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My 5 Favorite Questions about My New Book

Catching Your Breath: The Sacred Journey from Chaos to Calm is available now!

After nearly a year of pouring my soul onto paper and working hard to craft a powerful and clear message, it’s here! To celebrate, I asked my friends what they’d like to know about this process. Here they are:

#1 – Catching Your Breath is all about helping people learn how to feel less overwhelmed. However, what are some things things YOU learned as you wrote the book?

What a great question! To be honest, I’ve learned that I better practice what I preach in this book. As a self-published author, it’s all on me. Sure, I hired a cover designer and an editor, but everything else has been on me. I don’t think people realize just how much goes into a successful book launch: from promotion and marketing to recording and producing the audiobook to interviews and blogs and endorsements and so many other things. It’s so much more than just writing a book.

This book impacted me as an author in a very personal way, because it kept giving me permission to be a human. To slow down and take breaks. To extend the deadline when necessary. (This book is a great big permission slip to embrace your true self, so if I’m not doing that as a creator, it makes me quite a hypocrite.)

#2 – What was the writing process like for your family?

Things were different with this book. To be honest, this was the first time it felt like Lindsey and I were on the same page (writer pun) with a new project of mine. She has been incredibly supportive and enthusiastic about this book.

That wasn’t always the case for us.

For so long, I put my work before my family, jeopardizing the strength and security of my marriage, plus my relationship with my children. It’s typical for an unhealthy Enneagram 3 to behave this way, but it’s no excuse.

So, after years of hard work to become the healthiest person I can be, Lindsey noticed and respected the shift. These days, rather than dragging my family behind me, my wife is my partner and #1 fan.

#3 – What’s the most important message you want someone to walk away WITH after reading?  

If you find yourself feeling all alone on your island of insignificance and shame, you are not alone. And you can’t stay there. You’ll die if you do.

I wrote this book because I know what it’s like to feel completely overwhelmed. I know what it’s like to try and take a “magic Jesus pill” and hope everything would miraculously change. (And I was really disappointed when it didn’t.) This book is a permission slip, as I mentioned earlier – but it’s also a game plan for getting your life back. Little by little, step by step, with patience and self-compassion, you can come up for air and learn to breathe again.

#4 – What authors inspire you?

How long do you have? Here are a few of my favorites (in no particular order).

  1. Bob Goff

  2. J. Dana Trent

  3. Mike Foster

  4. Diana Butler Bass

  5. Ed Bacon

  6. J.J. Landis

  7. Thich Nhat Hanh

  8. Brandon Andress

  9. Jen Hatmaker

  10. Matthew Paul Turner

  11. Jamie Wright

  12. Brene’ Brown

  13. Brennan Manning

#5 – What is next for you?

I’m taking a breath! I am taking a break from the podcast (not sure for how long), and just generally slowing down a bit with content creation. Sounds counter-productive, eh? That’s what this book is all about.

Slowing down a bit with writing and podcasting will free me up to coach and speak more – and I LOVE both of those things. (Have you seen my free e-courses?)

Links to order Catching Your Breath:

Want to know more about Catching Your Breath? Listen to this podcast interview with the Inglorious Pasterds.


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Stressed Out? Free Course: 11 Proven Ways to Calm Down

Stressed out? We’ve all been there. In this stress managemetn crash course, I’m going to show you the 6 proven ways to calm down, but first, do you know the 3 biggest mistakes you can make when stressed out? Watch thie video below to learn more.

One day a couple of years ago, I was barely holding it together. I’d been stressed out for two days. Medical concerns, marriage struggles, and financial woes left me drowning underneath an ocean of shame and guilt.

I had tossed and turned the night before, checking the clock at 11:45, 12:15, and every half-hour that followed. To add insult to injury, after drinking coffee for fifteen years, my doctor said it was making my anxiety worse. At my last visit, my blood pressure was higher than it had ever been in my life. As a result, I had been off coffee for a month. I was anything but happy about it. The frustration and uncertainty piled up, and on a particularly overwhelming day at work, it all came toppling down.

I wanted to see my wife. I considered calling my Mom. I wanted to text a couple of different friends. But I was ashamed. When I am having a hard day, my inner-critic loves to tell me how crazy and weak I am. That I’m a burden, unworthy of love.

Stress never fights fair.

Have you ever been there?

Chances are, you have.

As of 2017, 18% of adults reported feeling stressed “often,” including nights and weekends. (Here’s a list of The 10 Most Stressed Out States in the U.S.)

If that’s you, what are you going to do about it?

Stress is normal. Let me say that again: stress is normal.

You are normal!

Whew. Take a deep breath (no really, take a deep breath). You’re not alone.

For me, everything changed when I realized that stress is just a messenger (like all emotions). The key is to dig into the stress a bit and find out what’s going on, just beneath the surface.

Are you stressed out? I’d love to help.

Sign up today (click right here) for my FREE e-course: 11 Proven Ways to Calm Down.

