How Your Brain Learns New Things


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What are you good at?

What are you bad at?
These two questions were posed to the ninth graders in English class, on the first day of school. I sat in the back and watched how the teacher handled “slow time”, the awkward silence that happens when not a single hand raises up. New teachers are terrified of slow time. Seasoned ones know how to hold that steady, shifting glance that says: I’ll wait.


Freshmen are all about performance. They know these first few months are the auditions, for friend groups and homecoming dates, for the precious and rare gifts of acceptance and belonging. So they stay silent to make no mistakes. To not be a teachers’ pet. To not be bold. They wait for that one of the renegade, over-achieving classmate to clear his throat, stand up.


Eventually one did, and as these go, then the whole activity snowballed. And a certain pattern emerged.


The talents, the good-ats, differed, were unique to each individual student. There were athletes and math whizzes, knitters and readers, video game extraordinaire. But pretty much across the board everyone said they were bad at writing.


I couldn’t tell if this was a crowd thing. If, after the first person said it, others saw the nodding acceptance of their peers and decided that this was a safe thing to be bad at. Or… if this was strategic. This is English, after all. This is the September stage. This is high school. This is where expectations of you are set. And why not start off by lowering the hurdles for what you have been told is the hardest race you’ll run in your life?


If their educational experience was anything similar to my own, and since I’m only twenty-five, I assume it was, then they spent the last year of middle school with exhausted, easily disappointed teachers who were quick to note, in the event of a C grade on a test, how good they have it in middle school. Middle school is cake. Middle school is easy. High school is going to eat you alive.


They approach cautiously. They know that things are about to get really hard. So they lower expectations. They claim they can’t do what the teacher wants them to do, because they simply aren’t good enough.


This was the genius of the lesson. This was the hook.


Each student had to open up about who they think they are. And who they think they are is static. They think they are one thing and not the other. As they navigate this jungle looking for their place, they are continually aware of their shortcomings, they are always sure they can’t overcome them. They define themselves by everything they are not.


Once everyone had gone, the teacher pulled down the projector and began playing a video. The video is about the brain. It shows the students what happens when the mind learns a new thing. It puts a romantic notion into the concrete, the chemical, and there is something so empowering about seeing that. Visualizing the fruit of our practice, our hard work, our head-banging struggle against all odds. Seeings these strong little bridges between our cells, moving from shaky to sturdy to strong. 


Here was the general message: You are not static. You evolve. You change. You are built for the purpose of becoming more. SCIENCE objects to all your attempts to categorize into a can’t do. The brain possesses all the magic you’ll need, for any pursuit of your heart.


As someone currently in grad school who often struggles in writing, who feels- at times- as if I’m wired for failure, I found myself scribbling down the terms. Looking up synapses and cell regeneration. Feeling a certain sense of perseverance rise up within me.


Here’s the video. It’s short and educational and might be completely boring to you. But it’s a great reminder: You are unfinished. You are always in process.


On Surfacing, and Submerging


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In my dark days, there were times when I didn’t want to surface.

Depression came to me, as depression does, in the disguise of a truth teller. It capitalized on my insecurities and constructed whole narratives of what everyone in my life really thought of me, but were too polite to say. It directed my attention to all the sharp corners of the world. All the empty promises. The lies. Life stopped making sense. I didn’t know what was true and what wasn’t, who I was and who I wasn’t, and my depression kept beckoning me into the deep. Into the dark world, where things were simple. Where the truth was plain. Where at least I had an identity, a value, however low.

Down I went.

Down I stayed.

And the world was simpler down there. I saw myself as not enough, so I drank to make myself more. Every day brought about a promise of disappointments, so I wouldn’t get out of bed, I wouldn’t leave the house… save for late at night when the sun was gone, when I went to the beach to cry and drink beneath the moon.

My therapist, a kind woman with cropped black hair, gave me all sorts of assignments that felt absolutely pointless. I wanted her to tell me how to dismantle my thoughts, and she told me to go biking. I wanted some breathtaking quote I could write on my bathroom mirror and she told me to practice breathing in for three seconds, then out for three seconds. She told me to stop judging myself for struggling

When, to my surprise, I started to surface, I wasn’t sure why. It felt unsettling.

I would forget I was depressed for an afternoon, while reading a good book or grabbing coffee with a friend, and once I remembered, I deliberately dove back down. I lost myself in the old thought patterns. Felt the welcome rush of warm tears. And it didn’t make sense, even to me, even then, why I was fighting my own recovery. I brought it up one morning to my therapist and she asked me if I missed it. If I missed the darkness.

There is grief in letting go of grief, she said.

The old, familiar patterns were falling. The script of self-loathing was being rewritten. Days became less daunting as I slowly started to survive them, and then live in them. The alcohol could still lift me, but not as abruptly, not as drastically, because I was so much higher than before.

Depression, as anyone who has had it knows, is never gone completely. It reappears, sometimes predictably, sometimes out of the blue, but you know it like an old friend that you used to believe was so for you. It told us the truth. It showed you the danger. And it felt honest enough to trust, so we trusted in it deeply.

What we didn’t know was how it would reshape our world. How it would selectively target the things that supported our health, like exercise and friendship and good food, and shut them down one by one. We couldn’t see the way it filled in all these gaping holes in our life and made us need it.

