There's a Trick of the Light I'm Learning to Do

This is a collection of songs I wrote and recorded in January - March, 2020 while on sabbatical from ministry. They each deal with a different aspect or expression of the Gospel. Click on the image above to listen.

Three Hands Clapping

This is my latest recording project (released May 27, 2019). It is a double album of 22 songs, which very roughly track the story of my life... a sort of musical autobiography, so to speak. Click the album image to listen.

Ghost Notes

Ghost Notes
A collections of original songs I wrote in 2015, and recorded with the FreeWay Musical Collective. Click the album image to listen.

inversions

Recorded in 2014, these songs are sort of a chronicle of my journey through a pastoral burn-out last winter. They deal with themes of mental-health, spiritual burn-out and depression, but also with the inexorable presence of God in the midst of darkness. Click the album art to download.

soundings

soundings
click image to download
"soundings" is a collection of songs I recorded in September/October of 2013. Dealing with themes of hope, ache, trust and spiritual loss, the songs on this album express various facets of my journey with God.

bridges

bridges
Click to download.
"Bridges" is a collection of original songs I wrote in the summer of 2011, during a soul-searching trip I took out to Alberta; a sort of long twilight in the dark night of the soul. I share it here in hopes these musical reflections on my own spiritual journey might be an encouragement to others: the sun does rise, blood-red but beautiful.

echoes

echoes
Prayers, poems and songs (2005-2009). Click to download
"echoes" is a collection of songs I wrote during my time studying at Briercrest Seminary (2004-2009). It's called "echoes" partly because these songs are "echoes" of times spent with God from my songwriting past, but also because there are musical "echoes" of hymns, songs or poems sprinkled throughout the album. Listen closely and you'll hear them.

Accidentals

This collection of mostly blues/rock/folk inspired songs was recorded in the spring and summer of 2015. I call it "accidentals" because all of the songs on this project were tunes I have had kicking around in my notebooks for many years but had never found a "home" for on previous albums. You can click the image to download the whole album.

blogs I follow

Readings, 2020

Readings, 2020
Paradise Lost, John Milton

Adorning the Dark, Andrew Peterson

The Soul of Shame, Curt Thompson

Cure for the Common Life, Max Lucado

Halos and Avatars, Craig Detweiller, ed.

Fool's Talk, Os Guinness

Brendan, Frederick Buechner

The Screwtape Letters

Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis

The Pilgrim's Regress, C. S. Lewis

Becoming Whole, Brian Finkert and Kelly Kapic

Real Sex, Lauren Winner

Out of the Silent Planet, C. S. Lewis

Voyage to Venus, C. S. Lewis

That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis

Till We Have Faces, C. S. Lewis

random reads

Notes from the Ashes (Part I): Some Reflections on Pastoral Burn-out


It was just over a year ago now that I went through one of the darkest periods of my ministry, if not my life.  It was a season that started after a long run of emotionally demanding ministry challenges, a few hard disappointments in a row, some big uncertainties looming up on the horizon, and my worst self getting the better of me one too many times.  Before long I was exhibiting all the classic signs of burn-out—severe depression, physical exhaustion, difficulty making even simple decisions, unexpected and uncontrollable bouts of anxiety, and what those in the biz call “escape thoughts.”

After a few months of being like this, it all came to a head one very dark Sunday evening, when an unexpected email from a well-meaning friend expressing some concerns about my ministry, launched me into a startlingly intense and disproportionate explosion of frustration, fear and despair.  I say “startling” because when the storm passed, the uncontrollable eruption of emotion was so alarming to me that I finally admitted to myself, and my wife, that I needed help.

About a month later I was off on stress leave for emotional and physical exhaustion.  About three months after that, after a good deal of self-work, some pretty serious work on my life with God, and some much-less serious but vitally needed rest, I was back at my ministry post, with fresh clarity on who I was as a pastor, renewed heart for the ministry, and new depths in my life with God.  I was, in the words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “an older and wiser man.”

The medical term for what happened to me, I think, is “clinical depression.”  The corporate world calls it “burn-out” and the church sometimes calls it “compassion fatigue.”  I just call it “my dark time.”  It was very real, very raw, at times very scary, and, while I wouldn't wish it on anyone, God used it to help me become the pastor he has called me to be.

