How Jesus Found Me at Harvard

“Into [my atheistic state], God broke in.”

What a powerful story from Harvard professor, Mark Shepard.

Short article. Enjoy… nw

Harvard University is special for me because it is where I first came to know Jesus Christ. Perhaps this should not be surprising. Harvard is a place that reveres truth (Veritas), and Jesus says he is the truth. But most people when they hear this about me are surprised, since they see the university as a secular place. Let me share my story and a few of the surprises it has entailed.

I grew up in a Jewish home and was raised in Hebrew school and Jewish observance. But by the time I entered Harvard College as a freshman, I had rebelled and become an atheist. Like many atheists, I had strong beliefs. I believed that faith was the opposite of reason – and therefore to be avoided. I believed that science was the only real way of knowing truth. And I believed that life should be lived based on logical optimization and rationality, free from the softness of emotional thinking. (Perhaps you can see why I became an economist.)

Into this state, God broke in.

My first surprise was meeting Christians who actually believed their faith – and in a thoughtful, intelligent way. I got to know a resident tutor, who also happened to be a minister for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In long conversations in the dining halls, we explored the deep questions: Is there a God? Is there purpose behind the universe? Is there such thing as moral truth? And what does the Bible have to say about all this? Amazingly to me, my tutor had faith, but also welcomed questioning of that faith and consideration of evidence for and against Christianity. Here was a faith not opposed to reason, but deeply involved with it.

My second surprise was in the power of the Bible, and particularly Jesus, to make sense of the world, and to move and inspire me. As I read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount for the first time, I was blown away. Here was the most beautiful, powerful expression of moral truth I had ever encountered. But who did this come from? Could this really be the work of a poor Jewish carpenter and his uneducated followers? And how could I deal with the fact that my worldview gave me little grounding even to believe in moral truth?

My third surprise – which still surprises and challenges me to this day – was finding out that I am a sinner. This merits explanation. Sin, in common usage, is a joke. It’s a word used for pleasurable things that prudish people label as bad. This is not what I mean by sin. Sin, in my experience, is rooted in an overwhelming pride. When I enter the world, I want to be better than people around me – to be more impressive and more accomplished, and to be recognized as such. When mixed with an academic environment like Harvard, this sinful tendency is toxic. Collectively, it leads to bottom-line thinking, with a culture of celebrity for people who succeed and worthlessness for those who do not. It turns Harvard’s greatest strength – its brilliant people – into a source of envy and anxiety. In my life, I have seen this way of thinking lead to depression, unfruitfulness, and a desire to quit academics and even life itself. Sin is self-destructive.

While my old worldview gave me few resources to understand or deal with sin, Christianity confronts it head on. God’s answer is the gospel: the good news that Jesus came into the world to live, die, and be raised for sinners. The gospel reminds me, first, that because God is central, life is not about me but about him. I don’t have to achieve, to impress, to justify myself. I am accepted in him. Second, the gospel frees me from the misdeeds of my past, since Jesus has paid for them. Finally, the gospel gives me – and the whole university – a new purpose. By learning, teaching, and relating to each other in humility and love, we participate in renewing the world. This is a purpose in which everyone in the university can participate, regardless of rank or status.

God’s vision for the university now animates my heart and gives me continual resources to renew my life and to beat back sin. I encourage you to consider this truth that has changed my life and promises to do the same for you.

Mark Shepard is an assistant professor at Harvard Kennedy School of Government. His main research studies health economics.

Wall Street Journal: How to Spot Teen Depression

This article from the Wall Street Journal appeared in their May 5, 2018, edition.  For your convenience, the entire article is included here.  Depression is the number one mental condition associated with suicide.  nw

How to Spot Teenage Depression

New guidelines focus on helping better identify teens who may be struggling with depression, as rates for the disorder climb

By Elizabeth Bernstein

Updated March 5, 2018 4:43 p.m. ET

Is your child’s moodiness a sign of typical teenage angst—or the beginning of a depression that needs professional attention?

Statistics show that teen depression is on the rise.

In 2016, around 13% of U.S. teenagers ages 12-17 had at least one major depressive episode in the past year, compared to almost 8% in 2006, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which collects this information. Rates for teenagers ages 18 and 19, which are tracked separately, grew as well: More than 11% had a major depressive episode in 2016, compared with 9-10% in 2006.

The survey also found that almost 60% of adolescents with a major depressive disorder didn’t receive treatment. Parents don’t always identify the problem—or know what to do about it even when they do. And teens often resist treatment because of the stigma around mental-health issues. Yet adolescents whose depression goes untreated struggle in school, in their relationships, and to engage in activities they enjoy.

