Immigrant or refugee? 


Most Americans can tell the story of how their forefathers and mothers came to this country to settle as new Americans. They came for opportunity. They came to be with other family already arrived. But not everyone comes here out of desire to leave their own country. Some come only because home became “the mouth of a shark” (first heard this poem in a presentation by Diane Langberg this Spring).

To this point, you might find this Fresh Air podcast aired today with listening to. The Pulitzer Prize winning author frequently refers to his identity as a refugee, one who is in the US due to US waged war in Vietnam. Does he look like a refugee? As a professor and someone who appears to be well off, he appears as American as anyone else. And yet, his experience is one of being a refugee.

What is the difference between an immigrant and a refugee? Not quality of life but it seems free choice. And I would add the component of time. His heirs will likely feel proud of their heritage but feel they are less refugee and more American. I do suspect, however, that it was easier for Irish and other Europeans to quickly integrate into the American persona than it is for most non-Caucasians.

What would make you feel more like an immigrant and less like a refugee? Or vice versa?

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New resource for adult males with child sexual abuse histories


Take a look at most books and resources for adults with abuse histories and you will discover that they do a great job illustrating the experience of females. The vignettes are often about the experience of young girls. The pronouns used tend to be female. These books are incredibly important and I wouldn’t suggest for a second that there are too many such books. But if you are a male and you have a history of sexual abuse, you may have to look far and wide to find resources that tell your story.

Look no further. Andrew Schmutzer, Daniel Gorski, and David Carlson have published, Naming Our Abuse: God’s Pathways to Healing for Male Sexual Abuse Survivors (Kregel, 2016). All three tell their stories but do so in a way for other survivors to process (and re-write) their narratives as well. The book is written in 4 sections and is in the form of a journal with ample room for the reader to write along with the authors. The sections, The Wreck, Accident Report, Rehabilitation, and Driving Again, enable the reader to reflect on his own experience as well as move into next steps and ways to cope–first illustrated by three different voices and then followed by a good number of questions to engage. I would highly recommend that readers share the experience with a trusted friend and/or counselor so as to manage the response to the subject matter. As I said in my blurb, “…work slowly through this book, examining how you might tell your story (which has not ended!) to yourself.” Our stories are not over and it is important to examine how we may distort our own stories (or have them distorted for us by voices from our past or present).

One of the little treasures in this book are the letters the three men write to their little boy selves long ago. Read these letters and consider what you would say to your younger self from your present self (but avoid shaming and judging that child that you were).

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Filed under Abuse, sexual abuse, sexual violence

Alternative to talk or pharmacological therapies for depression?


For many of my clients, medications are necessary for their moderate to severe depression. With SSRIs or mood stabilizers, they are able to function at home and at work and can better benefit from talk therapy. But in every case my clients report side effects from their meds. It is always a bit of art-form to balance benefits and side effects. That is the world we live in and the best we can do now. One of the key problems with all psychopharmacological interventions is that drugs provide a systemic solution when often we may need a targeted approach. Consider a person with ADHD who takes a stimulant that will help them focus in class yet must deal with increased blood pressure, heart rate and potential for insomnia. The stimulant does not just target the frontal lobe but impacts the whole body.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could target an intervention to a particular part of the brain?

“The brain is not a bowl of soup and you add the chemical and you stir,” she says. “Chemicals work within networks, within systems, within pathways. And where in the brain a chemical may be working is as important as knowing what chemical you should use.”

I read the above quote in this news item about the problem of rumination in treatment resistant depression. Helen Mayberg, author of the above quote, is researching Broadman Area 25 and its connection to the problem of rumination–where a person struggles to turn off negative thoughts about self and the world. She and other researchers are wondering why some people do well with talk therapy while others seem not to benefit. Instead of looking at the possibility of a less helpful form of talk therapy, they wondered whether the problem is that the person cannot get away from their negative thoughts enough to engage in the work of counseling.

One of the interventions being tried is to practice disconnecting from ruminations by paying attention to what is going on in the present. To help with the learning of this skill one researcher is testing whether 5 sessions of having an electrode on your wrist create an itching sensation while the patient practices paying attention to a decreasing amount of electrical stimulation.

Sound crazy? It just might be. I am always wary of any “5 sessions or less” advertisement. But before we toss out the idea, if a targeted treatment could help turn down the volume on a rumination, wouldn’t that be a help to many?