For the next few weeks here at terra incognita, I intend to share some practical and/or spiritual lessons I learned from my experience, some of the things God was doing in me through that time, and some of the things I wish people had told me about burn-out while I was going through it.  My purpose here is three-fold.  First, inasmuch as all this happened a year ago now, I think it would be personally helpful to review what I went through, to remind myself exactly how I got to a place I never want to be in again.  Second: one of the things that God said to me early on in my recovery time was that none of this would be wasted, that a deeper, more authentic ministry would grow out of the pain I was in; so perhaps sharing some of these spiritual insights is a way of humbly holding him to that promise, to redeem my burn-out by offering it as help and hope for others.  But most importantly, third: if you, or someone you know is now where I was then, or close, or on the way there, my hope is that these travel notes from someone who’s been down the path before may be of help to you.

To start it all off, let me offer four simple things I learned about burn-out that were very important first-steps—not to my recovery itself, necessarily, but to my getting to a place where I could begin to recover.  In a way similar to how acceptance is the first step to recovery of other kinds, these are four things I needed to hear someone I trusted say to me, before I could begin to heal.

1.  Burn-out is not a sign of failure but of strength

I know that sounds like the nonsense motivational speakers say when they want you to believe that "obstacles" are really "opportunities in disguise," but the thing is, when someone burns out, it’s because they've been doing too-well for too-long what other people would have given up on long ago.  Or think about it like the fuse in a car.  When the fuse blows, it’s not because the fuse failed, but because it worked: there was an overload on the system and by “blowing” the fuse did its job and protected the system from frying.  The burned-out pastor is like that fuse, inasmuch as he or she “blew” to keep the emotional load from frying the whole system (the local church or ministry context).  Refusing to “blow” and letting the emotional load fry the system would have been the real failure.

2.   You are not alone

Eugene Peterson, Henri Nouwen, Peter Scazzero, Bill Hybels, Rob Bell and, as far as I can gather, the Apostle Paul himself, have all been through what you’re going through.  One of the lies I believed early on in my experience, a lie that was keeping me from seeking the help I needed, went like this: “if you do ‘burn-out,’ your credibility as a pastor (such as it was) will be shot.”  So imagine my surprise, as I began reading about burn out, and I discovered that almost every contemporary church leader I’ve ever admired, respected, taken cures from or tried to model my ministry after, have themselves been through this thing called burn-out.  Knowing they’d come out the other side older and wiser helped me to believe I could, too.

3.  This is not "just in your head." 

Burn-out is as much a physical thing as it is an intellectual or emotional.  This was huge for me to realize because it forced me to accept that I could not "keep pushing" by sheer mental exertion alone, anymore than a guy with a broken femur can just "walk it off."  

(I’ll share more about this later, but here’s how it was explained to me:  your brain is built to run naturally on "feel-good-hormones" like endorphins, oxytocin and what not.  These chemicals are produced naturally by things like rest, sleep, physical exercise, good nutrition, making love to your spouse, enjoying the company of good friends, and so on.  If you deplete your system of these hormones because you’re running it too hard without doing the things that replenish them, your body will start producing adrenaline—a stress hormone—to keep it running instead.  This is like if you run out of gas for the car, so you use some high octane rocket fuel because it’s all you’ve got; it’ll run for a while, but eventually it will destroy your engine.  If you’ve been running for months on adrenaline, eventually the system will shut down, and no matter how hard you turn the key, it ain't gonna start anymore.  The only way to heal is to do those things—rest, exercise, recreation, friendship, nutrition—that replenishes the tank.)

4.  Depression is real

I would have "said" this before my dark time, of course, but after the dark time, I actually "get it." People who have experienced depression have different terms for it—the noon-day demon, the black dog, and so on—that try to put their finger on what it’s like to be depressed.  I often describe it like this: “It’s like, the sun’s shining.  You can feel the light on your face, feel the warmth on your skin, see the blue sky, and yet your brain tells you with all seriousness, ‘nope.  It’s another cloudy day.’”  I never thought I stigmatized people with depression before, until I faced my visceral resistance to seeking help for my own depression, and suddenly I realized all the prejudices and stereotypes and judgement I subconsciously harbored about “cloudy Dee,” that I never realized or admitted before.  It could be that exorcising those things—judgment, prejudice and stereotypes about depression—was one of  the things God was doing through my burn out.


If any of this is resonating with you today, let me encourage you to take it seriously.  One of the other things I learned about burn-out is that there's sort of a lag-time with it—that is, often we are burned out months before the "running on adrenaline" catches up to us and we finally have to admit that the tank is empty, so the sooner we're honest with ourselves, the better.

Burn-out is not the end of the world, but it is the end of some things—a false kind of self-sufficiency, an unrealistic perception of yourself and your limits, in-authenticity and dishonesty about where you're really at with God. But as someone who's been through it, let me humbly suggest that for us to grow in the ways of Jesus, the sooner those things come to an end, the better.

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