Song of the Week: Pretty Amazing Grace by Neil Diamond

I don’t think Neil Diamond is a Christian — as far as I know, he’s still Jewish — but he wrote a song called “Pretty Amazing Grace,” which blows my mind because it has some strong Christian concepts behind it. Maybe he’s resolved things between him and God? Who knows?

I’m currently reading a book called Transforming Grace by Jerry Bridges. The book focuses on reminding Christians that God draws people to him based on his grace and mercy and not based on our merits or works. The Bible teaches there is nothing people can do to get to heaven. (Ephesians 2:8-9) I accepted Christ as my Lord and Savior and became a Baptist 16 years after being a Roman Catholic. Coming from a Roman Catholic background, I’d view my standing with God based on a “points” system. For example, let’s start at zero. If I was nice to or complimented someone, I’d give myself a +1. But later on, if I told a white lie to my parents, I’d give myself a -1 putting me right back where I started. So I’d go back and forth on this points system trying not to reach a deficit. The new church I joined taught that there was no points system, people couldn’t earn their way to heaven, and that one had to rely solely on God’s grace — the gift he gives the people who believe in Jesus Christ.

not good enoughAfter a few years though, being a Christian became burdensome — not because of God — but because of the rules the church I attended would begin to impose in my life:

  • you’re in sin if you don’t wear a skirt past your knees
  • if you don’t go knocking on doors and proselytizing to people, you’re in sin
  • if you’re not in church every time the doors are open, you’re in sin
  • working on Sundays is a sin unless you’re a doctor or a nurse (it’s OK to heal people on the Sabbath)

The church taught one thing but did another. I began to feel as though I was never doing enough for God no matter how hard I tried. I was back on the points system.

Transforming Grace is a book intended to blow legalism out of the water. It takes legalistic concepts and casts them into the depths of the sea (Micah 7:19) or puts them as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12). It reminds Christians that any blessings they receive or any favor they find in God’s sight is not based on what they do, how good they are, or how many “points” they’ve racked up. After years of bashing myself as a bad Christian, this book reminds me that in and of myself, I’m a pretty bad person. (Romans 3:10-12) But with a belief in Christ, God doesn’t see me as bad; he sees Christ’s righteousness. So there’s no more points to earn. There’s nothing I can do to make God love me any less or any more.

And this is where Neil Diamond’s song “Pretty Amazing Grace” steps in. I don’t know what Neil Diamond’s spiritual belief is but somehow, he’s grasped the concept of God’s grace quite well. As a result, I’ve chosen “Pretty Amazing Grace” for the song of the week as I continue my studies in learning more about Transforming Grace. You can listen to the full song here, and the lyrics are behind the cut.
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This Girl's Biblical View

A little late in posting this but better late than never.


“Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?  Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature? “So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?

“Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.
Matthew 6:25-34
(NKJV)

Personal interpretation
This passage piggybacks off of last week’s verse (Philippians 4:6-7) about not being anxious. Here, Jesus says not to be concerned about God providing for our needs because He takes care of all the little details such as feeding birds to allowing flowers to grow and bloom. Plus, he adds, worrying doesn’t solve anything. (Know anyone who’s been able to fix an issue while experiencing a panic attack?) His listeners are told to first seek God’s will for their lives. Jesus also admonishes them to focus on getting through that day and not worrying about the next day because there are enough issues to deal with at that present moment.

Personal meaning
In this economy, it is so easy to worry about losing a job or if that happens, what would happen to paying the rent or putting food on the table. God says He’ll provide for our needs. Not our wants but our needs. Something to keep in mind is our finite human minds cannot comprehend what an infinite God deems as our needs.

Jesus also tells the listening crowd to seek after “the kingdom of God and His righteousness.” The primary need Jesus emphasizes here is God. Everything else that we consider our needs (food, water, shelter, clothing, etc.) is considered extemporaneous, hence, why they are “added to” us. Our needs are first spiritual then physical. (And spiritual often ties into the emotional.)

Personal application
worryWorry. Anxiety. How can I apply this so it’ll affect my life?

The answer is simple: “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.”

A personal application of this verse would be to do everything with God in mind and emulate His characteristics: holiness, truth, justice, love, care, compassion, and forgiveness among others. I am encouraged to “seek” those things — look for them, strive for them — they are goals to shoot for.

