Why PTSD matters

By now most people have probably at least heard of the psychological disorder called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. It’s been around and known by that name since at least the 1970’s as a psychiatric diagnosis, stemming from a syndrome of symptoms first evidenced by soldiers returning from America’s Vietnam War.

As you may already know, this Disorder of the brain can cause such human experiences as nightmares or sleep terrors, flashbacks while awake where our human senses deceive our brains into thinking past traumatic events are happening right now, high levels of stress in our bodies as associated with fight or flight behaviors, and more extreme moods such as found in human anxiety and depression. Picking up just on the words, “high levels of stress,” we know that anytime we humans fear we may be killed by any present event in our lives, fearing for our own lives, we are highly traumatized. And such traumatic stress affects our human brains, which then affect all other human organs internally all the way to our largest of all organs, our exterior skin.

You may also know that conditions in the brain affecting our central nervous system and beyond do have a profound effect in our human behavior, causing us to do things we would not otherwise do and things that are highly inappropriate at the time.

I once had a counseling client who, as a Vietnam veteran, would suffer panic attacks while walking outdoors on a sunny day. He could walk out into the darkness but never into actual daylight, which then caused him to become a prisoner in his own home each day. Why? Because while walking down a sunlit street one day in Saigon many years ago, his friend at his side, a sniper fired and killed the friend, essentially blowing his head off. No warning. Just a sudden, unexpected popping sound from out of nowhere, and an unforgettable sight of his friend’s immediate death. While walking innocently down a quiet street beneath a sunny sky. So for the next twenty some years, this man could not help but have his heart start pounding wildly out of control inside his own body each time he stepped into any sunlight.    To control his own heart-rate and ability to catch his breath, he stayed inside the house every day with all window shades closed.

Oh, the things the rest of us take for granted.

Imagine yourself driving a car. Your right foot is placed on the gas pedal and you are cruising along at about the speed limit. Suddenly, without even moving your right foot, the car’s own throttle accelerates on its own. Speed increases by 10 mph, then 20, then 30, then 40, and as you near 100 mph driving in traffic, you find your brake is not working, not even your emergency brake, and you panic!!! Thoughts racing, heart pounding. You fear you are going to die!!! Yet, somehow you manage to survive as the car’s throttle seems to back off and the brakes again begin to work and you come to an eventual safe stop.

Question: do you get back in that same car and drive it again? Do you take that chance? If not, welcome to the wonderful world of PTSD.

What you may not know is that PTSD can be both a primary and a secondary condition of the human brain.

Here’s what I mean. Primary PTSD is, using the above example, the driver of this out-of-control car racing down the road seemingly on its own. Secondary PTSD is anyone else who was a passenger in that same car, and even those who were in other cars being suddenly passed by this out-of-control car. Are you willing to ride with that driver again, or have him back on the road next to you again flying around you at 100 mph? If not, welcome to the wonderful world of secondary PTSD.

I wonder if we don’t have primary PTSD today among the police officers who have been shot at in the course of doing their jobs. We have primary PTSD today among African Americans who have suddenly, personally been stopped by police and handcuffed or worse without even knowing why. We have secondary PTSD among the police officers who’ve not been shot at but know or know of someone else who has been fatally shot, for wearing the same blue uniform. We have secondary PTSD among the African Americans who have not been stopped by police but know or know of someone else who has been stopped and even fatally shot, for having the same skin color. And amidst such nightmares, flashbacks, heart palpitations, anxiety, depression, avoidance or withdrawal, and more, we have a classic case of over-reactions waiting to happen next. Hypervigilance and suspicion has become perhaps epidemic in both of these traumatized communities. Both are stressed to the point of danger. And the rest of us are like passengers in the cars being passed by these out-of-control vehicles on our same highway. Waiting for the next wreck, the next scene of carnage ahead.

It would not surprise me as an old clinician if these days most people around our world of TMI do not fall somewhere along the very mild to very severe spectrum of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. If so, it’s important to note that our new perception is our new reality. Whether we are safe or not is not an issue. Rather, if we perceive ourselves to be unsafe we will act in ways we would not normally act, think and feel in ways not always appropriate, vote in elections differently than before, over-react to social stimuli, all the while blaming someone else for our self-imposed loss of freedom. And, perhaps bottom line, we will then stress our bodies to a point where our overall health and wellness is threatened.