It’s simple, practical, and the results could improve your physical & mental health, strengthen your relationships, and give you the ability to slow down and catch your breath.

Sign up today. IT’S FREE! Just click here.

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It’s Hard to Preach Love While Full of Hate

Have you ever been done wrong? Have you ever wanted the person who did you wrong to suffer? Have you ever wanted justice? Have you ever disagreed with someone so strongly that your disagreement turned to hatred? Have you ever tried to get as far away from God as possible?

If so, keep reading.

I’ve been thrown away,

   thrown out, out of your sight.

I’ll never again lay eyes

   on your Holy Temple.

Ocean gripped me by the throat.

   The ancient Abyss grabbed me and held tight.

My head was all tangled in seaweed

   at the bottom of the sea where the mountains take root.

I was as far down as a body can go,

   and the gates were slamming shut behind me forever…

— Jonah 2, The Message

STRANGER IN A FOREIGN LAND

I’ve been traveling the past ten days. I spent the second half of my trip in Indiana. Apparently, if it’s your first time in the Hoosier State, you have to try the tenderloin sandwich – a local tradition.

Last Saturday, I was having lunch with a bunch of locals. This was the third time I had been told to get the tenderloin sandwich. Three different restaurants, three different sets of friends, three separate days. And all of them said the same thing, “Dude – you have to try the tenderloin sandwich.”

The server overheard our discussion, snarled up his face, and looked at me like I had two heads when he found out I had never had a tenderloin sandwich.

One of my friends begrudgingly piped up in a sort of disgusted tone, “He’s from Alabama” (and everyone at the table rolled their eyes).

“Ah,” the server said, still looking at me with judgmental eyes. It all seemed to make sense now.

MEET JONAH

You know Jonah, the prophet of God, the dude who spent a few days in the belly of a massive fish?

But what if this story isn’t about a dude and a big fish?

Rob Bell basically says it’s more about God’s unconditional love having the power to so profoundly transform me, empowering me to love others more fully – yes, even those who have wounded me; even the people with whom I disagree entirely.

Better than that, the redeeming love (the messy grace) of God allows me to accept and embrace myself.

EVEN IF I LAY DOWN IN HELL

Let’s recap the story: God tells Jonah to travel to Nineveh, a city known for its total disregard for the ways of God. Jonah is to convince the people to repent and turn back to God. Otherwise, they’re going to be destroyed.

But Jonah is bitter and angry and wants the people of Nineveh to get what they deserve: total annihilation. So, he ignores the call of God and boards a boat to get as far away from Nineveh as possible.

A storm comes up. The sailors and fishermen start freaking out. They draw straws to try and figure out who is the cause of the chaos. And the lot falls on Jonah.

The interrogation begins. The others on the boat ask Jonah who he is, where he is from, what family he belongs to, what does he do for a living, and why he is on the ship.

HUH?

I read this story last week for the first time in a very long time, and I was struck by Jonah’s bizarre response to the sailors’ inquisition. In the midst of the ship rocking back and forth, plus the intense frustration of the others on the boat, Jonah gives them a response that seems entirely out of place, “I am a Hebrew.”

Huh?

Who cares?! The boat is about to go under, and you’re telling me you’re a Jew?? Who cares?!

“You’ve never had a tenderloin sandwich?!”

“Oh, he’s from Alabama.”

“I’m a Hebrew.”

Are you tracking yet?

Yea. I wasn’t either.

Jonah’s response of, “I’m a Hebrew” doesn’t make sense to me until I Google “Jews and Jonah.”

During Jonah’s time,  there was a commonly held belief that there were territorial gods or deities. There were also certain (more desolate) places, where there was not a local deity. The ocean was one of those “no man’s land” areas where no local deity reigned, and people believed they could do whatever they wanted.

So it makes sense that even Jonah, when running from God, would naturally board a boat. No man’s land. He thinks he can do as he pleases.

Until the storm hits.

Everything is coming apart at the seams, and Jonah seems lost in thought. The way I read this story, Jonah wasn’t even answering their questions directly. It’s like the realization was hitting him at the same time.

“I’m a Hebrew,” he thinks aloud.

In other words, my God has no boundaries.

I’m a Hebrew: my God isn’t limited by your territories.

Remember when Moses went to Pharoah, demanding the release of his people? He says, “The God of the Hebrews has sent us.”

In other words, the God who isn’t bound by your laws or prisons or punishment – the God that is above all your little territorial imps – that God demands you release His children immediately.

I’m a Hebrew.

MAN OVERBOARD!

The winds are beating the ship to a pulp. The waves are slamming against the wooden planks. Rain is pouring down, and thunder is shaking them at their core. Jonah tells the others to throw him overboard, into the sea. If they just throw him overboard, everything will calm down, and the sailors will be safe.

I wonder what Jonah really meant.

During the worst days of my life, in the two weeks leading up to my suicide attempt, I was begging someone to just throw me overboard. I felt like a burden to my family. I believed I had disappointed God. I thought no one would believe my story – or even care.

“Just throw me overboard!”

