Ghost Notes

Ghost Notes
A collections of original songs I wrote in 2015, and recorded with the FreeWay Musical Collective. Click the album image to listen.

inversions

Recorded in 2014, these songs are sort of a chronicle of my journey through a pastoral burn-out last winter. They deal with themes of mental-health, spiritual burn-out and depression, but also with the inexorable presence of God in the midst of darkness. Click the album art to download.

soundings

soundings
click image to download
"soundings" is a collection of songs I recorded in September/October of 2013. Dealing with themes of hope, ache, trust and spiritual loss, the songs on this album express various facets of my journey with God.

bridges

bridges
Click to download.
"Bridges" is a collection of original songs I wrote in the summer of 2011, during a soul-searching trip I took out to Alberta; a sort of long twilight in the dark night of the soul. I share it here in hopes these musical reflections on my own spiritual journey might be an encouragement to others: the sun does rise, blood-red but beautiful.

echoes

echoes
Prayers, poems and songs (2005-2009). Click to download
"echoes" is a collection of songs I wrote during my time studying at Briercrest Seminary (2004-2009). It's called "echoes" partly because these songs are "echoes" of times spent with God from my songwriting past, but also because there are musical "echoes" of hymns, songs or poems sprinkled throughout the album. Listen closely and you'll hear them.

Accidentals

This collection of mostly blues/rock/folk inspired songs was recorded in the spring and summer of 2015. I call it "accidentals" because all of the songs on this project were tunes I have had kicking around in my notebooks for many years but had never found a "home" for on previous albums. You can click the image to download the whole album.

blogs I follow

random reads

Book Reviews

Book Reviews
The Shallows, Nicholas Carr
In this very readable, very thought provoking analysis of electronic communciations technology and its impact on our brains and culture, Nicholas Carr brings together media theory (think Marshall McLuhan), history (think Gutenberg) and neuroscience (think discoveries in brain plasticity) to show how computer technology is shaping us in ways of which we are only dimly aware. He argues that such technologies reduce our capacity for deep, creative and sustained linear thought (or at least have the potential to do so) and predispose us to the fragmented, the cursive and the superficial. Worth the read.

Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf

Ecstasy and Intimacy: When the Holy Spirit Meets the Human Spirit, Edith Humphrey
A fascinating and engaging introduction to spiritual theology-- or the theology of spirituality, as the case may be. This book is a very scholarly, devotional, christo-centric, ecumenical and trinitarian overview of what it means for Christians to live in the Spirit and with the Spirit within. Bracing and enlightening.

Leading with a Limp, Dan Allender

five smooth stones for pastoral work, Eugene Peterson

From Darkness to Light: How One Became a Christian in the Early Church, Anne Fields

Life in the Ancient Near East, Daniel C. Snell
Snell's Life in the Ancient Near East offers a social history of the ANE, tracing the earliest settlement of Mesopotamia, the development of agriculture, first cities, ancient economy and the emergence of empire. Bringing together a rich variety of data gleaned both from the archaeological record and extant historical texts, he tells the history of this cradle of civilization with a special eye for the "human" element - focusing on the forces and factors that would have directly affected the daily life of the various strata of society. Worth a read generally, but all the more for someone with a particular interest in the biblical stories that find their setting and draw their characters and themes from the same provenience.


The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene

Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament, Richard Davidson
Davidson's Old Testament theology of human sexuality is stunning in its achievement, challenging in its content, and edifying in its conclusions. Davidson addresses every-- and I do mean every-- Old Testament text that deals (even obliquely) with human sexuality, and, through detailed exegesis, careful synthesis, and deep interaction with the scholarly research, develops a detailed picture of the Old Testament's vision for redeemed human sexuality. 700 pages of Biblical scholarship at its best.


Eaarth, Bill McKibben
Bill McKibben's Eaarth, is a call for us to wake up smell the ecological coffee...while we can still brew it. Unlike his previous work, or any writing on ecology I've yet read, however, Eaarth does not argue that catastrophe is pending. Instead, he argues that catastrophe has arrived, and that our all talk about "going green to avert disaster," "and "saving the planet" is woefully obsolete. In ecological terms, the planet as we once knew it is gone, he argues, and rather than trying to "avert" disaster, we need to start figuring out how to live in the disaster that's happened. Key themes he identifies as important for life on planet Eaarth resonnated with me as profoundly Christian ways of being (disaster or no). We must stop assuming that "bigger" is better; we must acknowledge limits on economic and technological growth; we must get reacquainted with the land; we need eschew self-sufficency and nurture community.