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Filed under Depression, news, Psychiatric Medications, Psychology, Uncategorized

Should churches allow concealed weapons in worship?


Do you know if your church has a policy about weapons on church property? Do you know who has a concealed weapon (legally permitted to do so) with them on Sunday morning? 

Last Sunday a local church experienced a tragedy of a shooting during morning worship. One person dead and many others likely traumatized. I do not know the circumstances and so this post does not comment any further on what took place there nor make any assessment on what transpired there. We, the public, simply do not know what led up to the shooting nor can we evaluate any justifications one way or the other. So, we allow the authorities to investigate without further comment and we pray for those involved. 

And yet, the tragedy can encourage us to have conversations about weapons in our church services. As far as I can see there are two main arguments used in this discussion:

  1. Individuals with conceal/carry permits provide additional security and can thwart attacks and potentially minimize harm by those intending to engage in mass violence
  2. Individuals with conceal/carry permits but without extensive training may unnecessarily escalate violence by using weapons too early in a conflict; thus all security should be handled by official “officers.” 

I would imagine that many of the arguments used turn on personal experience or knowledge of specific cases. It is easy to imagine a situation where many are killed in a church (consider the shooting in South Carolina in the last year) and where a person with a weapon might have been able to stop or prevent mass killing. It is also easy to imagine where unnecessary harm results from someone with a weapon without proper crisis training. So, our capacity to tell stories of each situation do not help us come to a wise decision on whether to allow weapons in worship services. 

So, what questions should we be asking?

I will suggest a few, but I would love to hear your suggestion questions that need asking/answering in order to answer how a church will handle the issue of guns on site.

  1. What is the statistical probability of violence in church? It does happen, no one can fully predict violence, but probability statistics are still important.
  2. What levels of risk are acceptable for a church community (no option will remove all risk)? 
  3. What are the options for security? (No weapons, paid security with and without weapons, volunteer specially trained members, no policy at all)?
  4. What minimal training would we require to allow members to carry weapons? 
  5. What notifications and communications should be made to the congregation about policies and procedures? 
  6. What biblical and theological arguments will we prize in determining our choices? 

As we consider the best way forward, do remember to pray for those whose lives have been upended by violence this past weekend. It is easy to backseat drive bad situations. But rarely do we have the facts to do so. Better to pray and ask for God to bring his healing power to all involved. 

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A moment at a refugee camp reminds us of the human tragedy around us


Just over the nearest mountain stands the Syrian border (approximately 6 miles across the valley). The Beqaa valley, known for its wine and farms displays its fertility even through the Spring chill rain. The mud clings to your shoes as you step carefully hoping that it doesn’t suck your shoe off your foot. You move down the dirt road between the refugee homes and are at a loss for words as what constitutes a home.  A “home” is a plastic covered wooden frame covered in plastic wrap and weighted down by tires and other heavy objects. This is a “good” or “5 star” camp in that the homes sit on poured concrete and have diesel powered heater/stoves. You step inside of Ramy’s (not his real name) home where he sits with his wife and a younger relative. Ramy is 24 and has been married for just just one month longer than his 2 year stay. He fled his home, walked over the mountain and arrived in Lebanon without legal status. What would make him flee his home and leave his parents behind? He had a choice to either take up a gun and fight in the civil war or try to get to another location to find a better life. While he doesn’t worry about being killed in battle, life is not easy for Ramy. Ramy cannot work. To pass the time he volunteers in the camp children’s activities. For this help, he is given some small token gifts from which he has to pay rent to the camp leader (who in turn pays the local farmer who has rented the plot as a camp. 
The camp is a good one, comparatively safe and secure, and relatively clean. Of course, this day, everything is wet and dark, lighted by one bare bulb and the glow of a TV. (Yes, some homes have a TV). With nothing to do at the moment, Ramy sits drinking hot sweet tea his wife has prepared. We drink with him.

Ramy worries about his parents and extended family. He can talk to them by phone every few months. He learns they have very little food. Unlike well-to-do migrants, Ramy hopes for peace and the right to return to his home city. Here, he worries about his wife, getting enough food, and whether he can spare some small change to help an elderly couple who can do nothing to provide for themselves. 