Many teens are moody. But to help better identify teens who may be struggling with depression, the American Academy of Pediatrics last month issued updated guidelines—the first in a decade—recommending that pediatricians screen all those ages 12 and older for depression annually and involve families in the assessment.

The diagnosis for depression is the same for teens as it is for adults. Psychiatrists and health-care professionals define major depressive disorder as five or more of the following symptoms present for two weeks: depressed mood most of the day, irritability, decreased interest or pleasure in most activities, significant change in weight or appetite, change in sleep, increased agitation or sluggishness, fatigue or loss of energy, feelings of guilt or worthlessness, changes in concentration and recurrent thoughts of death.

Rising rates of adolescent depression are fueled by some unique stressors faced by this generation, the first to grow up with smartphones and social media, mental-health experts say. While teenagers have always felt pressure to be attractive and well-liked, social media amps up the anxiety with real-time measures of popularity such as “follows” and “likes.” Teens also can see immediately when they’ve been left out of an activity by classmates or friends.

Psychologists say this generation of teens also may feel more vulnerable than recent ones because of events such as school shootings, which they follow in real-time—and often via firsthand accounts—on sites such as Twitter or Facebook and through texts and calls.

Add to all of this the pressure to succeed, as colleges become even more competitive. “Teens worry: ‘Am I going to be successful? What do I need to do to get where I need to be? Am I doing enough, in academics, philanthropy and sports?’” says Jessica Feinberg, a licensed clinical social worker and program director of the Adolescent Acute Residential Treatment Program at McLean Hospital, a Harvard-affiliated psychiatric hospital in Belmont, Mass.

Adolescents—who aren’t always in touch with their feelings or mature enough to articulate them—often become more irritable or angry than adults do when depressed, therapists say. They sometimes complain of physical symptoms, such as stomachaches or headaches that don’t have an identifiable cause.

Unlike most adults, they typically lack an awareness of the changes in their behavior.

“Most adults understand if they feel depressed or melancholic—and they’re aware of the effect it has on their work or life,” says Joseph Penn, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, and chair of the American Psychiatric Association Council on Children, Adolescents and Their Families. “Adolescents don’t have insight.”

And girls and boys may behave differently. More girls become depressed. They tend to cry more or withdraw, yet they’re still more willing to talk about their feelings than boys, says McLean’sMs. Feinberg. “Boys act out more,” she says. “They may have conduct issues, destroy things in their room or throw things, get into drugs or alcohol.”

But the most significant signs to look for are an impairment in functioning often across several areas of the child’s life—school, social, extracurricular—and an inability to experience pleasure, which appears to have no cause. “It’s the hallmark that differentiates teenage moodiness from depression,” says John T. Walkup, chair of the department of psychiatry at Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

Corrections & Amplifications 
More than 11% of teenagers ages 18 and 19 had a major depressive episode in 2016, compared with 9-10% in 2006. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated more than 11% of teenagers ages 18 and 19 had a major depressive episode in 2006.

Steps to Take

What should you do if you think your teenager is depressed?

Be curious. Ask gentle questions and listen without being critical, says Jessica Feinberg, a licensed clinical social worker and program director of the Adolescent Acute Residential Treatment Program at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. “Validate your child’s feelings,” she says. “This does not mean you have to agree with them. It’s enough to say ‘I hear you. Let’s talk.’”

Ask others. A child who is depressed will often have impaired functioning in several areas of life. Check with the school, coaches, family and friends to see if they also notice a change.

Talk to the pediatrician. The doctor can rule out physical causes, such as a thyroid problem or a side-effect of medicine, and make a recommendation to a mental-health professional if needed. Share your family history: Depression, like other mental illnesses, tends to track in families, says John T. Walkup, chair of the department of psychiatry at Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

Find a therapist. Make sure the therapist is licensed and has experience with adolescents. Look for someone who practices Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a short-term, evidence-based approach that helps identify inaccurate or negative thinking in order to respond to situations more effectively. Ask the school or your friends for recommendations, and let your teen have a part in the decision.

Consider a psychiatrist.. In the case of a mental-health disorder, research shows a mix of therapy and medication often works best, says Joseph Penn, a psychiatrist and chair of the American Psychiatric Association Council on Children, Adolescents and Their Families. “If you don’t treat depression, one of the major risk factors, while rare, is death from suicide,” he says.

Have a plan for college. If your teen suffers from depression, find a therapist near the school and ask your child to sign the college’s confidentiality waiver, so the school can legally contact you if your child has a health crisis.

