Friday, January 8, 2010

Coping With Panic and Anxiety Attacks

I have had panic and anxiety disorder since 1984. I’ve been to the depths of the
blackest pits and recovered, only to find
myself back in the darkness of despair. I’ve been through this cycle several times
and am, today, well and confident; fully recovered forever and free of the
bewildering and crippling events that held me captive for so many years.

I hope I can be of some assistance to you, in that my experience with ill
health has encompassed panic, anxiety, and depression. Although I have not
been treated specifically for depression, the medication I had taken since 1993
is an anti-depressant with the handy side-effect of blocking panic attacks. But I
have also had many of the symptoms commonly associated with Clinical Depression, and in this short dissertation you may find me using the terms depression and anxiety interchangeably. Furthermore, Dr. Claire Weeks, whose books and tapes saved me much anguish, groups anxiety, panic, depression, and obsession under the single heading “nervous illness”, and treated them all in the same way during her lifetime. Her books can still be found although she passed away in 1986. Her methods held particular credibility for me since she, herself, suffered from these things, and did not base her findings strictly on the impersonal point of view of a laboratory researcher.

My wish here is to provide you with, hopefully, some peace of mind over the
state you may find yourself in. I am not a therapist or doctor, but
I myself often found that hearing from someone who had suffered as I had
brought a semblance of relief, however temporary, from the otherwise dismal
state I found myself in. In other words, knowing others have been there and
recovered offers hope. I don’t know whether or not you are being well cared for by the medical community, friends, or family. Perhaps you’re discouraged by the approach of these people. None of this need hinder you. Whatever state you
find yourself in, I am happy to add a few words of my own. But first let me
stress that you should be examined by a doctor to rule out all possible sources
of your illness.

Because these “nervous illnesses” do not come with visible scars, bandages, or
plaster casts, we tend to suffer alone. The massive void that seems to grow from
the inside and consume our whole being is unseen to those we are in contact with. They may sympathize but they will never truly understand what depths it’s possible to descend to. “How could this happen to him? He was always so cheerful!” They don’t realize that depression and anxiety generally have little to do with that part of your personality. Their well meaning words often do more to hurt than help. There may be those who, through some macabre sense of duty, try to equate your condition with some personal failing. I knew a girl in a neighboring city who, when facing a similar health crisis was given the “helpful” advice from her pastor, “Get your spiritual house in order!” Such thoughtlessness can be devastating to the sufferer looking for even the smallest grain of encouragement. It’s important that you not flog yourself with that same approach. This is definitely NOT your fault. If you’ve been given a clean bill of health, yet continue to suffer from “nerves”, then you can recover on your own.

I will briefly describe the state I found myself in. In 1984 my wife and I
vacationed in Southern California, her childhood home. I’m not a traveler and
went reluctantly, being quite apprehensive about everything from my first air flight to spending 2 weeks away from home in a foreign country. Our one-year-old son was with us. I worried about anything and everything going wrong. At about the mid-point of the holiday, I found myself feeling odd; lightheaded, dizzy, off balance. I also seemed to have broken out in a skin rash. I was fearful of becoming ill so far from home. These symptoms went on for a few days but vanished when we returned home. I felt better but I never forgot those feelings of disorientation and watched uneasily for their return.

Within a year they were back, fueled by my fear of them and undiagnosed by my doctor at the time as being anything more than “tension”. Of course he was right but I was not prepared to discover just how powerful tension can be, and how devastating. In addition to the disorienting feelings I soon developed shortness of breath, rapid and irregular heart beat, trembling; I perspired all day, felt pressure in my head, had an odd crawly-itchy feeling under my skin, blurred vision, felt like I was about to black out, insomnia, weakness in the legs, and the list can go on and on. As the years went by the symptoms worsened. I became phobic about going anywhere in public. I began to associate these attacks with the places where I tended to have them, and began to avoid more and more public exposure. The worst aspect was the fact that I had no
idea what was going on with my body. I was both bewildered and terror stricken, convinced that something was dreadfully wrong with me.

I was given a valium-like drug which helped, but my doctor didn’t really
know how to guide me out of the pit I was rapidly descending into. By 1993 I was virtually housebound, afraid to go to work, afraid to go to the store, afraid to drive, afraid to walk to the corner mailbox by myself. I was suicidal and in complete despair. I was taking tranquilizers all day, exceeding the maximum dose, but with little benefit. Only when my regular doctor went on holiday and I was forced to see someone else did I find, after 9 years, what was really wrong with me. For the first time I found someone who put a name to what I was describing: Panic and Anxiety Disorder. Not only that, he knew exactly where to send me and what I had to do. This brought enormous relief, all by itself. Finally, here was someone who’d seen this before, and who provided some hope and some answers.

To begin with, I found encouragement simply in the way my illness was
described. I don’t like the word “depression”. By its very nature, the word indicates a downward spiral, a whirlpool of circumstance we find impossible to escape, constantly swimming against the current. Try thinking of your state, rather, as one of “depletion”. Your reserves of emotional and mental energy (and, indeed, physical energy) can become so depleted that you find yourself unable to so much as feel anything; not anger, not despair, certainly not joy. It can be as though we have been somehow detached from all our senses and are now trapped in an emotional vacuum. You don’t care about anything; you can’t bring yourself to attempt even the smallest tasks. Nothing matters or is worth the attempt. You’re not even interested in looking at your surroundings. The simple decision of what to make for dinner can be beyond you. Even getting out of bed can take tremendous effort. But the word depletion offers hope of replenishment.

Our bodies are a marvel of design. They are constantly trying to heal themselves. You can fall and scrape your knee over and over, day after day in the same place, but the next day there will always be a new layer of tissue attempting to heal over the spot. Our nerves are no different. They can and will heal. But they can become so sensitive during nervous illness that the slightest stimulus can be extremely irritating. Ordinary sounds can be unbearable, the sunshine too bright, the voice of a loved one irritating and nearly meaningless. Or we become totally unreceptive. We can’t answer questions of the simplest kind. Our minds seem to be stuck in a quagmire, unable to move or
escape. Where thoughts normally flit from one to another quickly and easily, they now seem stalled, backed up, overwhelming us with frustration and confusion. We may not even have the energy to cry. It’s natural to withdraw in the face of this onslaught, and we feel this is our only recourse. Not only that but time now seems to drag by. Where normally we breeze through a days tasks, hardly giving a thought to the fleeting time, now we find ourselves diligently watching the time, waiting for the relief that never seems to come. This provides a fertile environment for a multitude of phobias.

I have painted a pretty bleak picture, but only to provide you with a sense that I have an idea of what it has possibly been like for you. If you are particularly sensitive at this juncture, the mere suggestion of these things may make you feel even worse. Never fear this. Suggestibility was so strong in me at times that I couldn’t even look at a photograph of a busy street or crowded mall, I was so fearful of them. But I have descended to the depths in order for you to know that I have been where you are. I know the way out, and although my illness may technically be somewhat different from your own, after all no two of us are exactly alike, the same attitudes can assist in recovery. I do not pretend to offer a magic cure, but there are ways of facing nervous illness that make enduring it much more bearable. As well, I hope I can offer you some relief from the fear that recovery has become unreachable, or that it will never be complete.

The first thing I had to learn was just to accept the state I was in. This takes
courage and it did not come easily to me. Despair in such circumstances is natural, but to utterly despair works against our body’s natural working toward replenishment. So despair, yes, how could you not, but try to picture just a little, just for a moment a few times each day, that recovery can be within our grasp, no matter how long or how seriously we have been ill. If medication is part of your regimen, take it willingly, not grudgingly. Accept the fact that you may not feel much better for some time. Accept the days that feel like a step backward in recovery, there will be plenty of those. Never be afraid to make an attempt toward accomplishing normal tasks. Physical exertion may seem impossible, but it won’t hamper or harm the road to recovery. Lying around brooding does nothing good for our state of mind.

Dr. Weekes always preferred that her patients over-do things than under-do
them. She once told a patient who had been lying around the house for months
to get up and paint his house. “But I’d have to force myself, Doctor”. Of course
he would, but becoming active again is one of the greatest therapies. Taking
ourselves outside of our introspective minds is the healthiest thing to do. Accept
the fact that there may not be much joy in living when we’re in the worst of our
illness. Never count the days, the weeks, or the months, that you may spend
recovering, no matter how often you must travel that road. Allowing time to pass is difficult, but essential. Don’t fear setbacks before they even happen. Accept that there may be some, possibly many, but each is an opportunity to learn about ourselves. A setback, when viewed as an opportunity to practice coping, can be a positive thing. I realize that you may not be able to visualize that at all right now.

