A Theme for Spring

Spring

Gentle Reader,

The level of anxiety with which I live on a day-to-day basis has been bubbling toward the more-than-annoying point lately. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s time to adjust the medication levels. Maybe my diet is off-balance. Maybe there’s something bugging me and I don’t realize it yet. Maybe it’s just me being me.

Anyway, at this juncture I know that it’s not as simple as “just” praying or “just” realizing that I’m safe and that everything is okay. My mom reminded me recently that we all have things to battle, and this ill-defined fear and sense of unease is mine. If I’m not vigilant at guarding what goes into my mind, and therefore my heart, I’m toast. If I don’t take time to process a feeling or a situation, I’m sunk. If I start looking around, hoping to find satisfaction in “stuff,” I’m done.

So, I considered my next verse for this month’s SSMT 2013 carefully, and wound up with this:

To be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. – Romans 8:6 (NKJV)

Put another way:

The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. (NIV)

I’m sure that you know this, but allowing the mind to be governed by the Spirit is no easy task. The other day I was freaking out about something (I can’t remember what) and I found myself actually saying, “But, God! You don’t understand!”

Woah.

He did not strike me dead for such a statement, for He knows how deeply human I am. But that got me to pondering. When I go down the road of believing that God can’t or won’t understand, then I’ve taken a wild step off the cliff. I’ve jumped blindly into that pit of death.

I’d rather that not continue to be the pattern of my life, and so this spring I want to focus on what it means to live under the authority of God, and why choosing to do so (it is indeed a choice) leads to peace. To life. There is no safety, no joy, no breathing space to be found in living outside His loving boundaries.

Stepping outside those boundaries is easy, and it’s not always immediately noticeable. How many of us who claim the name “Christian” go through each day trapped by fear, anger, entitlement, the pursuit of power or wealth? At some point we have to acknowledge whatever it is that’s got a hold on us. Then we have to take another step – turning away from it.

A hard task.

But, after all, what did we celebrate yesterday? The Man who achieved victory over the grave! The Man who rose again! The Man who left His Spirit within us! Surely He will enable me to step out of anxiety’s chains, one day at a time.

Surely He will do the same for you, whatever the chains are.

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Is it Right for You to Be Angry?

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Gentle Reader,

Most of us are at least nominally familiar with the story of Jonah, the prophet called by God to preach to the people of the city of Nineveh. Jonah decides that this a pretty ridiculous request and runs in the opposite direction, boarding a ship bound for Tarshish (either Carthage in Northern Africa or ancient Spain). A great storm comes upon the ship and the only way for the crew to survive is to thrown Jonah overboard. He is promptly swallowed by a fish, left for three days in what must have been a beyond-words-disgusting environment and is finally spit out onto the land after crying out to God. Jonah goes to Nineveh and preaches all across the city, telling the people to turn to God or be destroyed.

They choose repentance.

Jonah’s response?

This seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD, “Isn’t this what I said, LORD, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live!” – 4:1-3 (NKJV)

Seems a bit excessive, doesn’t it?

Jonah had good reason to be upset that the inhabitants of Nineveh would go unpunished. The city was the capital of Assyria, one of the cruelest nations in ancient history. Expansionist policies during the Neo-Assyrian empire (911-612 B.C.) consisted of “systematic economic exploitation of subject states. . .[and] vicious military action.” (1) This was no “live-and-let-live” type of conquest.

Assyria had intermittently harassed the Northern Kingdom of Israel, where Jonah lived, since its inception. While the decisive victory would come in 722 B.C. with the fall of Samaria and the deportation of at least 27,000+ from that city alone, it is safe to say that national prejudices were running high during Jonah’s time. He “does not want God to relent and is angry with Yahweh being true to Himself.” (2) Jonah wanted to see the inhabitants of Nineveh, and probably the rest of Assyria burn (see Luke 9:54 and its surrounding context for another example of this brand of intense disgust).

I understand Jonah’s anger. When someone has wronged me or those that I care about, I want to see them punished!

But then God asks a question:

“Is it right for you to be angry?” – 4:4 (NKJV)

Jonah certainly thought he was in the right, but it’s glaringly obvious in reading the text that he should feel the same compassion that God does. The people have chosen to turn away from their wickedness and God forgave them. Shouldn’t that be a cause for rejoicing?

