Saturday, August 16, 2014

Truth and Meaning: What Can We Do About Depression?


We are all struggling to understand the apparent suicide of actor/comedian Robin Williams. How could someone with his talents and resources fail to cope with depression so much that he would take his own life? What can we do to fight this terrible illness before it takes the life of someone we know? The fact is that people who suffer from depression kill themselves every day. According to the World Health Organization, depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. Statistics estimate that around 30,000 Americans commit suicide each year, or roughly one person every 15 minutes.
How is this possible? It is possible because those of us lucky enough to not suffer from this terrible disease do not understand it. According to Mental Health America, clinical depression is one of the most common mental illnesses, affecting more than 19 million Americans each year. Depression can complicate other medical conditions, and can even be serious enough to lead to suicide. Depression can occur to anyone, at any age, and to people of any race or ethnic group. Depression is never a "normal" part of life, no matter what your age, gender or health situation.
Unfortunately, although about 70 percent of individuals with depression have a full remission of the disorder with effective treatment, fewer than half of those suffering from this illness seek treatment. Too many people resist treatment because they believe depression isn't serious, that they can treat it themselves or that it is a personal weakness rather than a serious medical illness.
Symptoms of Clinical Depression:
  • Persistent sad, anxious or "empty" mood
  • Sleeping too much or too little, middle of the night or early morning waking
  • Reduced appetite and weight loss, or increased appetite and weight gain
  • Loss of pleasure and interest in activities once enjoyed, including sex
  • Restlessness, irritability
  • Persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment (such as chronic pain or digestive disorders)
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Feeling guilty, hopeless or worthless
  • Thoughts of suicide or death
If you have five or more of these symptoms for two weeks or more, you could have clinical depression and should see your doctor or a qualified mental health professional for help.
 
Many things can contribute to clinical depression.
 
Biological: People with depression typically have too little or too much of certain brain chemicals, called "neurotransmitters." Changes in these brain chemicals may cause or contribute to clinical depression.
 
Cognitive: People with negative thinking patterns and low self-esteem are more likely to develop clinical depression.
 
Gender: Women experience clinical depression at a rate that is nearly twice that of men. While the reasons for this are still unclear, they may include the hormonal changes women go through during menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth and menopause. Other reasons may include the stress caused by the multiple responsibilities that women have.
 
Co-occurrence: Clinical depression is more likely to occur along with certain illnesses, such as heart disease, cancer, Parkinson's disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease and hormonal disorders.
 
Medications: Side effects of some medications can bring about depression.
 
Genetic: A family history of clinical depression increases the risk for developing the illness.
 
Situational: Difficult life events, including divorce, financial problems or the death of a loved one can contribute to clinical depression.
 
If you or someone you know is hurting, there is help. By calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255), the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, you’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7. Anyone can also reach them online at www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Talk to someone — it can save a life. We MUST conquer the stigma that society places on all those who suffer from mental illness. So don't wait — do it now.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Truth and Meaning: Our Immigration Hypocrisy


Use your imagination for a second. Let’s say that a radical conservative movement swept through Eastern Canada and took over control of the government. This movement does not just want French separatism, but to convert all of Canada to a French-speaking nation. In time, English-speaking Canadians start losing rights and are subjected to oppressive laws. Eventually, this regime starts imprisoning and physically attacking the pro-English advocates.

Suddenly thousands of white, English-speaking children start crossing the borders of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Montana. Fearful parents are sending their children away from possible harm by a violent government to a land that promotes freedom, equality and liberty.

Here is the question. If you support the protesters now yelling and screaming at Central American children fleeing murderous regimes, would you show up at the Canadian border with your guns in hand? In exactly the same situation, except that the children are white and speak English as their native language, would your reaction be the same? If it is taking a few seconds to consider your answer, then you have already answered the question. You are a racist.

A child is a child, whether their skin is white, brown or black, and the United States has the resources to protect children being threatened. In fact, the United States has an OBLIGATION to protect these children. Who do you think sold the tyrants in Central America their weapons? Who do you think trained these thugs in methods of torture and intimidation at the infamous School of the Americas? We did.

The United States has a responsibility for creating the unstable governments in Central America by being the world’s second largest arms dealer — only slightly behind Russia and far ahead of number three China — and through the actions of our “intelligence” community to interfere with other nations’ development. And now, the fruit of our efforts has come home to roost. When you sew violence and political corruption, whether you think your intentions were good or not, then you should be prepared to accept the consequences. Well, those consequences are showing up at our doorstep. And if we turn them away, then America stands for nothing but greed, arrogance and hypocrisy.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Letting Go of Religion


We spend our whole lives letting go. We let go of things, places, people and ideas. Sometimes letting go is easy — we make a gift to give to a friend, we leave one job for a better one, we pack our belongings and move into a new home.