Jonah had to be pretty frustrated when the fishermen ignored his cries and started to row harder and faster, praying to their own local gods.

Because that didn’t fix anything.

Alas, they throw the Hebrew into the churning sea.

Can you imagine all the thoughts Jonah faces while in the belly of a fish?

“I’m not dead. I’m just sort of in this really smelly holding place. Why aren’t you killing me, God?! Just let me drown. I can’t see anything down here. This is my worst-case scenario.”

THE MOST HONEST PRAYER I’VE EVER PRAYED

Look back at Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the whale. It’s the desperate prayer of someone literally at the end of their rope.

Can you tell somebody what the end of the rope looks like? I’ve been there.

For me, it was being rolled down the hall from an ICU room, down to the elevator, to the belly of the hospital. I remember the sound of those giant metal doors latching shut behind me, as the orderly rolled me into the psych ward.

As the doors slammed shut, I prayed the most honest prayer I’ve ever prayed, “God? If you’re there, please help me.”

DROWNING

Whether you have a mental health diagnosis or not. We all know what it’s like to feel like we’re drowning.

Overwhelmed.

Exhausted.

Stressed to the max.

Wondering if God has finally given up on us.

At some point, most of us have probably run from what we know is our best self.  Or some difficult conversation. We’ve all made poor decisions and not lived from our heart-center. We’ve faced the consequences and the fallout, and we’ve probably regretted it.

I’M A HEBREW

Where can I go from your Spirit?

   Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;

   if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn,

   if I settle on the far side of the sea,

even there your hand will guide me,

   your right hand will hold me fast.

If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me

   and the light become night around me,”

even the darkness will not be dark to you;

   the night will shine like the day,

   for darkness is as light to you.

— Psalm 139

This isn’t a story about a big fish. It’s a story about mercy, grace, and forgiveness. Jonah couldn’t forgive those he viewed as “sinners” until he learned his own lesson about his need for mercy and grace.

This story is about Hope. It’s a story about redemption and restorative justice. It’s one about love – which is the most divine experience we can have.

Jonah must have thought he was really something special; better than everyone else. Jonah believed he had it all figured out. I’ve been there. I remember hating, or at least having no compassion, for those I viewed as a “sinner.”

It took Jonah reaching rock bottom before he could ever see his own need for mercy and forgiveness. The whole experience was about finding compassion for “the other,” and discovering that we are all “the other.”

It was the same way for me, after being released from the psych ward. Sitting with others at the lowest points of their lives gave me more love, compassion, and understanding than I’d ever found in a lifetime of trying to do all the right things.

It’s been six years since the lowest point of my life, but in the past few weeks, I’ve deeply struggled with inner-hatred. The Kavanaugh hearing, the confession of Dr. Ford, and Kavanaugh’s eventual confirmation to the Supreme Court of the United States disappointed me, triggered memories of my own abuse, felt like it diminished my own painful experience (plus countless others), and sent me into a tailspin of anger and hatred.

I lashed out on social media. I was boiling on the inside. And I was perfectly fine with God bulldozing Washington and starting over.

But I’m a Hebrew. As such, it’s my job to live my life in such a way that unboxes things like Divine Love and grace and hope. Compassion and mercy can’t be rationed out, only to those I deem worthy.

I’m a Hebrew. And it’s time I start recognizing the dignity of all humans, even when it isn’t easy. Initially, Jonah refused to preach to a group of people he hated. I’ve been there. And I was wrong.

There is no transgression so heinous and no wound so deep that Love cannot transform. And the only way the world will ever experience that kind of Love is if we allow it to flow through us into every interaction we have in-person & online.

We cannot live our lives full of hatred and expect anyone to believe we are children of God.

Whether it’s an entire city or just the stubborn heart of someone like Jonah, the Good news is this: Love is the antidote to fear. Love combats the illusion of separateness. Love is a reminder that everyone belongs, even when it seems like life is falling apart.

*Originally preached at Red Door Church (Bloomington, Indiana), October 7, 2018.

Pre-Order Catching Your Breath today!

Steve Austin was a pastor when he nearly died by suicide. A second chance, a grueling recovery, and years of honest conversation allowed Steve to find healing and purpose. It’s evident in his writing, speaking, podcasting, and coaching: he helps overwhelmed people get their lives back.

Steve is also the author of two Amazon bestsellers: From Pastor to a Psych Ward and Catching your Breath. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with his wife, Lindsey, and their two children.

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This was Supposed to be the Last Day of My Life

They say that hell smells like burning sulfur. To me, it smelled like the Extended Stay hotel in Huntsville, Alabama.

I was working on an out-out-town interpreting assignment for a couple of weeks. I had gone home for the weekend, and when I pulled out of the driveway that Sunday night to head back to work, I knew I’d never see my wife and little boy again.

Six years ago today, I was supposed to be dead. (At least that was my plan.) It was a surreal week. I guess planning to die is like that: nearly every conversation that week felt like an out-of-body experience. It was as if my body was working, independent of my traumatized mind.

