Sweet Spots

Ideas and messages from Len Sweet.

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Mt Zion’s “Yes!”

Mt. Zion’s “Yes!” Lectionary25 August 201911th Sunday After PentecostJeremiah 1:4-10Psalm 71:1-6Hebrews 12:18-29Luke 13:10-17Text to LifeIt is getting to be the time for the “turning over of the closets” and the “changing of the guard.” You know, time for shorts, swimsuits, tank tops, and flip-flops to make way for “acceptable” school…
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Serpentine Soul

Serpentine SoulStory Lectionary25 August 2019The First Covenant Given to Moses (Exodus 34)The Story of the Bronze Serpent (Numbers 21)Psalm 41: God’s Grace Toward Those Who SinPsalm 103: The Lord’s CompassionPsalm 116: The Lord is GraciousPsalm 147: The Lord Gathers the Outcasts of IsraelThe Scripture Jesus References as a Warning to…
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Pastor’s Prayer for 25 August 2019

O Sacred Head surrounded
By crown of piercing thorn!
O bleeding Head, so wounded,
Reviled and put to scorn!
Death’s pallid hue comes o’er Thee,
The glow of life decays,
Yet angel hosts adore Thee
And tremble as they gaze.
I see Thy strength and vigor
All fading in the strife,
And death, with cruel vigor,
Bereaving Thee of life;
O agony and dying!
O love to sinners free!
Jesus, all grace supplying,
O turn Thy face on me!
In this Thy bitter Passion,
Good Shepherd, think. of me,
With Thy most sweet compassion,
Unworthy though I be;
Beneath Thy Cross abiding,
‘Forever would I rest,
In Thy dear love confiding,
And wilth Thy presence blest.

–Bernard de Clairvaux

Lost Connections

Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Help
by Johann Hari
Published 2019 ISBN: 9781408878682
–Review by Douglas Balzer