It gave us a world we could understand. It gave us thoughts to think about. A self we didn’t need to dress up.

And before we knew it, we had become ghost towns. We blacked out. Disappeared into the darkest depths.


And then something shifted. A tiny light turned on.


This is is what so amazes me about the mind: its’ grit. Its’ resolve, to reload and recover the landscape, to squeeze that still heart one more time.

Buoyed by the pills and the therapists, the breathing and then jogging and learned approaches to self-talk, we broke the surface. And we spent weeks dipping back down, coming back, dipping down again, because recovery is culture shock and it takes work to change. It takes time to adjust. It takes energy to commit to wellness, even when it feels like a far-away dream. But then the day came when lies gave way to truth. When the light shone strong, down into even the darkest depths, and we knew we were going to be okay.

Jesus Jukes and Anxiety


25 “That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Isn’t life more than food, and your body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? 27 Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?

28 “And why worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, 29 yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. 30 And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?

31 “So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ 32 These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. 33 Seek the Kingdom of God[a] above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.

34 “So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” – Jesus

I’ve had people read this passage to me before. I’ve had it explained to me by eager, goodhearted people who only wanted to help me. People who said the words like they were sharing brand new information and then waited for it take hold, for the light to return to my eyes, for the words to move across the wild sea of my mind and subdue it to a still. God’s got you! They half laughed, slapped my back. You don’t need to worry! 


Which is true. I do believe this. I believe God’s in the mix of all that’s going on and works with us on our one-step, two-step back toward the good path of health and wholeness.


But in the moment it feels categorically false, and the falseness of it pours through you like the coldest water. I remember long nights with those words, always out of reach. I remember repeating them, over and over in meditation as if they were the bridle that would lasso my mind into obedience. And I remember it never working. Not once.


I have prayer journals filled with my objections to this divine piece of advice. Mostly I call it shit. A dangerous teaching that is counterintuitive to everything I know about anxiety and how it works, what role we play in perpetuating and what internal agreements we need to square with ourselves if we are to manage it.


Sometimes, anxiety is a self-inflicted wound. Efforts to simply stop feeling anxious inevitably turn into value judgments about why you can’t. Why you can’t handle it. Why you’re so weak. Why you’re so screwed up. And before you know it, there you are: lying sprawled on the ground with your haywire heartbeat and shortest breaths and your whole body throbbing with the reminder that you are not trusting Jesus.


I fought anxiety all the way to the therapists couch and when I tried to explain to her all the ways it outmaneuvered me, all my failed attempts at trying to take captive thoughts, my therapist started nodding at me like this is exactly what she was expecting to hear. Like she had heard it a million times before. And then she looked up at me and said this:


You need to yourself off the hook.


It took time. A long time. It took new habits and a new diet, positive reinforcement and a reconstructed thought patterns, but eventually, I learned to stop fighting my anxiety. I learned to accept it.


Guilt and isolation soon fell away when I learned about how many people struggled with anxiety. When my mom opened up to me about her own history of it, I realized that the deck was somewhat stacked, I was bent toward this. My therapist talked about my brain as if it were another patient in the room and I don’t think she knew how nice that was. How sane it made me feel to be disconnected from the wild sea for an hour so I could study it, learn its’ movements, see the senseless ways it behaves. Love it anyway.


In accepting my anxiety, I accepted a part of myself. I began to appreciate it. I have learned things on that therapist’s couch and in late lonely nights waiting out a renegade thought, that I would’ve never found anywhere else. I’ve learned patience. I’ve learned how to breathe. I’ve learned how to listen to my body and mind and know exactly what they need. I’ve learned I’m strong.


As I thought about what I was going to write today, that passage in Matthew came to mind, and I felt my lungs clench at the sound of it rolling through my mind in the voices of so many that had spoken it over me. But then I listened to it again. I opened up the Bible app on my phone and read it again. And again.


I think he’s talking about hope.


I refuse to read these things, even the words of Jesus, as if any of them had the slightest clue about anxiety and depression, neurotransmitters and cells flooding with cortisol. But I think they knew something about hope. I think they embraced the actuality of the world, the reality that things weren’t what they were supposed to be and weren’t going to change by the flick of a wrist, but by the steps of their own two feet. By the hard work of leaning into the hard things, learning the strength of your soul to survive them.


And I don’t think Jesus was simply saying TRUST ME. I don’t think he was trying to say that it would all happen just like that. I think he was just setting that star in the sky. That big bold promise that I know I’ve reached out to in my darkest nights, the nights when I needed someone bigger than me to pull me through. I think he was saying: God dresses the field down to the tiniest details, God feeds the birds to their too fat to fly, but guess what– you matter to him the most. He is in this with you. You are not alone. It’s going to be okay. You are going to be okay.

School House Rock: The Mental Health Edition


Do you remember School House Rock?


Of course you do. We watched them in elementary school, on the mornings our teachers were too hung over to even. We hummed their tunes when we took our tests. Ole Bill on Capital Hill and Adverbs for sale at Lolly’s shop. Electricity! Electricity! 


We remember School House Rock, the characters and the songs, because they were really effective helpers in the construction of our educational foundation. They laid the bricks upon which we would later conduct chemistry experiments and political debates, algebraic equations and finely tuned prose, and they shaped our brain in a way, making it flexible for new concepts, critical to anything that didn’t hold water.