I worked each day. And then I would return to the hotel where I was staying, to be tormented by my own thoughts and mental illness. It was the darkest week of my life. I imagine feeling something like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, being pressed like an olive into oil.

I had made some stupid mistakes. Hurt some people. Lost a job. And my personal failures, combined with untreated trauma and shame and fear of never being enough, never being believed, and no one caring – sent me into a tailspin. I was in a fog of depression, spun up wildly by anxiety, and shame was corroding my guts from the inside.

I believed my only way out was suicide.

And yet, I’m not dead. I’m still here. For some reason, God wasn’t finished with me. Messy Grace wouldn’t let me go.

I am Not Alone (Neither are You)

One thing I’ve learned over the past six years of recovering from the worst day of my life is this: I am not alone. Countless people are overwhelmed, suffering the shameful lashings of their past, holding onto gut-wrenching memories, unable to catch their breath in a world that tells them just to keep pushing. If the pressure of fear, pain, anxiety, and anger simmer and grow, sooner or later they’re going to explode.

The latest CDC statistics on suicide are staggering. In my home state of Alabama, from 1999-2016, the suicide rate increased by 21.9%. In 2016 alone, 142,000 people died of “diseases of despair” (which include alcohol and drug abuse, plus suicide). According to the CDC, “rates increased in nearly all states,” ranging “from just under 6 percent in Delaware to over 57 percent in North Dakota. Twenty-five states had suicide rate increases of more than 30 percent.”

We have lost bright lights to suicide. People like Robin Williams, Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, Chester Bennington, Amy Bleuel, and Pastor Andrew Stoecklein have all succumbed to this kind of unimaginable suffering. And please don’t forget the recent death of nine-year-old, Jamel Myles.

Despair is no respecter of persons. Mental illness isn’t intimidated by your pedigree, faith, or future plans. The treachery of hopelessness, the stigma of depression, and the sharp pain that lies to us, convincing us that suicide is the only answer; these things don’t just rob us of celebrities and heroes. Suicide killed my aunt when I was fourteen and murdered a friend of mine when we were only children, leaving his twelve-year-old body hanging lifeless in his bedroom closet.

When we got the news about my aunt, I’ll never forget the way my Mom screamed, “My sister!” as she dropped the grey receiver and it swung out and slammed back against the kitchen wall. In the immediate aftermath of her suicide, the days crawled by, but her funeral sticks out clearly in my memory. The hushed words of church people are what I can’t seem to shake. The ones who believed suicide was no different than murder, “in the eyes of God.”

It would be another fifteen years before I contemplated my own death, but the under-the-breath comments of church people stuck with me like glue. I was convinced that if I had gone to the church with my pain, I would have been called “demon possessed,” or told I lacked faith. The churches I grew up in liked easy fixes. They don’t typically do well with messes that require more than a simple prayer of faith. If it can’t be cleaned up in one “altar call,” no thanks.

After I woke up in an ICU hospital room, my wife helped me realize that Jesus can save your soul, but counseling could save your life. These days, Lindsey continues to call out my toxic theology and harmful self-image. In sickness and in health, ya know?

Living with Anxiety

I feel the healthiest I’ve ever been. But no matter what treatment plans I’ve followed, anxiety remains my constant companion, like it or not. Living with anxiety means secretly rejoicing when other people have their own problems to talk about, so you don’t have to share your own. You hide, silently isolated, pretending to care about the struggles of the whole world, as long as you can remain anonymous in your own suffering. It means you sometimes smile at a friend, wishing they knew you’re dying on the inside, and equally thankful they’re unaware.

Anxiety doesn’t only hit on the side of the road. Sometimes it strikes during happy hour with your friends, or at the exact moment your co-workers are laughing at an apparently hilarious joke. Anxiety is crying in your car after dropping off the kids at school or in your shower, so no one hears your sobs.

For someone living with anxiety, it is a daily battle just to change out of your pajamas, stand at the front door, peer out the window and wait for just the right moment when no one else is in sight, so you can pick up the package from UPS and not have to interact with another human being. Sometimes it means taking your kid to school, so you don’t have to make small talk with other adults at the bus stop.

Living with anxiety means living with the constant fear that you’ll feel this way for the rest of your life. You look in the mirror and, as much as you want others to see you as a person, all you can see is your own misery. Your diminished self-worth is based on the fact that you not only feel crazy, but believe you are insane.

Living with anxiety is stressful. People who know your diagnosis ask how you’re doing and you nearly have a panic attack because you don’t know how to adequately explain something you don’t even understand yourself. It’s exhausting fighting with your own head. Living with anxiety is one of the most courageous things a person can do. Your mind writes a story that would make any “normal” person weep, but you live with it every moment of every day because you know the only other alternative is a far less-happy ending.

I know, because I’ve been there. I’ve been consumed with shame and bogged down by depression. I’ve been spun-up by anxiety and thrown into the wall by PTSD. I know what it’s like to rest the Bible in my lap in a hotel room while writing “goodbye letters” to all my closest people.