The second thing, closely related to the first, is to face the problem squarely in the eye. Don’t fight the symptoms or try to hide from them. You’ll never win that battle anyway. Rather, try to relax toward them. What I mean by that is: you may find yourself unable to relax much physically at this point, but you can relax your attitude. Try to get your mind on something else, even if only for a short time. Pull some weeds in the garden, sketch a scene with a pencil (even if you can’t draw), phone a friend and ask how they are, read something you used to enjoy. The goal here is to occupy your mind with something other than the way you feel; to become interested in something other than yourself. Don’t mistake this for attempting to just not think about it, or to block the feelings from your mind. Trying hard not to think of something is the best way to bring it right into the spotlight.

This can be difficult to understand but, once you’re able to grasp it, can also take a huge load off your mind. Yes, it’s unpleasant, nobody would want this, but hiding from ourselves only prolongs the road toward recovery. We can’t run from illness of any kind. “Getting a grip on ourselves” is absolutely the worst thing we can do. What we, the nervously ill, need to do is take the grip off ourselves. Worry and tension are the fuel of nervous illness. They are the scrape on the knee that continually re-opens the wound, putting off the healing process.

These two things, facing and accepting, are basically simple assignments. But never confuse simple with easy. It is not easy to accept your state when
overwhelmed with despair. It’s not easy to face your symptoms when they urge you to give up on everything you hold dear. It’s not easy to ‘relax toward the illness’ when our thoughts are racing, head is swimming, legs have turned to jelly, and panic is rising. No, it’s not easy, but it is possible. And it takes practice. Like any acquired skill, facing and accepting an illness like panic/anxiety, can take a long time to master. We find ourselves doing well one day, and back in turmoil the next. Accept even this. Don’t fear the return of symptoms, possibly years after you thought them gone forever. Always deal with them the same way. Face and accept, and allow as much time to pass as needed. The less alarm we add to the situation, the milder the episode will be. Panic attacks always pass. They may seem to last forever but they
don’t, and they can’t; it’s physically impossible for them to do anything but eventually subside. Your body cannot continue to create the adrenalin necessary for sustained panic. It will always pass. There is a state known as “generalized anxiety” where the body seems always on the edge, and this brings us to the next great coping mechanism.

This is something that takes most people by surprise. One of the prime contributors to constant sensations of anxiety is improper breathing. Yes, breathing is supposed to be one of the most natural things we do without having to think about it. But some of us can’t seem to get the hang of it. When the word ‘hyperventilate’ is mentioned, the first thing that comes to mind is a breath line that is extremely rapid. But it can come about because of too little air as well. And the symptoms of anxiety and panic can be duplicated exactly when we starve our bodies of oxygen. According to the head of our local University’s department of psychiatry, it’s well known among therapists that the majority of people who suffer from anxiety problems are not breathing properly.

Here’s how an anxiety attack can result from shallow breathing; the sufferer
typically will notice some little quirk that they have recognized from the past as a pre-cursor to a bout of panic; a twitch, a tingling sensation, a light headed feeling. They stop what they are doing and begin to “listen in”, or examine what their body is up to. Invariably, they stop breathing entirely at this point as they wait for the symptoms to escalate, and then recoil in fear when they do.

The build up of carbon dioxide in the blood will give anyone the sensations of
tingling, dizziness, trembling, itchy-crawly feelings under the skin, and weak legs. At this point the sufferer may feel as though they are about to faint. Don’t be scared, you won’t. And even if you did, you would come around quickly as the unconscious body restores the breathing pattern (only to have us disrupt it again). This is part of a cycle that began when, for some reason, the person in question got into the habit of breathing in a shallow, rapid fashion, usually with their mouth open. This almost always means they are breathing with the top half of the lungs only, never getting a good exchange of air. The solution is simple; abdominal breathing. But like I mentioned previously, simple is not always easy, since long held habits can be very difficult to break. When abdominal breathing is done properly, it’s the tummy, not the chest alone, that expands and contracts. I should point out here, too, that when one becomes acutely aware of what’s supposed to be an automatic bodily function, we tend to overcompensate in one way or another, and continue to compound the problem. Fifteen years after I was taught these things, I still catch myself breathing in a shallow and rapid manner from time to time. And occasionally I still find myself holding my breath when I’m concentrating on some task. The light-headedness that results is a signal my body is giving me that it’s time to get some air. If I still feared that signal, a panic attack could result. Abdominal breathing takes practice and can replace your old habit so it comes automatically.

I am considered fully recovered from Panic and Anxiety Disorder. But this does not mean I never experience the old symptoms. It means I don’t meet the
symptoms with alarm, heightening their strength. It also means I simply no
longer care about the symptoms, and attach no importance to their presence.

It’s easy to go looking for symptoms. When sensitized as fearfully as I once
was, I found myself mentally examining my body with great scrutiny, all day long, terrified that I would find the beginnings of the sensations I so dreaded. And of course I found them. By all my anxious looking, I created most of them. I was not doing myself any favors with this attitude. It took me years to develop a more philosophical view of life. I just wanted to feel normal again. I wasted tremendous amounts of energy looking for WHY this had happened. What triggered this latest setback? Why me? I searched for details of what I had eaten, where I had been, what trauma might I have suffered? For me these things were not helpful. All I needed to do was face and accept (and breathe). Even medications can be defeated through incessant worry.

Today, I am thankful for what I went through. I am a much more patient and compassionate person and far less arrogant (what man can claim to be free of arrogance?). But even if we can’t see a reason, a purpose, or the growth it may
lend to our character, the road to recovery is always the same. The root cause of
any of the aspects of nervous illness can be many things: physical or emotional
trauma, exhaustion, childhood or spousal abuse, constant brooding, stress, a biological imbalance or prolonged illness. But finding the cause is not always necessary to begin recovery.

I took an anti-depressant drug every day for 13 years, and have a prescription tranquilizer to this day for fast relief in case of “emergency”. I seldom need the tranquilizer, but just knowing it’s within reach brings a comfort all its own. I have also gone months without any of the medications at all. However, the real cure is in my own mind. I was taught that medication should never be the sole resource for coping with nervous illness. And I was given a dose that would still allow me to experience the symptoms I would have to learn to cope with. Merely masking the symptoms teaches us nothing. Having to be on medication is NOT a sign of failure. Would a diabetic give up insulin to prove his faith? The majority of us are not that gifted.

I will mention here that I tried the whole gamut of herbal and vitamin therapies for years. I consulted with a massage therapist, a Master Herbalist, a Reflexologist, an Iridologist, and a Certified Nutritionist. However, my recovery did not begin until I finally submitted to my doctor’s wish that I try the anti-depressant, and read the recommended material. There were some annoying side effects for a few weeks, sweating, dry mouth, fatigue, but they gradually faded. I don’t mean to imply that naturopathy cannot be counted on. For many people it is has proven to be all they required. By itself it just didn’t work for me.

One final word about setbacks. Dr. Weekes always cautioned her patients to
expect them. Furthermore, in what I once felt was the worst news possible, she
liked it when they had them. Her view was that, since most nervously ill people will have to cope with this to some degree for the rest of their lives, the more often they have to work through it, the better they master how to do it. I have had many setbacks, sometimes feeling like I’m right back where I started, or even worse, but don’t be discouraged by that. Each time was an opportunity to practice coping correctly.

Today, a setback for me is an experience that may crop up unexpectedly, but is quickly dismissed as being of no importance. I don’t even need the tranquilizer in most cases. Relaxation exercises and proper breathing is generally all I have to do. There may be times when you feel a touch of the old feelings simply by being in a place or circumstance that triggers their memory. You don’t need to ‘stand guard’ against this happening. Once you’ve been through it successfully the first time, you’ll know you can always get through it again. And once more, I will reiterate that it took me many years to master this. Repeated failure is not ultimate failure. It’s not something you’ll ever welcome, but you will gradually gain the confidence that it can be managed effectively and completely.

This has been my experience. These are the things that have worked for me.
My goal in writing this has not been to take the place of your doctor or therapist. It is only to offer hope and encouragement through what happened to me and share the education I was given. I have been asked to speak at public
forums many times by the very professionals who worked with me in the worst of my illness. The message I have given in person at those meetings is the same one I have given here. I realize that my experience may not be something that everyone can draw from. But if you can take even a single phrase or idea from this, then it has been worth my time to write it.

