Monday, June 30, 2014

Larry Updike: From Pentecostal Minister to Shock-Rock Radio Jock to . . . (read his book to find out)

My friend Larry Updike released his new book last week. Titled My Word! The Larry Updike Story, the book chronicles his life from being a Pentecostal minister through the “debauchery” of shock-rock radio in the 1980s to being a talk show host in Winnipeg. Oh, and he picked up degrees in theology and philosophy along the way. I was able to interview Larry in 2009 about his journey to that point.

What do you get when you cross a young firebrand Pentecostal minister with a university philosophy major and rock radio DJ?

You get Larry Updike, the morning show host on CJOB.

“It’s been an interesting journey,” says Updike, 53, of his trip from wunderkind preacher to leaving the church to become one of Winnipeg’s most popular rock radio show hosts—and then back to the church again.

This morning Updike will “complete the circle” when he preaches at Central Baptist Church on Ellice Avenue.

“It will come as a surprise to many,” says Updike, adding that some people “will be shocked.”

From the age of nine, all Updike wanted to be was a preacher and evangelist. Growing up in southern Ontario, he remembers setting up a pulpit in the garage and preaching to his friends.

He preached his first real sermon at 16,  and was ordained at 21 after graduation from Bible college.

His first church was in Fort Francis, Ont., in 1976, where he did a pastoral internship. Looking for ways to earn a little extra income, he applied for a job at a local radio station.

“Back then, the turnover at small radio stations was enormous,” he says. Before long, he was doing the morning show and working in the church.

He moved Weyburn, Sask. in 1978, where he once again served as a pastor and worked at the local radio station. He moved to Winnipeg in 1979 so his wife could pursue nursing studies, assisted at a local church and got a job at CHMM, which later became KISS FM.

In 1980, his marriage ended, and so did his ministry.

“We got married really young, and drifted apart,” he says. The split was amicable, but his work with the church was over—back then, divorced pastors were automatically disqualified from leading most evangelical churches.

“Everything I was going to be was gone,” he says. “All I ever wanted to be was a pastor.”

Feeling abandoned and angry, he cut all ties with the church and threw himself into his life as a rock radio DJ on the Tom and Larry show with Tom McGouran.

Life as a DJ was very different from pastoring. “I lived the life a rock radio DJ to the hilt, he says. It was a polar opposite of the way I had been living. I went from preaching against the wages of sin to collecting them—big time.”

He didn’t lose complete interest in religion, completing a degree in theology at the University of Winnipeg in 1984. In 1995, he graduated with a degree in philosophy, winning the university’s highest award in that subject.

It was, he recalls, an “odd mixture of rock radio and university,” but it helped him “keep my feet on the ground” and avoid becoming a “rock radio casualty.” 

Marriage to Mary-Ann, in 1991, also helped him stay grounded.

Through it all, he felt something pulling him back to faith.

“I was an observer from the outside for a long time, but I didn’t know how to go back—I didn’t feel worthy,” he says. “I didn’t know if I’d be accepted.”

He especially didn’t want to be seen as a trophy convert, a “victim of a pastor who wanted to rescue a celebrity.”

That changed just over a year ago, when he checked out the Facebook profile of Central Baptist pastor Greg Glatz.

Glatz’s interest in philosophy piqued Updike’s interest, and soon the two were communicating electronically about philosophy and religion.

What was most impressive, Updike says, is that Glatz didn’t try to convert him.

“Greg did not try to solicit my attendance at his church or proselytize me,” he says. “He just wanted to be my friend.”

For Glatz, getting to know Updike wasn’t about getting him saved. “I wasn’t interested in his celebrity or his conversion,” he says. “I figured he was already converted. I was interested in his journey.”

He also saw Updike as someone God could use—just as he was.

“Everything that happened to him made him what he is,” Glatz says. “He doesn’t need to renounce it or repudiate it.”