Jonah is left shaking his head.

I haven’t been called to preach a message of repentance in an atmosphere of racial and cultural intolerance, nor have I ever pitched a fit about God forgiving someone and welcoming her into His family. Nevertheless, the question haunts me. “Is it right for you to be angry?”

There are times when we can answer this with an honest and unequivocal “yes.” Nowhere in Scripture does it say that anger is wrong. We should feel angry when we witness or experience abuse or betrayal. It would be abnormal if we didn’t. So, if someone spreads a rumor about me, I’m going to be offended. I’m going to be angry that this person felt the right and the need to be so hurtful.

Would it be right, however, to be angry about it months later?

I have heard it said that depression and anxiety are anger turned inward. Instead of expressing the sense of injustice, lips remain sealed and a placid expression remains on the face. It is a different story within. The incident is studied over and over again, the hurt growing each time it is looked at. Conversations are imagined, the “enemy” always coming out on the losing end. Eventually a place is reached where punishment is actively hoped for; it becomes easy to enjoy the misfortunes of others.

Someplace buried deep inside, where all the secrets are kept, it becomes easy to ask God to burn others.

It frightens me to know that I have the capacity to be (and have been, more than once) just like Jonah. How quickly anger can be blown out of proportion. How simple it is to expend precious energy fuming and fussing.

“Is it right for you to be angry?”

There comes a point when the only true answer to this question is “no.” We know that. We know when we’ve held on to the pain and the offense far too long. The stench of it clings to us like garbage sitting in the sun. We can’t go anywhere, do anything or be in relationship with anyone without the smell tinging everything. What’s worse, we’re not the only ones who notice it. All we come into contact with know, somehow, that the rage burns.

Anger can be constructive. It can motivate us to have that difficult talk, to stand up for the oppressed, to work to make things better. And that is the point – anger must move us to action, for in that action the anger dissipates. New perspectives are achieved. Energies are moved in a healthy direction  Holding on to anger clouds the vision and blocks the ears.

I want to experience this beautiful, blessed and messy life without the blinders of intense, misplaced anger. I want to rejoice in God’s forgiving spirit, knowing that His justice is still maintained and that He cares about the hurts I feel. I want to release the heaviness generated by carrying around so many things and people into His capable hands.

Old, musty anger robs us of joy and delight. It saps our energy. It makes us bitter, difficult and unpleasant people.

Let’s move on.

My journey to faith. (15)

References

(1) Chad Brand, ed., Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary. (Nashville.: Holman Reference., 2003.), s.v. “Assyria.”

(2) Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible Book by Book (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 233.

This post appeared on the Far East Broadcasting Company Gospel Blog on April 24, 2014.

Hello There

Hi

Gentle Reader,

It’s amazing how quickly this break has gone by. I’d like to say it was because I was having immeasurable amounts of fun, but the reality is that I spent quite a lot of time coming and going. My companion in this travel? Doctors. Just shy of two weeks ago, I had my gallbladder removed. Despite several tests coming back negative for problems, pain persisted (and worsened), so the surgeon decided it was best to get it out of there. And it was. A 2 millimeter stone was blocking one of the ducts (considering that the ducts are 1 millimeter in diameter, this was an issue) and the other ducts were twisted and misshapen. This little organ attached to the liver was never going to get better on its own.

Recovery hasn’t been awful, though I don’t recommend popping in of an afternoon and having an organ removed, no matter how small. The worst part has been my inability to use the prescribed painkillers, as they made me sick. (I’ll spare you the gory details). My belly button, sadly, will never be the same again and I look like I was shot three times in the abdomen. I’ll no doubt have some pretty amazing scars by the time all is said and done. Still, I’d rather have scars than excruciating pain every time I eat.

That’s not all that happened during the Great Blogging Hiatus of 2012, however. In no particular or significant order, here are some things I learned:

1. Sometimes the words won’t come.

I fully expected to journal like mad during Lent, thinking that I would surely need some sort of creative outlet. I think I wrote twice, maybe three times in my little notebook. At first, this unnerved me. If you consider yourself a writer of any sort, you expect to have words. You love words. They are your gloriously varied colors with which to fill the blank canvas with the mocking, blinking cursor. If you don’t have words, what do you have? I’m certainly not a speaker. I’d much rather do all communicating by email, but nobody wants to cooperate with me in that.

This lack of words turned out to be a good thing. While I continue to doubt my suitability for any type of speech-making, I found myself battling through the tongue-tied anxiety that continually plagues me. I said things. Important things, silly things. Sometimes just groans. I yelled at God once. I apologized later.

Sometimes the words won’t come out onto the page, but they will come out via the tongue. That’s scary – and necessary.

2. You can’t force reconciliation. 

The Lord is in the business of reconciliation and restoration. I’m pretty sure He invented the ideas. As His child, there have been multiple times when I’ve been prompted by the Spirit to reach out to someone I just really didn’t want to reach out to. (That’s how I know when something is from God – when it’s definitely not my idea). I don’t like conflict and I like the messy business of repair even less. I have, however, had largely positive experiences in this arena.

Until now.

I had a falling out with someone awhile back, and we haven’t spoken in over two years. I have no delusions as to what reconciliation would look like. I don’t expect to be close friends or even friends at all. What I would like is to be able to associate with this person in a loving way, especially since we have mutual friends. I’d like to not feel hot with fear and run the other direction when I see this person in the store. So, I sent out a little note. Nothing major. Just a, “It’s been a long time and I would like to reconnect.”

No response.

You can’t make other people participate in the process of reconciliation. I think that’s partly what Paul meant when he wrote that we are to be at peace with all people (Romans 12:18). I’ve done all that I can; all that God wants me to do. I can be at peace with this person, even if it is not reciprocated.

3. Love grows.

I love Chris more today than I did all those weeks ago. He patiently took me to every doctor’s appointment his schedule would allow, and if he couldn’t be there, made sure I wasn’t alone. He held my hand and prayed with me right up to the moment the nurse wheeled me into the operating room. His was the first face I saw when I came into recovery. He didn’t once make fun of me for sleeping with the two stuffed animals I carried over from childhood. He set his alarm and got up every four hours to feed me saltines and painkillers. He held my hair back when I couldn’t keep those saltines and painkillers down.

My man is amazing. I see Jesus in him every time he assures me that we’ll be taken care of, no matter what the check register says. I see him working to put aside his own fears, knowing that I need encouragement. I literally cannot imagine my life with anyone else, and don’t even want to try.

4. Casseroles and cards come from the heart.

I don’t even begin to know how to thank my church family for bringing us dinner, for the cards that arrived in the mail and the prayers I know were sent to the Throne Room on my behalf. We’re not a perfect family. In fact, we’re pretty dysfunctional. That’s what makes the love we have for each other and the grace that is given all the more amazing.

5. There is something about family.

A few days after my surgery, we went to my parent’s house as we usually do for Sunday dinner. I was still pretty out of it and in a lot of pain. It felt so good to lay on the couch and know that Mom, Dad and my brother, Ben, were all nearby. This family isn’t perfect, either, but I feel safe there. I can show up without makeup, hobble down the stairs and cry ’cause it hurts – and that’s okay. Nobody minds.

6. A public platform is a powerful thing.

It is fearsome to be a blogger. I never know who might be reading these thoughts of mine. That can be a heady thing – tracking site statistics, engaging in comment conversation, looking for just the right “hook.” While none of these things are wrong in themselves, I became acutely aware of how easy it would be to use this site in a God-dishonoring way. I don’t have all the answers. In fact, I have very few. I can’t fix anyone’s life. If I use this little corner of the Internet to promote myself… Well, I hope that’s the day my laptop explodes.

I’m not kidding. Everyone’s got an opinion, a thought, an idea. I want to point you to the One whose opinions, thoughts and ideas really matter. Without Him, I am nothing.

7a. Memorizing Scripture actually works.

I’d like to say I’m bad at memorization, but the truth is that I just don’t. It’s a matter of laziness. After going through such a difficult Autumn, I made memorizing Scripture one of my goals for 2012. Those words have become a lifeline.

I have long struggled with having assurance when it comes to salvation. This stems from my perfectionism and anxiety, to be sure. Having seen far too many Dateline specials about surgery screw-ups, I was deeply afraid of dying on the table – and ending up in Hell. As panic began to set in, I felt the Lord speak to my spirit. Would I choose to trust the words I had put into my heart? Would I rest in the words that I have poured over, picked apart and studied? Would I believe that the blood of Christ really is enough?

It would be nice if I could tell you that my response was easy, but I wrestled. Would He really be with me in that operating room? Would He really accept me into His arms if the end of my time had come?

7b. It’s my choice.

There are very few things in life that I can control, but one of those things is my reaction. I can say “yes.” I can say “no.” I can freak out or access the calmness of God. I can do things my own way or seek His wisdom. It’s my choice.

Lying on that hospital bed, listening to my husband pray, it dawned on me that I had to choose. Faith really isn’t just a one-time decision. It’s a moment-by-frightening-moment deal. So, with a deep breath, I told God, “Okay. I trust You. I trust that You have saved me and that You will be with me. I won’t worry. I am persuaded. You are strong.”

I had to choose. It’s a mind-stretching and heart-wrenching thing sometimes. I came through the surgery and I believe that I would have been welcomed into Heaven had I not, but the journey’s not over. There are mounting medical bills and it’s not entirely clear how we will make the house payment this month. Again I will have to choose whether to give in to the fear or allow God’s strength to enable me to stand and do battle.

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This Post I Don’t Want to Write

Agony

Gentle Reader,

As with all stories, it’s best to begin at the beginning.

I’ve struggled against anxiety for as long as I can remember, and most of the time anxiety has won. I can remember being six years old and flying into panic at the news of a standardized test all the first graders at my school were required to take. Convinced of failure, I couldn’t sleep the night before and broke out in head-to-toe hives. As I grew older, any conflict with a playmate or a teacher sent me spinning.  In my later teen years, I began to have panic attacks and what one ER doctor referred to as a “seizure-like episode.”

You would never know any of this about me if you weren’t directly exposed to it. Anxiety is an intense feeling, arising out of deep sensitivity – a sensitivity that I’ve achieved a Ph.d in masking. This suppression of emotions feeds into the anxiety, perpetuating the cycle and making it all the more difficult to break. I could be about to hyperventilate in terror, and, unless you knew me very, very well, you’d never even see it on my face.

This is, of course, a very simple summary of my life thus far. I’d rather not present you with the nitty-gritty, for that would take a book. What I’d really like to tell you about today is the state of my present existence.

On Good Friday of this year, I sat in the back of my church and had a panic attack, the first I’d had in at least three or four years. How on earth could a Good Friday service make me skip into flight-or-fight mode? How could the candles, the music, the Scripture reading make me feel like I was going to have a heart attack? That’s the thing with anxiety. It knows no rhyme or reason.

I was very frightened by the intensity of the attack. That evening, I unloaded on my husband for hours, not in anger, but in desperation. Something in that Good Friday service triggered a flood within me. All of the anger, the fear, the sorrow and the pain that I had tried to push down for so long came bubbling up to the surface without warning. Chris and I decided that it was important for me to see a counselor and work through some of these issues. I knew that I especially needed to learn better coping skills.

It didn’t take long for my counselor to refer me to a psychiatrist for medication. Her theory after a couple of sessions is that I was, in a sense, “born this way.” She believed that there were physical, chemical imbalances in my brain that had worsened with age and conditioning. Like the dutiful person I am, I made the appointment.

And came out with four diagnoses.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Panic Disorder. Major Depressive Disorder. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

That’s a lot to take in, and the only way I could process it was through dark humor. I told my husband, who was diagnosed with Clinical Depression four years ago and takes medication everyday, that I “won” because he’s only got one mental illness and I have four. So I started on the medication and began working through worksheets to help me think about my thoughts (do you ever do that?) and examine them to see if they were truthful or not.

As of this writing, I’ve been in counseling for two months, been on the first round of medication for almost four weeks and will probably be switched to another, have spent hours staring at the wall in a daze and haven’t wanted to do much but sleep. Then, yesterday, came another blow: My psychiatrist suggested I do some blood tests to see if my hormones were in proper balance, as they play a crucial role in anxiety and depression for women. At 4:50 p.m. on August 1, I spoke with my gynecologist by phone and was told that I needed testosterone cream (which I refer to as “man cream” and wonder if it will give me a beard so I can go make some money on the side by joining the circus – again, the dark humor) and that there is a very good chance I will need fertility drugs if I ever want to get pregnant.

