Friday, October 1, 2021

A Missionary in Japan with ADHD (Updated)


This morning I had the pleasure of reconnecting with Pastor Thomas Magnuson, one of the pastors at Turning Point Church in Lacey WA--one of my partner churches. Recently Thomas and I found out that we had something in common which has served as a kind of a bond, we both struggle with adult Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

I have been learning a lot about ADHD recently. I was diagnosed with it as a child, but assumed I had grown out of it--or that I had been saved from it as a teenager around the time I became a Christian. Although there were profound changes in my life and attitude after becoming a Christian, looking back with humility, I now see that I never fully escaped the clutches of this developmental disability. 

I found many ways to compensate for this disability, and at various times throughout my life I have had seasons of productivity and achievement--interspersed with burn-out and failure. Reflecting on these experiences, many of them were as a direct result of my failure to properly address the executive function deficits I have as an adult sufferer of ADHD.

For the past week or so, I have vociferously been consuming the lectures and writings of Dr. Russell Barkley on ADHD (very good Youtube video to start with). Barkley argues that ADHD, rather than simply being an attention deficiency, is rather a impairment of executive functions--"Those capacities for self control that allow us to sustain action and toward a goal." ADHD delay's and inhibits the development of what Barkley calls the five executive functions. These include, Inhibition of Behavior, Visual Imagery (non-verbal working memory[hindsight, foresight, and sense of time]), Self Talk (verbal working memory), Emotional Control, and Planning and Problem solving. Rather than going into a detailed explanation of the above, if you have more interest, please feel free to click on the links and go down the rabbit trail on YouTube.

In my case, I have struggled the greatest throughout my life with the impulsiveness, difficulty to control my emotions, and a lack of a sense of time. As Dr. Barkley points out, these are deficits, and although they can be viewed as having some positive traits by some, they are only so with significant mental effort and compensation in other places.

For example, impulsiveness could be a gateway to adventure, entrepreneurism and openness to new cultures and experiences with the right boundaries. Difficulty controlling emotions in the right situation could be channeled into being more 'authentic,' and vulnerable, supposedly traits that are in vogue. Time blindness allows people with ADHD to achieve a kind of hyper-focus around things that interest them or towards manual tasks, making them excellent researchers or craftsmen in the right circumstances. All of these come with the caveat that in order to channel the deficiency into a strength rather than a weakness requires a great deal of effort for the person with ADHD, and understanding from the people around them.

Exacerbated by the social isolation brought on by COVID, back in May, I sent this e-mail out to a psychiatrist here in Tokyo. 

"As a child I was diagnosed and treated for a brief period of time for ADD/ADHD. During middle school I ceased taking the prescriptions I was given. I have managed to develop life patterns to achieve my goals in spite of my difficulties with attention, but over the past year in lockdown it has been increasingly difficult to keep up with tasks and pursue my career goals in isolation. I would like to discuss what possible treatments there might be available for someone in Japan with Adult ADHD."

I was looking for a way to treat my ADHD here in Japan, only to find out that the medicines used in North America and Europe to effectively treat adult ADHD are not available here in Japan. As such, I have begun making a lot of life changes to compensate for my deficiencies.

Barkley suggests five major strategies for managing one's ADHD symptoms. The first is to make mental information physical--in my case, this means creating and living by to-do lists, journaling, and generally writing down anything that comes into my mind; because if I don't, there is a good chance I will likely forget it long before acting on it. I have an elderly person's working memory--so I need to employ similar strategies that your grandfather or grandmother uses to remember things.

Secondly, I need to make time physical. That means using clocks, timers, and having calendars visible at all times. I have recently purchased several Time Timers and have employed them with great effect to help me follow the Pomodoro Method while studying Japanese Kanji. I'm thankful for my weekly check-ins with my Converge leaders and the additional accountability that affords me to stay on task and work towards accomplishing my goals.

The third strategy Barkley suggests is breaking down larger tasks into smaller, more easily accomplishable ones. Because of my time blindness, I have a hard time prioritizing important tasks, and bigger, seemingly insurmountable tasks get pushed off into the future. In order to engage those tasks more effectively, I need to break them down into steps that are easier to accomplish. 

The fourth, and one of the hardest for me to implement personally is to make motivation external. For children with ADHD, parents can create incentives--either rewards or punishments for their children to work towards. This is harder to implement personally as an adult. Possible rewards I could incentivize myself with would be some special meal or reward if I accomplish one of the larger goals I am working towards.

