‘Forbidden’ Music and ‘God-Absent Holes’

My teens and twenties were dominated by an obsession with music. At one point I owned over 1,000 compact discs. I would carry the huge binders in my car, ready to punch up on the stereo system in my old Buick (where the stereo system cost more than the car was worth).

Then I hit a religious point of zeal and get rid of all my ‘secular’ CDs. Anything by non-Christian musicians was out. I destroyed most of my music collection, believing that God wasn’t in the music and that he was unhappy with me.

They say that every man has a ‘God-shaped hole’. My problem was that I had some very large ‘God-absent’ holes in my life, areas where I was convinced that God would not go. I was afraid that if I listened to ‘secular’ music, that I would drive away the presence of God, so in order to please him, I needed to listen to Christian music only. This eventually narrowed to ‘worship music only’, so Jars of Clay was out and Hillsong was in. This made my world narrow and unpleasant! But God was happy with me in my misery, or so I thought.

The problem I constantly experienced was that I still loved the music that I had thrown away. Artists like Yes and Peter Gabriel and Genesis and Gentle Giant were ‘bad’, but I still missed their music terribly. I wasn’t supposed to miss it–after all, I had given it up ‘for God’, but I still did miss it. This caught me in a trap: this music is ‘evil’, I love the music, therefore some part of me must be ‘evil’.

When I finally got the revelation of grace and started emerging from legalism in 2010, I slowly discovered–very slowly discovered–that God was not absent from any place in my life. John Crowder talks about this bipolar idea in a post from today:

There are no unbaptized parts of our lives that are out of His range. Drop the double-minded polarity. It never occurred in the mind of God that creation would be something separate from Him. As soon as we wall God off from certain areas, we jump to a place of insanity – a religious schizophrenia. Delusional separation anxiety. He does not exist in this area of addiction, my finances, my health, my dysfunctional family relationships. Before you know it, we are locked into this false pagan mindset that is based entirely on a lie. We start forming personality disorders founded only upon smoke and mirrors.

God was always here – and is shining right now in the midst of the darkness. Even the darkness is as light to Him. Plato and Aristotle could see a dualistic split between light and darkness. Good and evil. Right and wrong. But the apostle John throws us a brain scrambler in the first chapter of his Gospel when he tells us that the light is shining in the darkness! (John 1:5). There is nowhere you can hide from the inescapable love of God.

John Crowder

I like that ‘there are no unbaptized parts of my life’, because that leaves me free to enjoy listening to Yes or the Beach Boys and enjoy that music as much (or more) than that of Hillsong United or Jesus Culture. Whenever I get in my car, I’m free to whatever I want: I can cue up a sermon or a podcast if I’m curious about something, or just toss in a CD by whatever artist and enjoy it.

That freedom took years for God to work into my life. But the good news is, the freedom is there, and always available.

Allow God to set you free. Allow yourself to love the music. There is no secular-sacred divide any more. No part of your life scares God away. If you’re in sin, stop! But you’re not in sin when you’re just living your life.

Centering Prayer

Since my earlier post on meditation, I have been looking for a way of organizing my prayer/meditation life so it’s not just sitting there with no clear objective.

In searching for Christian meditation techniques from the esoteric to the more-conventional, I came across a an interesting one: Centering Prayer. This method is both easy and difficult. Easy, because you can start in minutes without extensive training. Difficult, because of the busy mind.

A simple introduction to Centering Prayer is found in this brochure (PDF) and on Contemplative Outreach.

In centering prayer, you follow four guidelines:

1. Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
2. Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.
3. When engaged with your thoughts,* return ever-so-gently to the sacred word.
4. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.

*thoughts include body sensations, feelings, images, and reflections

Pretty simple, eh? The only problem is that it’s hard to sit still for twenty minutes, and letting go of thoughts (a process called kenosis) can be sometimes difficult. But I’ve found that it’s worth it.

