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“Even Me:” A Mother’s Day Reflection

Mom&I
My Mom and I enjoying a recent retreat at Myrtle Beach

Mother’s Day was established in 1914 in the U.S. as a day for showing appreciation for the contributions of mothers, and rightly so, because motherhood can be one of the toughest jobs you’ll ever love.  We celebrate motherhood because it is a life-long commitment that requires planning and leadership.  Motherhood is an investment in children, one of our greatest legacies in this life.  And as we’ve seen over time and space, motherhood is not restricted to biological ties.  Women who have not birthed children have been some of the most profound influencers in our lives. Motherhood in its broadest sense calls on us to be conduits of God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness.  In other words, motherhood can represent the flesh-and-blood, incarnate version of God’s grace.  So Mother’s Day is about celebrating all of the good times we’ve shared with our mothers and other influential women in our lives.

Yet because May is also Mental Health Month, I must also speak in a balanced way to the inconveniences, complications, and even chaos of motherhood.  For each person who is enthusiastically celebrating this holiday, there is another person to whom Mother’s Day brings a twinge of pain, ambivalence, or avoidance.  For example, many of us long to spend just even a few more moments with our mothers or grandmothers who are no longer with us in the flesh.  Others of us have long sought to bear children, but to no avail.  We have experienced the sting of infertility and have yet to achieve Hannah’s breakthrough of extinguished barrenness. In other ways, Mother’s Day can be painful in one or both directions:

You and your mother don’t see eye to eye.

Your child is no longer living.

Your mother wasn’t there to support you in the ways you most deeply desired.

Your child is living, but due to some complicated factors, you will not have contact with your child today.

Unlike the TV commercials, your empty nest is not a cause for celebration, but ushers in a new season of pain as your children take wings and launch into their independence, leaving you feeling alone and purposeless.

Your mother only focuses on your shortcomings, and has never validated your accomplishments.

Your child is struggling with substance use or mental illness, and you want desperately for him or her to get help, much like the Canaanite (or Syrophoenician) woman in Matthew 15:21-28. Like many women in Scripture, this woman is unnamed, but we know from these few verses that she is a Greek residing in the area that Jesus is visiting; she has a daughter suffering from demon possession, and that she desperately wants her daughter to be healed.  Thus, her desperation drives her, a Greek woman, to assert her request to a Jewish man reputed to be a healer.  Their encounter teaches us something about the faith that informed her inspiration, her innovation, and her influence.

We now understand that many of the conditions described as demon possession during Biblical times are better understood today as physical or mental illnesses.  Conditions from epilepsy to bipolar disorder to addictions are brain disorders that have effectively been treated with a combination of medication and psychotherapy.  While African-American Christians haven’t been too keen on either of these options, please be aware that medications like Metformin for diabetes, Zestril for hypertension, and Ventolin for asthma act in similar ways to Lexapro for depression and Xanax for anxiety. We stigmatize mental illness in far greater ways that we do so-called physical illnesses.  This passage makes abundantly clear that God ultimately desires for us to be healed from all diseases, not just the “physical” ones.

When this mother pleads for Jesus to heal her daughter, Jesus first ignores her, then retorts, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”  What?!  Did Jesus just call her, her daughter, and her people “dogs”?  It is true that interracial tensions between Jews and Gentiles were so high that some Jews did refer to the Gentiles in a very derogatory manner, just as we have choice words today to put down other races.  Moreover, women then and now, especially in our contemporary subculture, have become used to being insulted, demoralized, and even called other types of dogs, if you catch my drift.  However, Jesus was not using the term “dogs” in a derisive way; rather, the word he uses in the Greek refers to little dogs kept as pets (kynarion). In this scene, the Jews are being described as children and the Gentiles as pets.  Therefore, Jesus is not insulting her, but He is testing her faith.