Ramy’s relative Mohommed, just 17, rarely speaks or makes any eye contact. He stares off and mindlessly smokes a cigarette. Though he too has no legal status or right to work, he has found a way to make a bit of money on building sites when he is allowed to stay at the construction site to sleep. It is clear he has seen and experienced much that is not good. 

Saying our good byes and offering our blessings, we leave the dank cushioned hut and move on to a small hut, better lighted and full of laughter. An aid worker is teaching English to children between 7 and 14 and a few mothers as well. The children practice identifying letters and writing both capital and lowercase English letters. Through giggles and “Hello, and how are you? My name is…” We learn that the woman reciting English has 9 living children and 2 dead ones. She smiles easily but pain is not far away. 

Soon, our time at the camp comes to a close. We file back down the road as clouds race by and the stench of human waste burns in our noses. We get on the bus, wave good byes and realize how welcomed we were. From there we go to a cheap restaurant and make our way to a hotel overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Though we look out upon beauty, our hearts and minds are with the children and their parents preparing to sleep on cushions wrapped in a thin blanket and with no hope of it being any different tomorrow, next week, or ever. 

What can we do when our best options seem to be bearing feeble witness and trying to avoid the problems of tragedy tourism (a word used by our aid worker)? What can we know other than these few things:

  • this is not the way it is supposed to be 
  • few people outside this region given their pain a second thought (Think otherwise? Consider the “temporary” Palestinian camps swelling from 40,000 to 600,000 since 1948. These only come to mind today when a political leader is killed in a car bomb in one in Sidon)
  • while there are no simple answers and relief aid is not always the best solution, the human tragedy is still real. For this couple, that teen, those children, they suffer. 
  • And finally, and maybe most challenging, we know that God loves these refugees who do not yet know him. His heart breaks for them no less than it did for Ninevah. Our received blessings are not because we are more loved
  • We lament and ask again what can we do with what talents we have for the good of these brothers and sisters.

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Filed under suffering, trauma

Making the Church a Safe Place for victims of abuse


This Saturday I will be attending and presenting Cairn University’s Faith in Practice conference hosted by their counseling center and department (free but you need to register). I will be speaking about how we can make the church a safer place for adult victims of abuse and trauma. If you want to peak at the slides, click here: 2016 Cairn U Presentation.

The presentation that I will do will only be one hour so that limits what I can do. What I wish I could do is also talk much more about the systemic factors that make churches less safe places for vulnerable people. While we can all grow in better understanding the nature of trauma and how to walk alongside victims, our institutions can be systematically harmful, even when the individuals within the system have no intention to hurt others. Thus we need to keep examining the ways our systems operate that can be toxic to some. While this presentation doesn’t cover these questions, it can be good to ask,

  1. How do we handle recent or older allegations of mis-handling difficult cases?
  2. How do we handle allegations of child abuse (the victims, the family, the alleged perpetrator and family, and congregation)?
  3. Are we a safe place for people who are broken and not all tidied up?
  4. Does our system allow for ongoing lament? (Corporate and individual)?

 

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Filed under Abuse, Christianity, church and culture, counseling skills, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, suffering, trauma

Pastors and porn: what to do?


The latest issue of Christianity Today has an article on pastors and the struggle with pornography. Here’s a couple of pieces of data from the 770 pastors surveyed

  • Current struggle? 21% of youth pastors and 14% of pastors say yes
  • How frequent a struggle? 35% of both categories say “a few times per month”
  • Past struggle? 43% of both categories say yes

So, it is a problem. But here’s the data that stood out to me most of all.

  • 70% of adult Christians say that if a pastor is having this struggle, the pastor should either be fired or put on leave until the problem is resolved? While
  • Only 8% of pastors think they should leave their position if having this problem

While not surprising, it is telling. We think we should manage our own problems (or get a counselor or accountability group–that is still managing on our own) and that these problems don’t hinder our work.

What do you think?

How serious is the problem of porn use amongst pastors? Should it be cause to lose the position? Sinlessness is not a reasonable goal for pastors. But what would disqualify one from the position?

And if porn is a significant problem amongst congregants (and this study among many say so), does having a pastor with a current (even if infrequent) use of porn help or hinder care of congregants?

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Filed under Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, pastors and pastoring, pornography, Uncategorized

Love your cultural enemies? Start with listening and validating their story


Cultural enemies are those who oppose our views about important aspects of life (faith, religion, identity, family, values, community, government, politics, etc.). Worse, many cultural enemies do more than oppose our way of life, they accuse us of the worst sort of behavior, that of hating and hurting others with our culture via systematic bigotry.