Through this practice I’ve found some more inner peace and the ability to let go of disturbing or sinful thoughts. Instead of battling against the unsettling thought by declaring “That’s not who I am in Christ!” or somesuch, I find myself able to gently let the thought go and proceed in life as if nothing happened at all. I’ve heard it said that thoughts are like birds – one may land on your head, but you don’t have to let it build a nest. The practice of letting go of thoughts and embracing quiet is valuable because quiet is where the deepest presence of God dwells.

One of the great things about centering prayer is that you can’t really fail at it. The only failure is in not doing the practice. It’s relatively easy to chop out twenty, or even ten, minutes of my day, to do this simple practice. It’s not always easy to let go of overwhelming thoughts, but God always helps me through it. Highly recommended.

For more on the practical aspects of centering prayer, see this post.

Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash

‘Lord, Help!’

It has long been my belief that the most holy, most sanctified, and possibly the most important prayer one can pray is also one of the simplest:

“Lord, help!”

Often I find my emotions going one way and life circumstances going a different way and I am stuck in the middle, feeling frustrated or overwhelmed. It is at those times, which are frequent, that I pray this one prayer.

“Help me, Lord.”

There is also a personal adaptation of ‘Jesus Loves Me’ that I sometimes sing to myself on these occasions:

Jesus help me, this I ask
I’m insufficient for this task
I need you to light my way
Every night and every day

Oh, Jesus, help me
Yes, Jesus, help me
Yes, Jesus, help me
I need you every day

Sometimes I feel ashamed that I am in constant need of divine help just to make it through some days. But who else would I ask for help from? I already take my medication. I ask for prayer from my wife. But the quickest way to fix the situation is to go straight to the Source. And when I pray, I find my emotions calming down, my perspective shifting a little, and a bit of peace coming in where there was unrest.

“Jesus, help me.”

Perhaps much of my prayer seems self-centered. But how else should I pray? I cannot help others if the spark of joy, creativity, contentment, and peace are not active within me. Without that stability that comes from God, I can do nothing. I can’t write, I can’t sing, I can’t do much of anything. But what I can do is hunker down and ask God to help me.

“Lord, help.”

‘He is the vine, I am a branch; without him, I can do nothing.’ Thankfully, with him we can do everything that’s necessary. All we have to do is ask for help.

Works Righteousness and Mental Health

This morning I came across this post, and it helps explain how I went crazy. I’m talking literally crazy–mental-health-facility crazy–and this helps explain how God got me out of that mindset.

But first, the music: Soul Sloshing by Venus Hum off the album Best Remodeled, just because it’s catchy and happy.

Here’s the quote–and I apologize for the length, but all of it is good:

Dualistic and/or binary thinking seeks to comprehend things in a linear, formulaic pattern. This mindset typically results in a ‘if/therefore’ or ‘either/or’ perspective that really doesn’t fit well or function properly when it comes to attempting to comprehend and understand grace.

For example, this mindset says, “If I repeat the formulaic incantation of the sinners prayer, I am therefore saved.”

We witness this time and time again in our churches. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard, “Now, with every head bowed and every eye closed, repeat this prayer after me.”

Followed by, “If you just said that prayer and meant it, we believe you’ve been saved.”

The biggest problem with all this is that this mindset doesn’t truly direct anyone towards Jesus; it directs us toward ourselves. Salvation then becomes a matter of what WE do; Jesus may be the means, but man is ultimately the end by which salvation is finally decided.

This is works-righteousness, a fools errand, and is essentially anti-Gospel. If salvation depends on me reciting some magic words that changes God’s mind about me, then I’m totally screwed, and the finished work of the cross is rendered useless.

The beauty of Grace; the real-deal Gospel undiluted, is that it shatters these modes of thinking and restores Union; Oneness, even in our thinking and perceptions.

We realize we were home right from the start. We realize that Jesus is God’s overwhelming, resounding ‘YES’ to mankind. We awaken to the fact that salvation is a finished work, achieved on our behalf by, in, and through Jesus, and that He was never depending on us to finish what He started (and completed). It is in these moments where we encounter grace that we are equipped to rest and trust in Jesus; not ourselves, not our works, not our words.

