Category Archives: Mental Health

The Jesus Secret

If Christians aren’t the happiest people in the world then our religion probably isn’t true. Jesus Christ said He came to earth so we might have life in abundance. I cannot conceive of any version of abundance that does not include happiness.  Not that anyone is happy all of the time. Of course not. That would actually be its own kind of hell, I think. But that’s an entirely different discussion.

So I’ve been thinking and researching and writing on happiness for a while now. And I think I’ve come up with something significant. I call it The Jesus Secret (TJS). It’s a project that can be described like this:  a Christian personal evaluation and refocus project that uses principles found in Scripture and psychotherapy to guide readers toward a happier life.

My hope is that TJS becomes a book with an entry for every day of the year. Then when the year is over I’d like to publish a new edition for the new year. And then I’d like to keep doing this—forever. Because the journey toward happiness is a never ending one. Because happiness is a choice that must be made every day. And I don’t know about you but I need help making it—every single day.

So I launched this project on Monday via an email sent through Constant Contact. (Those participating will get an email every day).  I asked a few friends if they’d be willing to read some of this material and give me their feedback as to whether or not TJS is an effective tool for happiness. I thought we’d start the project with a handful of people.  We got more than that. The first email went out to 93 people, which surprised me. I thought we’d have maybe 30 because, honestly, there is a stigma attached to the pursuit of happiness. A lot of Christians view happiness as an unworthy goal in life. “God wants us to be holy not happy,” is what I hear most often.

This doesn’t surprise me. In some ways my critics are right.  Nowhere in the Bible does God promise us a happy life. Not once does Jesus say, “Come, follow me, and I’ll lead you to happiness!” What he says is actually much darker. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).

If that’s not the epitome of an unhappy sentence, I haven’t read one. Because while I can’t say for sure (I wasn’t there) I’m fairly certain no one in the ancient world picking up a Roman cross was happy about it.  Crosses were heavy, and when you put yours down, that meant it was time to die. So if I’m going  to talk about happiness within a Christian context, then I do have to  deal with this whole business of following Jesus and denying ourselves. Which I will do on this blog in the coming days.

But here’s where we are today. This morning’s email went out to 111 people and new people are getting added constantly. So this tells me that while some folks are skeptical of the project there are a lot of people who need and want the project.

And that makes me happy.

So, I’ll stop here for now but in the coming days continue to elaborate on the ideas contained within TJS and why I believe they’re so needed.

Peace and Love.

-Ryan Casey

P.S. You can subscribe to TJS here

Everyone Loves to Celebrate. Fewer Choose to Mourn.

The first funeral I recall attending was for the dad of a classmate who lived up the street from me. Her dad died suddenly and it scared me to learn this was a possibility. This meant my dad could die. My mom could die.

I could die.

I didn’t want to go to the funeral but my dad said I needed to go. So I went. I’ll never forget watching my friend walk into the church, her arms draped around her mother’s waist. I had never seen anyone cry so hard. Her entire body shook.

Afterward, I asked my dad why I had to go. “Because,” he said, “that’s what friends do.”

That’s what friends do.

It is, isn’t it? Friends go down to the valley with us. Friends aren’t afraid of the shadows. Friends don’t shy away from pain. They move closer to it. They make sure we’re not alone.

As I grew older I watched my father make great effort to attend funerals, sometimes for people he seemed to barely knew. I  didn’t understand.

“Adults get invited to a lot weddings,” he explained. ” Someday you will, too. When that happens, make sure to go. But don’t forget about the funerals. Everyone loves to celebrate, fewer choose to mourn.”

I eventually learned my father got this from Jesus, the God of suffering. The God who hung on a cross to make it desperately clear there was no suffering he wasn’t willing to enter on our behalf.

Jesus doesn’t just show up at our weddings. You’ll find him at the funerals, too.

He is a suffering God. And this is good news because we are a suffering people.

As many of us know…when it’s our turn to pass through the valley, we need more than the alleluias of Easter. We need the cries of Good Friday.

And for that, I’m terribly grateful.

If you’re suffering today, please know that you’re not alone. And never will be.

bobbing lights

Irvin Yalom tells a story about a man named Dave who was having trouble being honest in group therapy. The other members of the group called him out on it.  Dave defended himself, saying, “If I start being honest then I’ll have to talk about how much I hate growing older, how much I fear death.”

Yalom said, “You’re not the only one who has these fears, Dave. Maybe it would be helpful to find out everyone’s in the same boat.”

“No,” Dave said, “that’s the most terrible part about dying—you’re alone in the boat.”

 Another group member spoke up. “Even so, even though you’re alone in the boat, it’s always comforting to see the lights of the other boats bobbing nearby.”