Oh, and did I ever figure out the root cause of all my trouble? Yes. The main one is that I simply have an extremely sensitive nervous system. I feel everything more acutely than the rest of my family, both physically and emotionally. And ultimately I became afraid of the sensations my body kept feeding my brain. I tricked myself into believing that something must be seriously wrong with me. I also was eventually diagnosed with an under-active thyroid. This is why it’s so important to see a doctor and rule out every possibility before undertaking a self-help program. As well, I constantly brooded over the pressure of parenthood, especially when my kids were young; being a dad did not come naturally to me and was not something I looked forward to. All these things
worked together with a vivid imagination and took me on a terror ride I will never forget.

Always meet the symptoms the same way; face, accept, let time pass, and
breathe your way through them. Take the tension out of your muscles by letting
them relax, sag if you will, as best you can. And always, use the breathing technique.

edited, Feb, 2011. After being free of medication for 5 years I am back on a small dose of one. Life was managable but I was returning to the habit of "avoidance" behaviour in order to forestall unpleasant feelings of anxiety. It didn't dominate my life, but I have learned from the past that a break from an increase in syptoms, through prescription medication, can be the wise course to take, either short or long term. I in no way feel dismayed or defeated by this, nor should any sufferer. It won't be the last time and I cope by merely accepting that this is what I do when I need to.
Resource material:
-Peace From Nervous Suffering
-Hope and Help for Your Nerves
-More Help for Your Nerves
         all by Dr. Claire Weekes

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Christmas to Remember

Snow continued to fall gently, as it had for the past 12 days. It truly looked like the storybook ‘winter wonderland’. Up and down both sides of the street, the neighborhood appeared like a fairy tale. Christmas lights and scenes had sprung up in virtually everyone’s yard with everything from the traditional lighting to homemade elves in ‘Santa’s Workshop’. Our own house was no exception.

The front entrance was decked out in blue and green lights that winked on and off continually. The junipers under the living room window were spot lit with yellow which, under the soft blanket of snow, had an aura rather like spun gold. The young birch saplings were strung with red reflective globes and the blue spruce, nearly 40 feet tall, was crowned with a star 3 feet in diameter. The family tree could be seen through the living room window, so full of ornaments and tinsel you could hardly make out the foliage. Packages lay under the tree, with some of the smaller ones suspended lovingly in its branches. The strains of traditional carolling could be heard off in the distance, while in my own home I knew some holiday classic with Bing Crosby was likely on television.

It was with all of this seasonal beauty in mind that I ascended to the roof, snow shovel in hand. It had been while clearing the driveway that I noticed, while looking up at the fat, fluffy flakes drifting down, just how much snow had accumulated on the roof. Several feet thick, it was no longer a sight to admire, but rather represented several tons of pressure on the rafters and supporting walls. The time had come to clear it off, even if it meant circling the house again with the snowblower afterward. So I climbed to the gutter and worked my way onto the deep drifts atop the shingles.

Stopping for a breath about 30 minutes into the laborious task, I noticed that the snow had stopped falling. In fact, the sky had cleared and the crisp December night was now illuminated by thousands of tiny, twinkling stars. It was at that moment I could have sworn I heard sleigh bells. The street was empty, and dark too, except for the colorful displays. Listening, all I could hear by now was my own heavy breathing. A cloud of foggy breath enveloped my head. Had it been silhouetted against the moon, one could almost have believed I resembled an angel. I resumed the shoveling but stopped immediately, convinced once more that I had heard bells. Leaning on the shovel and taking a peek over my shoulder I was absolutely stunned to see a reindeer-driven sleigh slicing through the night and heading straight for my own house out of the starlit sky. Snow billowed outward as the strange vehicle landed forcefully on the still snow-capped half of the roof.

A fat bearded man in a red suit, trimmed with white, and carrying a large sack over his back, stepped from the side of the sleigh. I couldn’t believe my eyes! Sure, this was Christmas Eve, but I had already bought all the gifts the children had asked for. Every year it had been the same. In a whisper I spoke out loud, “Santa Clause isn’t real”. My eyes bulged with disbelief.

Scarcely had the red-clad man stepped out of the sleigh when he slipped on the roof, temporarily losing his balance. He fell to one knee, arms flailing. I stepped forward to help, but saw that this strange visitor’s stumble was only minor. What I hadn’t noticed was that as ‘Santa’ struggled to maintain his balance, his jerky, awkward and sudden movements had spooked the lead reindeer dreadfully. With flaring nostrils and a terror stricken look, the nine deer began to prance and tremble uneasily, each one smelling the fear of the next as it spread down the line. The harness soon became entangled and Santa was quick to drop the sack in order to try calming the excitable, high strung animals. With one terrific jerk, while holding onto a halter, he was lifted completely off his feet and dropped right in the midst of the now panic stricken brutes.

My mouth dropped as I watched helplessly, the Santa of my boyhood being trampled mercilessly. Red velvet and white fur flew in all directions. Each time Santa appeared about to crawl free he was somehow drawn back into the center of the frenzy, as if caught in a backwash. Blood began to stain the remaining snow on the roof and trickled toward the eaves. Santa’s face was becoming a bludgeoned, pulpy mass; his body a crumpled lifeless form beneath the spindly legs and hooves that continued raining down their mortal blows.

After what seemed like hours, but was really less than three minutes, the beasts calmed down, drained of energy, the panic spent. The fright that started the carnage was waning. With a snort here and a pawing hoof there, they finally seemed to have forgotten what had just taken place and stood placidly in the reddened, crusty snow, steam rising from their flanks.

And, eventually, I too got over the trauma of what I had witnessed that Christmas Eve. In retrospect, though, the fact that my children were presented with a seemingly bottomless bag of toys the next day; and considering that we enjoyed fine homemade sausage all the rest of that winter, it really hadn’t been such a bad experience after all.

Friday, December 4, 2009

When the Marriage *Spark* Seems to Fizzle

A number of years ago I read the very wise words of a doctor who specialized in treating Panic and Anxiety Disorder, Depression, and related psychiatric ailments. Dr Claire Weekes, who died in 1986, suffered from these things herself so carried great credibility when I needed treatment that would be both self-administered and effective. But what she taught me carries over into virtually every aspect of life. I wish to address one key area here; marriage, and how we cope when that "spark" seems to be fading and about to die. Please bear with me as I lay what may seem to be an irrelevant groundwork...

Let me briefly describe the person who has been mired in depression and anxiety for a long period of time. Not only is depression a term which well describes the downward spiral of mood, it becomes a daily retinue of hopelessness, listlessness, and can be so crippling that even the simple decision of what to make for dinner can by beyond the ability of a very, very tired mind. Thoughts are scrambled and we are unable to pick one from the bunch and concentrate on anything at all. We are overwhelmed by a veritable vacuum of emotion which is so draining we eventually will be unable to even cry for a brief release. When a person suffers in this way for years it becomes a challenge to do the most minor of tasks. It is not unusual to hear of such a patient being bed ridden for months, responding little, if at all, to prescribed treatments. But when the proper treatment does finally arrive, and usually this has more to do with education than it does medication, the light begins to come on once again. There is a dawning and an awakening. The dark veil begins to lift. Life seems to gain purpose. Glimpses of joy sail past and the person begins to feel alive once more. And here is the key sign of recovery; things begin to seem interesting.

There is a joy to be discovered, shared, and revelled in. But at this point the patient needs to be aware of something most health providers fail to caution. Dr. Weekes knew this, since she had cruised this cycle of illness and recovery many, many times as have I. Moving from the depths of illness to the bright light of recovery presents us with a startling contrast. The newly healthy person will feel euphoric, commanding, confident, able to conquer the world. But as time passes this feeling begins to fade. Not because they are falling again into illness. But because this is how life simply is; ordinary for the most part for most people.

No normal person feels euphoric every day, they would never accomplish a thing if they did. But the ill patient coming out of years of illness wants to hold onto that euphoria. They want to be immersed in it, bathed in it, rolled in it and deep fried in it. But that is not normal. The average person who has never been depressed does not feel that way. So life, as it begins to return to a stable routine, gradually takes on a somewhat less exciting gleam. The heightened emotions of recovery cannot be kept at fever pitch perpetually. They calm down as they are supposed to and as they are meant to.

So, after all that we come to the one word I want to use; contrast. Now I would like to apply the words of Dr Weekes herself on this topic. "The nervously ill person, suddenly emerging again into the world of life and activity after years of debilitating illness will feel euphoric, brimming over with happiness and confidence. But when these feelings begin to calm down, as they must in a very basic biological sense, they must realize, perhaps again and again, that life is not made up of perpetual euphoria. It is made up in great measure of very ordinary, frequently very uninteresting events".