Finally, number five is understanding that the executive system has a limited fuel tank. This is one of the keys for myself, as when that system runs out of fuel is when I become impulsive or overly emotional. I recalled a trip where I drove across the country all day to attend a conference all in Japanese, and by the end of the day I was extremely emotionally frazzled--there wasn't anything about the content of the conference itself that should have evoked the emotional response I was displaying; except that I had lost the willpower to keep my emotions to myself. 

I have been doing a lot of things to increase the size of this fuel tank--trying to effectively deal with my stress and become more healthy. I have lost almost 100 pounds over the past two years, fasting and cutting carbs has helped me feel much more in control of my emotions, I have been addressing vitamin deficiencies, and have been trying to add more exercise and time outside--all of which are naturally increase dopamine in the brain, helping to manage ADHD symptoms more effectively. 

Beyond that though, I need to make those around me aware of my struggle. For a long time I have been carrying this burden alone. I am really grateful that God brought someone into my life that understands my limitations and has been incredibly patient with me. That is also partly why I am writing this blog post, I feel like I almost need to walk around with a shirt on that says, "Sorry, I have ADHD, please be patient with me, I'm doing my best." 

My struggle with ADHD and lack of effectively managing its symptoms has had a massively detrimental effect on the quality of my life these past nearly forty years. I have had to work incredibly hard to achieve my goals, maintain friendships, develop self control and healthy habits. I have failed too many times to count--resulting in failure in school, work, relationships and my own personal growth.

I am so thankful for the grace of God, and the many patient and loving people God has put in my life, some who have had to show extreme patience and long-suffering. God hasn't removed this thorn in my flesh, despite my prayers--and so I want to do my best to glorify Him through acknowledging my weakness--and in vulnerability and humility sharing that weakness with you. This is not an excuse for sin or failure; I'm not trying to shift blame from myself onto an illness; instead, I am acknowledging that this illness is part of who I am, and knowing that, asking for a greater measure of patience with me as I seek to follow God's calling on my life with the mind, and all its limitations, that He has given me.

My conversation with Thomas this morning was encouraging, and I hope my sharing this with you is also encouraging. I am learning more about myself, and my struggles, and I hope that by sharing them with you, you can understand me better. Please feel free to reach out if you would like to talk about this issue in general or about something related to it in specific.

I've already written a lot--there are a lot of implications to consider as a Christian and a missionary in Japan with a developmental disability, but hopefully this is a jumping board into writing about those more in depth in the future.

Update: Thank you everyone who has reached out with words of encouragement, concern, and advice. I am thankful for the support of my churches and mission agency. I have several good leads on different possible treatments here in Japan. 

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

An Open Letter to My Family about Health

Hello Family, 

I never got to know Grandma Jean as well as I would have liked. Unlike my cousins I grew up on the other side of the country rather than across town--and I have always been a little jealous of their closeness with our late grandparents.

While I was in my senior year at the University of Washington, grandma lost a protracted battle with health complications resulting from what I know understand to be Metabolic Syndrome. Like almost all of the adults in my extended family, my grandmother struggled with her weight--and as she got older this lead to diabetes and heart problems.

Over the past few years I have been making significant progress in addressing my own metabolic issues, and have begun to understand how to be more healthy with my genetic disposition towards insulin resistance and the danger of developing the same metabolic syndrome that took the life of my grandmother at the age of 74, twenty years sooner than her husband. 

I do think that this disposition towards developing insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome is partly inherited through my matrilineal line--and so this is being largely written to the Arends, Bedells, and Smiths that share Grandma Jean's Juneau DNA. 

People that are predisposed to metabolic syndrome are at greater risk for developing diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure--which all significantly decrease life expectancy, as well as quality of life in old age.

I don't know anyone in my family, with Grandma Jean's DNA, with possible exception of my extremely athletic cousin Greg, who doesn't have either the warning signs of insulin resistance, or is at some stage of developing into a full blown case metabolic syndrome right now. 

The first step in developing metabolic syndrome is insulin resistance. The first major sign of this is fat accumulation around the mid-section. There are a lot of theories as to how one develops insulin resistance, but the important thing to know, is that your hormones are no longer working properly, and rather than burning your body's fat for fuel, it has transitioned into a mode where it becomes increasingly difficult to use existing fat stores for fuel, instead preferring new energy--meaning that you will be hungry, despite likely eating more calories than your body needs. 

Once you develop insulin resistance, it becomes increasingly more likely to develop into more serious health issues.

