Depression Support Group starting soon

During the winter months, I lead a 10 week depression support group at the church my family is attending (The Bridge – Markham). We use Among the Ashes as a platform for discussion. Each week the group reads a chapter and we share our experiences and encourage each other. I share with the group some of the “behind the scene” stories behind the writing of the chapter and also lessons I am learning on my ongoing journey.

Our church considers this as a service we offer to anyone and we do not limit participation to people from our church (or ANY church, for that matter). If you or someone you know may be interested being part of the group, please pm me. We are very intentional in keeping the group relatively small (10-12 people) so it doesn’t turn into a “class”. We will probably start the weekly meetings towards the end of January.

Please email me (alfred.lam@gmail.com) if you are interested or have any questions.

What Paris taught me about parenting (of all things!)

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Paris is, in one word, breath-taking.  (Does that count as one word?)

There were times when I stood in front of the historic sites, and feel my breath literally being knocked out of me.

As a photographer, it is almost impossible to take a bad picture in this place.   Seriously, you can stand on just about any street corner, take a random picture and end up with something that is postcard worthy.

But beyond the visual beauty, the city is a living, breathing story book.  Every building, every street corner tells a story.   Who would have guessed that underneath today’s majestic beauty, the city’s streets once ran with blood from the French revolution and two world wars?

This morning at breakfast, I found myself having a good conversation about the history of Paris with the girls.  We talked about the stories of the city.  And we concluded with the lesson that if we don’t know the stories, it is easy to take what we see today for granted and one day repeat the same mistakes of the past.

Then it occurred to me that it is so important to raise our children with an appreciation of history and the arts.  I want my children to grow up with a strong sense of being part of a story that is greater than themselves, and they have to make choices as to how they will contribute to the story.  I want my girls to grow up wanting to create, to give to those around them, to add to the world they live in.   Without a sense of history, without an appreciation for the arts, it is so easy for kids to grow into a me-first, self centered, what’s-in-it-for-me, get-ahead-of-others-at-all-cost kind of life.  Which, sadly, is what I see so often in the Hong Kong culture that I came from.

Love or hate, create or compete, contribute or consume, give or grab…these are the choices that all our kids will learn to make.  They don’t need to all become philosophy or history majors.  They don’t all need to become singer-songwriters.  And they don’t all need to go to Paris to be inspired.  They all will, however, look at the kinds of choices WE make, and the messages WE in turn communicate to them and ultimately become the kind of persons the choices shape them to be.

 

What Donald Trump teaches pastors and Christian leaders

In recent days political pundits and commentators have been baffled by what is now called the “Trump phenomenon”. Despite saying outrageous things that would normally have killed any political campaigns, Donald Trump’s support continued to grow according to the polls. The typical explanation that had been given was that “Trump supporters” are not concerned with, nor offended by the same things that one typically expects from the general electorate.

Without getting into the politics of it, I believe the Trump phenomenon teaches Christian leaders an important lesson: It is so easy to surround yourselves with people who sound like you, think like you, agree with you and build a “personal empire” by feeding your “fans” or “followers” or “supporters” (or congregants?) exactly what they want to hear.

In my experience as a pastor, I have seen that as pastors, it is very easy for us to speak boldly when we are among our own congregations, when we are “preaching to the choir”, so to speak. But very few of us are good at communicating and having meaningful and genuinely respectful dialogue with those who are different than us. Folks who are from another religion, folks who believe different than we do on social issues, or even Christians outside of our own communities. Perhaps much of that is simply due to the fact that we don’t do it often enough. However, in a time where tension continues to grow along religious lines, religious leaders such as pastors need to set an example of what it means to seek understanding and look for ways to unite and bring people together. We need to stop caricaturing or worse, demonizing those who are different than us, simply because “it will preach” or because that’s what our “fan-base” expects from us.

Why it is biblical and Christ-like for Christians to support the Muslim Community

Over the last few weeks, I have watched with horror the rapid spread of “Anti-Islamic” sentiment both in Canada and the US. It has genuinely frightened me to see, even in 2015, how racism can be so easily embraced and “celebrated” even among the Christian community. On television and social media, the words “Terrorism” and “Islam” are forever linked. We have politicians suggesting only “Christian” refugees should be admitted into the country and not “Muslim” refugees. We heard a US presidential hopeful saying he will shut down mosques and register all Muslims in the country in a database. Prominent church leaders have expressed publicly that Muslims should not be allowed into the US. It seems a foregone conclusion in most people’s mind that terrorism is marked by a Muslim label.

That, is both wrong and un-Christian.

