(Photo courtesy of Ben Courson)
Robustly Flavored Donuts of Fun
A Story on Discovering the Love of God
By Ben Courson
I was a robot with dead batteries. It was a far cry from my previous life, which was…give or take…ROBUSTLY FLAVORED DONUTS OF FUN. I went from a Tigger-on-steroids to a Puddleglum. I once ate rainbow sandwiches for lunch and Pegasus steak for dinner, but now I found myself famished of encouragement nourishment. Where once I wandered among the wonders, I now ambled along streets glistening with wet, cold in the cold, alone with the alone.
I remember the exact moment I got depressed. It was a month before my 18th birthday.
I had conquered my high school dreams of winning the homecoming crown and getting elected student body president and voted into the All League basketball squad. We had hundreds of people coming to my house in high school when I started a Bible study – and I had been preaching since third grade! Now as a 16-year-old I was traveling and speaking! I was the happy clappy kid on Mission Possible.
That is, until horrors began to howl in my head when I flung myself headlong into hell.
I decided to leave high school early and train for “the ministry,” a phrase that triggers a gustatory impulse to baby barf and I became a pastor my senior year of high school. There’s a reason people don’t become teaching pastors of megachurches when they are teenagers.
It was miserable.
Being a “pastor” just wasn’t me. Never has been.
The transition from frat boy to holier-than-thou minister was a giant exercise in wearing Saul’s armor. And my clinical depression began when I moved from So Cal funventures with friends to Mexico ministry prep.
In high school I had effectively and essentially lived at Disneyland. My friends and I would climb on top of the Indiana Jones ride and drop leaves and twigs and things on people. When the firework show began, we yelled, “We‘re under attack!“ People ducked and panicked hearing fireworks burst like spiders across the stars they mistook for bombs. Then we proceeded to run away from (and even jump over) the security guards. We drove my Jeep into rivers. We climbed 30 foot tall IKEA racks as if we were expert mountain climbers. We went to screamo shows at which we would violently flail into each other while my friend Tyler played so eccentric a front man as to make Freddy Mercury look tame. He’d sport shorts of the hot pink variety that were painfully tiny in a postmodernist, self-referential wink-at-the-camera nod to how art shouldn’t be taken so seriously- hey- it’s just art after all. We did drive-bys and squirt-gunned innocent victims (and yes, a literal car chase ensued). We snuck into corporate recycling centers and jumped in foam pits. We snuck into muffy hotel hot tubs. As a sheltered kid who was straightedge and didn’t drink or cuss, it was as anti-establishment as I could be. It was the kind of reckless life a rebellious Christian school kid leads. And it was fun.
But then life got serious.
When I became a pastor, I felt that in order to make a difference I had to be Lord Super-Somber-Serious-Saint. Most the people I knew in ministry looked like they were employed and deployed by the local morgue. I love those peeps and all, it just wasn’t like my fun and sun vibe and tribe I’d been used to. Ministry tended toward the depressing and I was not alone in my assessment.
The great U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said he might have entered the ministry had the clergymen he knew not looked and acted like undertakers. I agreed. Most pastors I knew – God bless em – gave caretakers a run for their money with their lighting candelabras that would be the envy of Catholic undertakers, dimming the sanctuary lights to a satanic gloom, and leading songs about how “This world has nothing for me” despite the fact that the Psalms says, “The Earth God hath given to the sons of men.” So far from treating God as a father, we children of the night sucked at the proverbial paps of darkness. The good news was eclipsed by pessimistic blues. It was sad. As it is written in the Swinburne Poems, “Thou hast conquered O pale Galilean, the world hath grown grey from they breath.” The “ministry” around me seemed about as colorful as the opening scenes of “Wizard of Oz.”