If we feel the spark has gone out of a marriage, it is most often, in my unprofessional opinion, only a contrast we have become aware of. The first moments of young love, even for older people, are more exciting than pretty much anything we'll ever know on this earth. But they eventually must calm down to a manageable level. It would not be healthy if, for years on end, we could not eat or sleep because we're so enamored with the visions of loveliness we behold daily. The trouble is, we LIKE those feelings of excitement. That initial spark is what unites us and we love the feelings that accompany them; the dream world spawned from within, fed by the memories of kisses and perfumes. Only an extremely rare married couple could claim to have maintained that delirous "spark" since the day they met. And they're probably lying if they do.

As much as those feelings make us feel wonderful, they are not meant to remain turned on HIGH. Life really is very ordinary for most hours in a day for most people. We get up, shower, dress, rowse the children, make breakfast, find leftovers for lunch, off to work (which may itself be dull and uninteresting). Then shopping, dinner, dishes, laundry, tidy the living room, and finally collapse in a chair with a book or magazine wanting nothing more than to catch our breath. One day we look up and think, Where did that spark go? What happened to that euphoria we knew when we first met? Well, the spark didn't really go anywhere. It was used to ignite a long term relationship which, we often don't realize at the outset, is going to eventually be filled with these very routine and ordinary activities with little time for non-stop love making.

I am not saying that marriage need be dull and uninteresting, or without excitement. But we would do well to remember that the fever pitch, head over heels feelings we once felt are not going to come calling every day. There will not be an exciting and romantic adventure lurking around every corner waiting to surprise us. As fun as this might be the fact is that we must settle down, calm down, manage our emotions in order to get things done. When we become aware of the contrast, however, between what we may have felt many years ago and what we appear to feel today, we may become alarmed that something is wrong; something has happened, something is missing. This is one of the great myths of modern culture.

Marriage that survives long term is one that is cultivated daily. Successful marriage requires nurturing, watering, careful tending and loving attention. It cannot be so if its something we only take down from the shelf to give a dusting to when we have the inclination. It takes effort, a conscious effort. In the initial stages we are carried along on tides of emotion that are easy, joyful, and effortless. But when these things subside and return us to normal life, as will happen, we need to be aware that there is nothing wrong with dull days. There is nothing needing fixing just because we can't always find something interesting to talk about. Silence is beautiful too.

Marriage matures and ages. It grows beyond the need to be sustained by that early infatuation. It becomes self sustaining through a joint commitment to its furtherance. This commitment does not become alarmed when there is little to say and seemingly nothing interesting to do. At such times it is helpful to just rest, let quiet slide gently in and know this is a healthy thing to do. Worry over it will only prolong it, give it a needless focus, and add stress to an otherwise normal situation.

Say "I love you", as you look into the other's eyes, and mean it. A quick mumbling of those three words as we rush out the door is not the same thing, though it certainly may be all we can manage at times. Show appreciation for the smallest things, thank them for making dinner, for doing the laundry, for tidying up a mess we left behind, and for seeing that the bills get paid. Then off to bed for a good romp. Thats a prescription that cannot fail. And never fear the contrast between what once was and what now is. The former is the foundation. The latter a mighty edifice. Not every corner and closet will be filled with unending arousal and excitement. But it can become as solid as a mountain. The spark hasn't fizzled. It has become a roaring furnace, kept under control and well maintained. Or at least, it can be.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Interview with Jesus

“So you want to try the human experience, do you my son?” I had been watching this young spirit for some time. He showed an eagerness that was catching, yet needed a bit more refining before making this great decision. Many spirits who choose to go to the earth do so with some little trepidation. Not all are fearless and sure, but seldom is any soul denied the opportunity to experience this difficult school of growth. Many of the more timid souls want only a short existence, and room is always found for them. Some never even make into the world as a newborn child, but leave the earthly plane while still in the womb. They are paired with couples who desire to know the growth that overcoming sorrow and pain can bring, aspects of life not available within the perfect love of the spirit realm, the only true reality.

“Yes, sir, I think I’m ready for it”.

“Its not an easy place to go. Have you counselled with anyone about this yet?”

“A little. But that’s why I’ve come to you. I was told you could show me far more than some of the others of what it will be like on the earth”.

I smiled. “Yes”, I said, “no one who volunteers is sent to the earth without a complete and total understanding of every situation they might face.”

Might face?” he queried.

“Yes. Not everything you see will be required of you. But every possible outcome of every possible choice is gone over prior to your trip. Nothing is left to chance. You are completely cared for, even though you will not realize this when you’re there. Every choice and every outcome is agreed to by all before anyone is sent. As you know, you are given a body which will start out as a tiny infant and grow through many stages of development. You are attached to this human body but never really become a part of it. Its like a costume you put on with a mind of its own. Your greatest challenge will be to subdue the mind within the body and have it conform to the love your soul remembers. The mind is programmed to believe it is in charge and will fight you often.”

“If the lessons I choose involve making certain choices, but I choose differently, how will I learn what I want to go for?”

I smiled. “The entire process is geared to helping you attain your goal. Different choices will bring different outcomes, yes, but the whole package is set up so that you arrive at the goal you wish, no matter which route you take. You will be required to make choices every day, and each choice opens the door to 2 or 3 more. The field of experiences widens for you, but ultimately is designed to bring you what you need. Everything is coordinated for you with all the thousands of others you will come in contact with while in the human world. You will be an actor on a huge stage and will be essential to the show as a whole, no matter how minor a part you feel you are playing. Others will be depending on you, just as you depend on them.”

Chapter Two

“Now, tell me what lessons you have in mind?”

“Well, I was thinking I’d like the one on patience. I’m told that’s a very popular one. And there are a lot of off-shoots no matter which ones you choose, is that right?”

“Oh yes. We go over all the options with you well ahead of time. You could choose patience alone and a myriad of others would automatically follow. Lets have a look at some of those who are learning what interests you. And remember, no one in your position is obligated to go. If you see what the schooling is like and decide you’re not ready for it, there is no reason to feel now is the time. Many spirits never go at all and are perfectly fulfilled where they are. Many others see how difficult it can be and choose not to go too. They are not judged as being inferior for making that choice, and neither will you be. Now, come over here and see what there is to be learned”.

Together we watched as a large scroll appeared to unroll before us. We looked down on it as though from a balcony overlooking a stage. The earth lay before us. Details were only a thought away. The earth is a very hard school. Not the hardest in the universe, but very hard. There were easier schools where spirits could go, but the harder the lessons, the greater the growth. And it is always impressed upon them that no one is truly injured or harmed by attending these schools, though they are set up so cleverly that most never realize that at the time. The easier schools were for very young and timid spirits who wished to expand their knowledge of life but not in an extreme way such as the earth and other realms offered.

“Do many spirits fail?” I was asked.

“None fail”, I responded gently. “Each soul is given a mission that is to be worked on through life, even though most will never remember they even had one. Circumstances are put in their way which are meant to facilitate that mission. Many souls return here without completing the mission, but none are said to have failed. The main purpose of the human life is to see the contrast between perfect love and an environment where that love must be searched for. It is a painful and sometimes daunting task. But no one returns from the human realm with the notion that they have failed. The experience is all most of them go for. Doing that is a success all in itself.”

When he asked me, “Why do so many spirits want to go in the first place?”, I knew he was already having second thoughts. “So many of them down there don’t seem to be enjoying themselves at all”.

“As I said, its partly to learn the contrast between love and the absence of love. You cannot know joy until you’ve known sorrow. No one truly understands peace until they’ve seen unrest. You can’t know love until you’ve known fear. You’ll never appreciate happiness until you’ve seen cruelty. None of those negative aspects of life exist where we are now. All of these things are part of the earth school. Some have learned to find peace in the midst of their sorrows, and these are the ones who have overcome the difficulties facing them. Overcoming the obstacles is admirable and takes strength and courage, but those who find they are unable to do so are not loved any less.”

“So, is it not possible to learn any of those things without going to one of these schools? I know many spirits who have never been and never intend to go.”