I thought about these videos today and my educational history in general, as I was trying to remember what basic building blocks I had been given for handling emotional health. What tips. What tunes. In what ways was I prepared to grow into an adult with sensitive feelings and ragey feelings and so much worry in a world that would often smack the shit out of me.


And then it dawned on me: I had been given the bare min.


Now, that’s not a referendum on what I was taught, in the home or in the school, I think this deficit is fairly universal. We learned it was okay to be sad, but never about what it might mean if we were sad for a very long time. We learned to be careful, but not what it meant if we found ourselves always living on edge, always waiting for the other shoe to drop, always bracing ourselves behind a certain belief that everything was about to go boom.


I think about it now,  what it would’ve meant if I had been shown the brain for what it is- a vast network of highways, a billion neurotransmitters speeding along them, the whole thing wild and fast and out of our control. 

In my episode, we might talk about the neurotransmitter. We might talk about this little lightning messenger that sometimes smashes into the guard rails or arrives at the wrong place or time, a clumsy little thing with the power of sending glitches throughout the entire system. Nothing to worry about, the narrator would say. This happens. It’s normal.

However, the narrator would continue ominously, if this keeps happening, if this becomes a pattern, it might mean there is an issue with the routing and the structure, it might mean the whole network is compromised. And at this declaration of doom, a soft-faced angel named Calm would float into the foreground like a savior.  She’d speak in metaphors we could understand, in a voice we could trust. She’d begin by letting us know that even though this is your brain and your own authored thoughts, it is not necessarily your fault. It’s a cocktail of things. Genetics. The weather. Past hurt. Hardwiring. It is a collision of so many factors beyond your control.

Calm would say, You know how you get a stomach ache? Well, sometimes your brain has problems, too. But instead of an ache, sometimes get a tight chest, or a rapid heartbeat, or an abrupt flood of tears for no reason. It’s going to be okay, she’d say. This happens. It’s normal. And like a tummy ache, it too will get better. There are ways to overcome it.


Perhaps we’d see her in a scene on the steps leading up to the almond-shaped building that is our Amygdala- the house of our emotions and our survival instincts. A breathless neurotransmitter named Ned would come bursting out its’ doors, flying down the steps, hands in the air and eyes bulging and screaming at the top of his lungs. Calm would step in his path.


“Where are you going?” She’d ask.


Ned would nearly jump out of his skin, because he’s a cell infused with fear and then he’d double over, panting. “Trouble. Trouble. Ben is in trouble!”


“Is he?”


“Yes,” says Ned, “It’s real bad. Real bad. He didn’t sleep last night and we’ve been researching about death-related-insomnia and it’s not looking good. The sun is going down. I need to warn him. I need to remind him that if he doesn’t sleep he’s going to die.”


“Are you sure? You seem a little anxious Ned.”


“I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life.” Ned doesn’t blink. “This is protocol. This is what we’ve been trained to do. To warn. To prepare. To get ready.”


“But only in the face of real danger, right?” Calm says. She then sits down on the steps and gestures to the seat next to her. Ned sits down.


“Ned, you are a vital cell to this whole operation. You are so important. Only you can hear the buzz of a swarm of bees, cautioning Ben back on the path. Only you can smell smoke, even as Ben sleeps, and shake him awake and out of the house, pants or no pants. (Ned erupts in laughter.)


“But if you approach the world as if it’s full of bees and always on fire, you’ll steal the life from Ben. You will not be thwarting danger. You will be the cause of it.”


“But I have to warn-“


“If you do, his heart rate will spike. His breaths will shorten. Cortisol and adrenaline will flood his system, making it impossible for him to sleep.”


Ned would nod, “okay. Okay. You’ve given me a lot to think about.” And then he would make one last launch to get out of Calm’s reach, because anxious neurotransmitters can never be reasoned with- but Calm would catch him by the heel and slam like a rag doll against the stone steps and kill him dead.


And the camera would zoom in on her soft face, deep ocean eyes, and she’d say:


You’re going to be okay. Trust me. I got this. 


31 Days of the Brain


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I remember when I read it. I was in the basement in my bedroom with the lights off in the middle of a summer day, because that what I did that summer.

I don’t remember what website it was, but my gut tells me it was some kind of chat room, the author an anonymous commenter replying to a worried questioner. And I remember how worried I was, that summer. I was standing at something of an impasse. A moment of decision. 

On my desk next to my laptop was my first batch of antidepressants and I didn’t know what to do with them. I didn’t know if I could twist off the top and pop them in my mouth and not feel like a failure. So I just looked at them. Suspiciously. Waiting for the right answer to come.

During the summer following my freshman year of college I collapsed into depression. I had such deep anxiety that I developed insomnia, and what I learned quickly about insomnia is that it is best friends with depression and anxiety. Insomnia is to mental health what an earthquake is to a tsunami. Everything goes Boom. First to go was my energy and then my humor about it, next my personality and my forced smiled and my weak grip on things, and at some point I went under. The darkness matted over every single moment.

And so I wound up in my bed at night wondering when insomnia would finally kill me, and if it mattered if it killed me. I wondered if God was getting any of my messages or if he existed or if he loved me at all.

Raised to look at things first through a spiritual lens, I considered myself spiritually sick. I believed depression was a disease of my soul. And so for help, I turned to my emotionally healthy Christian friends to see what they thought of my antidepressants, if they thought I should take them, if they thought it was wrong to. 

