Mating Rattlesnakes? Really?!

It was early morning. Brewing coffee smelled like breakfast. The dogs were fed and settled into their morning rag doll poses. I stumbled outside with bleary eyes to fill the bird feeder, retrieved it from the hook under the big mesquite tree, and stopped to look at the sky. Another beautiful day. But that’s Arizona.

As I leaned over the faded blue plastic tub in which I store the seed, I stopped. Something wasn’t right. I rubbed my eyes and focused. Yes. Right behind the seed tub: a huge rattler coiled and lying quietly. Suddenly its abrasive rattle sounded the alarm. I backed away very quietly and hurried inside. Adrenaline was surging wildly through my now wide-awake body. My wife looked up as I entered the bedroom. She was a picture of peace with our dog, Molly, on her lap. “Rattler!” I blurted. “A big one!” No more peace.

I retrieved the gun and checked for snake shot. (If anyone knows where you can buy snake shot for a revolver, let me know. It seems that no one is selling it any more.) Cautiously approaching the snake, which was now in the strike position and swaying, it again flicked its tail a few times to warn me. I stopped and stared. Is that two rattles? Must be a mutant with two tails! It sure is a big one. I realized I would have to pull out the bin to get a good shot. Thankfully the snake remained where it was, ready to strike. I stared again! Two snakes together! Yikes!

Dead rattlers still connected
The male is belly up and therefore appears white. He was 43″ and the female 41″ long.

I aimed the gun and pulled the trigger. The first shot killed them both. Of course, I shot a second time just to be sure. When I pulled them out into the driveway to cut off their heads, I saw that they were mating! I guess I interrupted a little romantic moment. Too bad. So sad. I laughed now that the frightening moment was gone and wondered if they knew what hit them in their early morning ardor. Those rattlesnake babies be won’t seeing the light of day, thank you very much!

The sad end of a love affair gone wrong.

 Three years earlier I had encountered a single rattler in a similar encounter. It was my first experience with both my gun and a rattlesnake and I was shaky. It was behind a couch on the same porch and it took me three shots to kill it. I later had to do some extensive patching in the stucco where most of the shot had landed.

Altogether we’ve killed six rattlers on our nine-acre property. My son-in-law and his boys killed the first one. Such masterful butchers are they! The rattlers were babies, just as deadly.

Some people ask why we would live here where we must be so vigilant. “Well,” we say, looking at the Huachuca Mountains that fill the southern horizon with grandeur and ever-changing cloud formations, watching the hummingbirds dart from one red yucca bloom to another, and thinking of the ice-free winters we enjoy and the quiet and serenity that surround us and feed our souls, “Just crazy, I guess.”

Are You Good Enough?

.Seattle, 1958. Sunset Junior High School. Ninth grade gym class. Fresh from the West Indies and with a heavy British accent, I dragged myself to the locker room one more time for the usual embarrassment. I was 5’ 4’’ tall and weighed almost 170 pounds. My thick glasses helped me see but nothing had helped me understand American sports. My sister was sent away to school when I was seven, leaving me the only child of busy missionary parents who were always at their desks or their work. I played the piano, ate (some afternoons I consumed an entire can of Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk), and read. It was not only American sports that confused me. It was all sports. I had witnessed perhaps one basketball game, no football games, and not even a cricket match, which would have been more likely in Trinidad.

We suited up and filed into the gym. Our ruddy-faced PE teacher hauled in a large bag of balls and shouted, “Basketball this week, fellas!” All but one of the boys were excited and were soon shouting, joking, and shooting baskets. I, the foreigner, stood against the wall trying to make myself invisible. We lined up. Two of my classmates were named captains and chose their teams—I was always last—and the game began. Of course, everyone had his turn and my inevitable moment arrived. I had watched carefully to try to learn what to do. Suddenly someone threw me the ball. By this time I had figured out that I should get the ball and shoot a basket, and so I shoved the ball under my arm and ran to the end of the court. The coach’s whistle shrilled and everybody stared. “Schlitz!” (He never got my name right.) “Don’t you know you are supposed to dribble the ball?!“ Dribble? My face crimsoned to uproarious, hooting laughter.

A Childhood Experience Grows into Dysfunction.

By my senior year things were much better. I was losing the accent and understood most idioms of American life. But the feeling of not being good enough was still lodged in my mind. Years later and in my forties with a beautiful wife and three great kids, the feeling roared back. It had nothing to do with sports now. It was my Christian faith that was the bugaboo. By this time I had a graduate degree from seminary and had been both a pastor and associate pastor in several congregations. I was supposed to have the answers, to understand theology, how prayer works, and just what to say to the parents of the dying child in the emergency room. But I didn’t have all of the answers. Some days I wondered if I had any answers.