Get your own therapist. This shouldn’t be the same person your child sees. Take care of your physical health, as well. “It’s the same idea as on an airplane, when you put the oxygen mask on yourself before you put it on your child,” Ms. Feinberg says.

Act immediately if your child talks about self-harm. “A lot of times it is really hard to figure out if a kid is suicidal or crying wolf,” Dr. Penn says. “But it has to be taken seriously regardless.”

Write to Elizabeth Bernstein at elizabeth.bernstein@wsj.com or follow her on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram at EbernsteinWSJ.

Wall Street Journal: Increase in Teen Suicidal Behavior

The Wall Street Journal article below appeared in their May 18, 2018, edition.  I have included the article in its entirety here for your convenience.  nw

LIFE

Youth Suicidal Behavior Is on the Rise, Especially Among Girls

Suicide was the second-leading cause of death among 10- to 24-year-olds in 2016, up from third place in earlier years, according to the CDC

By  Jeanne Whalen

Updated May 15, 2018 2:21 p.m. ET

A new study finding a rise in suicidal thoughts and attempts among young people adds to the research pointing to a decline in mental health among U.S. children and adolescents.

The study showed the proportion of young people treated at 31 U.S. children’s hospitals for suicidal thoughts or attempts more than doubled between 2008 and 2015, from 0.66% of all visits to 1.82% of all visits. Rates were higher during the school year than in the summer, and nearly two-thirds of the visits involved girls, according to results published in the medical journal Pediatrics.

The research had limitations: It didn’t include data from all U.S. hospitals or suicidal behaviors that didn’t involve a hospital visit. Still, physicians said it fits a pattern of findings that show rates of depression and suicide-related behaviors and deaths are rising among young people.

Loss of Hope

Suicide was the second-leading cause of death among 10- to 24-year-olds in 2016, up from third place in earlier years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It’s such a critical public-health crisis right now,” said Lisa Horowitz, a staff scientist and pediatric psychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health, which is attempting to boost suicide prevention in part by improving screening at emergency departments and pediatrician offices.

Researchers say they aren’t certain what is driving the growth in depression and suicidal behavior but theorize that decreasing stigma might be causing more children and their parents to seek help, leading to wider reporting of the problems.

Some early research has suggested children’s use of social media and smartphones may also be factors, fueling cyberbullying and feelings of inadequacy. “We need more data to say that’s a contributing cause,” said Ramin Mojtabai, a psychiatrist and professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Suicide deaths in the total U.S. population rose from 10.4 per 100,000 people in 2000 to 13.4 per 100,000 people in 2016, according to the CDC. Suicide deaths in 10- to 19-year-olds over the same period rose from 4.7 to 6.1 per 100,000 people.

In the new Pediatrics study, researchers analyzed billing data for patients ages 5 to 17 to identify emergency-room visits and hospitalizations for suicide attempts and suicidal ideation, the clinical term for persistent suicidal thoughts. They drew the details from a database managed by the Children’s Hospital Association, which includes billing and clinical data from children’s hospitals in most major metropolitan areas.

More than half of the suicide-related visits resulted in inpatient hospitalization. Of these, 13% were treated in intensive-care units. The researchers found the visits occurred at a higher rate during the school year, with October accounting for nearly twice as many visits as July.

“What our study made clear was school was a huge influence,” said one of the lead researchers, Gregory Plemmons, a physician and associate professor of clinical pediatrics at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville. He said academic pressure and bullying could play a role, though the study didn’t delve into the causes.

The study found the rise in suicide-related hospital visits was higher for girls, who made up nearly two-thirds of such visits overall. The researchers called for further research on possible gender differences in youth mental health, noting that a previous study found larger increases in depression in teenage girls compared with boys over the decade up to 2014.

Dr. Plemmons said he became interested in conducting the study after noticing an increasing number of beds at his hospital being used for young people in need of psychiatric treatment, often after exhibiting suicidal behavior.

“What I’m noticing is kids seem to be less resilient and to have more pressure,” he said. “I think social media also fuels this Instagram life of everything is perfect and cool and you don’t see the other side of life.”

One study published last year found U.S. adolescents who spent more time using electronic devices and social media were more likely to report depressive symptoms or at least one instance of suicidal behavior.

“The increases in new media screen activities and the decreases in nonscreen activities may explain why depression and suicide increased among U.S. adolescents since 2010,” the study, published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, concluded.

The researchers based their findings on surveys in which adolescents reported their daily activities and symptoms of depression or of suicidal thinking or attempts.