Recently, I’ve been learning the Westminster Catechisms. A catechism is a statement of doctrinal belief often made in a series of questions and answers. The first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism is “What is the chief end of man?” The answer: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

My chief end in life is to glorify God. Seeking after that could prevent so much worry because I’d know that God would take care of me no matter what happens.

For example, if my husband has shown evidence of his faithfulness to me, I won’t live in fear that he’s banging another woman every time he works late.

God has been in my life a heckuva lot longer than my husband has. He has proven Himself faithful to me time and time again. I’ve seen evidence of his goodness to me: how He brought me and my husband together, how He’s saved me from killing myself, and how He’s blessed me monetarily (we’re not poor). God, like my husband, has never given me any reason to worry about whether He’ll look after me.

My counselor suggested that I write a list of all the things God has done for me in my life so whenever I wonder about His passivity, I can look at it and see how active He really is. Something akin to a list of things I’m grateful for. Otherwise, I tend to have a short memory. The future scares me because I don’t know what to expect. It causes me anxiety and worry. Often it’s because I’m not seeking after Him.

Although I said the answer was simple, I never said putting it into action was easy.

Mood rating: 6

This Girl's Biblical View

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4:6-7
(NKJV)

Personal interpretation
Don't worry about anything. Pray and ask God for your needs and desires, thanking Him for everything He's already given to you, and God will provide you with assurance—a kind of heavenly, unfathomable assurance—that will protect your heart and mind from constant worry and anxiety.

Personal meaning
While I know I shouldn't worry about anything, I still freak out over things and usually they're the littlest things. (See Don't Sweat the Small Stuff.) The verse encourages me to pray and beseech the Lord for help but I've got to admit, I often forget and try to do things on my own.

Personal application
The verse encourages me to really talk to God—to make God real in my life as though He were standing face to face with me. Just like I would talk to my mom and go, "Hey, Mom, I'm a little short on cash. Can you help me out today?" Well, not that irreverent but that's the idea. If I have a good relationship with my mom, I wouldn't sit in my bedroom, fretting and worrying about whether I should ask her for money or not—especially if I know she has the money she can spare me.

God wants to hear me talk to Him. And instead of opening my big mouth to Him, I start complaining about my worries and fears to other people. Voicing my concerns isn't so much a problem as ignoring that God can handle it is. And God's word promises that if I give my burdens over to Him (with faith in Jesus Christ), He will provide me with comfort and reassurance that He's got everything under control.

As I am wont to say: It sounds nice in theory. Maybe I should try testing it.

Mood rating: 5.7

Social Anxiety and Social Awkwardness

AnxietyIf you met me in person, you’d never know that I struggled with social anxiety or what I’ve deemed social awkwardness.

I’m a pretty quiet and shy person at first but the more you get to know me, the more you get to love me! (Just kidding about the latter.) In all seriousness, the more I become comfortable in certain social situations or a group of people, I can be loud, outgoing, silly (zany if you’d like!), bubbly, and full of energy.

After close to a year of being at my current place of employment, I have yet to be fully comfortable. My personality comes out in short bursts but then I get quiet, withdraw, and “shut down,” keeping to myself and avoiding interaction with my coworkers if I can help it.

I assume—I don’t know for sure—that they have judged me negatively and for whatever reason don’t like me. In a previous post, I tossed around a couple of social situations where I felt like this before. I invent all sorts of reasons in my head:

  • I’m a freak
  • I’m a weirdo
  • I don’t interact much with them
  • I don’t have an immediate warm, outgoing personality
  • I don’t dress very fashionably
  • I have nervous habits that they probably don’t like
  • I am all-around irritating, grating, and annoying in some manner that I don’t know of

Most people struggle with this kind of thing without any real basis. My fear used to be completely unfounded and after the incident at my previous job, I am plagued by thoughts of social anxiety and awkwardness tenfold. I don’t know what I did at my last job to rub my coworkers the wrong way but I wish I knew so I could try to work on it and cut it out. Vague references of “immature” and “annoying” don’t help me much.

So here I throw out the detailed descriptions of social anxiety and social awkwardness. The first one was developed by the NIMH; the second is my own invention built off of the social anxiety description.

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Christian counseling: Nouthetic vs. Biblical

Last night, I spent some time on the phone with my husband’s friend’s sister (aka my former pastor’s sister). We’ll call her Natalie.