Robert Louis Stevenson was no stranger to how morbid church world can be. He jotted in his journal, “I went to church today, and I am not depressed.” He wrote that as if it were a small miracle. Little wonder Julian the Apostate tried to undo his uncle Constantine’s work of Christianizing the Roman Empire by reintroducing the pagan gods. He said that Christians were pale-faced and flat-breasted…that the sun always shines for them but they see it not. To buttress this critique yet further the social critic John Ruskin was given a jumping jack as a child only to be rebuked by a pious aunt because Christians weren’t allowed to play with toys. What that must’ve done to a boy’s psyche…I shudder to think.
This was the Christianity I had bought into. In my attempt to be holy, I would bow slavishly on my knees as I prayed, as if the story stopped at the Garden of Gethsemane and never QUITE made it to the Garden Tomb. The veins in my neck would pop as I petitioned. Sometimes I would just lay flay on my face before a holy God. I began to read the Puritans. Not exactly material about unicorns shooting rainbows out of their eyes.
I had dreams of giving people hope on television and radio and speaking around the world, writing books that awakened people to wonder (all of which I do now) but at the time, I thought these desires to be selfish so I tried to shove my visioneering down to my subconscious. “Hope deferred makes my heart sick” and I was no exception to this axiomatic proverb. So far from being a professional funhaver, I became a card-carrying member of the Pharisees. I defined myself by abnegation. The more miserable I was the more holy I assumed I’d become. I was part and parcel of gloom and doom. If brevity is the wit of genius, and packs a pithy proverbial palatable punch, then what verse would be the perfect Twitter bio for the Churchianity I subscribed to?
“Jesus wept.” After all, that IS the shortest verse in the Bible, right?
Or is it?
Miscellaneous biblical trivia. The shortest verse in the Bible is NOT “Jesus wept.” In the original language, that’s 16 characters. The shortest verse is actually Paul’s command to “Rejoice always.” In Greek, that’s 14 characters.
Weeping DOES endure for a night. But joy comes in the morning. An important B Clause, wouldn’t you say?
Tired of being the suicidal weeping pastor, I went in search of a sunbeam. I studied books previously considered taboo, poured my heart out to God, met new people who were actually like the person I was created to be, and accumulated vastly different experiences from the church world I knew. I began to discover that there is an alternative to making an agony out of your religion, namely: to enjoy a friendventure with the “God of hope” as Paul nicknamed the Principle Behind Which You Cannot Go.
Though many of the high ranking officers of Churchianity spoke about the cross with underscored emphasis, the first church in Acts didn’t stop at the cross but finished the story and actually included the bit about resurrection. Writing myself into a narrative that ended with an empty tomb was a whole heaven of a lot better than pausing the movie during the most bloody part of “The Passion of the Christ.”
At any rate, depression began to relax its iron grip on me when an over-and-above kind of life came into blossom – and miraculously I started defeating depression.
I began to go on long prayer walks and tell God my dreams. I chose to follow them instead of being crushed by the misery of religiosity. I turned a bronze face to the expectations of others and stopped presenting an image to the world that wasn’t who I truly was. I became a professional funhaver. Hard as I played, I worked harder. As it is written in Lamentations, “It is good for a man to bear the yoke in his youth,” so in my twenties I set my mind to investing 10,000 hours of training into my speaker/author craft – and ended up clocking in 11,073 hours of intentional practice toward public speaking and writing over a five-year period. I stopped waiting for opportunity to roll up and instead, I rolled up my sleeves. I wrote a fantasy trilogy. I invited friends into my life. We started skateboarding and going on Godventures around the world. We determined we weren’t going to talk about what others only gave to lip service – no – other people’s dreamality would be our past tense. Rather than merely fantasize about filming for our TV show in Times Square we actually put wheels on it. And instead of praying like God would strike me down at any moment, I let my Abba love on me, and held firmly onto His promises.
Depression had me seized up like the Apple Rainbow death wheel, but the God of Hope brought me back to life.