My flawed theology led me to label some vocations as more valuable than others. To my way of thinking, missionaries were number one and pastors were number two. Others were three or lower. I’m sure my parents made mistakes but they never shared them with me. Ours was a proud denomination certain of ourselves and our right doctrine. Everything was right or wrong. No minister or pastor that I knew ever slipped up. In fact, Every Christian was supposed to be perfect and live above sin, period. We were a well-intentioned but graceless group who defined ourselves by the things we didn’t do. We didn’t drink. We didn’t smoke. We didn’t dance. We didn’t play cards. We didn’t swear. We didn’t go to movies. You get the picture. When Christians we knew did these things, they were labeled a failure.

And now I didn’t have the answers. I struggled at times with temptation. For the first time I recognized my deep-seated anger against my parents for sending me away to school and against the denomination that sent them to the mission field. I was trapped. I was angry and Christians don’t get angry. I doubted my beliefs and Christians should have strong faith. I could no longer do the job and had never been taught it was okay to fail. I felt that I was not good enough. Especially was I not good enough to be a pastor, and way below my falsely created pedestal of missionary perfection. And so I left pastoral ministry.

When we’re not good enough.

So what happens in this environment? People pretend. We hide. We hide our true selves and display what everyone thinks we should be. People do this everywhere. We pretend we’re someone else (posting flattering photos on Facebook or dating web sites). We adopt an attitude of superiority to hide our feeling of inferiority (swaggering around in front of our friends to impress them). This is usually an unconscious response to not feeling good enough. In today’s mean-spirited society, we are particularly susceptible to bullying. We’ve all read the tragic accounts of teenagers who have killed themselves because of being labeled as losers. Our culture praises beautiful bodies and the lifestyle of the rich and famous. Who can compete? The Business world demands being super productive and twelve-hour days. It’s no wonder so many of us feel inadequate, marginalized, and useless. “I’m not good enough” becomes a lifelong personality disorder that torpedoes relationships and fractures marriages and families. It leads to depression—and even suicide.

What now?

  1. Examine your negative self-image. Where does it come from? Peers and parents are two powerful forces and either or both can make you feel wonderful or horrible. Who is telling you that you are not good enough? Is it you or someone else? If it’s you, why do you feel inadequate? What event, experience, or relationship is fueling your pain?
  2. Ask a trusted friend about your perceptions. How do they understand the triggers that launch your self-doubt? What good things do they see in you? What do they believe about you?
  3. Are you transparent? Are you real or do you put up a front that you imagine others want you to be? No one can live a lie. It’s okay to be who you really are. Jettison friends who require you to pretend.
  4. Failure is temporary. Life is a learning process and you are very resilient. Thousands of people we think of as big successes failed countless times in the pursuit of their vision. It’s okay to fail. How you respond to failure is a key to succeeding in life.
  5. Failure is not a sin. Everyone fails at some point. It’s the nature of life. Only God is perfect but He is also gracious, understanding, and loving.
  6. Comparison is corrosive. Comparing yourself to others breeds dissatisfaction, jealousy, envy, and depression. In truth, we often don’t even know the people to whom we compare ourselves!
  7. God has made you a marvelous and creative person. You are created in His image. He loves you as you are. He gave up Heaven to walk this earth in human form to teach us that He understands. He died for your sins and, if you accept him, He will live in you now and give you Heaven forever.

Epilogue

By God’s grace, my story did not end with my departure from pastoral ministry. In the months and years that followed, God revealed Himself to me with remarkable and uplifting encouragement. He immediately gave me three scriptures verses which extinguished my burning sense of ministerial failure.

  • The first was from Mark 1:11, “You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy.” I foolishly reacted with some statement about this verse being for Jesus. God said, “It is my Word and today it is about you.”
  • The second was from Haggai 2:23: “I will make you like a signet ring on my finger, says theLord, for I have chosen you.”
  • The third was from Luke 22:31-32 “Satan has asked to sift each of you like wheat.But I have pleaded in prayer for you, [David] that your faith should not fail. So when you have repented and turned to me again, strengthen your brothers.”

I have learned that God was neither surprised nor disappointed by my struggle. It made no difference to Him that I felt that I had failed. He didn’t mind that I was angry at the church or wanted nothing to do with further ministry. Nothing I was feeling disqualified me in His eyes from His original call upon my life to be his boy.

The grace that I was never taught but experienced from gracious people like my adopted parents, L. T.  and Helen Flynt, my parents-in-law, John and Florence Neal and, of course, my wife and children, has become a permanent and healing part of my life. They from the beginning have loved me as I am and their love is unconditional and forever. Thank you!

God graciously used me in other ministry positions, including two wonderful pastorates and now in retirement. He continues to heal me from my need to be perfect and reminds me not to compare myself with others.

I pray that you, too, will find His grace and peace.