When we hear Jesus call to “love your enemy” (Matthew 5) what images of love come to mind with this kind of enemy? Not returning evil for evil? Not seeking revenge? While turning the other cheek is surely part of what it means to love the enemy, we know that love requires action as well–not just the absence of bad responses. 

What if our first action was to really listen to and validate the story of our cultural enemy? Might sound easy but it is not!

Consider Mark Galli’s recent short essay in the April 2016 issue of Christianity Today [link here: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/april/what-reconciliation-sounds-like.html%5D as he addresses the challenge when two opposing groups feel their story/narrative is not being heard by the other side. 

We experience daily clashing narratives from Muslims, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, whites, main liners, evangelicals, pro-choices, pro-lifers, gays, straights, men, women, elites, the poor–to name a few. 

Mark points out why listening is so hard. First he notes, 

…narratives define the conflict, name the antagonists, and spell out the resolution. Narratives are, of course, biased. They rarely lie about the facts, but they are selective in their use of them. 

Then, he says one of the more difficult things for us to embrace.

The truth does not lie somewhere in the middle, as we are wont to say, but on both ends. [For example,] The American experiment is a remarkable achievement of democratic governance, human rights, and free speech–and is riddled with hypocrisy and racism. 

Yet it is difficult to take seriously the narrative of the other. We fear that if we do, we’ll sabotage the value of our own narrative. 

And that is the reason why listening is difficult. To listen to the other means to give credibility to the other’s story. And if their story (which paints me or those like me as the enemy) has any merit, then maybe my story will not get any airtime. In fact, we probably already have evidence that our story has been marginalized or charicatured and so we rarely enter a conversation without a chip on our shoulder. 

 To listen to you, my cultural enemy, I have to relinquish my anxiety that I will not get the same opportunity. (This, by the way, is the most frequent challenge in conflictual marriages. If I listen to your hurts, it will diminish my right to be heard.)

Half-listening is not real listening. 

Faux forms of listening need to be named as they give the appearance of listening but actually leave all parties further apart. Galli points out mitigation as one tactic needing. Mitigation is in play when we say, “Yes, true, but you…” In this method we barely acknowledge some sin on our side but excuse it on the basis of a larger sin on their side. We point out their biases, straw-men, mis-characterizations, and sins that cause us to possibly do something wrong. In short, we listen so as to defend, excuse, blameshift, or explain. 

But true love for other requires a different response, one that moves beyond hearing to validating the story. 

True love requires that we listen and validate the narrative, even with its biases. We even go one step further to acknowledge where our own cultural narratives have been wrong, even if we think the wrong is small compared to the wrong on the other side. Can I listen and acknowledge (validate) their wounds, their experiences of injustice. 

Validation does not mean agreement on all aspects of the narrative. 

I once watched an academic presentation/debate between a biblical counselor and a psychologist from a different persuasion. They psychologist went first and detailed a long list of sins and failures of biblical counselors (in practice and in foundational beliefs). The biblical counselor then stood up and took the time to agree with the  psychologist. Without caveat, he agreed with the sins and mis-application of the bible. There was no defense. Instead, he even asked the psychologist if he had any personal negative history with biblical counseling. The psychologist told a rather personal history of harm to his own family many decades before. It provided an opportunity for the biblical counselor to apologize for that experience. Later, the counselor was able to talk about what he hoped biblical counseling would be known for and painted a picture that I think most in the room could value. But, none of that would have happened if the counselor didn’t set aside the temptation to defend or deflect criticisms that might have been little more then charicatures. 

Try it with your next conversation with a cultural enemy. Hear their story. Validate whatever portion holds some portion of the truth. Do it without a “but”. Be willing to consider the flaws in your own side even if the other will not do the same. Trust that God will make all things right (including our flawed culture) in due time. And trust that He will give you the time and space to speak truth (in love) to your cultural enemy. 

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Filed under conflicts, Cultural Anthropology, group dynamics, Justice

Defining an influential church


Take a minute right now and consider what churches you know would make your list of “influential” churches? What criteria would you use? Number of members? Growth? A well-known and revered senior pastor? Active in the community? A killer social media presence?