They said I was right. This was a sickness of the soul. To try to turn to anything else, like meds, was like turning to a golden calf idol. “God’s love should be enough…” they said quietly. “Keep praying. Keep studying scripture. What if God is just waiting for you to quit smoking so you can feel the fullness of his love? Try that, see if it helps.”

And like most good Christians, they had testimonies to back it up. They told me about friends who God rescued out of grief. They told me about friends who went insane after taking antidepressants. They tried to give me hope, but I got trauma instead.

So, there I sat, in front of the terrifying open sea of the internet and I typed in my questions. I asked if it was okay with God that I take antidepressants. I asked if antidepressants make you crazy. And this is what I remember reading:

“The amount of sunlight you get in a day affects the chemical balance in your brain.”

Just a fact. Just information. Hardly the kind of quote you write on your bathroom mirror. In retrospect, it’s sort of strange how teary it made me.

But I think it’s because the writer wrote about depression and anxiety in a language I had never heard before. She opened the door into the world of the brain. She went on to discuss the inner workings of our minds, how malleable they are, how imbalanced they can become, how depression and anxiety require more than a DIY response. They require a whole new vocabulary. They are chemical: serotonin and dopamine and noradrenaline. They are genetic, passed on through our parents and grandparents. They are real ailments with physiological roots and they do not spring up because of a bad prayer life or a cynical attitude or some deep seed of moral depravity. They are illnesses and they need to be known as such. They need to be understood if they are to be helped, and simply understanding that as I sat there alone and cold in the basement demystified the mystery, diffused the fear.


I could breathe.


I popped in a pill and made a promise to myself keep doing the work and to reject the shame. This, I told myself, is an illness, not a failure.


As a Christian, I have been fascinated by the brain, how it works and how it goes wrong, how it all informs our experience of faith. As someone who has been companion to those that have walked these dark hallways, as someone who has gone mad in these dark hallways myself, I know how important it is to understand our wiring. I know how damaging it can be when we misidentify, misplace blame, tell a different story than the truthful one. When we are talking about matters of the mind, we are talking about matters of the heart and soul, and I believe only the truth will set these parts of us free.

This month is #Write31, a project for bloggers to publish something every day for thirty one days on one subject. I’ve barely written thirty-one words in the last month, and so to snap me out my apathy and get me back into the super fun discipline of brutal writing for public consumption, I have signed up.

And I’m going to talk about the Brain. Because I can. Because it fascinates me. Because I think it’s important to talk about.

I’m going to talk about mental health, yes, but I also want to talk about disequilibrium, the magical thing that happens when we learn something new or unlearn something we once believed. I want to explore the power of our mindset and the way we see the world, the way we reason and the reasons why. I want to talk about nature versus nurture, fight or flight, how our memory works, what concussions do. I want to talk about our intellect and our anger, and God’s hand in it all. There’s a good chance it’s going to be random.

I’m leaving this whole thing wide open for me. It’s a little scary, a little strange. I’ve never done anything like this before and I’ll be up front and say I already have one foot out the door, because the BRAIN, and because FALL IS BUSY, but I hope I can succeed in this little writing challenge. And I hope you’ll walk along with me.


Syrian internally displaced people walk in the Atme camp, along the Turkish border in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, on March 19, 2013. The conflict in Syria between rebel forces and pro-government troops has killed at least 70,000 people, and forced more than one million Syrians to seek refuge abroad. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

Syrian internally displaced people walk in the Atme camp, along the Turkish border in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, on March 19, 2013. The conflict in Syria between rebel forces and pro-government troops has killed at least 70,000 people, and forced more than one million Syrians to seek refuge abroad. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

(CN: Disturbing images. Discussion of sexual assault.)

A requirement of my grad school program is that its’ students take an online training course in sexual assault. Since college campuses are where the highest number of sexual assaults take place, I appreciated that the university did this, even if it meant spending a significant amount of summer time listening to a slow-talking voice in my laptop.


The first chunk of it was all about what, exactly, constitutes sexual violence. It spanned all the degrees between seemingly mild harassment to acquaintance rape. The second chunk addressed how we, as students, should respond if we see witness an assault or if we suspect an assault is happening in secret (bruises on a friends arm, abrupt change in personality, a disturbing partner.)


It’s all important, critical information needed in ending this type of violence, but perhaps the most critical and important and downright shocking piece of information shared in this training was the correlation between number of witnesses present before an assault and likeliness of intervention:

The more witnesses there are, the less likely someone will help.


It’s a chilling paradox. But it makes sense.


This social phenomenon is called “The Bystander Effect” and it works like this: The more people that are present, the less pressure we feel to act. Once that reluctance takes hold, we start to question how capable we are to help and then our subconscious starts to muddy up the moral imperative: It’s not what it looks like. There’s more to the story. We could get hurt. If it as awful as it looks, someone else will surely step in and save the day, because we can’t, because by now, we are frozen in our smallness, trembling before the terrible need that we’re convinced we cannot meet. And so there we stand, paralyzed, waiting for that one person to step forward. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.


I thought about this today when I saw the photograph of the Syrian refugee lying on the beach, a small boy, a toddler. His name was Aylan. He was three. He was wearing a red shirt and blue shorts and found limp, facedown in the cold surf of a beach in Turkey. I saw the pictures this morning and immediately saw in my mind my two baby nephews, Wyatt and Sawyer. The thought set off an explosion in my chest.