While it is true that terrorist organizations like ISIS operate under an Islamic banner, their actions have been condemned by the Muslim community worldwide, stating in no uncertain terms that ISIS and others like them do not represent Islam. Why do we then insist on identifying terrorism with Islam? We have seen plenty of similar examples in the church: For those of us a little older, we will remember back in 1993 in Waco, Texas David Koresh led his “Branch Davidians” community into a violent clash with the authorities, resulting in the death of the entire community. They claimed to be a Christian sect and were acting in accordance with the Bible. Yet I do not know a single Evangelical Christian today who would consider David Koresh and his followers representatives of Christianity. In fact, we would not even use today’s ever so popular labels and call them “Radical Christians” or “Extremist Christianity”. We would simply call them for who and what they were: a misguided, dangerous cult that was not in any way representative of the religion they claim to follow. Why do we insist on doing otherwise with ISIS and Islam?

The truth is, apart from the “Islamic label” there are plenty of infinitely more important factors that speak to the who, why and what of terrorism: The history of the region, civil unrest, political instability, a history of violence; extreme poverty and the global economic injustice, just to name a few. In other words, there is a story, a context, a narrative to how terrorism came to be. And it is much, much more complex than simply a group of “extremist” Muslims deciding to come together and do bad things.

That, is where the “Christian” response need to start from. When Jesus came into contact with someone, he saw beyond the “easy labels” that people had slapped on the person: The adulterous woman, the woman at the well who was married multiple times, the demon possessed man who lived with the pigs, and so on. In many of his stories he made it a point to challenge popular discriminatory labels that people put on others: The parable of the good Samaritan, The story of the tax collector who prayed outside the Temple are good examples. Part of the “Christian worldview” involves seeking to understand the narratives and stories behind each person. When we do that, everything changes. It changes the way we understand the global problem of terrorism and what may actually work as solutions (as opposed to the popular macho bravado of “bombing the sh*t out of them”). It changes the way we view the refugee crisis and our appropriate response. But more importantly, it changes the way we see ourselves, and our place and responsibility in this world.

Sorry Mr. Huckabee, refugees are not peanuts

Following the Paris attacks, when a Syrian passport was found on or near the body of one of the attackers, the sentiment against accepting Syrian refugees into the country reached a new high both in the US and Canada. The rhetoric goes something like this: “It is possible that ISIS terrorists are among the Syrian refugees, and in the interest of national security, we must not allow them to enter our country, at least until it can be proven that they do not have ties to ISIS.” Even though there has not been any evidence conclusively supporting the idea that ISIS is using the refugee crisis as a way of entering different countries, the argument says “Since it IS possible, we must choose to be safe rather than sorry, no matter how low the risk may be.”

Mike Huckabee, former Governor of Arkansas and current Republican presidential hopeful said in an interview on Tuesday with MSNBC: “If you bought a 5 lb. bag of peanuts and you knew that in the 5 lb. bag of peanuts there were about 10 peanuts that were deadly poisonous, would you feed them to your kids? The answer is no”

I am sorry, Mr. Huckabee. With all due respect, refugees are people, not peanuts.

What is shocking to me is that while they may not use the same words, many Christians share the same anti-refugee sentiment: There is a chance that some may be “terrorists”, so Syrian refugees pose a threat to our country, our security and our way of life.

Such a position presupposes one thing: That somehow we have a God-given right to the life of privilege we live in North America, and we deserve it more than the refugees. So we must not allow “them” to threaten “our” way of life.

Even though more than 250,000 Syrians have died since 2011. And more are dying. Every day.

Even though 11 million Syrians have fled their homes since the civil war started.

Even though the United Nations have identified the Syrians as the world’s largest refugee population.

Even though every day we hear and see heart breaking stories and images of children losing their parents, families being torn apart, people drowning while escaping, thousands dying along the way.

Yet, we say, “we must not risk having them threaten our way of life.”

What is even more unbelievable to me is that many who hold this position were once immigrants themselves. Once “fleeing” the dreaded China takeover of Hong Kong in 1997.

So let me get this straight: Canada should let us in because we came from lives of privilege in Hong Kong where we have what it took (money, education, professional background) to “qualify” for immigration. Now that we have entered the “safe haven”, we watch the Syrian situation developing, with hundreds of thousands dying, and we say we must not allow them to threaten “our” way of life? Why are we more deserving of safety, freedom, future for our children than the Syrians?

Are we serious? Like, really?

Because I work in the immigrant settlement sector, let me ask one more question of those who say we must “vet” refugees properly before allowing them entry. What exactly do we mean by “properly vetting” the refugees? Do you envision refugees lining up, all with perfectly certified documents, their documents being checked against some mega database, and then being issued a “This person is not ISIS” certificate?

These are people fleeing for their lives. Many, most of them have nothing more than the clothes on their backs. They are not tourists with perfectly stamped visas.

Given the massive wave of people fleeing Syria, no country, nor the United Nations have the man power and resources it takes to do do this kind of “investigative background check” on everyone. Yes, there are unknowns, but we cannot exaggerate the risks and assume everyone is a threat “until proven otherwise”.