I’d be lying if I said the journey to defeating depression was pain free. It wasn’t. But I decided to stop crying and start sweating. It was time to wage war. I began to study what it meant to endure hardship as a good soldier of JC. I found my inspo in Recon, Rangers, Paratroopers, Delta Force, Navy Seal Team 6, MI 5, and DEFCON 1. My favorites, the Navy Seals, would get hypothermia during hell week as the soldiers linked arms and shivered together in the frigid waters of Coronado Bay, each man hoping the guy next to him would go to the bathroom, then and there, to warm his neighbor up. Gross, but effective. Seals are known to practice Cognitive Restructuring: which is when you say something is good even if it’s bad to convince your mind that hard things are actually wonderful. No matter what horrible things are happening to Seals, they say, “Good Times.” This convinces their brain that when they’re getting shot at, it’s pleasurable. Joel said, “Let the weak say that I am strong.” By speaking it, you start to convince your brain it’s true.
I began to speak Hope messages, regardless of what I felt, and through cognitive restructuring and neural plasticity, I convinced my brain hope was real. Just as God spoke into existence worlds with His words, I spoke despair into oblivion.
I got healed.
And before you think healing just ain’t in the cards for you, remember Jesus spent just as much time healing people’s bodies as he did teaching their souls. In the stories of the Bible, Jesus did only thee miracles in Jerusalem. But two of the three total miracles Jesus did in the City of David involved healing the lame man at Bethesda and the blind man at the pool of Siloam. Interesting because back in the Old Testament, the Jebusites told David he couldn’t conquer Jerusalem. “Even the lame and the blind could stop you, and you will not enter,” they taunted. Nevertheless, David conquered it. David took care of the military needs of the city but Jesus – the Son of David – took care of the health needs of Jerusalem. The lame and blind couldn’t stop David from conquering the city, nor could the lame and blind stop the Son of David from healing it.
I was blind as a bat and groping in the dark, sick with analysis paralysis, but I got healed and began walking and leaping and praising God. All along God was closer than I thought, the healing balm of Gillead at the ready, eager to tend to my wounds. Depression didn’t stand a chance. Jehova Rapha proved to be a God who heals.
When I wondered if He had abandoned me, He was closer to me than I’d ever suspected.
In the Old Testament, the ineffable name of God was called the Tetragrammaton: spelled “YHWH“. In the written Hebrew language, there are only consonants and no vowels. YHWH are the only consonants that cannot be spoken with the tongue or with lips closed. Why? Because the pronouncing of the sacred name was an attempt to imitate and replicate breath. The ancient rabbis teach that to correctly say the name of God you basically inhale “Yah” and exhale “Weh.” That means the first thing you say out of your mother’s womb is the name of God. And God is the last thing you say when you die. Maybe you don’t die when you stop breathing. Maybe you die when you can no longer say the name of God.
I love it when atheists say there is no God, because all the while they’re breathing his name without realizing it. And I love it when people say they haven’t had a prayer time in a while when actually they are praying without ceasing, every breath they are praying the name of God through the Spirit with groanings that cannot be uttered. That’s why the word “spirit” and “breath” are the same in every major language: The Spirit is as near to you as your very breath. Jesus breathed on his disciples and gave them the Spirit. God breathed into dust and it became a living man. God renamed Abram “AbraHAM” and Sarai becomes “SarAH” because now the breath of Yahweh is in there very name and identity.
As Paul said, in God we live and BREATHE and have our being.
Or as Paul talked about godliness with contending is great gain – the word picture in the Greek is the cute little exhale of a baby in the arms of his daddy. So too as a child of Abba, you sit in his everlasting arms, breathing prayers in the Spirit with groanings that cannot be uttered.
Every time I sighed in depression, I was speaking the name of God without even knowing it. As Jacob said, “The Lord was here; and I knew it not.” In my darkest days, God was as near to me my very breath. With such splendors of hope as these, depression is illogical. Don’t be sad, because sad spelled backwards is das, and das not good.
The day of despair has ended. The time of the Optimisfits have come. Let the funhavers arise!
Jesus had only 3 years to change the world. And He still found the time to have banquets, go on picnics, and party with his friends. He is somehow less busy and more fun than any pastor I know.
Now THERE’s a ministry I can vibe with…
For more on Ben and his new book, “Optimisfits,” visit bencourson.com