Love Wins, Rob Bell
So fast and furious has the furor over this book been, that any review will inevitably feel redundant or tardy. Given the crowd on the band wagon by now, I actually had no intention of hopping on myself, but my kids got it for me for Father's Day. About 15 pages in, I realized that I could probably finish it in on good push, so I got it over with. My thoughts: probably the most over-hyped book I ever read; I loved it and found it frustratingly under-developed at the same time; while he raises some important issues, his handling of them reads like a yoda-meets-Tom-Wright account of salvation; nothing C. S. Lewis hasn't already said more clearly and more cleverly; I'm glad he wrote it, and I'm glad the Evangelical world has errupted over it the way it has, and I hope a much more spirited and generous and optimistic understanding of soteriology and eschatology will infuse the evangelical church's mission as a result.

Rediscovering Paul, David Capes et. al.
Rediscovering Paul is a hepful overview of Paul's life, times and theology. While at times I felt it might have gone deeper, or expressed its ideas more clearly, it provides some interesting and inspiring insights into the man behind the letters. Among these is its discussion of the communal aspect of first century letter writing, and the influence of one's community on one's personal sense of identity, and how those issues might have played out in Paul's writings. Another challenging issue that it tackles is the whole process of letter writing in the Greco-Roman world, especially as regards the role a scribe often played in shaping the text, smoothing out the langugae or providing stock phrases, etc.


Lavondyss, Robert Holdstock
If you've read George MacDonald's Lilith, then think of Lavondyss as sort of a Lilith-for-Non-Christians. It's the convoluted labyrinth of a story about a young girl called Tallis and her adventures in a magical wood that brings the Jungian archetypes buried deep in our subconscious to life. Dense with questions about Jungian psychology, and the spiritually-thin-places of the world, and death and myth and magic and story, it's pretty tough slugging at times, but thought provoking and challenging. At times I felt like I was reading the Narnia book C. S. Lewis might have written if he had pursued the "stab of northerness" in directions other than the Christian Faith where he found it eternally satisfied.

Jesus and Money, Ben Witherington III
My friend John Vlainic once ranked Ben Witheringon as one of the strongest Biblical scholars in the Wesleyan tradtion working today. This thin but powerful volume is evidence to support such an accolade. I opened it expecting (judging by the cover) either a how-to book on Christian finances, or (judging by the other books I've read on Christ and Money) a hodge-podge of Bible verses taken out of context and mushed together as proof texts about the tithe. I got neither; instead, Ben Witherington walks slowly, thoughtful and exegetically through the breadth of Biblical teaching, with special sensitivity to the cultural context of the various texts, the tension between Old and New Testament teaching on the topic, and the differences between modern and ancient economies. If I were to recommend one book to develop a biblical theology of money, it would be this one.

The Gravedigger File, Os Guinness
My first taste of Os Guinness, and, if you don't mind a mangled metaphor, it went down like a bracing pint of... well... Guinness. Grave Digger file is sort of a "Screwtape Letters" project on a church-wide scale. In concept, the book is a series of "training files" for an undercover agent attempting to undermine and ultimately sabotage the Western Church, delivered from the pen of a seasoned saboteur to a young agent recently assigned to Los Angeles. In plot, the young agent ultimately defects, and delivers the "Gravedigger File" into the hands of a Christian, urging him to alert the Church to the operation. It is bursting with "things that make you go hmmm..." and deserves a second, careful read with pen in hand, ready to mine it for its scintillating and eminently quotable lines.

Notes from the Ashes (Part I): Some Reflections on Pastoral Burn-out


It was just over a year ago now that I went through one of the darkest periods of my ministry, if not my life.  It was a season that started after a long run of emotionally demanding ministry challenges, a few hard disappointments in a row, some big uncertainties looming up on the horizon, and my worst self getting the better of me one too many times.  Before long I was exhibiting all the classic signs of burn-out—severe depression, physical exhaustion, difficulty making even simple decisions, unexpected and uncontrollable bouts of anxiety, and what those in the biz call “escape thoughts.”

After a few months of being like this, it all came to a head one very dark Sunday evening, when an unexpected email from a well-meaning friend expressing some concerns about my ministry, launched me into a startlingly intense and disproportionate explosion of frustration, fear and despair.  I say “startling” because when the storm passed, the uncontrollable eruption of emotion was so alarming to me that I finally admitted to myself, and my wife, that I needed help.

About a month later I was off on stress leave for emotional and physical exhaustion.  About three months after that, after a good deal of self-work, some pretty serious work on my life with God, and some much-less serious but vitally needed rest, I was back at my ministry post, with fresh clarity on who I was as a pastor, renewed heart for the ministry, and new depths in my life with God.  I was, in the words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “an older and wiser man.”

The medical term for what happened to me, I think, is “clinical depression.”  The corporate world calls it “burn-out” and the church sometimes calls it “compassion fatigue.”  I just call it “my dark time.”  It was very real, very raw, at times very scary, and, while I wouldn't wish it on anyone, God used it to help me become the pastor he has called me to be.