 Yes, yes, it is. When the darkness descends, may we fall to our knees in prayer. But don’t forget to reach out your hand and grab someone. There are lights bobbing all around you. 

Use them. 

the smartest man

Church can be awkward.

One Easter Sunday a woman behind me started screaming, “It’s about forgiveness! It’s about new life! Today!” And then, as if that were normal, she sat back down.

I’ve never forgotten that, just like the folks in the Gospel never forgot the day a man with an unclean spirit burst into their worship service.

Jesus is teaching when the man cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus? Have you come to destroy us?”

Can you imagine? This isn’t awkward. It’s frightening.

Demon talk makes us squirm. Maybe the Gospel writers didn’t understand mental illness? Maybe when they said “possessed” they were describing something they didn’t understand?

Maybe.

No doubt there was confusion in the ancient world about mental health, just like there is today. We have a long way to go until we understand that anxiety and depression are just like diabetes and cancer. Some of us have it. Some of us don’t. And this has nothing to do with character.

If you’re dealing with any of that, I want you to know something. God is with you. And the church, while flawed, is behind you and for you.

The trouble with explaining demon scenes away is there are too many of them.

What’s interesting about this scene is that we don’t know what Jesus is saying, only that people are astonished, for he taught with authority and not as the scribes. The scribes were teachers who interpreted scripture. What Jesus is doing is different. He isn’t appealing to authority; he’s being authority.

“I know who you are,” says the demon. “Have you come to destroy us?”

“Be silent, and come out of him!” Jesus replies.

And it did. That’s authority.

I wore a uniform in high school, but there were special days when I was allowed to wear my own clothes, even hats. On one of those days I walked into the chapel with a hat on. A teacher  told me to take it off. Without missing a beat I said, “Jews wear hats to pray.”

(I would have slapped teenage me.)

I don’t love being told what to do. But the older I get the more I realize I need to be told, because I don’t always know what’s best.

In the ordination process you get asked lots of questions. Somebody asked me this one: What does it mean for Jesus to be Lord and Savior of your life?

“He’s my Savior,” I said, “because he saves me. Not just from sin and death but daily. He comes to me and rescues me. Every single day.”

That part came easy.

“He’s my Lord,” I continued, “because I do things for him I don’t want to do. But I trust He knows what’s best.”

And I felt like a fraud. Because for all my talk, I want to be my own Lord.

But I need a Lord. 

Here’s the deal. We’ll never make Jesus our Lord unless we believe he knows more than we do. Because, as Dallas Willard used to say, “it’s not possible to trust Jesus, or anyone else, in matters we don’t believe him to be competent.”

Would you fly with an incompetent pilot? Let an incompetent surgeon cut your chest open? Do you give authority to anyone you don’t believe is smart?

I doubt it. Do you believe Jesus is smart?

We talk a lot about Jesus’  love, but what about his competence? Does he know how to help us be good engineers or good parents? Does he know what it takes to run run a business or keep a marriage alive?

The earliest Christians believed He did. He was divine, which meant he couldn’t be dumb.

I think it’s tough to claim Jesus as Lord until we’re ready to claim he’s smart. And not just smart, but the smartest man who ever lived.

I was in a doctor’s office some time ago getting a physical. I was going through a rough time and really stressed. As the doctor examined me my blood pressure shot up.

“Do you smoke?” he said.

“No.”

“Drink?”

“Yeah.”

“How much?”

(I told him, but I’m not telling you.)

“Work out?”

“Duh.”

He took the reading again. Still high.

He took the cuff off my arm. “Your father tells me you like to read.”

“I do.”

“What?”

I told him and we talked about books and life for an hour. Then he took the reading again. “You don’t have a blood pressure problem,” he said. “You’re stressed.” He smiled. “Relax.”

And I did, not just then but in the days that followed. His words had power because I trusted his authority. I believed him to be competent.

We may not be demon possessed, but all of us — from time to time — get possessed by something.

Anxiety. Money. Regret.

When this happens, we need a Lord to cast it out.

Don’t be afraid to make Jesus your Lord. He won’t abuse the position; he’ll use it to set you free. From sin. From death. From yourself.

“I know who you are,” says the demon. “ Have you come to destroy us?”

“Oh no,” Jesus says. “Just the opposite.”

we never dance alone

“Jazz class,” she said to me. “Intermediate Dance. It’ll be fun.”

She was my college sweetheart, and the jazz class she spoke of represented the final credits I needed to graduate.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Will there be actual dancing involved?”

“It’s a dance class.”

“Right.”

I should have shut it down. I didn’t need this headache. I needed one class. But you know how love works. She batted her eyes.