Family-of-drowned-Syrian-boy-Aylan-Kurdi-wanted-to-come-to-Canada-659x330image 1, image 2

The world is so dark, I thought.

Which is, I realized, a reflexive thought. A hopeless thought. A final thought. I instinctively reach for this canned answer whenever tragedies like this happen, as if to say: It Is What It Is. My heart cannot handle that it happens. That it doesn’t have to. So my mind fixes it by saying: The world is dark. Hopeless. What can we possibly do?


It is amazing how quickly my mind sedates this stuff. If we want to talk total depravity, we can look to my own mental processing, and perhaps yours too: Someone else will stop it. Someone in our government or someone over there will step in and put an end to this conflict, fling open the doors for the refugees enter. Relief organizations will rally. The picture is front and center before a world that cannot look away. Information is power. Change is happening. 


And it is incredibly comforting to think this way. I feel a little relieved imagining the support that must be pouring in right now, so much support, so many people, and I am only one person. I am inconsequential in it all. A drop in the bucket. The world will correct itself with or without me. And it becomes easy to forget about it when you imagine it that way. So I do. I move on. I toss up the issue to more capable and qualified hands and say things will change.


We need to identify this sin inside us. This defense mechanism against responsibility. This Bystander Effect. This conditioned sense of apathy. This sin of always someone else.


Recognizing what it is that is wrong within us, why it is that these tragedies, sharp and unforgettable today, so easily fade from our minds tomorrow, is the first step towards repentance. And God, do we need to repent.


Reader, human being, small and helpless as you may feel, I encourage you to not look away. I encourage you to head over to the blogs of Sarah Bessey and Ann Voskamp, both of whom have written powerful words about what we can and must do and have also listed a number of ways we can all get involved. One way is this:


Take a picture with the hashtag #RefugeesWelcome and tag the leader of your country. Then tweet it. Post it on Facebook. Blog about what’s happening, what we can do. These are small, slacktivisit type steps, of course, but speaking up is a strong start. We should never underestimate the power of our collective voice. Next look at your means and look at where you can support. The Independent has put together a list of practical ways you can get involved. See what you can do. See where you can give. Join the Facebook page: Aylan’s Dreams: Welcoming the Strangers and Refugees


And pray without ceasing. Pray for Aylan. Pray for his family. Pray for the thousands fleeing this hell and pray for our leaders, our neighbors, that we all might welcome and give as we have been so welcomed and given so much.


Don’t wait for the right person to come along.

It’s you. It’s me. It is always all of us.

On Being Carried



I often tell people “I left evangelicalism a couple years ago” and when you think about it, it’s a pretty weird thing to say. Evangelicalism is not a place one can leave, but a cultural identity, a worldview, a state of mind… and honestly, I couldn’t leave it if I tried.


Believe me, I tried.


It was in March of 2014 when I made the divorce official right here on this blog. World Vision had happened and I was insane with anger. I had said: I’m done. These aren’t my people. This place is terrible. Then I started my migration out into “wilderness”, that metaphorical place where I was told my God would come and find me.


I was allergic to the images, the language, the music, and in the end, the people of evangelicalism. When my friends confided in me that they were being led towards something by God, I had to catch the loud objection rising in my throat. When the Praise and Worship band came on before services, I had to leave to go to the bathroom and stay there, because those were the songs of before. Those were the songs not written for me. In my mind, I recorded a mental shit-list of evangelical leaders and their endorsement on the back cover ofany book I happened upon immediately had me putting it down. I set firm boundaries. I set a steel grid. When I left, I really left.


I had no idea where I was going.


A year and a half later I sit across from a therapist, saying words like “anchorless” and “untethered” and “free-floating.” Words that seem to touch on the nameless thing we’re trying to uncover. These several months of inner unrest and overall paralysis. It’s not depression or anxiety, the usual suspects. But something has been off since January and now it’s July, so I decided to surrender to the couch once again.


At one point in our third session, she said: Tell me about who You are… And I just stared at the wall above her head for a long time, waiting for the right words to bubble up in my brain. Who am I? Who am I? Who am I?


In the silence, I felt the pierce of epiphany.


I have spent the last year or so unlearning. Or at least what I called unlearning. Mostly it was criticizing, pushing back against, claiming that so-and-so’s version of God was cruel and so-and-so’s interpretation of scripture was stupid, without once considering what my view of God is, how I experience him daily. I spent so much time erasing everything I didn’t believe to be true anymore about God, that one day I came back to the page and found him gone completely.


And it was this erasing that I called reforming. It was the letting go of the hold without grabbing onto the new that led me to drifting away, far out to nowhere.


You don’t reach this place until you reach it, until you hit the rocks and know you’re lost, and the other morning, I arrived. I woke up with a call to the quiet. A subtle call. It was easily dismissed, so I cleaned the house and watched Netflix, and then headed out to the coffee shop to work on some work things, but when I drove down the street to Dunn Brothers coffee, I suddenly swerved down an old familiar street. The one that leads to the lake.


I parked and walked out to the picnic table near the water and tall reeds, in the shade of a large oak tree and I asked myself: What are you even doing here? And I answered myself: I’m here to be “led.” And I cringed at the sound of that word.