I'm writing this, because I wish someone would have shared with me, years ago, what I am about to share with you--because I believe that if Grandma Jean had heard it she could have lived a much longer and healthier life--and I want that for you too.

You can reverse Insulin Resistance and the early stages of Metabolic Syndrome by adopting some or all of these following pieces of advice:

1. Start intermittent fasting. You may think it is impossible, as you are likely always hungry as a result of your insulin resistance, but adopting intermittent fasting will help you gain control over your cravings and what you choose to eat. I suggest starting by narrowing your eating window. In my case, I eat my first meal at 11am, and have dinner before 7, meaning that for 16 hours a day, I am not eating. 

This prolonged period where I am not eating, allows the insulin levels in my body to drop, and for my body to start using its own fat as fuel. There are different models of intermittent fasting, but the most important thing is that you limit the number of times in a day and the window you eat in, so that you give your body more time to shift gears.

2. Stop drinking alcohol. The liver is the most important organ in weight-loss. When you drink alcohol, you are effectively putting something in your body which the liver has to spend hours (possibly even an entire day) to process, meaning that while it is processing alcohol, it cannot effectively burn fat. So long as you are ingesting alcohol of any kind, your liver will be under significant added stress, meaning that it cannot do its job normally.

3. Avoid added sugar. This goes without saying, but one of the biggest factors in developing insulin resistance is a consistently high insulin level. When I was growing up, it was common to start the day with a sugary bowl of cereal, have juice and fruits at school, come home and have cookies or snacks, have more insulin inducing food at dinner, and then have a dessert before bed. 

That means that in a given day, I was spiking my blood sugar more than half a dozen times, from sun-up to sun-down... and at no time during that period was I allowing my insulin levels to drop. Keeping up this pattern for years is what wrecked my hormones and helped me to develop insulin resistance. Simply avoiding sugary snacks, drinks, and desserts alone would have gone a long way towards narrowing my eating window and would have helped me to avoid developing the hormonal problems that I did.

4. Try the Ketogenic Diet. All carbohydrates are processed by the body as sugars. Grains, starches, etc. all become sugar in the body--so limiting the consumption of carbohydrates will help to lower your insulin levels and possibly reverse your insulin resistance. If you are going to consider a diet that works well at addressing these issues while also helping you feel satiated and maintaining a lot of energy, I have personally had a lot of success with Keto--which synergizes well with intermittent fasting and the other advice above.

Keto is not strictly a low carb diet. Keto is a high fat, medium protein, low carb diet. Meaning that the bulk of one's calories are going to come from healthy fats like butter, avocados, coconut oil, and olive oil. A Keto diet should be about 60% fat, 35% protein, and 5% carbs.

5. Cut all industrial seed oils from your diet. Not all fats are created equal. In fact, modern industrial seed oils are just as bad, or worse than added sugar. Industrial seed oils (corn oil, canola oil, Crisco, margarine, grapeseed oil, sunflower oil, soya oil, etc.) are high in Omega-6 fatty acids, which prevent the body from effectively burning fat, and the byproduct of their highly oxidized nature is diminished life expectancy. Unfortunately, these modern industrial seed oils are in almost everything--almost all processed food, fast food, etc. contains high amounts of unhealthy industrial seed oils. 30% of the average American's diet now consists of calories from seed oils. 

By adopting some or all of these recommendations, you will likely gain a degree of control over your diet, hunger and satiety that you never knew was possible. In addition, you could, if you are fortunate, completely reverse the effects of the onset of metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance.  

Notice I did not say anything about counting calories or exercise. During the past two years I have not counted any calories or changed my largely sedentary lifestyle to a major degree--it is possible to reverse metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance and lose weight without an expensive gym or weight watchers membership. 

Over the past two years I have lost over 80lbs following these points--albeit inconsistently--and I probably could have lost a lot more had I known at the beginning of this journey what I know now.

Following these has meant that I have had to start cooking most of my own meals, paying a lot more attention to what I am putting in my body. It hasn't been easy, but it has been liberating.

A few positive side effects in addition to losing weight: I have gained more confidence, I am less ashamed of my body, I no longer have acid reflux or heartburn at night, I sleep better, I wake up more alert, I have better mental clarity, I have more energy, I have less mood swings, I have better digestion, I have less aches and pains in my feet and joints--and best of all, I am no longer considered clinically obese. 

I just want you to know that I love you, and that I want you to live long and healthy lives as well.

