Spiritual Direction and Mental Health-Stacey Aniello

“Silence your body to listen to your thoughts. Silence your thoughts to listen to your heart. Silence your heart to listen to your spirit. Silent your spirit to listen to His Spirit.” –Mama Maggie Gobran


I work as a mental health professional, in private practice, with a wide variety of individuals, mostly presenting with mood disorders and relationship dysfunction.  For almost fifteen years now, I have done my best to learn my craft, and skillfully employ the best of psychology for the healing and growth of my clients.  Concurrently, I have found a place where I feel at home personally: in the spiritual discipline / spiritual formation stream of Christianity and in the practice of the discipline of solitude and silence.  Ironic side note: I have four teenage boys, who live in the exact opposite of the silence and solitude stream…I’m not sure there is a name for that! Also, I’m sure God is laughing at me over this…

I work with a very unique and intentional group of caregivers.  We seek “integration,” that is, the incorporation of principles of the Christian faith with the best of psychology.  In one of our many creative-culture-forming-sessions, and in search of the perfect model of therapy (we will find it someday!!??), we once landed on the “bio-psycho-social-spiritual” model of care.   This approach seeks to address every part of a person, in order to heal, rehabilitate, grow, excel.  My colleagues and I seem to enjoy the pursuit and the fruitful discussion and practice that results. 

And here is where I get excited!  Cue the lightbulb over my head, sound the alarm, raise my eyebrows in surprise and delight! Because here is where my practice and my faith intersect:

Silence the body: well, there’s the bio.  There’s the biochemistry, there are the natural functions of a well working body and brain that we rely on to keep us engaging in this world, with others, with ourselves.  When a body isn’t functioning as God intended, it presents as all sorts of disorder: anxiety, depression, burnout, brokenness. On retreat, when I quiet my body, it usually means I have to feed it, to literally stop the grumbling. But my thoughts and my burden goes to my clients who have pain from past trauma, emotional pain from broken dreams, broken relationships, physical pain from medical conditions. How can I help them quiet the body? For some the best option is medicine, for others attunement, for others avoidance, and on and on..  I am thankful for the vast number of interventions available, currently I’m excited about Laurel Mellin’s “Emotional Brain Training.”  There is no one size fits all approach, and our biology is complex and wonderful and terrible and awful.  As the psalmist says “we are beautifully and wonderfully made.”

Silence the thoughts: here’s the psycho. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and all of its offspring (probably about 200 theories now) is an influential part of our cultural vernacular nowadays.  Everyone reading this will probably recognize the basic components of this equation: An activating event puts into motion thoughts which influence emotion which influences behavior.  Change your thoughts and you can change.  Much time and effort is given in therapy to address dysfunctional thought life, and we are implored by the Apostle Paul to “take every thought captive.”  Spiritual direction takes an interesting approach to suggest we silence those thoughts.  Having clientele with pervasive unwanted thought activity, at times seems prudent to give no more attention to those thoughts, to extinguish rather than promote that schema circuit by spending a precious hour every week in tedious analysis of thoughts.  Ironically, I have found that developing a strong sense of meta-cognition, or thinking about your thinking, gives a person control and agency to silence unwanted thoughts.  A person is more likely able to silence thoughts after having spent considerable time listening to those same thoughts.

Silence your heart: admittedly this might be a stretch, but consider the association between your heart and your social connections.  It seems our hearts are affected by those around us, we are heartbroken over relationships, and cultural conditions, we lose heart, we are asked to have a heart, and the cowardly lion went to oz in search of a heart.  We were made in part to have good healthy connections and what’s in our hearts seem to hold clues about the health and nature of those connections.  As I write, my heart is screaming to my seniors (yes the loud obnoxious ones, referenced in the first paragraph) “please, don’t go to college.”  How does a therapist help a heart, help a person be in peace in relationships?  There’s Gottman, and Chapman and Eggerich.  There’s Dobson and Leman and Faber.  We are surrounded by well meaning, well researched well intentioned advice givers.  It is a therapist’s burden to use these materials and engage a client in a way that makes a difference and facilitates change and brings peace.

Silence your Spirit: and here is where psychology leaves us lacking.  Integrationists have an advantage.  We recognize humans are spiritual. That there is such a thing as spiritual wounding, spiritual warfare, and spiritual abuse.  There are conditions and situations that damage our spirit, that diminish the efficacy and essence of who we are, and wage war through lies and deceit.  A therapist may refer to a pastoral counselor, a spiritual director or a spiritual community group to facilitate recovery.  Our expertise tends to lie more in the psycho and social spheres, and we reach out for groups, interventions and outside experiences that engage the spirit, while we employ interventions in session that engage the thoughts, emotions and relationships.  I am thankful for those spiritual specialists, when my clients have worked through thoughts emotion and relationships, it seems the next questions they present with are questions of spirit, about faith and God, and I have a really good referral I can make. 

Listen to His spirit:  And after we have unpeeled all the layers of our humanity, after we have used the best of psychology to attend to our body, thoughts, heart and spirit in such a way that we can silence them, we can listen to God.  We can listen to Him, we can hear Him, and we can tune in.  And we can experience His Love and His Grace and His Presence in a mysterious way that is unforgettable and makes us more ourselves and more who our creator intended us to be.



On Gratitude-Krista Holley

The benefits of gratitude have been well established in psychological research. Gratitude can best be understood as expressing an appreciation for what one has, rather than what one wants. The experts have found developing a practice of gratitude can positively impact well-being and happiness.


In order to gain these benefits, experts have recommended keeping a gratitude journal. Within the journal, an individual is to reflect upon his or her day and list the people or things they are grateful for.  A recent study took this a few steps further by having participants not only keep an interpersonal gratitude journal but, also expressing that gratitude. Rather than merely writing about their feelings of gratitude for others, they expressed their feelings of gratitude to the person. When compared to the other two groups in the study (individuals who either kept a gratitude journal or kept a journal about their daily activity) the individuals who wrote about gratitude and expressed it experienced greater amounts of positive effects. This included having more positive affect balance, which means they had more positive emotions than negative emotions. They also experienced a reduction in depression scores. Thus, if you really want to experience the positive emotional benefits of gratitude don't just keep those feelings to yourself, express it to those you are grateful for!


The positive effects that comes from being grateful for what we have and the people in our lives shouldn't come as a surprise. The Bible is full of reminders to be grateful, thankful, and content with our circumstances. If there are so many benefits from expressing gratitude and the Bible encourages us to be content, then why aren’t more of us doing this? I think the answer is simple, it’s hard to do! We live in a world of instant gratification and constantly long for what is coming next. We base our contentment on circumstances and hopes for what is coming, rather than being content in the present. Although contentment is God’s design for us, it can often feel challenging to live this out. What better verse to encourage us in this area than Paul's declaration that he has learned to be content in all circumstances.


"I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength" (Philippians 4:11-13).


This verse should give us hope because Paul just told us he has learned to be content, thus we can learn and practice this skill in our own lives. It is hard to imagine being content within Paul's circumstances of being in jails, ship wrecked, and often isolated from his church community. Yet, he points us to Christ as his strength and the one who sustains him. When we focus on contentment or gratitude, it puts us in a position to rely on Christ because it is not our natural reaction to be grateful or content. Through Christ's sustaining strength, and a decision to choose contentment and practice it through journaling and expressing it, we can learn to be content no matter the circumstances. Thanks be to God that we do not have to rely on our own power!



Swimming In Gratitude-Erin Huber

Swimming in Gratitude

By: Erin Huber


I went to the YMCA this morning to swim my laps.  As my body warmed up to the pool, I noticed my breathing. Breathe in to the right, head down and breathe out. Breathe in to the left, head down and breathe out. Approach the wall…flip…push off and corkscrew my body around.... breathing out through my nose the whole time.


Repetition, repetition, repetition.  One stroke.  Two strokes.  Three strokes. Breathe. One stroke. Two strokes. Three strokes.  Breathe.  Again, again, again.  One lap flows into another as my body and my breath settle into a rhythm of deep and easy breathing and fluid movement. 


As I circled around, I remembered my start with flip turns and my mouth smiled. Every time I flipped around and pushed off the wall, the water flooded my nose.  The chlorine burned.  The water congested my sinuses, sometimes for days.  Because of this, I quit flip turns for a while. They hurt! I decided to settle for touching the wall and turning around.  It wasn’t as smooth, but flip turns were just too hard.  A swim instructor last year told me that it would be much harder for me to keep up with some of the swimmers who had been swimming competitively since they were kids:  “They have a muscle memory that non-swimmers just don’t have,” she said, trying to encourage me.  I felt discouraged.


Two summers ago, I became a triathlete. My desire to go faster brought on the flip-turn-itch once again.  Holding my breath for longer would improve my breathing in the slimy lake swims.   The swims with no visibility, no wall to bounce off of and people swimming on top of each other like the fish you feed at the zoo.


So I tried again.


Like learning any new skill, it took me awhile!  I learned that I HAD to push the air out of my nose—hard—while I was flipping underwater if I didn’t want to get a nose full of chlorine. Seems simple, but it didn’t feel simple at all.  Sometimes I did it, and sometimes I forgot. It was frustrating. It was painful.


Having gratitude, to me, is like learning a new skill.  Some people have personalities that are naturally inclined to be more “grateful.” Like swimmers who started flip-turning  and butterflying in elementary school, some peoples’ brains are naturally wired to be thankful for their circumstances.

When you swim lap after lap after lap, your body and mind develops the habit of swimming. You adapt to your environment. I bet that grateful parents are more likely to raise grateful kids.


The other day, a man who was swimming in the lane next to me stopped me and asked, “Would you mind giving me a few pointers on flip turns? I’m new to swimming and I really want to start doing those.”  I sort of laughed and replied that his request was ironic since I had just stopped sucking water up my nose about 6 months ago.  With surprise he said, “No kidding!? I just figured you’ve been doing them forever! You look like a swimmer.”  Wow! ME?! Well, I guess a grown up really can master a new skill. I may not have the “muscle memory” from childhood, but I have made my muscles remember by the time and energy—and suffering-- I have invested in the sport.


And this is what I think about gratitude. No matter if we see the glass half empty or half full, I believe we can train our minds to be grateful.  This is not easy.  It takes determination, discipline and consistency. I mean, let’s be honest, I have a way easier time complaining, stressing and being anxious, than I do focusing my mind on what is good.


In yoga class, my instructor likes to end the session by saying something pseudo spiritual and slightly cheesy. The other night she chanted, in her sultry yoga voice: “The light in me shows gratitude for the light in you.” Huh? Then I thought about it more. I began to realize how much of an edge we Jesus-followers should have in the gratitude stuff.  Since we believe Jesus is “the Light of the world, and also that Jesus is God, and also that the Holy Spirit is God and lives inside of us…then that “light” inside of me that the yoga lady was talking about, well, that’s the God of the universe.  If the light inside of me is the God of the universe, and that’s where my capacity for gratitude comes from then….I should be the most grateful person on the planet! And also, shouldn’t it be easier?!


When Jesus explains what it takes to follow Him, He basically says we need to believe: that He is in the Father and the Father is in Him. We need to believe that Jesus is God. We need to receive Him, accept Him, entrust ourselves and belong to Him.  It really sounds pretty easy, and for some it is.  Some people hear and they accept and they believe and they trust and it’s, as my 5-year-old says, “easy peasy, pumpkin squeezy.” But for some of us, it’s not.  Accepting and receiving is HARD work.  Receiving grace is hard. We would rather do it on our own and earn rewards for the things we have done. Trusting that Jesus did it completely for us and leaning back into his arms of rest and peace…that actually feels harder.


Isn’t gratitude really more about receiving and accepting than it is about doing anything? Isn’t it about noticing what is going on around us more than it is about creating something from scratch? Why, as human beings, are we more comfortable with “doing it ourselves” than we are with letting someone else do it for us? Why would we rather keep moving and doing and busy than pausing and slowing down and enjoying what’s right in front of us?


If you google “gratitude” or “benefits of gratitude,” you can find a million articles. I read some that were very good. did his research for his post “The 31 Benefits of Gratitude You Didn’t Know About: How Gratitude Can Change Your Life.” Studies show that a grateful person will be more optimistic, less materialistic, more spiritual, less self-centered and have more self-esteem. The writer of the blog writes…“Gratitude spontaneously gives rise to spiritual attribution, helping one feel closer to God or other religious entities. I am irreligious, and have found gratitude practices to make my spiritual position difficult – those moments when I feel intense gratitude make me want to believe in a benevolent God...” Even irreligious people have to TRY NOT TO believe in God when they practice gratitude.  Amazing. When we become a new creation in Christ, the desire to give thanks is hardwired into us. We fight against our flesh and make way for the thank-filled muscle memory the Spirit imparts to us when we are willing to receive Him.’


I think this is the same tension we feel between grace and good works as we read God’s Word.  Being a Christian is all about receiving God’s grace and love through His Son Jesus, but it’s also about “keeping in step with the Spirit” and allowing God’s fruit to show in our lives.  Abiding in Christ is both receiving and doing.  It is hard work to stay in union with our Creator when everything in this world and our sinful nature works to pull us away from Him.


Most days at the pool, my goal is to swim a mile.  Most days at the pool, I don’t want to swim a mile.  I cry and complain in my mind as I dip my big toe into the water.  I know it is going to be hard, and I do it because of the rewards I know it will bring later. We walk through seasons of intense pain and suffering in this life.  Tears and grief are our closest companions, and gratitude in those times is the hardest it’s ever been.  Jesus endured the cross because of the goal set before Him.  The goal of Heaven, being with His Father, bringing us back to God, and the promise of Joy for enduring.  Even Jesus (fully God) asked God to take away the road he had to endure (fully man).


For the joy set before us, we have the goal of remaining in gratitude.  Not because we are grateful for the emotional and physical scrapes and bruises and amputations, but for what God is doing in and through us because of the suffering we endure. There is purpose to it.  We do not see what is happening, and we are not grateful for the anguish in the moment, but when we look back later, when we remember how God sustained us through those times….we are grateful. When we remember that God is good, and he can be trusted during those times, we can give thanks.


So, to be grateful, we must take the time to notice those gifts God has given us: the relationships, the memories, the peace in suffering, the joy of the slow, small, ordinary moments.  All of it must come into our minds, and we must make a practice of focusing on these things. 


Faithfully.  Consistently.  Daily.


Studies show that keeping a gratitude journal, and writing in it for just five minutes a day can drastically improve your life. Putting down our phones, looking our friends and family in the eye and savoring the moment we’re in right now will produce eternal rewards.  We focus both on the here-and now and the long game.  It’s hard work and it’s easy.  The more we work at accepting good gifts, being thankful for them, and expressing that thanks verbally to God and to others, the easier it gets.



Stone Soup

Stone Soup for the Soul - by James Connelly

Stone Soup for the Soul - by James Connelly

One of the greastest challenges we face today as a culture is how to effectively respond to the growing epidemic of mental health in our communites, churches, and city.  With known statistics indicating an average of 25 percent of Americans currently facing a mental health challenge, only about half of those are able to receive any kind of treatment.  In a city the size of Omaha, that means there are around 125,000 people in our area whose needs are unmet.

The reality of unmet needs is not recent; the early church faced their own challenges to meet the needs of a growing community.  In Acts 6, some Jewish people brought an unmet physical need (hunger) to the attention of the Apostles, who held a brief board meeting before launching the first "para-church organization" by calling seven godly men into the Bread Delivery Ministry.

In more recent history, about 27 years ago, a gentleman by the name of Virg Ediger wrote a paper entitled "How to open a Christian Counseling Center at Christ Community Church in Omaha, Nebraska."  Fast forward to the present, and this question has led to the development and growth of the Care Network, a ministry outreach from CCC that includes:

  • Pastoral Counseling
  • One-on-One Mentoring
  • Healing Prayer Ministry
  • Spiritual Formation
  • Renewal and Support Groups

All of these services provided by a team of collaborative holistic caregivers, sharing a common purpose, approaching needs from varied and multiple perspectives, using many methods and applications to give the best help to each person.

As I came to be on staff with Christ Community Church early in 2014, I was impressed by the variety and reach of these ministries, and began to see a parallel to a book I read as a kid, where people learned that if individuals pooled their resources, the whole group would benefit, and beyond that, celebration and community flowed from this concept.  As time passed, the idea has continued to hold meaning for us, and has become a sort of model that we think about as we grow our ministry and seek to overcome unmet needs.

The book is called Stone Soup, and it is based on a folk tale about some soldiers sojourning in a foreign land.  The tale goes that as these men were approaching a village, and being very wiry and hungry, they hope to find some shelter and food.  The villagers, however, afraid they wouldn't have enough, choose to hide their stores of food, and when the men knock on each door, they are turned away empty-stomached.

Undeterred, these clever men proceed to light a fire, fill their large pot with water, and place a stone in it, bringing it to boil.  Curious, the townsfolk inquire what they are cooking. "Stone Soup!" they are told, and when asked if it is any good, the soldiers explain that it is delicious, but could be improved with some garnish.  One-by-one the villagers contribute, first some carrots, then some seasoning, eventually adding all the primary ingredients for a fine soup.  The soldiers and the townsfolk all eat to satisfaction, and a celebration follows, as the villagers admire "such men don't grow on every bush."

These men, in the uninhibited spirit of Huckleberry Finn, present us with a synergistic social welfare model where the unmet needs of the minority are met by the contribution of "garnish" by the majority.  Scripture teaches us to "bear each other's burdens" and to help carry the load of those struggling under the weights of life.  Sharing with others, whether garnish or ingredient, seasoning or meat, together, we can overcome the unmet needs of our community.

In our context, this means identifying ways to provide mental health services to those who struggle to gain services, whether by lack of access or affordability.  We need to share the cost of professional counseling for those who need it most, but are most unlikely to afford it.

Part of the answer has already begun.  In July 2015, Christ Community Church announced the launch of our professional counseling center located next door in The Porch building.  CityCare Counseling was established with the audacious vision statement "we exist to eradicate the unmet and untreated mental health needs in our churches, communities, city and world."

We have the kettle, the building, and the Rock, Jesus.  We have soldiers who are highly trained to serve Good Soup to the hungry, and, by proxy, help others meet their own needs, and the needs of their families, as hope and healing provide effective solutions to these crucial problems.  As a 501(c)(3) organization, the ministry is based on the Stone Soup concept, as the church allows the ministry to operate at below-market costs for space and support, and the providers work on a less-than-average fee schedule.  But there remains a gap between these crucial services and many of those who need them.

With an equally audacious mission statement, CityCare hopes to "provide services to 25,000 people in the next five years," which only represents 20 percent of the overall known need, leaving the rest untreated or under-treated.  Along with our goals to continue growing and meeting those needs, we need to raise awareness and resources.  Each of us must consider whether we can "give in" to the "pot," and add our garnish to the existing Rock.

We ask that along with prayer, you consider CityCare Counseling as a ministry worthy of your "garnish," and contribute financially toward our efforts to bring hope and healing to anyone who needs it, regardless of the ability to pay for it.  We are humbled to serve in this capacity, and trust that the Father will meet our needs as we meet the needs of our neighbors.

In Faith Alone,


James Connelly, PHD

Executive Director | CityCare Counseling, Inc.