Other times, letting go can be challenging — we end a relationship with a loved one, we lose an heirloom, a favorite store closes its doors. Sometimes, letting go can be traumatic. A thief steals a car or valuable property. A fire destroys your home. A cherished love one dies. But, perhaps most traumatic of all is letting go of ideas.

From birth, we are blank slates, constantly written upon by parents, siblings, teachers and perfect strangers. Every scribble enters our mind and gets categorized into our identities, our sense of self, and our moral compass. And when we enter our teen years, we naturally begin to question whether or not that developed identity indeed reflects who we really are. We begin to question the easy dichotomies of Western thinking: good/evil; rich/poor; liberal/conservative; male/female; believer/non-believer.

The regressive mind will resist these questions, falling back on stock answers and dogmatic teachings learned throughout childhood. They will refuse to let go of comfort, privilege and even irrational beliefs that give them satisfaction.

Others will explore, willing to consider letting go of ideas, but the quest is a perilous one and not without its dangers. The act of questioning alone may cause us to let go of seeming truths and of self-obvious paradigms. These explorers may fall into a valley of doubt; they may climb a mountain rejecting everything and become hardened skeptics; or they may simply become lost and hopeless facing a foggy world they cannot change and are doomed to endure. But, those who make the quest along the valleys, over the mountains and through the fog emerge as seekers.

And the seeker is prepared to develop a progressive mind. And it is the progressive mind that is best suited to keep ideas that make sense and to let go of those that do not. The progressive mind thinks beyond its own happiness and comfort and concerns itself with the common good. The progressive mind lets go of asking “Why?” in favor of asking “Why not?”

As a minister, my expertise is religion. Young progressive minds often let go of religion once they find that their Sunday School stories don’t match the world’s reality. Young progressive minds often let go of religion when it makes irrational demands, rejects people who think differently and disempowers women, LGBTQ folk and other oppressed people.

But, letting go doesn't have to be an “all or nothing” proposition, either. I can let go of a label without completely erasing all that comes with that label. The choice is not between being Baptist, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or not. The question is whether there is truth and meaning to be found in any religion — perhaps in all religions — as you continually reshape your identity.

Sometimes, we rationalize letting go as an irretrievable loss. But it doesn't have to be that way. Even if you feel betrayed by your religious upbringing, I believe that there is value in religion for the young progressive mind. For me, of course, Unitarian Universalism is one such religion. We support same-sex marriage, reproductive justice, environmentalism and most other progressive causes. I am a religious atheist and mystical humanist, serving a congregation with a wide range of opinions and beliefs.

So, as you let go of ideas, as you question the teachings of your youth, always leave the door open to keep the pieces of the past that make sense. The progressive mind never closes any door completely.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Revelation

Recently, the Islamic Center of Midland hosted the public as part of the Choosing a Culture of Understanding program in celebration of Ramadan. Attendees shared wonderful interfaith understanding, as presenters explained the month-long observance. The evening also revealed a surprising element of our programs this year, the auspicious coincidence of a recurring theme — revelation.

In May, participants discussed the meaning of Sabbath at Temple Beth El, and Rabbi Chava Bahle explained the Jewish practice of Counting the Omer (a measure of grain used in ancient times). Beginning on the second day of Passover, the idea of counting each day represents the Jews’ spiritual preparation and anticipation for God’s revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

In June, we celebrated Pentecost, the festival that marks the revelation of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and other followers of Jesus Christ as described in the Acts of the Apostles 2:1-31. And this July, we observed Ramadan, the month in which the Qur’an was first revealed as guidance for all the people.

An Evening of Meditation on Sacred Writings is planned for Sept. 23 at the Creative 360. Participants will be invited to meditate silently while sacred writings from many of the world’s religions, including Eastern traditions such as Buddhism, are read. And on Nov. 1, we invite the public to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship to observe Samhain (pronounced Sow’-in), a holiday shared by many religions as the day in the year during which the veil between the spirit world and the world of the living is at its narrowest. This is a time for honoring our beloved dead and seeking their revelation and guidance.

In many religions, periods of revelation come with some form of sacrifice. During Ramadan, for instance, Muslims fast between sunrise and sunset and avoid other behaviors deemed sinful, such as swearing, arguing, gossiping and procrastination. For some Protestants, the nine days between Ascension Day and Pentecost are a time of fasting and world-wide prayer in honor of the disciples’ time of prayer and unity awaiting the Holy Spirit. Similarly among Roman Catholics, special Pentecost Novenas are held and the Eve of Pentecost was traditionally a day of fasting.