Finally, God loves you, and sent his son Jesus to die on a criminal's cross in your place as a ransom for your sins. You can have forgiveness and a  personal relationship with God, your creator, if you repent from your sins and put your faith in Jesus. Regardless of how long you live, you will someday be face to face with your creator, and I pray that if you haven't already done so, you would accept his free gift of salvation for yourself today.

Love,

Ian

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Everything Takes Longer in Japan

Southern Chiba in August.

A Monday morning scribble.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend a newer international church plant in Tokyo. After the service I had several really good conversations. In attendance was a young American military service member and his Italian wife. They had been in Japan for over a year and lamented their inability to build any significant friendships with their Japanese neighbors in that time. 

The young man said the situation was especially discouraging for his Italian wife, who was used to much warmer relationships in her native Italy--and that Japan hadn't been everything they hoped it would be.

They understood that many Japanese people are very private, and while hospitable, it takes a long time for people to warm up enough to open up their lives for friendship. This has only been compounded by the current global pandemic and the Japanese cultural response to it.

Many missionaries to Japan find that even after years, and possibly decades, they can count the number of meaningful friendships they have with Japanese people--Christians and non-Christians, on two hands. 

Some missionaries, especially those with strong marriages and children to dote on, fare better than others with the relational isolation--in fact, children's friends and classmates often open doors to friendships with similarly aged Japanese non-Christians and people in the neighborhood. 

Single missionaries to Japan may have the hardest time with isolation and the discouragement and potential mental, emotional, and spiritual problems that come with it. This has been my experience--and I have seen evidence of the same in almost every other single missionary to Japan I have met.

In order to get past the politeness and pleasantries in Japan--the most important factor is time. Everything takes longer in Japan--at least when it comes to relationships, decision making, and consensus building.

Many missionaries to Japan come from cultures where attitudes towards time are very different than those of the Japanese. Americans want things to be instantaneous--we have grown accustomed to fast food, instant video streaming via Netflix, and drive-through ATMs. 

Talking with the service member yesterday, he noted how his daughter, a military brat, had a significantly shortened time preference towards making friendships because of how much they moved around for his career. Uprooted people usually do not have the luxury of taking a lot of time to try to build a relational network around them--which is one of the dynamics I have observed at play in a lot of younger more international churches. 

Tokyo is a place with a lot of churn--people coming and going, uprooted and unrooted people. Of all of the places in Japan, this is the place with the cultural and time preferences closest to those in the West--and even then, the gap often seems to be very vast.

The most obvious way to narrow that gap is greater mastery of the Japanese language. Unless you're lucky enough to make some friends with some bilingual Japanese, the odds of developing deep and meaningful relationships without a high level of fluency in Japanese are very low. That too takes time.

It has been nine years since I was appointed a missionary with Converge, and seven years since I first arrived in Japan. After all of that time, I am not where I want to be--my Japanese is still not where it needs to be, I don't have the meaningful relationships I would have hoped to have by now, and I have very little to show in the way of ministry successes.

It doesn't surprise me that some of my supporters and supporting churches have gotten the seven-year-itch. However, I need to keep reminding myself that Japan doesn't just have a reputation for being a hard place to serve as a missionary--it is a hard place to serve as a missionary. I knew that before ever being appointed with Converge. I had counted the cost, I knew there was a very real possibility that I would be in for a hard, lonely, seemingly fruitless season--at least initially. 

Please pray that I would continue to press on and persevere despite the discouragement I have received. Things take longer here in Japan--and I would hate to think of giving up just before reaching a season of breakthrough just because of how hard things are.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

The Hole in the Bucket: Demographics and the future of the Japanese Church

Be fruitful and multiply.
 Another scribble I have been meaning to write for a while.

Japan is in the midst of a demographic crisis--birthrates are far below replacement levels, and unlike many other developed nations, Japan has chosen not to open its borders to globalization and mass immigration. The current population of over 120 million is projected to be less than 90 million within the next quarter of a century. Japan isn't unique in its demographic woes, but it does present a unique challenge to the church.

Conservative estimates of the Evangelical church in Japan put it at about 0.2% of the population--and based on currently available data, the Evangelical church in Japan is declining numerically faster than the general population--meaning that as a percentage of the population, the church in Japan is losing its foothold.

This also presents a difficult challenge for missionaries to Japan. To use a simple metaphor, missionaries are tasked with the very Sisyphean role of trying to fill a bucket with a gaping hole in the bottom. Without addressing significant trends and dysfunction in the existing Japanese church, it seems unlikely that more than a bare remnant of the Japanese church will remain in the coming decades.

