The Wednesday Writers: Tara Ulrich

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com (2)

Gentle Reader,

It’s The Wednesday Writers!

No idea what I’m talking about? Read this.

Today we hear from my friend Tara Ulrich.

Bethlehem Lights

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see they lie, above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by, yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light, the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

But today, the lights in Bethlehem are no longer burning bright. They have been shut off because of those in power who think they are doing the right thing. Yet they do not know the consequences of their own actions.

I find myself crying out, “Do you know not what you are doing?” This city of peace is no longer a city of peace. The hopes have been dashed and the fears of today are still there. In fact, the fears have paralyzed the people in this city.

I am usually one who will sit and listen to both sides of an argument. Yet as I listen to my friends who have visited this holy city, I can no longer stand silent. I must speak up for this city of peace. The city where this precious infant Emmanuel is born in a manger. His cry pierced the darkness. The Holy One whose birth into the world proclaimed the good news of God.

“For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through Him.”

– John 3:16-17

In the midst of chaos and unrest, can we trust in this one who brings about the peace that passes all human understanding? This one who promises to come down and rend the heavens; bringing God’s kingdom on earth – a kingdom where there will finally be peace for all the world – peace for my LGBTQ friends, peace for Muslim friends, peace for my brown and black friends, peace for all of God’s beloved children.

And when this day comes, the city of Bethlehem will once again stand with her lights shining bright, knowing that Christ came into the world through this holy city that calls us all to proclaim God’s redemptive love and peace.

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TaraHeadShotTara Ulrich blogs at Praying on the Prairie. She is a minister of Word and Service; a deacon of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) serving in western North Dakota as the Director of Home and Congregational Life. She has served at churches in Dilworth, Minnesota, Beulah, North Dakota and Minot, North Dakota.

She is a farmer’s daughter, granddaughter and niece. The prairies of North Dakota are her happy place. She is also the daughter of a woman who lives daily with a mental illness. You can read their story in the book Living as a Daughter: 31 Days of Mental Illness.

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The Wednesday Writers: Lesley Crawford

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com (1)

Gentle Reader,

It’s The Wednesday Writers!

No idea what I’m talking about? Read this.

Today we hear from Lesley Crawford, my friend from across the Pond.

Choosing Our Focus In Challenging Times

Have you ever faced a time when, despite your best efforts, the outcome has been bad?  When you’ve done everything right but, somehow, it’s all gone wrong?  When others seem to be getting ahead or, even worse, taking advantage of your unfortunate circumstances, and life just feels unfair?

How do you respond in moments like these?

If you’re anything like me, then misery, anxiety, and doubt are probably not far away, but really, that’s not helpful.  While it’s natural to be upset over suffering or injustice, it’s all too easy to give in to complaining and grumbling and constantly asking why, and for the result to be bitterness, hopelessness, and a sense of defeat.

That’s why I’m so challenged by the apostle Paul, who demonstrates a radically different response.

As he writes his letter to the Philippians, Paul is in prison- not because he has done anything wrong, but simply for preaching the Gospel.  To make matters worse, Paul’s enemies are using the situation to their advantage and are preaching about Jesus with selfish ambition, intending to make Paul’s chains even more painful.

It would be understandable for Paul to be unhappy about all of this yet, amazingly, his response is not to complain, to give up, or to retaliate, but to rejoice!

How does he do it?

I think it comes down to one word, which God has drawn me to as my word for 2018: Focus.

While we may be unable to control our circumstances, we can choose our focus, and that can make all the difference.

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Philippians 1:12-19 gives us valuable insights into Paul’s focus and there is a lot we can learn from his example:

Paul focuses on the Gospel.  His main concern is not for himself.  It is not his reputation, his comfort, or his safety that matter to him; it is whether people are hearing about Jesus.  He rejoices because “everything that has happened to me here has helped to spread the Good News,” (v12 NLT) and continues, “the message about Christ is being preached either way, so I rejoice.” (v18 NLT)

Paul focuses on God’s sovereignty.  He trusts that God can use his circumstances and that he can use others, even with their imperfections and bad motives.  He sees God at work and he is content to trust in that, not fighting against his situation, but accepting that God is in charge. (v12)

Paul focuses on what God is doing.  As he raises his eyes from his own situation, he sees God at work.  The members of the palace guard know why he is in prison and he has had opportunities to tell them about Jesus (v13); many of the believers have gained confidence and are preaching boldly (v14); God is even using those preaching out of jealousy and rivalry to take the Gospel to more people (v18).  Despite Paul’s suffering, God is not absent or inactive.  He is working out his purpose.