Then I thought of the young girl, Lila, from Marilynne Robinson’s latest novel. In one scene, she’s unsure of what she thinks about God and Christianity, all of it looks dubious and dangerous, and yet, intriguing. When the Reverend Ames asks to baptize her, she hedges for a moment and then thinks: I’ll do this now and think about it later.



So I set a timer for five minutes and shut my eyes. I stilled until I was thoughtless, brought down to the sensations of the moment: the wind and sun on my skin. The mesh plastic and metal on my fingertips. The sounds of geese landing and skidding across the water’s surface. Then I heard, faintly, subtly, maybe a voice that was wholly my own, say: Read Isaiah 46.


Now listen. I hold this moment with obvious skepticism. I have a loud mind. My mind submits thoughts to my consciousness all the time, all sorts of things, random things, strange things, true things, false things, and it’s absolutely right that if I am sitting somewhere waiting to be led, waiting to hear from God, I’m likely to start drawing scripture out of hat, willingly or not.


But also Listen. I read the words of Isaiah and something opened up above me, like a parachute, like the breaking of the sun. And it seized me and save me and found me. It felt like a fresh start. It felt holy.


“Listen to me, family of Jacob,

everyone that’s left of the family of Israel.

I’ve been carrying you on my back

from the day you were born,

And I’ll keep on carrying you when you’re old.

I’ll be there, bearing you when you’re old and gray.

I’ve done it and will keep on doing it,

carrying you on my back, saving you.

I was reminded of why people long for the presence of God. You hear (maybe) God speak and your spinning-out-of-control heart aligns to the voice. Locks onto it. Holds onto it. And for a moment, you feel that wall of separation soften into a veil. You feel like there is more and you can have it.



I was reminded that my mediocre faith in God does not change God’s deep faith in me. Even when I walk away or lose sight or lose my mind, God doesn’t go. The tether, the anchor, the lifeline that I have been slowly sawing away with my cynicism and fear, my need to break free, that has sent me free-floating out into nowhere, isn’t the whole truth of what’s happened, what’s happening.


I am being carried. I am being carried when I stop praying or forget how to. I am being carried when I skip church for several weeks in a row. I am being carried when I’m still running loose, looking for how to make faith organic and new. I am being carried when I collapse in the cold. When the days are too long. When I fear God isn’t good. When I fear life won’t turn out. When the questions lead me to asking if I could ever actually believe again, when life knocks me flat on my back, I am still being carried. I am always being carried.

Bridge Builder on Strike



Sometimes, I am chastised for being uncharitable to conservatives, online and offline (and sometimes, I certainly can be.)

People will ask me out for coffee to debate sexual ethics. People will email me so we can officially have it out. Sometimes they even express a willingness to learn, a need for information that they do not have, some backstory to my theology and the theology of many affirming Christians, because all they’ve heard is all they know…. Leading me to engage eagerly. It fills me up with hope. Until suddenly I start getting syrupy notes, patronizing paragraphs about how it’s just so darn hard to put up with those God rules isn’t it? But the “offensiveness of the gospel” should serve as a warning to my “lifestyle.” I close my laptop instantly. I feel foolish.

Sometimes my scoffing, my silence, it’s seen as a kind of intransigence on my part. A stubborn refusal to dialog. Like I have an unwillingness to leave my echo chamber and enter into the uncomfortable places, the spaces where we grow through loving disagreement. And while I get that, I also know that when it comes to this voice, my voice, they simply cannot hear it. I might as well be mouthing random words.

Because I’m gay, they can’t hear me. Because I believe God loves me as I am, they can’t hear me.

Instead of listening to me as an equal, immediately I am judged as being “biased” by my allegedly “objective” Christian challengers, so no matter my depth of study, no matter my hours spent in prayer, no matter the wisdom I’ve gleaned from my deep-painful-soul-searching-journey, my witness is dismissed out of hand. And I’m left standing here hit. Insulted. Dehumanized.

I wrote a new article for Sojourners on the day of the Supreme Court marriage decision- a very gentle article, I might add, holding in my metaphorical hands both my own celebration along with the concerns of conservative Christians. I offered a possible way forward for all of us: bridging the gap of our disagreement with radical love in action. In kind, some commenters called me “smug” and “sinful”, one going so far as to issue an altar call for my repentance. I turned to facebook where my posts was shared and while there were many kind words to be read, my mind has a tendency to Xerox all the words of extreme dislike.

And unlike past cultural events that exploded on social media, but were largely absent in my real life, this decision spilled into all spheres. There were some unexpected betrayals within intimate circles. A cold afterwards I’m still working through. But calls were issued for my repentance from those that know my faith. Vocalized concern (all of a sudden!) was made known for my “lifestyle”. And it is all too much sometimes. It’s dark out here. And they can’t hear me.

Recently, my friend Julie Rodgers, a public Christian figure, published a blog post explaining her evolving views on same-sex relationships. Unsurprisingly, she was set fire on the internet’s stake. If you know Julie, you know how infuriating this is. Julie is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. Even though she disagreed with my theology, you should’ve seen how she embraced me when we met in Chicago, how she wanted to be a safe person, how she wanted to simply get to know me, Ben. A devout Christian, Julie has been (and continues to be) faithful to God’s call in her life to celibacy, but she no longer believes that this is mandatory for all LGB people. She supports them now. She believes they are good.

