s what I see:

Michelle Woody PictureMichelle specializes in counseling children and youth from families experiencing domestic violence, substance and/or sexual abuse. She is a ‘first responder’ for families in deep trouble and people who encounter multiple forms of misery. She has tough skin. But through her toughness comes a very sensitive and compassionate spirit that reveals her genuine caring. She takes seriously the Bible’s directive to “Defend the cause of the poor and the fatherless! Vindicate the oppressed and suffering.” (Psalms 82:3)

Often, highly educated people operate at a lofty theoretical and abstract level. Not Michelle. She communicates effectively with young people who have very little sophistication but whose needs are very concrete. Did I mention she has a Doctorate degree from USC in Educational Psychology? Her dissertation was entitled, “Evidenced Based Practices in two Juvenile Detention Centers in Los Angeles County.” Wow. While in LA, she was the Executive Director of a residential treatment facility for adolescent boys who had substance abuse and legal challenges. She is able to see the world from the both kids’ point of view and the academic and professional view.

Often, individuals who are highly educated and skilled in Psychology are not very spiritual. Michelle, however, sees herself as a broken person in a fallen world who needs to constantly abide in her Savior for wisdom, courage and direction in life. As a Professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, she teaches Master’s level classes in the Biblical Counseling Department.

In Michelle we see a highly educated woman who chooses to serve those in serious trouble with the wisdom and grace only found in Christ. It seems to me that she has chosen to develop her most important character traits at a high level while maintaining a practical effectiveness with those who are without resources and who want to transition to a better life.

This is some of the good news about a good person. Are you looking for help? If you would like her to help you, your kids, or your whole family, call her at 310-923-6824. I’m very impressed by the character and competence of this woman.


Turn Your Deepest Pain into Your Greatest Gain

September 16, 2013

ChapelOur natural reaction to pain and suffering is to avoid it.  Failing that, we seek ways to restore comfort and control.  Seldom do we realize  that something “good” can come from the “bad” things in our life.  I appreciated the opportunity to talk in our DTS chapel service about the overarching good that can be at work in the midst of our suffering.  Click on the photo above to watch the 20-minute video.

While preparing for this talk, I came across an excellent new book, Why, O God?, which provides more extensive insights on suffering.    For Bookexample, Dr. Mark Bailey’s chapter lists 50 examples of the sufferings of Christ prior to his final week that we call his Passion.  In two other chapters, Joni Eareckson Tada writes about what she has learned from her life as a quadriplegic.  Greg Hatteburg writes about how he deals with his wife’s MS.  Several chapters show what the Bible has to say about suffering, in the Pentateuch, in the Gospels, in Paul’s writings, etc.

If you’re suffering, this book addresses questions that could bring you encouragement.  If you’re not suffering, it can prepare you mentally and spiritually for its inevitability.


Helping Children Overcome Sickness with Good Nutrition

August 12, 2013

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Finding good people doing good things and showcasing them.  That’s what my blog is turning to.  Last month I met a remarkable couple doing wonderful things for children and their parents.  So turn away from the bad news on CNN for a moment and read about their story.

ImageBrian and Bonnie Hershey are dedicating their lives to improving the lives of children in remarkably compatible ways.  Spiritually and socially, they have served military teens and their families in Germany and Italy.  Now they’re back in the States for Brian to pursue a Th.M. (Master of Theology degree) at Dallas Theological Seminary.  After graduation in May 2014, they are looking forward to going back overseas to continue serving military youth through Youth For Christ: Military Youth Ministry and Club Beyond.  Meanwhile, Bonnie spearheads a business from her home to help parents find solutions to their childrens’ health problems through good nutrition.  She invites people to check out her approach with some skepticism because there are a lot of “flaky” sales people out there.  She’s very confident of the trustworthiness of her product and training.  I’m inclined to agree with her confidence.

Here’s the point.