Updike was won over by Glatz’s friendliness and honesty, and began attending his church. Also key was the way the church responded to his son, Gordon, who has autism.

“Gordon isn’t verbal, and he doesn’t take well to new places,” he says. “We wondered if he would be accepted. But he has found a place there, a chance to be involved. He’s fit in very well—he loves the music and helps with the offering. The church has been very accepting.”

As for his sermon today, Updike will be preaching the very first sermon he ever gave 37 years ago, on how Jesus calmed the waters and the frightened disciples when they were caught in a storm.

It will be very different this time, though. “When I was young, I thought I knew it all and had it all figured out. I’m approaching life and faith now as a more mature person, with some life experience. Now my focus is trusting God, in spite of storms. Christians don’t get a pass. Storms happen to us, too.”

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Living Death to the Fullest

Assisted suicide was in the news this week. In Britain, the highest court has thrown out challenges to laws that forbid assisted suicide in that country. In making the decision, the court explained that it is up to the British Parliament to decide on the legality of assisted suicide. Meantime, here in Canada Globe columnist Gary Mason came out in favour of assisted suicide, writing movingly about his brother’s terrible death from cancer. It reminded me of a column I wrote in 2012 about Washingtonian Dandelion B. Treecraft, and how he took advantage of that state’s law allowing assisted suicide.

Dandelion B. Treecraft

It was one of the best obituaries I ever read.

Even the name of the deceased was intriguing -- Dandelion B. Treecraft, also known as Dan. 

The 62 year-old Spokane, Wash., arborist was better known in that Pacific Northwest community as a social and political activist and avid writer of letters to the editor.

Known locally for railing against establishment politics and corporations, and for his outspoken opposition to war, Treecraft lived his life the way he wanted.

He ended it that way, too.

Treecraft -- born Daniel Bryan Whipple in California -- wrote his obituary before he died of cancer on August 4, 2011.

After moving to Spokane in 1980, he worked at a couple of jobs before working for six years at a transformer manufacturing plant -- a job that "failed to lead to tenure, as the company moved its facility to North Carolina to take advantage of a lower-wage environment."

He worked briefly as a nurse's aide after that. Unfortunately, he noted, "this proved not to be a good fit," as Treecraft felt compelled to take half of his charges home "to provide more adequate personal nurturance," while the remainder, he felt, "should be taken out overnight and shot."

In 1991, Treecraft found his "true calling" as an arborist, changing his legal name to reflect his new line of employment. As an arborist, he "attempted to make an honest living providing ethical tree care."

But, he added, "anyone who's attempted to make a living -- ethically -- can attest that it is no small feat." 

His scorecard on that matter looked fairly good, he thought, "if graded on a curve."

In 1999, he married Jan, and "the next nine years passed in what appeared to be sublime, flawless bliss," he wrote.

"Both Treecrafts were generally satisfied to let that appearance prevail. It was a period of considerable inner growth, especially for Jan. For Dan, it was a time of great inner testing. The result was, after all, a passably agreeable relationship for a near-decade. No small feat in this day."

He noted that some fuss has been made of his social and political activism. This aspect of his life has been significantly exaggerated, he thought, although he was "exceedingly proud of being ousted from several dozen Spokane City Council meetings."

In 2010, after experiencing a mild, chronic sore throat and some difficulty swallowing for some time, a medical examination and biopsy revealed a tumour of "some advanced development."

Treecraft decided on a course of no treatment. Jan stood by him throughout the winding-down process, walking all the way with him.

All the way for Treecraft meant taking his own life -- something that is possible in Washington state through its Physician Assisted Suicide law. 

Modelled after neighbouring Oregon's Death With Dignity Act, it allows a resident who has been diagnosed by a physician with a terminal illness to request a lethal dose of medication for the purpose of ending his or her life. 

Treecraft chose breathing from a cylinder of nitrogen gas, a decision he made after his cancer symptoms made breathing and eating difficult and painful. 