And when she announced that, she was torn to shreds by the conservative Christian gatekeepers. Particularly by Denny Burk who wasted no time in penning a blog post calling her faith invalid, a false teacher, calling her a “blemish on our love feast.” He later stated in the comments section that her, along with Matthew Vines, were “willfully suppressing the Truth of scriptures,” assuming a motive that I don’t quite understand (they’re secretly anti-Christian?), except that it serves Denny’s purpose to vilify LGB people and our allies.

So I’m done, temporarily, with the bridge building. It’s not intransigence. It’s not simply snark. It is protection. It is practicing safety for my emotional, spiritual, and in some cases, physical, wellbeing.

I don’t particularly care for those hours following brief, infuriating conversations; the way the anger grabs hold of my heart and will not let go. I don’t like wasting time on people who don’t (and won’t) see me as anything but a deviant gone astray. It’s become a boundary issue for me. Unless I perceive that the person is willing to meet me as an equal, respect me as one just as faithful and honest as they are. That’s different. And it’s also rare.

There is little use, I’m realizing, in talking with these folks. They can’t hear us. They can’t see beyond their own bigotry. It’s going to have to be an internal realization for them, or a forever separation from us, I don’t know. All I do know is that I’m washing my hands clean of this bridge building. The burden is not on me. I never should’ve thought it was. My humanity is not an argument I should have to fight.

Rant over.

God and the 48%



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Once upon a time, I thought I was alone in the world. This world, the Christian one I grew up in, said that people like me didn’t exist. There is no such thing as a Gay Christian, they said. The two don’t mix. You can’t baptize sin. It’s sinful to say you can. So, for a long time, I didn’t really know where I stood. It felt like a shadow. It felt like loneliness.


After I came out and all the pieces fell into place, after the false image of a furious God washed away to reveal love,  I wrapped my cross in a rainbow and paraded it everywhere I went. In my mind, I was like a chosen missionary. I was a unicorn, heroically weird, and uniquely qualified to say to the queer community: Look at me! I love Jesus and I’m not straight! You can too! And to the Christian community: Look at me! My shirt is on! I don’t go clubbing! Have no fear, for I will not flaunt! I wanted to destroy the false dichotomy I once endured. I wanted my witness to end this war.


I’ve seen this awful axe fall down and split people and families apart. I’ve seen the choice laid bare in tears from those who don’t know how to stop being who they are and can’t accept that they’re already beautiful. I’ve had conversations with wonderful people living successful, well-adjusted lives, except that their parents and siblings won’t speak to them, won’t answer the phone or reply on email, and those tears fall heavy. I’ve seen lives shattered in a second, and recoveries that have lasted a lifetime. This false dichotomy, this topical war, it’s not an abstract thing. It is flesh and blood. It is hearts and souls. There is a real cost and it is being paid in pain and shame and so many years lost.


And often, it all feels hopeless to save.


It feels hopeless, because Church is a wind that keeps pushing us further and further out, to the outer ring of out. I had to swear off Facebook on Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day. I had to get talked down to a calm heart during #IStandWithPhil. On the day that Christians abandoned ten thousand children in the third world, because gay married people in Seattle could suddenly apply to World Vision, I felt gutted. When World Vision caved and reversed their policy, I felt done.


It gets abusive, being a gay person in here. It makes you wonder sometimes if you’re even doing the right thing by inviting others in. I often wonder how many of us will stick it out.


For the last few years, I’ve held that mindset. I’ve held that worry. So the other day my world pretty much flipped upside down. Actual goosebumps prickled my arms. My eyes pooled up with tears.


Pew Research released their much-anticipated Religious Landscape survey, an annual look at religiosity (or lack thereof) amongst Americans. Much of the conversation was fixated on the decline of faith amongst Americans, which I am skeptical about anyway, but beneath the shuffle, there was something surprising. Startling. I didn’t actually believe it when I read it.


As people have left the faith, LGBs have turned to it. A six-point jump to 48%. That’s half. That’s one in two. And that’s nothing short of shocking. 


Given all that’s happened, all the experience, all the heartache, all the shame, all the anger, all the scars- unless this is some remarkable moment of reverse psychology- something bizarre is happening. Something that neither reason nor emotion can explain. Something that can only make sense once you factor in God.


I realized my mistake when I read these numbers. I had wanted to pry open the doors so others could come in, could see that God is not like what they’ve heard. But I forgot that He was already here. He always has been. On the outer ring of out. This edge is where He goes when He thinks of home.


God dwells in the margins. Walter Brueggemann once said, “the arc of the gospel is bent toward inclusivity.” And you only need to read the same book that has been shot like a dagger at the queer community to see that this has been the liberating story all along. God always drops anchor with the exiles. God lifts up the voices of the outcast in defiance of those that would say God’s love only goes so far, that God’s image is only reflected in a favored few. And it seems, He is doing it again.


It seems to be the never-ending work of God, collapsing all these false idols. God made man in his image and man returned the favor, so the quote goes, and history bears witness to that. God has been the slave-driver. God has been the abusive husband. God has been the fat-cat exploiting the impoverished. The name of God has been slapped on to our sinful systems, systems of domination and exclusion, systems intended to thin out everyone that doesn’t look like the most powerful one in the room. There has been so much maliciousness masked in God that it should hardly surprise us when a whole generation decides to drop out. No one can see God past those profiteering off of her.