“That’s entirely their own choice. With few exceptions, no one is ever compelled to go. The option is always there, but it is completely up to each soul whether or not they wish to go. It must always be the idea of each individual. They will never be forced to do anything they do not feel ready for. But I should point out to you that many spirits are able to learn these things on their own and have no need to go to the earth school, or any other. Even some of these spirits wind up going, but in a supportive role for the others. You see those people down there on the face of the planet going into those large buildings? They are going to a type of school meant for their human development.” I pointed to various places. “This one is an engineering school. That one over there will train dentists. This one is for those who wish to cook. But not everyone on earth must go to a specialized school. The same is true of we spirits. Not all need attend in order to be fulfilled in their growth and development. That’s the real bottom line, son. If you feel fulfilled, content, and whole there is no need to go.”

“There seems to be an awful lot of cruelty down there between them. They even kill each other. Why is this permitted to go on?”

“All spirits ask us to keep our hands off when they leave here. I, myself, said to Father, ‘now don’t go interfering in things. I can handle it’. But of course, the heavenly realm knows we will need help and each of us is assigned a spirit helper. Some more than one. They are known as guardian angels. On earth there are some very perceptive and sensitive people who recognize these spirits. And yes, there is a great deal of what humans call wickedness and evil on the earth. Its very sad that some souls are not allowing themselves to awaken to what their assigned mind and body are doing. But we vowed not to interfere. And remember, the ones who are the targets of the cruelty are all volunteers who knew this treatment was likely but loved that other soul so much that they wanted to be there to help, even though it meant being treated most unkindly”.

“They don’t seem to be gone for very long. How can they learn so much in such a short time?”

“When you’re actually on the earth the time seems much longer. It can seem an eternity if that’s how you’ve chosen to experience it. For others time flies by. The vast majority come back here, even after an earth life of 70 to 80 years, and feel as though they had just gone for a short visit. An afternoon away. It’s a relatively harmless place in which to learn lessons that cannot be found in the spirit world. A key thing to remember is that the earth exists for demonstration purposes only. Nothing there is permanent. Its not even real. Its a master illusion.”

Chapter Three

“I’d like you to look at someone over here”. I gestured across the ocean from where we had been observing. “Move in a lot closer until you come to the spot I’m pointing to......yes, that’s it. Now I want you to see if you can find the man that stands out above all the others. You’ll know him when you see him”. The young spirit gazed intently at the scene rolled out before us. I could see him searching into hearts and minds, looking for an anomaly of sorts.

“Do you mean that one there”?

“Yes”, I said. “What do you notice about him”?

“His body is all scarred and deformed”.

“That’s only his appearance. Look a little deeper and tell me what you see.”

The young spirit peered very closely into the man’s heart, actually entering it partially to discern what was being pointed out. “He’s very angry. And bitter. Is he failing his mission?”

“Not at all. He was scarred early in life by someone he trusted and loved. This was planned so that he could achieve the growth he desired. The one he loved is actually a very brave spirit who agreed to take that role, knowing he would be hated the rest of his life for it.”

“But how is the scarred man growing while he’s mired in so much anguish?”

“The growth may not be apparent to anyone until his human life is actually done. You see, in time he will learn to forgive the one who did that to him. His spirit will awaken just enough so that he can see that what happened to his body was necessary to achieve his spiritual goals. The growth comes from being able to forgive when every instinct cries out for revenge. The mission is to offer his love, what there is of it right now, to others who are in need. He is making inroads there.”

“But in a sense, he was only wronged by one person. Many people go through their lives being wronged over and over again by many people. Is their growth more significant than his?”

“For every challenge a spirit chooses in the earth realm, they are allowed to select a level of growth that is within their potential. And they are helped in choosing strengths and weaknesses with which to achieve their ends. The trials that come upon them are directly in proportion to their ability to withstand them. No one is ever asked or expected to face anything they are not capable of dealing with. The spirit knows before going to earth that some very unpleasant things may result from certain choices, sometimes choices not even within their own control.

"Some do give up, its true, but if they had allowed themselves a bit more time, a solution was always being prepared to help them in the struggle. If a spirit chooses great strength as a human, then his trials must be greater in order for him to fulfill his potential. Spirits who wish an easier life are faced with much lesser challenges, but have only just enough mettle to withstand even those, depending on how much growth they have set out to gain. Its like some of their athletic contests. A small, thin man may only be able to lift a small amount of weight, but it is all he’s able to manage. Do you see the connection?”

“Oh, yes. I was shown your human life. You had to forgive an awful lot of people didn’t you?”


Chapter Four

“What is the role of emotions for the human world? A lot of people down there seem distraught over events they cannot control, or that have very little to do with them.”

“That’s very perceptive of you. I myself hated the emotional aspect of human living a great deal. For me it caused more pain than any of the physical traumas. But of course, when you’re actually there and veiled from the purpose of it all, it becomes something we want to escape and hide from. Our souls remember the perfect love we left behind, even though they are slumbering through most of the human life. They don’t like the feelings of uncertainty, sorrow, and fear, so try to avoid them, which is impossible. We forget that we are to allow these feelings to run their course and learn to cope with them in ways that have been provided. We just have to find those ways from within ourselves. We’re given everything we need to cope with the human life, but many forget that and look in all the wrong places for solutions. But even this is part of the experience.”

My young spirit friend pondered this as we watched the bustle of human activity below us. “Most of these people don’t seem to know what their mission is any longer”.

“That’s true. But the mission each of them have been given is interwoven with the life challenges and experiences they have selected. And it’s very closely connected with something each of them loves to do. This way they cannot fail. It’s not important that they remember. In fact it’s essential for most that they don’t or they would pursue it to the detriment of their own growth, straining to be done as quickly as possible so as to return home.”

“Can a spirit become aware of their true nature while on the earth?”

“Oh yes. Most do to some extent as their human body ages, though none wakes up completely; the human mind and body could not withstand the full power of the spirit soul. But there are many who are blessed with an acute awareness throughout their lives of their origin and purpose. Others are kept veiled from it by choice. Still others are blinded to it as a prerequisite to what they wish to accomplish. Many forget the spirit world exists at all, or even deny there is one. But for most humans the spirit is kept slumbering for a good long portion of their life. If the spirit entered the human world wide awake, it would not make a single mistake, which is the learning tool of the earth. And if that were the case, there would be no point in going in the first place. It’s the making of mistakes that hurts and brings the knowledge each soul seeks. All the pain is temporary and vanishes the moment they come back home.”

“But I’ve heard there are souls languishing in the outer darkness who are not finding their way home. Are they being punished for their behaviour on the earth?”

“No. They are having trouble forgiving themselves for the way they treated others while down there. And some of them refuse to acknowledge this in a life review. They are bathing in love until they are ready to come home. No one is preventing them from this but themselves. And there are ministering spirits seeking to aid them at all times. But we cannot force anyone to come home. It’s their own choice to do so or not. It’s very sad at times, when you see a spirit so wounded by their life choices on earth that they cannot come home. Still, they knew the risks and would not be dissuaded from their decision to go.”

“Why was there never any intervention for them when they were making all these bad choices on earth? I know you’ve said it would have interfered with their freedom, but was no account being made for the freedom of those they chose to injure?”

“Most who choose to go to earth are volunteers. The bravest spirits are those willing to fill the role of the victim for those who have lost their way. No one is ever abused without prior knowledge and consent. Everyone who loses life or limb is aware of that potential before they agree to go. Only a powerful spirit would offer to take the role of a person who is going to be beaten or murdered by a lost soul. But we are never short of volunteers. Love is that powerful.”

Chapter Five

“Are the ones we’re talking about all lost souls?”

“There are many types of lost souls. When I said that most who choose to go to earth are volunteers that clearly implied exceptions. Lost souls are an exception. They are spirits who have overstepped the bounds of acceptable behaviour. They are permitted as much freedom as we can allow to determine things for themselves, but there comes a time when their disruptive ways must be addressed. Those are the souls who are sent to earth without their consent. They are told they are going but have no say over where they will be placed or with whom. All of this is done in a most loving and careful manner. The object is to let them see, through physical circumstances, how destructive their behaviour has been. Being sent to earth is not a punishment, but an education”.

“There are a lot of religious books and instructions down there. Are they all approved by the spirit world?”

“There are many guidelines to help individuals find the love they instinctively know is missing from life on earth. Some can be found in the books of religion. But a great deal of what’s in those books cannot be counted on to be one hundred percent accurate. They alone present challenges as some will try to persuade you of certain meanings that really aren’t there. We knew this would happen and have incorporated it into the various life situations many souls will face. Other passages are incomplete and need to be delved into by the more discerning among the human population.”

“What would be an example of that?”