A few days before he died, he wrote a last post on his blog, Dead Man Talking, about the decision to die.

"Today is Monday, August 1, 2011 . . . I feel some familiar dismay -- at the thought that summer is on its way out, fall is readying to move in and winter will be here all-too-soon for a thin-skinned boy like me. And . . . I feel a mixture of both relief and uneasiness, to think that I can't expect to have that season-turning experience again."

He went on to say it was going to be "a short week, for me. I've decided that I want to have my funeral-burial next Saturday. That means I have to be ready for burial; I have to get dead . . . I have two days to get myself ready for Wednesday's big transition."

He admitted to some mixed feelings about dying -- the burdens left for his wife, wishing he could spend many more years getting to know the new minister from his Unitarian church, and not wanting to say a final goodbye to old friends and family who were coming for a last visit.

"I feel not-so-resolute about shutting myself off two days from now," he wrote of those upcoming visits.

"My resolve to carry on as planned is rattled a bit by this little change in the environment around me."

Near the end of the post, he suggested he might write one more time to share at least a few more thoughts. It didn't happen.

On Aug. 4, 2011, he ended his own life.

Treecraft's obituary concluded by noting that he had no children of his own but, if he did, "not one of them ever called or wrote."

Friends were invited to the burial, but were warned to expect to provide "funereal talent, shovels, sweat, cheer, graveside manners. Eulogizers of quick-witted brevity are welcome to speak. Long-winded droners may be stoned and used as backfill."

Following his death, Jan told the Spokane Spokesman-Review that "Dan was a blessing... as I look ahead, I think, 'Gee, life may not be as interesting.'"

Read Dandelion B. Treecraft's full obituary here.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Chemo Brain and Life Stories

Since 1997 I have had the privilege of helping seven dying friends record their life stories. The most recent was in March, when I helped my friend Nancy write her story for her two teenage boys before she died of cancer. (Read my Free Press column about her death here.) Almost everyone I meet says they intend to write their life story “some day.” Some will be lucky and have time. Others will get sick and not be able to do it—they might get “chemo brain.” 

I spent some time on sacred ground recently.

No, I didn’t go to Rome, Jerusalem, Mecca or any other holy place. It happened right here, in a Winnipeg hospital room as I helped a dying friend tell his life story.

My friend, only 49, was dying of cancer. Like many people, she wanted to share the story of her life with his children. Not for publication, or anything as grandiose as that. Just something that told them who she was, what she did and why she did those things.

But cancer is cruel, and so are the treatments that try to cure it.

One of the side effects is fatigue. Not just tiredness, but “something more mysterious,” as nurse Sallie Tisdale noted in her article, “Chemo World: Surviving the Cancer Unit,”  in the June, 2007 issue of Harper’s Magazine. “It’s . . . a loss of vital energy, or what some might call life energy, animation, reserve, or power.”

Added to this is something called “chemo brain”—the inability to think.

For a long time, she writes, it was dismissed by doctors as a symptom of stress. But today “oncologists accept that cognitive dysfunction after chemotherapy is rather common and surprisingly durable . . . people complain of difficulty in finding words or remembering what they’ve read.”

When tiredness and an inability to focus set in, even the simplest task, like writing down your memories, can seem like climbing the tallest mountain. You want to, but you can’t.

That was the case for my friend. Even just spending time talking was hard; about an hour was all she could do, many times.

During our meetings, I asked questions, pulling together the threads of her life: First school, first car, first love, first job, first child and last wishes—and everything in between.

Those times together were sacred and holy moments. I think it was also a form of therapy. In fact, it is increasingly being recognized as a form of therapy, called dignity therapy. 

Through dignity therapy, people who are dying are helped to go over things that are most meaningful to them, document their legacy, and bring closure to their life.

“Dignity therapy can bring comfort and enable a sense of meaning and purpose . . . and allow them to feel that their words will transcend even beyond their death," says Harvey Max Chochinov, MD, a psychiatrist at the University of Manitoba .