So in response, God always goes nuclear. He goes and does crazy things. He goes and touches lepers and dines with tax collectors, lets a prostitute pour the perfume she saved for her tricks on his feet and then calls them all saved. He shows up at the well in enemy territory, at the hour only the shamed show up, to talk with an adulteress. He sends Phillip on a mission to make the first person evangelized an Ethiopian Eunuch. He drops a sheet of unclean food before Peter and tells him to eat it, tells him then to take this lesson and understand that people, too, are beloved, not unclean. And now He’s at it again. He is going to the people that have been banned from him, unfastening centuries of condemnation, drowning out every screaming picketer, pastor, blog post, every single word that stands between Him and us and saying, yes. You. I’ve always been here for you.


Always, God goes to those who have been hit hardest in his name and tells them another story. Tells them he’s for them. Tells them he’s in love. No matter how high or thick the walls may be- nothing can separate Jesus from his people, for he is a part of his people. He stirs loudly in their hearts. He always has. Always will.


48%. Hallelujah.

When Words Fail


Originally published in 2014, at Deeper Story

Across her lap was my notebook, college ruled and crinkled from use. I had been writing songs in it, per her suggestion that I channel my inner angst up and out of myself, into something creative.

I sat slack on the couch, eyes sagging low from last night’s insomnia and waited for her to finish. She turned the pages slowly, as if they were aged documents. A couple times she scratched her cheek. Looked up with a smile. Looked back down.

“You are, you say, “a thousand puzzle pieces with no one to put you back together”?” She asked, repeating a chorus line. I nodded. I explained, “Yes, yes, I am because I’m all broken up inside and no one knows how to fix me. I can’t figure out how to fix me. If you look at another poem, I note that God could fix me, but he doesn’t.” She flipped a couple pages ahead. “Ah.” She said. “He is watching you fall with, you say, ‘pitiless eyes’?”

After a couple weeks of me writing and her reading, we concluded that while writing was a tremendous tool for sorting out our stuff, gaining perspective and clearing a path toward healing, it wasn’t what I needed. It was actually awful for me.

At the time, my therapist didn’t know I was gay, but she knew that there was some deep sensitive secret thing in me, something I was not ready to share with her. I had told her there was a thing. I told her how this “thing” was keeping me up all night. How it hooked around my ankle like a weight and I was underwater. I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t slow down on the smoking, I couldn’t sit still for five minutes with my friends. And we decided that writing was just keeping my mind flooded with this worry, this darkness. I was dwelling in it. Drawing sad circles in the muck of it.

She suggested biking, at first,and then fishing, and then yoga. She listed off a number of things that could make some space between my mind and me.

So I biked, but then I’d stop somewhere and smoke and write in my notebook. I ran, but kept it short and then spent long hours of sad scribbling. I had a secret that needed to be shared. Needed to be said. Needed to get out of me, but I was so deep in the closet that all I could do was write parallel metaphors. Verses about hiding. About fear. About the world that was brushing up hard and fast against me.

Truth is, there wasn’t a single word, sentence, poem, book that spoke to the indescribable experience within me. Every time I tried, I missed.

When the sketching came, it came out of nowhere. I came back to my parents’ place one afternoon and saw my older brother hunched over a pad, slowly working out a portrait, glancing to his right at a flopped open book called “How To Draw”. He did this often, finding new hobbies. He had mastered a hundred, most of which I had little interest in myself, but for whatever reason, this captivated me. I walked over and stood behind him, lingering silently over his shoulder.

I got my own sketchpad and artist pencils and I sat at the Caribou down the road for several hours, drawing total crap. The upside to depression is that you can fail like this and not drop further than where you are, which is bottom. And so I kept at it. Day after day. Hour after hour.

Before long, I learned the different purposes of pencils, the darker shades, the lighter ones, how to make shadows look natural and eyes really shine. I learned the standard length of noses, how sketches are best started by using circles, then finished by sanding out a face or a dog or a car.

And before long, I was actually pretty good.

I was taken by it, the Visual Arts. I took up painting and then sculpture. I switched my minor to Studio Art and my junior year of college, I was a finalist in the school-wide art competition, an achievement I never could have predicted.

In many ways, the Visual Arts saved my life. When words were too much or too scary, I found color, line, shape, shade. And I found I had heart bent toward beauty and creation and depth.

This therapy was actually quite scientific. Art drew the pool of my mental energy to one corner of my mind, the artsy part, and in that move, it left the anxious and depressed parts to starve in some dark corner. It was an escape from life because, yes, sometimes you just need to escape for a season.

And in that escape, in that wordless season, I unknowingly found God. I can only see him there in retrospect.

When I went into my little makeshift studios, I found sanctuary. I found myself sitting before a canvas as the clock wound all the way around and there was nothing I needed to say, no prayer I needed to offer, no reason I needed to find to justify myself. I was just there. I was present. I was joyful. I was alive. My hands were covered in paint and ink and graphite, coated completely over with so many chemicals and for some reason, that makes me think of grace.

I set out unawares on a mysterious canal, oaring the roundabout way until fear felt less real. Until my own voice began to slowly rise in my throat. Until that moment, that breathtaking moment, when I looked up and saw the shore. I was always going home.

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