When loneliness mixes with mental illness, shame, and a generalized sense of hopelessness, it’s a cocktail that can destroy everything. Most importantly, it can ruin you. I know what it’s like to think it would be better to die than to face tomorrow. I’ve walked through that living hell.

And I’ve faced tomorrow. And tomorrow isn’t always more comfortable. The sun doesn’t always come out right away. Things don’t always miraculously change and improve overnight. But with the right resources, professional support, and self-care, the sun will come out eventually, or you’ll learn to dance in the rain. Things do get better, bit by bit.

When the Church Gets it Wrong

I sang my first solo in the Christmas play at church when I was only five. I served as a youth leader in my local church all through high school. In my twenties, I attended two years of ministry school. And yet, at the age of twenty-nine, when I tried to die, I didn’t ask for help from the church where I worked. I had seen how the church treats people who just can’t seem to get it together. I didn’t want any more of their pious glances, toxic theology, or frustrated prayers.

This is the reason I am open about my story and why I encourage others too. Sharing my story always carries with it a bit of necessary weight, but I refuse to remain silent any longer, as people fall victim to the lie that there is no hope or help. When we own our stories, we take back the power of shame and stigma. Each time we expose darkness to the light, everyone wins.

The world is full of overwhelmed people who are just trying to fake it till we make it. The church is, too. I wore the mask of performance and perfection for many years. But honesty and vulnerability have brought a new kind of strength, healing, and energy to my life. I don’t ever want to go back. Maybe we can fake it till we make it, but it’s a rotten way to live. And really, is it even living?

When the church or culture at large tells you to keep pushing, ignore your feelings, discount your needs, demonize your weaknesses, avoid your doubts, and just choose joy, this is your invitation to come up for air and breathe again. You don’t have to walk through a living hell all alone.

The Year of Completeness

I am walking into the seventh year of recovery from a suicide attempt. In my Christian tradition, seven is a very sacred number. Creation is said to have been completed in seven days. The Abrahamic blessing is a seven-fold blessing. Life happens in seven-year cycles. There are seven parables of Matthew and seven mysteries. Seven bones in your face. Seven is the number of completeness and celebration.

So as we enter this year of completeness, we won’t back down.

We won’t look away.

We refuse to ignore suffering.

We will love our neighbors – especially the messy ones.

Most of all, we will love ourselves.

We are not giving up.

If you’re reading this and you love Jesus with all your heart, but life just plain sucks, I’m sorry. Please know you’re not alone. It will get better. I promise. Please don’t give up. Don’t leave. This will get better. I don’t know how or when, but I have lived through enough to know that hard days don’t last forever. I know that hard days can seem unthinkable at times, but in my experience, they come and go, just like the tides.

So hold on. And let go of all the things that are weighing you down. If it feels like your ship is sinking, throw all the excess cargo overboard and hold on. Hold onto these words. Hold onto hope. Hold onto memories of better days. They will come again.

Bio: Steve Austin was a pastor when he nearly died by suicide. A second chance, a grueling recovery, and years of honest conversation allowed Steve to find healing and purpose. It’s evident in his writing, speaking, podcasting, and coaching: he helps overwhelmed people get their lives back.

Steve is also the author of two Amazon bestsellers: From Pastor to a Psych Ward and Catching your Breath. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with his wife, Lindsey, and their two children. Visit iamsteveaustin.com today to download a free copy of From Pastor to a Psych Ward.

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This is Why It’s Our Fault When a Child Dies by Suicide

“Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people.”

-Fred Rogers, The World According to Mr. Rogers

As a father of two young children, one thing I know is this: they tell it like it is. If my four-year-old doesn’t approve of my wife’s outfit, she voices her opinion boldly. Likewise, if my son needs to poop, he announces it to the whole world. No matter how rude it may seem at the time, my children feel comfortable saying exactly what’s on their mind.

Part of our role as parents is a cultural mediator of sorts. We teach and model cultural and social norms for our children. We want them to know that it is not acceptable to wipe their nose (or anything else) with their palm before shaking someone’s hand. We are expected to teach our kids that it is neither appropriate nor kind to point out the fact that the librarian has a big fat tummy.

But as hard as we practice and model appropriate public behavior, and how to treat their friends, the thing that endears me to my children is also the thing that makes me cringe: they always tell the truth.

In many ways, that makes me thankful. I want my children to speak up about injustice. I want them to be brave enough to offer an unpopular opinion. I want my children to feel free enough to cause ripples when they feel passionate about something. I want them to be comfortable in their skin, to own their story, and to boldly speak the truth. I don’t want my kids to always go with the flow, just because “this is the way it’s always been.”

It’s also the reason we all (hopefully) teach our kids, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

When I saw the news of Jamel Myles, the 9-year-old boy who recently died by suicide after being relentlessly bullied at school, my heart did something more than break. The story pulverized my guts and pounded me into dust. No, I don’t have a nine-year-old, but my son will be there before you know it. And my daughter isn’t far from it.