In a study conducted by Chochinov, terminally ill patients who participated in dignity therapy were more likely to say the treatment improved their quality of life, and changed how their family members viewed and appreciated them.

My friend is the sixth person I’ve helped write a life story. All of them intended to write their life stories one day. But that day never came. It was my privilege to come alongside and use my gift of writing to help them.

Do you intend to write your life story some day? You know, when you retire or the kids have grown up or things are less busy.

Maybe you’ll be lucky. But what if life doesn’t work out that way? That’s why I urge people to start writing now, not to wait.

Take five minutes each day to jot down a memory about a significant event, a special relationship, a funny experience, or anything else that comes to mind. What do you want your family and friends to know about you when you are gone?

Each life is a story. For people of faith, they are also stories of God’s actions in their lives. It would be a shame not to record them for your loved ones.

According to the old adage, the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago or today. I think it holds true for writing life stories, too.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Depressed? Or Maybe You're Experiencing Acedia

For the past 25 years, people suffering from depression have been treated with antidepressant drugs. The drugs are designed to address a chemical imbalance in the brain and thereby relieve the symptoms of depression. But what if the premise behind the drugs is wrong? That’s the question investigative journalist Robert Whitaker is asking. In his book, Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Pyschiatric Drugs and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America, Whitaker argues that the chemical imbalance theory is scientifically unproven, and that psychiatric drugs are a largely ineffective way of treating mental illness. His ideas, which I heard on the June 8 edition of CBC’s Sunday Morning, made me think back to my 2009 column about the ancient spiritual affliction of acedia. When it comes to feelings of depression and despair, maybe those old mystics were on to something.

Do you sometimes wonder whether your life has amounted to much? Are there times when you just don't care what happens to you, or the world? 

You’ve worked hard, helped others, loved God, gone to worship services on a regular basis, prayed, read the scriptures, lived a decent life. But it all seems so pointless now—why bother trying to be faithful, anyway?

It doesn’t seem to make any difference; the world is in as terrible a shape as it ever was, and nothing you can do will make it better. 

I sometimes feel that way. Am I depressed? Maybe not, says Kathleen Norris. Maybe what I'm experiencing is acedia.

Acedia is an old spiritual affliction. At its Greek root, it means the absence of care. In personal terms, it means refusing to care, or even that you can't care.

Acedia was a bane to ancient monks and hermits, who considered it one of the greatest threats to monastic living. Once a monk succumbed to the notion that his efforts at daily prayer and contemplation were futile, life loomed like a prison sentence, day after day of nothingness.

Evagrius, who lived in the fourth century, experienced acedia. It “makes it seem that the sun hardly moves, if at all, and that the day is 50 hours long," he wrote. 

I'm not a monk, but I can relate to times when God feels a million miles away and it's just too hard to keep going. I want to pray, worship or just carry on normal daily activities, but I am filled filled with apathy, torpor and despair. 

Life, it seems, just doesn’t feel worth living. Maybe I have acedia, too.

In her new book, Acedia& Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life, Norris writes about her own struggles with the affliction, which left her listless and apathetic. 

“I think of acedia as the great disconnector,” she says, adding that, for her, it was the “profound indifference” that was really debilitating.

The terrible thing about acedia is that even though you know you have it, you can’t stop it.

“You know the pain is there, yet can't rouse yourself to give a damn,” she says.

Acedia makes people feel disconnected from people, relationships and communities. 

"Anything that helps you connect with the human race somehow is stripped away," says Norris. "Anything you can think of to do to help you get out of it, you go, ‘Nah, I don’t want to do that.’”

It’s not just religious people who can suffer from acedia. “Anyone whose work is self-motivated, and that would be any writer or artist,” can experience it, she says.

How can people overcome acedia? For Norris, author of books such as The Cloister Walk, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography and Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, writing this book about acedia was a way out.