Natalie was very sweet and kind, really encouraging and strengthening me by sharing her testimony of faith in God. She suffers from anxiety and panic attacks, which has led her to take Paxil (on and off) for the past 7 years. She says the drug has helped her tremendously and who am I to knock the drug (knowing what I know about Paxil/Seroxat) when she has seen the wonders that it has worked in her life?

I briefly explained my story of depression, history of suicide, and diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Although she couldn’t fully relate, she was very sympathetic and understanding. In fact, our conversation was so fruitful, I ended up taking notes!

Jay AdamsWe briefly touched on the issue of Nouthetic counseling (NC). She has undergone the course and simply needs to be certified. The counselor I currently see is associated with the Christian Counseling Education Foundation (CCEF), which has roots in NC and was founded by the man—Jay Adams—who developed the method. However, CCEF is now known for what is called biblical counseling. The organization has since moved away from pure Nouthetic methods and become more a bit more varied, taking bits and pieces of psychology (and perhaps psychiatry) that line up with the Bible. Adams, disagreeing with the organization’s approach, founded the Institute for Nouthetic Studies and uses the Bible as the sole counseling textbook. According to the wiki entry on Nouthetic counseling, Adams developed the word Nouthetic based on the “New Testament Greek word noutheteō (νουθετέω), which can be variously translated as ‘admonish,’ ‘warn,’ ‘correct,’ ‘exhort,’ or ‘instruct.'”

NC was developed back in the ’70s as a response to the popularity of psychology/psychiatry. Many Christians reject some of the teachings of such popular psychologists as Freud, Jung, Adler, Maslow, etc. Adams’ highly successful book, Competent to Counsel, criticizes the psychology industry and counters its teaching with a Nouthetic approach.

But NC has its Christian critics.

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December

I have since learned that December is also a hard month for me. December has certain markers, so to speak, that jump out at me throughout the month.

December 9 — The day my father died
December 14 — The day I found out
December 17 — The funeral
December 18 — The burial

Makes for quite a depressing Christmas. Even though he passed away only 7 years ago, it still hangs a dark cloud over my head. It takes me so long to get into the “Christmas spirit.” I now settle into the Christmas mood a week before the holiday, which is somewhat frustrating because it took me almost a month to finally enjoy hearing Nat King Cole’s smooth voice crooning through the ceiling speakers at Barnes and Noble.

I think celebrating Advent next year might help, however, I never know much about the season anymore since I no longer attend Catholic church and the Presbyterian church I attend doesn’t seem to acknowledge it. I need to remember that Christ is “the reason for the season” (yes, I know it’s trite) but the materialism surrounding Christmas really does a good job of distracting me from focusing on that. Materialism is tangible; Christ is not. But materials are temporal; Christ is eternal. Something to keep in mind.

I’ve been incredibly busy lately and have gotten pretty sidetracked from blogging. I’m traveling a good bit this (and the coming) year, trying to get a personal website up and running, running errands and accomplishing chores, trying to fit in exercise, spend time with friends and family, attend (usually) church-related activities, and make time for myself at night. My life in the past 2 years has moved faster than I could even imagine or fathom. The introduction of children could only make it crazier.

How’s my mental health in spite of all this? Well, I was doing pretty well most of the year with the exception of my “normal” dive in August. Lately, I’ve been dealing with some suicidal thoughts again. Mostly passing and no serious urges but the idea of trying has been tempting. I mentioned recently that I’ve felt a “need to prove” that I am serious about committing suicide. It’s a serious pride issue. Why should I care whether people think I’m suicidal for attention or not? That doesn’t matter. I shouldn’t be more concerned about what people think of me. Rather, I should be more focused on living my life to please God and for His glory.

I’m currently reading a book by J.I. Packer titled “God’s Plans for You.” (You can read a preview of this book through Google Books.) Lately, I’ve been struggling with what I should do with my life. I’m experiencing what has been deemed a “quarter-life crisis.” It’s like a mid-life crisis but with different challenges. Usually those challenges are related to career and vocational decisions. The mid- to late-twenties is the time when college grads are hit with the reality that full-time work isn’t as idealistic as they hoped and they are faced with the grim realization that some—or many—of their dreams may never come true.

This is becoming the case with me.