I’ve seen several people ask, “How could this happen? How could a child even know about suicide? Children are supposed to be carefree! Reckless! How could a child feel such despair that they choose to die?!”

The answer is in the mirror.

Recently, my wife and I were watching a superhero movie with our son. During one particularly tense part of the film, Ben whispered under his breath, “Oh shit!” As shocked as I was, and as hard as I tried to conceal my laughter, the truth is that my son is only repeating what he has heard his daddy say.

Our children reflect the very best and the very worst in us. This is the uncomfortable truth. Our children notice our superficial relationships. They hear the angry ways we deal with people who seem unlike us. They feel the judgment and hatred we project on those with whom we interact.

Children are truth-tellers. The little parrots copy what they see and hear. When they learn that we won’t take communion from the gay couple at our church, they make a mental note, “gay is not okay.” When they hear our toxic theology about those with mental illness, they learn, “Don’t show weakness.” As we demonize those with whom we disagree, our children understand that they should never disagree with us, either.

Children learn from our example, and they strive to make us happy.

“My daddy says that God doesn’t like when people are gay,” suddenly becomes, “I know gay people and I hate them, too.” The real problem is that when our little ones mimic what we do, it is without our slick and hypocritical filters or self-control. While we criticize what we don’t understand, children say things like, “You should just go ahead and kill yourself.”

Our own closed-mindedness is what killed nine-year-old, Jamel Myles last week. Unless we speak up and invite future generations to see a world full of compassion and understanding, we are culpable in their hatred. Our mere closed-mindedness becomes their hate crime.

When a child hears you say that suicide is selfish, they follow your lead. When a little one hears a pastor refer to suicide as “self-murder,” they remember.

If children are nasty to each other, it is only because we have shown them the way. When we don’t remind those around us of their loveliness, when we refuse to make room for diversity, when we unwilling to change our perspective, it is our children who pay the price.

While I don’t want to sentimentalize the tragic death of Jamel Myles, because this is someone’s child, I do believe it is indicative of a much broader social and cultural problem.

I’ve heard horror stories about someone coming out and experiencing rejection, being shunned, and sometimes enduring outright violence, simply for being real about who they are. Is it any wonder people struggle to believe there is good in them, that they bear the image of the Divine?

And I can’t help but wonder why we do this to each other.

If people believe the lie that their lives don’t matter, it damages the soul and sometimes kills the body. People don’t want to live in a world (read: a family or a church) where they aren’t known, accepted, and loved. All people deserve love and justice. Perpetuating hate and fear through destructive theology or political ideology is damaging the collective soul of this worldwide community of humans.

When religious people stop expecting people to fit their mold, agree with their politics, or live up to their social expectations, they extend freedom and joy to all of God’s people. And isn’t belonging what we all want? Isn’t that what Christ offers us?

No matter how we were raised or if we cling to faith of any sort, genuine love doesn’t have prerequisites. Grace doesn’t have qualifying criteria. Compassion has no strings attached. It is more important to love my neighbors than to expect them to pass a litmus test on morality or religious fervor.

In the past, I’ve been a coward. I was more concerned with my own acceptance and belonging than standing up to help others receive them. I was wrong to hold back, and I am sorry. These days, I am learning to do better. I’m saying in no uncertain terms that it is wrong for any group of people to be demonized by any institution. I will not stay quiet any longer.

Please hear me: whoever you are, whatever you’ve done: you are not bad. If you’ve received that message, know it’s a nasty, hideous lie. Your dreams, your experiences – your joys and pains and sorrows and traumas and successes – are as unique as the stars in the sky, as varied as the number of hairs on your head. The vastness of that same beauty is contained in your soul, no matter where you’ve been or what you’ve been told.

When a nine-year-old dies by suicide, the truth is: I don’t give a damn what you think about homosexuality. It is time to put our differences aside and care for one another with open hearts. It is time we come down off of our moral high horses, set our agendas aside, and begin to treat the world around us with love and empathy. It’s time to quit making someone’s humanity a religious or political issue, and instead, invite everyone we know to sit at the table of brotherhood. We must let those around us know that we are safe people. We must create a world where compassion and understanding are the cornerstones of our culture. And wouldn’t that be an example worth following?

Looking for more help?

I was a pastor when I nearly died by suicide. For a limited time, you can download my Amazon bestselling book, From Pastor to a Psych Ward, absolutely FREE. Just click here.

Resources:

  1. 8 Quick Tips for Helping Your Depressed Teen
  2. What to do When Your Child Attempts Suicide
  3. This is Why It’s Our Fault When a Child Dies by Suicide
  4. How to Keep Your Friends from Dying
  5. When Priests Condemn Suicide

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Online Chat (or call 1-800-273-8255)

Steve Austin was a pastor when he nearly died by suicide. A second chance, a grueling recovery, and years of honest conversation allowed Steve to find healing and purpose. It’s evident in his writing, speaking, podcasting, and coaching: he helps overwhelmed people get their lives back.