It would surprise me, however, if God would not have a solution for such problems we otherwise have, such burdens as we otherwise carry, in our lives. It would surprise me if God has not already created the anti-dote for our own human psycho-social toxins. And it would surprise me if this anti-dote is not love for neighbor as for ourselves.

Oh, we have our own human solutions to our own PTSD, I’m sure. To an extent, these represent what the biblical apostle once referred to noisy gongs and clanging symbols. We buy our own guns, move them closer to our own bedsides, beef up our national defense, profile our suspected terrorists, flip on Fox News to stay alert, and vote for authoritarian candidates running for power. We put our faith and our hope in all such solutions. They all seem to work. Only to find that God’s solution, indeed God’s anti-dote, is the only one that actually does work in the long run to calm our nerves and to steady our world.

So, in closing, simply hear these words as if spoken into your own mind today from within your soul, coming from God’s own whispered presence we often name the “Holy Spirit”:

“4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” — from I Corinthians 13 (NRSV).


How to deal with violent threats in the world, part IV

I agree with the NRA.

Not often, but as the blind squirrel finds the occasional acorn, so the NRA has rightly noted, in my humble opinion, that our nation needs to better reach out to our mentally ill.

That’s a bingo!

In all the tough talk one hears these days about “fighting terrorism,” I find myself scratching my head (SMH) the most about our neglect of the suicidally depressed loner who’s rageful murder fantasy extends beyond one’s self to include other people. Terrorism is essentially a murder-suicide problem found now on a global scale. It is not a religious problem, although religious fantasies of heavenly rewards for martyred believers does, in all reality, find a home in the Muslim faith at least among its most conservative of adherents.  Such “radical Islamic extremism” does throw gasoline on this fire of murder-suicide among the depressed mentally ill.  And it does need to get talked about.  And acted upon.

To fight terrorism, or even to fight gun violence in America, without fighting mental illness is no different than having a fire department fight the smoke without first locating and extinguishing the fire. It just ain’t gonna happen!

Now, I know. There’s a ton of denial out there within the behavioral healthcare community about a link between violence and mental illness. But this denial is not always itself a healthy response. True, most mental illness does not link up with violence. Most, but not all. Some mental illness manifests itself largely in just that: violent tendencies. Let’s accept that reality if we are to be even a bit more sane than those we seek to help in this world. Please!

Major Depressive illness, whether unipolar or bipolar in category, is in its advanced stages suicidal. Anger is so internalized as to reach deadly proportions in some people. Suicide, or self-homicide, carries with it both a psychological and sociological component. Speaking myself as a clinical Social Worker, it is a mix of major depression, poor impulse control, mimetic desire (also known as copycat behavior), and…….are you ready for this…….social withdrawal and loner behavior.  The spark that sets off the fire that produces the smoke of murder-suicide is loneliness.  That’s right.  Loneliness.

It’s true that most sparks do not start raging forest fires. Most kids who play with matches don’t burn the house down. And most loneliness does not start a murder-suicide for ISIS or any other terrorist type gang or organization.   Yet, every massive fire starts with some spark.

My wish is that we would all watch out for lonely people in our midst as closely as we watch sparks flying out beyond our fire pits at night.

What to watch for? That’s the first question we have to address. It’s a tricky question. Lonely people are not always alone. Some feel loneliest and even most depressed when in a crowd. The best way I’ve found, at least clinically, to see loneliness in extreme is to ask families. Or even work related groups. Ask this question, “who could you say is probably the loneliest person in your family, or in your group, or in your church, or in your school, or in your apartment building?” Chances are high you’ll get some answers. People know. They just don’t answer until being asked.

Were I ever in charge of community policing, I’d put this question pretty high on the list of those aimed at preventing crimes of murder-suicide. But I’d also put it right up there for pastors, teachers, doctors, nurses, and about anyone else looking to help people. Lonely people need help. They need outreach. They even need to be needed. And if we don’t know that, let me tell you who else does: street gangs, ISIS, and other racially or religiously oriented terrorist groups.