We may not be in prison for preaching the Gospel, but I’m sure most of us can identify situations that are not as we want or as we feel they should be, times when others seem to be getting ahead by dishonest means, circumstances where we face suffering or even hostility for no good reason.  

It’s easy to focus on the injustice and to question why God allows these things, but what if we could follow Paul’s example and choose a different focus?  What if, rather than focusing on ourselves and our own desires, we could focus on the Gospel, on God’s sovereignty, and on where he is at work, even in our less-than-ideal circumstances?

It’s not easy, but I am convinced that with that change of focus the result would be greater joy and peace.

Of course, there are times when we need to stand up for ourselves and to fight for justice.  I’m not suggesting that anyone remains in an abusive situation for example, but I’m proposing that it would change a lot in many situations if, instead of our focus being on ourselves, it was primarily on God and his glory.

Sometimes that will mean acting to change our circumstances, but at other times it will mean accepting hardship, suffering, and even injustice.  It will mean putting aside our own desires and comfort, and fixing our eyes firmly on God, looking to see where he is at work and seeking, above all, that his name be glorified.

It’s a challenge, and I know I have a long way to go, but I hope this year to adjust my focus more in that direction and to develop more fully the attitude expressed in this song and prayer:

“Father, let me dedicate all this life to Thee,

In whatever worldly state Thou wilt have me be.

Not from sorrow, pain, or care freedom dare I claim.

This alone shall be my prayer: glorify Thy name.”  (Matt Redman)

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Lesley


Lesley lives in Scotland and works for a Christian charity.  In her spare time she enjoys music, theatre, reading, writing, and walking in beautiful places, enjoying God’s creation.  She blogs at Life in the Spacious Place 
and writes to encourage people that, whatever their circumstances, there is always hope to be found in God. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

 

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The Beast, the Tiger

Tiger

Gentle Reader,

Thunk.

Thunk.

Thunk.

Tears leak from my eyes. I’m not fully awake yet. Beads of sweat stand on my brow. Palms clutch the blanket. Ribs feel as though they will break. Not enough air in my lungs. Feet tingle. Goosebumps everywhere.

I can’t do this. I can’t do this. It’s too much. It’s too much.

Panic attacks are not logical. They can’t be rationalized away. The brain decides to flip the “fight or flight” switch and it’s off to the races. The neurons and chemicals and whatever else hangs out in the gray matter fly around, making faulty connections, ones that must sound like a car backfiring. The result: Me, on the couch, stiff, waiting for the terror to pass.

It does.

It always does.

The rest of the day, the anxiety is high. By “high,” I mean “would send a person who doesn’t live with an anxiety disorder to the emergency room, convinced she’s dying.” My hands shake. The bottoms of my feet tingle. My lips go numb. I talk to myself.

“Okay, you have to get up and shower now.”

“Okay, time to make some lunch.”

“How about you vacuum? You can do that.”

When completed, these simple tasks become victories. I celebrate them. I ask God if He notices that I braided my hair. Of course He does; He misses nothing. But I like to invite Him to the party. I take comfort in knowing that He paces around the house with me, laughing at sitcoms I’ve seen a thousand times, working to burn off the excess energy that leaves me both restless and drained. He knows that it’s not my fault. He knows that I didn’t wake up and think, “You know what would be fun today? An episode of the crazies.”

We’re not supposed to use the word “crazy” when discussing mental illness, but I feel crazy when the panic hits. I was 19 the first time the terror tiger sank its claws into my brain. I’d always been anxious, but this…it was new. Strange. Surreal. I’d been hanging out with friends. Nothing unusual. Went home, put on my blue plaid flannel pajamas and crawled into bed.

Sometime before sunrise, I don’t remember the hour, I sat in a room at the hospital, feet encased in purple Volkswagon Beetle slippers, adrenaline pumping. The doctor asked my parents if I was on drugs.

Anything I do, I do afraid. I do it with the thought that it won’t be good enough. That I’m not good enough. That failure is inevitable. The times I’ve seriously considered no longer writing, I can’t count. Any Bible study group I’ve led, I’ve been sure that someone else could do it better. Going to a party or get-together, even with people I’ve known for years, requires pumping myself up as if I am about to step into a boxing ring.