Johann Hari is a New York Times bestselling author. In his book Lost Connections, he looks to explain why depression affects so many people and works to uncover the real cause of it and why drug companies do not want us to know.
As a Pastor/Minister, I deal with many people who are in a state of depression regularly. I see the signs, the semiotics, of people’s actions and attitudes that reveal their struggles. For me, Hari’s book has been a reminder of the importance of going further than just saying you are depressed, go to your doctor and get some antidepressants. Knowing the difference between the need for connection and chronic depression are critical. I will advocate for medication when it is appropriate, but I believe we need to be reminded they are not the only means of aiding people dealing with depression.
Now, Hari reminds us that all around us, every day, we see the signs of depression. The advertisements are plentiful, as well as the advocates for pharmaceuticals being the answer to the problem. Our reality is you do not have to look far to find someone who is depressed. 300 million people suffer from depression worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, and those numbers are going up.
Depression is a huge problem, so we need a better sense of what causes it. The theories are plentiful, but in most cases, we do not know precisely why depression happens, or why it is becoming so prevalent in all societies. Most people accept the explanation that it has to do with brain chemistry. Hari asks the question, “What if I told you this might not be the whole picture?”
Here is why I like Hari’s exploration of the issue of depression and anxiety, suggesting there are alternative treatments. In fact, Hari suggests the cutting-edge science that is available to deal with depression and anxiety without medication. Hari presents the argument that not all depression is a biology ailment but result from environmental and physiological influences too. His research and discussions are fascinating in the overall conversation about depression and anxiety, arguing that the key to treating depression is in re-establishing lost connections in our lives.
Here are some crucial lessons we learn from Hari’s book. Let us take a closer look at what Hari says.
First, Hari writes, “A chemical imbalance does not cause depression.”
I personally find this conclusion hard to accept. It is one we should be cautious of making an absolute conclusion. Honestly, while the evidence Hari’s presents are scientifically correct, his findings may only be one side of this story. I have always believed we should listen to all parties when seeking the truth.
In the book, Hari talks about his own struggle with depression. He was diagnosed with depression and took medication on his 20’s. After ten consecutive years of experiencing increasing dosages of medicine, he reached the maximum dosage level. He was still depressed, and he made the realization he needs to try something else. So, doing his own extensive research on the subject, he was shocked by what he had uncovered.
It is a fact; modern society has told us for decades that depression is the result of chemical imbalances in the brain. What Hari found was unusual because no one talked about where the diagnoses of a chemical imbalance in the brain came from. Where did this idea begin? Hari learned there is little evidence to support a chemical imbalance causes depression or that standard antidepressants work.
Irving Kirsch, a Harvard professor, in the ’90s, researched the efficiency of antidepressants. The results of his research were most antidepressants on the market were no more effective than placebos. Kirsch was one of many who investigated the questionable effectiveness of antidepressants. Most of these medications are classified as SSRI’s (serotonin reuptake inhibitors.
The prognosis is these drugs increase serotonin levels in depressed people to normal levels. Hari found the idea that serotonin helps people with depression has little evidence to support it. Pharmaceutical companies just pushed the claim.
Second, the common reasons for depression result from hard life circumstances. So, the question we should be asking is, what is the cause of depression?
Hari’s research leads him to the theory there are nine causes or disconnections in people’s lives that lead to depression, and most of them must deal with difficult life situations.
Disconnect from meaningful work. Human beings need a sense of meaning or purpose in life. People who are lowest in the hierarchy, have the least authority and control are most likely to have depression.
Disconnect from others. Loneliness and a lack of the sense of belonging are reliable indicators for depression. Loneliness is at epidemic levels and growth in human societies worldwide.
Disconnect from meaningful values. The materialistic consumer-driven culture has left people feeling detached from ethical values, which in turn contributes to the development of depression.
Childhood trauma. The more traumatic a person’s childhood is, according to a 1998 study, the more likely they are to suffer from depression and anxiety.
Disconnect from status. Status gaps within larger populations, such as in the US, results in higher rates of depression, especially amongst young men.
Disconnect from nature. It has been found people who live in greener neighborhoods feel less stress and despair than those who do not.
Disconnect from a secure and hopeful future. An example of this is found amid the indigenous people groups around the world. Notably, we see it here in the US among the Native Americans on government-controlled reservations had a shockingly high suicide rate. At reservations where the Native Americans had control of their own laws, elections, police, and schools, the suicide rate was not a problem. They had control over their destiny and were significantly less likely to commit suicide.
Genes. We have learned genetics have a significant influence on depression in individuals. It should be noted genetics only accounts for 37 percent of cases.
Changes in the brain. Yes, neuroplasticity is how the brain changes due to humans’ experiences. Because of neuroplasticity, when people spend more time with thoughts of despair rather than joy, it can strengthen or even create chronic negative feelings.
Third, social prescriptions are a great way to help people with depression by helping people feel valued and connected.
According to Hari’s research, the best solution for depression is a social prescription. Hari is suggesting that rather than turning to medications, doctors are starting to realize the value of social orders. Doctors are looking to help people reconnect with others around them, seek out meaningful work, meaningful values, and give people a chance to overcome trauma from their past.
Primarily or in effect, social prescriptions reconnect the lost connections our busy, materialistic consumer-driven society has robbed from people.
The author, Hari, shares the example of a social prescription a nurse received who was bullied at work and was depressed as a result. The order was for her to work on a project with a small group of similarly disconnected people. They were tasked with turning around an area in London it a garden space.
The group united and were able to complete the task because they had things in common. They were able to reconnect with nature and identify meaningful work which meant something to the neighborhood and to themselves. The result was it improved her mental health. She was able to stop her medications and started her own gardening center.
Lost Connections. Hari’s notion that depression is not a chemical imbalance may seem like a radical proposition, we must admit he makes a convincing case. Our experience tells us that antidepressants do not work for a lot of people, so searching for other ways to help people with depression is critical. Hari’s book Lost Connections makes some excellent suggestions for how people can reconnect and discover meaning to deal with depression.
Lost Connections is a helpful book for pastor/ministers to understand people who are experiencing depression and anxiety, as well as give options for therapy.
Now, go forth and reconnect.

Middle C

I was reading about “Middle C” the other day. It seems that depending on who you ask, the sound of that “note” changes. Unlike God, we try to change everything, yet never really do. You see, when we “change things,” we are really only redefining what already is. We change our hairstyle, yet it’s still us… and in a few days, the hair grows back out, and the “new” is now old. We change where we live, but where ever we move to becomes “home.” We are always trying to change things. Change in itself is not bad. It is really good when God changes things. In reality, He is not changing anything except our hearts. What he is really doing is re-signing our understanding of things as we see them and showing us how He wants us to see them. See, He never changes. No matter how we try to define things, we are just deciding how middle c sounds. What we should be doing is just playing a note and let whatever tone comes out praise Him.