And God knows.

The Bible’s Gospel of Mark 5:1-20 tells the story of Jesus and the Gerasene demoniac. This same Jesus, who said his mission from God was to seek and to save the lost, is said to have called out to this mentally ill man who then shouted back, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Swear to God that you won’t torture me.”

Do you mind if I unpack this one just a bit coming from my background as an old therapist and pastor?

Let’s try not getting too lost ourselves here in the ancient languaging of mental illness as being demon-possession. Let’s just agree that this man knew what it was like to be tortured. And that he didn’t want any more of it. Can we accept what he says to Jesus on these simple terms? If so, let’s understand that the man was tortured in part by his own Gerasene people. That’s right. They had responded to this lonely creature of a human being by binding him in heavy chains hand and foot. Didn’t work, but that is what they attempted in way of help. They tried to, the NIV says, “subdue him” and they were “not strong enough.”

Sidebar. There are many among us today, even well-intentioned Christians, who think that being strong means subduing those we don’t understand. Controlling them. Not loving them. Not influencing them. Not helping them. But controlling them as if to help protect mainly ourselves. For the Gerasene community in which Jesus was seeking and saving the lost, this made matters worse instead of better. It threw gas on the fire. And the same is no less true for today’s communities in response to their mentally ill. We intuitively exacerbate human loneliness. I know. More than a head-full to think about, but it’s still true.

So how did Jesus deal with this violent threat in the world of the Gerasenes he reached out to?

This is highly important stuff for us to learn about today, I believe. Jesus clearly appears to talk with this man about his problem. Doesn’t tell him he is the problem. May have even said something to the effect of, “Sir, you are not the problem. Your problem is the problem.” Or, “let’s try to solve the right problem here and not the wrong one.” And then he asked the man to name his problem. Notice that? What name would you use to describe your problem? “Legion,” the man answers, and he explains why as Jesus apparently listens. And then Jesus does something many counselors understand quite well. He speaks directly to the problem as if it’s sitting in a separate chair or on the ground alongside the man.  This man himself is not allowed to speak for the problem. He has already said, leave the problem alone.  But the problem then says to Jesus, in effect, let us live somewhere else if not here in this man. And, cutting to the chase as Mark often does, the problems…..and they were multiple……left the man alone by taking up residence in a herd of local pigs.

So is that the end of the story? Not really. This loneliest and most violent of men was still on the “outs” with his own Gerasene neighbors, the ones who tortured him before with chains binding hand and foot. But Jesus helped him to now have an “in” once again with his own family. Thus ending, we may at least assume, the torture of his loneliness and violence.   And chains.

Lesson to be learned nowadays by any of us who self-identify as Christians, or Christ-followers: go out into the community and seek out the lost. Ask about the loneliest or even the scariest. Or just ask even this simple question to the group: do you know anyone who strikes you as maybe mentally disturbed? They are out there waiting to be identified and found. They are being tortured in body and mind long before they set off any spark of any potential killing or terrorist violence. They have problems. Sometimes legions or multiple problems.

Again, most mentally ill persons are not violent. Most matches don’t burn down the house. But, unlike anything the NRA might say, never let mentally ill people have guns anymore than you would let toddlers carry matchbooks. Use some common sense here. And do what Jesus would do. Be a Christian if we dare call ourselves that. Don’t simply welcome home the prodigal son as the town of Aarhus, Denmark so helpfully welcomes home their radical Islamic extremists from Syria (per my prior blog). Do reach out to the least, the lost, the last, and also the loneliest who are afflicted with mental illness. In that instance, the NRA is absolutely correct.


One proven anti-dote

How do we deliberately engage with the dangerously disengaged?

By now we have come to understand the consequences posed when an otherwise withdrawn and disengaged young man, feeling disconnected socially, leaves his Tunisian home and moves to France hoping to finally “find himself” only to there feel the same social disconnect. Until one day (nature does abhor a vacuum) he finds this new identity as a member in good standing of a powerful terrorist group that advocates such behaviors as getting a truck and using it for mass homicide – suicide on the crowded streets of Nice on Bastille Day.   Or when another such individual finds a new identity as a black military veteran and does a copycat murder-suicide ambush of a group of police officers in an American city.