Steve is also the author of two Amazon bestsellers: From Pastor to a Psych Ward and Catching Your Breath. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with his wife, Lindsey, and their two children.

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Suicide, the Woman at the Well, & You

Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.

— Brene’ Brown

I have been on stage, in one role or another (acting, speaking, and singing) since I was five years old. I’m quite comfortable there. It’s one of the reasons many people said, “Steve Austin will either be a preacher or a politician.” I have no fear of the spotlight.

But all last week, as I was preparing to speak at my home church on suicide, I wanted to vomit. No, really. My stomach was in knots from the time I woke up Thursday morning. This was the first time I’d spoken in my hometown since I nearly died by suicide six years ago.

I was a nervous wreck. On-edge. Cranky. Distracted. Anxious. Ready to cry. If I didn’t respect my friend and pastor, I might have considered backing out. But I’ve come so far since those dark and terrible days, and I know my story matters. So I pushed through nausea and paranoia.

Are you familiar with the Bible story of the woman at the well? Here’s my paraphrase:

It was about noon when Jesus arrived at a town called Sychar. He was tired, sweaty, and thirsty. He sat down by the city well, and a local Samaritan woman showed up.

Jesus asked the lady for a drink, and she was shocked. Didn’t he know that Jews and Samaritans didn’t mix? If this had been the 1960’s, they would have had separate water fountains and different schools.

But Jesus didn’t care. He was dehydrated, and she had the means to give him a drink of water.

Jesus goes into this bizarre little speech about something called, “Living Water,” and promises he can give her a life where she’ll never be thirsty again. Jesus was tapping into the woman’s need. She’d been trying to fill a void for years. He already knew her story.

In fact, everyone knew this lady’s story. And the townspeople never would have called her a “lady.” Far from it. She’d been with five different men, and Jesus was quick to point out, “the man you have now is not your husband.” Like the town gossip, the woman at the well got around.

Hearing this story as a child, I pictured Jesus channeling his inner Mrs. Cleo (“Call me now!”), and harnessed some heavenly psychic power and reading this woman’s mail. But that’s not true at all.

That’s not the miracle. They already knew her story.

After her encounter with Jesus, the woman is so stunned that she forgets her water jar and sprints back to town to invite others to come to meet the man who, “told me everything I ever did.” Her meeting with Jesus changed everything.

But why?

I think it’s because Jesus recognized this woman as a whole person, rather than limiting her by a few big mistakes. Instead of avoiding uncomfortable conversation, Jesus sat down next to her, ignored her scarlet letter, looked her in the eyes, and asked for a drink of water. Jesus was more focused on wholeness than holiness.

To paraphrase Mike Yaconelli and his book, Messy Spirituality, the real miracle here wasn’t that Jesus pulled out a crystal ball and told the woman her story. It’s that Jesus already knew her story, and chose to engage with her anyways. Jesus approached her with understanding and compassion. People in the town called her terrible things: slut, whore, and homewrecker. But along came a wild-eyed Rabbi who gave this lady permission to be human. He issued her an invitation to experience a better way of living.

The invitation of Jesus is always into a better way of living.

As I spent time preparing for this Sunday’s sermon, I connected with the woman at the well more deeply than ever. I don’t think she feared people knowing her story: everyone makes mistakes. I think she avoided the crowds because of her fear of all the things they didn’t know.

The woman at the well was drawing water in the middle of the day because all the other women went early in the morning when it was much cooler. Like a dog that’s been abused, she tucked her tail, stayed low to the ground, and did her best to avoid anyone that seemed threatening. The sad news is that when you’re full of shame, everyone looks like a threat.

I felt the same way on my ride home from the psych ward. The time leading up to my suicide attempt was the darkest season of my life. Not only was I in mental health crisis, I had made some poor life choices, too. I imagined I’d never feel welcome in a church again if people understood the gravity of my story.

The biggest reason I’ve spoken anywhere but my hometown until now is because I still fear the gossips. Those who would rather fill-in-the-blanks with their own assumptions, what-ifs, and slander, rather than reaching out to me personally. The slick church people who cloak their own twisted versions of my story in “prayer requests” are the people who have kept me shut up until now.

Maybe it’s true for you, too? Perhaps it isn’t a mental health diagnosis, but what is it? The divorce you’d rather not speak of? The affair? The fact that you’re about to file bankruptcy? There are a million different reasons you might be drowning beneath an ocean of shame, but we all know that terrible feeling.

In her book Rising Strong, Brene’ Brown says, “Many of us will spend our entire lives trying to slog through the shame swampland to get to a place where we can give ourselves permission to both be imperfect and to believe we are enough.”

Brene’ is right. For the longest time, I let my story hold power over me. But taking power back from my story is simple: I just have to show up and tell the truth. Each time I invite others into my story, I take power back.

I strongly identify with the woman at the well, because, like her, Jesus met me at my lowest point. I was lying in a hospital bed in an ICU room, when I felt the warm hand of God on my chest and heard an inaudible whisper in my soul, “I’m not finished with you yet.”