“Well, let’s look at the Christian Bible. There’s a scripture in there that says, ‘resist the devil and he will flee from you’. The thought is really incomplete. It should say, ‘resist the devil by loving him, and he will leave you alone’. Love can conquer the worst of evils. Also, the whole concept of there being only one “devil” is also a misnomer. There are many souls who accepted the role of challengers to the human race. Some have lost their way and create far more hardship and sorrow than was meant. Evil and cruelty are rampant. But those spirits who volunteer to go down to remedy this have not wanted us to intervene.”

“Have you only been down there for one earth life yourself?”

“No. There were others. There still are.” I didn’t elaborate but did add, “For humans it is most important that their leaders have credibility. That more than anything. So my roles on earth were no different from anyone else’s. I wanted for all to know that nothing was being asked of anyone that I was not willing to endure myself. I was sent to earth so well disguised as an ordinary mortal that no one knew who I was. I was never born into royalty or lived a life of ease. I was just a common man doing common things; the carpenter is the best known. So no human can truly say, no matter how unfair or difficult life becomes, “I never asked to be born”. Nor can they say, if they have even a hint of the spirit above, “I bet the most advanced souls never took a turn being human” ”. I smiled, reflecting on the times I had said these very things. “All spirits who seek to counsel someone like you have been to the earth school. What credibility would we have if we hadn’t?”

“I’m not so sure I’m ready to go after all. Would it be alright if I didn’t?”

I smiled. “Of course. You need never go if you don’t want to. For a spirit such as yourself, and for the majority of those who live, it’s simply a matter of being fulfilled. If you are content and can see where you want to go in areas of growth, and if such growth is possible without going to school, then you need never go.”

“What if I become a lost soul and am sent against my will?”

“Every soul sent for corrective reasons is given many, many opportunities to change their ways before we resort to that step. And any soul that worries about becoming lost or misguided is in very little danger of such a thing. Pondering these possibilities takes humility. It is mostly arrogance which leads to becoming lost in the sense we’re talking about.”

So the young spirit went on his way. The last time I ran into him he was just emerging from the great Hall of Records. He said to me, “You didn’t tell me I could study individual human lives so closely it would be like living them myself”.

“What?” I retorted in mock indignation, “and spoil all the surprises you might like to discover for yourself?”

Friday, November 6, 2009

Church of the Almighty...

A legacy of the Worldwide Church of God

Everyday the people could be seen entering the temple for worship. The girl on the sidewalk could tell they must be very spiritual by the way they all talked. Their tone was one of hushed reverence that often brought responses of great emotion. She knew she would never be like them. She wasn’t even allowed into the temple, though she longed, out of curiosity, to see the inside.

A single act of blasphemy years ago had banished any chance she ever would have had of joining in their fellowship. And although she sat outside the temple every day, none of the priests or lay-members would so much as look upon her. Sometimes she would wander down to the end of the street to see them coming from their magnificent homes. There were others like her along the way but none were shown any sort of pity. The brethren from the temple regarded their worship as far too important to stop and talk to the outcasts.

Once, she had been bold enough to stand on an old tree stump and listen at the bottom of one of the huge windows. The worship service was beginning and she could hear the congregation repeating the incantations of the priests; “worthy, worthy, worthy, art thou our great God, who hast toppled the empires of the earth”. She knew their God must be very strong, for in His name many people had been cast out, their lives reduced to nothing. She had been one of them. And it had been decreed by the Council that her sin was so great that her punishment would be visited on her children and her children’s children “even unto the fourth generation”.

Today, as she stood in the rain, she was very cold. Two men approached the massive stone staircase that led up to the temple’s entrance. She timidly asked if one of them could spare a little money, just a little, so she might buy some soup. One of them hesitated but was quickly grabbed away by the arm. “There are agencies for such things. Go through the proper channels!” the other spoke. His voice was harsh and stern. She apologized, her face turned toward the ground. She knew it had been wrong for her to speak to them. They had important offerings to lay on the alter. God must not be kept waiting. There was no time for mercy. She understood.

Another time she had stopped a woman who was going in. She asked if the woman might offer a prayer for her in the temple. She had not answered, but stood, looking shocked that one like her should have been addressed with such a trivial matter. The girl’s shame weighed greatly upon her shoulders and she cried quietly. Why could she not be righteous like the temple members?

But tonight, she had promised herself, she would sneak into the temple and seek forgiveness at the altar. Then they might accept her and see that she could be as good as they were.

She sat in the dark of the early autumn night and listened as the evening service came to a close. A slight breeze rustled the drying leaves scattered along the ground. Through the window came the endless prayers. “Holy, holy, holy”, intoned the priests, the congregation reverently repeating. As the brethren dispersed she could see it must have been a very moving service. Some of the men, even, were weeping tears of gratitude. She longed to know God as they knew Him. Surely such an all powerful One could find a way to forgive her.

When the last of the men and women had left and the caretaker had closed the big double oak doors, she emerged from the shadows and approached the stone steps. She looked around carefully, for she had once been severely rebuked by one of the elders for even touching the great edifice. Looking behind her, she climbed the steps cautiously. The huge doors were in deep shadow between towering columns. Once at the top step, she would be unseen from the street. She had to stop and take a breath, and to realize the moment. She had never been inside the temple and now she stood at the very doors. Her heart pounded as she reached for the latch. With a loud click the door slowly gave way.

Even with the dim interior lighting she was almost overcome by the grandeur. She had heard the people say that God’s house must be built of only the finest, most precious material, and constructed by the most skilled craftsmen. A thick carpet of velvet ran the entire length of the massive chamber dividing down the center two sections of pews. There were candles and incense burners at the end of each aisle, and pieces of fine crystal displayed on the walls. Small, soft satin benches permitted the worshippers to kneel comfortably while the priests carefully went through the ancient rituals. And there, at the head of the chamber, elevated so all could see, was the altar. It shone like pure gold. It took her breath away.

She desperately wanted to approach it and make her intercession but she was sorely afraid. What if someone came in? What if God himself consumed her for desecrating this, His home? She would have to risk it all. She wanted to be happy, like the others. Happy and unencumbered by the suffering of her own kind. She began the long walk up the aisle. The faint smell of incense lingered as she passed by the ceremonial goblets. She knew she would be put to death if she was caught now. But there could be no turning back. The only doors were now far behind her and she would be trapped if any of the elders or deacons should come in now.

At the foot of the altar she became unsure as to what to do. Should she kneel as she had seen some of the brethren do at the foot of the outdoor steps? She noticed that the elegant carpet was slightly worn around the sides of the altar. She walked around it and took the small step upward that gave a slight elevation to the altar’s pinnacle. This must be where the actual worship takes place, she thought. There were stools for the priests to kneel on. And there, just within reach, at the summit of the platform, was the object of their attentions. A small jeweled box. She knew from the talk of the others that the box was only opened seven times each year and that God himself appeared at these times giving strength to all who saw his Holy image. Did she dare touch it? She had come this far and she knew there would never be another moment like this. Trembling, her fingers stretched upward and toward the glimmering gemstones of the lid.

But in being overly cautious, she tensed and jerked her hand at the last moment, knocking the lid right off the box. Precious stones clattered down and across the gold leaf surface and she cried out in fear that God would send a fire to devour her on the spot. She froze, holding her breath; God must be waiting for just the right moment to destroy her in utter humiliation. Gazing up at the jeweled container she agonizingly awaited her death. The entire temple was deathly quiet.

Summoning what little courage remained in her heart, she decided that as long as she was to die for her desecration, she would first gaze upon God Himself, then let Him do His worst. Grasping the top of the altar she pulled herself up from the crouch she had been in. Then, holding the gem box firmly at it sides, she tilted it toward herself and peered into its opened top. And there her eyes rested. She saw their God and all at once she knew His power and His strength and the spell He cast over the brethren, the elders, the deacons, and the priests.

There, at the bottom of the box, lay a single dollar bill.

Freedom of Religion

Jesus said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). In or out of context with the surrounding verses, this statement is one that seems lost on one religion after another, from the early church, through the Middle Ages, the reformation, colonial Puritanism, right up to the present day. Freedom doesn’t seem to be something that’s easily given between human beings. This is especially so when those same humans are cloaked with a mantle of religious authority. It seems that freedom is something that individuals must take for themselves, for the ways of established religion can be well entrenched. No one wants to give up their power, their prestige, or their money. They’re certainly not willing to give up the ego-driven nature of humanity that demands we subjugate others. And lets face it, there are few things more satisfying than seeing someone bend to our will and our way of thinking.