Suicides generally foster a copycat behavior especially among isolated individuals looking to join and belong in a social grouping.  This may well be one reason U.S. military veterans have been committing suicide at the rate of some 22 persons per day.  But as I pointed out in my prior blog, a tiny but still real percentage of suicidal ideation includes first taking out as many other people as possible before one’s own suicide by cop.   And literally no group is more famous for its “successful” murder-suicides than ISIS, which welcomes all wannabe joiners and recruits all current loners.

So how do we deal with these violent threats, these murder-suicides, in places like San Bernadino, Orlando, Nice (France), Dallas, and Baton Rouge? How do we engage the dangerously disengaged before someone else does?

Hanna Rosin, in writing for NPR’s “Health News,” posts what is one of the greatest testimonies to the Gospel of Jesus ever…………and without even mentioning the word Gospel or the name Jesus.    She writes about how the Danish town of Aarhus deliberately went about engaging its most disengaged young people. http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/07/15/485900076/how-a-danish-town-helped-young-muslims-turn-away-from-isis

Rosin’s story centers around two police officers in that town, Thorleif Link and Allan Aarsley, as they began investigating some missing persons cases that involved local young people who had, one at a time, become ISIS recruits to the horror of their own Muslim families.  Rosin reports that Link and Aarsley did something rather novel. They looked at the scientific research in the discipline of Social Psychology. And one of the world’s top researchers in the area of treating social radicalization is from the United States. His name is Dr. Arie Kruglanski, with the University of Maryland. Rosin quotes Kruglanski as saying, “The original response was to fight [extremism] through military and policing efforts, and they didn’t fare too well. That kind of response that puts them as suspects and constrains them and promotes discrimination — that is only likely to exacerbate the problem. It’s only likely to inflame the sense there’s discrimination and motivate young people to act against society. There are strong correlations between humiliation and the search for an extremist ideology. Organizations like ISIS take advantage of people who, because of racism or religious or political discrimination, have been pushed to the margins of society.”

So Link and Aarslev’s tried the scientific approach instead, which happens to coincide with the ancient Christ approach, even though Rosin made no mention of such. The city of Aarhus began to greet returning young people from Syria with a new kind of welcome home approach highly resembling the parable of the prodigal son. These radicalized young adults re-entering Denmark were helped to find free university or job training and placement, free healthcare including mental health counseling, and a wrap-around program of other social services.

Concerning this type of welcome-home reception for the returning ISIS recruits, Dr. Kruglanski is quoted by Rosin as saying, “They expect to be treated harshly. That kind of shock opens people’s minds to maybe they were wrong about their society that they perceived as their enemy. It opens a possible window into rethinking and re-evaluating.” Another way of describing this welcoming home of the prodigal is called, in social psychology, “noncomplimentary behavior.” In other words, when hateful people expect hateful responses in return, a warm and loving response creates a crisis that wrecks their own paradigm, turning upside down their own beliefs about other people, shocking them into a new way of thinking and behaving.

I know.  Sounds just like Jesus.  Or what Christians should be doing in today’s world.

According to Rosin, “starting in 2012, 34 people went from Aarhus to Syria. As far as the police know, six were killed and 10 are still over there. Of the 18 who came back home, all showed up in Aarslev and Link’s office, as did hundreds of other potential radicals in Aarhus — about 330 in total. But the program is admired for another accomplishment: Since the initial exodus of young people, very few have left from Aarhus for Syria, even when traffic from the rest of Europe was spiking. Last year, in 2015, it was just one person.”

So the first “how to” involves what today’s behavioral scientists have now begun calling the “Aarhus Model” noting that, of all western cities lamenting the return of trained radicals, only Aarhus, Denmark has stopped denying behavioral science and tried to follow an approach that actually works to prevent terrorism or, if you insist, to fight radical Islam. It is an approach aimed at welcoming the prodigal returning as trained terrorists.