Jesus shows up and changes everything.

Jesus always changes everything. And sometimes it isn’t in a mud-on-the-eyes, dipping-seven-times-in-the-river kind of way. More often than not, it’s through the most ordinary of circumstances. Jesus comes to us as we confess our darkest secrets and biggest fears to the therapist. Jesus empowers us to own our story and guarantees us that the power of confession will bring healing.

For a woman who had been shunned and shamed for years, the miracle is that she found the courage to be vulnerable for possibly the first time in her life. Everyone else had been whispering what they knew about her (or what they didn’t know), from behind closed doors. But Jesus shows up and blows the doors off of her guilt, shame, and secret-keeping.

He did the same for me. That’s just how Divine love works.

The Power of Conversation

The call of Jesus is, “Come just as you are.” When the woman (or man) at the well shows up at our front door – or our church – we are charged with creating a safe space, where everyone feels welcome. We are called to create an affirming home environment, church community, and world, where hurting people feel compelled to tell the truth and ask for help. Jesus knew that (he was fully human, after all).

Whether you’re a hurting person or a helper, the power of conversation saves us all. Admitting we need help, and listening to those in need is the first step in suicide prevention – because it helps us feel less alone. Jesus met the woman at the well and changed her life in the most ordinary way: through the power of conversation. The same is true for us: the only way to live fully free is by owning our stories and asking for help.

Steve Austin was a pastor when he nearly died by suicide. A second chance, a grueling recovery, and years of honest conversation allowed Steve to find healing and purpose. It’s evident in his writing, speaking, podcasting, and coaching: he helps overwhelmed people get their lives back.

Steve is also the author of two Amazon bestsellers: From Pastor to a Psych Ward and Catching Your BreathHe lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with his wife, Lindsey, and their two children.

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Love Jesus. (And Call Out Theological Bullshit.)

A couple of days ago, someone in my Twitter feed retweeted a post by the Desiring God account. Admittedly, John Piper and I are about as far on opposite ends of the theological spectrum as you can get. 

John Piper has a great big platform, lots of people follow him and subscribe to what he teaches (no matter how toxic it may be), and I feel the need to say something. Because depression has impacted my life on a daily basis for at least the past 18 years.

In the tweet about dealing with depression, they suggest things like talking to your trusted spiritual friends, trusting the wisdom of God, and prayer.

Look – all of those things are fine. You’re more than welcome to try them when you’re feeling depressed, but nowhere in that list did they say go to therapy or counseling or take your medication.

There were no practical steps to actually dealing with the mental illness someone is living with when they are depressed.

My point is this: that’s some theological bullshit.

This kind of advice is coming from someone who apparently has no idea what they’re talking about when it comes to mental illness. It doesn’t tell the whole story.

Sure, talk to God, summon your support system, and also – go to freakin’ therapy, take your meds, and listen to the doctor.

Sometimes, the most spiritual thing you can do is go to therapy.

I think we’ve forgotten that Jesus was a human being. He took care of himself by eating and taking naps. He drew away from the crowd when he felt overwhelmed, and got down in the bottom of a damn boat and went to sleep when he was tired. Because Jesus was fully human.

Can we talk about miracles for a minute?

Look, I have no problem believing that someone could lay hands on you and pray for you and you be healed in an instant. But it’s called a miracle for a reason: because it rarely ever happens. Ordinarily, God works ordinarily.

I believe God is present with us in our suffering. God sits with us on the couch at the therapist’s office. God is present as we take our medication each morning. 

I need a prescription every morning because my brain isn’t wired like everyone else’s. It’s no different than the marathon runner who eats well, gets good rest, exercises daily, and still needs medication for his high cholesterol. 

It’s the same thing.

I need that little white pill every day to help me function as normally as possible. I take medication for my mental illness so that I can show up, rather than hiding under the covers. I take a prescription for anxiety so that I can be the best dad, husband, employee, and human I can possibly be. 

So when I see tweets or hear comments by church people who say, “Just pray and talk to your spiritual friends,” I have to say something.

My Christian friend, it is your job to call out this kind of toxic, theological bullshit.

You can absolutely love Jesus with all your heart, and love the church while calling out harmful, toxic theology. It’s precisely what Jesus did. Jesus, who was fully human and fully God, loved his neighbor, embraced those around him, loved the church, and was not afraid to call out harmful, bullshit theology. 

You should too.

And if you’re depressed, go to therapy and follow the doctor’s orders.

Jesus can save your soul. And the doctor just might save your life.

Steve Austin was a pastor when he nearly died by suicide. A second chance, a grueling recovery, and years of honest conversation allowed Steve to find healing and purpose. It’s evident in his writing, speaking, podcasting, and coaching: he helps overwhelmed people get their lives back.

Steve is also the author of two Amazon bestsellers: From Pastor to a Psych Wardand Catching Your Breath. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with his wife, Lindsey, and their two children.