In this day and age, it may surprise some to know that freedom of religion, guaranteed in the Constitution of the United States, is still something which must be struggled with for many. Not the fact that we have no choices; but rather that some of those choices quickly become a millstone around the necks of those who are seeking to please God as they understand him to be.

In the late 1700’s, Thomas Jefferson, a non Christian, sought to ease the burden of religious requirements for the common people. Depending on when and where you lived, you may not have been able to seek public office, own your own business, hold down a job, or attend a church service of the Baptists, Quakers, Catholics, or Jews. In some places in Colonial America, tithing was enforced by law. Punishment for defying your local church could range from a few hours in the stocks, to whippings, imprisonment, or even death. Jefferson, in 1779, decided the religious community had had its day as America’s thought police, and drafted what became known as the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom. So staid were the leaders of his day, it took 6 years, and a great deal of work with James Madison, to finally pass this legislation, the first of its kind in the independent colonies. Here is an excerpt from this ground breaking document.

“No man shall be compelled to support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever: nor shall be forced, restrained, molested or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief. But that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion: and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

-adopted by the Virginia Legislature December 16,1785

It took many years for this law to become accepted among the populace. Patrick Henry himself vigorously opposed it and was among those wishing to enforce donations at the altar. Those who had won freedom for themselves seemed reluctant to extend it to others. Even after the bill was adopted, resistance continued as bigotry and prejudice remained deep within the human psyche. Thirty five years later, an aging John Adams tried to have a similar amendment added to the Massachusetts new State Constitution, but it was defeated by what he called “the intolerant Christian community”.

Now, well over 200 years later, it behooves us to examine how much, or indeed, how little has changed. Certain modern Christian church denominations still often seek to control thier members, dishing out rules, formalities, rituals, dogma, ceremonies, doctrine, and all sorts of requirements, most of which cannot be found anywhere in the New Testament, in order to keep the membership in close conformity and under strict regulation. Now, to be fair, it can be pointed out that not all congregations are kept on such a tight leash. Perhaps its only a small minority. But we who have come out of the worst of them know how important it is to understand true Freedom of Religion.

In the days of Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, and Madison, this new freedom simply meant that it was now safe to walk the streets if you happened to be an unbeliever, or of a faith other than that officially sanctioned by the state. In New England it was the Congregationalists. In the South, the Church of England. Today things are much more subtle. Yes, we have the freedom to choose which temple in which to lay our offering. Or to not do so at all. But there are Christian religions extant that are far more intolerant than anything our old Mr. Adams encountered in 1820’s Boston. I speak of the Worldwide Church of God, founded by Herbert W. Armstrong, as it existed for 60 years from the mid thirties to the mid nineties. And I speak also of some of its off-shoots, like the “Philadelphia”, “Eternal” and the “Living” Churches of God.

I began attending the WCG in 1974. I stayed around until 1996, when I discovered that living as a follower of Christ was, to use one of Herb’s favorite phrases, diametrically opposite to what I had been taught as a loyal follower of the Armstrong way of life. I was never free as a member of the WCG. I became a willing slave to every dictum that came out of that wretched "headquarters" and its corrupt administration. I meekly submitted to every demand for more involvement, more fellowship, more study, more prayer, and most important, more money. I was the slave of Herbert Armstrong, son Garner Ted, and names like Meredith, Hoeh, and Cole. I was the slave of the local pastor, who signed men up for a public speaking venue, the Spokesman Club, whether they wanted to or not. I was the slave of the deacon’s wife, who ordered me to wear a jacket and tie while going through the motions of the Passover service, something I always detested. I was the slave of the ministerial trainee from Pasadena, who ordered everyone to attend Tuesday night Bible Study, IF they were truly converted.

And I became the slave of my own guilt. Who could possibly meet all the requirements of the WCG, without fail, and carry on with peace of mind and assurance of salvation? The lake of fire was always only one sin away, and I genuinely believed that God was watching me closely, just waiting for me to make one mistake so he could let loose some hideous unearthly punishment. There was no love. There was no peace. There was only fear. And I was its slave. My faith was not a refuge but a weapon to be used against me. Where was this freedom that Jesus spoke of? The pat answer from the WCG was that we would experience freedom from the slavery of sin. You can find that in the scriptures, it’s true. But by 1996 I no longer believed that that was the only application for that one phrase, “the truth shall make you free”. So I left the church that held me captive for 22 years.

For those who have departed the WCG, or any daughter church or other legalistic, controlling and manipulative organization, who wish to continue a pursuit of the spirituality to be found in Jesus, I have some good news. Yes, I could have physically walked away at any time. But it was not my body they held prisoner; it was my mind. They held me fast with a single erroneous idea, supported by numerous twisted and misquoted scriptures; that God has only "one true church". In a sense that may be true. That one church, if it must be called that, encompasses every one within whom resides the spirit of Christ, whether they know it or not and no matter what diverse opinions they may have.

For those who would still insist that God’s “work” on earth is carried on through only one group of people, I urge you to examine these: In John 10:16 we’re told that Jesus acknowledged that he had followers who were not part of the regular group. In Luke 9:49-50 we learn that someone the disciples didn’t even know was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. And in Acts chapter 8 we find a story of a man who was converted and baptized after only a short talk with Philip. This becoming a “true Christian” doesn’t sound like such a complex and exclusive club to me. In fact, if we read the rest of the story in Acts, it states very clearly that the ONLY requirement was to believe that Jesus is the son of God and died for one’s wrongdoings. Consider that the whole process was accomplished for centuries without any New Testaments, pamphlets, tracts, revival meetings, or bible camps.

It took me 8 years to come to grips with what I had experienced. Only by 2004 did I see the WCG as a dangerous cult. It may have lost some of its power to intimidate, but it still demanded at that time, that its precious ‘headquarters’ be the source of wisdom and guidance to the local minions. And as long as tithes and offerings are to be sent to a central location, instead of collected and utilized entirely at the local level for the local people as they see fit, then there remain freedoms to be won. Thankfully I no longer have to wage that battle. I’ve walked away, mind and body, and have no further desire to gather with other ‘believers’ anywhere or anytime.

Jefferson, in his latter years, did an in-depth study of the 4 gospels. He concluded that, although a non-Christian, he was in fact a follower of the precepts of Jesus. He had found the truth and the freedom. By refusing to bow before the traditions of clerics and institutions, he was set free long before his statute became law.

Jesus replaced all the Old Covenant laws, having fulfilled their requirements, with only two. Two brand new, fresh ideas. Love God, and love your neighbor. That’s all it takes. Every desired human behavior can be put under one of those two simple all-encompassing principles.

Therein rests the truth that will set you free.

Historical sources-

-John Adams, by David McCullough, Simon and Shuster, 2001

-American State Papers on Freedom in Religion, Review and Herald Publishing, 1943

-John Adams and the American Revolution, by Catherine Drinker Bowen, Little, Brown and Co. 1950

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Remember with Thanksgiving

It’s easy, in the twenty-first century, to recall North America’s first white settlements with romantic images of pilgrims hewing wood, hunting wild turkeys with flintlock muskets, building new communities, and defending themselves against Native savages with a righteous fervor. Binding them all together was a strong faith that God was on their side through thick and thin. Left behind was the persecution suffered in their homelands of Europe and the British Isles. They came to a new land with hopes for peace, justice, and the right to govern themselves and worship God as each man’s conscience directed.

Around the Thanksgiving season our homes may be decorated with quaint scenes of Colonial America. Magazines display pictures of our forefathers praying together over a delicious meal, every one piously smiling and content. The harmony enjoyed in these communities is envied, as we endure the strife and stress of our modern world. It was pretty much an idyllic setting, we thought, each family cozied away in their log cabins, sitting by the fire reading scripture, loving their neighbors, everyone looking out for everyone else.

It may be true that life centered around church, faith, and family in those simple times, but it was far from paradise. Free from the harassment and bigotry back home, the new colonists took on a zealousness of their own that quickly mirrored the treatment they, themselves, had escaped. Unwilling to extend the virtues of kindness and patience, the pilgrim communities became closed societies where outsiders and ethnic differences were clearly unwelcome. The Puritans of New England were the most extreme examples, but prejudice and hatred filled the New World from Masscussetts to Georgia. Civil governments were heavily influenced by the religion of the day. In many places they were one and the same, pointing to divine authority as the basis for civic law. They saw it as their God-given duty to enforce their brand of biblically-based righteousness in order to ensure morality and order were maintained. Let’s have a quick look at some of the laws that were introduced in pursuit of the idyllic Christian society.