G. Campbell Morgan talks about influential churches in his commentary on the book of Acts. In discussion of the Spirit-led apostolic sermon in Acts 2, Morgan notes that influence then meant that the people were amazed at what they saw, interested enough to inquire (even if they were “perplexed” and even dismissive) and were attracted to join. How did these churches show lasting favor? Beyond the initial flame of the first days of growth, church members giving generously to each other indicates “influence.” When members are willing (not coerced) to give out of their own hearts then that church can be called influential.

The influential Church is the company of loyal souls who ‘continue steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, and in the breaking of bread and the prayers,’ who eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, who manifest in their individual lives and corporate capacity the strength, the beauty, the glory, the compassion of the Christ. Wherever there is such a Church you will find the Church that has favour with the people.

Faking influence?

In 1924 when this book was published, here’s the kind of church that Morgan felt was called “influential” for wrong reasons,

We call a Church influential now because of the kind of people that attend it, because of the money which it raises for philanthropic objects.

I suspect we could add to this short list other forms of “influence” as how many people visit the church website, the number of times quoted in Christianity Today, or the number of satellite locations.

Is your church influential?

I suppose a few key questions might help us assess our own churches:

1. Are we better known, as a corporate body, for being compassionate or correct? Would your church be attractive to new refugees coming into your community?

2. How connected are the people who regularly attend? Would new attenders want to join in smaller cell groups?

3. Are outsiders perplexed and amazed by what the church is doing and teaching? For example (and these are examples admittedly come from my domain of counseling), does your church ever say anything about mental health issues? Does your church talk about the scourge of addiction–in a compassionate way? Does it talk about domestic violence in ways that do not suggest that staying together is more important than safety?

These questions should not be asked so much of the individuals within the church (though that isn’t a bad thing to do) but of the corporate identity.

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Counseling Advice From Lady Gaga?


Lady Gaga has a new song about the aftermath of sexual assault. Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you likely have heard of Lady Gaga who is known for crazy getups and stunts. Known in my household as the lady who wore the meat dress, she sings these words (I’ve included just a few lines) in the song “Til it happens to you.”

You tell me it gets better, it gets better in time
You say I’ll pull myself together, pull it together, you’ll be fine
Tell me, what the hell do you know? What do you know?
Tell me how the hell could you know? How could you know?

Till it happens to you, you don’t know how it feels, how it feels
Till it happens to you, you won’t know, it won’t be real
(How could you know?)
No it won’t be real
(How could you know?)
Won’t know how I feel

Her message is clear: If you haven’t been raped or assaulted (or experienced any other sort of trauma) you can’t possibly know what it is like. And since you can’t know what it is like, stop giving superficial comfort and advice.

Is Lady Gaga right? Does she offer sound counseling advice?

Yes and no. Yes, we are far too willing to offer platitudes to people in pain and wonder why they get angry and hurt and avoid us altogether. Lady Gaga captures the sentiment of the doubly hurt–first by the initial trauma and second by foolish words. The ancient Greek Aeschylus aptly puts it this way

It is an easy thing for one whose foot is on the outside of calamity to give advice and to rebuke the sufferer

Our quips roll easily off the tongue, but they injure the already wounded. Before you speak to someone and offer your ideas, do your friend a favor and be quiet. Ask them again (and again) to tell you what they experienced (past or present tense). But I don’t think Gaga goes far enough. I would argue that EVEN IF you have experienced the same trauma as the person in front of you, stop thinking that you know what they are feeling and struggling with. You may, but you may not as well. Do not assume your experience is theirs. Listen. More than you think you need to. Assumptions of “getting it” communicate that their pain doesn’t really matter to anyone.

But also, Lady Gaga is wrong (and I get it, this is art not counseling skills training!). It is possible to help others even when you have not had their experience. As long as you approach your work with humility and the heart of a student, you can do much good. You bear witness to their experience through your reflections and observations. You can ask good questions and paint word pictures of trajectories of growth. Do not think that just because you did not have the trauma, you have nothing to offer. Offer yourself (more than your words). If you fail to offer yourself out of fear of not being adequate, you also harm by not giving the present of being understood.

But let Gaga’s anthem be a challenge to those of us, myself included, who speak before listening and who assume rather than learn. We won’t get it. But we can bear witness.

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Filed under Abuse, christian counseling, counseling, counseling skills, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, sexual abuse, sexual violence, trauma, Uncategorized