This is where this mother’s innovation steps in: Rather than being distracted or offended by Jesus’ apparent elusiveness, this mother exhibits extraordinary focus and persistence in pursuing her daughter’s healing, thus revealing an innovative response: “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”  Even me—a Gentile.  Even me—a woman.  Even me—a descendant of the Canaanites, long-standing enemies of the Israelites.  Even me—stigmatized by having a daughter with demon possession, better understood today as mental illness.  Yes, even I deserve the crumbs that will yield my daughter’s healing.  Let some drops now fall on me.

With that profound revelation of this mother’s faith, Jesus granted her request and healed her daughter without even setting eyes on the child.  So even though the Biblical narrative ends here, I can view with divine eyes how the story must have continued with a display of this mother’s influence.  First, her faith was able to influence her daughter’s healing and their quality of life.  Second, this mother influenced her community.  Surely others saw her faith, witnessed the change in her daughter’s condition, and began to place their own faith in this Son of David, whose ministry, death, and atoning resurrection for all gave them hope for their relationships and their futures.  Third, this Syrophoenician woman is still influencing us today.  Her example teaches us to pray without ceasing for the protection of our children and families, for evil is more present than ever in this day and age.  Psalms like 27, 46, 91, and 121 are especially relevant here.

Finally, this mother also teaches us to never give up on our children.  We must continue to believe in them, appreciate them, and advocate on their behalf for the things they need to become all that God purposed for them to be.  No matter what has been in the past, this day is a new day to hope in God.  This day is a new day for inspiration, innovation, and influence.  This day, Lord, you can use even me to restore relationships and be healed.

(Excerpted from Mother’s Day sermon at Peace Missionary Baptist Church, Durham, NC)

 

À Votre Santé (“To Your Health”),

 

“Dr. T”

Tonya D. Armstrong, Ph.D., M.T.S.

Licensed Psychologist, Author, Singer/Songwriter, Minister, Producer, Entrepreneur

#blossominghope

#drtonyaarmstrong

#armstrongcenterforhope

Get Help, By Any Means Necessary!

hands-2888625_1920.jpgOne of my interns at The Armstrong Center for Hope recently shared an interesting statistic: The most common lie is, “I’m fine.”  Sometimes, we utter these words in the rhythm of polite conversation.  A co-worker quickly passes in the hallway, asking the perfunctory, “How are you?”  While the co-worker barely listens for the response, I render the proverbial, expected exchange as a courteous return: “I’m fine.”  At other times, however, even when we’re asked by a caring and trusted family member or friend, and when we definitely are not fine, the same words roll easily from our tongues.  Whether it’s our finances, progress at work, or our health, we can sometimes ignore situations that are pleading for our attention.  We may feel embarrassed about our circumstances, or feel overwhelmed and too paralyzed to act.  Meanwhile, without adequate attention to our problems, they usually get worse.  This can be especially true when it comes to symptoms of mental illness, such as feelings of sadness, panic, shame, anger, and excessive worry.

So what do we do when we feel trapped by our pain? Believe it or not, making a change in your situation may not take the enormous effort you may be imagining.  Sometimes the process of getting help simply starts with making up your mind that you are sick and tired of being sick and tired (thanks, Fannie Lou Hamer!), and that something has got to give.  After that very important shift in your mindset, the next step is to employ the very tools that you’re already using to read this: your phone or other web-connected device. Although one critical component of mental health services is confidentiality, it is reasonable for you to consider seeking support outside of your local area.  Or maybe you’re not quite up to a face-to-face conversation, but would really benefit from a nonjudgmental listening ear, or chat session. Here are some local and national mental health resources to explore:

Perhaps you are aware of some other useful mental health resources.  Please share them in your comments!

À Votre Santé (“To Your Health”),

 

“Dr. T”

Tonya D. Armstrong, Ph.D., M.T.S.

Licensed Psychologist, Author, Singer/Songwriter, Minister, Producer, Entrepreneur

#blossominghope

#drtonyaarmstrong

#armstrongcenterforhope

 

 

 

 

Celebrate Mental Health Month!