The Devastation of Depression

depressed man  It was 2002 and the first Monday of our keenly anticipated summer vacation when I noticed sudden, severe back pain. In less than a week I was in the ER, near death, and diagnosed with sepsis, double pneumonia, kidney failure, and bacterial meningitis. Four days later I woke up in ICU, beginning a long recovery with months of intravenous antibiotics and physical therapy. Miraculously, I survived, thanks to excellent medical treatment and praying friends.
In much the same way twelve years earlier depression blindsided me in the middle of a wonderful career as the pastor of a growing, exciting congregation. But whereas the meningitis is long gone with no after effects, the depression lingers after more than fifteen years of antidepressants, psychotherapy, and a loyal, loving, and incredibly patient wife. After a hiatus from pastoral ministry, I returned, but never regained my enthusiasm, joy, or energy. My wife tells me I have difficulty relating to anyone on an emotional level. It seems depression has permanently blunted my emotions and crippled intimacy on many levels.

Already an introvert, I only wanted to be alone. I avoided conflict and was (am still) unable to watch any movie or play with stressful relationships. People exhaust me and many days I could be happy staring at the horizon with only the dog for company. I can no longer serve on committees or take leadership.

How do I, a Christian, handle depression when all my life I was taught that prayer works and God heals? What caused this catastrophic emotional typhoon, the devastation of which keeps on robbing me and my family from the joyful companionship we long enjoyed?

Causes of Depression

 (Disclaimer: I am neither a medical professional nor a psychologist and only share what I am learning from reading, counseling, and personal experience.)

Actually, depression is a normal part of the ups and downs of life. For example, after a stressful tennis match, business meeting, or extremely busy event, the body goes into mild depression to help you recover. Too much stimulation causes adrenaline flow which, if left unchecked, can physically and emotionally damage you. But after a day off, a nap, or a vacation, you are recharged and ready to go.

Harmful depression is triggered by certain experiences that make you feel trapped. Depression builds when these stressful situations, relationships, or events occur so often or rapidly that there is no recovery time, creating a downward spiral of worsening depression which can become impossible to overcome. This downward spiral often builds over many years in which a person feels trapped by abuse, work, a bully, bad health, or family stress until suddenly your coping ability implodes and you collapse emotionally.

One counselor explained it to me this way. Suppose you are in a swimming pool and someone throws you a beach ball (stressful event) that you must hide. You hold it under the water with no problem. Then another beach ball comes. You hold it down. Then another, and another, and another, until…..you can’t hold them down (cope) any more. They shoot to the surface (you can no longer function). Depression becomes chronic when the chemical imbalance in your system caused by stress or your emotional triggers becomes permanent.

My depression developed both from experiences as a child of missionary parents and an obsessive compulsive nature that wanted to keep everyone happy. Pastoring a church places you in a wonderful place of being able to help, encourage, and guide people to a fulfilling, life-changing relationship with God. I loved that. What I did not know how to handle was conflict, disagreements, the stress of building facilities we no longer had money for, displeasing people with different theologies, and managing staff and volunteers with emotional needs I could not fathom. Added to this was a growing discovery of longstanding anger at my parents for sending me and my sister away to school while we were only children, resentment against those with impossible demands, and the fatal misunderstanding that a good Christian (and pastor!) should never be angry. Up came the beach balls and I was totally incapacitated.

Surviving Depression

When my depression slammed me to the mat, my congregation responded with grace, support, and love. They granted me a three-month leave and recommended seeing a counselor. Soon after I moved to a different career and began taking antidepressants, all which have been part of the survival process. In that time—and the many years since–I have begun to recognize the triggering events. I have read widely, counseled with some wonderful counselors, and asked my family to forgive me—a continuous process.

  • I am blessed to have an extremely supportive and loving family. They have stuck with me through thick and thin. Thank you, family!
  • Feedback from those who know you well and a good counselor will help you understand and recognize the triggers that set you off. Understanding your past and the causes of repressed anger is vital to coping as life continues. There are many excellent resources available and I have read many. Particularly helpful was the book Boundaries: When to say Yes, How to say No to take control of your life[1]. Personality tests, including the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Personality Inventory[2], were a revelation to me.
  • Antidepressants are a lifesaver. Do not hesitate to talk with your doctor about these. The stigma surrounding these has largely disappeared, but some people still feel that you should get over your depression and get off the medicine. Not true. If you have high blood pressure, your doctor will tell you the medicine is for life. It’s the same with antidepressants.
  • As a lifelong Christian, it has been crucial for me to understand God’s grace and to accept imperfection. Many Christians still play the tapes from their childhood or particular denomination that condemn failure of faith and shun those who don’t fit the mold.
  • It’s okay to be who I am, even if I’m depressed.
  • The world is still beautiful. God’s love and grace are sufficient. He loves me—and you—the way we are, not the way we’re “supposed to be.”
  • Life is still meaningful, even with depression, and I am learning to sing songs again. I call them Night Songs.

[1] Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life, Zondervan, © Henry Cloud and John Townsend. See www.zondervan.com.

[2] See www.myersbriggs.org