It is in these moments of encounter that we are gifted with faith, and we begin partaking, participating, and enjoying this divine Union; where all illusions of separation and division are shattered; where we begin to understand that it is HIS faithfulness that moves us and draws us and engages us with salvation, not our own. –Pete Nichols

From the time I prayed the ‘sinner’s prayer’ at 12 years old, up until around 2010, I was obsessed with righteousness-by-works and didn’t know it.

Works righteousness says, ‘I am OK with God based on what I do.’ The problem with that is, it’s impossible to be made right with God, for him to be happy with us, based on anything we do.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Eph. 2:8-10, ESV)

Your salvation is not a reward for good behavior! It was a grace thing from start to finish; you had no hand in it. Even the gift to believe simply reflects his faith! If this could be accomplished through any action of yours then there would be ground for boasting. We are engineered by his design; he molded and manufactured us in Christ. We are his workmanship, his poetry. We are fully fit to do good, equipped to give attractive evidence of his likeness in us in everything we do.  (Eph. 2:8-10, The Mirror)

Works righteousness led me down so many wrong paths. I mentioned when I wanted to be Jewish? I wanted to be Jewish because I thought I had be, to be righteous and keep God happy. I had ministry prophesied over me as a teenager, so I tried so many times to start ministering and form a ministry, to make it happen, a goal which nearly tore my family apart. I wanted to go to Japan and was hell-bent on learning the language and trying to convince my wife that we needed to move there. Guess what? None of this worked. I’m not Jewish, there is no Stephen Shores Ministries, and I still haven’t gone to Japan.

It’s actually good that this stuff didn’t work out, because eventually it revealed that I had this secret, hidden idea: ‘I have to do all this stuff to keep God happy.’

Keeping God happy is not the primary goal of the Christian life. It is not a sign of maturity, it is a sign of immaturity.

The Lord your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing. (Zeph. 3:17 ESV)

God is already happy with you.

If I don’t have to keep God happy any more, then what does God want?

Love.

The end goal of the Christian life–and every step of the journey–is love: pure love, for God, for self, and for everyone, everywhere.

I could predict the future in detail and have a word of knowledge for everyone. I could possess amazing faith, and prove it by moving mountains! It doesn’t make me any more important than anyone else. Love is who you are! You are not defined by your gift or deeds. (Love gives context to faith. Moving mountains is not the point, love is.)

Love is not about defending a point of view; even if I am prepared to give away everything I have and die a martyr’s death; love does not have to prove itself by acts of supreme devotion or self sacrifice!

Love is large in being passionate about life and relentlessly patient in bearing the offenses and injuries of others with kindness. Love is completely content and strives for nothing. (1 Cor. 13:2-4b)

Love doesn’t strive. Love rests in what God did on the Cross. Love is at peace in the ‘righteousness that comes by faith’–simple trust that comes by believing God.

I wish I could tell you that this mentality goes away easily, but I spent a couple of decades under the thumb of works righteousness, thinking I had to do stuff to keep God happy. I did a lot of stuff!–but it accomplished next to nothing. When I learned to live life ‘by grace through faith’, my marriage became better, my relationship with my kids became better, and I became a better employee at work.

Note that this wasn’t the entire key–I still needed treatment for mental health issues (anxiety and depression), and you might need the same! But living by grace is the best place to start, something you can learn to live by right now. It will lead to inner peace, something that is sadly lacking in the modern world. That inner peace will manifest on the outside, and eventually you’ll have people asking you, ‘Why are you so peaceful? The world is falling apart!’ and you’ll be able to give a good answer.

I bless you in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. May you see as God sees: that pleasing Him is something that he does through you. Amen.

Depression and Cognitive Dissonance

(Note: I am not a doctor. I cannot cure depression. I can only tell you what has helped me. If this makes sense, good, but please, please get help if you are having thoughts of suicide.)

I’m coming off of a period of intense depression that lasted for a good two days, so severe I wanted to die. Later this week I got a bit of a revelation on it–something ‘clicked’, in other words, something that might help you or your loved ones in the fight against depression.

But first, the music: Good Vibrations by The Beach Boys, the extended version off The SMiLE Sessions…because it makes me smile, and maybe it will do the same to you.