Next I will focus on the “how to” of helping the isolated and “potential” terrorist before being recruited by ISIS or before carrying out a copycat police killing or other murder-suicide.


Us vs. Jesus?

So I started thinking a few days ago about us vs. them vs. Jesus. And I brought up this business about our needing to join with “them” in becoming “us” if we’re to have a Jesus-like influence in this world.  Loving neighbor as “self” kind of stuff. The option being to fear neighbor as “other” and as opposed to “ourselves.”

There’s more to say about this stuff.

Matthew 18:12 and Luke 15:4 have been difficult verses for me to read over the years. These quote Jesus as asking his disciples which of them, if he were a shepherd, would not leave 99 sheep in the fold to go in search of a single lost sheep.

From my days of pastoring a parish, I can easily recall being aware of one person leaving the fold, so to speak. I cared about it, sometimes more than others depending on the individual (just being honest here), but I rarely got carried away in leaving the rest of our congregation to go looking for that one that got away. In my own mind as a prior clinician whose triaging of patients was to help those I could and not worry about the rest, I often told myself “they will return on their own when they are ready.” Occasionally they did. Mostly they did not.

Now it’s embarrassing to admit that if my own dog wanders the neighborhood away from home, I’ve been known to scour the yards and even streets nearby in search of her until I can finally coax her into her leash and return her to our own house and yard. But the notion of leaving the 99 behind and searching for one lost sheep, per Jesus’s example of God’s love, seemed altogether irrational to me. I would only rarely do as Jesus said in Matthew 18 and Luke 15 even as a pastor, supposedly shepherding Christ’s own flock.

Why this is now an issue way beyond myself these days is we, including the church here in this statement, are so busily engaged in being divided between the “us” and the “them” that we mostly lose sight of the “he” or “she” who belongs neither to “us” nor “them” and instead feels more like an “it.” These are the individuals, call them lost sheep, who fly beneath everyone’s radar until that day they tragically make the news. Investigators and even neighbors then describe them as “loners” who kept to themselves, “never caused any trouble” but were most often “alone” in the world.

So last night another apparently lone terrorist drove a truck through a busy street in Nice, France and killed 80 or more people in a pedestrian mall of sorts as they celebrated Bastille Day. Clearly it was an act of suicide that, once again, involved the idea I used to hear, on thankfully rare occasions from my counseling clients over the years, of “first taking out as many other people as possible” before committing what we call “suicide by cop.”

Not to alarm anyone, but my own educated guess is that on any given day there are millions of people around the world who are suicidal. Chances are the USA has its share among those millions. Many of these folks who are thinking about suicide that day are what might be called lost sheep. They feel little sense of “us” or “them.” Of these only a few hundred have an actual plan to commit suicide, and of those who do only a few dozen have a plan that includes homicide first before suicide. And even fewer of those actually have the means available to carry out that fantasy of “them first and then me.” Breaking numbers down a bit more one probably can rightly assume that some in the homicide-suicide category have somehow communicated the plan, at least vaguely, to at least one other person as a sort of “cry for help” in advance.

Treating this only as a numbers game and nothing more, tens of millions of lost sheep in today’s world suggests a risk of millions of suicidal individuals where maybe a single dozen or so individuals each week end up in a cry for help because they have a plan and a means that involves killing someone else first before taking or losing their own life. From there it is perhaps on average only one individual every day, one lost sheep, who will successfully carry out such a plan.

Now you may be thinking that today’s terrorist threat, both at home and abroad, is really the problem of “them” trying to kill “us.” Speaking only for myself, I used to think terrorism meant “them” killing “them” and didn’t get too worked up inside until Sept. 11, 2001 when my dear brother-in-law, Chuck Jones, happened to be a passenger on American Airlines flight #11 out of Boston bound for Los Angeles.   That flight, you may recall, struck the first (north) tower of New York’s World Trade Center.  And in doing so, “them” became for our grieving family and even to our grieving nation a new “us” on that day.    From that day on, the problem of terrorism seemed like “them” trying to kill “us.”

I’m thinking that today’s primary terrorist threat is the problem of “them” trying to recruit “him” or “her” who feels painfully like an “it” and is tired of being a lost sheep.  Who wants nothing more than to have an “us” with whom to belong and to identify.