The current Syrian refugee situation is the biggest humanitarian crisis we are facing. No single country has the ability to handle the challenge. It requires a coordinated, united global effort. If we in Canada have anything that is “God given”, it is the inescapable responsibility we have to be a world leader in this endeavor based how much we have been given and blessed with. (Isn’t there somewhere in the Bible that talks about to those much is given, much will be demanded?) But we cannot lead, if we are not setting the example.

As Christians, we must be careful not to become part of a narrative of hate

These are interesting days politically in both Canada and the US. We of course have just witnessed another Federal Election in Canada which resulted in a change-over of power. South of the border we are seeing daily dramatic developments as the US prepares for another Presidential Election next year.

During this time, I have become extremely concerned with one particular development both north and south of the border. It seems the anti-Muslim sentiment in North America is increasingly being used and exploited as a political advantage. And even more alarmingly, such views are receiving support from certain parts of the Christian community.

Here in Canada, we saw the whole Niqab debate being “framed” with language that suggests supporting the Niqab ban is consistent with “Christian” or “Canadian” values: We heard it is a issue of “security” for people to “hide their identity” during citizenship ceremonies. The truth that is that the women’s identity is never an issue because they would lift their veil for the citizenship judge to confirm their identity, and only wear the Niqab during the public ceremony (there were only 2 cases out of 680,000 citizenship ceremonies where this became an issue for the applicant). We heard that Canada is supposed to be an “open and transparent” society and the wearing of Niqab violates that as an attempt to hide the person’s identity. The fact is that Muslim women wear the Niqab as an EXPRESSION of their religious and cultural identity, rather than an attempt to hide who they are.

But that is how hate starts: You use language of “us” and “them”, and create a narrative that suggests “us” is better than “them”, and “they” are a threat to “us”. On the Niqab debate, We say things like “We” value openness and transparency (which suggests “they” don’t). We say “We” do not oppress women (again, suggesting that “they” do). While hate and fear has often proven to be useful political tools, what is alarming to me is to see Christians lining up under those banners.

The growth of the Islam is NOT a threat to the church. The real danger the church faces is being lured and sucked into the prevailing anti-Islamic sentiment, to become part of the narrative of hate. History in fact provides a clear warning: During the time of Nazi Germany the vast majority of the German population was Christian. With the rise of Nazism and its clearly anti-Jewish ideology, the church in Germany at the time was lured and persuaded into supporting the Nazi platform as affirming to “Christian values.”

Is it too far fetched to suggest history is threatening to repeat itself here in North America?

Syrian refugee crisis…Time for Canada to step up, once again.

Lately we have seen a lot of media coverage on the Syrian refugee situation with heart breaking images of family fleeing and children drowning. Although the Syrian situation has dominated the newsfeed recently, we know that it only represents a fraction of the global situation when it comes to refugees. Around the world, every single day, more than 42,000 people are forced to flee their homes due to conflicts, natural disasters, oppression and persecution. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), currently there are more than 16 million refugees globally.

Canada has always played a leading role in responding to this global need. This is one of the reasons I am proud to be Canadian. Do you know that Canada is the ONLY COUNTRY IN THE WORLD with a system in place for private citizens to sponsor refugees into the country? And we have had a proud heritage for doing so. In the late 1970’s at the height of the Vietnam War, Canada had a goal to privately sponsor 5,000 refugees from that war torn nation. We ended up taking in 60,000.

Every crisis is a challenge and an opportunity at the same time. While the numbers coming out of Syria are staggering, this is also an opportunity for us to grow as a nation, to show our next generation that we have a moral responsibility on global issues. When it comes to refugee settlement, there is a lot of political rhetoric (BOTH in Canada and the US) that preaches protection of our economy. I work in the immigrant settlement sector, and I have heard countless times the well worn clichés of how immigrants (and refugees) are taking away jobs and hurting our economy. However, the fact is that despite all our wealth in North America, the vast majority of refugees globally are taken in by much poorer nations. Less than 5% of the global refugees are found in North America. Over 85% of then are taken in by nations in the Global South, in countries much, much poorer than us. For example, Pakistan hosts 10 times as many refugees as Canada.

It is time for us to step up. In the media there has been a lot of talk about how many Syrian refugees our government is committed to take in (10,000 is the latest number). However, at the same time we have a hard cap of how many refugees we will take in annually, which stands at 25,000. UNLESS that hard cap is ALSO raised, it makes no difference how many we say we will take in from Syria. We are simply only shifting one source country with another.

As part of my work I attended an open meeting at the City of Toronto yesterday on privately sponsoring Syrian Refugees. I was touched by the number of people who attended from the community. A quick glance around the room shows a high percentage of them are senior citizens. I assumed many of them were involved in the 1970’s in sponsoring refugees from Vietnam, and they are ready to step up again. Some of them said while they no longer have the energy they used to, they have some financial resources that they are ready to give to help. I was so proud of them. At the same time, I believe it is time for the next generation of Canadians to step up to our global moral responsibilities. For me, at least in part, this is why I am proud to be Canadian.