Cognitive dissonance is defined as:

the mental discomfort (psychological stress) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. [1]

The human mind is not capable of believing two very different things at once. I cannot believe I am both good and bad, saint and sinner, at the same time (the teaching of most Christian churches). I cannot believe that I am sick and healed at the same time (Charismatic nonsense). And I cannot believe that God is supposed to have me somewhere else while God is making it impossible for me to be anywhere else but here.

In my life, my mind has ‘broken’ more times than I can count, based on life circumstances.

For instance, I believed I was called as a missionary to Japan. Yet my parents weren’t interested in sending their son to Japan. A crack appeared in my brain.

I later believed that if I studied Japanese, that God would send me to Japan. The money never came (in fact, things got worse). Family members were against the idea. Again and again I beat my head against the wall–I was learning Japanese, yet the doors remained shut. More cracks appeared in my psyche.

I went to Alabama for a conference featuring a very charismatic minister who introduced me to the grace message–how I am already sanctified, free from sin, and that I am already righteous and complete in Christ. I am a new creation. Between Matt Ford and the teachings of John Crowder and Benjamin Dunn, my mind began to renew. Things got better…and worse.

I believed that since Alabama was a wonderful place–at least Gadsden, Alabama, is–that we were supposed to move there. This fell apart. I wasn’t going anywhere. Larger cracks appeared in my psyche.

I went to Indiana, despite family objections, to a wonderful community of saints in Fort Wayne. I thought that this had to be the place where we had to live-the presence of God was so concentrated, so tangible there, and the genuine love everyone had for each other was something I hadn’t experienced in my life. I thought we were supposed to move there. I was wrong. The cracks widened.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was headed for a nervous breakdown. I was convinced by satan, or whatever lies were in my head, to run away, first to that community in Indiana (I didn’t make it–I developed symptoms of a heart attack and got held up in Indianapolis). My family graciously rescued me. Stress drove me to run away the next week, this time to a remote national park in God-knows-where, something-Carolina. I parked my car when I ran out of gas and went on a ‘faith walk’ where, influenced by demons or whatever crap was in my head, that I was going to leave and go off-grid. Hours went by in the freezing cold and I couldn’t stand it. My family once against rescued me, and put me in a mental hospital. While in that very prison-like facility, I first received treatment with mood stabilizers and anti-anxiety medication.

Once I got out of the mental hospital, things did improve a little–the anti-anxiety drugs made life much easier at work, where anxiety had been a constant hindrance to my performance. Yet I still wanted to go back to Indiana. Some of the cracks remained, and no healing came. I had friends all over the United States and the world, via Facebook and social media, but it seemed like I would never see them face-to-face again.

I’m not 100% certain–and to be honest, I am still, off and on, angry at God about this–I’m not certain that I ever will meet those friends again. Finding real-life friends has been close to impossible. I have been stuck in Atlanta, Georgia, unable to go anywhere for years, and at times that pisses me off beyond belief.

Edit: I apologize to the people I unfriended on Facebook–at one point I unfriended everyone except family, because I thought I was being influenced badly. I needed that time to heal from my nervous breakdown. I’m sorry that I unfriended you, and I pray you’ll forgive me.

Back on topic: I began to recover from my broken mind. Yet depression would rear its ugly head, most often during bouts of intense cognitive dissonance. Japan got leveled by a tsunami, I thought it would be good to learn Japanese and go to help, but nothing happened with that and my mind broke again. I told my employer that I couldn’t stand life and more, and left work to go kill myself. I realized I couldn’t, so I called my pastor at the time and he talked me down.

This past few months my mind has broken over and over again, as I lost my job and had to take another with an extremely painful pay cut, leaving us unable to pay bills and do much more than survive. I don’t know, day-by-day, how we’re going to make it. Food is on the table, but credit card companies call every hour on the hour, debts mount, and we can’t pay. My mind has been breaking over and over again.

Paradox: I am a good person, this shouldn’t happen, but it is happening.

Paradox 2: My family needs provision and God is good, but he is doing a hella bad job of providing.