For the next few weeks here at terra incognita, I intend to share some practical and/or spiritual lessons I learned from my experience, some of the things God was doing in me through that time, and some of the things I wish people had told me about burn-out while I was going through it.  My purpose here is three-fold.  First, inasmuch as all this happened a year ago now, I think it would be personally helpful to review what I went through, to remind myself exactly how I got to a place I never want to be in again.  Second: one of the things that God said to me early on in my recovery time was that none of this would be wasted, that a deeper, more authentic ministry would grow out of the pain I was in; so perhaps sharing some of these spiritual insights is a way of humbly holding him to that promise, to redeem my burn-out by offering it as help and hope for others.  But most importantly, third: if you, or someone you know is now where I was then, or close, or on the way there, my hope is that these travel notes from someone who’s been down the path before may be of help to you.

To start it all off, let me offer four simple things I learned about burn-out that were very important first-steps—not to my recovery itself, necessarily, but to my getting to a place where I could begin to recover.  In a way similar to how acceptance is the first step to recovery of other kinds, these are four things I needed to hear someone I trusted say to me, before I could begin to heal.

1.  Burn-out is not a sign of failure but of strength

I know that sounds like the nonsense motivational speakers say when they want you to believe that "obstacles" are really "opportunities in disguise," but the thing is, when someone burns out, it’s because they've been doing too-well for too-long what other people would have given up on long ago.  Or think about it like the fuse in a car.  When the fuse blows, it’s not because the fuse failed, but because it worked: there was an overload on the system and by “blowing” the fuse did its job and protected the system from frying.  The burned-out pastor is like that fuse, inasmuch as he or she “blew” to keep the emotional load from frying the whole system (the local church or ministry context).  Refusing to “blow” and letting the emotional load fry the system would have been the real failure.

2.   You are not alone

Eugene Peterson, Henri Nouwen, Peter Scazzero, Bill Hybels, Rob Bell and, as far as I can gather, the Apostle Paul himself, have all been through what you’re going through.  One of the lies I believed early on in my experience, a lie that was keeping me from seeking the help I needed, went like this: “if you do ‘burn-out,’ your credibility as a pastor (such as it was) will be shot.”  So imagine my surprise, as I began reading about burn out, and I discovered that almost every contemporary church leader I’ve ever admired, respected, taken cures from or tried to model my ministry after, have themselves been through this thing called burn-out.  Knowing they’d come out the other side older and wiser helped me to believe I could, too.

3.  This is not "just in your head." 

Burn-out is as much a physical thing as it is an intellectual or emotional.  This was huge for me to realize because it forced me to accept that I could not "keep pushing" by sheer mental exertion alone, anymore than a guy with a broken femur can just "walk it off."  

(I’ll share more about this later, but here’s how it was explained to me:  your brain is built to run naturally on "feel-good-hormones" like endorphins, oxytocin and what not.  These chemicals are produced naturally by things like rest, sleep, physical exercise, good nutrition, making love to your spouse, enjoying the company of good friends, and so on.  If you deplete your system of these hormones because you’re running it too hard without doing the things that replenish them, your body will start producing adrenaline—a stress hormone—to keep it running instead.  This is like if you run out of gas for the car, so you use some high octane rocket fuel because it’s all you’ve got; it’ll run for a while, but eventually it will destroy your engine.  If you’ve been running for months on adrenaline, eventually the system will shut down, and no matter how hard you turn the key, it ain't gonna start anymore.  The only way to heal is to do those things—rest, exercise, recreation, friendship, nutrition—that replenishes the tank.)

4.  Depression is real

I would have "said" this before my dark time, of course, but after the dark time, I actually "get it." People who have experienced depression have different terms for it—the noon-day demon, the black dog, and so on—that try to put their finger on what it’s like to be depressed.  I often describe it like this: “It’s like, the sun’s shining.  You can feel the light on your face, feel the warmth on your skin, see the blue sky, and yet your brain tells you with all seriousness, ‘nope.  It’s another cloudy day.’”  I never thought I stigmatized people with depression before, until I faced my visceral resistance to seeking help for my own depression, and suddenly I realized all the prejudices and stereotypes and judgement I subconsciously harbored about “cloudy Dee,” that I never realized or admitted before.  It could be that exorcising those things—judgment, prejudice and stereotypes about depression—was one of  the things God was doing through my burn out.


If any of this is resonating with you today, let me encourage you to take it seriously.  One of the other things I learned about burn-out is that there's sort of a lag-time with it—that is, often we are burned out months before the "running on adrenaline" catches up to us and we finally have to admit that the tank is empty, so the sooner we're honest with ourselves, the better.

Burn-out is not the end of the world, but it is the end of some things—a false kind of self-sufficiency, an unrealistic perception of yourself and your limits, in-authenticity and dishonesty about where you're really at with God. But as someone who's been through it, let me humbly suggest that for us to grow in the ways of Jesus, the sooner those things come to an end, the better.

0 comments: