Is Anyone Normal?

A lot of the stigma that accompanies mental illness derives from what culture describes as normal. Someone once remarked that if everyone is a Christian almost no one is. If a term like abnormal is watered down to the point that it describes almost everyone, it describes no one.

Did you know that there are 300 diagnosable mental illnesses described by the DSM IV? Are any of us normal? Jordan Smoller, author of The Other Side of Normal, describes the difference between normal and abnormal as the difference between night and day.

We all know the difference but Smoller asks where we draw the line between the two. He writes, “When exactly does day become night? We might decide to draw the line at sunset—a specific moment in time we’ve constructed to separate the two. But that’s somewhat arbitrary.” The terms day and night aren’t preloaded with stigma so debating the point at which one begins and the other ends is harmless.

But as Smoller points out, the line between normal and abnormal is also arbitrary. It is a judgment call and to confuse matters even more, it changes from culture to culture. I don’t believe the terms normal and abnormal mean anything as a description of mental health. I recommend that you banish the words from your vocabulary in the context of supporting the healing of people suffering from emotional or mental challenges. The terms unnecessarily fuel stigma.

Ben Overby

Recently Kim and I were driving into Atlanta from Nashville. Thousands of cars had been zooming orderly on I-75 until one had a blowout. The driver stopped in the middle lane, was hit by another car, and in an instant, several cars scattered across the highway. It took only a fraction of a second to go from order to disorder. Traffic came to a complete stop. We couldn’t see what was going on. We had no idea when traffic would return to normal.

Mental illness is no different. A crash can happen because of brain chemicals, stress, or dysregulation stemming from an injury or genetics. When that happens, thoughts and feelings stop their regular function. In order to bring about order, an intervention is often required, such as medication, counseling, the support of a loved one, much prayer and dependence on God’s grace. At some point the path is cleared, order is restored, the traffic flows.

Keep that in mind when thinking about a mental disorder. It isn’t something exotic or mysterious. Sometimes the person living with the disease is cruising, at other times spinning out of control and crashing.  Cruising and crashing are states of being—there are lots of states that occur in between.

Part of what we do is support individuals in learning to recognize otherwise unnoticed triggers. The traffic disorder was triggered by the blowout of a tire. The driver had to make a snap decision—cross several lanes of busy traffic in order to get to the shoulder or stop in the middle of the road. The decision to stop in the center of the interstate proved tragic. We can support individuals as they learn to not only recognize the triggers but effectively develop a plan of action before a blowout occurs. And episode of disorder can be avoided by careful, thought out preparation.

When the words are out-of-order the makes no sense sentence.  Let me try that again. When the words are out-of-order the sentence makes no sense. To communicate words must be ordered in a particular way.

Again, there’s no mystery here. To support an individual, we just need to know the meaning the person ascribes to their life, what they’re trying to say with their existence, what vision they have for their life. If words are out of order—if treatment is avoided, or the person is isolating, or fear is disrupting their attempt to get the life they want, then we simply support whatever it takes to restore order, to get the words where they are supposed to be so that the person becomes what he or she intends to become.

Ben Overby


We were made to rule over creation. That’s how the whole human story begins. God told Adam and Eve to multiply, to fill the earth, and to rule over it.

Our purpose is clearly defined. Understanding purpose is a big deal. Without knowing why we are here we will drift, pursue goals that might very well be contrary to our purpose, or our lives might feel pointless and passionless.

We have been given a mission and when we accept that demanding responsibility we will realize the importance of depending on God, obeying him with full attention and vigor.

We will become salt and light.  That is, our lives will influence those around us so that God is tasted and illuminated. That was the original  intention and it is where we are headed when heaven and earth become one.  As Jesus said,  we will reign (rule) with him forever.

Sandwiched between the past and the future is the present. Our call is to live out of our intended past while pulling into the present the future glory.

Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done.

Ben Overby


God In the Hard Places

Something I’ve always struggled with is relating to God intimately. Thinking ABOUT God, meditating on a text, trying to pray through the voice of a Psalm–DOING those things is simple enough. This is not how I want to relate to the people in my life, the people I’m most intimate with. I don’t want to merely think ABOUT my wife, our family, friends. Thinking about it is an after-effect.

It has been said that God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. I don’t begin to understand it. God is here as I write this and he is there as you read this. But I struggle to do better than simply think ABOUT him.

Jesus promised that he wouldn’t leave us alone, that he’d live in us, and we’d live in him, and he’d live in the Father. That’s the language of a tight nit relationship. How could the creative power of the whole universe be so close yet so far? For instance, God doesn’t talk to me. I’ve never heard a single word. But what’s fascinating is what he does behind the scenes that leaves me convinced beyond any shadow of a doubt that he is right here, paying attention to my moaning and groaning, my attempts at worship, my stumbling attempts to give him my full attention and total obedience.

To be behind the scene is to be behind the curtain. Without a physical presence, the invisibility sometimes feels like the curtain. At the moment of Jesus’ death the curtain in the temple ripped in two. It’s been my experience that the closest thing I get to the curtain being ripped also comes at the cost of suffering.

I deeply appreciate the way Peterson brings out the sense of scripture in Matt. 5 where it is written, “Your blessed when you are at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”

Here’s an experiment. Grab all your prize possessions, grab a few friends and family members, grab that diploma, the deed to your house, bank statement, and all the assorted valuables or symbols of those valued possessions.

Once you’ve got all that together, take everyone over to the edge of a cliff and latch on to a rope, then get a hold on everyone and everything you brought.


When you get to the end of your rope what’s left? Where’d all the stuff go? You’re left hanging by one hand, with nothing, and you’re slipping.

Nothing you valued is any help to you when you are at the end of your rope. It is a rude awakening. Stripped of all the excess, there is less of you; more room is made for God. So you cry out to him for salvation, begging him to do something. No more time for thinking about or meditating upon. Relationship transcends that. In those dramatic uncertain moments God is there making things happen that would not have happened otherwise.

Words become less important when the curtain is torn. In the wake of an overt movement by God we can relish the nearness. We stand in awe.

I hate the end of the rope. I’ve been there so often that I should change my address to, “Dude dangling at the end of the rope.” But it forces me to come to terms with what is most important. God saves me and turns my mess into something he can use in his kingdom. But he takes his time and I get impatient, trying to nudge him with prayers and supplications. He acts when he’s ready to act, and as it turns out, it is always at the perfect time.

More is sure to come. I see it in the face of some of the desperate people I work with, or the poverty-stricken, lonely people packaged away in nursing homes, and prisons filled with despair. When I see all of that I see a slash in the curtain.I know that he is where misery gathers. Maybe the way to more intimacy is meet him where he is–the hard places.

Ben Overby

Beyond Recovery

“Does my strength come from the mountains?” That is part of Psalms 121, a song that would be on the lips of Israelites as they approached Jerusalem.

The mountains could give the children of Israel a false sense of security. Maybe they thought they could run and hide in the mountains if an enemy were to attack. Maybe the mountains would provide  shelter in the event of a storm. They were a massive, unmovable part of the landscape unaltered by the wind, not shrinking under the heat of the sun, an obstacle for travelers. Something that substantial could be depended on for strength.

The rhetorical question is, does my strength comes from the mountains? The resounding answer is No. The writer goes on to say God is the source of strength. He made heaven and earth and the mountains.

It’s easy to substitute all sorts of things for the source of our strength. Bank account, physical health, zip code, education, the church we attend, our children’s accomplishments, plastic surgeon, our wits, our ability to manipulate with words, our personal power, and this list could be extended indefinitely.

But where does our strength come from? What do we use for “cover?” Our strength comes from God who made heaven and earth, provides work, health, a zip code to live in, intelligence, churches, our children, doctors, our ability to think quickly, language, and our vigor.
Giant mountains are tiny heaps of rock in the shadow of almighty God. As the song says, He will not let us stumble….He guards us now, He guards us always.
Who and what we trust in is critical to joy and peace. We trust our own mountains to our peril.
Ben Overby

Why All the Chaos?

Just got done watching the first 15 minutes of the Today Show. The news from around the world is packed full of death. Three plane crashes. In the Ukraine a reporter pointed out the tiny shoe of a child about two-years-old. Another plane crash in Mali. Then another in Taiwan. Missiles and weather blow aircraft out of the sky.

Images from the Gaza strip–carnage, rubble, innocent children blown to bits and scattered like pieces of a puzzle.

A tornado ripped through a campground in Virginia where a couple hid in their tent only to be crushed to death by a falling tree.

Man walks into a Wellness Center. Shoots and kills one person before being shot by the doctor. What sort of world is it that when a doctor prepares to see patients he needs a stethoscope and a sidearm? Listening to a heart one moment, firing a pistol at a heart the next. Heal. Kill. It’s “all in a day’s work.”

The threat of death is a constant. It is random. Arbitrary. If a terrorist doesn’t get us the weather, or freak accident, or disease, or old age will. We can know we are alive and we can be certain that we will die. Everything in between is a bit sketchy.

The bookends of life happen with a declaration–a birth certificate, a death certificate.

A crib for the freshly born.

A hole for the freshly dead.

Put our life on a bookshelf and the ends are unmistakable–basically the same for all of us. Our stories, spelled out in the books between the bookends, are hidden inside covers. But there’s no debating the simple fact–we are born and a little later we die.

Death is everywhere. How we feel about it is determined by what we believe is going on in the space outside the bookends–the eternity before we existed and the foreverness “after” us. Paul argued that after death there would be a resurrection. Jesus was the first. The rest of us will follow. As ominous and arbitrary as death appears it has already been defeated.

We miss the dead and we often don’t understand why God allows what he allows. Under the weight of suffering the questions come to us. In fact, in a shocking utterance even Jesus cried, Why have your forsaken me?

Sometimes it feels like God has forsaken his earth and the world. We, too, groan–we ask, Why? But the question comes in a package. It admits that he exists, that he fills up the reality on either side of the bookend. We’d never have the courage to ask such an audacious question without trust–trust that he can handle the question without a flinch, and that he knows the answer, that he knows what he’s doing.

At times the best that we can do is simply ask the question. Shaking our fist at the TV, asking each other What’s going on here, as if we’re ever going to make sense of a world and earth warped by sin, will do little except leave us empty and apparently helpless. Better to complain to God. At the very least the indirect assurance inherent in the question will sustain us. Death is caught in a trap. Even when it forces our questioning, it forces us closer to God. The bully has already lost the ultimate battle.

 Ben Overby
© 2014

Power to the Past?

No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead…  Ph 3:13

Meaning is the ‘one thing’ a person intends to communicate. If I warn you that there is danger ahead, then that’s the meaning I intend. You either accept the warning or ignore it. But past is not a person. It doesn’t intend to communicate anything. It has no life. Past is like ice cream without flavor. We choose the topping, the ingredients that give it taste. Without our decision, ice cream doesn’t take charge and say, “I am strawberry!”

Past is the ice cream. What it means is actually the one thing we are communicating to ourselves about the past. It is a waste of time to blame our past; after all, it is tasteless. It exists in our memory, waiting for a topping.

Are you giving your past life, giving it a voice? Is your past saying your are doomed to failure? Is it communicating that you are fat, ugly, dumb, and destined for poverty? Maybe it is conveying that you can succeed and only succeed? Is it warning you? Is it encouraging you.

We should accept past for what it is. It is a cluster of events. Nothing more. It can only mean the meaning we give it. If we don’t like chocolate ice cream, then we should reject it and demand strawberry. We can do it because it is in our power alone. We (not past) are literally talking to ourselves. So, take charge–when necessary spare the messenger and kill the message.

© Ben Overby, 2014



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