33No, your eyes are not playing tricks on you.  On this first day of May, during the first hours of Mental Health Month, I actually have placed “celebrate” and “mental health” in the same sentence. I know this has not been the predominant message of our culture. Words more typically associated with “mental health” have traditionally included “shame,” “stigma,” “taboo,” and “secret.”  Or think of the action words, which are really more about inaction: “avoid,” “deny,” or “ignore.”  Our societal attitudes toward mental health have been unfortunate, because they have contributed to the lack of treatment in generations of persons who have dealt with symptoms of depression, or anxiety, or trauma, or substance abuse, or schizophrenia, or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), or any of a host of diagnoses.  People like you and me.  As you can see from the World Health Organization (WHO) quote above, mental illness affects our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and relationships.  One in five of us will meet criteria for a mental illness at some point in our lifetimes.  Even the other four of us will have family members, friends, and co-workers who struggle.  Truth be told, we all struggle, whether it be with brain disease, academic performance, relationship difficulties, financial challenges, or some combination thereof.   Sometimes life comes at us hard, and leaves us grappling with more than we can truly manage on our own.

So what are we celebrating, you may ask.  We are celebrating the advancements made in the science and art of mental health care that allow persons with one or more mental illnesses to return to previous or improved levels of functioning.  Just a few generations ago, persons suffering from mental illness would have likely been institutionalized.  Some asylums or sanitoriums, as they were called back them, may have engaged in humane treatment, while other facilities were less likely to demonstrate compassionate care.  Deinstitutionalization was not the magic bullet either, as it left adrift those in most need of more intensive forms of care.  Then and now, human beings best blossom under the conditions of familial and social support, effective treatment standards in care, and appropriate levels of care given the severity of their conditions.  Pharmacological treatment is not indicated for everyone, but often works well in tandem with psychotherapy to provide significant relief in a number of mental illnesses.  So we are celebrating that Aunt Sally may be diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, yet with the right treatment can raise a strong family and flourish in her career.  We are celebrating the reality that Cousin Jamal, once entrenched in opioid addiction, can indeed recover and live a life that is both productive and inspiring.  Finally, we are celebrating that this May, for all of Mental Health Month, we emphasize the “health” in “mental health” and pursue practices of wellness that go viral for the rest of the year!

 

Cheers, everyone!

“Dr. T”

Tonya D. Armstrong, Ph.D., M.T.S.

Licensed Psychologist, Author, Vocalist

#blossominghope

#drtonyaarmstrong

#armstrongcenterforhope

Because He Lives….I Can Blossom!

Resurrection

Today is the highest holiday (“holy day”) of the Christian year.  We have waited patiently during the 40 days of Lent, perhaps traveling through out our own wilderness experiences of giving up chocolate, sweets, meals, social media, or other sacrifices.  The Lenten season is intended to remind us of Jesus’ 40-day excursion in the wilderness, the time that he fasted and confronted temptations from the enemy.  While Jesus was surely weary by the end of that period from extreme hunger and spiritual warfare, he also emerged stronger than ever from his experience. Jesus was able to initiate an unconventional ministry, manage a motley crew of disciples, take on the theological critiques of the Pharisees and Sadducees, and accept the cup of betrayal and a ghastly crucifixion.  The strength, especially the spiritual growth, garnered in the wilderness served him well for enduring not only to the crucifixion, but through the crucifixion, through the resurrection, and to our redemption.

Now that the anticipation of Resurrection Day has finally been satisfied, you may also identify with Jesus’ sense of weariness.  If you elected to make a sacrifice during this period, you probably went through some struggles and temptations in your quest.  Even if you did not undertake a fast for Lent, the last 40 days has been a difficult time to be alive in the US.  Unprecedented disruptions in the political landscape, the ongoing snuffing out of black lives with no recourse to be found in the criminal injustice system, and chaotic weather patterns have made this Lenten season a time for intense reflection, if not fear. But be encouraged: You are emerging from this period of Lent stronger than ever.  Yes, as a believer, your salvation is secure, and celebrating another Resurrection Day gives you even more confidence in the redeeming work signaled by Jesus Christ rising again.  As wonderful a gift as salvation is, your journey of sanctification now continues with more depth and strength.  You have the fortitude to continue fulfilling the purpose for which God has thoroughly equipped you. You possess the resilience to get back up again after the trials of life have knocked you down.  You exhibit the stamina to push toward blossoming, not because you’re all that, but because you incorporate God’s grace in your commitment to your own wellness as well as those in your community.