She also turns to the Lord's Prayer when she feels it approaching. It reminds her that “the life in which we ought to be interested is daily life . . .  our Lord tells us to pray for today, and so he prevents us from tormenting ourselves about tomorrow."

Other ways to deal with it, she says, include going to worship services, connecting with others, or just carrying on with the normal things of life—even when those are the last things you really want to do.

“The ancient remedies are prayer and psalmody,” she says. “Prayer, fasting, tears. That sounds kind of weird to modern people, but I think refusing to disconnect and maybe staying in this place that you have chosen: your job, a marriage, a monastery, whatever it is.

“Saying, ‘No, I’m going to stay here. This is where I’ve made my stand. The grass is not greener. I am going to remain faithful to my commitments.’”

For a long time, the concept of acedia was lost to western culture. But today the ancient wisdom about acedia seems to be making a comeback.

For Norris, this is a welcome turn of events; if people understand what is happening to them, they can identify it and combat it.

"I am convinced that the word returned to us because we needed it again," she says.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Avoiding the Mean World Syndrome

It was all Moncton shootings all the time on the Canadian media last week. Before that, it was the tragic shootings of college students in California and Seattle. The world sure seems like a terrible place. But is it? Or does access to 24-7 media from around the world just make it seem that way?

"Mean world syndrome.” 

That’s a phrase coined in the 1970s by George Gerbner, for many years a professor of communications at the Annenberg School of Communication in Philadelphia. 

Through his research, Gerbner found that people who watch large amounts of television are more likely to believe that the world is an unforgiving and frightening place.

“Violence on television is just one of the areas that causes a distorted concept of reality,” he said of his research, which focused on TV shows and movies.

Gerbner’s studies showed that children who grow up with this unprecedented diet of violence feel that they live in a meaner world, and act accordingly.

“The programming reinforces the worst fears and apprehensions and paranoia of people,” he said.

“Our surveys tell us that the more television people watch, the more they are likely to be afraid to go out on the street in their own community, especially at night. They are afraid of strangers and meeting other people. A hallmark of civilization, which is kindness to strangers, has been lost.”

The result is the “mean world syndrome,” where people think the world is more terrible than it really is.

Many politicians take advantage of this fear, always raising the specter of crime and terrorism to get elected.   

Of course, there is a lot of real-life horror in the world. It needs to be reported. But does it need to dominate the news?

British author Alain de Botton doesn’t think so. In his new book The News: A User’s Manual, he notes that countries and communities are more than what we see in the media.

The British nation, he writes, "isn't just a severed head, a mutilated grandmother, three dead girls in a basement, trillions of debt, a double suicide at the railway station and a fatal five-car crash by the coast.”

It is also "the cloud floating right now over the church spire, the gentle thought in the doctor's mind, the small child tapping the surface of a newly hard boiled egg while her mother looks on lovingly, the nuclear submarine patrolling the maritime borders with efficiency and courage.”

A main task of the media, he writes, should be to show another side of community, one that “seems sufficiently good, forgiving and sane that one might want to contribute to it."

A few newspapers have tried to focus on only good news for a day. In 2007 the
Scotland Evening News held a Good News Day. On that day, every story in the paper had a positive angle.

"There is no shortage of bad news," said editor John McLellan about the novel edition. "While no one wants to put their head in the sand, I do think we need to rediscover some sense of optimism."

Closer to home, the Edmonton Sun did the same thing in 2009.

"It's a bit of a perspective-check to remind us—no matter what our RRSP statements say—life really isn't all that bad," Rodriquez added.

(Unfortunately, research by Pew in 2007 found that the most highly read news categories in the U.S. are war and terrorism, bad weather, disasters, money and crime and violence. If that's the case, maybe we get the kind of media we deserve.)

Is there a religious antidote to all the bad news in the world today? Maybe the Apostle Paul had good advice: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Phil. 4:8)

That, plus maybe stop watching the news.

For a musical perspective, listen to Anne Murray's 1983 song A Little Good News.