To sum the issue up very succinctly, Japanese Christians are getting married late, often to non-Christians, failing to have more than one or two children, and not catechizing them and keeping them in the church. I'm sure reading this sentence, you may think, 'well that pretty well describes the trends I have seen in my church or denomination here in XYZ country.' And you probably wouldn't be wrong.

The difference with Japan, is that the church is currently operating on a razor thin margin as it is. With churches averaging between twenty and thirty members, often struggling to pay the rent, many are facing the very real possibility of closing in the coming decades--this has only been exasperated by the effects of the current global pandemic. 

This has led me to spend a lot of time thinking about how a missionary like myself can address the spiritual and physician fertility issues within the Japanese church. Talking with Japanese pastors, they are well aware of the issue, but feel that it is one that they cannot touch because it is filled with land-mines.

How does a western missionary encourage young Japanese Christians to pursue marriage sooner rather than later? (Tangentially, how does the western missionary encourage young Japanese Christian women to choose motherhood and raising Christian children over spending her youth pursuing an education and a career).

How does a western missionary encourage young Japanese Christians to court and marry other Christians? 

How does a western missionary encourage young Japanese Christians to start trying to have children while they are still young, fertile, and energetic enough to raise more than two children? 

How does a western missionary encourage young Japanese Christians to have more than two children--ideally four or five? 

How does a western missionary encourage Japanese Christians to embrace home-schooling and Christian schools rather than sending their children to public schools? 

How does a western missionary encourage the kind of family life and worship that creates multi-generation Christian families.

How does a western missionary answer the frequently cited reasons for not doing these things, i.e. children are expensive, education is expensive, both parents need to work, you can do that because you are a missionary, Japanese pastors (and Christians) are poor, there isn't any time to home-school, raising more than two children in Japan is hard, not sending children to public school would mean they are not able to be functioning members of Japanese society, not letting children participate in bukatsu (club activities which usually take place on Sunday mornings) would be cruel, and the numerous other objections to any kind of action direct or indirect that could help to plug this hole?

There are no easy answers. Many western missionaries in recent decades have chosen to start new church plants rather than working directly with traditional Japanese churches as a result of facing these issues and feeling a sense of helplessness and futility in trying to help the Japanese church navigate them. These issues are not going to go away, but will only become more apparent in the coming decades.

Here is the takeaway I would like to leave you with, if the Japanese church were able to find a solution to these above listed issues and plug the hole in the bucket, there is a very real possibility that by simply having more children and raising them to follow Jesus, the Japanese church could grow as a percentage of the population by virtue of the overall population continuing its decline. 

If somehow, the Japanese church were able to plug the hole in the bucket, we could easily see the Japanese Evangelical church become 3-5% of the Japanese population in our lifetimes. 

Disclaimer. These views are not representative of Converge, the Japan Baptist Church Association or any of my individual supporters or supporting churches. They are personal musings, and not position papers. 

Friday, September 10, 2021

Shikata Ga Nai: Fatalism and Defeatism in the Japanese Church

This isn't a full length exploration, more of a scribble, but something I have been thinking about this morning. 

Japan has at times been been called the graveyard of missionaries--many Western missionaries to Japan fail to return after their first or second terms. While in graduate school I read a few articles on missionary attrition--some of the reasons for missionaries leaving the field include finances, family problems, marriage problems, and personal sin. But surprisingly, one of the most often cited reason for people leaving the mission field was conflict with teams and local partners. 

Japanese culture and American culture cannot be more different--often when using different anthropological metrics to evaluate cultures, they are often on the opposite extremes. This probably has a lot to do with why many missionaries to Japan seem to wash out. It is very difficult to find a local church partner that understands and appreciates those differences, and is able to work well with missionaries from around the world.

One particular cultural difference that I believe drives a wedge more deeply than any other is the difference in attitudes between Japanese and American culture as it pertains to Risk Aversion. Risk Aversion is a metric used to evaluate how different individuals and cultures relate to risk and change. To avoid going to long in the mouth, in a nut shell, American culture prizes the risk taking entrepreneur, explorer, and inventor; while Japanese culture has historically prized the tradition and consistency and avoided risky ventures. 

A common refrain a Western missionary to Japan will hear from his partner is, "Shikata Ga Nai,' which translates literally as, "there is nothing that can be done,' but has a more fatalistic and defeatist nuance. Change is just something that cannot occur in Japan--there is nothing that can be done about it. It is a statement of unbelief.