I obtained a degree in print journalism and a minor in English, hoping that I could enjoy working as a reporter or copy editor in the newspaper or magazine industry. It started out that way but then a move to Pennsylvania and a switch to daytime hours and a lack of clips set me back and now I am a freelance proofreader. Granted, I’m fortunate to even be a freelancer at 26 but proofreading at an ad agency was NOT what I had in mind when I took on my student loan debt.

While I enjoy the people I work with and have become more comfortable with the materials that come across my desk, I again have fallen into the perfectionism trap. I had a week where I caught a string of my own mistakes that I’d missed (other people—non-proofreaders—had caught them) and it was extremely discouraging. This has led me to wonder whether I’m even in the appropriate field. Now, I have a desire to pick up writing again (as opposed to sole editing) and am frustrated at my lack of internal motivation. I’m even beginning to wonder whether I should go back to a full-time job because it’s tough not knowing when a check will drop in my lap during any given day of a month and the fact that I am a terrible boss and employee when it comes to meeting my own deadlines. I’m even afraid of getting audited come tax time.

All in all, I’m currently facing a slew of decisions. Where to take my career and the prospect of motherhood, which may be hindered by my Lamictal (lamotrigine) treatment. I don’t want to be taking Lamictal during a pregnancy unless absolutely necessary and right now, I don’t feel that it’s absolutely necessary. I would like to take the risk and come off of it to see what happens but so far, it sounds like Lamictal withdrawal can be hellish. Lamictal during pregnancy raises the risk of a baby being born with a cleft palate. The likelihood of that happening to me is low and even if it does happen, it’s fixable but why take the chance? I’m also the super-psycho freak that will halt topical steroid medication of my eczema and zealously check all toys “Made in China” for lead.

Gianna at Beyond Meds and CLPsych over at Clinical Psychology and Psychiatry have written pieces on how Lamictal’s efficacy has been shown to be no better than placebo. This is something I intend on writing about soon considering that I’m one of the patients who could probably (currently, anyway) sing the wonders of the drug.

So there’s the update. That’s what’s going on in my life. I hope that you are all well. I likely won’t post again before 2009 so I’d like to wish you all a Happy New Year!

Mood rating: 5

For No One

NOTE: This post heavily focuses on God, His impact on my life, and living according to the Bible.

When I talk to my husband about embarking on freelance writing, he often asks me: "What do you define success as?"

Hmm. Good question.

My responses vary:

"It’s educating others and making a difference in other people’s lives."
"Bringing in a decent income."
"Doing what I love to do every day."

But if I’m honest with myself, I define success as writing a brilliant piece, receiving recognition, being lavished with laud and praise over it, and winning a slew of writing and/or journalism awards. I’ve done it in the past. I’d like to do it all over again.

Back in my senior year of college, I won an award as the best student print journalism writer on Long Island. I beat out I-don’t-know-how-many other college students on an island that boasts a population of 2.8 million (as of the 2000 census). Sure, it was just college but it opened my eyes and made me feel as though I had the potential to do that on a bigger scale.

Then comes Epic Fail. (Link provided for your amusement.)

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God and mental illness

Thanks to Gianna for sending me a link to an ABC News article about the relationship between religious faith and depression. The article analyzes whether faith can help or exacerbate a mental illness. The exacerbation, as referred to in the article, mostly comes from the stigma of mental illness within the religious community.

“You might be shocked to find out there are some denominations that do harm to people,” said Patricia Murphy, chaplain and assistant professor of psychiatry at Rush University. “Some congregations teach that depression is a sin … that’s the reaction they get when they turn to their pastor.”

Being punished by your religious leader for an unavoidable disorder sounds bad enough — yet it’s often compounded with tacit warnings against leaving the condemning sect.

“Studies have shown that faith leaders are least supportive [with mental health problems],” said Gregg-Schroeder. “There’s this attitude that if you pray harder, you’ll be able to pull yourself out of it. I’ve gone to funerals of people who were told to just pray to Jesus and stop taking your meds.”

praying dogI’ve been told that I suffer from depression because I didn’t pray enough or I wasn’t “right with God.” When I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital after my high school graduation, I found my pastor and church noticeably absent even though they were aware of the situation. When I was depressed, I’d get verses like Proverbs 15:13, “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.” Great. That’s helpful. Especially when I don’t have a “merry heart.”