Paradox 3: I need a new job, I should have one, but I like my job, but I can’t afford to stay at my job, but God hasn’t opened any doors. You get the idea.

These paradoxes have been breaking my mind, forcing me to the point where, once again, I was at a place where I wanted to end it all. I couldn’t, though. The first day my prayer was, ‘Lord, I want to live.’

The second day was, ‘Lord, I don’t want to live, but I need to live, for the sake of my family.’

I made it through those two rough days and got this revelation: that the worst of my mental breaks, the worst of my bouts of depression, are caused by cognitive dissonance: believing things are supposed to be one way and comparing them with reality, which says the opposite. I can’t believe things are supposed to be good and bad at the same time, yet they are, so how do I deal with that? Something has to give, and I thank God I’m on medicine that helps take the edge off, and that I don’t own a gun.

There have been lies in my head, probably still are plenty of those–that God is not love, that this will not work out, that things will not get better. Part of this is cognitive dissonance, part of it is hopelessness–the two play a tag-team in your brain, and you’re always the loser.

How do you overcome cognitive dissonance? Hell if I know. What has helped is meditating on the word of God–just three concepts. One: my oneness with Him. Two: there is only one power, and that is God. All other names that can be named are under him. Three: divine provision. I need revelation in all of these.

Another thing that has helped is joining a community on Facebook where I can just be myself–where I can express the darkest problems of my soul without being judged and tossed away like yesterday’s garbage. That has been a tremendous help.

Family has been a help. My wife is a ‘prayer warrior’, and even though she may not understand how I feel, she knows when I am hurting, and is always faithful to pray for me.

Cognitive dissonance really sucks. The good thing is, that your brain can slowly become more flexible. You can learn to deal with life when God seemingly answers ‘no’–I need more money, it doesn’t come. I want more friends, I can’t make any. And so it goes.

Things do get better. Through God’s help, you can learn to put things on a mental shelf labeled, ‘things I do not understand’. You can learn that though situations don’t agree, God still loves you. And you can experience the manifest presence of God as a comfort, even when lies are beating in your brain like a sledgehammer and you just want to die.

It’s happened to me. And maybe it’s happening to you. But I promise you, God can get you through, and God will get you through. “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” He’s not done with you yet, and he won’t give up on you. Ever.

Edit: Cognitive dissonance is not the only problem associated with depression. The other is hopelessness, which I will write on in the future as I get a little more revelation on it. 

I bless you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. May you see yourself as He sees. Amen.

 

Controlling Anxiety Through Meditation

Note that the post title is meditation, not medication. This post is about Christian meditation and how it’s slowly helping me overcome the breakthrough anxiety that my medication can’t quite reach–those thousand little worried or panicked feelings throughout the day.

But first, the music: the first song off the excellent soundtrack to the game Monument Valley–a peaceful album that just happens to be excellent for times of meditation.

I’ve never spoken about meditation before, but I imagine from articles that I’ve read that, when this practice is mentioned, there typically follows a fear of ‘New Age’ philosophy. I hope the readers of this blog would know me better than that, and have the intelligence to Google ‘Christian meditation’ before panicking. This fear has been addressed hundreds of times before, so I won’t go into that here; rather, I hope to be practical here and explain what exactly I am doing and how it is helping me.

How does meditation work? I’m not sure, but I have heard that it’s really good for one’s mental health, and I have found that to be true. In times of meditation you quiet your mind to focus on a single thought–perhaps a single verse of Scripture, perhaps a concept. The quietness apparently helps, or at least it seems to help me.

More after the break. Continue reading “Controlling Anxiety Through Meditation”

Three Things That Got Me Through Hell

No matter what you believe about hell in the afterlife, if it’s literal or figurative, some of you, like me, have have been through hell on earth, and can testify that it’s no fun. Some of you have a loved one or friend who is hurting inside and you don’t know how to help. Hopefully this post will help you or them a little.

First, though, the music: This Feeling by Ryan Ellis, off the album Kingdom Glory–just because it’s catchy and fun. It helps to listen to good music when you’re talking about serious things.

Continue reading “Three Things That Got Me Through Hell”