When suggesting possible ways to help the Japanese church become more healthy, or individual Christians to grow in their own faith, it is common to hear a laundry list of excuses. Here are a few examples that will likely come up over and over again.

"We tried that before and it didn't work."

"Japanese people are just too busy."

"We don't want to seem like a cult."

"That is an American way of thinking, this is Japan."

It is hard enough when there is opposition to the Gospel and the sincere desire of the missionary to share their faith and be fruitful from outside of the church--but what many missionaries are unprepared for is the inertia and opposition to their ministry from those that should be their allies and partners.

 Almost all efforts to push back on this deep seated fatalism and defeatism are returned with, 'you are not Japanese, you do not understand.' There is only so much of that that a person can put up with before becoming defeatist themselves. 

I don't have any answers other than to beg for your prayers for a fresh move of the Holy Spirit in the Japanese church. There are of course outliers to the general trend, and I would appreciate your prayers as I search for partnerships with Japanese churches and leaders who are willing to take risks and try new things.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

In the Carpenter's Hands

"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come." -2 Corinthians 5:17

For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated with guitars. Despite my grandmother being musically gifted, when it comes to playing instruments I am all thumbs. That hasn't stopped me from buying, and eventually selling a small orchestra worth of stringed instruments.
Recently repainted bass.

Over the course of the past few years I have tried to develop a couple of new skills and hobbies--whether it is tending a small vegetable patch or curing and smoking some bacon. If you have been following my social media, recently I have been spending a lot of time refurbishing (if you can call it that) old and neglected guitars and basses.

A few streams of thought came together in my head when I began to pursue this most recent interest. As a 'Smith,' I come from a long line of craftsmen, carpenters, and machinists. There is something in my DNA that connects deeply with woodworking. I had many opportunities to learn these skills as a child from my father, but regretfully didn't take them. Making up for lost time I have been spending a lot of my free time trying to learn things like soldering, painting, sanding, basic carpentry etc.

One of my person maxims is that 'missionaries should be interesting people'--one's hobbies and interests are going to have a huge impact on the kinds of people they are going to come in contact with and interact with. As a missionary, I want to be able to meet and share the love of Jesus with all kinds of people--not just those who are willing to set foot into the door of a church.

Japanese people in particular tend to build their friendship networks around their hobbies and interests--that means in order to connect with and build relationships with more people, I need to cultivate interests that overlap with Japanese people outside of the church.

Something like curing and smoking bacon is fairly niche, although undoubtedly a great way to develop friendships--but music is more transcendent. One of my hopes in cultivating this hobby is that it will increase opportunities to interact with both Christians and non-Christians who are passionate about music.

Another selfish reason I have been working on these guitars is that I have been using it to understand better how my mind, and for that matter, my attention works. As a young child I was diagnosed with ADHD, and although I haven't thought about it much since then, I recently did a deep dive into adult ADHD and strategies for thriving.

Replacing a volume pot.
In Japan, pharmacological treatments for adult ADHD are fairly limited, meaning that in order to thrive I need to develop strategies to maintain and focus my attention. This past year of lockdown has been especially tough for me--as being at home has meant being bombarded with distractions, but also lacking a lot of the structures I have used in the past to cope with my attention issues. It isn't possible to go park myself at a cafe for hours the way I used to when I needed to get work done.

If anything, I have realized I can achieve an intense amount of focus, almost a zen-like state when working with my hands (probably going back to the DNA thing), and get caught up in a project, losing all track of time. Obviously a good book, or a new campaign of Civilization VI has a similar effect on me--but it has gotten me thinking a lot more about how to harness that focus onto where I need it--whether that is pursuing ministry goals or strengthening my Japanese.

Jesus was a carpenter, Paul himself was a tent maker, and he encourage Christian men to engage in work with their hands--I think that as much as possible, Christian men should pursue creative and productive hobbies and interests that they can then use to bless others. There is something grounding and refreshing about making something--or remaking something. 

Too much of what passes for modern day hobbies is purely consumption based. One of the early church fathers said that we do good works, because we are imitating God whose every work is good. God is a creator, and Christians should pursue interests that are creative.

Finally, I have been learning a lot of spiritual lessons as a result of pursuing this hobby. Just as Jesus often used agrarian and carpentry related metaphors in his parables and teachings, there are a lot of things that God has been teaching me through fixing up these guitars. Guitars are lovingly made precision tools, created to make beautiful music. When they leave the factory they are without blemish and usually ready to be used.