Further thinking of my own “us” as a Nation, and even in smaller circles as a community of Jesus followers sometimes called the Christian Church, the only solution for “us” that comes to my mind is doing what Jesus himself said to do. That is when he challenged us to leave the insiders and go out looking for the outsider. When, as part of that larger command to love neighbor as self, he called us to make all outsiders, every last one, insiders. Because doing so would serve even our own best interest in the long run.

To the lost sheep, the isolated individual, who still has no “us” to identify or belong with, everyone else is a “them.”  Everyone else could mean ISIS, Al Qaeda, United States, France, Belgium, or even the Church of Jesus Christ. And so the question is which “them” will be first on the scene to offer an “us” identity that will end the pain of being an “it?” Which group of insiders will be first to help each outsider feel he or she belongs, feel needed, feel worthy, feel like one of “us.” And, bear with my own clinical assessment here, feel the suffering of his or her own suicide will at least have the meaning of helping “our” cause.

Now the real danger comes.

That is when we turn a deaf ear to the words of Jesus in Matthew 18:12 and Luke 15:4 and just assume he didn’t really mean what he said. When we assume the lost sheep is not really lost but is part of them, so why bother looking or finding. When we instead, pouring oil on our current grease fire of terrorism, keep the outsider outside. Keep him out. Build a wall. Turn him away. And then imagine we are somehow protecting “us” in the process.

There is the danger. There is the risk. There is the reason Jesus may have brought up that sore subject in the first place of turning away from the insiders of “us” in search of the outsider who God created to also belong with “us” in this world. With Jesus there is no “them” and no “it” that must hide behind a wall of despair and exclusion.  Be they lepers, demoniacs, or any other form of outcast, there is to God through Jesus only an “us.”

When we have us vs. them, we also have us vs. Jesus. We are, if you will, separated from God by the oppositional nature of our own sin. To connect with Jesus, we must leave the “us” who opposes any neighbor as “them.”  We must in losing the old “us” lay down our own lives as a lost sheep who feels now like only an “it.” For that is when Jesus comes to seek and to save the lost “wretch like me.”

Jesus saves us to use us to then become the greater “US” in this world who find each lost sheep before ISIS, the neighborhood gang, the “hate” group’s social network or flashy website, and anyone else can. Which leads to the question of how do we do that? The answer will include your own brainstormed “what if” kind of ideas in the comment space below. The answer is up to “us.”


Us vs. them vs. Jesus

I was thinking the other day about how as a kid in school, I too often joined other classmates in making life a living hell for substitute teachers. Even early into my grade-school years, as we used to call them, there was a saying about “when the cat’s away, the mice will play” that pretty much illustrated how we behaved when the teacher was away and the substitute was assigned. Mostly, we challenged the substitute’s authority. The respect we would give our regular teacher was always on a very different level than the disrespect we had for the subs in my classrooms growing up.

Never did I have the experience of a step-parent coming into my family and trying to claim authority over me in the family, but I suspect I would have been just as ill-behaved in that circumstance as I was in response to substitute teachers in school. I don’t have to do what you just told me to do. You can’t make me. You’re not my boss. Those were some of my favorite bratty lines when I was a kid.

Without realizing it, I had in my own mind centered all respect for authority within the “us” to which I belonged. As for “them,” well, they can’t make me do it. They’re not my boss. Insiders count. Outsiders do not. And if it truly takes a village to raise a child, I was one of those kids who would respect those from our village. But your village? Or their village? No way! Keep your hands off me. And don’t expect me to obey your commandments.

To my way of thinking 60+ years later, my disrespect for the “outsider” was no better in my younger years than if some African-American citizen defies the police officer from some outside “other” village of “them” who comes in and dares lay down the law. Or some police officer who defies citizens from some outside “other” village of “them” who simply dare to come in……..period. Racially, today’s “us” vs. “them” plays out in all kind of terrible ways that threaten whoever the nearest “outsider” happens to be.