  • Many health issues today are the result of poor diet, nutrition and exercise (40% of calories consumed by kids today are devoid of nutrients, and high in fat & sugar)
  • When the body gets the key nutrients it needs, it has a remarkable way of healing itself.
  • Her goal is to become a worldwide solutions provider for parents looking for natural solutions to common health problems.
  • On her website, parents will find dozens of helpful articles and resources on kids nutrition, healthy recipes, and gain access to a unique three-step process toward optimal health.

Check her out.

There’s nothing selfish about this couple.  They are devoted to the Lord God with a strong personal faith and are devoting their lives to improving the health and well being of kids around the world.   Meanwhile, Brian writes a blog called “Right Lane Reflections.”  You see, Brian is a part-time truck driver and school bus driver.  Both the cab of his truck and his blog provide opportunities to reflect on life.

These are people you would do well to get to know.  Simply meeting them and listening to what they have to say will enrich you.  Check them out.   If you would like to support the work that Brian and Bonnie are doing to impact the lives of young people,  click here. They would greatly appreciate your financial and prayer support during this season of professional development!

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By the way, they have three very healthy children of their own.


Helping Teenage Cutters

June 15, 2012

When I look around the community for good people doing good things, I need look no further that to one of my previous Interns, Kristine Newton.  She brings her maturity and competence to the counseling room to help, among other situations, teens who are cutters.   If you are one of these teenagers or if you know one, you would do well to read this article.  I asked Kristine to write something to help us understand what’s going on that drives this behavior and also what can be done to help the teen move from despair to a more mature contentment.  Need help?  Call Kristine.  She’s good.

It seemed like a normal night, their teenage daughter, Alice had come home and said good night. She seemed safe and happy; Mom and Dad were relieved and began to watch TV.  Less than ten minutes later, Alice came down the stairs, face flushed, tears in her eyes and blood gushing down her arm. While her parents were relaxing, Alice had gone to her room and slashed her arm. She had been cutting secretly for over six months, but tonight she used a box cutter and didn’t realize how sharp the blade was. The cut was so deep it required a trip to the ER and six stitches. Alice’s parents were in shock, what in the world had she done to herself and why?!!

It is estimated that one of every 200 girls between the ages of 13 and 19 in the United States engages in self-harm of some kind; of those 70% cut themselves. When families come to my office, the scene normally plays out like this.

Two very anxious parents and one scowling teenager enter the room and sit across from me. The adolescent informs me, “I will not talk to you or to them!”  They either deny the cutting is serious or state that their parents are being overly dramatic. “After all,” the teen says, “It’s not that big of a deal; cutting just makes me feel better.”

“Makes you feel better?!! That is ridiculous!” the parents exclaim.  With desperation, the parents turn and give me a look that begs me to talk some sense into their teen immediately.

The weird thing is . . . the teen is at least partially right. Cutting is a coping mechanism that “works” for some people.  Scientists have studied the issue, and believe cutting creates a temporary high, similar to the way adrenaline works.  For most of us, this does not make sense.  How in the world can hurting yourself make you feel better?  Like other unhealthy coping mechanisms such as drugs and alcohol, outsiders can easily see the dangers, but the person engaged in it cannot.  Cutting is deceptive, destructive, and can be addictive; even though for a time, it helps relieve tension, reduce numbness and/or create a distraction from stressful life events.

While cutting may appear to “work” for the person using it, like drugs and alcohol, it leaves a bitter aftertaste, and is a dangerous illusion. Cutting can lead to unplanned medical expenses, trips to the ER and, infections which sometimes cause life-long health problems. At minimum cutting leaves unattractive physical scars, and never gets to the root of the issue. Emotionally and relationally, people engaged in cutting end up isolated from others, filled with deep shame and self-hatred, and develop incredibly effective skills at hiding reality from those closest to them.

It is important to note that while cutting may look and feel like a suicide attempt, or a cry for attention most times it is not.  This surprises most of us.  Many people who engage in cutting are not attempting to kill themselves; they see cutting as a way to deal with their pain, so that they can keep on living. While cutting is not often a suicide attempt, it can be a precursor to it, and those who engage in cutting are more prone to attempt suicide in the future.  Sometimes like our teenager Alice in the first paragraph, the cutting may lead to an accidental cutting that is much more serious than intended – even accidental suicide.