Ready to play music again.

Over time instruments get broken in--and sometimes completely broken. Scratches, rust, cracks, water damage, electrical problems; some of it because of neglect, some of it because of abuse--intentional or otherwise. There are a lot of parallels to the human condition and our fallen state.

Interestingly, in order to remove scratches in paint or a pick guard, the process is to add many more scratches. By using different grades of sandpaper, gradually working from courser grades up to finer grades, one polishes out the scratches. Just like the refining fire of sanctification, God disciplines those that he loves. Through the furnace of suffering and discipline, God is forming those that believe in Him more and more into the image of Christ--but not without adversity.

There is an incredibly satisfying feeling in taking something that was on a trash-heap and refurbishing it into something that can make beautiful music to the Lord. In the same way, God, in Christ, is taking us and through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit making us into true worshipers, capable of singing praises to the Lord.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Three Seasons in the Life of a Church, a Parable

First Swedish Baptist Seattle--now a parking lot.
In the early 1920's, a young Preacher moved in to town. There were already several other churches whose membership included many of the community's influential and affluent. These churches were on the decline though, because they had embraced a contemporary false gospel known as the Social Gospel, which taught that all social evils could be eradicated by pursuing progressive politics and social causes with a religious fervor--while rejecting the supernatural power of the Gospel and the authority of scripture.

This young Preacher set about starting a Bible study in his home and began inviting his neighbors to come. The people that gathered were a motley crew with innumerable problems and idiosyncrasies. A veritable island of misfit toys. Alcoholics, single mothers, rebellious youth, men and women down on their luck and low on hope--in short, just the kind of people Jesus came to save.

The priests and pastors from the more enlightened churches in town accused the Preacher of being anti-intellectual; of rejecting science and promoting ignorance. A miraculous thing began to happen though. As these people met together and opened God's Word, the Holy Spirit began to change people's hearts one by one. They began to understand their sin and their need for a Savior. One by one, they repented and were baptized.

As years went by, they moved from that living room into a rented storefront. Previously rebellious young men got jobs and started families, single mothers got (re)married to some of the men in the church, some people who had previously been addicted to drugs or alcohol, now freed from that bondage were able to pursue higher education or start their own businesses.

Families began to form, and the church began bursting at the seams with children. People began to pool their money together to buy property in their community to build a church. God's blessings had been poured out and was manifested in the construction of a beautiful new church near the center of town. As attendance in the mainline churches began to dwindle as they moved farther and farther away from Biblical Christianity, more and more people hungry for the Word of God found refuge in the new church.

That isn't to say everything was perfect. It is hard to unlearn generations of sinfulness in a single lifetime. Some of the men and women in the church still struggled with prejudices, with their sin natures. Their families were not perfect either--many who had been wonderfully saved by the power of the Gospel turned out to be imperfect parents. There was no small amount of religious hypocrisy in the church or among its members.

The church continued to grow and began numerous ministries and programs. The staff of the church grew too--the founding Pastor still preached fiery evangelistic sermons, but there grew a craving among the members for something more substantive, something more intellectual.

Upon the retirement of the Preacher in the 1950's, the church, now filled with respectable middle class people, called a Pastor from a their denomination's seminary. The man came with academic accolades and was almost universally approved of by the church members--but some still yearned for earlier times when the emphasis had been on soul winning.

The children grew up too. They were disconnected from the poverty, substance abuse and difficulties that their parent's generation had faced. When they looked around their church, they didn't see repentant sinners saved by God's grace, instead, they saw respectable people--leaders in the community, business owners, public servants, teachers.

The children of this generation grew up under good Bible teaching. Their summers were filled with camp and Vacation Bible School. The church supported soup kitchens, sent missionaries to far away lands and even started their own Bible College together with other churches from their denomination.

The Pastor's deep theological sermons drew parishioners from other churches, and the membership soon outgrew the modest church in the center of downtown. The Pastor and the church elders proposed that the church purchase property in a nearby suburb so they could build a larger facility, under the pretext that the facility would allow them to continue developing more programs and ministries.

Many of the parishioners had already moved to the suburbs, and it had become more and more difficult to accommodate the church in the city--parking was scarce and and the neighborhood in which the church resided was increasingly becoming more diverse--and in the views of some of the members, dangerous.