Nor was I any better in relation to outside others like substitute teachers in my youth than I sometimes am now in relation to the “them” of another political party or another religious perspective. I can be downright disrespectful to “them” as if to reveal I’ve gotten older in years but in some ways am no smarter than back in 9th grade Algebra class when Mrs. Rudle would sub for Mr. Thomas.  Then I would join others in acting up there in the classroom.  Now I just join the Facebook generation in making snarky comments about “them.”

And then there is my relationship with God.  Too often over the years I have found myself acting as if God had no business ruling my life here from somewhere out there. Heaven was some “other” village up or out wherever “they’ wouldn’t understand, and God was not the boss of me. Obedience to his commands is then too much like having to obey Mrs. Rudle when Mr. Thomas was away.  It would be “us” here in the world against the “them” of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit out there in the heavens.

Except for Jesus.

Jesus is God’s way of joining “us.” No longer are we a “them” to God or is God a “them” to us. Now God is “us” because, through Jesus, God has joined with “us.” This describes the word “atonement” (at-one-ment) we sometimes use in church, but it also demonstrates what it means to be a Christian. A Christian, by following Jesus, works at joining “them” and atoning with “them” and eliminating them altogether by becoming instead an “us” full of human beings in the world. The Kingdom of God is demonstrated when we treat everybody with the respect of “us” and we love neighbor as self to the extent we are all one human village, no more them and no more outsiders, no more foreigners. No more substitutes.

Love of God and neighbor as ourselves happens when we are all “us” and there is no “them” as instead happens in the competing kingdoms of this world.

Yet, that’s not all that it takes to love “them” as “us,” is it?

There is one more step we have to take in following Jesus.

We have to go out in search of what Jesus refers to in Luke 15 as being the “lost sheep.” You see, sometimes our neighbor is not a “them” at all, despite our assumptions to the contrary. Sometimes our neighbor we are called to love as ourselves is a he or a she who feels all alone in this world. Who has no “us” in his or her life and no real sense of identity. This is the loner who isn’t even part of “them” but rather some lost sheep of a human being that flies under everyone’s radar. That is until the day that something dramatic happens. Maybe that loner who is not part of any “us” or “them” but who feels more like a single, isolated “it” picks up the computer and discovers ISIS on the internet. Or discovers a way to buy a gun and start killing people. Maybe that loner of a lost sheep just does something else as if to cry, “help!” Or, “hey, I’m here. Notice me. Come and find me. I can’t take being an ‘it’ any longer. I need to be an ‘us.’”

Here’s where I need to work harder and smarter in my own life these days if I’m to make a more positive difference in this horribly divided land, and larger world, in which we live. I need to go beyond just trying to connect with “them” until together we become “us.” I need to love more than just “those” neighbors as myself. I need to better go in search of lost sheep if I’m to follow Jesus. I need to do far better at connecting with the loner who doesn’t even have any “us” left at all, and I need to love this neighbor as myself. I need to do unto that neighbor who feels like an “it” not an “us” as I would have that neighbor to do unto me when I may also feel cut off somehow, disconnected, not part of any “us” or even any “them.”

From here I want to share my next blog about the lost sheep who becomes violent in today’s world. About how I believe the ISIS terrorist, the cop killer, the school shooter, the mass murderer to all be about the lost sheep Jesus knows and cares about far more than we do. When we make this lost sheep one of “them” we also make Jesus a “them.” Today let’s try to join them in becoming the bigger “us” of God’s Kingdom. Otherwise, we have us vs. them vs. Jesus.


When our wants and needs contradict each other, then what?

My last posting had to do with what I happen to believe is our toughest choice in life: to have control or to have influence in relation to our world. We cannot, I tend to think, have it both ways.

If it is true that sometimes control and influence tend to cancel each other out, and if we truly do lose our influence within the world at the very point we try to take control over it, then that makes for some very tough decisions for us to make.   It also suggests to me a far broader issue, for as the control we want may cancel out the very influence we need, so our wants and needs may in many cases contradict forcing us to make tough decisions about where to hold on and where to let go.