“Well,” I said, “maybe we should sign up for Beginner’s Jazz. Intermediate sounds serious.”

“Are you calling me a bad dancer?”

“No,” I said. “I’m calling me a bad dancer.”

Her eyes stopped batting.

“I thought it’d be special to take this class together. But if you feel differently, that’s fine.”

A week later I found myself in Intermediate Jazz.

The professor handed out the syllabus. I read my execution orders. FINAL EXAM: EACH STUDENT WILL CHOREOGRAPH AND PERFORM A SOLO DANCE.

My very first panic attack.

I tried to walk out, but you know what happened. Those eyes started up again. So I stayed, hid in the back row, and tried not to think about stepping out from the group and dancing on my own.

In the Gospel, Jesus constantly asked people to step out from the group.”Follow me,” he said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” In other words, “Come with me and I’ll teach you the ways of God.”

And people did. And they changed the world.

What I love is that it was never supposed to happen.

Jewish Rabbis didn’t go looking for students. Students went looking for a Rabbi. And only the best were allowed to follow. A Rabbi recruiting random students was ridiculous.

It’d be like Harvard Law admitting the first 50 people who liked their Facebook page. It’s not how these things work.

But it’s how Jesus worked. And it’s how he works today. He calls everyone and accepts anyone who’s interested.

The great Irish theologian, Bono, said, “It used to shock me that the Scriptures are brim full of hustlers, murderers, cowards, and adulterers. But now it’s a source of great comfort.”

Me too, Bono. We should hang out.

What a relief that the Bible isn’t about perfect little angels who do everything right. If it was, I couldn’t read it.

Thank God it’s about people—damaged, guilty, scared—whom God sweeps into His arms, heals, and uses to change the world.

Jesus wasn’t turned off by the rap sheets of his first disciples, and he isn’t turned off by yours either. One of the more destructive lies we tell ourselves is that we don’t deserve to be used by God, that something in our past disqualifies us.

No. We serve a God of second chances, a God who uses broken things to make the world whole.

I was talking to a young girl who’d been called some ugly things. I tried to tell her about the good I saw in her, but she stopped me and said, “If you knew the things I did, you wouldn’t like me.”

It hit me: that’s how we feel about God. We believe He loves us, but we don’t believe He likes us. At least not enough to use us. He has priests and missionaries for that, people who aren’t quite so broken.

But it’s not true. Jesus used regular, flawed people to set the world on fire with love.

God doesn’t just love you. He likes you. He chose you. And He’ll use you. The only question is whether you’ll let Him.

Following Jesus doesn’t mean abandoning your life and moving to Calcutta. It can be done right where you are.

“But I don’t know how,” you might say.

Me neither. That’s why Jesus said, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” That’s the good news. We don’t do it on our own. We can’t, which is why we follow.

Which brings me back to love, because when you love someone you’ll follow them anywhere.

Which brings me back to Intermediate Jazz and my final exam.

I’ve never been a shy person but that day I wanted to find a rock and die under it. But I couldn’t, because I needed to graduate.

So I stepped out from the group and danced alone. And for a minute or two, it was OK. But then it happened. My ears stopped working. I couldn’t hear the music. I froze and felt so stupid.

But then someone started clapping to the music. And she kept clapping until I found the beat and finished my dance.

That may seem trivial to you, but it isn’t to me. She rescued me and I’ll never forget it.

Following Jesus will take us into uncomfortable territory. We will be stretched.

But here’s what I know. The God who calls us, goes ahead of us. And when we lose the music, and can’t find the beat, a pair of hands will appear.

And they will clap.

And they will clap.

Until we all finish our dance.

God of the Dark

What are you afraid of? We’re all afraid of something. Illness? Unemployment? Mental math? There are certain existential fears we all share: death, abandonment, the college football rankings. Some fears are universal but many aren’t. Talk to ten people about fear and you’ll hear ten different stories.

We’re all wired differently, which means our fears are too. When I was a kid I had one particularly haunting fear: small spaces. More than once my mother had to reassure strangers that she wasn’t actually kidnapping me, it was just necessary to drag me onto the elevator. Oh, how I hated those chambers of death. Small spaces—dark rooms with no escape—these were the contours of my nightmares.

Years ago I fainted in the middle of the night and awoke on my bathroom floor in total darkness. I couldn’t see and, for a moment, I couldn’t move. I wigged out. My wife remembers. We were dating then and I called her and said, “Get over here, I’m dying!” She came, took care of me, and then told me to stop being dramatic. She tells me that about once a week.

Darkness can be scary. And in a way that is unique to it darkness unnerves even the bravest among us. To enter a dark house, to walk through a dark wood, to wade into dark water, requires infinitely more courage than it does under the safety of light.