Aside from a few of the older members who still had memories of the diverse origins of the church few protested the sale of the downtown church building to a property developer--with the money they got from the sale they were able to build a world class facility in the nearby suburb. It didn't matter that the suburb was socioeconomically homogeneous--the deal, the potential was just too great to pass up.

By all apparent metrics, the move to the suburbs was a resounding success. Membership grew, tithing grew, programs and ministries abounded. Many of the young men and women from the church went on short-term mission trips and attended the Bible College that the church supported.

The church continued to support outreach ministries in downtown--but the membership of the church was now wholly divorced from the experiences of the the people that just one generation earlier they had stood shoulder to shoulder with. Instead they became more concerned with retirement savings, vacation cruises and their grand-children's college funds--respectable, middle class idolatry.

Something began to happen in the 1980's though--the church began to grey. According to the church growth gurus, they had done everything right--they had a beautiful facility, a gifted Pastor, great programs, but for some reason they began to lose the youth at an alarming rate.

Parents petitioned the church to appoint a Youth Pastor, and to redirect money from existing ministries into prioritizing a fun and engaging experience for their children and grandchildren. Cuts had to be made to the church budget--their street evangelism in the city had long since ceased, so they no longer saw any reason to continue supporting the soup kitchen, the homeless shelter and the after school and mentoring programs that had been at the heart of their outreach only a few decades earlier.

Instead they redirected all their resources into entertaining and coddling the children of the church members. The Youth Pastor the church hired was smooth and charismatic, he made Bible stories relevant to the lives of the young people, the music and production qualities for the youth events were top notch. These sensibilities began to find their way into the corporate worship of the church as well.

At the same time, older members of the church began engaging in the ongoing culture war around the issues of abortion and sexuality. Despite the rife hypocrisy of the lives of some of the church members, they put on respectability while gathered together on Sundays. Their children however knew the truth of their lives behind closed doors. This created cognitive dissonance in the minds and hearts of many of the church's young people.

Rather than being a counter-cultural outpost of the Kingdom of God on earth, they instead began to see their parent's church as part of a patriarchal system of oppression. They noticed the distinct lack of the poor, of diversity. The youth who had been coddled with feel good messaging in an ethnically and economically homogeneous community began to cry fowl.

With the retirement of the Pastor, the Youth Pastor took his place--replacing exegetical sermons on Justification and Grace with smooth lectures on Justice and Reconciliation. The words were imbibed with new meaning, gleaned from the latest academic literature. While some of the older church members began to likewise cry fowl, the younger parishioners ate it up--seemingly unaware of the contradictions and hypocrisy in their own lives, nor the dangers and supernatural impotency of the new ideology they had become champions of.

Though they replaced the words Bible Study with a more palatable terms like Missional Community--they often continue to be just as socioeconomically and culturally homogeneous as their parents had been. They accused other churches of being anti-intellectual, bigoted, propagators of oppression and systematic injustice, all the while harboring prejudice and a judgmental spirit in their own hearts towards those who were politically, ideologically, or economically different from themselves.

As the 19th century evangelist Sam Porter Jones is famous for saying, 'The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.'

However, no matter how hard the Youth Pastor tried, no matter how quickly he embraced the latest intellectual or ideological trends he could not keep the people from leaving and the church from declining.

Some will leave to seek more a more biblically and doctrinally faithful church, others will leave the faith all together. Soon the cost of operating the facility and paying salaries will outstrip the tithes of the dwindling number of  ideologically homogeneous members--in the end the Youth Pastor will have to preside over the funeral of the church itself.

And somewhere there is a young Preacher starting a Bible Study in his living room.

***

The terminology may have changed, but the church in this parable had embraced the heresy of the Social Gospel of the 1920's, under the new moniker of Social Justice--and just as the mainline denominations have seen their membership and relevance decline over the past century, while all the while clamoring to stay in sync with the spirit of the age--so will Evangelicalism so long as we do not chart a different course forward, learning from the mistakes of the past.

Otherwise the cycle will repeat itself. Hard times create strong men, strong men create good times. Good times create weak men, weak men create hard times.

Evangelicalism was the life raft from the capsizing of mainline Protestantism in the early 20th Century, as those churches embraced political and religious progressivism, socialism, and Marxism. The Gospel will remain even as churches, denominations, and movements die. Should Evangelicalism perish in our generation, a new movement will rise up to faithfully steward the Gospel to the next generation. The gates of hell will not overcome Christ's church. We have been here before, we could very well be here again. As the old adage goes, those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it.

Maranatha.