So celebrate! Jesus has risen and the Holy Spirit continues to undergird your blossoming!

 

À Votre Santé (“To Your Health”),

“Dr. T”

Tonya D. Armstrong, Ph.D., M.T.S.

#drtonyaarmstrong

#blossominghope

#armstrongcenterforhope

 

“Inspiring Beauty:” Eunice Johnson’s Beauty Started Within

faar-eunice-johnson-ebony-magazine-01-v“In like a lion, out like a lamb.” At least that’s what it seems like during this early March period.  Back on Groundhog Day, Punxsutawney Phil announced that there would be six more weeks of winter.  Meanwhile, down south in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, Sir Walter Wally asserted that spring was on the way.  I guess they both were right.  North Carolina saw temps in the 70s, even low 80s a couple of weeks ago.  Nevertheless, a Nor’easter left its mark up and down the East Coast last weekend, and we’re still wondering this week where our early spring has gone.  In fact, my girlfriend in upstate NY says there’s several more inches of snow coming their way tomorrow.

So as we eagerly await the undeniable signs of spring (read: warm temperatures along with all of these budding trees), it’s helpful to take five minutes for mindfulness.  We’ve just come out of February (Black History Month) and are thrust into March (Women’s History Month). Even before we take some down time during Spring Break (whether va- or staycationing), let’s be still and think about some of our favorite Black women to be celebrated.  Not that we need a commercially-imposed reason to do so, but these month observances are good prompts.

Having recently taken my daughter and her friends to the NC Museum of Art’s exhibit,”Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair,” I am still reflecting on the amazing life and accomplishments of the late, great Eunice Walker Johnson (1916-2010).  Co-founder of Ebony and Jet magazines (with her husband, the illustrious John H. Johnson), Mrs. Johnson is perhaps best known as the woman responsible for the Ebony Fashion Fair experience. More than a mere fashion show, the Ebony Fashion Fair event wowed audiences up to 170 cities per year with fashions from across the globe, a diversity of designers the world had never seen, live music, and models with uber attitude.  This woman was able to turn what some might have dismissed as a pipedream into a well-oiled production involving a staff of hundreds of Blacks that drew larger and larger crowds across the color spectrum and across our country, not to mention the $50 million raised for charity.  Also, don’t forget the legwork behind the scenes bringing the work of famous and yet-to-be-famous designers onto the world’s stage.

So what’s your “pipedream?” What’s the thing you know in your bones that you were created to do, yet it seems unattainable? As challenging as the 21st century world is for Black women, imagine the odds that Eunice Johnson faced in her day.  Can’t you hear the naysayers now:? “European designers won’t take you seriously.” “Whites don’t want to see black skin in haute couture.” “Black people CANNOT work together.” “That fantasy will die out in a few years.” And yes, the Johnsons became wealthy through their hard work building the Johnson Publishing Company, but they certainly didn’t start that way.  So Eunice Johnson’s dream clearly stood the test of time, and as a woman of faith, her character traits of perseverance, hope, vision, courage, and grace were certainly operating in her life.  And that’s the thing about blossoming: it’s hard to notice when it’s happening, but as we stay rooted in the Tree of Life, the world is suddenly witness to God’s greatness bursting forth in us!

 

À Votre Santé (“To Your Health”),

“Dr. T”

Tonya D. Armstrong, Ph.D., M.T.S.