That study found a particular uptick in mental-health issues beginning around 2011 and 2012 and noted that about half of U.S. teens were using smartphones by late 2012. The study also found the correlation between screen time and mental-health problems was stronger in girls.

Every Christian is a Theologian

“Theology” simply means “the study of God.”

That means all believers are theologians – or, at least, should be.  To be clear – and fair – this does not mean that everyone is an academic or scholar i.e. someone who has made a career out of studying the Bible.  But, nonetheless, we’re all biblically commanded to be theologians: a person who studies the Word of God.

I ran across a wonderful article on this topic this past week.  You can access the article here.

From the article:

“Laypeople have no biblical warrant (argument) to leave the duty of doctrine (a set of beliefs) up to pastors and professors alone.”

Besides, pastors being human and flawed, it is completely possible for a Bible teacher to actually misinterpret something and get it flat wrong.    Paul would end up writing a third of the New Testament.  But that hadn’t happened yet.  And the Bereans took no chances:

“…they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.”

Finally, it’s simply what we’re commanded to do:

Study and do your best to present yourself to God…accurately handling and skillfully teaching the word of truth.”

By the way, it’s vital for us all to remember that Paul’s instruction to Timothy above was a command, not a suggestion. 🙂

Soli Deo Gloria, Nick

Which Takes Greater Faith? God or Multiverse?

The Multiverse Theory is the latest attempt by non-Christian physicists to eliminate God from being the “un-caused cause” (as Thomas Aquinas coined the phrase) i.e. the creator of the universe.

Here, in this brief 5 minute video, astrophysicist, Brian Keating – University of California, San Diego – answers the question, “What’s the greater leap of faith?”

Think deeply, Nick

To Those Who’ve Lost a Loved One to Suicide

May 13th is the day I dread.  But May 12th is the day that haunts me.

It’s the last day I saw my son alive. The last day I talked to him, and he to me.

When I speak in schools on suicide awareness & intervention I close my talk with the following question because, based on emails I have from school counselors, I know for certain there is at least one student there listening who has considered taking their own life. I say to them:

“If today were May 12th, 2013, and my son was sitting next to you in this assembly, what would I want the speaker to have said?”

O God, if only I could go back to May 12th….

If only I had stayed with him. If only I had somehow gotten him to tell me how he was really feeling. If only I had walked into his room a few minutes before…

If only…, if only…, if only…

This “if only” mental incarceration kept me in a state of shock for eight months after Jordan’s death. It was psychologically exhausting, I could barely make it through an entire day without having to lie down due to the “in the danger-red-zone rpm’s” at which my mind was speeding, trying futilely to un-do my son’s death. For the first time in my life I discovered how a person can go insane.

Finally, after eight months, utterly broken and in despair, I realized I was unable to bring my son back.

Psychologists rightly call grief associated with suicide “complicated grief.”

I could write a book on this topic alone (and I think Michelle and I are finally getting to a place where we can seriously consider doing so), but I will make this post brief. (We all know what it means when a preacher says “let me make this brief: we’re all in for another 30 minutes. 🙂 But I promise.)

I once heard a speaker on this topic say, “Suicide is 100% preventable.” I strongly and respectfully disagree. It’s impossible to protect someone from themselves. Not only is this statement, in my opinion, false, it shackles people like me with crippling guilt and shame. If you’ve lost a loved one to suicide never buy into that line. Because it’s simply not true.

As I’ve written in previous blogs, when a person takes their own life they are, at that moment, unable to connect with the logical part of their brain. In short, their brain is broken. To be clear, what I mean by “broken” is that their brain is suffering from a severe and debilitating chemical imbalance. Synapse and neurons are misfiring. They are, in the literal meaning of the phrase, no longer “in their right mind.” ( I’m sure there are exceptions, but based on my study, this is the rule.)

People ask sometimes, “Why didn’t Jordan say something? What was he thinking?” My response: “He wasn’t thinking. His brain was broken.”

99% of people who attempt to take their own life don’t want to die – they just want the pain to stop.

They’re plan plays out like a twisted and convoluted movie script. I am asked, “Why don’t they just say something??” I reply, “Their brain being in the process of breaking, they don’t know how to talk about it. Moreover, believing they’re doing what’s best, they don’t want us to get in the way of their developing plan to end their pain – and remove, once and for all, what they’ve, over time, convinced themselves is a back-breaking burden to us.  “They will no longer have to worry about me,” they think to themselves.

On May 13, 2013, my son was in so much pain he just wanted to go to sleep. His brain being broken, he was unable to connect his shattered logic with the life-changing devastation this would have on his family and friends.