In my own mind, I’ve noticed a frequent illusion in which my wants appear the same as my needs, even when in reality they are sometimes opposite.   I’ve had this tendency since childhood, when my mind had no mature capacity to discern the difference between my wants and needs. Paul writes in I Corinthians 13 about how when we are children, we think like children, and not always in the most loving way possible. For me, that includes thinking that the very things I wanted in life were also the things I needed, or “had to have”………..or else catastrophe! God forbid! As a child, my every “want to” was a “have to.” My wants were always my needs when I thought like a child.

Now I realize this was not reality. It was an illusion, although in fairness to my childish mind it was part-reality. One could say that the devil’s every lie starts with a half-truth. Sometimes my wants and needs were truly the same. Sometimes I really did crave the things I needed. The air. The water. And on those hot and high perspiration days of my boyhood summers on the farm, times were that the salt in my food was both a want and a need. Really? Then pass the potato chips; it’s hot out today, too.

What I’ve come to understand about myself as I’ve gotten older is that most things I seem to crave in this world are simply desires or wants. They are not needs at all. They are things I want to have, not things I have to have to have.

Are you with me here?

On the occasions where I think I should take control over the world around me, I’m really telling myself in the most silent or even unconscious of ways that I need control. I have to have control. Mostly, this is an illusion and not reality. Or, worded differently, it is subjective and not objective.

This type of thinking is where I can easily create my own addictions in life.

While I agree addictions form within our minds to produce neuro-chemical imbalances, indeed a brain disease, the choice-point we do have in the matter is between believing the childish illusion that we need or have to have the object of our addiction, or instead believing we strongly want to have it.

If addicted to alcohol, the drink we want appears in our minds to be the drink we need. To be fair, there is a self-fulfilling prophecy in place where, with alcoholism more than most addictions, the want “really” becomes the need.  Delirium tremors mean our “want” and “need for survival” may truly be one in the same. At that end-stage of this disease of alcoholism, cravings may mean medical detox to be on the safe side.   But that’s typically in the final years or even months of an alcoholic’s life, not before.

However, alcohol is one of multiple opportunities for addictive thinking where our minds believe our wants and needs are all alike.  That is why the recovery community must address the “stinking thinking” of addiction in general or else cross-addictions will soon appear to fill in the space created by one’s primary withdrawal. For my part, I think of all addiction as rooted in the mind’s decision to take control as if, in reality, we needed to be in control over the world around us. Control is what we want, even to the point of craving it.

Influence is what we need.   When we lose all influence, we feel even more out of control, and the vicious cycle perpetuates.

To make the wrong decision here carries high risk in our lives, does it not? To choose the illusion that I need what, in reality, I only want? Well, that can have deadly and self-destructive consequences for me, can it not? That craving my mind has for another cigarette, another drink, another bowl of ice cream, another game of black jack at the casino, or another 10 mph on the car’s speedometer may just be the want that cancels out my need for health or even for survival. Sometimes I have to decide between my true wants and my true needs.

And when that happens, my mind must truly decide between (A) my body that looks out for my wants but imagines them (in all childishness) as needs, and (B) my soul that looks out for my needs and has the wisdom to know my needs from my wants. The wisdom to know the difference between the serenity I need and the change (control) I only desire.

Which brings me to this day’s celebration of National Independence here in the USA.

Our nation is divided by desire.  If recent poling is accurate, then 71% of us want something other than what we have, even in terms of our own government. We are, by a large majority, dissatisfied with the direction our nation is going.  Yet our differing wants and desires divide us terribly.  And create much social contradiction.  We have to a great extent convinced ourselves that our own wants are the right wants, because they are also our needs. We have to have change or else. We have to have what we want to have. And so we are strongly divided by our wants and desires as a nation.

But what if the changes we want were to cancel out the stability we need? What if we crave change but really need stability?  What if we crave control but really need influence?   What if the change and control we want cancels out the very stability and influence we need?   This makes our voting decisions rather tough, indeed. It means we must choose between high change and low stability, high stability and low change, or some more even balance of the two.

Yet, it is this freedom to choose, to make even the tough decisions as citizens, that we celebrate today. For even though these tough decisions at the voting station may not be what we want, they are what we and our government of the people, by the people, and for the people really do need. Especially now when, as a divided people, our wants and needs so often contradict.