Some videos for you to contemplate:
“He Never Changes” by 4Him

“God Never Changes” by Ana Gabriela

The Faithful Preacher

The Faithful Preacher: Recapturing the Vision of Three Pioneering African-American Pastors
By Thabiti M. Anyabwile

–Review by Landrum P. Leavell III, Th.D.

I chose to read this book for at least a couple of reasons: First, I know the author. He has served as pastor of First Baptist Church, Grand Cayman and has now planted the Anacostia River Church in the Washington, D.C. area. The church I serve is a supporting partner of Anacostia, and Thabiti has preached for us several times. (He has the most silky, FM D.J. voice.) Secondly, I’d never read any compilation of sermons and stories by African-American pastors from the eras covered in this book. From the Foreward:

“You are about to meet three African-American pastors—Lemuel Haynes (1753-1833), Daniel A. Payne (1811-1893), and Francis Grimke (1850-1937). Their pastoral and educational ministries total over 130 years of faithfulness… You will be introduced to them biographically… Then you will meet them in their own words. This book is mainly to be prized as the never-before-gathered collection of African-American writings on the pastoral ministry from a time that spans 150 years and stretches across the terrible Civil War of our nation.

“In this book we who are not African-American receive the double profit of reading not only across a culture but across the centuries—and thus across another culture…these unusual crossings will weave our lives and ministries together in ways we have not foreseen. There are surprises…”

Did you know there was such a thing as “black puritans”? The author describes all three of these brothers like this: “They were puritans. They committed themselves to sound theology in the pulpit, theologically informed practice in the church, and theologically reformed living in the world.”

Did you know that in 1835 the South Carolina Assembly passed a law that said, “[If] any free person of color or slave shall keep any school or other place of instruction for teaching any slave or free person of color to read or write, such free person of color or slave shall be liable to the same fine, imprisonment, and corporal punishment as are by this Act imposed and afflicted upon free persons of color and slaves for teaching slaves to read or write”? This forced the closing of Daniel Payne’s school and led him to work out his vision for an educated black ministry within the northern context of the African American Methodist Episcopal Church and in the leadership of Wilberforce University in Ohio, “the first institution of higher education owned and operated by African-Americans.”

Who knew it was even possible for a former indentured servant, a free black man (Lemuel Haynes) in the eighteenth century to marry a white woman and pastor an all-white congregation in Vermont for over thirty-three years, an unheard of feat for an African-American of his period and ours?

Did you know that Charles Hodge, professor of theology at Princeton Seminary, taught African-American students such as Francis Grimke, who took the great reformed vision of God and spent his life working out its implications for race relations in the church while serving as pastor of 15th Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. for nearly six decades? (10)

The scope of their ministries is definitely related to their longevity. “Their careers span most major periods in American history, including the American Revolution, slavery at the height of its power, the Civil War, Emancipation and Reconstruction, and World War I. That they faced extreme hardships is a given. None of them were born into privilege. All of them either witnessed or tasted the lash of slavery and the racial prejudices that followed that institution. Around them American society changed radically while their commitment to the ministry and their understanding of it remained constant.” (15)

The sermons included by these three pastors cover a wide variety of topics, circumstances, passions, and burdens. For example, Lemuel Haynes’ first published sermon was preached at an ordination service in 1791, based on Hebrews 13:17. He also has a rare funeral sermon (only two known copies—one each at Brown and Howard Universities) for the founding pastor of a new congregation. The exhortations therein are timeless. The longest of Haynes’ sermons cited was his farewell sermon to the congregation he served for thirty years. Beleaguered by constant conflicts with various members over church discipline (“nothing new under the sun!”), recalling 1,500 Sabbaths and 5,500 sermons led him to confess, “I did not realize my attachment to you before the parting time came.” (47) This sermon is a masterpiece of truth, class, and restraint.

Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne was born to free blacks in Charleston, South Carolina, lost both parents before the age of ten, yet found the means to piece together an education replete with classical studies. At age eighteen in a time of prayer, he heard a voice speaking to him: “I have set thee apart to educate thyself in order that thou mayest be an educator of thy people.” It’s amazing, mind-boggling, crazy—pick a word—that Payne at age 19 opened his first school in 1829 with three children and three adults. It closed after a year and he later reopened and “became not only the largest but by far the most influential school for the education of colored people in Charleston, if not in the entire South.” (76) After five years the South Carolina Assembly brought it to a halt.

He moved to New York, becoming licensed and fully ordained in the Lutheran Church at the age of twenty-six. Later switching denominational horses, “Payne’s tireless efforts to reform the character and educational quality of the African-American pastorate earned him the moniker ‘Apostle of Education to the Negro as well as the Apostle to Educators in the AME Church.” He almost single-handedly changed the educational culture of pastors and preachers in the AME Church. Payne felt like the undereducated and ill-prepared minister was a scandal and affliction upon black churches. (78-79)

The three sermons offered cover twenty-two years of Bishop Payne’s service, demonstrating his career-long concern for the integrity of the gospel ministry. He emphasized the education, preparedness, and Christian character of the minister of God as well as his vision for reforming the educational character of both the minister and the congregation. Payne believed the Christian minister should be dedicated to cultivating the life of the mind. He is “to feel and know that he was not to be a mere drone about the hive, a snail in the garden, or a lounger about the house of God—but that he had a mind, and that mind was made for thinking, investigating, discriminating—for study.” It is important to note that Payne challenged the church to prepare men and women for careers in education: “Perhaps there is no greater power in a given community than that of educated women.” (82-83)

Francis J. Grimke was born to a slave mother and her owner, Henry Grimke, the son of an aristocratic slaveholding family in Charleston, South Carolina. When his wife died, Grimke found in Francis’ mother a suitable “wife” and mother for three children. He died when Francis was five, and later he joined the Confederate Army for two years as an officer’s valet to avoid being re-slaved.

One of the greatest lessons to glean from Grimke’s life is his tenacious insistence on both the primacy of the gospel preaching ministry and the need for fully engaging the affairs of the world. In the history of the Christian church, most have leaned one way or the other. Grimke offers a case study in how to hold the tension without being torn in two. His Christian engagement with public pursuits was critical. He helped found the NAACP in 1906, creating educational opportunities, improving race relations, and encouraging suffrage. His public life was especially critical and stinging in his appraisal of the church and “Christian” hypocrisy in the face of injustice.

He hammered emotionalism as yielding little biblical instruction, and also targeted greed for money causing the church to degenerate into “a mere agency for begging.” Grimke lamented the very existence of such a thing as “white churches” and “black churches” (in 1910). He preached about “The Afro-American Pulpit Relation to Race Elevation” in 1892, “Christianity and Race Prejudice” in 1910, and the “Religious Aspect of Reconstruction” in 1919. Check out the sermons.

Reading the book, I was amazed at the degree of educational depth, grasp of language, and scope of gospel application in centuries before our own and cultures not our own—all the while not wanting to be guilty of chronological snobbery or ethnocentricity. I’m grateful for the deep dive into a new and expanded picture of those on whose shoulders we stand.

You’re welcome.

Barking Dogs and Semiotics 101

Barking Dogs and Semiotics 101Lectionary18 August 201910th Sunday After PentecostIsaiah 5:1-7Psalm 79:1-2, 8-19Hebrews 11:29-12:2Luke 12:49-56Text to LifeIn 1814 The Rev. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a minister in Hartford, Connecticut discovered that the young daughter of his next-door neighbor, Alice Cogswell, was deaf. Gallaudet began trying to teach his young neighbor to…
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Pastor’s Prayer for 18 August 2019

Creator of the heavens and earth, we praise your holy name. We pray that the gracious ways of heaven may be made real in the world that we inhabit. We hunger for much more than food today, and we pray that you will satisfy us, and all who have need. We are awed by your forgiving nature, and pray that you would inspire us to forgive each other in like manner. We know that you have created us to be holy, and ask that you keep us from the temptation of living a life which would tarnish your image within us. You have created a world that is holy, and your glory and power are displayed in many wonderful ways; we give thanks for the blessings of our lives even as we seek to live into the eternity of yours. Amen.

–Moravian Prayer