Eastern traditions, such as Hinduism, often include a period of asceticism on the path to enlightenment, releasing oneself from worldly desires and connections. The Anishinaabe Naming Ceremony (Kchitwaa noozwinkewin) requires a person seeking a spirit name to undergo prayer and fasting for months, even years, before a name is decided upon. And Unitarian Universalism, as a noncreedal faith, offers its adherents no universal answers to the great mysteries of life, but rather places the burden of finding truth and meaning on each person. The struggle for revelation can be difficult and painful.

We might be tempted to view depriving ourselves as a harsh price to pay for revelation. But, as the Qur’an says in Sura 2: “God wants ease for you, not hardship. He wants you to complete the prescribed period and to glorify Him for having guided you, so that you may be thankful.” The Hindu Mundaka Upandishad says: “They who practice austerity and faith in the forest, the peaceful followers of who live on alms, depart passionless through the door of the sun, to where is that immortal Person, even the imperishable Spirit.” Isaiah 58 tells us: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.”

In explaining the Counting of the Omer, Rabbi Bahle told the story of two brothers with adjacent farms. The younger brother married and had a family, while the older brother lived alone.

One year at harvest time, both brothers bundled their stalks of grain into sheaves, counted them and took them into their barns to store. The older brother worried that his brother’s family might need more grain and so, in the dark of night took as many sheaves as he could carry across the field to his brother’s barn. At the same time, the younger brother knew his brother had no family to help him. So he too rose, dressed and took as many sheaves as he could carry to his brother’s barn.

The next night they did the same thing and in the morning, each brother stood in awe and counted their grain, which was as much as before they had given it away. Finally on the third night, both brothers rose and again, gathered as much grain as they could carry and headed out across the field to their brother’s barns. It was so dark, that they almost collided in the middle of the fields. They stopped, smiled and hugged one another for a long time. Then they knelt and thanked God for giving them such a thoughtful and generous brother. That spot became the Holy of Holies because the holiest place in the world is in the human heart where we bless and love and are generous to each other.

Whatever religious path we walk, we can all see that there is wisdom to be found in sacrifice and refraining from negative behaviors. In fact, some lessons in our lives can only be learned when we come to appreciate the gift of life, the comfort of community and the love of the divine — by whatever name we apply. So, let us join together with our neighbors of all faiths, thoughtfully and with generosity, in search of revelation of a better world.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Truth and Meaning: Extremism


One of the reasons I write this blog is to speak to the masses of you out there who consider yourselves “middle of the road.” Maybe you are a Republican, a Democrat, or even an Independent. Maybe you are a Methodist, a Catholic or an atheist. You read my blog because it speaks with a progressive voice. You would never post a comment, because you are not involved … yet.

But the time is coming when lurkers and bystanders are going to have to take a position. Extremely wealthy people are buying our government. Extremist conservatives have hijacked the Republican Party, making Ronald Reagan look like a moderate — and Dwight Eisenhower a positive liberal. On matters of public policy, the middle ground is shrinking. Debates today tend to be black or white, all or nothing, and compromise is disappearing from our public dialogue.

For years, we put up with the Westboro Baptist Church and their outrageous offenses. Few Christians publicly condemned their acts of hate, their complete misrepresentation of the message of love taught by Jesus. Every statistic shows that our national worship of guns leads to more killing than anywhere else in the world. And yet, the voice of the NRA goes largely unopposed except for small groups with little backing from the church. The only time the church got largely involved in Michigan was when a bill threatened to allow open carry spaces to include churches.

And now, an anti-abortionist group has invaded the sanctuary of a church in New Orleans, disrupting the worship service during a moment of silence honoring a recently deceased member. Fortunately, we Unitarian Universalists practice what we preach, so the protesters were escorted out of the church by trained peacekeepers as the congregation sang to overwhelm their shouts of hate.

When will it end? How far down the path of extremism must we go before you get involved? How would you feel if people violated your sacred, holy space, calling you names and damning you? In the 1960s, we called this the Silent Majority. Well, the time for silence is over and reasonable people must begin to reclaim the moral center of this nation.

Extremism is the weapon of the ignorant, of the bully. Extremism is immoral and silence only fuels its flame. It is time to get off the sidelines and let your voice be heard. It is time for true people of faith and love to stand up to the extremists and say, “Enough!”