When I was forced to leave a fundie conservative Christian college midyear because of my depression, my pastor at the time was clearly disappointed with my decision not to return the following year. I decided that attending a college close to home as a commuter student would be better for my mental health. There was no need to scare more roommates with my occasional mixed episodes. I felt like I’d failed my pastor, my church, and my God. God more so than anyone else. I convinced myself that He must be upset with me – disappointed in me. It’s not easy to recover from depression when you feel like the One who dangles your life from His fingers is pretty pissed at you.

(Image from AP via Yahoo! News)

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Transforming Grace

Originally written on October 16, 2006

orphansIn Rose Marie Miller’s introduction for from fear to freedom, she outlines the orphan mindset of a person who has accepted Christ as his/her Savior through grace but does not recognize his/her son/daughtership:

“- Life consciously or unconsciously is centered on personal autonomy and moral willpower, with grade understood as God’s maintaining your own strength — not as his transforming power.
– Faith is defined as trying harder to do and be better, with a view to establishing a good record leading to self-justification
– Obedience is related to external, visible duties with attitudes and deeper motivation virtually ignored
– ‘What people think’ is represented as the real moral standard, based upon visible success and failure
– An I-am-a-victim attitude is supported by coping strategies, wall building, blame shifting, gossiping, and defending
– All this is accompanied by intense feelings of aloneness, believing that no one understands and that one is trapped by circumstances.”

I identify with all of the above. But it doesn’t stop there. Miller says:

“Here then is my theme: the only hope of liberation for a helpless, resisting caterpillar in a ring of fire is deliverance from above. Someone must reach down into the ring and take us out. This rescue is what brings us from the orphan state into that of the son or daughter. This is not mere supporting grace, but transforming grace.”

So my only hope of help is total deliverance. Meds aren’t a “cure-all” — never have been, never will be. In the meantime, I need to find Someone to pull me out of my “ring of fire.” I can only look to God.

Today’s Mood: 4

Barren wasteland

I receive daily Christian devotionals in my e-mail from Elisabeth Elliot. Some are good and some just don’t really affect me much. I wanted to share this one piece that really spoke to me. Non-Christians won’t get much out of it but I really could have used something like this when I was suicidal and working in Kentucky.

Wastelands: Exodus 13:17-18

There are dry, fruitless, lonely places in each of our lives, where we seem to travel alone, sometimes feeling as though we must surely have lost the way. What am I doing here? How did this happen? Lord, get me out of this!

He does not get us out. Not when we ask for it, at any rate, because it was He all along who brought us to this place. He has been here before–it is no wilderness to Him, and He walks with us. There are things to be seen and learned in these apparent wastelands which cannot be seen and learned in the "city"–in places of comfort, convenience, and company.

God does not intend to make it no wasteland. He intends rather to keep us–to hold us with his strength, to sustain us with his sure words–in a place where there is nothing else we can count on.

"God did not guide them by the road towards the Philistines, although that was the shortest…God made them go round by way of the wilderness towards the Red Sea" (Ex 13:17,18 NEB).

Imagine what Israel and all of us who worship Israel’s God would have missed if they had gone by the short route–the thrilling story of the deliverance from Egypt’s chariots when the sea was rolled back. Let’s not ask for shortcuts. Let’s keep alert for the wonders our Guide will show us in the wilderness.

Christianity

I began taking antidepressants at 22 years old. My parents were reluctant to put me on medication as a growing teenager. In July 1998, I found something I thought would offer me a better chance at being happy: I became a born-again Christian by accepting Jesus Christ as my personal Savior. Some people find different ways of happiness and staying alive. Thinking that a big, divine God had kept me alive this long for a reason kept me going.
Jesus Christ became my raison d’être: for eating, sleeping, breathing. I lived to worship God day and night and felt He had truly transformed me and saved me out of my depression. While He may infuse a life-changing transformation for some Christians on Earth, for me, my victory over depression would be short-lived. It soon became the “thorn in my side.”
Close friends and family said that Christianity didn’t work for me. But through my faith, I found a need to continue living. I felt needed and had a reason to live for other than myself. Thinking that God has me here for a higher purpose keeps me going: I’m curious to find out what’s at the end. Faith in God can bring some needed relief for depression sufferers.