1610, Virginia. Church attendance was mandatory twice each Sunday. Failure to comply could result in: First offence- having no provisions given out. Second offence- public flogging. Third offence- death. (It should be pointed out that, at least in Virginia, the death penalty was merely a scare tactic and was never carried out, unlike the situation in New England).

1630, Connecticut. Citizens could not vote on public matters unless a member of an approved church.

1646, Massachussetts. Quakers were ordered banished on pain of death. Catholic priests were given the same order a year later.

1649, Maryland; Acts of Toleration. Denying God or the Bible: First offence- being bored through the tongue with a red hot iron and fined 20 pounds Sterling, or 6 months in prison. Second offence- being branded in the forehead and fined 40 pounds or 1 year in prison. Third offence- Death. These punishments did not necessarily apply to freeholders or other “reputable persons” such as clergymen. The toleration the acts promised was extended only to church-going Christians.

1651, Mass. Denying the authority of the Bible carried a punishment of up to 40 lashes, banishment, or death for repeated offences.

1659, Mass. The Provincial Court of Records shows that 3 Quakers were hanged for repeated refusal to recant their beliefs.

1660, Mass. Membership in an approved church became mandatory.

1661, Mass. The General Court of Boston contains an account of Quakers being stripped to the waist and flogged through town while tied to and walking behind a cart. The punishment was carried out in two more towns before the offenders were banished into the wilderness.

1661, Virginia. Baptism of children became mandatory. Failure to comply resulted in a fine of 2,000 pounds of tobacco, half to go to the public and half to the informant.

1663, Virginia. Anyone found to be allowing Quakers to preach or teach, in or near their house, was to be fined 5,000 pounds of tobacco.

1671, Mass. Traveling or sporting (hunting, fishing etc) on Sunday could be met with fines, whippings, or death for repeated offences.

1679, Rhode Island. Fines or 3 hours in the stocks could be handed out for exercise, sport, or labor on Sunday.

1683, New Jersey. Fines imposed for recreation, travel, or labor on Sunday.

1691, New York. Fines or 3 hours in the stocks for “prophaning the Lord’s Day”. This included hunting, fishing, horse racing, travel, labor, drinking in a ‘tippling house’, or other exercises considered unlawful.

1692, Mass. Blaspheming the name of God could result in up to 6 months in prison, public flogging, being bored through the tongue with a red hot iron, or be forced to sit on the gallows with a rope around the neck. In a gracious gesture, officials determined that no more than any 2 of these punishments should be meted out for the same offence.

1696, New Hampshire. Citizens failing to keep the Lord’s Day by applying themselves to the duty of religion were to be fined, imprisoned, or put in the stocks for up to 3 hours.

1700, Pennsylvania. Fines imposed for drinking on Sunday. Stocks for repeated offences. In a magnanimous move, Pennsylvania specifically refrained from legislating mandatory church membership and attendance, so long as you were a professing Christian.

1762, Georgia. Church Wardens and Constables were empowered to search the towns during both AM and PM church services to apprehend non-attendees. The guilty could be fined or put in the stocks up to 2 hours.

1789, New York. Sunday fines were imposed for sleeping excessively, loitering out of doors, or traveling to and from church in too much haste. President George Washington was stopped by an enforcer, known as the Tithingman, and had to explain why he was on horseback on a Sunday. He was able to talk his way out of a fine only by proving he had become lost coming through Connecticut the day before and was still several miles from town, where he promised he would lay up for the remainder of the day.

1795, Delaware. Fines or imprisonment for prophaning the Lord’s Day.

1797, Delaware. For willful and premeditated blasphemy, the offender was to be placed in the stocks for 2 hours, be branded in the forehead, and be publicly whipped with 39 lashes, well laid on.

1820, Mass. The convention deciding on a new state constitution refused to include Jews in a statement of religious freedom.

One bright spot in all of this involves the life of a man named Roger Williams, founder of the Providence Plantation, later to be named Rhode Island. In 1631 he became the first man to publicly clash with the Puritan administrators over the principle that civil government should, by right, deal only with civil affairs. In other words, he was America’s first proponent of separation of Church and State. For his outspokenness he was banished to the wilderness and wound up settling in the region he named .

In 1636, as people began trickling into and around Williams’ settlement, he began to establish formal principles for a new civic government. He decreed that the Providence Plantation would be a shelter “for all persons distressed for conscience sake”. He was determined that his government would exercise authority only in civil matters. In this he was the first in modern Christendom to assert the doctrine of liberty of conscience and equality of opinion before the law. He would permit no “persecution of opinion or religion, leaving heresy unharmed by law and orthodoxy unprotected by the terror of penal statutes.”

By 1643 there were 4 established settlements in Rhode Island and they all agreed it was time to send Williams to England to charter them as a colony. He went seeking guarantees of protection from the aggressive Puritans from Massachussetts. Such a charter was granted. In 1647 the General Assembly of Rhode Island adopted a code of laws which closed with the declaration: “that all men may walk as their consciences persuade them without molestation- every one in the name of his God”. So long as Roger Williams was influential, no one in his colony ever suffered for any religious opinion or practice, or lack thereof. By 1679, however, the Puritan element had moved in and gained control, beginning first with the passing of Sunday regulations. Williams died 4 years later.

The religionists had triumphed, and the colonies became little theocracies where church and state were bed partners. Birth had been given to the popular idea that more laws and regulations were the sure way to prevent men from performing what the clerics would decide were evil and immoral acts. The church had the undisputed upper hand and was only grudgingly forced to let go over the next two centuries. The following figures stand out in assisting to break the monopoly the church felt it had, by right, over the minds of human beings.

George Washington: “Every man who conducts himself as a good citizen, is accountable alone to God for his religious faith, and should be protected in worshipping God according to the dictates of his own conscience.”

Thomas Jefferson: “Almighty God hath created the mind free; all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burdens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy.”

Benjamin Franklin: “When religion is good it will take care of itself; when it is not able to take care of itself…so that it has to appeal to the civil power for support, it is evidence to my mind that its cause is a bad one.”

James Madison: “Religion is not in the purview of human government. Religion is essentially distinct from government and exempt from its cognizance. A connection between them is injurious to both.”

Ulysses. S. Grant: “Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private school, supported entirely by private contribution. Keep the church and the state forever separate.”

Dr. Philip Schaff: “Secular power has proved a Satanic gift to the church, and ecclesiastical power has proved an engine of tyranny in the hand of the state.”

John Wesley: “If you cannot reason nor persuade a man into the truth, never attempt to force a man into it.”

Thomas MacAulay: “The whole history of the Christian religion shows that she is in far greater danger of being corrupted by the alliance of power than of being crushed by opposition.”

William F. Vilas: “The absolute independence of the church from the state, and the state from the church…is a doctrine which must be insisted upon continually as absolutely essential to the peace and concord of the country.”

Even so, many of these Puritan laws survived well into the 20th Century; some still extant to this day. Their enforcement became a myriad of contradictions as governments seemed unable to break free of generations-old shackles. When the City of Los Angeles first legalized Sunday dancing, theaters, and bars, they also ruled that it would be unlawful for the Public Library to be open. The District of Columbia, while allowing stores, ball games, and movie houses to operate on Sunday, refused to grant licenses to fruit vendors for the same day. In Baltimore, Sunday laws were loosened to allow food and drug stores to sell necessities, such as tobacco and cigarettes, but they were forbidden from selling food. In Virginia, a man was charged and arrested for hauling a load of wood to a church so it could be heated for its services. The city council of Windom, Minnesota, made it unlawful for one man to shave another on Sunday. These arbitrary laws, meant to enforce Sabbath-keeping, were descended from those same Puritan attitudes that took away all manner of choice for religiously enslaved human beings.

It’s just a little awkward for Christians to admit that their current freedom of expression in matters of faith is owed almost entirely to men; Franklin, Madison, Washington, Jefferson, who for the most part were completely secular in their outlook. Essentially, Christians have been saved from religious slavery by those who took a particular dislike for Christianity. We can, of course, look back with 20/20 vision and see the errors of the past. The question becomes, have we learned anything from it?

Historical Sources-
American State Papers on Freedom in Religion, Review and Herald Publishing, 1943

Harvard Classics Vol.43, American Historical Documents, P.F. Collier & Son, 1910

John Adams, by David McCullough, Simon and Shuster, 2001

Columbia Viking Encyclopedia, Viking Press, 1960