I hate to be cliche, but when it rains, it pours.

Here is what I really want you to know in all of this:

1. I do not want your pity.

That is probably the worst and most insulting thing you can possibly give to someone who is walking through a valley, and I regret ever doing it to others. What someone like me needs is genuine friendship and understanding.

2. I do not need you to fix me.

I have Jesus for that. I have professionals who know and love Him. I covet your prayers and your love, but not your designs or plans.

3. Mental illness is not a lack of faith.

Go ahead and write to me about this. Tell me I need to pray more. Tell me I need to exercise more faith. Go ahead. I will then send you my journal, which contains more gut-wrenching and heartfelt prayers over the course of the last two months than in the last ten years. I can say without hesitation that my faith has never been stronger, that I have never been closer to God.

That being said, I do recognize that anxiety and depression can fuel sin or make certain temptations easier to fall to. So while I don’t need your criticism, I do need your loving questions and a community of accountability.

4. Taking medication is not a sin.

If you had diabetes, you’d probably watch your diet and take insulin shots, right? Would that be wrong, or would you justify that decision by saying that God heals in all sorts of ways? I’m so sick of the hypocrisy in the church when it comes to antidepressants. * Insert Sarcastic Tone Here * Oh, yes, not admitting to problems and not taking medication to help with the physical deficiencies in the brain will just make it all go away.

5. Get help. 

If you know that you have a problem with anxiety or depression, get help. You’re not helping yourself or anyone else by refusing to do so. You’re not a special martyr for Christ by “putting the needs of others above your own.” That’s a twisted understanding of Scripture. God never says that you shouldn’t take care of yourself. If you persist in complaining about problems and refusing to do anything about them, I will very lovingly but very firmly tell you to stop talking if you won’t move forward. I stayed stuck for a long, long time. It’s pointless and, frankly, many of us do it for attention.

6. Childlessness is not a sign of rebellion. 

This last one is probably where I get most hot under the collar. I have never had a desire to be pregnant, and I wonder now if that lack has been a blessing from God. I am not devastated by the news that it may be especially difficult for me to get pregnant. I’ve long had a desire to adopt, and hopefully will be able to do so in the future. Barrenness or chosen childlessness is not a sign of a curse or a sin in every case.

I’d like to conclude this post by having you read Ezra 3:8-13, with special emphasis on 12-13:

Now in the second month of the second year of their coming to the house of God at Jerusalem, Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, Jeshua the son of Jozadak,  and the rest of their brethren the priests and the Levites, and all those who had come out of the captivity to Jerusalem, began work and appointed the Levites from twenty years old and above to oversee the work of the house of the LORD. Then Jeshua with his sons and brothers, Kadmiel with his sons, and the sons of Judah, arose as one to oversee those working on the house of God: the sons of Henadad with their sons and their brethren the Levites.

When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests stood in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the LORD, according to the ordinance of David king of Israel. And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD:

‘For He is good,
For His mercy endures forever toward Israel.’

Then all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of the fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this temple was laid before their eyes. Yet many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the sound was heard afar off. (NKJV)

The generation coming out of captivity was glad to have a place of worship once again, regardless of its lack of grandeur. The older generation, fewer in number and also coming out of captivity, mourned the lack – but the joy of the larger group drowned out their cries. This is where I stand today. It is plainly and painfully obvious that my life isn’t going to look like any of the lives of the women around me. There might be some who cry out in mourning because I don’t fit the mold – but my joyful embrace of these days that God has so graciously given me will drown them out.

I have surveyed the Valley of the Shadow. I know deep and searing pain. I wear tortuous fear on my back. But I walk, step by slow and deliberate step, with my Savior who lights just enough of the path for this day. I understand what it means to rejoice in suffering, for this intimacy with the King is infinitely precious to me, and I would not have it without this sorrow. He is loosening my chains and teaching me to hold tightly to truth.

And I am unapologetic.

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