#drtonyaarmstrong

#blossominghope

#armstrongcenterforhope

 

 

Happy Vashalentine’s Day!

heart-3146184_1920This February, we have the curious collision of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day, which I believe carries a special spiritual significance.   Valentine’s Day is usually thought of as a celebration of love, especially eros, or romantic love. Ash Wednesday, on the other hand, is the first day of Lent in the Christian calendar, the 40 days (weekdays, actually) leading up to Easter when many Christians adopt a period of fasting or abstinence, similar to the 40 days in the gospel accounts when Jesus was fasting in the wilderness. For both of these important observances to occur on the same day, there must be a deeper meaning for us to embrace this February 14th.  Maybe, just maybe, we can think of Valentine’s Day this year not just from the perspective of eros, but from the broader vantage point of agape, or unconditional love.  God’s agape is the sacrificial love that allows us to look beyond our own desires and needs and beyond the faults and shortcomings of others to see their needs and preferences.  Perhaps Valentine’s Day can be a great opportunity to love on our nuclear and extended family members, our co-workers, community members, friends, and strangers. (Jesus actually did teach us to love our enemies, but let’s start with the basics first!)  Reflect on how different Ash Wednesday (and the season of Lent) can be this year if you sacrifice yourself by sharing loving thoughts and gestures to many valentines!  “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech, but with actions and in truth (I John 3:18, NIV).”

In case you missed my video this morning (with a little Kirk Franklin to set the mood), check it out at https://www.facebook.com/drtonyaarmstrong/videos/348371392331045/.

 

Also, please be sure to receive my free gift of love to you: a Kindle copy of Blossoming Hope, with songs, meditations, and other treats from the album integrated throughout your reading experience.  Don’t have an e-reader?  No worries–your iPhone or Android can be used as a Kindle reader in just a few short clicks.  See the Kindle order page for details: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B077T4P841

Enjoy the rest of this special holiday.  Much like the spreading of ashes in the wind, spread God’s love as broadly as you can!

 

À Votre Santé (“To Your Health”),

“Dr. T”

Tonya D. Armstrong, Ph.D., M.T.S.

#drtonyaarmstrong

#blossominghope

#armstrongcenterforhope

 

 

 

Free From Pain

RootedwomanIn follow up to Union Baptist Church’s Leadership Conference two weekends ago and its inspiring theme, “Going to the Next Level,” our Ministry of Congregational Care and Counseling ( a.k.a. “MC3”) had our annual retreat last weekend.  Our focus for the half-day retreat was “Taking MC3 to the Next Level.” Our Stephen Ministers, Stephen Leaders, licensed mental health professionals, and grief support group facilitators gathered to reflect on this theme, spend some quality time together, and share appreciation for our Giver and our gifts. Building on Pastor Prince Rivers’s use of the text from Luke 5:1-11 and his challenge for us to launch into deep waters, I shared with our group a (relatively) recently popularized but otherwise obscure text: 1 Chronicles 4:9-10, alternatively known as “The Prayer of Jabez:”

Jabez was more honorable than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez, saying, “I gave birth to him in pain.” Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, “Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.” And God granted his request.

We acknowledged the reality that although we are beloved children of God, others can impose upon us their own perceptions of who we are based on their stories.  Because Jabez’s mother experienced the pain of childbirth, she named her son “Pain,” influencing his view of himself as well as other’s views of his identity.  (Perhaps Jabez had even assumed undeserved responsibility for his mother’s pain.)  Nevertheless, despite this disadvantage from birth, Jabez prayed this audacious prayer for God’s blessings and expansion in his life.  Furthermore, Jabez requested protection from harm and freedom from pain.

While MC3 caregivers are trained to provide emotional and spiritual support for our disciples (i.e., Union Baptist Church members) and community members experiencing pain, we shared during our time of reflection, vulnerability, and prayer our own acknowledgement and experiences of pain.  We recognized that while pain is a part of our human inheritance, pain can help us progress to the next level in our calling.  We also found comfort in seeing that we can pray and act to be free from pain, and God grants out requests!

After participating in an envisioning exercise, sharing a meal, and brainstorming about serving in MC3 at the next level, our MC3 team was empowered to enlarge our personal as well as communal territories, and to watch God free us from pain.  After all, pain happens to all of us, but need not define us for a lifetime.  Will you be courageous in your prayers to be free from pain?

 

À Votre Santé (“To Your Health”),

“Dr. T”

Tonya D. Armstrong, Ph.D., M.T.S.

#drtonyaarmstrong

#blossominghope

#armstrongcenterforhope