Monday, July 21, 2014

Truth and Meaning: Our Form of Government

A few years ago, I searched for the word that best described our dysfunctional American government. I settled on the term “kakistocracy,” which is defined as “government under the control of a nation's worst or least-qualified citizens.” Ironically, the term is easy to remember since the slang term “kaka” derives from the same root.

Recently, however, I find even this descriptor inadequate. Despite its uncanny ineffectiveness, I don’t really believe that our representatives in Washington are the worst Americans, or the least qualified (in the sense of formal credentials). So, I went on another search for a more accurate word to describe how our current government performs. You might be surprised at the options available.

Many can be eliminated for obvious reasons, like those that identify by the number of people involved in governing (autocracy, biarchy, triarachy, etc.). Some must be eliminated because they simply do not represent our current system accurately, such as trade-based governments (beerocracy, cottonocracy, millocracy). And others had to go, despite being wildly amusing – snobocracy (obvious), infantocracy (rule by an infant), and pornocracy (rule by harlots) … yes, these are actual terms).

Others held possibilities, being fairly accurate, but not wholly descriptive of our situation. Argentocracy is government by money; albocracy is government by white people; corprocracy is government by corporate bureaucrats; kleptocracy is government by thieves; chrysocracy is government by the wealthy. Each is a viable candidate, representing some element of reality, but not quite comprehensive enough.

No, our government is not completely run by unqualified people, whites, corporations, thieves, harlots or the 1percent - not yet. At least, not completely. But every time I hear a politician make an idiotic scientific claim that no science confirms, I see a fool. Every time I hear a politician deny ever taking a position only to watch Jon Stewart show video clips proving the opposite, I see a fool. When I see the least effective Congress in history claim excesses by a president who has taken the fewest executive actions in 70 years, I see fools. When I see judges afford corporations personhood with the right to hold religious beliefs, then I see fools. And when I see a government turning away children seeking asylum from certain death, I see a government of fools … in other words, a “foolocracy.”

And the sad truth of this situation is that many of these politicians were elected by us. So what does that say about our electorate? If you do not vote, you are not only an irresponsible citizen, but you deserve to be ruled by fools. If you vote for someone based on a single issue with which they claim to share your opinion, you may be electing a fool. If you are not satisfied with the government we have, and you vote incumbents back into office, well …

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Truth and Meaning: WWJD?

I remember when the WWJD bracelets first appeared and I learned that the letters stood for “What WouldJesus Do?” At first, I thought they seemed a little hokey; too much like a marketing ploy. But, I set aside my innate cynicism and saw them as a valuable tool offering Christians a constant reminder of the teachings of their spiritual leader.

Every day, I listen to politicians attack each other and ply their smoke and mirror tactics on the American people. “Look at this shiny scandal over here,” they tell us, and that way we won’t notice when they slash funding for public programs, attack our civil liberties, and increase the inequity of wealth in this nation. And I think to myself, what would Jesus do?

Jesus lived in a tiny and insignificant colony of the largest empire in the world at that time. Tyrants ruled capriciously, worshiped wealth and power, and entertained themselves by watching the suffering of others. Jesus had many options available to him. He did not gather armies and swords to fight Rome. And aside from one excusable instance reacting to the desecration of his most sacred place, he did not advocate violence or any kind of destruction. In fact, he preached the opposite – turn the other cheek.

What did Jesus do? He witnessed publicly his beliefs about how the world should be. And then he lived by those principles. He did not judge others who came to him for aid – young or old, man or woman, rich or poor, gay or straight, Jew or Gentile. He only rebuked people who placed adherence to rigid dogma over the crying need of the people.

Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. House the homeless. Free the prisoner. Heal the sick. Give hope to those without hope. That’s what Jesus did. He ignored irrelevant rules and regulations. He accepted humble hospitality but assembled no material riches of his own. He didn’t kowtow to authorities. He simply spoke truth to power.

What would Jesus do today? He wouldn’t leave millions without access to healing medical treatment. He wouldn’t allow vulnerable children to be placed in harm’s way. He wouldn’t tolerate discriminating against any group of people for any reason. And when people are hungry, naked, or homeless, he would feed them, clothe them, and provide them shelter.

Many people consider America a Christian nation, and that our laws are heavily influenced by Christian morality. These people should ask themselves, “What would Jesus do if he were alive today?” War, racism, homophobia, misogyny, corporate personhood, and innocent people dying needlessly every day – is this what Jesus would do? If Jesus walked our streets today, would he preach these things, or would he preach acceptance and understanding, justice and equality, hope and love?

You don’t have to be Jesus to do what Jesus would do.