In early May, when Jordan told me, “Dad, I feel like I’m slipping” (our code phrase for when he and I felt like our medicine was not working), we immediately got him to the doctor and into counseling.

He told us it was helping. Had he communicated anything differently we would have never left his side and taken more drastic measures. But, better days seemed to lie ahead. On May 10th he talked about how excited he was about his and his friends’ upcoming wacky camping trip.

I share this today, in part, because writing is therapeutic for me. (As I write I, in essence, am counseling myself). But also to remind those who’ve walked this painful path you were an amazing parent/child/sibling/friend.

Your loved one’s suicide had absolutely nothing to do with your inability to prevent it.

Regardless of what satan may be whispering in your ear, it wasn’t your fault.

Here is the biblical truth:

Because of the Cross and the Empty Tomb your/my loved one is more alive than they ever were on this fallen planet. Further, they would never want to return for, being in the very presence of Jesus, they are this very moment experiencing a level of joy that lies far beyond mere human comprehension.

And – according to the Bible, a reunion is coming.

Love to you all, Nick

A Psalm of Nick Watts

Reading through the Psalms you commonly see the following subheadings: a psalm of David, or a psalm of Asaph,…

I’ll never forget what I once heard one of my professors say:

“A psalm is simply a person’s response to God’s activity in their life.”

That’s why, in the Psalms, we see the full gamut of human emotion – everything from rage and despair to joy and praise. And everything in between. It’s my favorite book in the Bible.

So today, on this May 13th, I offer this psalm…

O Lord, please hear my cry.

I was once told that the loss of a child will change a parent forever.  And, having discovered my 19 year old son’s body five years ago today, I am finding that to be quite true.

I’ve read the loss of a child being compared to an amputation. For a man who’s lost an arm feels as though his arm is still there. But it isn’t. And he’s reminded of that fact every single day.

The memory of that hellish moment when I found my son is burnt indelibly into my brain.  The memory of what happened in the next few seconds is, at the same time, a blur and crystal clear.

O God, help me; a part of me has never recovered.

You know, Lord, the stubborn darkness with which I wrestle. And having become, myself, suicidal in the summer of 2015, I spent 10 days in the Psychiatric Ward at Covenant Medical Center in Lubbock. (Michelle still has one of my art projects I had made on “craft day.” 🙂) We laugh about it now.)  God, I thank you for those physicians and nurses.  They were kind and compassionate.

But, O Lord, I still suffer nightmarish, high-definition flashbacks.  Unexpected television scenes of hangings have plunged me into immediate madness.

Your word comforts me.  And helps restore and renew my mind.

Often, O God, when I walk through Jordan’s bedroom, I quote Jesus’ laser-like, compassionate words to a grieving Martha:

“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, even though he dies, yet shall he live.”

I am reminded, Lord, of the lyrics you gave to the song-writer:

“When you’re up against a struggle that shatters all your dreams,
And your hopes have been cruelly crushed by Satan’s manifested schemes,
And you feel the urge within you to submit to earthly fears,
Don’t let the faith you’re standing in seem to disappear,

Praise the Lord, He can work through those who praise Him,
Praise the Lord, for our God inhabits praise,
Praise the Lord, for the chains that seems to bind you
Serve only to remind you that they drop powerless behind you
When you praise Him.”

Lord, I don’t praise you for my pain today. But I do praise you in it.

You know, Lord, I found Jordan in the corner of his bedroom that afternoon.

During months of counseling, you prompted my counselor to suggest I place crosses in that corner. Through that counselor, you – our Wonderful Counselor -lovingly said, “The mighty cross of Christ, even in your worst conceivable pain, will provide for you hope and peace by helping remind you of what is true.”

You are wise, O Lord. For it has been true: those crosses remind me that Jordan’s pain is gone, he’s more alive and joyful than he’s ever been – and that a reunion is coming.

Father, you prompted me to snap this photo (below) last night to post with this note. Before I took the photo i thought to myself, “The light from that lamp is going ruin the photo.” But when I looked at it my heart constricted and leapt. I couldn’t help but imagine the light from the lamp representing the angel you dispatched to Jordan’s bedroom to embrace him and carry him into Paradise. Where he is now safely in your arms.

O Lord, i don’t understand fully how prayer works. But would you please tell my son today how much I love him? And that his mom, sisters and I are making it? Please, O Prince of Peace, fill my family’s minds with your peace today? And would you help us to help others who are hurting to rediscover hope and truth again?

I humbly ask this in the mighty name of Christ, and on the authority of his shed blood. Amen

I love you, Jordan.

I love you all, Nick

For Narnia