But darkness is where the Christian New Year begins in December, that month when our days get short and our nights very long. Advent is the time we prepare for the coming of a baby whose life will burn so bright it’ll light the whole world. But Advent begins—where we all begin—in the dark.

Consider this Advent reading from the gospel of Mark: “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then you will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.”

Most of us, myself included, spend Advent drinking eggnog and buying stuff we don’t need. But Advent offers darkened moons and falling stars and shaken heavens. Why? Because Advent knows that our lives, like the month of December, will get darker before they see light.

One of the people I love most in this world has had a hard year. She said to me, “Ryan, I want to pull the covers over my head and wake up on December 26th.” “Yeah,” I said. “I know that feeling.”

I think Jesus knew it too. Which is why he spoke of darkness. We’re like servants, Jesus says, tending our master’s house while he’s gone. And he might come home at any moment. So we wait and we watch. And there will be days when we do pull the covers over our heads.

And that’s OK. But here’s what we don’t do. We don’t stop believing. We don’t stop hoping. We don’t stop watching for the light. Rob Bell was asked why Advent still matters and he said, “Because cynicism is the new religion of our world.” Which means we better not get our hopes up because it’s never going to get any better.

It’s easy to feel that way when we see the violence in Ferguson and are reminded of how far we still must go if we’re ever going to love one another as brothers and sisters. Sometimes what I fear most is that the darkness will never end.

But then I remember what Jesus said about the sky falling and the heavens shaking and how it would be then that the Son of Man would come in great power and glory. The whole earth may crumble, Jesus says, but the One whose hands fashioned that world, will do no such thing.

I think that’s the heart of Advent. Yes, it’s dark. Yes, it’s easy to believe we’ll be let down in the end and there’s nothing worth waiting for. But Jesus says, “Hold on. Wait. Watch. Because I am coming and I am worth the wait.”

I don’t know what lurks in your darkness. But I know something about it. It’s scary. I also know it might not go away soon. Advent reminds us of that. But Advent says something else. This: God may be light, but He comes in the dark.

There is no dark water He won’t wade into; no dark night He won’t spend at our side. We may be afraid of the dark, but He isn’t. He made the dark and it He moves.

As a teenager I was still frightened of small, dark places. So my dad decided he and I were going to learn to scuba dive. Because if there’s one thing a claustrophobic kid wants to do it’s breathe air out of a tiny hose a hundred feet under water. But we did it.

To pass the course we had to dive in a cold lake with visibility often no more than a few inches in front of our faces. Near the end of the dive, our instructor led us to a tunnel and pointed at it. It was pitch black and I couldn’t see where it ended.

I knew what I had to do. I swam toward it and entered the darkness. And kicked like crazy until I came out the other side. My dad has always praised my courage that day. He was so proud that I went for it. But I’ll tell you the truth. I was scared out of my mind.

The only reason I swam into that tunnel of death was because my father was behind me. I knew that whatever happened, I wouldn’t be alone. I couldn’t see him but I felt him. He was there and I knew he’d be there until we reached the other side.

Christmas is coming. The Christ Child is on His way, coming to bring light to our weary and darkened world. But today is Advent.

So may we experience the season, trusting that our Father in Heaven does not wait to meet us on the side of light, but walks with us now, this day, in the dark.

I Need Help. You?

Dan Clendenin says that “one of the most dangerous spiritual places we can live is in the deluded notion that we are a fully sighted person.”

There’s something to that.

The Westboro Baptist “Church” is famous for protesting the funerals of American soldiers and making hateful statements about all kinds of people. I’ve often wondered what drives those people to such extremes? Probably a lot of complicated factors. But at least one has to be the deep-rooted belief that they see the world rightly. Because folks don’t treat others as worthless unless they actually believe they are.

It’s easy to get into trouble when we think we’ve got it all figured out. We may not spout hate speech but we have our plans and ambitions. Why consult God in prayer? We know who to vote for. Why listen to another perspective? We know what’s right and wrong. Why bother reading scripture?

We know. We know. We know.

But you know what I’ve been learning? The healthiest people don’t just admit they don’t know, they celebrate it. The wise readily admit, “I. Don’t. Know.”

A newspaper once asked, “What’s Wrong with the World?” G.K. Chesterton wrote back, “Dear Sirs: I am.”

If we hope to see by the light, we must first acknowledge we’re in the dark. The first step in any recovery is admitting there’s a problem.

Jesus said he didn’t come for the healthy but the sick. A healthy person doesn’t need a doctor. A sick person does.

The righteous can keep on being righteous. But sinners? We need help.

May today be the day we ask for it.