The Battle Continues…

The last couple of months at the Lam Household were marked by the usual summer busyness (craziness) that comes with having young children: Summer camps, day trips, figuring out activities that get the kids out of the house and enjoying the good weather, getting caught up in Blue Jays fever…frankly I have barely touched my laptop for a couple of months, let alone sitting down to do any writing.

But about two months ago, I began to notice some familiar, troubling emotions…the feeling of dark despair at nights, the inability to sleep, the anxiety that sometimes washes over me like a tidal wave out of nowhere, as the days wore on and those feelings began to intensify, I said to myself, “uh no….”

After visiting and discussing my situation with both my doctor and therapist, we all came to the same conclusion: I am facing a recurring episode of depression. My doctor immediately recommended me taking a week off, and prescribed me a new round of anti-depressants.

I am not surprised that the depression has returned. From what I have learned about the illness, I know that it is quite possibly something that I have to deal with for the rest of my life. What surprised me, however, was my reaction to the news. For those who have read “Among the Ashes”, how I described my feelings upon being diagnosed for the first time was EXACTLY how I feel this time around. Apparently, I have not learned anything:

The feeling of shame (I am weak, I have lost…AGAIN)

The feeling of embarrassment when I filled the prescription for the anti-depressant (Does the pharmacist have to speak SO LOUD??)

The fear (What if I don’t get better?)

In fact, NOTHING has changed compared to my first diagnosis 8 years ago…the sleepless nights returned. The drinking to numb myself returned. The inability to get through the day returned. The occasional dark suicidal thoughts returned. EXACTLY like how I wrote about it in the book. Word for word. Except this time, there is a new twist…

After writing the book, after receiving so many positive feedback from those who found the book encouraging in their walk with depression, I feel like…a “fraud” now that the depression has returned, and I am no “better” at dealing with it.

I spoke with a friend who also has a life long experience with depression, and he reminded me of something that I once knew in my head, but now know to be true: When it comes to depression, no one gets “better” in dealing with it. It never gets “easier”. He reminded me THAT is precisely the message of “Among the Ashes”: It is not a “how to” book. It is a “let us” book….Let us learn to walk through this together, one day at a time, one step at a time…

So the story continues. The battle resumes. Rather than “discrediting” what I wrote, I hope to share my continuing journey here over the next little while as a “validation” of the book. I will be making some difficult and significant life choices over the next weeks and months, so I would appreciate any good thoughts and prayers you can throw my way. For now, especially for my friends who live with depression as a daily reality, I hope you can be encouraged by the fact that I walk with you together. May our journey forward be our way of “rising from the ashes”, together, one day at a time.

Keep journeying, friends.

Among the Ashes SPECIAL PROMOTION!!!

Since Among the Ashes was released last November, the response has been very encouraging. In order to make it available to even more readers, Among the Ashes is now available, for the first time as an ebook! This past weekend we ran a special promotion where we offered the ebook FOR FREE, and the downloads went off the charts!! Due to the tremendous response, we are extending this free book offer for TWO MORE DAYS! THIS IS IT! After the next two days we will have to end the promotion. So please hurry up and share the news with your friends, especially those whom you feel the book will help. Can I also ask for a favor? After you have read the book, when you have a minute can I ask that you leave a review on Amazon, to encourage future readers? Thank you for your ongoing support! Please click HERE for the Amazon page to download the book for free.

Among the Ashes…what’s next?

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Now that Among the Ashes the concert is done, a few people have asked me what is the next step on the journey. Before thinking about what is next, I want to savor the wonderful evening that we spent together. THANK YOU SO MUCH for being there and for making the evening so special and meaningful for all of us! Some of you were surprised (pleasantly, I hope) that the concert didn’t just talk about depression and mental health, but was built from positive life lessons that we have learned and wanted to share. That is in part by design. We never want to limit our concerts to “target” only mental health issues. Instead, what we want to do is to create a safe, uplifting and positive space where people can listen, reflect, laugh, sing, clap, cry…whatever to enjoy themselves, while having their hearts cared for by God.

In terms of what is next, my passion and desire still is to use my life experience to have conversations and raise awareness about depression and mental health, perhaps especially among communities of faith such as churches. I will be exploring possibilities to partner with other mental health professionals and see how we can use Among the Ashes to help more people. We’ll see what comes around the next corner. If there are ways you can think of that we can partner with your churches, I’d love to hear your ideas!

At the end of the day, I believe the stories of our lives are written by God, one page at a time so that our stories become part of the great big story that He is writing to bless the world. To that end, I look forward to turning the page, and seeing what surprises The Author has in store for us!