And most people are never able to tell, because I have a poker face to rival the best of card sharks.

God knows, though. As I said, He sees it all.

We misunderstand passages like:

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.

– Joshua 1:9 (NKJV)

And forget:

Whenever I am afraid, I will trust in You.

– Psalm 56:3 (NKJV, emphasis mine)

Trusting God isn’t a one-and-done deal. Conquering fear isn’t an easy win.

The Hebrew yôm used in the psalm is a word that is used to denote any length of time. It can be a day. It can be yesterday. It can be tomorrow. It can be a lifetime.

Yesterday, I was afraid. I trusted God.

Today, I am afraid. I trust God.

Tomorrow, I will be afraid. I will trust God.

My lifetime is marked by an anxiety rooted in faulty biology, the result of the Fall and Curse of Genesis 3. I will keep on trusting God. And when I forget, when I fail to act in wisdom and cry out for His help, I believe that He holds me in the palm of His hand. I believe that He does not and will not cast me aside for being frail. He knows the dust from where I came and the dust to which I shall return.

I plant my feet on the Rock.

Whatever winds roar.

Be encouraged today, dear reader. The fact that you have not destroyed the beast that weighs upon your back doesn’t mean that you don’t belong to God. It doesn’t mean that you don’t believe. It doesn’t mean that He hates you. Keep fighting, one moment at a time. This is the working out of your salvation, the wrestling that is part and parcel of sanctification. The beast may always be there, pulling at you until you reach Eternity. This is no sign of failure. Instead, take its presence as a reminder of the great grace you need each moment, as a prompting to raise your hands to the Lord who knows.

He is with you.

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A Pirate’s Life for Me

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com

Gentle Reader,

Long have I been fascinated by pirates, specifically the 17th and 18th century variety. Many were coarse, foul, murderous thieves. Others, usually British or French, operated under the authority of the government as “privateers.” Most really did abide, at least loosely, by the dictates of a pirate code, which varied from ship to ship. These codes were at times strikingly democratic; crew members, no matter how lowly, each had a vote in “the affairs of the moment,” as Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts put it. There were female pirates – Cheng I Sao, Grace O’Malley, Anne Bonny, Mary Read – who could and did go toe-to-toe with any man.

This “golden age of piracy” has been romanticized in novels and on the big screen for decades, but the reasons for deciding on the brutal, short life of a pirate were anything but glamorous. European governments had no problem with impressing lower-class men into naval service (i.e., slavery on a ship), leaving their families behind to fend for themselves – a situation that rarely ended well. In a sense, the choice was between the harshness of respectability or a life of criminal activity. Rock and hard place, no doubt.

This is, of course, hugely generalized. Go read some history books to learn more.

You’re probably wondering if I’m cool with murder, rape and pillaging. Of course not. The above is meant to provide context for the rest of this piece.

I searched through the archives in an attempt to find words written during what was, to this point, the darkest period of my adult life. There are only two entries, neither of which goes into great detail about the struggle. No, less of a struggle, more of an onslaught. Either I didn’t post much then or whatever other entries that once existed were purged. I’m guessing the latter, for I know that I worked hard to put on a brave face. Very little in the way of authenticity during those months.

For, you see, tomorrow marks the sixth anniversary of my almost-death.

Some have asked if I share these things in order to gain sympathy or as a way of increasing blog traffic. The answer is: neither. I’m not entirely comfortable writing (and speaking) with such honesty about my experiences with anxiety and depression. I don’t like being so vulnerable. My way of dealing with the world involves sarcasm and pop culture quips. I prefer to be the funny one. If I can’t be the funny one, then I’d like to be the smart one and teach you theology or Tudor history.

Anything but talking about “the feels.”

But I’ve also got this rebellious streak in me. If I can’t make sense of a rule, if it doesn’t fit neatly into a well thought out system of ethics and morality, then I see no reason to abide by the rule. (Yes, this has gotten me into trouble on more than one occasion. Sorry, Dad. Sorry, Mom). We, generally as a society but specifically as a church culture, have this unspoken rule that mental illness isn’t something we talk about. It’s weird and scary and shameful.

Yeah, well, that’s stupid.

So, here you go: I have Clinical Depression, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Panic Disorder. I take medication – Zoloft – every night before I go to sleep. I’m in my second round of therapy. Chances are good that I’m far more scared of you than you are of me (and I’d be willing to bet that that goes for most people with mental illnesses). I’m not going to hurt you. You don’t have to fix me. I’m not a drain on society. God doesn’t hate me. I can’t “pray it away.”

Clinical Depression is more than feeling sad and it lasts longer than a couple of weeks. It’s being so sad that you don’t even feel sad. You’re numb. It’s a battle to take a shower. You have no interest in anything or anyone. Sometimes all you want to do is stare at the wall. You become furious when you run out of milk. You’re lonely but you don’t want to see anyone. Your body hurts. You’re too tired to sleep.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder is more than worry. It’s feeling scared, all the time, in a low-key way that can be turned up to terror at any second. You’re scared of everything and nothing all at once. You hyper-analyze every situation and interaction. You have to have a plan of escape. You avoid certain places and people.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is more than just “liking things to be neat.” It’s the same unwanted thought, over and over. It’s having to check the alarm three times before you go to sleep. It’s believing, in the back of your mind, if something bad will happen to someone you love if you don’t follow this routine. It’s germophobia. For those of us who lean more obsessive than compulsive, it’s becoming fixated on things.

Panic Disorder is more than a moment of surprise. It’s lips tingling, hands going numb, hyperventilating, chest pains, passing out and shaking violently. It’s being convinced that you’re having a heart attack. It’s your brain randomly and nonsensically flooding itself with chemicals like norepinephrine and dopamine.

I have a funky brain. It doesn’t function properly. Why should this surprise anyone who’s read the third chapter of Genesis? We live in a fallen, broken world, people. There is no atom, no neuron, no electron, not one single part or piece that has escaped the effects of the Curse.

My advice?

Accept it, get over it and stop telling hurting people, in word or action, that they suck.

Because here’s the thing: Satan is already telling us that we suck. His mission is to steal, kill and destroy (John 10:10). He loves to capitalize on the brokenness that we’re born with. My brain doesn’t work the way it should, which means my mind doesn’t always interpret or respond to the world the way it should, which means that Satan slides right in there with his lies. Already disposed to think that you’re not safe? Well, you definitely aren’t. Already lean toward fear of abandonment? Nobody likes you and you’re going to end up all alone.

Feeling lost, sad and trapped in the dark? You useless pile of crap. Just kill yourself.

See? We need no help in that department.

Instead of fearing and disdaining and judging us, come be part of our pirate crew.

Satan wants to steal our very lives. He is a murderer. He gets his jollies off by ruining and ending all that he can.

But God.

Holy words, you know. Words of hope.

God is bigger. Mightier. Better. Stronger. In no way is Satan his opposite or equal. That’s what the Father of Lies would like us to think. That’s what he’d like to think about himself. Nobody is equal to God. Nobody is more powerful than He is. He speaks these kinds of words to His children:

“So I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten,

The crawling locust,

The consuming locust,

And the chewing locust,

My great army which I sent among you.

You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,

And praise the name of the LORD your God,

Who has dealt wondrously with you;

And My people shall never be put to shame.

Then you shall know that I am in the midst of Israel:

I am the LORD your God

And there is no other.

My people shall never be put to shame.”

“No weapon formed against you shall prosper,

And every tongue which rises against you in judgment

You shall condemn.

This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD,

And their righteousness is from Me,”

Says the LORD.

The LORD also will be a refuge for the oppressed,

A refuge in times of trouble.

– Joel 2:25-27; Isaiah 54:17; Psalm 9:9 (NKJV)

These words were originally written to Israel and are tied to the covenant of Genesis 12. Nevertheless, there is an overarching principle that Gentile (non-Jewish) believers may cling to: God sees our trouble and knows our pain. He will, in His good way and in His good time, fix what has been broken and restore what has been taken.

The Devil tried to steal my life.

I, as a daughter of the King, washed in the blood of Christ, standing on His promises, am empowered to steal it back. Bit by bit, day by day, looking onwards and upwards in hope. Nothing about me belongs to that nasty, fallen angel. My whole person, every part of me, everything I am and all that I have, belongs to God.

If I have to choose between the facade of churchy respectability and a life lived out on the edge of faith, then it’s a pirate’s life for me. Whatever Satan tries to take, I will, by the grace and power of God, take it back – and then some.

Join me, won’t you?

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