To help us understand some of the reasons why a person might cut, there are several characteristics that seem common. Most cutters have experienced more than their fair share of pain.  Many have been sexually abused, grown up with family members who have drug and/or alcohol addictions, or have experienced an extraordinary trauma in their lives. When we actually begin to hear their stories, it is often a wonder to us that they are still alive, and it is understandable that they are struggling.

A second characteristic is that they often feel they have become a burden to others, they feel isolated, and thus tend to deal with their problems without outside help or advice.  They believe others are sick of listening to them, don’t understand them and can’t or won’t help them. Therefore, rather than ask others, they take on the pain themselves and engage in self harm.  One client who ended up in the emergency room said, “I didn’t want to kill myself.  But I didn’t want to burden my mom anymore by telling her I was down, again!  I thought I could cut myself and deal with it that way.  But the cut was a lot deeper than I intended. Now I am so mad at myself, I was attempting to take care of myself, but now I have created more drama and cost my parents even more money because of the hospital bill.”

A final characteristic is cutters are very passionate, sensitive individuals who feel their emotions in vivid Technicolor.  God has given them a unique personality and emotional framework that has very sensitive receptors to the soft side of life.  Many times those who struggle with cutting are fun to be with, exciting to share struggles with, and often very compassionate with others. This places them on a very steep roller coaster ride. The highs are very high and the lows are almost intolerable! The downside: pain they feel at a high level and don’t know how to deal with it. They may try to tell someone they are hurting, but are blown off because others don’t experience the issue at the same intensity.

So what do you do if like the parents in the opening story, you have discovered someone you care about is cutting? Here are six suggestions.

1.  Trust.  Trust that God loves your loved one even more than you do! He loves to shine light in dark places so that He can bring restoration. Trust in His power, loving-kindness and timing to do what He has promised in your life and your loved one’s life.

2.  Don’t Panic.  My guess is that like the parents above, you would be a bit freaked out. That is normal. Don’t be shocked by your reaction.  It is very important to deal with the problem, but do so calmly and not in a panic. Remember, cutting is usually not a suicide attempt, but it is often a cry for help. Your panic could encourage more hiding, aloneness, and be a precursor to more not less cutting.

3.  Communicate love and care. Tell your loved one that you care about them, that you want to be supportive and that you want to see them get help. Do not scold, rebuke, or preach at this point, simply and clearly let them know you are in their corner and cannot be run away!

4.  Find a therapist.  I recommend finding a good therapist for your loved one. A therapist who is experienced in working with cutters is best. Therapy is often necessary not only to teach the cutter new coping skills, but also to work through the trauma that is at the root of cutting. Therapy also helps to educate the cutter of their sensitive emotional nature so they may see it as a blessing, not a curse, and to teach them to use that gift properly and well. If you are the parent, you should attend sessions as well. This is beneficial. It helps the cutter feel supported, and it will also help you. I know this may sound scary, but the therapist can not only help you know how to best deal with your situation, but also work through any doubts you may be having about your parenting skills.

5.  You find a therapist. Dealing with a cutter presents unique challenges; seek a counselor who can help you learn to react to your sensitive loved one in a new and godly way. Even if your loved one will not go to therapy, you should go! Therapy can help you deal with the situation when the person you care about does not want to change.

6.  Be a friend.  This is a time where your loved one really needs a healthy relationship. Listen when they need to talk, open the door to deeper issues, but don’t try to pound down the door. Make sure that you that you remember how to have fun with them! Don’t treat them like a project or a problem. And be patient. This behavior has usually occurred in secret for some time, a few sessions with a therapist will not make it go away. Like addictions, there may be periods of sobriety and then some relapse.

Kristine Newton, MA, LPC works with adolescents and adults at Heritage Counseling and Consulting, in the Park Cities area of Dallas. Through her earlier work at Heartlight Ministries, an inpatient rehab center for teens, and Metrocare Services, she has extensive experience working with adolescents and adults who have engaged in self harm.  To contact her, call 214.363.2345